Psalm of life

H.W.Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

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Modern day Frankenstein

The Circle
by Dave Eggers

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Mae has been employed by The Circle, the most happening tech company in the world. It seems almost too good to be true. What seems to be a utopian society slowly reveals itself to be our worst nightmare. In this age of digital everything, this book is terrifying as you read it, the tentacles of horror and doubt creeping their way into your brain.

Mae Holland is a normal 20 something. Finished college with a liberal arts degree. Worked at a power substation. Overeducated, bored.

She gets this job at the Circle through her friend Annie Allerton (who is in the gang 40. The top 40 minds of the company.)

We are thus introduced to the Circle. Owned and run by ‘The three wise men’, it is a technological giant, whose main focus is on innovation and using social networking and currently available technology to better lives. What looks to be a noble venture indeed.

Because, what can’t we solve together, right? Missing children? Health care? World peace?
When all the world needs is people watching to make sure it behaves, making the world a better place seems like the easiest task.
Because what does the world have in more abundance than people?

Getting people together to solve problems is what the Circle is all about. Together, we can be better. And it is. There is no job stress, no hideous desk, no boring days, no suicides out of overwork, no drowning in family problems. Because the Circle is here for you. The days are rich, the lives richer, and it seems like more than a job, almost a calling.

But this social being, it has a toll. It demands feeding. It demands socialising. It’s the strangest form of external pressure.
To be more you. To have more you. To share more you.

To participate more. But is that it really? The more we participate online, how much are we participating in real life?

Where is the line?

Mae, while being originally unaffected, maintaining a healthy distance, is slowly but surely reeled in. Unknowingly. In the ways of the best cults, thinking that their work is for the greater good. That their work is going to elevate the future. There are warning signs at every turn. It’s sort of like watching the bad horror movie and wishing the girl does not go into the basement and get killed. Of course that’s what she’s gonna do.

Slowly, we watch as one boundary after another topples, and all we have is a society that is constantly watching.
And being watched.

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Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.

For whom? Says who?

We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day? Young people are creating ever-present daylight, and I think it will burn us all alive. There will be no time to reflect, to sleep to cool.

As mysterious people try to stop this juggernaut getting inside people’s lives, homes, minds, the mass fervour that has been evoked has gained too much force.

The Circle is complete.

Welcome to the Circle.

Chilling. So real. So everyday. So mundane. But chilling.
The worst kind of chilling though.
Because you can see it happening, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Poetry in my life 2.0

A few beautiful things in life have a special meaning. Only to you. Something you cherish. They may be as fleeting as a thought, but they stay with you, coming at you at random moments. Powerful, evoking emotions, influencing you. Few things in life stay with you, in this way.

In my world, which includes a lot of reading, some of these things that stayed with me, a lot of these things, actually, came from books. Stories. Poetry. A perfectly written line. A beautiful sentence.

It’s exactly like that science experiment I did in school. A column of water and a tuning fork held over it. At that perfect height, the sound of the tuning fork resonates, reverberates, until it’s a beautiful, perfect, loud note. Music.
These words that’s stayed with me were exactly the same.

To relive some of these with you, has been almost a walk through memory lane.

I remember, I remember, 
The house where I was born, 
The little window where the sun 
Came peeping in at morn; 

I remember, I remember, 
The fir trees dark and high; 
I used to think their slender tops 
Were close against the sky: 
It was a childish ignorance, 
But now ’tis little joy 
To know I’m farther off from heav’n 
Than when I was a boy. 

That was I remember, I remember by Thomas Hood. I learnt most of these poems for competitions, declamations. I didn’t appreciate them then. But they come back to me now, at odd moments.
This one, nostalgia.

Some people decorate their rooms, their walls with pictures. I wish I could with words.

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, 
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see. 
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head; 
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed. 

One morning, very early, before the sun was up, 
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup; 
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head, 
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Silly. Capturing childhood. It’s joy. It’s innocence. It’s security. My shadow, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Another one that stuck with me, even though I didn’t understand it at that time, I was eight, but still-

Ozymandias- Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

To me, these words held power. A sadness and a wondering at the foolishness of it all. The human preoccupation with raising huge monuments to leave behind on earth, and the trouble taken for it, and look what remains.

And how could I forget, Casabianca. That favourite at all competitions. The utter heartbreak, the unbelievable courage of it all gets me, every time. An unforgettable one indeed.

The boy stood on the burning deck 
Whence all but he had fled; 
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck 
Shone round him o’er the dead. 

Yet beautiful and bright he stood, 
As born to rule the storm; 
A creature of heroic blood, 
A proud, though childlike form. 

The flames roll’d on…he would not go 
Without his father’s word; 
That father, faint in death below, 
His voice no longer heard. 

He call’d aloud…”Say, father,say 
If yet my task is done!” 
He knew not that the chieftain lay 
Unconscious of his son. 

“Speak, father!” once again he cried 
“If I may yet be gone!” 
And but the booming shots replied, 
And fast the flames roll’d on. 

Upon his brow he felt their breath, 
And in his waving hair, 
And looked from that lone post of death, 
In still yet brave despair; 

And shouted but once more aloud, 
“My father, must I stay?” 
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud 
The wreathing fires made way, 

They wrapt the ship in splendour wild, 
They caught the flag on high, 
And stream’d above the gallant child, 
Like banners in the sky. 

There came a burst of thunder sound… 
The boy-oh! where was he? 
Ask of the winds that far around 
With fragments strewed the sea. 

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair, 
That well had borne their part; 
But the noblest thing which perished there 
Was that young faithful heart.

