Happy New Year, Rookies! We embark on 2015 with the theme DEDICATION. Lately I’ve been feeling basically nihilistic/depressed/hopeless about the way our world works, and not knowing what to do about it, and wanting to crawl into a hole/die. But I am reminded of something a friend said to me when I told her about this hopelessness: “If you can’t find a guiding light, you have to go out and be the light.” But how do you be the light? How can you use these feelings to be productive for the issues that you care about? It’s easy to be idealistic when you’re young and don’t fully have to care for yourself just yet—what happens when the world shows you what is actually up? From a classroom scene in the movie Margaret:
I think that teenagers should definitely rule the world, because teenagers aren’t corrupted by adult life yet, and they’re idealists and they care. And I know a lot of people feel that teenagers are really naïve, which they are, many of them. But they still haven’t had a chance to get burned out by the disappointments and the harsh realities of learning how to play the game. So yes, I would vote yes.
All right: Lisa?
I would tend to agree with all of that, except I do think that teenagers don’t always necessarily think things through very carefully, and they don’t have enough experience to know what the right thing to do is all the time. I also think they tend to adhere to ideologies really easily without having actually bothered to think them through for themselves.
This month is about that tug-o-war. (And if you choose to watch Margaret, AVOID the theatrical cut—the extended one is much more itself and deeply satisfying.) Margaret centers on a 17-year-old girl named Lisa Cohen who lives in New York City in 2002. She distracts a bus driver by asking where he got his hat as he’s driving. The interaction is a little flirtatious on both ends and he runs a red light and hits a pedestrian. Lisa becomes close to the best friend of the woman who is killed by the bus and involves herself in the resulting lawsuit to get the bus driver fired, perhaps to assuage some of her own guilt. This tragedy coincides with her milestone realization that the world is big/absurd/unjust, a feeling the movie creates in lots of lovely, unexpected ways—long, sweeping shots of rows of New York buildings, of Lisa disappearing into crowds of people; a handful of scenes where the dialogue exchanged between main characters is drowned out by the conversations of the strangers around them. From an argument Lisa has with her mother:
—and you want to know something else, Mom? There are more important problems in the world than our relationship! There’s a whole city out there full of people who are dying! So who cares if I like your fucking boyfriend? It’s so trivial! Why are you bothering me about all this? It doesn’t matter!!!
THIS WAS ALL TOO FAMILIAR FOR ME. Junior year of high school, I got really depressed trying to justify living a creative life and also seeing all the ways in which Rookie had to be better, but it manifested as a lack of self-care and being an asshole person to my loved ones because NONE OF IT MATTERS, THE WORLD IS SO FUCKED UP, I COULD SIMPLY FIX EVERYTHING IF YOU COULD JUST LEAVE ME ALONE, MOM!!! The problem then is that the human element of what you are doing is lost, and without that, you have nothing. You want to help humanity, but you have become less human; everything is an equation, a scale, a checklist. If you’re not taking care of yourself and your loved ones then you are not in a position to help anyone else, and all action comes from a place of anger/insecurity/paranoia/fear.
Also, sometimes obsessing over establishing your Moral Compass manifests as appropriating tragedies and injustices that have nothing to do with you except for your own brain aerobics. Here’s another scene from Margaret (Emily is the best friend of the woman who was killed):
But then when I found out her daughter was dead, ever since then I keep having this really strong feeling that some way, for those last five minutes, I kind of was her daughter. You know? Like maybe that’s the reason I was there: Like in some weird way, this obviously amazing woman got to see her daughter again for a few minutes, right before she died.
I see. And is she still inhabiting your body? Or did she go right back to the spirit world after it was over?
I didn’t mean she was literally inhabiting my body. I don’t believe in all that stuff at all.
I don’t give a fuck what you believe in.
Oh my god! Why are you so mad at me!?
Because this is not an opera!
What? You think I think this is an opera?
You think I’m making this into a dramatic situation because I think it’s dramatic?!?
I think you’re very young.
What does that have to do with anything? If anything I think it means I care more than someone who’s older! Because this kind of thing has never happened to me before!
No, it means you care more easily! There’s a big difference! Except that it’s not you it’s happening to!
Yes it is! I know I’m not the one who was run over—
That’s right, you weren’t. And you’re not the one who died of leukemia, and you’re not the one who died in an earthquake in—Algeria! But you will be. Do you understand me? You will be. And it’s not an opera and it’s not dramatic—
I’m well aware of that!
And this first-blush phony deepness of yours is worth nothing.
Do you understand? It’s not worth anything, because it’ll be troweled over in a month or two. And then when you get older, and you don’t have a big reaction every time a dog gets run over, then, then we’ll find out what kind of a person you are! But this is nothing! I’m sorry, but I didn’t start this conversation and I don’t play these games.
(drawing herself up)
I am not—
And don’t look so outraged! Because I’m not saying anything very outrageous! I’m telling you to knock it off! You have every right to falsify your own life, but you have no right to falsify anyone else’s. It’s what makes people into Nazis! And I’m sorry, but it’s a little suspicious that you’re making such a fuss about this when you didn’t know her, and you’re having troubles with your own mother—
Oh my god!
But this is my life we’re talking about, much more than it is yours! Because it’s my real friend who got killed, who I’m never going to see again, really! Whom I have known since I was 19 years old myself. OK? And I don’t want that sucked into some kind of adolescent self-dramatization!
I’m not fucking dramatizing anything!
(not having it)
(bursts into tears)
Why are you doing this…!
Lisa, I’m not doing anything! I’m a human being! Monica was a human being! So was her daughter! And so is your mother! We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!
Which is why, I think, the movie is not called Lisa. This is a poem she reads in class, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Tony Kushner’s interpretation (from the intro to the published screenplay):
Although the poem opens with a question and ends with an answer, the last couplet seems at odds with itself: Is Margaret mourning for a shared human condition, “the blight that man was born for,” or for herself, specific and alone, as the final line rather abruptly states? When he declares that “it is Margaret you mourn for,” is Hopkins accusing this young child of solipsism? The same sort of solipsism Lisa is accused of by Emily? […] Are Margaret and Lisa exploiting something grand and sad but unrelated to them, for the purpose of borrowing significance to help them experience sorrow, or to help them advertise the importance of their own unhappiness?
I think I’m depressed about the world being horrible and unjust, but I’m also just depressed. Everyone’s feelings are valid, yes. But how can we actually be useful to these causes instead of using them for ourselves?
Thus far, I’ve spoken only to the position of having the option to turn the other cheek to these issues because they don’t affect you directly. When you’re on the receiving end of injustice and are not a bystander, how do you fight it without being consumed by hate? How do you fight from a place of love? I am reminded of Jessica’s piece from a couple years ago on her bell hooks revelation: of no longer “waiting for men to die so that [she] could live,” of no longer wanting to hate women for not doing feminism her way. Of Jenny’s piece from a couple years back on using humor to deal with racism. And then there’s James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.”
I feel like I conclude everything with, “It’s a conversation!” and, “I guess I have more questions than answers!” but that is actually crucial this month: I don’t think it does any good to prescribe the right way to feel and act and respond to the world’s injustices. But how do you channel your energy effectively and productively? How do you avoid imposing your worldview? How do you dignify your own feelings without valuing them over others’? There are other kinds of dedication we’ll be discussing this month, too: long-term or long-distance relationships, intense friendships, dedicating yourself to art or academics or any other sort of passion. So that is what we’re onto for January, and if you have thoughts and/or feelings of your own, please share, as always: [email protected].
EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE but also we have brains and hearts and autonomy and can do things about it. So, let’s.
Happy 2015, really.