Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sentences That Changed My Life (RIP Maya Angelou)

Is it possible that as a man of words (at least that's what I aspire to be), I might be best remembered by my friends for ones I didn't even write? This became apparent to me after the May 28 passing of Maya Angelou at age 86, when several close friends posted on my Facebook timeline telling me that her death had made them think about me. One shared the following memory:
"Jeremy, I will never forget telling you about a painful boy breakup during our Teen People days and you telling me in my cubicle, 'The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.' One of my favorite quotes of all time, and I still live by that credo."
So do I. To this day, I carry it with me everywhere I go, across continents, decades and relationships. For one, it's succinct, which makes it extremely portable and easy to remember. For another, it's so damn true. It speaks to what I like to think of as my gift for accurately evaluating the character of people by seeing past facades, cutting right through them to the core, and then digging even deeper. Sometimes all it takes is one deed, one look, or one word. I listen. I watch. I learn. I believe.

Thanks to Maya's words of wisdom (as recounted by her friend and biggest celebrity cheerleader, Oprah Winfrey), nobody has ever hurt me more than once.
"When people show you who they are, believe them."
Some other masterpieces of literary expression (not written by Joni Mitchell, Morrissey, Fiona Apple, or Kubla Khan author Samuel Taylor Coleridge) that impress me, inspire me and sometimes make me want to toss my laptop out of the window because I'll never be able to express myself quite so eloquently...

"I can resist everything except temptation." -- Oscar Wilde
The first quote I ever loved. My mother bought me a blue sweatshirt with the slight rephrasing, "I can resist everything but temptation," written across the front of it when I was 7 or 8 years old, so I suppose it was she, not Morrissey, who kicked off my lifelong Wilde streak.

Other Wilde favorites:
"To be popular, one must be a mediocrity."
"Popularity is the crown laurel which the world puts on bad art."
For years, I misquoted Wilde, combining the two aphorisms into "Popularity is the crown laurel of mediocrity," which I actually prefer.

Then there is this incomparable passage from Salome, my favorite of all of Wilde's works.

HEROD: "The moon has a strange look tonight. Has she not a strange look? She is like a mad woman, a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers. She is naked, too. She is quite naked. The clouds are seeking to clothe her nakedness, but she will not let them. She shows herself naked in the sky. She reels through the clouds like a drunken woman.... I am sure she is looking for lovers. Does she not reel like a drunken woman? She is like a mad woman, is she not?"

HERODIAS: "No; the moon is like the moon, that is all."

"Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered." -- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
These sentences describe how Janie, the heroine of Hurston's Florida-set novel, felt after her husband struck her for the first time. It immediately became my favorite extended metaphor ever, until it was surpassed a few hours later by the one in the book's final sentences:

"She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see."
Notice a return of an idea from the previous passage, the inner-body experience, and then the image of coming in from the outside to see it. Brilliant.

"He began a sentence: 'I am --' but when he was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he'd entered, he'd realize that the crumbs he'd dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds..." -- Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
And thus begins what is perhaps the longest sentence ever written, but before the mind starts to wander, it qualifies as a gorgeous stream-of-consciousness reflection of what it feels like to lose one's mind -- or one's train of thought, which is exactly what happens while reading the rest of the sentence, which adds to its genius. I once entertained a future boyfriend on the night we met by reading this entire paragraph from the first chapter to him in hopes of convincing him how awesome and maddening and perfect it was.

"God puzzled her and she was too ashamed of Him to say so. Instead she told Stamp she was going to bed to think about the colors of things.... By the time Sethe was released she had exhausted blue and was well on her way to yellow."
I was so moved by Baby Suggs' death scenes that I titled an entire section of my forthcoming book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, in honor of them: "Contemplating Color."

"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster." -- James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
My book probably wouldn't exist without Baldwin's reflections on being black in a small-town Switzerland in the chapter "Stranger in the Village." I recently met a Zambian woman in Namibia who lives in small-town Norway with her Norwegian husband, and she described living a similar daily outsider existence. "I may not know any of them, but they all know me," she said of the Norwegian townsfolk who populate her everyday life. She didn't elaborate, but we both knew exactly what she meant.

"As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt's Torch was the last thing they saw on earth." -- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
I've always appreciated the ideas behind the ideas more than the ideas themselves in Rand's work, and I find her writing technique to be somewhat awkward and occasionally unwieldy (understandable, considering that she wrote in English while her native language was Russian), but her prelude to a train crash in Atlas Shrugged may very well have been the single best sentence she ever wrote.
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