Beauty and Absurdity Part I

I may be slightly in love with the word “absurdity”. I use it too frequently, perhaps. But what are humans, if not absurd? This is my basic philosophy when observing the world. It isn’t nihilism; it’s more akin to existentialism. The difference is as big as the gap between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Nihilism is essentially a denial of meaning, in whole or in part. When I use the term “absurd” to describe the world around me, I acknowledge that the universe contains meaning.

In Latin, the word absurd literally means to be out of tune with. The word has further come to mean ridiculously incongruous or unreasonable. That happens to be the first definition as given by The Free Dictionary, which provides conveniently short definitions. The second definition takes a nihilist turn: of, relating to, or manifesting the view that there is no order or value in human life or in the universe. The nihilism may be a consequence of the first definition; however, it’s an absurd extrapolation, as it’s out of tune with a tune existing in the first place. If there is a tune to be out of tune with, then there is order to human life and the universe…as tunes contain order. They are either ordered melodies or precise pitches.

When humans are out of tune with reality, I describe their actions as absurd. All humans will delve into absurdity, owing to human choice and the Kierkegaardian notion of despair. Kierkegaard believed that despair springs from man not fully realizing the infinite side of himself. Man must face his despair and, while under the shadow of it, will often choose a path that’s out of sync with God’s will for his life. Viewed in a less personal manner, absurdity is simply choosing to oppose the obvious order and meaning in the universe.

I didn’t mean to dump philosophy and definitions on you. I swear I didn’t. But as I sat here thinking about what message or story to send to the internet today, I realized that my mind is inordinately obsessed with the absurd around me (and in me). And my obsession, being inordinate, is also absurd. Absurdity, you see, is difficult to turn away from. I can almost hear you saying, speak for yourself, Jill. Okay, I will. That would be far better than having somebody else speak for me.

Now, of course, it’s time to put my philosophy into practice to complete today’s unexpected tutorial. What does it look like to interpret the world through my philosophical version of absurdism? Let’s examine the first thing I spotted in my newsfeed this morning: A Powerful Open Letter From a Woman About to Have an Abortion. This is not news proper, for a start. A woman who writes a letter to her unborn child apologizing to [it] for the abortion she’s about to have is not news, as there is nothing new or even outstanding about it. Calling it news is a simple case of absurdism.

Furthermore, the public reaction to it demonstrates delusion. If I were to write a letter to a person I was about to murder and send it out into the world just before I served this person arsenic soup, I would be locked up. The world would consider me a lunatic and wouldn’t be waxing poetic about my powerful words. Rather, they would be shocked and appalled at them.

You might insist at this point that abortion isn’t murder because fetuses aren’t persons. Okay, make your case, but rest assured it has nothing to do with mine. Why would a woman bother to write a letter to a NONperson? She very well might, if she were being absurd — that is, ridiculously incongruous. But if she were being ridiculous, then how could her words be powerful or heartfelt? I wrote a letter to the state of New Mexico the other day, asking it to stop raining or I would break up with it and move back to Oregon. This netted me a few LOLs from friends. One person asked, “Did New Mexico feel suitably chastised?” And I duly answered, “Why, yes, obviously, because it’s sunnier today!” It was all in good fun because it was understood that I was using a literary term known as personification, in which I attributed human qualities to a nonhuman entity. If she were merely personifying a nonperson, then we wouldn’t take her seriously, either. We would wonder why she just didn’t go get the surgery done without any fuss or fanfare.

Well — you ask — couldn’t she have been writing an eloquent letter to the possibility of a person? People do that sort of thing; they’ll write letters to the children they might have someday, and they’re generally contemplative letters, full of warmth, good humor, and promises. But in this case, I’d have to say no. If the thing inside her were only the possibility of a future child, she wouldn’t have needed to write to it explaining why she’s going to have a physical operation performed on it. As far as I know, the medical community would have to ratchet up the ridiculous in order to perform figurative surgeries to remove figurative substances.

