Monday, February 2, 2009

My Personal Age of Enlightenment

One of my favorite lines from the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life is, “youth is wasted on all the wrong people”. When it comes to the pursuit of knowledge and a broad education, maybe there’s a little truth to the sentiment. If I’d left high school in 1979 and gone on to a four year college, my life would have taken a far different, although not necessarily better path. In those days, my ability to retain information was nearly photographic compared to now, when I find myself struggling to remember common words with increasing frequency.

What I didn’t have then was the ability to see the relationships between things.

I hesitate to try to explain what the last month has been like for fear I’ll sound a little crazy, but it is like the universe has broken open for me. It started with Marcel Proust and it picked up speed with the DVDs.

Last January I read a novel by Alain de Botton called On Love. I loved the author’s style so much that I sought out more that he’d written and to my delight, there was plenty to choose from. The same month I read How Proust Can Change Your Life and I wrote a little about each book here.

It’s hard to believe it was only the first of January when I dove into Swann’s Way. I won’t attempt to explain what it is about Marcel Proust that brings about such an intense response from me as a reader, but I touched on it a bit in this post. Our birthdays (mine and Proust's) are a day apart and in some silly way, I feel like that connects me to him and his eccentric, neurotic life.

I jumped right into In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower as soon as I finished Swann’s Way. After finishing it, I decided to read two or three other books before picking up The Guermantes Way because I’m already half grieving at the notion that once I read all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, there will be no more.

I said I might sound a little crazy.

Reading Proust is giving me plenty to think about, but toward the end of December I’d ordered some DVD lecture series’ from The Teaching Company, so when I haven’t been reading or watching movies, I’ve been listening to these lectures. Apparently the adult education business is feeling the pinch of the economy and there were fire sale prices on these courses at the year's end. I bought Great Ideas of Philosophy, a series of 60 half hour lectures, a 24 lecture course on Existentialism and a five course series on the great world religions, which includes Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

For some reason, I always feel a little awkward when I tell people I’m reading one of the classics or let’s face it, actually studying something for my own gratification. People often seem to react to these kinds of pursuits with an innate suspicion and sometimes a defensiveness. Why would I do this? I realize it's not everyone's idea of fun, but I am having the time of my life.

The more I learn, the more I want to know. Scott has been watching the philosophy lectures with me, and they’ve all been excellent. I’ve finished the lectures on existentialism, and earlier tonight I finished the last lecture on Islam after completing the courses on Judaism and Christianity.

Had I been reading what I am or trying to follow these lectures at some other time in my life, I’m certain it would have felt like work but for now I feel like the John Travolta character in the movie Phenomenon (well – except I didn't see a meteor and I’m not turning into a genius or anything -- I’m just hungry for more).

This has happened before with other things. I've gone on redecorating frenzies and painted every room in my house, not stopping until the last piece of masking tape was down and the last switch plate cover replaced. I had the same sense of dedication to watching every episode of all nine seasons of The X-Files that I did to studying every wine region in the world and starting my own modest collection (which we ended up drinking before our last cross country move).

I’ve done little to no writing at all since this binge started, but I don’t have any guilt over it. It feels like I have things to learn before I go back to creating something of my own.

But it's all connected.

Not a day goes by that I don't hear a reference to a Greek myth or a German philosopher and my worldview has opened up completely after learning the history of the three great monotheistic religions that not only trace their origins back to Abraham, but share a history of theological, political and mystical struggle.

The day is coming when I'll have taken in as much as I can handle and this intensity and passion will fade. Maybe then it will be orchids or Asian studies or watching old episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Until then, I'll continue to find my bliss in each discovery.


CindyLV said...

Yay, Lisa!

Just keep flinging yourself in new directions and enjoying the ride. And promise to keep the rest of us informed of your progress. I love reading your posts of different adventures in reading and other arts. And still waiting for the next installment in your book.

You're not weird, or flawed or bent or wonky. You're brave and adventurous! And we (your loyal readers) love you for it!

PS: The Las Vegas Writer's Conference is coming up soon. Just sayin'!

steve said...

That's a lot. I don't know whether your lecture series on gives proper credit to Zarathustra, who profoundly influenced all three "Abrahamic" religions, as well as Buddhism. All right, my novel's character Helena always wants to remind us.

