Monday, October 8, 2012

You must change your life

Standing beside a ruined cathedral, leaning against an ancient marble pillar, posing for yet another group photo soon to be posted to facebook and envied by unknown legions of friends-of-friends, it suddenly occurs to me that I am not entirely sure why I decided to move to Turkey.  It was an impulsive decision, and decisions of this nature are often subject to the scrutiny of hindsight.  To use a “familial” allusion, my brother would often act impulsively when we were growing up and my dad would say “Matty, why did you throw that in there?” to which Matty would reply “I can’t phink.”  If you were to ask me right now “John, why did you move to Turkey” I would have to reply with Matty’s old adage, which sums it up pretty well. 

I think it had something to do with wanting adventure, seeking challenge, attempting to redefine myself in some tangible way.  I have gotten used to the idea that life is supposed to be ceaselessly exciting and interesting.  When things are unfamiliar all the time, boredom is an unknown concept.  However, there’s also the expression “no matter where you go, there you are.”  A change of scenery is not enough for one to escape the bondage of internal malaise.  Even in Turkey, I’m still essentially me.  Changing perspective, doing the work of educating myself and attaining wisdom is not a matter of simple relocation.  I’m still the same here as before, until I do the work to make myself who I want to be. 

I of course had to start with a phonetic spelling of my name.  In Turkey, they don’t have John.  They have “Can.”  “C” makes a sound like a “J” so this is how my name is now spelled.  It means “spirit.”  In Turkey, everyone’s name has a meaning.  I met a woman just the other day whose name means “favorite concubine of the Sultan.”  “Can” is often a girl’s name, so sometimes people laugh a little bit when I introduce myself this way.  But it means “life” and “soul” and “spirit.” In English, both “John” and “Can” are synonyms for the bathroom.  Combine my first and middle names (John Thomas) and they are a British euphemism for the penis.  So for now I prefer the Turkish meaning. 

I also share my name with a famous beer.  I have been asked by students whether I prefer Miller of “Efes” which is Turkish beer.  This beer is named after the legendary ruins at Ephesus, an hour from town.  In Turkish, it’s “Efes.” The beer was likely so named so as to be able to capitalize on the fame of the place itself.  The un-beer-related ruins in Ephesus are one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.   This means of course that it’s not all that wonderful today because it’s been destroyed time and time again.  The temple of Artemis was destroyed by “St.” John Chrysostom and a mob in 401 AD after it had stood there for almost 900 years, looking wonderful.  Presumably it was destroyed because it didn’t quite match the new religion. 

Now there is a bus park from which the throngs of tourists and their guides march solemly down a marble road and take pictures of the ruins.  Blocks of other marble line this marble paved road, but it’s hard to say exactly what was once there or how these piles of marble blocks were once connected to one another.  If you listen to the guide (I sort of did) there is one pile of marble blocks that was the gladiator’s graveyard, there is one that was the hospital, there is one that was the church, there is one that was the theatre (this one was pretty obvious) and there is one that was the fountain.  But you have to use your imagination. 

This strikes me as a pretty good metaphor for a life.  It has been an intriguing but frustrating activity for me to attempt to formulate a narrative out of my own life.  In telling a story, we have to ask ourselves first “how long do I want this story to be?”  If you want to keep anyone’s attention, it had better be fairly short.  The next decision is of course “where does the story begin?”  If you can frame the beginning properly, the story will make sense to most people.  None of us can truly know the ending, but we work with an ending in mind and we choose the end that best fits the story.  Even if the story goes on from there.  Storytelling and examining a life is like looking at a ruined village that has existed for too long for the story to be fully clear to anyone. 

I walked down the path a little bit behind all of my co-workers who were feverishly snapping photos of themselves in different poses and then posting them to facebook to wait for the comments to flood in so that they could bathe in the self assurance which is brought about by the jealousy of others.  But actually it was just really hot in the sun and we were all getting tired.  I stood in the shade of a fig tree with near-ripe fruit that caused its branches to sag down into an umbrella shape. From underneath the fig tree I could see this sort of torso of a Roman God.  There’s really no telling what it once looked like, but it was striking that it was fairly intact, given its age. 