My only conclusion, judging by the emotional reactions of those who read the letter, is that her audience understands she wasn’t using personification or speaking of hypothetical children. They believe she’s carrying the physical substance of an actual child in her womb, and that’s why her letter carries such great emotional weight for them. The natural human instinct, unless we fight it, is to bring life into the world. Owing to that, the letter is jarring and incredibly sad. Isn’t applauding it as out of sync with reality as any reaction could be?

I’m hearing a cacophony of imprecise tunes. Actually, that’s what my newsfeed sounds like every day, and the letter was only one small discordant note. But I should stop. Nobody asked for this tutorial, did they? Oh, and this is only Part I.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Compounding Sadness of Beauty

There are times when coffee loses its appeal. When your life is very small, and coffee is the one thing you have to look forward to in the morning, you will experience moments when a cup on the porch doesn’t taste right–when you’d rather just get on with things.

What does it mean to get on with things? That depends on who you are, I guess. Who you are also might change your reaction to those coffee-on-the-porch moments. You may experience them so infrequently that you can’t imagine finding a porch-sit of any kind distasteful. You might, rather, discover in the midst of a busy life that the coffee tastes rather bad because it’s fueling needless work and running around. You might put down the coffee and tell yourself to get on with it and mean it in an entirely different way. You may need to get on with accomplishing those things you don’t have time for, those things that are part of a calmer existence.

What does it mean for me to get on with things? When I’m on my porch with a cup of coffee, I’m almost always working. I write and edit there. Sometimes, I homeschool from this spot. The joy of pleasurable moments is easily sapped when the workaday world invades it. It becomes workaday, too. Blasé. The joy that you might be attempting to capture and recapture by enacting the event over and over slips through the grasp like the wind that moves through the north and south arches. It isn’t the coffee or the porch that has gone bad. The pale yellow stuccoed walls still capture arched images of beauty; there are five arches total. Through each, a slightly different horizon view is captured. Through one, lies a field of marigolds. Through another, a desert willow partially obscures the distant red roofs. Through another, the fenceline disappear into the distance.

What does it mean to get on with things? Let me first ask another question before answering. Has the sight of beauty ever made you indelibly sad, such that the markings of it compile over time and you want to shut your eyes to beauty? If not, you may not understand what I’m about to say. Beauty carries with it sadness because it’s temporal. Say, for example, you walk outside and the sky is unnaturally blue and the sunflowers unnaturally golden; the light on the mesas is so utterly deep red and rippled with shadows that you gasp. You are struck dumb with the sight of it. And then you watch as it slips away.

Moments of beauty can never, ever be recaptured. Each moment is as unique as a fingerprint; the light will never fall exactly like that on those sunflowers; the clouds will never again create that pattern on the mesas. The color of the air will never be that indescribable again. Oh, certainly you will find similarities. You will find them on many occasions, and you will try to recapture that moment you experienced because it filled your soul to its top and you thought you would burst and you want that je ne sais quoi again. You want it desperately, like an addict chasing the dragon.

What it means to get on with things is to stop chasing the dragon’s tail, to understand that you can’t recreate past moments, that you must find new ones. Coffee on the porch is, unfortunately, an accumulation of memories for you. The coffee carries so much memory weight in the molecules of its steam that the taste turns to acid in your mouth. This present reality–it’s empty compared to those moments of past beauty. It’s empty compared to the actual experiences of the past, but it also pales in comparison to the dreams and hopes you once had while experiencing that beauty.

It’s sad when a cup of coffee contains that much meaning. I would like to just drink coffee and enjoy it again. But I’m afraid of beauty because I’m afraid of sadness. And so the cycle continues.

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Competition of Values

I shouldn’t be astonished by absurdity at this point in my life. Okay, I’m not. But idiotic surveys tend to strike my absurdist bone pretty hard, and that can be a painful experience. Take for example, this survey, as highlighted on the Friendly Atheist, which demonstrates that White Evangelicals Prefer Teaching Children Obedience Over Curiosity, Creativity, and Tolerance. See, it’s always grand to mock White Evangelicals [or Evil Progressives if you're of the opposite camp] by putting together a disingenuous survey in which the answers will in no wise be accurate.