I've never been brave enough to try to read Proust. But I'm wary of the new translation. The title "In Search of Lost Time" seems more like a TV documentary, even if it's literally closer to the French. "Remembrance of Thing Past" has the sort of wistful feeling that I think may be closer to the spirit of those books I've never read.

Maybe it's because of Joahan Huizinga's "The Waning of the Middle Ages," later retranslated as "The Autumn of the Middle Ages." The new tranlsation is more literal, but less enchanting.

steve said...

That's Remembrance of Things Past

Usman said...

Lisa, I feel you are so happy in your voyage of discovery.
I've always wanted to read Philosophy, and yet the time eludes me.
Funnily, like you, I have given up writing for a short while. I think I need a break just to think.
And your mention of the X-Files reminded me of my pretty sister in law, whom we actually started calling Scully. She was one huge fan of the X-files.
Enjoy the bliss.

Therese said...

I think this self-study (which becomes in part the study of self) is fabulous.

Though I haven't gone nearly as in-depth with this kind of thing as I'd like to, I've found that gaining even cursory knowledge is universe-expanding. Connections and references are suddenly everywhere.

I applaud you for immersing yourself in whatever interests you at the moment. That, to me, is living.

kristenspina said...

Lisa, you are my hero. I love the curious you, the you that won't settle for not learning more. And yes, this is going to inform your own work in ways as yet unknown, but important, big ways. I just know it.

debra said...

It's all part of a whole, I think. A time of expansion. A new paradigm. It all fits. It's the VW---they're everywhere :-)

Sustenance Scout said...

AHA, I knew you were up to something! So happy to hear you're so happy. Enjoy and yes, keep us updated on how the ride's going. Fascinating all around and what a great way to spend the cold winter months. When you'd like to get out and about, drop me a line... K.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You are inspiring because you never take the easy path. You have a book in the making.

Melissa Marsh said...

I think it's absolutely awesome that you are studying this stuff without worrying about getting a grade or college credit. It makes the experience that much richer.

I learned so much more when I went to graduate school years after I earned my undergrad degree. I was more mature, married, and had a daughter to look after. I wasn't distracted by all the "college activities" and could just focus on my studies. I loved it.

LarramieG said...

You've seized a, actually bunches of them. What a heady, invigorating experience!

Lisa said...

Yay Cindy! Yes, I'll keep flinging around and picking up bits and pieces here and there. The scary thing (scary isn't the right word) is that I almost feel like I need to rewrite everything I have - not fundamentally change the story or characters, but I feel a weird itch to just start typing from chapter 1 again. And you don't have to say I'm not weird ;)

Steve, The lectures I've watched on the monotheistic religions didn't mention him, but I started watching the lectures on Hinduism and the introduction touched on the Zoroasters. I doubt it will go into much depth though. And you really don't need to be brave to read Proust. He's actually not difficult at all -- just LONG. The new translations I'm reading are actually supposed to better convey the original intent and tone of Proust's work than the last translation, done in the 1920's. I'm not going to read both to compare though!

Usman, I was thinking of you quite a bit when watching the lectures on Islam. It's amazing how intertwined Islam, Christianity and Judaism are in their histories. They also have an enormous common characteristic, in that it seems that almost as soon as each religion came about, people were arguing about how they should be interpreted, studied and practiced!

I just loved The X-Files and I am enjoying the bliss. Enjoy the break from writing. Despite what people say, sometimes you really do need the distance.

Therese, You are so right that it becomes a partial study of self -- and of the world as it is at this moment. It was always a kind of a joke with my father and my stepmother that anything I became interested in, I had to become an "expert" at because there's a book on everything under the sun. I don't know if you saw "Little Miss Sunshine", but I keep telling Scott that I am the pre-eminent Proust scholar in our cul-de-sac ;)

Kristen, If I was raising a child right now, you can be sure he or she would be what I'd be studying instead :)

Debra, YES! The Volkswagens are everywhere. I always see connections -- of course in re-reading this post I suspect I sound a little like someone with bipolar disorder who is off her medication too -- I'm not (I'm pretty sure) :)

Karen, You need to drop in!

Patti, You are too kind. It feels like the only path right now. I hope I do.

