Ruminations of an Insomniac ©2008
Saturday November 1
1.There is a photograph of my mother big with me in her belly in the early part of summer in 1941 seated on a floral chintz divan in their flat on Loring Avenue. The war years. On the wall above her, floating on the striped wallpaper is an arty mask of a grinning devil, a souvenir. She and my father liked to vacation on third world islands, though in those days, they thought of their destinations as exotic, their tastes avant -garde. That little devil crowning her now seems portentous, though during the years I was a girl in my family’s home, I simply found the image puzzling. I liked to rummage through the Whitman 2 pound sampler box where the black and white photos of the early years of their marriage were kept. There I was, there but not there, ripening, hidden inside. My grandfather is in that photo as well, smiling a wan smile, holding his pipe up to his mouth. My father is snapping the picture. He’s got the floods arranged just so. My grandmother might be taking the roast from the oven. They are celebrating Uncle Benny’s birthday, though he himself, my grandmother’s son, the doctor, is a major in the army overseas and won’t be there for the party. There are censored letters from him in the box as well and I liked to read the one addressed to me over and over, flushing in the light of his attention and regard.
I was raised in the shadow of the Victorian. Children were seen and not heard, were questioned, but not answered. It was an age of unconsciousness. Motive and intent were unrecognized, unacknowledged, or swept under the Persian carpet. There were rules for all occasions, places for every thing. Everyone was polite. Everyone was nice, but life among the good people of my family felt anything but safe. For though order and routine prevailed, I never understood why the adults did what they did or knew where I stood. I never understood commonplace reality. If I walked into a room with two or more adults, they lowered their voices, they stopped talking altogether, or continued in animated Yiddish, a language as mysterious as it was silly, a language that seemed to require an inordinate amount of spittle which I probably never would have noticed or minded had I been a part of the conversation. Kids weren’t really a part of adult conversation and the rule of kids being seen and not heard was in place and obedience was expected. If I got lost in my own pleasures and did not return home at the time required, I in disgrace.
But get lost in my own pleasures I did and would. There was a little wild swamp next to our proper brick house and trimmed hedges, a place where my wildling friends and I liked to build a fire and bake potatoes and apples we pilfered from our mothers’ kitchens and smoke the dried grass and reeds we gathered in the autumn. I simply had to be outside spending hours on my belly, watching robins fishing worms or ants on parade or spiders spinning and settling into the center of a web, their sensitive feet delicately and strategically placed, or on my back watching the clouds or the teeming flocks of butterflies wafting through the neighborhood. On sultry summer evenings, we played a kind of street baseball until it grew too dark to catch and tag. We roller-skated on our McAdamed road in the autumn and spring and ice- skated on the frozen pond in the winter. But when my pals rode their bikes on the railroad bed behind our little street, I found I could not. I had heard the train go by often enough, and the haunting wail of its whistle. I loved my own neck too well to risk a collision, but deemed myself a physical coward…which in my own mind banished me from the inner circle of my friends, the bold and courageous, the worthy ones. This became a wedge and I bore my chalice alone,
The trade-off, of course, for never wholly occupying any place I happened to be, for in any social circle, is a habitation of an interior landscape I feel most at home in, a vantage point from which to bear witness. From childhood on, I have cultivated solitude, and though I am friendly and gregarious, I am a hermetic contemplative. And a good thing, too, for on my own, I have remained partly wild, which gives me a view of the forest and the trees, the dancer and the dance..
I understood that I was quite on my own when I was four and left to do as I chose while the family gathered around my mother on the occasion of my brother’s birth, the little upstart usurper. During the long days were preoccupied with the newborn’s care, I could have , hohum, but since sitting around and gazing fondly was not all that to a four year old, I entertained myself in our basement where there was a blackboard on the wall at just my height in my father’s workshop where his jigsaw and band-saw stood. He liked turning wooden thingamabobs on his lathe and making gingerbread ornaments, which represented an architectural style no longer in vogue, which eventually gathered sawdust in a large cupboard. At the top of my blackboard was the alphabet and pictures accompanied each letter: a and apple, b and boy, c and cat and so forth. There I taught myself to read and write on the dark cool mornings in the blistering days of August, and in my little cave, I found a world I wholly belonged to, which claimed me when I first encountered folk and fairy tales and later, novels, plays and films.
During the long Buffalo winters, I suffered sinus infections and endured the suctioning of my nasal passages, not so much fun,
which was really quite painful, but a price I willingly paid for solitude and liberty, staying at home one week of every four under the covers, reading, coloring, and listening to the radio, what I would. I fervently admired the heroic and noble Black Bruce, was in love with Prussian Blue, but didn’t get the point of the soap opera, Stella Dallas. No, the radio shows I loved were on at night and forbidden : Mr. and Mrs. North, Lights Out, The Shadow and for a little while, just before she died, Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks, heard on the rare evenings my parents went out and I could slip into their room past the gaze of the sitter. There was something so magical about the incandescent light, the buzzing and humming of the little bakelite radio overhead tuning up and finally the disembodied voices, as captivating as the characters in books or in the movies. My maiden voyage to the movies made me a devotee. My Aunt Lila left my cousin Robbie and me at the theatre for a double feature: The Secret Garden and The Wizard of Oz, works of imagination that spoke to the souls of children, to me entirely.
When I was a child, and knew that animal folk were my kindred, I asked the wise ones about the blood on our plates. They wanted us to get enough protein. They wanted us to grow big and strong. The children were starving in India, an inducement for us to finish our plates. The children were dying in Germany, which they but we did not yet know. They loved us and lied through their teeth. “It’s not blood,” they said.” It’s gravy. When I thought about this later, I came to see that language constructs reality. What we say is an interpretation, a take on events and happenings, a spin on possible effects and consequences. What we experience as real is derived from the very language we use to describe or inscribe impact and meaning. For example, I fall and, short of broken bones or gruesome gashes, react with anguish and self pity (Poor me!) or pick myself up, brush myself off( oh well, never mind),and carry on whatever I was doing before I went down. True, an attitude of inner calm and perspective may, by dint of hard work and workshop, already obtain. How then are occurrences experienced variously as disaster or petty inconvenience? Consider a minor car accident during which no one is seriously injured, though there is the nuisance of having to take the car into the shop, and all the rigamarole with the insurance and car-rentals and the time better spent in walks along the beach or in a juicy who-done-it. Is it the universe conspiring to thwart us at every turn or is this merely a minor glitch? How do we create our reality? By what we say or think has happened. By what we name and claim as so.
Think of the euphemisms we use to obscure and reframe. Remember when our elementary school janitors became Custodial Engineers and our garbage collectors, Sanitary Engineers? Was this move towards gentrification an effort to forestall unions’ collective bargaining for better pay and benefits, or a way to erase the putatively humble and, what, vulgar? aspects of these occupations? Can the hard, “demeaning,” and often thankless dirty work done by those who perform these tasks, be dignified by another name? Does such a construction assuage the buried guilt of the privileged, of those of us who can, because of others’ efforts, keep our own hands clean? A rose is a rose is a …? Think of the Pleasantville -perfect Sit Com family homes where nothing ever gets messy, and no one gets hurt by carelessness, unkindness or self-serving choices, a k a Trickle-down beneficence …Father, cough, knows best. In the coloring-book perfection of Disneyland (trashless, sin basura), everything is under control, just as clean and tidy as blonde boys in lederhosen evangelizing in sweet soprano voices their devotion to mother and country and all that is good and pure….What about : It’s not war, it’s pacification; It’s not suppression, it’s stabilization; It’s not oil, it’s honor; It’s not our fault, responsibility, problem, it’s theirs? It’s not blood: it’s gravy….
Anyone who knows anything about life on the planet understands how perilous and precarious life really is. Even if we know nothing more than what goes on inside our own skins, however hard we try to ignore, deny, reject, repress, disguise, mutate, mutilate, obfuscate, prevaricate about what’s really going on, we know. Oh we do…at some level of submerged or open air conscious awareness. Or why else are we a nation of addicts? We smoke, drink, pop pills, sniff, inhale, inject, chew, go shopping, indulge our appetites in excess of our need and it is the too muchness that puts our lives in peril, in the hands of our understudies who are, excuse the vulgar commonplace: freaked out…or phreaqued out as the genteel may prefer and in need of solace, balm, calming of the turbid waters, antidote, anesthetic. Two pieces of toast are breakfast. Twelve pieces are gluttony. Too much compensating for too little, sad to say. If we are feeling abandoned neglected rejected overlooked overworked underpaid undervalued…blah blah blah… at any rate mired in circumstances apparently or seeming beyond our control. Without, and these days who has? sufficient strength of character, purpose and determination, our primary goals and aspirations are back-burnered for dramas pot-boiling on the front.
This is why Tolstoy observed that all happy families are alike, why the fairy tale journeys to wholeness end : And they lived happily ever after. It is the unhappy, the blighted, benighted souls whose stories are instructive and helpful if we go to narrative not for opiate but restorative medicine. Such a story transpires, is created in the mind of the reader and is a product of collaboration, a confluence of two states of being and consciousness… the writer transmits and the reader receives. It is held and beheld by the reader who bears witness, resonates, finds treasure there, beacon or balm or confirmation. As a twelve year old girl, lost and without lantern or map to the territory of womanhood after my mother checked out, I turned to the writers for signposts and clues and while I found much that was sustaining, there were few stories of women’s lives and those traced the outer dimensions and the men or children or causes they served. My uncle, the major who became an esteemed surgeon said to me when I was in high school and dreaming up a life: You’re so bright you should be a great man’s secretary.
Today it is raining raining raining, the kind of dark day it is better to stay indoors with the lights turned on. The kitties are sleeping, not together. They are not simpatico and it is one of the chronic mopes that quietly fester under the thinning skin. My thinning skin. I had better own the body parts, at least, the temporal ectoplasm of being, though I swear those are my grandmother’s hands poised over the keyboard, those wrinkled pointers plucking the keys…not a whole hand span of fingers but single digits poking at the letters that assemble the words, the consequence of my insuring I should never become stenographer to another’s thoughts, though man I am not, and not entirely woman either because….where to begin…I never wanted to define my life in terms of a man’s or live in another’s shadow, handmaiden to someone else’s enterprise. No, selfish beast that I am, I’ve wanted to live my life on my own terms, follow my nose, every itch and inclination and see where it would lead or rather see where I would find myself.
Today I find myself indoors with the cats. Emma the elder, has just climbed down from one of the dining room chairs she favors for an afternoon nap and limped over to the catnip scratching pad under the piano for a bit of a manicure. This is unlike her. She usually prefers to polish her nails on the wicker laundry basket in the john. She likes to sleep in the linen cupboard there where I or anyone in the house can hear her doing her laundry. Not so Oscar, a cat of property. My daughter equipped him with scratcher and bed, a small burgundy plush oval nest which he endeavors to fit into but overlaps. It is a magnet for shedding fur and not particularly appealing to any but him, but there we are. My daughter graduates and gives me her cats as she moves up the academic ladder. Her high school cat and her college cat live here with me and her grad school cats live with her.
I suppose I am envious of their sleeping prowess. They sleep and sleep. I do not. I am not alone on the planet with this latest craze in medical disorders that elicits enterprising market share responses to enhance what is now called sleep hygiene: books, lectures, routines, clinics and pills we can pop…. sub lingual melatonin, whatever the remedy was they used in the thirties, starts with a v, not Veronal…that was more serious, hmmm…don’t grasp for, it let it go… it will come back soon… Seconal was a potent snooze inducer as was oh Crikey, I can’t remember what they were called… what my father used and occasionally profered when there were too many lines under my twelve year old eyes, the winter my mother died and I spent half the night reading under the covers…Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, books that woke me up to much, woke me up too much.
I just Googled for the names that elude me. I do not recognize Heminevrin, Sonata ( puhlesse).Stilnoct ( sort of Deutch for quiet silent night…)but Zilese, Zimovaane, Zopitan, Zorclone….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz… Zorclone? Isn’t one Zor enough? Hypnogen is kind of cool. Hip Noggin. Is that a promise or a premise? Lunata…Who are these Harlequin romantics, dreaming up such names?
Velarian. It was called Velarian…and Phenobarbital was my Dad’s sleeping potion of choice. What’s with these memory glitches and gaps? It’s as if the mind is stalled at an intersection under an interminable red light and then out of nowhere, green light… names arrive. I grew up in the 40s and 50s, a mechanical world. We pushed the button or the lever and the light went on. If this, then that. Instant gratification. Now in this digital world, we push the button and ten minutes later, an effect. Maybe. If I had an I-getter, I could download foxfire to access a site that promises the names of the old pills dispensed in cream colored cardboard boxes. Pill boxes. No wonder people are inclined to impatience that begetteth road rage and all the natural and unnatural shocks that flesh is heir to. Barbituates. Still retrievable memories, but for how long. I have seen the road, one I would not willingly take. Flowers for Algernon Eek.
The phone just rang. It was Bill Clinton. Well all right, a recording of his voice. From his lips to my ear, the right one, urging me to vote for a meaningful proposition, one that would afford civil rights to a community of people who have been denied them, declared other and left out of the common weal. I like that it was this of all the props he felt strongly enough to support. I got a Christmas card from him and Hillary one year shortly after he was elected. My contribution to his campaign had been pretty puny, but they were grateful to all their constituents. What a loathsome scandal. What kind of family values occasion salacious details wholesaled in every newspaper and tabloid for our kids, his kid to read?
It has been so hard to be an American. How can anyone hold up her head in the family of nations and not be embarrassed by the behavior of spoilsport bullies who steal elections, perpetrate fraud, (S and L, anyone?) ignore the cries of help of the besieged, oh Katrina, or refuse to be constrained by common decency, laws and rules the rest of us adhere to, (Right, witting distributors of salmonella enhanced peanuts?).