Let me explain why the answers won’t be accurate. The people who put surveys together are like lawyers and/or judges. They alone get to create the questions and the parameters for how the questions must be answered. Here is a classic courtroom scenario [very similar to one I witnessed]: judge insists the man on the defense only answer with a yes or a no.

Then he asks what he considers to be the pertinent question: Did you yell at your wife that you were going to run her down with your vehicle?

Man on stand splutters, Yes, but…

Judge trumpets, You may only answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’!

And the restraining order stands…even though the factual answer was, Yes, but my brakes failed and she was standing in the middle of the road. I yelled at her to get out of the way or I would run her down. I didn’t want to run her down, despite that we’re going through a nasty divorce; that’s why I yelled at her.

Pollsters and survey-takers care about as much as a bored judge in a divorce court for nuanced responses. And rating competing values on a scale of most important to least important requires nuanced answers. Well, the answer is actually that one CAN’T rate values on an ascending and descending scale in the first place. That’s not how the world works, owing to the nuance of human interaction. If you’ve ever stood behind somebody while they’ve tried to honestly fill out a survey, you will have noticed the reluctance of many people to answer within the parameters. Except for their pet issues (e.g. religious faith for Evangelicals and a dislike of manners for liberals), the values presented are on the same plane. And people intrinsically understand that even if they wouldn’t recognize subtlety if it bit them in the face.

But going back to the damning accusation of the Friendly Atheist’s headline, let’s examine why Evangelicals would rate religious faith and obedience higher than curiosity, tolerance, and creativity. They’re operating under the worldview that man must be right with God first. That means, what they actually value is obedience to God. For Evangelicals, all other values stem from a right relationship between God and man. This is, of course, most of the time a head value, and it’s the right answer for Evangelicals to put on a survey. However, the reality is much the same for conservative Evangelicals as it is for nonreligious liberals: they are humans, which means the vast majority of them are conformists, which means the vast majority of them are obedient to their fellow men and their culture first and foremost, despite that both groups would pretend otherwise.

If the survey-makers were to leave religious faith off the list of values to remove the obvious (i.e. that religious people are religious and nonreligious people aren’t), you would be left with a group of values that balance each other out. Empathy balances independence; obedience balances curiosity; responsibility and hard work balance creativity. Manners and tolerance are outward values that mimic empathy, and they are a way to keep society civilized when there’s an imbalance in the value scales. It’s fascinating that conservatives prefer one term, while liberals prefer the other–when they both mean the same thing in practice. That’s the nuanced answer that most absurdly stupid humans understand once they grow up to be mature adults. But no survey-maker is going to allow for such nuanced responses because then the point of the survey has become null and void. Why make a survey unless it will produce the end political result of dividing people through mockery and disgust? I mean, really, what would we do without our two-party political system of hatred for the other side?

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I’m done with my book…and other commentary.

This post is going to be shockingly self-centered! I finished my book of short stories, which I’ve decided to call The Jaybird’s Nest and other stories. It’s not ready to publish, however, because I need a cover still; I also need to do some final editing. At some point–maybe now?–I’m going to need some willing reviewers or beta-readers. Just as a warning, you should know that a lot of these stories are absurd and supposed to be ironic or stupid. Some, such as the story of the final title, are serious but surreal in nature. So if you think that’s your thing and you’d like to volunteer, let me know.

Now that I’m done with it, and all I have on my plate is a constellation of editing projects, I feel like crawling in a cave and remaining there. My book provided a distraction from my currently chaotic life. Editing does, too–I’m just not as emotionally attached to others’ work. I have to add, though, that I’ve been eating in such a way that I feel physically healthy (except for the aftermath of going on vacation and fudging my diet). My current eating plan, which discludes all grains and other heavy carbohydrate foods, gives me the energy to exercise harder than I did in my 20s. That is saying a lot, as I’ve been obsessed with exercise since I was about 16. It’s also made me sore. Ah, well. That’s a good kind of pain, I suppose. I made a concerted effort to keep up with diet and exercise during stress. Many people don’t, and they are consequently less able to cope with stress.