Melissa, It really is an entirely different learning process without the distraction of grades and credits to think about. And I can drop anything I don't like.

Larramie, A whole field!

Suzanne said...

your passion for books and learning in general is truly inspiring and fun to follow!

Riss said...

I wondered where you went! (c: Good for you! We really need to get together and have coffee hehe. Come out here...or I'll go out there...or something! Can I borrow your DVD's? Cause they sound not only fascinating but entirely relevant to what I just picked up the other day! I found my old Eastern Religions book and started reading through it again. It's loaded and long and a text book but there's something really...I dunno...soothing (if that jives with anyone?) about reading it right now. And the knowledge is amazing!

The beauty about self guided discoveries is that you're doing it for you. not because anyone told you to, just you. And that matters more than anything. It's what I'd like to see parents try and instill in their kids. It's magic stuff. I dunno-I think you will find that your writing and your creativity in life will completely be overhauled after all this...reading about history and philosophy is like getting the inside joke on life. It's great.

Anyway-today felt like one really long week and I am ready for a hot shower and some sleeping.

Have fun!

Heather said...

(o) :-)

Lana Gramlich said...

I remember going through something similar some years ago. An uplifting, inspiring event, certainly! As for those who scowl at your sudden interests, screw 'em. The best part about learning is that no one can take it away from you. Kudos. Soar on!

Elizabeth said...

Wow. I'm very impressed by your discipline. The Self-Education of the Modern Woman is what I'd call it. I'm looking forward to more of your teachings -- the way you distill a book, a philosopher, etc. is wonderful. But I still can't believe the Proust fascination -- someone who literally has always made my screen crawl.

Lisa said...

Suzanne, You are too kind.

Riss, You are absolutely welcome to borrow the DVDs. Either get back here (and visit your mother -- and me) or I'll send them to you. And this is perfect: "reading about history and philosophy is like getting the inside joke on life".

Heather, Thank you for stopping in. You've got a very cool website.

Lana, I'm so glad you know what this is like.

Elizabeth, There really isn't any discipline involved. I don't really have any responsibilities to worry about (except my day job), so it's pretty self-indulgent and the only challenge is deciding what to tackle next.

I definitely get your aversion to Proust. I guess we all have writers that either really appeal to us or turn us off completely and there's no predicting. Of course, if I'd been forced to read him in French, like you! Now that's impressive. I'm off to a late start...raging against the dying of the light :)

Seachanges said...

This sounds like a wonderful way to be spending your time - working your way through authors and philosophers and enjoying it. Yes, there's something about reading philosophy in later life (I did a philosophy degree in my twenties), but as you say, you fight with your own memory, or rather lack of it so that it becomes difficult to keep hold of the connections... oh my, life is too short, isn't it?

It's great how you are able to make the most of it and so thoroughly enjoy it! My dayjob seems to be much more in my way than you will allow yours to be - I should learn from that! Great post.

Vesper said...

Lisa, I'm stopping by just to let you know that there's something waiting for you at my site.

I'll be back to read your article - I want to take my time to read it.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Wonderful, Lisa, and I truly believe it's the best way to remain young and creative -- forging new neural pathways, reading things that transform us, opening to the world instead of slowly closing off, as many people seem to do once they become "adults."

And I envy you your relationship with Proust. I have to try again.

Going Dutch said...

Honestly, you are bound, as a member of this family, to have a little crazy in you - he he.
I'm quite familiar with the frenzies...just ask Alex about changes he's come home to after say, a trip to China. Or why I have actually won at Star Wars Trivial Pursuit (after watching - and studying and taking note on - all the films back to back).
I love your passion.
No question in my mind that you're my sister :)
Love you,

PS - Coincidentally things for me, in my transition to living in the Netherlands, have really begun to 'click' for me in a similar (but much less profound and philosophical) way here quite recently. I'll drop you a note and explain.

kate hopper said...

I love this post, and have been thinking about connections so much lately, as well. I remember that in college I would file facts and information away, but I lacked that very thing--the ability to make real connections between what I was learning.

You go, girl!! Just keep learning and exploring and living. I wish I could read half as much as you!

Lisa said...