Not that I or any of us are saints, have perfectly unsullied lives, never having trespassed against one another. Perhaps those who feel entitled, claim the spoils by right of victory in the Cold War, believing they can do whatever they choose without reference to the common weal, kings of the castle. How can we not have signed the Kyoto protocols? How can we not be putting the environment, our earth, first? Pollution and toxic waste are despoiling earth, air, and water, all that sustains life. I am not the only kid in the “Emperor’s New Clothes.” Everyone can see Life is unraveling: icebergs are melting, the ozone disappearing, our planet warming, indigenous and ancient species disappearing and the smooth running harmony of cycles and seasons imperiled. Devolution? When is the precise moment between inhale and exhale, living and dying when we will have gone too far?
Our chance at continuation, world without end, lies in our willingness to reconsider, to rethink our positions and dispositions, to restore the balance of nature, to live and let live, to dance as equal partners with all creation. We know this. Meanwhile the standard of living increases for the few and the quality of life diminishes for the many. What would happen to the last biggest fish who had eaten all the rest?
Such questions keep me awake, stymied. I used to lie awake brooding about big bellied, hollow eyed children dying of starvation, of malnutrition, the baby seals being clubbed to death, the thousands of political prisoners and others who had been found guilty of victimless crimes under the three strikes you’re out policy, the ones many believe unjustly accused, the ones who took the rap because someone had to pay: Leonard Peltier. Mumia. Kids are busted for marijuana possession. Kids. Now it’s how many young African American men incarcerated? Institutional racism by any other name… It is they and the polar bears lumbering through my sleepless torpor who haunt me. As a youth, in the twilight of Jim Crow, I was not awake or sharp enough to connect the dots. I didn’t understand the words of “Strange Fruit.” I didn’t yet know what was going on. We were protected, kept insulated and ignorant. We did go to the Zoo and we could see sleety white bears pacing as the tigers did in their cages, back and forth, back and forth. In the long frozen winters, they paced in inadequate habitats designed to hold for viewing captive creatures. They were transposed to our home town zoo for our pleasure and edification, not theirs, but they knew more about us than we did. Why can’t we be one among many species, no more no less? Why can’t we be just one among many nations ? Enough. The world is very much awake and aware of the coming election. a momentous time. Monumental. Those of us who want to live and let live, abide by the golden rule. May peace flourish and abide.
How can I not lie awake wondering about sun spots and asteroids? I wouldn’t worry and buy into “end of days” if I had not seen the melting ice caps and the drowning polar bears. Road kill are hard enough. Ah friends, insert the spurious insult here if you must: bleeding heart liberal, Softie, Wus. And I can only say with Blake, “Can I see another’s woe and not be in sorrow too?” William Blake, a Romantic poet and artist of the Enlightenment held liberal views, meaning: open minded and generous, views that Jefferson and the Framers valued, drew inspiration from. Enlightenment views and values are what we now need to restore our beloved country and our people, all of us, to the soul of America. The S word.
Sunday November 2
I have come to see that the our lives’ real work emanates from the soul. What we produce is secreted like spider’s silk, Charlotte spinning her web. As a woman, I have made art and given birth to a child, my beloved daughter and though in her infancy on her first Halloween, I dressed us as Pearl and Mother of Pearl, I know that I am not her creator nor is she my work. I agree with Gibran that children are arrows fletched from our bow, that they, like ourselves, belong to the universe and themselves, not us. We are conduits through which they emerge and loving guardians until they can stand solidly on the ground of earth and the ground of their own being. We have succeeded if we have not gotten in their way or impeded their progress, if they ripen into the glory of self, resounding with “The universe with the joyful cry: I am.” ( Scriabin )
We want our children to be self-confident, to keep faith with themselves, to honor their inclinations and proclivities, their enthusiasms and passions. We want them to be happy, relaxed, filled with the pleasures and joys of daily life, with work enough to stretch their minds, strengthen their bodies, and play enough to stimulate their imaginations, and inspire their dreams and aspirations, their reverence for life. For how many is this now reality? Is this now possible?
As for me, now that my daughter is fledged, I’ve begun to type, to create work that embraces the whole: the mundane and the sublime; Vin ordinaire and the heady brew of Feast. I am not a white sauce novelist. Plots don’t thicken for me. The boundaries between life and art have blurred, the proscenium more a permeable membrane through which representations of reality emerge, embodiment in fact or fiction, fact and fiction. I have long pondered the noble history of art and have read to learn. The ancient Greeks went to their festivals to participate imaginatively in the conflicts engendered by civilization. They experienced forbidden energies and passions symbolically so they didn’t have to act them out, cathartically, as Aristotle observed. We can still watch with pity and terror the fate of Oedipus…except the soap opera/ Springer set who don’t spring for a seat, but act out the inner turmoil… and what a mess that makes. Hamlet set his little mousetrap to catch the conscience of the king. Moliere gartered his foppish fools and exposed sham, pretense and villainy, not to be priggish or put too fine a point on the value of art, so we may learn. And on and on until the waning days of the last millennium.
In America we have acted out our national dramas, mounted on the large stage and little screens for all to witness, share, participate in: The drama of sexual harassment and women’s right to the sanctity and dignity of their own persons with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, protagonist and antagonist, though society and the powers that be confounded the roles and the audience wasn’t quite ready to relinquish male privilege and prerogative, voice and entitlement; Othello and Desdemona with a twist… OJ and Nicole. Who can forget the free way chase? The white vehicle. The gloves. The lawyers. The loopholes. The evident loss; Who has a right to adjudicate in the terrible choice of pulling the plug, parents or mate? Terry Schivo; Who has the right to raise, care for and love a child, natural parents or those who are more financially able? Elian Gonzales.
Dear reader, would you give me leave to pull open the filing cabinet, heap the contents on the floor and recombine and classify its contents as is our predilection in these post modern days? Poor Lillian Hellman caught bleep for daring to bust genre, for creating a hybrid genre, the novelistic memoir. People were peeved because she created a character, Julia, to carry and embody her heroism, her efficacy in the face of brutish nightmare, the hell realm of the Nazis. People groused, complaining she was guilty of untruth and self aggrandizement. The word memoir set them up to be so disposed. But I understand the fictional gesture. What other icon or maybe archetype is the better word, did we have then to portray an untenable situation in an imbalance of power? An ethereal, gauzy scarf – enswathed Lillian Gish pounding her delicate wrists against the large and heartless chest of the indifferent landlord: But I can’t pay the rent! Hellman created a role model for women who had no other women in their lives who thought and acted as well as felt and nurtured. I know what that cost her and am grateful. And selfish. I cite her precedent in my claim to write a memoirish- essayish- commentary … crossbreed, hybrid, mutt. Oh dear…gone to the dogs already…
Well, I leave that to you and must get on.
There is a little spider making its lair in the overflow niche in the bathroom sink. I explained that this was a heavy use watering hole, not so easy to share and he had best take her webbing elsewhere. Haven’t a clue how to determine a spider’s gender. “It” used with commonplace regularity just seems wrong, though for many, such notice is beneath gaze if not contempt. But a fellow creature sharing my abode, especially one showing so much determination and pluck has some rights, though truth to tell if it were a big hairy scary critter, my relocation program would take effect pronto. Plastic glass and index card and out the door. My M.O.. for moths, as well, as they must certainly prefer the mother world outside and I don’t want them munching on the winter wool. All right, it is not they who munch, who chew holes in our favorite sweaters and slacks. They seed the caterpillars who can and do. Flies are on their own and often the main course of the spiders more attached to spots where ceiling meets wall, a good reason to let the cobwebs linger. Unless you enjoy the sport of fly catching with swatter or chopsticks a la Mr. Miyagi, you might as well relegate the chore, the line of least resistance, one less thing to have to do something about….at least until spring and in a frenzy of cleaning, I forget my industrious tenants quietly carrying on their occupation, tithing to mi casa the no fly zone. In the interest of my housekeeping, I obliterate theirs. Oh dear.
Martin Sheen just phoned urging me to vote for Prop 5 which allocates funds to improve and expand treatment centers. I’m all for it. Preventative medicine. People with addictions need treatment and until we remember the meaning of the word penitentiary, the place where people are sent to chill out and consider what they have done to harm themselves and others in order to realize, regret, and repent (be penitent ) and therefore be forgiven for their mistakes and misdeeds and given another chance to atone for, redeem their lives, prison is no place to heal. What corrections can be made in a place of punitive consequence where the well being if not immortal soul of any given individual is not taken into account, where only vengeance is meted out? What kind of justice is there without mercy? Caritas… Faith hope and charity, but the greatest of these is charity… compassion, all but for the grace… Preventative medicine, then, if we would eliminate recidivists,… ism.
Anything out of balance produces dis-ease. If gym memberships are an indication, people are on it, if not obsessed with rigorous routines to keep svelte and healthy. We know we should practice good hygiene, with fresh air, sunshine, exercise, nourishing food, water and rest. We take supplements to counteract the toxins in the environment, the ubiquitous PFCs,PCBs, Dioxin. Stuff in dry cleaning fluid, printing ink, detergents …Don’t get me started. What a blinking chore to swallow all the pills. But we can no longer drink from creeks and streams as my generation could do when we were kids and wandering around still partly wild neighborhoods. We carried our collapsible cups in our overall pockets and dipped them into any moving body of water when we got thirsty. Losing that would drive anyone to drink or keep her from snoozing through the night.
Everyone I know has done time kicking various addictions as we became strong enough to take them on. The most serious and insidious hook for me was nicotine. My folks smoked, Bogey smoked, Dietrich smoked….it was so cool if not suave and debonair, never mind toxic and debilitating. I was too smart to start as a kid, but when I was 28, unmarried and it seemed I was going to have to fend for myself with neither model nor direction, no idea how to go about it, nor whom to consult or observe, I freaked out and took up smoking, administering the anesthetic, numbing the raw edges, silencing the scream of clueless panic. I can still hear Flip Wilson in that squirmy falsetto: The devil made me do it. The only instruction from the Pater in the matter of money or the realm of economic independence was how to write a check, not how to fund an account. Pater is what he had me call him, that mild mannered haberdasher who was not otherwise pretentious or proud. It amused him.
That left me at a disadvantage and it took a long time to get my act together. Eventually I did, but it was, as it is for all but the privileged classes, a tough road to trod and row to hoe. In retrospect, I’m glad and grateful for the journey because had I lived the life of privilege, I probably would have been even deeper mired in materia, a collector, a patronessa, perhaps happy, perhaps lost in unplumbed shallows, unaware of the architecture or the fruits of the deep. And had I lived a scripted life of comfort and convenience, I might not ever have learned from the mixed bag of experience all I know, all that drives and thrills my mind , disrupts my sleep. So no regrets. Well, mainly. There is a gaping hole in my whole, the w for woman related to man or a mate of whatever persuasion. For me that would be a man with whom until recently I could not have lived without disappearing down the rabbit hole of good little wife and help mete. I knew better, but enculturation is deeply rooted and the assumptions, views and values, the beliefs, perspectives and expectations we imbibe as children form us and there is a lot of work to do in making any lasting alteration or transformation.
This I have done. Never the less, here I are. Trust me, I meant to say that. It was a private nod to a beloved friend, Budley to me and I Lady Bat Guano to him who used to say that. He was a man with a living mind, a generous heart, a craftsman’s hand and eye and an artist philosopher’s spirit whom I loved and admired, with whom I tried to be both woman and person and found I could not. I found myself subsumed in the traditional role which believe me, I relished. I scrubbed the floors on my knees and called myself Mandy X ( I know. I know.) when I did and happily stuffed the kids’ lunch bags with good things to eat and ornamented them with goofy drawings. But somehow I got lost, the I who sits here now pressing the alphabet of keys, a woman with her own work to do. There was no acrimony. Au contraire. We hugged each other when I left and he stood on the porch whistling “Hey that’s no way to say goodbye.” We remained good friends until his demise and I miss him. I miss hanging out with and learning from him, miss his knowing me. So here I are sans life partner and that makes me unbearably sad at times, but what the hey and oh well and onward. There are those long nights and the dreams. Not this or that, either/ or, but both/ and… and so it goes.
Monday November 3
Outside the yellowing leaves of the centenarian cherry tree are fluttering and intermittently idle as a wayward trifling wind comes and goes and the boughs of the cypress lift and fall, lift and fall and then stop…stillness, no movement at all. Grey overcast sky, the air heavy with moisture, the dark greedy earth drinking in all that comes after a long season of drought. The reservoir is dry, empty. A little over a month ago, a sign on the post office door appeared admonishing us to ration and sparingly water our gardens. I complied and let much go. Now a new season. Let it rain. Let it pour. Surely we have been living in a Wasteland, of which T.S. Eliot has written, the kind that made Hamlet’s Denmark rotten and Oedipus’s Thebes a barren and polluted realm, the objective correlative between outer material manifestation and inner moral tenor. All that has besieged our republic haunts us, all the breaches of trust, betrayals, usurpations, withholdings, invasions of our privacy, our savings, our tranquility. It is the day before election … Erev Election. How many of us are keeping vigil, mindful of consequence, of all that may befall us, mindful of possibility, of hope? We’ve pined for the dawning of something like the Age of Aquarius: peace and love and understanding…kindness, tranquility, cooperation, mutuality, reciprocity, benevolence and beneficence, generosity if not magnanimity, open hearts, open minds, open hands, open doors…I string these words into prayer beads which I say as the pious tell their rosaries.
Pollyanna I am not. Columbia rather… I cleave to the muse of possibility, keeping faith with and abiding by the dream of our founders, the imperfect mortals who espoused the egalitarian values of the Enlightenment and envisioned a land of fertility, industry, prosperity, equity, justice, civil liberties for all. Our unofficial anthem which was replaced by the Star Spangled Banner addressed Columbia, the mythic American Goddess of liberty and freedom, who was mother of a united people, protector of the world, symbol of a land and culture, purveyer of bounty and peace. “Hail Columbia, happy land!” The chorus:
“ Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.”
My generation grew up knowing and singing
a couple of verses of soulful
America the Beautiful.
“O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
God shed his grace on thee
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!
O beautiful for pilgrims feet,
Whose stem impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God shed his grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through
wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!
O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man’s avail
Men lavished precious life!
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!
It is good to remember these aims, this willingness to examine behavior and motive to take account and hold ourselves to account, to redress, redeem, restore. Of by and for the people…that’s us. So why not back on the diet, back in the saddle again? Better than bombs bursting in air or anywhere else unless it is a chocolate Bombe or the bombshell, Marilyn.
Beautiful Marilyn, our Diana, our lost goddess.
It was a hard night as nights go. I couldn’t sleep.
Oh I know about sleep hygiene, am an imperfect practitioner. I have removed the TV from my bedroom and watch Netflix flicks in the living room. but I still read and listen to audio books in bed. I’ve been listening to Ram Dass and Alan Watts, James Hillman, Abraham Mazlow, Clarissa Pinkola Estes. These are the ones who lift my spirits, calm and sustain me. Last night? Nothing doing. Restless I was, uncomfortable, not being able to find a place or position, ah so, and making a muddle of the covers so carefully replaced earlier that morning to restore order and invite tranquility. I might have drunk a cup of warm milk, but was out of milk. I had meant to go for more, but somehow the day evaporated with all the key pressing, pacing and twitching about, ruminating, gathering wits. I made some chamomile tea, standing in the kitchen in my bare feet and aging flannel Nightie, a lot of molecules moved, a lot of bustling about without much result. I could have, might have soaked until drowsy in a hot tub, bathtub, that is, but it didn’t occur to me. Perhaps I shall have to start writing little notes and reminders, the practice of which will surely cascade me into the next chapter: running down, not a likely or welcome prospect for someone gearing up, seizing the day.
I came back to the keyboard and typed:
Nacht-schrift-spielung…which is probably not even possible to say or mean in echt Deutsch. Sunday Night Standard Daylight resumed. We fell back. I finally watched Mother Night, a film based on Vonnegut’s novel, an inquiry into the nature of loyalty. We witness a story of lies, a house of cards, betrayal, what the deluded understudy does, how he plays the hand. The life he leads, albeit a cover, is the life he gets and much transpires for ill while he plays the double agent. Ipso Facto, all the lies, the subterfuge, the dissimulation, deception, prevarication, mendacity. If I do not act on what I know, if I dodge however artfully what is given me to do, my life is lived by my understudy and when I come to, perhaps through the recognition of the truth about the way things are which I discover in the mirror of a film, I say Mea Culpa, not to flagellate but to acknowledge all that I have disregarded, misconstrued, relinquished, ignored. Let’s turn the coat inside out. Light and shadow, day and night reversible, irreversible. The worm emerges from the apple.
At just the right moment, while browsing in a book store, I came upon Eric Erickson’s Insight and Responsibility and was immediately drawn to the title which suggests that those who see, who know, who understand, have a responsibility to share what they know, to disseminate knowledge and impart wisdom. That motivated me to return to school in midlife to learn the current curriculum and profess what is given me to profess. I help reconnect my students to their native intelligence, share with them what has interested, informed, and educated me, what has moved humanity, what has illumined or inspired, what Kafka says cracks open the frozen sea within. So I have done.
Then why do I feel so guilty? Because instead of writing, I went shopping. The ark, the sacred receptacle of holy writ, the altar wherein the Torah is contained? I know not. When I, closet junkie, part the curtains, it is corduroy and cotton, flannel and rayon, woolen and velvet and silk. Oh my. False Gods Idols. Costumes Raiment…my pelts.
And I’ve done time with the machinery, the interventions, the leaching and cupping of our time, chemo and radiation. I’ve done time with breast cancer which four years ago, I humbly received as a gift from the gods, a gift of restoration, time to heal, the part timer’s Sabbatical. I was disconnected from my central self. My understudy was giving all the aces away and suavely parlaying the deuces into the pettiest of pleasures and tepid satisfactions: a latte, a glass of wine, a p b and j. High on a high wire juggling hatpins and balloons. Not that what I was doing was inconsequential, trivial, or wrong. My right livelihood has been teaching, but sometimes six and seven classes a semester, two hundred students and more, students of writing whose essays I read, while reading for three other classes. A freeway flyer, I plied my trade at two colleges, logging the miles, reading the essays, wearing myself out, working every day, 24/7 as they say. I was driven by need, but also to obliterate grief and guilt and longing and it was this, I think, that made me ill.
Everyone needs a day of rest to pause and reflect, take stock, digest and assimilate what has come before, to understand and own all that has transpired in the previous week. On the seventh day, we rest. We need a day if not to attend to matters of the spirit, then at least to ruminate and review, plan improvement, dedicate ourselves to deepening our commitments and developing greater skill in what we practice and avow, to work and see that it is good. To succeed, we need sometimes to abridge, amplify and amend. A day of contemplation seems essential to health and well being.
I, however, have not heeded my knowing. True, there is often a lag between knowing and doing or being, between recognition and implementation. I come from a long line of non practicing preachers. And thee? And meanwhile, here at the bottleneck, I have seen yet again the rats-nest tangles made by unconscious behaviors and want to alter and amend, would I, could I transcend limitations of the Ego driven carriage that has taken me shopping instead of typing as I do now. The quail and the crow accompany me. And the owl has called my name. There’s much to do. But what profiteth a woman and blithe spirit if time is up before she’s had her say, unwound her skein, secreted her silk?
It’s so easy to be delusional, to believe I’ve inherited the long limb of life. But what if I’m mistaken and it’s the short stick? Quien Sabe? My Aunt Helen is 97, had breast cancer at mid sixties as did I, as did her mother, my mother’s mother who died at 95. I’m still dancing, exalting the valleys, making rough places plain. As a girl I dreamed of spending my days writing, and finally I am able to sit and let fly all that I’ve been gathering, attending, brooding over in the long wash of years, the dry seasons, the wet seasons, the long days, the sleepless nights. Has my time been wasted in accruing? Perhaps it’s not just a race, as I’ve quipped, between wisdom and senility, but between the starting and the finish line. Flash back to the Natural, the middle age Rookie and here I are huffing and puffing up to the starting line. And under the curtain of water-falling seasons, days, hours, the kettle drum sounds, drawing me on.
Tuesday, November 4
Last night I was practicing my axiom which serves as well with wardrobe as it does writing, gardening, and possibly other forms of composition: Eliminate the inessential and develop the rest. I noted the crowding of garments in my closet. I could hear them bickering and complaining: Move over, you’re wrinkling me. You’re crushing my lapel. So listening to a Pema Chodron talk, “Practicing Buddhism in Times of War,” I began culling and folding and placing the inessential in bags ready for the thrift and consignment shops. Everyone feels better what with elbow room and I am happy to see the end of the accumulating /provisioning input chapters and the beginning of the output, though I am having a bit of a time getting going today, election day, when so much is riding on the outcome of our votes. So many questions and insecurities. Will everyone’s vote count? Will the results be fair and square? This is such a momentous moment. Could we please right this topsy turvy world, this all but foundering ship and set sail again? We have been a house divided, red and blue, us and them, and I want us to find a way to be whole with civility, to agree to disagree, to find a fair way to resolve our differences, to determine with the wisdom of Solomon and the impartiality of Blind Justice solutions for the problems and issues that have challenged and divided us. May the force be with us.
I’ve been thinking about how we can come to agreement on moot and polarizing points. As kids, we took the bus to the movies on rainy Saturdays and gave up our seats to elders, adults with small children, people with disabilities or encumbered by packages. We understood natural priorities, that others’ needs trumped our comforts. No big deal. We learned to leave no trace of our presence at campsites and tried to leave bathrooms cleaner than when we entered them as we were taught.
The heart of respect is consideration of other people, other species and the mother world of nature. We can modulate our behavior, knowing we are part of a whole and the well being of the whole is essential to all. In our culture, some have too much, some too little, and some are so deprived, the mind reels, the heart grieves and longs for rectification. Does the brain say: I am the most important organ and deserve all the oxygen and nutrients at the expense of the “lesser” toes or fingers? Bodies contain growth cells and maintenance cells, conservative and progressive elements: both/and …not either/or. What if we learned the wisdom of the whole and take the cooperative systems of bodies as a model for our own choices and behaviors? The great work of community is finding and honoring natural priorities. Finding remedy is our common work, our sacred task, the way through the bottleneck of skewed perceptions and realities.
Are we not at a crossroads or a forking point? Not to load the dice ( or is it deck?), but things seem so consequential, more than usual…what with the drought, this year’s wildfires raging, recent earthquakes, tsunamis and the slow drip just below the surface: war…war…war and we are all affected even as we sweep the floor, read a poem or hug a friend, even as we mix the salad greens, work up a sweat on an uphill slog, even as we potter about, muse and dream, even as we watch the wind rocking the laden boughs of the cherry tree, even as we breathe. Nearing saturation, the tipping point or even just past, as some surmise, we’re at the end of the inning, the bases are loaded and everything hangs in the balance. It’s our move. Batter Up.
Pema Chodron says: war begins and ends in the human heart. I’ve been pondering this and have come to the conclusion that as much as I’d like us to put those who have brought us to war, in the stocks for public reckoning, for the well earned disdain and scorn of the body politic for having squandered our youth, their youth, their men women and children, their monuments and soil, our moolah, our trust, and whatever was left of our good name in the family of nations whose members surely look upon us as a willful unruly intractable child, we can’t. Nor can we rebuke and send them to their rooms to think the matter over or put them to bed without their suppers, though it gives me some perverse and pitiful solace in thinking about doing so.
…begins and ends in the human heart which means a very real reckoning of the state of our own being in the world, our unalloyed union with life. For this the wise Greeks counseled self knowledge and moderation, the Buddhists, non attachment, freeing ourselves from partiality or aversion and the Hindus similarly say: Do the best you can and don’t be attached to the outcome. This is hard to do. In the old days before we thought we must win at all cost, we were guided by the cardinal rule of good sportsmanship. It’s not about winning or losing, but how we play the game. Could we please right this topsy turvy world, this all but foundering ship and set sail again? We have been a house divided, red and blue, us and them, and I want us to find a way to be whole with civility, to agree to disagree, to find a fair way to resolve our differences, to determine with the wisdom of Solomon and the impartiality of Blind Justice solutions for the problems and issues that have challenged and divided us. May the force be with us.
The great appeal of the classics is, for the reader, just such a moral center, an imaginative participation in the rectification of wrongs, or the reward and satisfaction of the good and kind which we find in the little worlds of domestic drama by the timeless novelists Austen, Eliot, Meredith, Hardy, Thackary, Forster and more recently Alexander McCall Smith, writers who portray the inevitable collisions of character and circumstance, and the consequences of virtue, vice, and petty human flaws. In the larger sphere of enterprise, Dumas looked into the souls of men swaggering on the stage of principled resistance, rebellion and daring do. In The Three Musketeers which is set during the era of Cardinal Richelieu, Dumas portrays and reasserts the enlightenment values of cooperation and brotherhood: One for all, and all for one.” In The Count of Monte Cristo, he invites us to ponder honor, justice, vengeance, and forgiveness, themes found in childhood tales we’ve read and loved because things come out right, with values we want to embrace, values absent in our world, values we long for.
Sartre said that we must be the model for humanity we think the best, embody those values we admire, live our lives as we think all people ought. In a sense, Sartre’s existential philosophy comes close to Chodron’s truth. We may not be able to alter world events but we can work on ourselves, which many people I know are engaged in doing. There’s a wonderful Hopi address called “The Eleventh Hour,” in which the elder says: “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.” How so? We know from experience that we cannot oppose evil directly. Confrontation begets confrontation which escalates to the very state we decry. Was it Buckminster Fuller who says we spin our wheels in protest against an evil or ill? Rather we must put something else in its stead. And so we do, all we everywhere endeavoring to live amicably in community, inspired by the beauties and mysteries, informed by mutual regard and aid, by forgiveness.
Why forgiveness? In a snit of indignation or choleric blame, we stumble onto an iffy path. The justifying monkey finds a million reasons to vindicate evening the score. Victims of malice and mayhem cry out : we shall never sleep until we have our revenge, an eye for an eye, tit for tat, they had it coming and all that misery begotten misery. In a land where so many of our citizens profess to be Christians, it’s good to remember that the new dispensation of Christ was to renounce vengeance and turn the other cheek. We are to not only love but feed our enemies. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” we understand as poetic justice. Pre Trojan War, justice was meted out by the Eumenides, the Furies, impersonal agencies. It was out of our hands. But for better and worse, we have lived a long time by rules, codes and laws created by mortals and at best is a very good thing. But go figure! Justice is now often understood in the Old Testament frame which has been played out in the Martins and McCoys and other feuding families, gang rumbles, the Mafiosa wars and so on, tooth for bloody tooth. We see the terrible price paid for bloodlust and revenge in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and we know in our hearts there is never a good enough reason to thwart love and incur such tragic loss.
To respond to fraught situations with forgiveness means a lot of hard work. Our big egos are challenged to renounce narcissistic exclusivity of privilege and entitlement, to not take things personally, but rather acknowledge multiple points of view. By including the other, it’s possible to give up anger and blame and have compassion for all, even if one does not come out winner, often a big ouch. Not that it’s easy. Not that it’s easy. For just when I think I’m hookless, non reactive, kaboom from left field. The upstart computer knows better. I write heart and the words Heartland Security pop up in a little yellow rectangle above the word I intend…what gall, what noive, what interference with my train of thought and something in me turns over, something in the gorge rises and there I are bilious and insufferably stung, hmph, until I catch hold and get a grip. And of course pride is easily wounded. How many times a day are we offended by what others say? We can take offence which leads to retribution or renounce the fray and make peace. The ancients knew that taking offense causes as much suffering in the world as giving offence. Our folks used to say two wrongs don’t make a right. And wouldn’t you know it, turning the other cheek wasn’t built in a day, if I may borrow Jack Kerouac’s “Walking on Water wasn’t built in a day.” But it is good to consider such a possibility even if we are not yet up to it. Implementation often lags behind good ideas. Such is life. Things take the time they take and so on.
Wednesday, November 5
Guy Fawkes Day. Mr. Kurtz….He dead.
President Obama ! We live!
I’ve often thought our country is still reeling from the consequences of the injustices meted out at its inception. By now, many of us know better and deeply rue the Trail of Tears, Slavery and later, the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, the occupational hazards and suffering of coal miners who routinely died of black lung disease. We can all think of people and groups who have not been treated fairly or well, who were not or are still not included in “us.” They are “them,” betokening a country divided which, it is said and sung, cannot stand. There’s a low level awareness in the midst of our good fortune, our prosperity and mainly free society, of the huge black mark on the national character, the elephant in the living room that is rarely spoken of or regarded. There’s never been, not yet, a public acknowledgement of all the misery inflicted and some reckoning needs to be made. I ‘d love to see some rite of contrition, a national day of mourning, apologies made and some compensatory action taken, not that there is any way to fully compensate. But we can endeavor to sorrowfully acknowledge the dark side of our history, make amends, to endeavor to love our neighbors, to embody the self evident truths.
Our human history seems to be a journey to consciousness, awareness, better choices, to maturity. The birds have got it knocked. Every year they woo, nest, mate, lay, sit on and hatch their eggs and feed the offspring till the kids fledge and can get food on their own. It is the way of the animal kingdom. Everyone knows and plays their parts, not that it is easy, without risk or peril… everyone but us. Our apparently still unfinished species is having a hard time growing up and settling down into our domestic responsibilities and finding contentment and satisfaction in living life fully, simply. Granted our complexities, proclivities, our misconceptions and mistakes, our capacity for both ignominy and grace, futility and fulfillment, misery and happiness, some of us still look for thrills in other domains. Not that there is anything wrong with diverse expressions of our humanity. For some, amassing a huge fortune is the sine qua non of human endeavor. If this is not taking more than one’s fair share, rock on. A.S. Neill defined freedom as doing whatever we want as long as what we do doesn’t interfere with others’ doing what they want. Doesn’t this seem a reasonable, prudent and mature maxim, a rule to live by? What is keeping us from growing up? Ignorance, vengeance greed, scripts, fences and security blankets?
Perhaps we’re confusing means and ends. Money is considered an end in itself. The bottom line in all, including bond measures, has been fiscal impact. Not human welfare? I’ve always thought that it is our professions, the work we do in the world that has intrinsic value and that the paycheck is a by-product of what we love and want to do. This is considered naïve. My late lamented brother loved to impersonate stogie chewing W.C. Fields playing P.T. Barnum who is now whispering in my ear: Yes yes a sucker born every minute. Is this why those with vocations, who work for the common good, are not monetarily rewarded and must make the best of it? Our world is upside down and inside out, our values skewed, means and ends confounded. A Big Knot. Take hold of an end and let’s unravel it. Nothing to lose. Everything to gain…
Perhaps it is a matter of modulation, temperance. The word sin means missing the mark. What if we come to understand the Seven Deadlies in terms of excess? We all have appetites. Two pieces of toast is breakfast…twelve pieces, gluttony. We are all erotic beings or we wouldn’t be here. We all need rest, want admiration, want to feel admiration and take inspiration from others, are often roused to protest indignity and injustice. Without moderation, we sin or miss the mark. What else is new? Nothing for it but to try again, fail better…until there’s a sea change. After so many incremental steps, quantitative changes, there’s a qualitative one. What has been obdurate, becomes fluid as ice melts into water. We have as a species yet to live happily ever after in harmony with the cycles and seasons in our niche among our animal kin or fully realize the fate of fairy tale beings whose journey is growing up, becoming adult in the embrace of what is kind and good and beautiful in life. Soulful.
Obama is our president. There was dancing in the streets last night. Everywhere among his friends and supporters, elation, jubilation, perhaps even vindication. I’ve been blubbering all morning. It’s been so long since so many of us have felt we have had a voice, since we’ve had hope or a sense of sanity. There is much restorative work to be done. I want our great grandchildren or great great great grandchildren, however long it takes, to be able to pull out their collapsible cups from their pockets and drink from the bubbling brooks, clear creeks and clean streams. I want kids to know they are loved and valued, that they will have every opportunity to find their lives’ work, realize their goals and aspirations. I want us to turn swords into plowshares and sow the seeds of peace. I’m all for free enterprise but with rules and regulations. I inherited my respect for the New Deal and the trust busting that limited the size of companies from my intelligent conscionable mother. The monolithic monopolies that privilege and enrich the few have usurped the well being and livelihood of the many. I’d like to see the return of the Mom and Pop corner stores, family farms, local enterprise as envisioned by the Locavores, even a two streamed monetary system, the one we have and a local barter exchange as exists in Ithaca New York, where it is possible to trade baby sitting credit of Ithaca Bucks to spend at the bakery for a Napoleon or, sigh, low fat yoghurt. What about worker owned businesses?
We can lesson our carbon footprint, gradually decreasing and finally ridding ourselves of the massive pollution that stems from our apparent need and dependence on petroleum fuel, an addiction we shall be better off without. There are alternatives waiting in the wings. Surely new markets opened up by new ventures in sustainability and energy conservation such as the solar industry will bring much needed jobs. I always thought that the people who stood to lose work when we protect our heritage of old growth forests might continue to work in forests, not by harvesting, but planting trees. I don’t know what the interstate truckers will do, but surely, we inventive people will find a way to insure their livelihood and well being. Perhaps alternative fuels will be the answer. Who knows? In any event, we have to relinquish the fantasy of better living through chemistry and relearn the time honored, tried and true methods of sustainable and organic farming, or use chemistry that is tonic rather than toxic.
Because not only is it an imperative for the health and well being of our species, all other species, and the environment, the food tastes better! There will be challenges, possibly lean years, during which we may meet with new or rediscovered technologies. I spent a year teaching at Napa Valley College in the heart of the California wine country and one of my students who was preparing to become a vintner at the college’s school of viticulture invited me to visit the vineyard. There he pointed out shrubs planted in between the vines which attracted insects that lived on the beetles or other pests that threatened the grapes. Voila! No herbicides or pesticides. And think of the open field of opportunities for clever minds to dream up other such solutions! The French Intensive method has worked well a very long time.
Organic fruits and vegetables are beautiful and delicious. We don’t have to measure the salubrious effects of vitamins and minerals against the corrosive effects of carcinogens when planning the evening meal. What if we all baked our own bread again? Or bought from local bakeries the bread baked every morning which means there’s no need to lard the staff of life with death-dealing preservatives. Organic fruit and veggies complete with idiosyncratic blemishes are to the reflective eye acceptable. Vegetables and fruits were once not only tolerated, but expected to be and appreciated as individuals, representatives of a genus and species, not clone-oid picture-perfect, predictably sized shaped and weighted, genetically-engineered products designed for convenience in packaging and shipping. Each variant has a distinct sensory signature and appeal which is lost when a culture that is addled by surface beauty construes individual characteristics as defects: flawed, unappealing, imperfect. This coupled with the mandate for shipping and stocking convenience has rendered fruit clones preternaturally uniform and tasteless. What a bargain we have made with the devil: convenience and profit in exchange for taste and nutriment. Blech.
The absence of flavor along with the absence of aroma is making our world a diminished place and is diminishing our own ability to sense the world, to have a sense of the way things are. Consider gorgeous hybrid roses that have no smell, that no longer perfume the summer nights. Paradise lost indeed. we’ve been distracted and hornswoggled into thinking we have to have the latest newest thing upon thing upon thing. On top of that, the “perfect” Twiggy body shape( the carrot) has reduced us tomatoes to tears. When are we going to accept ourselves as we are? When are we going to say: Enough! I can be healthy and still like a little butter to my bread. I want to celebrate appetite and the lovely flavors and aromas of real food, real people, real life. I have begun to grow vegetables in a backyard garden and shop at the local farmer’s market, for peaches, corn, tomatoes and pick plums and blackberries in my yard, making jam, baking pies, and brewing cordial. I feel happy doing this. I want this to be possible for others as well…. the right to enjoy and cultivate the produce of summer, to fully savor the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink. I want us to reclaim our food, our lives, our earth.
Who has time to solve every dilemma or conundrum set upon our plates, the swarms and hordes of things we must-do milling about, clamoring for our attention, lined up like a legation from a third world country seeking sanctuary? There is so much to ponder if not inveigh against that filling a shopping cart could easily become a back burner issue. But we who cook for ourselves and others can change our habits and practices. I remember all the ho-hum cooking, the green jello cum marshmallow deserts, the canned mushroom soup casseroles with potato chip toppings, before dear Julia Child came on the scene and seized us by our serviettes and showed us how to improve the quality of our meals and hence our lives.
And we the people can exercise our views and give voice to our preferences. Do you remember the Alar scandal up in Washington? Mothers who packed apples in their kids’ school lunch boxes were naturally upset when their kids kept getting headaches. At first no one could figure out what was going on. After persevering inquiry, they found it was an herbicide that apple growers were using, and the mothers, those fierce and loving mothers, as American as apple pie, boycotted, stopped buying apples until the orchard growers agreed to stop spraying with toxins which, the basically decent caring good men and women they were, did. And as far as we know are living to this day, unless something else has befallen, healthily and happily ever after. I wish them so and the rest of us as well.
Thursday November 6
Why are we so devoted to the cult of surface perfection, to first impressions demanding slick appearances? But more importantly, what are the consequences? Because whoever thought we needed unblemished apples and tomatoes, opened the market frontier to toxic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, additives and preservatives. I used to dote on peperoncini before the chemists added yellow dye, an apparent carcinogen, to make the little pepper not only more attractive but drop-dead gorgeous. And for the convenience of the packers, our apples and oranges were genetically standardized which in turn begat Dolly which in turn begetteth what? And what about the impulse to blur individual variation, to homogenize, to puree the piquant rich soup of our differences in the blender of conformity, turning all into a pea green mush? Does this reduce us to a collective of indistinguishable and therefore interchangeable parts, our individual identities blurred and obliterated, the practice and danger of Totalitarianism? The one size fits all mentality, so you’d better fit in, is as foolish as it is unrealistic or inconvenient. The acceptance of one and only one voice of authority (dictatorship by any other name) is a relic of bygone era, as passé as the epic. Life will be so much easier if not better when the ideal of the melting pot, gives way to the mosaic and the salad bowl.
The value of a free and individual life cannot be underestimated. We are shaped by our experiences if we are open to them, if we leave the well-worn path, the scripted life and live authentically, uniquely according to our lights and inclinations, our tastes and proclivities, talents and curiosities. But we must be willing to accept quirks and blotches, flaws and deficiencies in ourselves and others with tolerance and compassion. It’s easier with quirky tomatoes, potatoes and apples. But with people? The effort to eradicate imperfections like wrinkles and blemishes drives young women and old to the snake oil salesmen, the plastic surgeons, and market shelves for products and how-to manuals. Many prosper, but at whose expense? Phen-Phen, anyone? Remember the sure-fire weight -loss pill that contained a tape-worm? Fatism is the last frontier of American bigotry. While we have opened our minds and hearts to difference, to acceptance of those whose race class gender and orientation are other than our own, there’s an almost universal aversion to and intolerance of the good and plenty.
I know this. I know this in my bones and yet I also know that in our culture it is the thin who are prized and coveted, the lean who are deemed worthy, eligible. We walk uphill or go to the gym to mount the stationary bike, the treadmill and lift weights. Being fit is important. Exercising to be strong and trim makes sense. It is the sculpting to be loved that drives strong plump women nuts, knowing that, no matter how many diverse arguments to the contrary, character is not enough. Packaging, presentation…it is what it is. Sigh. Last summer at the beach, I noticed a slim young woman in a bikini pose and photograph herself from
every angle. Had she labored to be beautiful, and was now appreciating and recording her handiwork? Of course we want to be attractive but/ and aren’t there other occupations? Too bad typing doesn’t burn calories. While we cultivate perfection of the surface, young women and old, sigh, languish in self-loathing. How can anyone act naturally in a constant and chronic state of appetite suppression, fearing to be fat? How many have died of anorexia or withered in shame of a lovely amplitude? How many have died of a facelift, endeavoring to be young and beautiful?
The mania for surface dwelling which our all too busy lives encourage is about as sustaining as a fast food dinner, ingested on the fly. Can that ever match the depth and beauty and nourishment of an exquisitely prepared meal enjoyed at leisure with our closest friends? Can superficial contacts ever take the place of deep and abiding relationships? Only the very young or maybe those wishing they were young again prefer the one night stand to the deep knowing of someone over time, though I’ve been told by those who embrace microwave expediency, these ideas are old hat. I think we should resist the seductions of the fast and easy because the price we pay for instant gratification is too high. To sacrifice substance for surface is feckless and leaves no spirit or sap for the Charleston, Lindy, Jitterbug or Twist.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays I arise before dawn and leave a tempest tossed and crumpled bed where it seems but a few minutes before I finally fell into liquid slumber. The clock radio summons me to swim to the surface, make my ablutions, don garb, give the kitties their meds and crunchies, swallow my own allotment of compensatory supplements, make coffee and something to eat, check the email, write a note or two, gather up the mail, library books and schoolbag, a thick or thin wrap dictated by weather, trot down the stairs and mount my trusty steed (don’t I wish) to drive to school and meet my students for the Eight A.M. Show. They straggle in, delayed by the traffic on the one congested arterial thoroughfare that leads to our community college which is also taken by the county’s school kids which sometimes slows to bumper to bumper, inch by inch at that hour. They… my students, are struggling to take hold of themselves. True, some are flourishing, but many are challenged by the too much on their plates. How can anyone be a full time employee, a full time student, a family member, a person who must attend to the endless tasks of maintaining and sustaining life? You know…laundry, housework, marketing, cooking, let alone bathing and tooth brushing and sending a thank you note or mending the rent in the sweater or hemming the pants? I don’t know how these kids do it. And aside from these challenges, they are young people who need social lives.
My friends and I were privileged students. Our only responsibility was our school work. There was a laundry service and someone else gathered the trash and cleaned the common rooms and the johns. I had a little job at the library, but a few hours a week is inconsequential. We had a meal ticket and if the food was well, just short of repulsive, it was hot and someone else prepared it and washed up afterwards. Cafeteria food was notoriously bad and we all knew it, endured it and counted the days to the next holiday and the more inviting and comforting meals that came from our family kitchens. Why not better fare for students to come? Why not include in a university, a School of Agronomy where future farmers relearn the art and science of cultivation, who grow organic vegetables and fruits that the future chefs, enrolled in the Culinary College, prepare and serve in the cafeterias?
I can’t know what it’s like to be young right now, though I see the bright and deep ones who face the immensities and challenges of the new century if not stopped in their tracks, then driven inward, as I suppose all young heroes must. They know as we do how much is required of us if we are to squeak through the bottleneck of skewed values and perceptions to a harmonious and sustainable future. There’s so much to wade through, translate and master. Not everyone wants to do this, many of my students
at the university from which I have just retired among them. Kids just want to have fun. They are like the ferandulae in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door who won’t sink their tails into the earth and sing the song of the universe which, in the macrocosm, makes Charles Wallace, the kid whose mitochondria are misbehaving, so ill. They want to spend an hour on an essay and then get on to the real thing….and who can blame them? Sex drugs rock and roll. Pleasures. Diversions. Ever thus.
Robert Reich postulates four impediments to a full participatory citizenry: denial ( There is no global warming) escapism( It may be true but I can’t face it. Let’s go shopping) buck passing (They started it. It’s their problem. Let them fix it.) and cynicism ( Yes it’s a mess, but what can any one person do?) The kids are cynical. They see how entrenched the powerful and greedy are, how apparently indifferent the benign elders. ”The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”( Yeats) They inherit the future, these children who have not been left behind, who are lost in the surface of now. I want them to be not just consumers, but fully alive, multi-faceted beings, engaged in fulfilling lives, real people who are productive individuals, members of families, communities, cultures, citizens.
What to do? We can teach them that language creates and skews reality, how the rhetoric of advertising and the propaganda of politics influence their choices if they skate on the surface of things…hence freedom to be and do and have what is in their…not the Fortune 500’s best interests. We can teach logical fallacies so they can know that an either/ or proposition, the black or white, eliminates the myriad shades and hues, the rainbow of possibilities. We can model the redoubtable virtues, the steadfast pursuit of our aims in the face of all odds. We can teach creative and collaborative problem solving, and assign them problems to solve, knowing the dignity of service far outweighs the drudgery of servitude. All this I do. But it is the artists, musicians, film makers who will reach them. And the tenor of the times. I want us to reclaim our participatory democracy, to recognize ourselves as citizens, producers as well as consumers, family and community members, friends,
makers and doers, thinkers and learners, flesh and blood fully rounded beings, not stick figure cartoons. Not just consumers. Citizens with rights and responsibilities. It’s going to take not just a village but the whole country, all of us to put Humpty Dumpty together again. I mean of course we need to find our way back to life (healthy not polluted living) liberty for all not just the few, and the pursuit of happiness, our life journeys.
Friday, November 7
How can anyone write a novel with as compelling a plot line and cast of characters in the red and blue drama of our times? The biggest question: Must we go on as we have in the past, preserving old perceptions, values, old ways of doing things including our aversions and attractions, frames of reference and world views now that we have roamed apace, taken it all in, and become members of the global village? Joseph Campbell reminds us to regard the photograph of the earth taken from space to see that we are all inhabitants of our planet. The earth is our niche…not that it hasn’t always been. In our infancy, we have been more tied to our site of origin. Now, in late adolescence, we need to see the world as it is and grow up, becoming aware of one another, understanding that what we do affects everyone and everything else, a haunting idea and burden unless we straighten up and fly right. We’re not the only kids on the block. And if we in the U.S. don’t know this, others do. In the Australian outback, the mountain villages of Peru, in the narrow streets of Kenya and Katmandu, neighbors gather of an evening to see Americans on the one set. oh Merciful Minerva, what are we beaming the length and breadth of the world? Reality TV? Eek!
Indubitably, we are getting to know one another, we so-called advanced people providing technology and the so-called “backward” folks, common sense. Fellow mortals, potential allies from afar are, the wisest and kindest ones, laughing at our arrogance and folly, but I’ll bet there’s not one of them who would not, were we to mend our ways, pat us on the back, there’s a good soul, and get on with the friendly business of feasting. We’ve got to get over the deluded notion that we are entitled to be in charge, call the shots and make the rules of the game of life on the planet….the way boys seem always to have played at organizing things the world over, to establish rank, the rights and privileges of the alphas, sops and bones to the secondary and tertiery curs. This is the line up of the barnyard, roosters in the pecking order. With such a model, no wonder we are so headstrong and cocky. You calling me chicken?
We need to rejoin the human race, one nation among many, not special US, the lead dog, head of the pack, sole chooser and decider. The game of Hierarchy, King of the Castle, Top Dog and Under Dog, Tip of the Iceberg … which has come to mean cold cash and we’re freezing our assets off… may have served us in the past, but it is not serving us now. How do I know this? Because meanwhile behind the backs of the Corporate Elite, in their cushy perches at the top of the pyramid, the rest of the world is groaning, holding them up. Shall we keep hitting our heads against the wall of time and circumstance, where we are in history? We’ve been so doing and the massive headaches and getting nowhere attest to the lack of efficacy of such ritual nincompoopery. Have we got alternatives? What if we stepped away from the wall, turned around and moved in another direction?
We were once a nation of resourceful folk, rugged individualists, people with native wit and ingenuity. We were and could be again the can-do yanks, ingenious inventers, industrious and productive farmers and manufacturers, who made more than enough to feed and outfit ourselves, whose productivity enriched and then altered us little by little as we stopped doing for ourselves and gave daily chores over to machines and the experts, those who fixed things, washed and cleaned and hemmed and cooked things so we might enjoy some leisure. And instead of doing, actively engaged in taking care of ourselves, living our lives, we became specialists and sorry to say, soft and somehow passive spectators as more and more we settled into the cushy comfort of the couch and watched life on the screen. Ivan Illich, a Twentieth Century Austrian philosopher, who looked for bridges between cultures and examined the foundations of historical perspective and point of view, observed that the malaise of the modern is our insulation from reality through the screens: the windshield of the cars we drive, the TV screen, computer screen, microwave, cell phone, the Blackberry.
Our embrace of free time, once the privilege of the well- to- do, changed us when leisure and labor saving devices became available and attractive to multitudes. Who can blame any of us for wanting time to read a book or play basketball or tennis or paint or pot or take up the fiddle or the Tango? Our grandparents and great grandparents were exhausted by the rigors and endless chores of daily life, the long days of laundering clothes for a large family or maintaining the garden and putting up food for the winter. Anyone remember the renunciations and deprivations of the Second World War when families’ groceries were rationed and we did without the luxury of butter, substituting the pale larding of margarine with the orange dot of color to mix in, to make the substance seem like, appear to be the real thing? Genuine ersatz artificial imitation….something like virgin acrylic. Oh what a tangled web we weave.. Of course this was open and above board substitution and no one was deceived. The adults in my family preferred mustard to margarine on their bread, not so appealing to a kid. The little real butter allotted to us was given to the children and I cherish the kindness of my folks for such consideration.
Because of this, my age mates were most fortunate, sharing the zeitgeist of the lost generation and the Boomers and if we were given much, we endeavored to give back or pass forward what we were given. Albert Schweitzer’s model, his reverence for and service to life was before us as was Helen Keller’s Herculean effort and Eleanor Roosevelt’s respect for human dignity and service. Through her, we came to know of social injustices and inequities, hence justice and equity. We came to know Marion Anderson and Paul Robeson were great artists denied full expression of their gifts, that Bessie Smith had needlessly died because she was forbidden access to a hospital because she was black. And later we came to know that the Cowboy Westerns we watched as kids skewed our perceptions by portraying the indigenous people of this continent, the Native Americans as savage Indians rightfully routed by the good guys, the white hat cavalry. Enculturation, indoctrination, brainwashing whatever we call it, though none of us really wants to think that brainwashing, a nakedly odious term and practice could happen here, set us up to perpetuate the fantasy of white supremacy. Unexamined precepts that are passed on as the given have impeded the intellectual and spiritual growth of humanity everywhere and everywhere we have been mired in mindsets from which the light of understanding sets us free.
I can’t stop thinking about a student I saw at school this week, a young man wearing a white baseball hat imprinted with blue barbed wire. Barbed wire! Blue on a field of white, a round skull cap with a beak, a baseball cap worn other way round, as is the custom of the country first among the young and then emulated by the rest. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…I’d want to know what I was fencing in or out…” Me too. Barbed wire connotes the end of the open plains as well as torture and torment which so often accompany the barbarities of the barbed ( my punster self is squirming with the multiple meanings of barb and the barbed: jests and beards, sharp points upon which minds are stuck, hairs split). The cruelty and coldness of intellectual disdain suffuses a mind capable of presuming superiority and supremacy, capable of imprisoning exploiting or oppressing others of its kind or simply others. The young Latino man sitting in a study room at the college wearing a white baseball cap imprinted with blue barbed wire has left an indelible impression. Why would he have chosen to display such an image on his head, if indeed he has? It could have been a gift, a party favor, an unconscious appeal. The image is evocative, suggestive. Keep out? Perhaps other parts of my life aren’t exactly mine, but what is in my head is. I may have duties, obligations and necessity dictating my every move and waking hour, but what transpires beneath this cap is entirely my own, not subject to another’s command or other jurisdiction than my own… aside from absorbed parental and cultural mores. I may owe my boss, family, culture, society, nation, species, my time, energy, and the strength of my back, but my thoughts are free to roam, my views and speculations to assemble and cluster where they will and my very spirit the latitude to embrace, reject or ignore as it inclines. I may have to do what I must but I am free to learn from experience, to enjoy or deplore as I can. My attitude is my own. What I make of what I do is entirely under my own governance or predilection…my choice.
Or my mind is a site blockaded, not from what is without, but what is held within, the captive mind, that some part of my being acknowledges as imprisoned. Entrenched in unexamined perspectives, ways of being and doing, I am unable to meet in the moment, to encounter without the weight of pre-conceptions, pre-judgments: All men are…all women are…all Hispanics, Jews, Asians, African Americans, Gays, Short People, Fatties, Fogys and Nerds…hope I haven’t left anyone out.
I sometimes wonder about the great ones who have endured, survived, surmounted and addressed the barbed wire. Bettleheim, Arndt and Frankel, innumerable others, come to mind, like the Japanese American artist Mirikatani, all those who maintained a devotion to art and music, gentleness and the tender regard of children and each other,and a sense of humor, those masters of worlds. Imagine…to be so imprisoned and yet to jest. Admirable, why we love and exalt Cyrano in his impossible love for Roxanne, why we admire his self possession in the face of adversity, in courting for another his beloved, knowing it is the monstrosity of his nose that keeps his great hearted being from the lists of the eligible. To not only endure invisibility and the impossibility of attaining one’s heart’s desire, but to triumph over circumstance with nobility of soul, sterling character imbued with the consolation of philosophy is greatness! Is it not? I have heard that there is in Japan, a tradition or of playing at everything, even the most serious matters, including death. This seems an elevated state of being in which our greatest freedom of expression may be found. I don’t mean to rank this on a higher/lower scale or greater and lesser. Still, there is an attainment in electing to play at or jest in dire conditions…what was once called noble, a state or quality of being and bearing rather than a rank assigned by birth, blood or holdings, privilege and entitlement.
Such a range of possibilities in our ways and means of being! We have the infamous always before us, examples not to be replicated, and the noble and just models worth emulating. I love to tell my students about Greystoke, a film that should not sink from view. Ralph Richardson plays the old Lord Greystoke, the Lord of the Manor, noble not only by birth but more importantly, character and sensibility. It was Richardson’s last role and a great feather in the cap of a glorious career. As you may remember from World History, by rule of primogeniture, the eldest son inherits the family’s land and purse and the younger sons must fend for themselves in order to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed. To primogeniture we probably owe the fortunes and misfortunes of Colonialism. The young lads set out for foreign lands … to Africa, Asia, the New World… to cultivate a crop, mine for mineral wealth or spread the word. It is this last that sent Lord Greystoke’s beloved Missionary son and daughter-in-law to Africa. There the hapless couple perish, she in childbirth and he shortly after. The young sprout and scion is raised by the apes as we know from the Tarzan legend and in this film he is found by a French philologist whom Grandfather, realizing his immanent decline and wanting to find out what has become of his progeny, has employed to seek them. We then witness the cultivated tutor engaging and civilizing his tutee, the stunning young ape man, in preparation for return to the bosom of his family. He learns to shave as well to utter: razor and all the other words of common speech. Upon their return, the elated grandfather invites the county to dine, to introduce the young Greystoke to their society, to welcome and celebrate the joyful reunion. Much hubub. The cooks cook, the maids dust, the butlers buttle. The silver is polished. The table, dripping with yards of exquisite hand made lace is set with several sets of glittering cutlery, knives forks and spoons for the many courses, innumerable crystal goblets for the wine, finest porcelain plate. Beautiful, bountiful baskets overflowing with fruit and sweetmeats adorn the long lavish table. The guests adorned in their finery arrive in splendid carriages and are seated at the table, attended by footmen. The soup course arrives. All hands but one pick up the last bit of sterling on the right. A lesson has been overlooked and young Greystoke picks up his bowl with his hands and begins to sip. The county, shocked by this breach of etiquette, gasps. Not so Grandfather who immediately likewise picks up his bowl and says: Well, my boy, what a good idea! and he too drinks. Grandfather, the noble host, knows hospitality means making certain his guests feel at home, comfortable and at ease at his table, that etiquette is the codification of manners, the grease of social machinery, the formalized gestures important not in themselves but because they keep in ritualized place behaviors that ensure thoughtfulness and consideration.
Saturday, November 8
I am a goldfish in a small round tank today. As the mornings grow colder, the air moister, I tend to close the windows that bring in fresh air and the little membranes between inside and out are not permeable. Perhaps it is being indoors so much that diminishes heartiness and physical sensation, embodied presence. I am groggy and feel submerged in the in between: then and now, asleep and awake. I dreamed last night I was in all the wrong places. I had to repark my car. Here? No, not here. Here? Not this here, either. And finally, I planned to board a train. Would someone send my luggage on? I had been visiting friends whose real life dilemmas, so like my own, were transparent and so easily remedied. No surprise there, but I never got to the end of the stream because Oscar, the eighteen pound Spotted Mackerel Tabby, meowed to summon me to my post as doorkeeper. He usually plays the piano in the middle of the night, always basso profundo, and I have repeatedly asked him not to. This is the first time he has obliged. Am I anthropomorphizing? Perhaps. But then again, perhaps not. You might think I am foolish for not closing the cover of the keyboard, which I cannot do because the buttons that would so easily open it again are missing and there’s too much of a kerfuffle to pry open the cover and so I leave it open…and no I would not place upon it a board, as someone suggested, or some such makeshift hideum, any more than I would put plastic over a sofa to protect the fabric, the practice of some fastidiously tidy people in the fifties. It’s not good to be so insulated.
It’s hard enough in winter, when I am driven inward more than usual, partly because of the closed windows and more time spent indoors even before it is seasonal to do so. The rains, which usually drive me and my neighbors inside, haven’t really yet begun. There are still a few late blackberries I’ve found and nibbled, on my walks around the block. The garden is whimpering. I haven’t yet made ready for winter and there are still some late watery tomatoes ignored and the apples are unpicked because unpleasantly riddled with blight. Recently, a garden savvy friend said there is remedy, but too late for this year. I won’t try to grow adored tomatoes again in a place without enough sun to make them a hearty and happy crop, a place so much better suited for roots and greens. All that goes unharvested, I regret, knowing of all the hungers in the world, but and. Next year. I now know better what and how to grow.
In the late 40s and the 1950s when we were kids, Europe was recovering from the cataclysm of Nazis and Fascists, the terrible and unspeakable events, destruction, and loss. The women in my family went through their closets and thinned their wardrobes, sending what they could spare to kin folk overseas. Butter returned to our table and authoritarianism sank roots and flourished. Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt wrote the bibles of behavior and father knew best. Enthralled, we were sequestered those long frozen winters with the Ice Queen who planted slivers of ice in our hearts. I suppose I mean we began to live by abstractions, the outside in. The town I grew up in was a free trade port but a walled city as well…a citadel erected against the terrors in Eastern Europe and Russia, an artificial bell jar constructed to protect children, family values, a sense of decency, noble motives that backfired because the safe and tepid life contained within the walls was as corrosive to the free human spirit as living with no safety net at all. For weren’t we captives of our parents’ surveillance, wasn’t the script we lived by as constraining and oppressive as the regimes the elders sought to escape? Babbitt was the first book I read which forever excluded me from the safe, orderly, predictable, numbing terrain others so cheerfully and gratefully trod upon, safe from death camps and pogroms, but not the tyranny of fashion, the subtle and insidious yoke of racism, classism, sexism. Add to that the American spirit of competition, status seeking and social climbing, life was a mountain to climb. It’s a dog eat dog world, they said, a jungle, and you can’t fight city hall. Be quiet. Be compliant. Behave. Ven in Rome… my darling grandmother advised me, and I understood, much later, their preemptory need for success meant having the resources to escape, if necessary. They were determined to assimilate, blend in, not stick out, to become invisible in order to survive other real or imagined pogroms, why people who grew up in the depression or poor often can’t throw anything away. You never know. My German Jewish uncle abbreviated his name to an Anglo-locution. My splendid Semitic nose was bobbed. They cut off my nose to smite my race?
My brother and I grew up middle class kids in a cultured family in a mid-western Pleasantville, a sunny suburb. Order and routine prevailed and from this regularity, we were to draw strength. Life was predictable, stable, and secure. Yet things were not as they seemed. Teeming beneath the calm and tepid waters of daily life were passionate impulses, unreasonable demands. Oblivious, the Zeitgeist ! Convention and propriety, gender roles and double standards obtained. It was an era of mixed messages: a time of unbridled restraint, extravagant repression, a wide application of the straight and narrow. Everyone lived by a script. On this occasion we do this. On that occasion we wear, say, think that. Simon says do this. Do that. Some things could never be said. Under our outer garments we wore our unmentionables, and under them? Don’t ask. At school we sat at our desks with hands folded lest they be tempted to stray….which would make us go blind or our fingers wither. They spoon fed us white lies like chicken soup.
There were only two subjects forbidden at our table: life and death. The cold war was referred to by grownups sotto voce and we practiced duck and cover drills in the long corridors of P.S. 64 as if this would save us from the fallout of an atomic blast. We did what we were told, what they asked, but didn’t really register the reality of terror. We didn’t know that thousands of other kids like us had been obliterated in the ovens of Auschwitz and we were being protected, that in their silence, our elders were trying to spare us from suffering. Trouble is once you start erasing, bleeping out, bowdlerizing, you censor some of the hard truths we need to know in order to avoid the potholes, manholes, the sand-traps, the pits. Thin ice over muddy water. Reality ? A guessing game, an elusive Je ne sais quois. We were mired in euphemism. Bodily acts and functions were perceived as sources of embarrassment. There were words I never heard until comic genius, first amendment martyr, Lenny Bruce, uttered them for the world to hear, the shock and fatuous fear of which liberated some and closed down many others, amnesiacs, whose very decency is used against them by the friendly fascists, the oil barons et al who have usurped our country, desecrating our noble vision and sapping our strength. Our last was not so much a president, as a would be emperor only Moliere could have written.
We for whom the émigrés made the perilous journey to the new world became Americans. We became what they yearned for and then feared because of their programming, free-thinkers. Free beings. And because of the cotton candy confection of half truths and white lies they spun to sweeten our lives, we yearned to know the truth. Generation Gap! We listened to “No School Today” on the radio and laughed as Froggy the Gremlin mocked and unnerved the pretentious school-marm authority figure. We sat in the Peanut Gallery, cheered and heartened by “The Howdy Doody Show.” Buffalo Bob Smith made us laugh, gave us a reality we could live in and enjoy. I watch so little TV, it was a small miracle I happened on the 40th anniversary of the show’s closing some years ago. I marveled when Smith looked us in the eye again and said : “Boys and girls, now men and women, I’m proud of you. I always told you to stand up for what’s right and you did.” We did. We opened our minds, and took a good look around us, replacing ignorance with understanding, rigidity with flexibility, embraced generosity and cooperation. We spoke up for Civil Rights and protested an unjust war. Women and men have worked hard to recover from what Caroline Casey calls the Dominator Virus, to be not boss and rib, but partners. But there’s more, so much more. We need to stand up for what’s right again.
Where to begin? Perhaps language. Language matters.
How shall we rebuild and repair the crumbling structure of syntax
if that’s even possible? Language, like the architecture we inherited from the Victorians, was complex, solid, roomy. The large, often convoluted designs translated into domiciles of a certain magnitude and proportion: ample, possessed of possibility. We see this in the writing of Conrad, Faulkner and James whose labyrinthine sentences contained an elaborate series of reflecting and refracting relationships posited by prepositional phrases and adverbial clauses among other variants inherent in the structure of grammar, or possibility contained in, implied by, deduced from or even stumbled upon, because the building blocks were there. Because of so much inherent possibility, so much could be said. Language reflects and also forms the rooms of the mind, the waiting–to-be-born thresholds of the imagination.
Now our kids are inhabiting an A frame which we see in the minimalist language of text messaging. Perhaps many years from now, we’ll see that this is precisely what we needed to transform and amend. I cannot say. But I can say what is lost in the shortcut and I am sad to see us reduced to a hovel. The kids say: It was the book, make that the made for TV movie where they shot this awesome dude. How generic, a non starter of a sentence, empty words. And where, not in which? The shortcut doesn’t cut it. Rather: This is a the book in which a very good and kind man, a man of sterling character and splendid physique in the very prime of life who, through no fault or flaw, but by being in front a bank during a robbery, was struck by a stray bullet… We see how story is reduced and blurred when prepositions and clauses are lost. And what about, aargh : We’ve already made up our mind?
There is, I think, fallout of disability when we began forfeiting the possibilities of utterance. Fuzzy mindedness sets us up to be prey. Everywhere the ruthless, greedy, cynical and sly have been quick to hatch opportunity and seize advantage. They amass great fortunes at the expense of the unwary, the naïve, the inattentive and muddle headed, those who are losing their homes, their mortgages foreclosed. Read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism for a full account. Meanwhile the profiteers enjoy the seized booty, wandering around the ample rooms the Victorians conceived, having taken possession of them as the Normans did, while the Saxons fled, the outcasts, the dispossessed, to the wild woods, to a thicket in the forest, as the Native Americans were robbed of their land, their lives. And the seasons they go round and round…
Why didn’t we stick to baseball, spring cleaning, card games? Why did we give up on star gazing, canoeing, digging for clams? Why did we stop building sand castles, flying kites, turning cartwheels and somersaults? We didn’t have everything, but we were all right. It didn’t matter that nothing was perfect, that all our socks didn’t match. Now everything goes. We moved away to the lure of bigger and better and more. Surrounded by the ones who knew and loved us, we didn’t need to pay someone to tell our troubles to. Why did we pay to get our colors done, our rooms Feng Shued? Why didn’t we stick with the four season closet, well made clothes designed to endure? Now every trendy classic lasts less than a season and the latest, hippest chic, shimmer in the closet outsmarting fading wishes and vanishing dreams: sand-blasted, antiqued, distressed,”worn-out” denims, the threadbare- look jeans, the pricey designer Depression era sweater, facsimile rents at the elbow and unraveling seams. And it takes more than an hour to achieve with foundation, eye paint, lip gloss and blush, the natural look. Why don’t we come by the holes in our clothes honestly, let every thing, every one grow old gracefully? Why didn’t we stick with planting tulips, lettuce and tomatoes, pressing wildflowers, stringing beads, making peanut butter and jelly for the kids after school, costumes and caramel apples for Halloween? Why didn’t we stick with making friends, making time for ourselves, for each other?
Why didn’t we stick with strawberry shortcake and rhubarb pie in spring, peach cobbler in summer, pumpkin and apple pie in autumn,home made cookies in winter, baked apples, potatoes, muffins, biscuits, rising bread in the oven to keep ourselves warm? How much breast of lark can anyone swallow? How much rhetoric? propaganda? media lies? Who will be left when the biggest fish has eaten the last of the little, when the last biggest shark swims through the last blasts of sonar, faster and faster, past all the sand castles and the country of dreams?
Sunday, November 9
Sunday is for many the Sabbath, a day to leave daily doing and contemplate our experiences and choices, our inner lives. The Sabbath was once a day of rest and worship, time for attention to the invisible powers and spiritual matters. Stores were closed. It was not a day of business as usual, but time outside of ordinary time, time for taking stock. We have all but forgotten, all but some who hold fast to this and much else that sustains them, our spiritual elders, ones whose wisdom we might attend. They know that the Sabbath is a much needed weekly renewal affording time to experience, savor and reflect, especially for those of us discomfited from multi-tasking overdrive. We, fatigued, may be sloppy or careless, heedlessly rushing through to get all that needs to get done, done… with no time to change our minds or modify or amend, embroider or simplify, deepen, strengthen and learn from our productions, activities and deeds. We need time to notice where we are, observe the patterns of the weather, phases of the moon, to notice what is around us. Noticing places us firmly in a context of which we are a living member, would-be participant, a context that needs our participation.
After a week’s labor, we common clay get a day off and this we dearly relish if we are to keep body and soul together. A day of worship for many, and for all a time to relax and rest, to restore ourselves from fatigue, much as the spaces between words, rests between notes, or space between molecules exist to make matter intelligible, sherbet cleansing the palette between courses. To refine our behaviors and better our lot, to learn from mistakes, we need time to contemplate, to assimilate and absorb all that has happened, to start afresh the way kids forget yesterday at dawn without the baggage of compounding confoundments, and time as well, to dream, imagine, plan ahead, and play.
There are a myriad other useful tonics that the Sabbath Day occasions to refill an empty cup, like tennis, yoga, singing, making borsht or weeding the garden. I crave time for serendipity, the pleasures of the unexpected, opportunity for unbidden joy. Alas, I confess I come from a long line of non -practicing preachers. I do work and see that it is good, but my so called time off is eaten by house holding. Mother is the invention of necessity. For someone who can’t remember dates and phone numbers without a stockpile of post-its, the day of rest often eludes. This dilemma is not mine alone, but epidemic in our culture which keeps us from getting a grip. We’ve mistaken standard of living for quality of life. More stuff doesn’t make life more satisfying. Kitchens are inundated by a glut of tools for every possible use. Do we really need so much stuff? We are working more and more to afford the newly construed necessities with less and less time and inclination to use them, so spent we are in getting and spending.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan Suckled in a creed outworn
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Wordsworth wrote that in 1807. We are in many ways the same humans who suffer when we lose connection to the restorative beauty and tranquility of nature which we seem to need as much as oxygen and, sigh, sleep. How many of us have time to let what comes from the core arise? Are we driven solely by outer necessity and obligation, activities to provide the do re me to be affluent, fashionable, trendy? Another upgrade? I still have a radio in my kitchen that was in my grandmother’s kitchen in the 1950s and it has never needed replacement tubes or capacitors because it was made to endure… before planned obsolescence invaded our culture: before Haines bought up the patent for the run-less stocking which lies buried in some dusty file; before autoclaved hypodermic needles were replaced by throw away syringes ( available drug habit, anyone?); paper towels and napkins as well, replaced cloth in restaurants and institutions and how many launderers lost their jobs? Paper plates saved us from, oh no, doing the dishes. Tarbender, another round of landfill for my friends, hic.
However and despite the invidious conditions of a secular, profane, fast and easy, disposable culture where the realm of the sacred is ignored, debased or denied, the ineffable, invisible world that encompasses our lives is undeniable. We are surrounded by mysteries. That ordinary life exists is extraordinary, if not utterly inexplicable and amazing. I say this in the face of myths and sacred texts, the Big Bang and whatever other theories emerge that postulate how things came into being. Explanation. Why is another matter entirely. And it is this mystery that is at the center of all our lives. In this sense, we are all splinters of the universe or the life force, the carriers and conduits of DNA/RNA and share a common existential heritage.
The trappings of society and culture are numerous and various, so that while on the surface a California Valley Girl and a Kalahari Bushman may inhabit incomparable worlds, their chance to live a human life, however defined, particular to the specific individual and cultural context, in the allotted span of years, is the birthright and opportunity of each. People from every era and part of the globe encounter and meet life with the same body plan and perceptual endowments, in varying acuities, in order to know the world directly and to navigate necessity and challenge by the use of faculty and limb. Confronted by differing circumstances and conditions, we never the less possess the same equipment, the design and function of the human body, the same sensory, perceptual, cognitive and emotional faculties: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, thinking, feeling, intuiting. We are all at heart impelled by the same mysteries that surround our births and deaths. And our desire to know, our effort to explain belongs to the realm of spirit. Every culture has Myths, Sacred Stories and Texts about our origins, stories that address the inexplicable and profoundly meaningful though difficult to articulate matter of our being. I find this heartening. It is heartening to come to understand what the teachers everywhere have been telling us from the beginning of time: We are all children of the universe, facets of the ineffable, manifestations of life, kin. Each of us calls ourselves by the same name: Ego, Io, Yo, Je, ich, I …personal and universal at the same time. Astonishing paradox! I am you and you are me and we are all together. Goo goog’joob. Gesundheit.
Agatha Christie addresses a core spiritual idea indirectly in an autobiography otherwise leaden with accounts of the cups of tea she imbibed with the Marquis de Leisure, the Duchess of Sang Froid and other important minor personages from the ranks of the continental nobility. Aside from her social proclivities and the production of her massive oeuvre, she apparently thought about topics other than mysteries born of machination. Contemplating the immense mysteries, she proposes an interpretation of the widely held notion that God created man in His own image as a creator, a careful craftsperson. We are to work and see that what we have wrought is good. This is a work ethic embraced by the old porcelain makers of Europe who upon finishing un bagno, une toilette or bidet, carved or stamped beautiful ornamental chops underneath the fixtures, the surfaces that are fastened to the floor which no one will ever see. This is my mark, my seal of approval,my guarantee. I have worked and seen that what I have done is well done.
Ah pride in labor and satisfaction in a job well done. The loss of such a sentiment was precisely what Marx was grousing about in his much shunned and discounted disquisition. If working on an assembly line and bolting the same four bolts hour after hour, day after day, year after year, how can anyone get the same warm fuzzy feeling enjoyed by the porcelain crafters responsible for their handiwork and seeing the job through from beginning to end? Doing a mindless task, an essentially tedious boring and of course alienating bit of repetitive motion would drive anyone to drink … probably why a drink and a fight on a Saturday night was, perhaps still is so commonplace, why so much that happens on the date night centers around roadhouses and taverns. Listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time” ( and everything else ). I know this. The summer after my Junior year of college, I took a job assembling TV sets…late night shift, in anticipation of this moment, so I would know for myself what it was like to work in a factory, what it really was like. Imagine a cavernous building, many ill fed people, loud sounds, bad smells, and the push to go as fast as possible…workers are paid by the piece. On the assembly line, I had three solders on the consoles that endlessly arrived. zztt zztt zztt next zztt zztt zztt next zztt zzztt zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz and when is it break time? I lasted six weeks, long enough to see and feel the boredom and impoverished unpleasant environment, long enough to feel for my fellow workers, even the one who kept poking and goading me to go faster…a much put upon woman with kids to support.
If I were one of the monkeys assembled to randomly write the Love’s Labour’s Lost, say, and only got to press the I and S keys, I’d go bananas…unless I was the ex editor of Elle blinking an eye when the handmaiden to my labors uttered the right consonant or vowel. I am referring of course to the stricken hero of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But even from his disadvantaged position, he capitalized on the tiny window in which he could function, by which he could write the extraordinarily moving account of what was happening to him, a topic we who are aging take a timid interest in. Naturally we are all going to live forever sans impairment or debility. Our writer/hero was, in a way, better off than working stiffs doing piece work. Although paralyzed, he controlled the means of production through the work of his mind. His assistant took satisfaction in the work she trained for, which became a labor of love.
I have the sense that we have come to a much needed cessation of a catastrophic pitch to the edge. Lemmings we are not and need not be. Screeching to a halt with the election of Obama, we still have a new direction to find. And this means much work, all hands on deck…and this is as it should be. Many hands, light work, saith the old Grannies, the wise and happy ones who knew what was what. My Granny used to knit everyone a sweater. How her needles flashed and sped. Once in awhile, she noticed a mistake made some thirty rows back and without a pause, ripped out the rows to the mistake and resumed. My cousins and I wondered at this, because of course it’s so much easier to go on and not have to repeat all the work. But sometimes, there’s nothing for it but to redo. Mainly, as far as I can tell, the work of life is in repair. Things break down, fall apart, come unhinged, unglued, warp, rot, wrinkle and stick, get stuck. We get stuck spinning our wheels or get on with things, patching and mending. I find solace in one of the tenets of Chaos Theory. Things fall apart and reconstitute themselves at a higher level.
The Mohawk Grannies, if I have this right, are the ones who choose the next chief. When it’s time to start thinking of the future, they begin keeping their eyes on seven year old boys, getting to know their character traits in order to determine who possesses in sufficient measure what they perceive are the necessary qualities of a good chief. I cannot speak for the Mohawk Grannies, but I think we have chosen well. I think Obama will work and see that it is good.
All remains to be seen, of course and he is going to require all our help, every chance to restore our nation to its former greatness and by that I don’t mean vainglory or top banana-hood, but a haven, refuge, sanctuary, what you will, land of freedom and justice, opportunity for all. Really, not nominally, the cloak under which the worst not the best was given rein. You must pay the rent/I can’t pay the rent. Phooey.
But whatever happens on the big stage, it is the little stages of our own lives that most concern us, where additions, subtractions, and corrections can most effectively be made, myself included. I wish I were an entirely enlightened being, heroically unflappable, hookless, that I never took things personally nor let myself feel offended or insulted by another’s careless disregard, for not winning at a game important to me, being overlooked for a position, not being chosen, for being misperceived, misunderstood, under or overestimated or in anyway treated unfairly or given the shaft. Saint I am not, but and to become embroiled in the pettiness of drama that ensues from reactivity injures no one more than myself and keeps me from being happy. If I am not happy, if I am disgruntled or vexed, I leach toxin rather than tonic into an already stressed field of being( mine and all else) and can make no energetic progress in healing the ills with which we and our world are riddled and suffering from.
My brilliant witty daughter ( Me biased?) quipped in Italy during one of our sight seeing excursions in Florence: Pitti Palace…party of one. I am so cheered that the young recognize the futility and absurdity of self pity. This is a huge angel to wrestle with and just when I think I’ve vanquished this wraith, someone I’m fond of, pushes my buttons and my wounded ego climbs to the surface, shoos away good sense and sanity and takes me for a ride that’s bound to end in a fall and tumble from my high horse. As I pick myself up, dust myself off, and ask myself was it worth the little frisson of righteous indignation, I have to say no, every time, and little by little, regain composure, restored to humility and compassion, equanimity. Oh blush and oh bother. Someone must rip out all those rows. And so I must. Even if I am unequivocally in the right, i.e., if another has been rude, I still don’t have to react, can instead chalk it up to the other’s having a bad day. This is a lesson I bump into over and over again, though with less frequency. Every time, I am sorry, want to, must make amends, make peace. Oh life. Oh dear. It sometimes seems daunting, even insurmountable all that needs rectification and repair, but we must start anywhere we can. The world has been upside down and inside out. We’ve all been carrying our uneasiness and distress and need some relief. I never wanted to compartmentalize, but, in order to have any pleasure and happiness, I’ve had to look the other way, not think of the war too often, the terrible losses of life, land, of nationhood, the terrible stink of wrong-headedness of those who have squandered our youth, our resources, our principles, our credibility, integrity and trust. And it’s not only the futility and destructiveness of war. I can’t bear to think about the plight of the honeybees and what the loss of pollination will mean to our world. Much to do.
When I can no longer bear
the world in tatters…
war torn, shorn of sense,
gobbled and hobbled by greed
or careless indifference,
when I can no longer bear
children taking bullets
so I can drive my car
and no answer to why,
when I can no longer bear
the disappearance of bees,
the last generations of man…
Everything matters !
when I am thus blue
and stupid with sorrow,
I turn to music, solace,
its bosom, its palace.
Monday, November 10
Today I am thinking about mending the rents that divide. In healthy families everyone is loved and respected and if not entirely given free rein in the disposition of our lives, then given latitude to make choices whether or not we agree with them…within the limits the family structure sets. Clearly boundaries are necessary. We counsel toddlers not to put their fingers in the socket or beans in their ears. We teach little kids to look both ways before they cross. No argument there. The complications arise in our bottom line beliefs. I think the way opens through understanding and compassion. Rational debate may move us closer together positionally, yet no one really budges and we are at an impasse, in a whirlpool, round and round, stuck like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. It is time to talk of many things, though not as the walrus to the oyster. How to live and let live is the question before us, really listening and hearing one another in the interest of the whole, the way two people listen to each other in the interest of their marriage. I am proposing, then, that right and left, red and blue, traditional and progressive, conservative and liberal recognize elemental truth, that the well being of the whole has precedence over any partisan part, exactly in the same way that a couple, both parties, acknowledge the marriage is preeminent and they both make compromises to make the marriage, that which is greater than each of them, work.
In a free and functional society, tolerance and forbearance, compassion and understanding supercede any individual’s or corporation’s Numero Uno, get in there and grab as much, as fast as we can, heedless of others, mindset that has been corroding our social frame since the advent of good times and opportunity Mid-Century last, since opportunity offered such temptation. We have the precedent of Trust Busting that came about to limit the scope of any single entity. It’s time to reevaluate the structures of economic power and determine whether or not corporations should continue being granted the right to be construed an individual. Whatever has permitted profiteering, the well being of the few at the expense of the many, has to go, a no doubt unpopular view with those who like it just the way it is, thank you very much, those who can purchase a little tank top for over a grand while some of us are unable to buy groceries to feed the family, and not because of lack of will to work, or industry, but because the pay is poor and/or there are many mouths to feed, clothe, send to the dentist and educate. And really, there are not enough jobs to go around. The off shore sweet deals lured the factories overseas and the home town workers were left high and dry, plum out of luck. Foul ball!
“ Money may be the husk of many things, but not the kernel.
It brings you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintances but not friends; servants but not loyalty;
days of joy but not peace or happiness.” Henrik Ibsen
Today I am thinking of the stalemate in the right to choose, right to life debate and hope to shed some light on the question. The life choices we make are sacred. How we journey through life is, in fact, the life chance we get. I can see how women who have chosen not to bear a child suffer. Knowing how strong generative, nurturance and preservation of life instincts are, I can imagine the agonizing weighing of choices, the dark midnight of any soul facing such a decision. To have options curtailed by circumstances of poverty and ignorance is cruel enough, but to be told by others who believe they know better what to do or how to live is, to my way of thinking, a violation of the free spirit we each possess, our human dignity, our right to self determination, sovereignty over our own lives. Inner contemplation is the sacred ground of individual choice and this arena ought to be respected and protected. Legislation of choice is meddling whether by the state or those who would act in our so called best interests, however noble or virtuous the intent. And I believe that those who oppose free choice do so from their highest motives, the way parents arranged marriages and fathers chose professions for their sons. Better to stand back in silent sympathy for anyone who knows she can not raise a child at any particular juncture in her life, better to pity her suffering which she bears alone and carries with her forever.
The worst fate, the most unendurable burden, is the loss of a child. Ask any parent. Toni Morrison has told us what it was like for Sethe, a woman who couldn’t bear to see her child, her beloved baby, grow up in slavery. Beloved is, I think, a great American novel and having read and understood, I wonder what it must have been like for Medea who likewise took the lives of her children. Traditional interpretation of her character is harsh and one sided, devoid of empathic understanding. It has been said she was barbaric and hence, unrestrained, given to, indulging or acting out her passionate feelings, specifically jealousy and its ensuing rage, the attributed flaw. This reading has been passed on from one generation to the next, and I never questioned this take until I saw Maria Callas play Medea , an archaic woman living in the organic welter of nature, in and of its wildness, a woman connected to the Great Mother whose culture and spiritual life were imbued with Animism and Goddess Worship. When Jason comes to Colchis in pursuit of the Golden Fleece, she falls for him and is therefore willing to follow him to the ends of the earth. How not? Wither thou goest. She accompanies him willingly but unknowingly back to Greece where she finds herself stranger in a strange land.