**I should add that if you would like to either give me an honest review or beta-read, please email me at jdomschot at msn dot com.

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What I Learned From the French (sigh, it’s always cynicism ahead)

I’ve been out of town and have managed to return from various nutty adventures to chaos and sadness. But, aw shucks, I’m always learning something new in the midst of life, even if it’s from an otherwise unmemorable memoir about an American and a Brit raising their children in France (Bringing Up Bebe). To be fair, I found the author’s willingness to reexamine the permissive parenting of American families in light of the more strict upbringing of French children to be refreshing. But, in general, it’s not the kind of memoir I’ll remember forever. I mean, is it really earth-shattering to realize that children are capable of eating fish and vegetables instead of chicken nuggets and French fries? Is it really so astonishing to realize even young children are capable of not acting like barbarians? The French may understand this, but they don’t have any secret weapon; they are simply parenting in the same way Americans used to parent. And of course, many Americans still do parent this way, but perhaps not in the author’s set. Conversely, there are almost certainly lax French parents who let their kids rule the roost and pig out on junk food whenever they want.

But that was simply to give you an idea about the memoir’s contents. Now I’d like to briefly discuss the new little tidbit I learned from the book (amidst the chaos, egad!). As most people know, France is a socialist country. The process of socialization begins at a very early age. That’s the choice of the French people; it’s their culture and their society. They may raise their children the way they choose. But I find the way the system was instituted to be alarming–if the memoir gives an accurate historical portrait (which you can find on pp 98-101 in my edition).

According to the book, by the 1840s, nursery schools were already provided free to poor working women. But they were only provided for children aged 2-6. This left poor working women having to keep their infants up to age 2 in dangerous conditions, or hiring even poorer women than they were to care for their infants. Along came Jean-Baptiste-Firmin Marbeau, who was simultaneously impressed by the free nursery schools and appalled that there wasn’t free daycare available for babies. With his passionate idealism, this forward-looking man managed to convince wealthy people that they should fund infant daycare centers: ‘”These children are your fellow citizens, your brothers. They are poor, unhappy and weak: you should rescue them,” he wrote in a creche manual published in 1845. Then he added, “If you can save the lives of 10,000 children, make haste: 20,000 extra arms a year are not to be disdained. Arms are work and work creates wealth”‘ (Druckerman, 100).

And thus the French daycare center, the creche, was born. Now that 80% of women work, they fight to get their children into the government subsidized creches. It’s part of their culture. They love their creches and believe they’re wonderful for children. The French creches may very well be good for children, but can we take a moment to analyze the mental shift that occurred between 1840 France and the France of today? The wealthy were convinced to fund these creches to propagate more generations of slaves to do their work for them. Do you think poor women in the 1840s wanted to toil away washing clothes or doing other unsatisfying, menial work? Do you think they wanted to spend hours and hours of time away from their children for this work? It’s highly unlikely that if given the choice, they would have chosen endless exhausting toil over caring for their offspring.

Fast-forward to today and the vast majority of French women have come to believe that being a wage slave is not only satisfying, but the best way to live. They fight to get their young infant children into creches so that they can be slaves like the drudges of the 1840s. It’s not that I believe daycare centers are inherently bad. Indeed, I have no opinion of them at all, except to acknowledge that they can meet needs, and that children are more adaptable than we give them credit for. However, I find it astonishing that human beings can be convinced that slavery is what we should clamor for. I shouldn’t be surprised after having studied as much history as I have. For heaven’s sake, I’ve even found this concept in the Bible. Didn’t the Israelites beg to return to slavery in Egypt so their slave masters might again meet their needs (and murder their children, but…)?

Ay-ay-ay!! Humans are fucked in the head. Not just the French. All of us. Sorry for being cynical. I also learned something pleasant from this book, that French food is really delicious. But I already knew that.

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