Another all time favourite of mine, is the Raven. The poem is too long and too beautiful to paste here and leave it at that. I could write a whole separate essay on it, regardless of the fact that I had to, for school. Go read it, and experience the beauty.

There are so many more poems that stayed with me. Material for more posts. So for now, farewell. Happy poetry time. Share with me your favorites, and spread the joy.

As we say in Tamil,

யாம் பெற்ற இன்பம், பெறுக இவ்வையகம்.

Let the world experience the joy that I have.

When Breath Becomes Air

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

One of my friends was the first person to introduce me to this book. We go through these things often. Finding the next book to read is my least favourite part of reading. So stuck in a classroom, waiting for a professor to show up, I asked her – “Have you read anything good lately?” And she said, without a moment’s thought- read this book, ‘When breath becomes air’. The title itself intrigued me. When I came home a few months later, I found one of my grandfather’s friends had said almost the exact same thing to him, and lent him the book to boot. So when I found it around the house, I leaped on the chance to finally read it.

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of sorts, by Paul Kalanithi, published posthumously. It’s the story of this neurosurgery resident, 1 year away from graduation. He’s one year away from this thing he’s worked so hard for, for so long. In one year, he can finally unpause his life, get a six figure salary, take it at a slower pace, ease his strained marriage, have kids. Then one fine day he wakes up with excruciating back pain. At age 36, his diagnosis is Stage IV lung cancer.

This book is not another cancer story. Or a doctor’s story. It’s this man’s story. It’s a story of life and death, and what is more universal than that? It’s his very fascination with this concept that’s the backbone of this book, and in fact, his life and his career in neuroscience and medicine.

He talks about his experiences, the slow transformation from civilian to medical student, student to doctor, doctor to scientist. As a medical student, with much of the same existential questions, his fascination with these concepts was especially resonant.

In our rare reflective moments, we were all silently apologizing to our cadavers, not because we sensed the transgression but because we did not.

He talks about fortunately or unfortunately, slowly losing the human touch, realising that, and trying to make amends. He talks about the incredible science behind what he does.

He talks of being a surgeon, of handling people’s brains, their very identity. He describes his first birth, his first death, these experiences so profound, you’d think anyone wouldn’t have words to describe them. He finds the words. He talks about panicking on handling his first patient by himself in an emergency, and it slowly becoming routine to the point that he was able to rescue his ice cream sandwich and finish eating it after a trauma call. The life of doctors indeed.

Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

He also talks about his own life after his diagnosis, his further fascination with the concept of death, his understanding of what his life meant to him, his methods to deal with his sudden disability.

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.

We see him changing from doctor to patient to human being and all the way back again. We see him as he grapples with major life decisions, talks about relationships that he forged that pulled him through this time, and things he gained because of this time.

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

This book is an intelligent, touching, telling of the story of a man. Several times, you have to stop to think about something you never thought about just that way before. Often, you have to pause to identify with the same things he’s feeling.

Strangely extremely relevant to me, as a medical student, and as a person interested in all the same things this man was interested in, this book was a must read for me. It will be for you too. Even if you don’t share these interests. This book is one of those you carry with you long after you put it down. So go pick it up as soon as you can.

Poetry in life.

This is not going to be a philosophical discussion about how we should appreciate the beauty of the smaller things in life, about how poetry lies in a child’s smile or a mother’s hand. No, I am going to talk about how poetry affects our lives. Even the lives of those who don’t really read poetry.

Poetry is born from emotions. Love, heartbreak, anger, disgust, hope, hopelessness, nostalgia. Poetry is born when we feel something, and for this very reason, is as powerful as it always has been. When done right, of course.

My childhood included a lot of poetry. For this, I have my school textbooks to thank. From nursery rhymes- aren’t they poetry? They capture an emotion. Joy. Childhood. Happiness. Silliness. Yes, they’re poetry – to Shakespeare.

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

Life lesson right there.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Don’t sit on huge walls. Great advice on how to stay alive.

When we grew up, it only got better. The first one I remember was Rain in summer by H. W. Longfellow. I still remember our amusement with that name. But his words couldn’t be more true.

How beautiful is the rain,
After the dust and heat,
In the broad and fiery street

Living in India, I couldn’t have appreciated it more. I could all but see it. Actually, I think I did.

Wordsworth with his Daffodils.
I came across this one a couple of times. At first, it was just something about a yellow flower I’d never seen. And then it was about how you keep certain memories and you bring them up when you’re sad, or pensive, or lonely, and their warmth lights you up from the inside. And he called it Daffodils.

We all had Road not taken by Robert Frost, more than once. I took it literally the first time,had no idea what the big deal was all about. It was just a guy taking a walk. And then years later,

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I can’t say I know what he’s talking about. I don’t think I have that kind of courage.

We had a fun poem about the English language once.

If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!

English is a beautiful language.

I discovered Tennyson.

Home they brought her warrior dead: 
She nor swooned, nor uttered cry: 
All her maidens, watching, said, 
‘She must weep or she will die.’ 

Then they praised him, soft and low, 
Called him worthy to be loved, 
Truest friend and noblest foe; 
Yet she neither spoke nor moved. 

Stole a maiden from her place, 
Lightly to the warrior stepped, 
Took the face-cloth from the face; 
Yet she neither moved nor wept. 

Rose a nurse of ninety years, 
Set his child upon her knee— 
Like summer tempest came her tears— 
‘Sweet my child, I live for thee.’

It was the first time I heard words work together like that. Like music. I learnt that poetic license had a purpose, and that my mind could make music.

Poetry has made a mark, if I liked it or not. There’s too many that did, to cover in one go. Stay tuned!

One big machine

 

I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too

The invention of Hugo Cabret
– Brian Selznick.