Seachanges, There is something decadent at this stage of life about studying whatever appeals and for no other reason but the joy of discovery. My life changed completely when I was able to make a case for cutting my business travel back almost completely. For several years, I was on the road three weeks out of four and in the din of the airport gate area, I could rarely read anything that demanded more focus than a magazine.

Vesper, Thanks so much!

Tim, I've been so relieved to find that some of those things I'd never read when I was younger are even more approachable now than they would have been then. Yes - I'm hoping this helps keep my mind active. I need to find out soon if AARP has a book club!

Les, The lunacy does appear to run in the family! Don't try to challenge me on The X-Files or Sex and the City either ;)

Kate, It's funny because there were a lot of classics I read when I was younger -- very young, in fact. When I was in junior high or just into high school I discovered a box full of paperbacks with some Sartre, Camus, Kerouac and Ginsberg and I read everything. Needless to say, I remember next to nothing about all of it -- with the exception of Sartre's play, "No Exit". For some reason, that stayed with me.

Steve Malley said...

Sadly, there's no shortcut to that ability to make cognitive connection. Our brains take time to develop those little nueral tendrils...

Vesper said...

Lisa, I love this post of yours. I just wanted to tell you how much I find myself in it, from philosophy to the X-files. :-)

Suzanne said...

Just wanted to let you know that this essay inspired me to read 'How Proust Can Change Your Life'.

Also, today I've posted an interview with Larramie about her new blog "The Divining Wand" over at my blog. Please stop by and take a look, I'm trying to help build momentum for her new blog through word of mouth. Thank you!

steve on the slow train said...

I just found our that Zoroaster is in the lower right-hand corner of Raphael's School of Athens. Because the Greek form of his name includes the Greek word for star, he's holding a star-studded globe and is conversing with Ptolemy.

I saw the paining in 1983 and didn't really appreciate it at the time.

After buying a trial membership in AARP, I decided not to renew. If AARP has a book club, it's probably overpriced and with a lot of fine print.

P.S. I'm no eudaemonist, but your version of this philosophy/religion is surely the most humane and compassionate that I've seen on the Web.

Adrianna said...

I wholely support what you're doing. In fact, as soon as I finish my MFA in June, I'm planning on doing the dame thing. I hadn't considered Proust, but now I definitely will. It's just too bad that this is not considered the norm. Also, I recommend a book called UltraMind (and now I paraphrase the subtitle) How to heal your broken brain by first healing your body. It's a cool book written by a doctor. I'm still reading it, but I think it helps solve those alleged forty-something memory challenges. Very clear explanations and lots of stuff I've read about elsewhere in my interest in natural health.

Lisa said...

Steve, It's a bit of a paradox, really. Better late than never though.

Vesper, Ha! One of these days I'll figure out what it is about the X-Files I've always loved so much. I think it's the only series like that I ever got caught up in.

Suzanne, I can't wait to hear what you think of it. I really, really loved it.

Steve, I was just kidding about the AARP book club ;)

You know the weird thing about Eudaemonia is that I can't quite recall how I came to find and identify with the term. Since I've been watching the philosophy lectures, I know much more about it and I'm still glad I chose it.

Adrianna, I will have to check out UltraMind. One thing that's gone a long way toward helping is getting a diagnosis and treatment for hypothyroidism. For a while I really started to think I was losing it, but there was a clear medical reason and it's getting better.

I think a course of continued self-study is the best thing we can do for ourselves. Proust may or may not be for you -- he takes considerable patience, especially at first, but if you do get into his rhythm, he's great. Thanks for stopping in. I hope you come back :)

Ello said...

Good for you! You are so inspiring to me! And I vote for Asian studies! I studied it myself and I tell you it is so fascinating!

Tara Maya said...


Shauna Roberts said...

I took advantage of those Teaching Company sales, too! Wish I could have afforded more courses. There must be something in the air—I, too, have been on a kick to absorb all sorts of information. I will enjoy hearing about your journey and will take a look at the bookstore at Proust.

Melissa said...

I think you would be a wonderful lecturer on the art of reading. Your descriptiveness and thoroughness is amazing.

Personally, I have to switch up my reading from fiction to non in order to keep my mind constantly entertained. Right now I am reading a very entertaining and educational book titled, "Why I Love Men: The Joys of Dating," by J.J. Smith. A very smart and sassy author.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf