I did not grasp at first that Russian would be best learned through its poetry. I memorized grammar structures and vocabulary lists. I treated the language like a fill-in-the-blank exercise, but when I arrived in Russia for the first time in my junior year of college, communication eluded me. After two years of study, no one understood me when I ordered bread at a bakery or wished a friend happy birthday. Near despair, I sat one day in phonetics class while the teacher tried to prod her American students to hear the melodies of the Russian language. We rehearsed the same sentence over and over again, testing different intonation patterns. Suddenly I understood. Russian was first and foremost a music. To speak it, you had to learn to sing it.
The Russian language and Russian poetry are inextricably linked. Russians memorize dozens of poems. They employ poems in arguments and recite them on street corners. Their poets are beloved authorities on any subject. In 1991, when I went to study in a provincial Russian city, I was invited to an elementary school so that the children could meet an actual American. “Be alert, children,” the teacher said. “This will be the only opportunity you may ever have to see an American.” Then she demanded that I recite a poem in English so they could hear my “American speech.” I did not know how to explain that Americans don’t typically recite poems — maybe nursery rhymes, maybe a line or two memorized in high school. But beyond “Hickory Dickory Dock,” we are an impoverished people.
"…getting out of debt as fast as you possibly can is the smartest thing you can do with your money. If you need proof to confirm this, ask anyone with money to show you the math. Hint: credit card companies make more profit than just about any other companies in the world."
"Don’t get caught confusing money with security. There are lots of ways to build a life that’s more secure, starting with the stories you tell yourself, the people you surround yourself with and the cost of living you embrace. Money is one way to feel more secure, but money alone won’t deliver this.
"Rich guys busted for insider trading weren’t risking everything to make more money for the security that money can bring. In fact, the very opposite is starkly shown here. The insatiable need for more money is directly (and ironically) related to not being clear about what will ultimately bring security."
It’s up to people with oppressive histories to decide when and where the use of certain pejorative terms is appropriate.
It’s like giving a baby pig a haircut: there’s a lot of squealing, but there’s little wool.
We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves, the same capacity for holding contradictory feelings in balance, for complexly alloyed affections, for bottomless generosity of heart and petty, capricious malice. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time.
On a more specific note, since I’ve decided to write to Readers instead of Professionals, I’ve also tried to pick one specific Reader, one person, and tell the story to him or her. John Edgar Wideman has a great quote about this. I’m going to paraphrase. He says that reading a story is like intercepting a private letter that’s meant for one specific individual but that’s somehow made its way to you. I like this idea very much.
Picking one person, one who isn’t too close to you (and the story you’re trying to tell) but isn’t too far (not a stranger, in other words), can create exactly the right distance. He or she is intimate enough that you will tell the story with your own voice, your personality and quirks. In other words you’ll be speaking with a friend and not some imagined reader. You want it to be someone with a little distance, though; otherwise you’ll fall into the kind of easy, cryptic banter that best friends and family members may understand but others won’t. I can say a certain word to my sister (“Obsession”) and we’ll break down laughing. But it won’t mean much of anything to you. You might grin politely, but you won’t feel included. So you want to avoid anyone that close to the story because you do need to explain, set scenes, create a story.
My last two books were written to two specific people. Old friends who I haven’t hung out with in a long while. They knew me well enough that I could employ my sense of humor and indulge my penchant for the strange, but because we last spoke when we were in our early twenties, I still felt the need to interest them in the story I was trying to tell. That’s the sweet spot for storytelling.
Everything I wanted people to know I’ve already presented, and in some ways I’m more candid in talking about myself than I was before. When you surrender, you get used to a certain level of candor—you know, the old thing, you’re only as sick as your secrets. You develop a confidence in truth-telling. Part of my drinking was so much about trying not to feel things, to not feel how I actually felt, and the terrible thing about being so hidden is if people tell you they love you…it kinda doesn’t sink in. You always think, if you’re hiding things, How could you know who I am? You don’t know who I am, so how could you love me? Saying who I am, and trying to be as candid as possible as part of practicing the principles, has permitted me to actually connect with people for the first time in my life. It’s ended lifelong exile.
They always say God is in the truth, and I’ve ended loneliness and been able to feel connected by saying who I am and how I feel. I’m sort of comfortable to the degree to which I’m an asshole. It’s not like I’m not an asshole—people know the ways I’m an asshole and it’s within the realm of acceptable asshole-ocity. Part of my drinking and depression was having a voice in my head that was constantly criticizing everybody. I was sort of brought up that way, hypercritical, and I feel like my spiritual practice is a constant correction out of judging everybody else. But I think I’m more critical of myself than anybody, strangely enough, as marvelous as I am.