Saturday, October 16, 2010


I am watching a room full of children finding that in life which we all search for: the sense of dancing, with tightly fixed control, along the edge of the uncontrollable. I am watching my son's karate class.

Eavesdropping, as is a parent's wont, on my kid's writing essay last week, I peeked inside his private life. "'Pack every punch with focus and with life,' my karate teacher says," he wrote, and this was galvanic: for it was a global truth. A generalizable
truth. (On the way to the class, my child tells me I have "a big taste for small things," in response to my sudden laughter at his lovely turn of phrase after he'd asked me to tie the knot on his red belt: he could only make a "sad knot" himself. It's a beautiful image, one that could easily support a poem built atop it. It also yielded another pleased laugh at his big-truth appraisal of what moves his mommy.)

Now the teacher is saying, of a student who wears a perpetual mysterious smile: "I want to know his secret--I want to be like this guy." The teacher who teaches the c
hildren is in turn taught by them.

What the children do not know, but I do, is that their sensei has a reason that the smile, its inner impetus, eludes him. He has lost someone. I lost her, too, a friend. But he lost much more, when the young woman he loved left the world upon which she shined, in an eclipse that left us breathless in the dark.

He is looking thin and pale these days, even as he exhorts his students to "get into it, with spirit--that's more than half the battle. Every day, apply yourself to something. Y
our homework, doing the dishes, your sports, whatever. If you do something, really do it."

I am learning things here, too, watching and thinking, as the late-day full sun streams through the windows at this nice school. I am thinking about going home and applying myself to something that waits for me, something I need to hit as hard, with as much "ninja spirit," as my child just hit the practice pads (thump-thud). A fleeting thought intervenes--"I wish I had enough money to send him to this nice school"--and I realize that, indeed, if I truly applied myself (thump-thud) I probably could. I thi
nk of how I miss seeing my friend's child in this class, his happy, funny presence, because now that his mother is gone, he has had to go live far away. To leave us, and start anew. To hopefully apply himself to a new life.

Most of all, I am thinking about how desperately much I still need to learn about this time I have here, however much there is left. Part of this is how to move through loss with the grace of the karate master, with application and spirit and focus and humility. At this moment, in particular, I am thinking about how you get out from under an opponent who has got you on your back, with his full weight on you and your muscles quivering with the impossibility of it. I want to know how you make the im
possible possible. I want, as the sensei now observes to the children, the feeling after battle that is "kind of losing control, but in control; kind of angry, but kind of peaceful." It's a strange feeling, he says. I am thinking I would like to feel it soon.


ren said...

Just a thought: While you are learning how to live a life, be sure to actually live it, too. Or you will spend your life learning but never applying what you are learning. Somehow, I learned this when I was a child and have internalized it so deeply that it was only now, reading your post, that I realized what I do. Cool. Enjoy things, too. :-)

th_01 said...

You dance around the lessons to be learned or have been learned. When do you actually start applying this knowledge joining in life?

Opportunities come your your way. Do you really need to analyze the life out of them?

There are so many cliche's like today is the first day of the rest of your life. blah blah blah. Ren sees it? Stop observing and start participating

Kent said...

Hi Melissa,

Is that a literal or a literary bully in your final paragraph? If he's real, I hope you can break free soon!

And I just ordered "The Place You Love..." This blog has reminded me of how greatly I've enjoyed your other works! Thank you.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

You know, guys, life for me has always felt more vibrant not when I am in the midst of it, but in the moment when I stop and turn back to consider it. Thinking about shit just makes me happy, even when the subject is not happy at all. I know how perverse this is. And I know that sometimes I wish it weren't the case.

One thing I do know well, trust me on this: the worth of the opportunity in front of me.

Kent, all my bullies are literary: I make them up in my own head. They are strong opponents, let me tell you. But being made of vapor, I could make them vanish in an instant.

John Leffler said...

"The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thanks, John.

th_01 said...

I have read Socrates comment and it made me think that "the over examined life has not been lived"

I get the feeling that moderation is needed.

Pedro Jon├ęs said...

Wow, the difficulties of pre-reflection, reflection, doing and witnessing doing; someone could write a book about this stuff.

For my take, I find moderation by swinging wildly between extremes, sometimes too much doing, sometimes too much reflecting. I know I'm moderate because when looking at the misrepresentative average between my extremes, I pretend that the mean means something. I might be lying and missing the point when doing that, but I don't really care.

I suspect we live out each moment as does a photographer taking a picture; pressing the shutter release causes the camera's mirrors to flip up, blocking the viewfinder from viewing the instant that the picture is capturing. A photographer is blinded each time she takes a picture, never seeing the moment firsthand that she photographs. Like the title and meaning of Magritte's painting of a painting of what's outside the window blocking the view of what's outside the window, this might just be the curse of The Human Condition.

Photographers have noted that there's a difference between taking pictures and living an experience, and that both cannot be accomplished simultaneously. But it's difficult to know when to take pictures, and when to just look, when to think, and when to just feel.

I watched Charley Kaufman's film, Synecdoche, last week. You have reminded me that this is what that film is about, the unfulfillable desire to witness ourselves in the moment. To see, to know, to feel, to do, all at once rushing through us with an automatic spontaneity. Why is this too much to hope for?

Kevin G. said...

for reflection on life, loss and perpetual mysterious smiles:

The Laughing Heart
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

by Charles Bukowski

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Pedro, I think maybe the reflective urge is our grab for immortality--"If I am the Watcher, I stand outside, immune to the unpredictable forces that could do in the Doer."

At the same time, the Watcher wants to be the Doer when, say, the music starts up; the motorcycle starts up; the hanky-panky starts up.

Hey, I am a wild-swinger-between-extremes, too. Maybe we should collaborate on that book, so we don't write two that compete. Maybe we could write it in an updated epistolary style: blog, blog comment.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Kevin, somewhere you have managed to locate the soft side of Bukowski--congratulations!

"The gods will offer you chances." I pray only for the wisdom to recognize these as they approach. Not as they are continuing down the road after having passed.