I was sitting there under the fig tree letting my mind wander while I munched on a fresh fig (which is awesome by the way).  I was thinking about this show that I like on tv called “The Sarah Silverman Program.” The episode from the previous night had involved a character who is really lazy and has become morbidly obese and sprouted male breasts.  In one scene he slams the window on his man-boobs which forces him to need an emergency breast reduction.  He asks the doctor to put his excess fat in a jar so that it can be buried in a sort of religious ceremony.  At the boob funeral, a friend of his is reading a poem by Rilke.  She says: “would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life” and it’s funny because there is an air of solemnity to this comical faux-funeral. 

I had watched the episode again because it features a song called “making new friends” about making new friends.  I was making new friends, although as I stood there under the shade of the fig tree watching them take pictures of themselves, I felt isolated.  So I looked at the torso statue instead.  Just for fun, I looked up the whole text of the poem from the episode of Sarah. 

"Archaic Torso of Apollo"
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

I practically laughed out loud when I read it, because suddenly there was an extra joke connected to the episode of Sarah.  The poem is about an incomplete figure (a God without a head).  The speaker is admiring a fragmented figure.  The allusion concerns a disembodied and broken physical form, so it strikes me as particularly appropriate and hilarious that the poem is read to someone who is burying the fat from their own emergency mastectomy.  I like this joke even more because I know that I’m part of a special elite brand of nerd that chose to look up the literary allusions from The Sarah Silverman Program, a show that mostly revolves around scatological humor.  There’s your English major not wasted. 

After I was done laughing, things got kind of deep and sad inside my head.  I decided to look upon the Torso as Rilke did. 

People often see a work of art and describe it as “life changing.”  This once powerful expression has become an absurd cliché, because people rarely change their life.  It is doubly rare for a person to change their life based on an experience of art.  But we nonetheless describe things as life changing and then go on living life as before. 

I don’t pray, because I don’t believe in God.  But there are moments when I feel something which must be like what people feel when they pray—a sense of surrender to something larger than oneself.  Strangely, this feeling I am describing will occur without warning, and though it forms its basis in tangible things, I find myself pondering elusive qualities. 

What happened to the head of this God?  From what source emanates that strange power which we feel but cannot name? How can we atone for the ravages of time that have caused us to forget the sense of surrender and wonder we once felt when we looked to the sky? 

If we look to ourselves for the answers to the questions that gnaw at our daily lives, then we have only ourselves to blame when we cannot change in the ways we envision for ourselves.  It comes down to that final line of the poem—“you must change your life”-- which feels very much like a prayer to me. 

There are things which we cannot know.  Like the incomplete statue of Apollo, there is some beauty that comes from the fact that many things (even the self) are essentially unknowable.  When we look at anything (ourselves, others, art) we see what is there, but on some level we also see potential. We see the past; we see the future.  Because there can be no definite knowable form, we have complete freedom to invent reality.  This is the glow that Rilke was describing.  It’s the glow of the absurd.  There is no absolute truth but the one we formulate.  There is no self but the one we decide upon. 

So now I can be "Can."  The name means "spirit."  That is who I will be.

Having thought about things for a few quiet minutes, I rejoined the group and posed for a bunch of goofy photos which would wind up on facebook.  Seemingly unconnected details in a narrative that had failed to take shape suddenly fell like puzzle pieces into an interlocking pattern and a picture emerged whole.  I had moved to Turkey to change my life.  I wanted to constantly keep re-evaluating assumptions I had made in the past, examine new evidence, and turn up the earth that covers the disconnected marble blocks of my existence, so that they might tell their story.

Trying to conceive the self (to form a life like forming a sculpture) is a difficult process if we are truthful about it.  So often we talk about the self in terms of what we are not.  The statue is incomplete, but “otherwise it could not dazzle you so.”  Since there is something unknowable about our nature, we often struggle to exist.  To see this incompleteness as a constellation of possibilities instead of a morass of loss is a choice.  Rilke repeats the word “otherwise” often in the poem.  If the statue was complete, he says, “the stone would seem defaced.”  The greatest glories of a life lie in the possibilities for interpretation. 

Can Miller poses for photos with his friends.  He is making new friends.  His life is a bursting star of possibility.  Otherwise his stone is defaced.  He must change his life.