Can urban dwellers who contentedly walk upon asphalt and cement remember any more what a loss of the wild really is? Imagine leaving the long grass, the profusion of growing and blossoming everywhere, birdsong and wind soughing in shrub and tree. Imagine belonging to, being a part of the land, living in the circumstances of weather, the animate fields and vineyards in the cycle of seasons and then after the transitional sea passage, suddenly waking up in Athens, the marble columns and walkways, the straight lines and edges, the hard and fast codes of conduct and behavior as Medea did, finding she had no status as a person. Only free men were citizens, and only to them did the rights and privileges of the polis pertain. Women and slaves were chattel, possessions, things. Imagine a mother waking to such an alteration of circumstance and status, the shocking realization of loss of world and place, the loss of a meaningful context that affirmed and confirmed her mortal self. For the ancient Greeks, exile was the severest harshest penalty. Socrates preferred hemlock to exile because he knew himself to be an inextricable part of the place he had lived and the place an inextricable part of himself…a concept that may be difficult to identify with, in a land filled with those whose jobs require them to uproot, those who have been moving on up, nomads and gypsies and wandering Jews. What had Medea done but follow blindly the inclination of her heart? Jealousy? Perhaps. But Morrison’s Sethe reminds us to wonder whether Medea must have asked herself how she could allow her precious children to endure the dislocation she felt for them as human beings in a place that was antithetical, inimical to all those instincts and inclinations that, from her perspective, make us human.
In the little stetls and ghettos of Eastern Europe, there were mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, who quietly did in the children and then themselves, choosing to die together in loving embrace, rather than put themselves at the mercy ( pardon) of the ones who packed little children and adults into cattle cars, who imprisoned, exploited and destroyed those gentle warm beings in the camps. No one blames their desperate choice. We understand and pity their suffering. Could it be easy for them for whom the very breath of life was sweet, those sweet people whose world was so small, their word for butterfly was: summerfaigele: summer- little bird, the simple ones who might coax an ailing goat to eat? Here Grusha, darling. Try a little cabbage.
I understood Medea’s plight when Callas dropped to her knees and pommeled the earth, in the gesture once used in an attempt to revive unconscious people, to rouse them from a swoon, to bring them back to their senses, to restore them to life, the way that Morris dancers stamp the earth to reawaken verdant growth and fructifying at the birth of spring. Callas stops, stymied, and begins to wail in melodious tremolo: I can no longer hear the voice of the earth. Callas’s Medea is a strong woman, undiminished, undiluted, undone by submission. This is not an image adherents of patriarchy could embrace or promote, hence the jealousy motive as the sole explanation for her behavior. This is a way of reducing her to a culpable and dismissible figure. She is, thus, alien transgressor, a variant of Eve, the temptress, the one whose earthiness becomes, through time, synonymous with wickedness. Relatedness to the Great Mother through the senses, through the body and intuition
( being able to hear the voice of the earth) is the source of woman’s power and it is this connection that is severed. Women allied to the earth do not submit. Where love is, we cooperate, nourish, flourish.
We have all suffered from the rigid cult of gender roles which begat the battle of the sexes, the divisive, and from a more encompassing view, artificial ownership of head and heart, men, the mind, and women, the heart. Men are construed rational and women emotional, hence Jung’s postulation of anima and animus, the undeveloped and hence exaggerating and clamoring-to-be- expressed latent faculties: Men who may not be emotional are perceived as cold hearted. Women who are not permitted the use and development of reason ( left uneducated, consigned solely to the domestic sphere) are seen to be opinionated. Take heart, all. Be mindful. This split is, like the mind/body or mind/spirit split an illusory wound once we envision a container for all, see us whole, and remembering, begin to knit the fragments back together again. Think of the “threshold of the imagination” ( Tony Kushner’s phrase), the vast grey matter potential waiting in the wings, waiting to be born. It is probably pointless to wonder how it could have taken us so long to awaken, to remember our true faces, our integral selves. It is easy to see how it was done, once we stop standing, frozen like frogs before the mesmerizing snake, trembling before the darkly cloaked magician and see what’s up his sleeve, how he manipulates the cards, see, thus exposed, his sleight of hand. The gender roles of stone age culture were pragmatically determined. We who are so talented in adapting to our environment in order first to survive and then to thrive figured out that the women and small children were vulnerable. And those darling men rose to the occasion to protect them. To this day, from my point of view, the noblest, most touching power of the masculine is the desire and willingness to protect what needs protecting. Beautiful. But there has been fallout, ripples, cascading dominoes. Generations of transmitted values, custom, and habit fitted women to a subordinate position. Men were trained to believe they were superior beings, that they were in charge. To preserve this arrangement, some men still seek young and malleable wives(Check out Second Wives’ Club). For ages, intuition, perceived as a feminine endowment, along with earth magic (knowing and applying the curative herbs) were pooh-poohed. We know that women who possessed their natural powers were burned as witches to stop them and prevent further contamination. Cultural reinforcement cements the positions in place and women were, have been robbed of their efficacy, stunned and paralyzed by belief. This is the way things are. Everybody says so, so it must be so. But/and oh joie! One by one, the somnambulists awaken and reclaim what is rightfully ours. Choice, self- determination, moral agency, sovereignty rather than the role of passive recipient or unquestioning follower of “Father Knows Best.” Sigh. I have to thank my Dad for finally understanding and knowing this and supporting my bid for full and whole being, maturity and citizenship. We claim and reclaim all of life’s capacities and faculties: passion, reason, mind, body, spirit, the mundane and the sublime.
Not that the favored child, allied with discipline, committed to abstraction and principle, unmediated by tenderness of heart, the appetites and longings of the body, hasn’t been wounded by his equally untenable position. Men are of course likewise children of the Great Mother and are equally suffering from the distortions of inequity, some the illness of grandiosity, some the cult requirements of machismo, from approaching the world only from the outside in, rarely from the inside out. I remember so many men of my Dad’s generation, the ones who had sole responsibility for everything, who could never be wrong, never say I don’t know, who could never ask for directions, dying young. Of course these are preposterous generalizations. There isn’t a bone in my body that doesn’t object to oversimplification, the reduction of all to a single thread. But the pattern is obvious enough. I think of Plato’s image of human beings: the charioteer holding the reins of the twin horses, passion and reason. I think of Descartes:” I think, therefore, I am” and as well, of Pascal: “ The heart has reasons the reason knows not of.” Men and women, thinking and feeling, doing and being.
It is all too tempting, but never the less important, not to continue polarizing oppositions, to fall into the trap of us and them, those who support and those who oppose war, capital punishment, abortion, regulation of industry, minority civil rights (Gay marriage, for example), putting the environment first, universal health care and so on. I think of the plight of veterans, the victims of catastrophe( Katrina, for example), the homeless, abandoned beings who need assistance. I think of the able bodied men and women who want to work and have no jobs. I think of those who exercise power and control and manipulate the lives of others and the others. We can find no end of opposition unless we find our common ground. Here at what is possibly the brink of extinction, we need to pull together to stop polluting and overpopulating, to reclaim the wasteland and recreate the paradise our earth once was and is meant to be, even if it means ripping out some perfectly peachy knitting to eliminate the mistakes. This will not be easy. We have become unused to Herculean labor. Never- the- less, there’s nothing for it but to repair and go on. Eliminate the inessential and inimical, and develop the rest.
Years ago, my hero, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote an article for a women’s magazine, called “What Every Woman Wants.” That title on the cover sold a lot of magazines, and I wonder if those expecting some salacious revelation were disappointed or delighted and relieved to learn that what women want is community, a space and place where we know and are known by everyone, in a kinship and clan connectedness, a give and take, live and let live attitude, an extended family whether a village,congregation, an interest group or a neighborhood. In community we can help one another figure it out. Our still available grey matter awaits activation by use, through our thoughts, deeds and reflections!
Tuesday, November 11
Perhaps it is because I’m a mother that I worry about what will be left to our children’s children. Our forefathers and foremothers had futurity in mind when they planted trees under whose shade they themselves would never sit, nor fruit enjoy. They planned for the coming descendents, a generous and generative inclination and deed. How many untold generations of immigrants have put their own lives on the back burner to better the lot and improve the chances of their offspring? They worked hard so their children might go to school and their children’s children enjoy the benefits and privileges of citizenship, opportunities they themselves never had. Being the root of a great flourishing tree was motivation enough to justify their sacrifice and endurance. Bless them all.
What kind of world are we bequeathing our progeny? The poisons and toxins leaching into our fields and water courses, the ground we walk upon, the soil we cultivate, the water we drink, the air we breathe… polluted. The sickness unto death threatens, creeps through the cells and tissues of our lives, the life of the planet, our beautiful Earth. I think of Gaunt’s words in Shakespeares’s Richard III: “This earth of majesty…,This other Eden, demi-paradise.” Of course he is speaking of England whose beautiful countryside and excellent people make of Gaunt a patriot, literally a lover of his country, not as an abstract idea, but of actual place: “This blessed plot.” How different from “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” the way we measure and construe patriotism, a vow of loyalty to an abstraction, a conceptual regard, not grounded in the warm body arising from, in relation to the earthy matrix. The Algonquin people had no word for time or tree. They spoke of specifics: elm maple chestnut and oak and this level of specificity kept them deeply connected to things as they are in a harmonious relationship to the natural world.
I’ve journeyed across our continent many times, sometimes in the swelter of summer in a car without air conditioner. The cornfields of the plains go on forever and it takes days to get past the last tributary of the North Platte. The land is fertile and rich. This abundant landscape, the immense beauty of our country has meant more to me than all the splendid spires of Europe which I admired, almost as much as the condensed beauty and combined spiritual power of the paintings assembled in the Impressionist galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, the music of Bach played by Glenn Gould or Yoyo Ma, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto by Arthur Schnabel,or Brahms’ “All Flesh Is Grass” from the German Requiem. The scope and magnitude, the potency and fire of all that spirit, vision and mastery is whelming, fulfilling. So too, the beauty and majesty of the land. All who love the earth under their feet, the specific locality and exact place are also patriots, lovers of their country. This meadow and field, this brook, these wildflowers, these bowers and groves, this garden. How important to remember in an era when so much that has distinguished specificity of place has been all but obliterated,
And by what? The chains. The imposition of clone-ish infrastructure has quashed the sweet idiosyncratic flavors specific to region and locale. This has been a terrible loss. The chains’ interests do not further human happiness, but serve shareholders’ interests, the profit motive. Ah, I hear you thinking, a naïve idealist. Perhaps, but I remind us that in an ideal condition, our cars run best and so too the machinery of any society. More important is the loss of beauty. Beauty is food for the soul. Beauty elicits love and admiration and brings out the best in us, the longing to care for and protect that which is beautiful to us. If we cannot see beauty of place, the loveliness of a hill or a wood or even a hedge, we are altered. Beauty inspires us, touches us, moves us, consoles us and what are we if we are impervious or unaware? I think we have all suffered from the loss of ubiquitous beauty, the loss of a living and lovely landscape, through earth deforested, strip-mined and covered over by the emporiums of commerce, bland architecture that is the same everywhere we go, not fitted into the specific contours of land as our great architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, showed us how to build. Something about loss of beauty and loss of soul?
Not too long ago, I saw The Red Shoes, a film I loved as a child based on Hans Christian Anderson’s tale and made in 1948. Looking at images of the landscape uncluttered by advertising, I found a comfortable, habitable world. This seemed the height of civilization, an era of style and sophisticated grace. The aesthetic of Art Deco still permeated the world, a universal and ubiquitous style that pertained to clothes, hair-dos, furniture and architecture including the Golden Gate Bridge. Art and music were elegant and available. Swing, cool Jazz and Gershwin could be heard in the clubs and on the radio. Almost anyone could walk through a grand and beautiful hotel lobby or go to a movie in an opulent palace. Fashion and the decorative arts flourished. Everyday objects were well and durably designed.
People were citizens then, rather than consumers. They wore their coats for many winters and bought new ones when the old were used up, threadbare, not out of style. They resoled their shoes and passed on the family possessions to the next generation, the way fathers had always passed on the tools of the family livelihood to their sons. People built their houses to last. Homes and public buildings were ornamented by shrubs and trees inhabited by squirrels and wrens raising families, same as the people. Moles excavated urban lawns and people kept cats to address the problem. Folks planted rhubarb, corn and tomatoes in the heart of metropolis, in their own backyards. This was the grace and what now seems to me a luxury of the time before automobile emissions had altered and degraded the atmosphere. As a small child in the forties, I thrilled when on silken summer afternoons, a wandering throng of butterflies came to dine on our snap dragons and peonies and flittered to the next yard to see what bounty else awaited. When my child was growing up, even in the remote and rural place we lived in, she was lucky to see a single majestic Monarch or two in a season, and had to content herself with the annual swarm of yellow jackets and an occasional flurry of oak moths everyone considers a menace…though they are lovely.
The romance of the Red Shoes has gotten to me. I know this period was no Golden Age. There was unspeakable poverty, war and illness unmitigated by life saving miracle drugs, the antibiotics. Fanaticism was rearing its head again, slithering around with bigotry and ignorance. But the world itself was still beautiful. Because people were respectful and conscientious, litter was not a problem. Mega packaging was not choking land fill sites. There was hope a cure might be found. Remedy was possible, solution likely.
Alas. Global Inferno. Conflagration confounded the Zeitgeist informed by art, beauty and craftsmanship. And what came after was no picnic, either. Grim and ugly windowless boxy high-rises filled with cubicles for grey suits and actuarial tables…sinister shadowy structures of graceless efficiency and the boxes made of ticky- tacky and they all look just the same.
I had a brief glorious stint as a chef at a local tavern long ago when I was young. I ran the kitchen of a local roadhouse, slinging oysters and grilling fillet of Tiburon, a classy euphemism for shark, more palatable in a foreign tongue ( oh the irritating power of P.R.) to the public, my customers, whose instinctive mouths I was sure retained more sense than their squeamish brains. Not that I was of a mind to manipulate the unsuspecting suckers to turn a nice profit at their expense, though some might see it in that light, some who have been inured to follow that track, as if that was all there is to anything. I wasn’t out to get the better of my fellows or to make fools of them. I wanted to make them happy. Sure, I needed a paycheck, but that was secondary, by product. Let me tell you about living and working in a small place exactly like itself and unlike any other small, local place in the country. The country was then still full of such distinctive places, what made many of us make a weekly visit to that little town in Alaska in Northern Exposure.
I have long enjoyed living improvisationally and close to the bone which call upon a person’s ingenuity, native intelligence and mother wit. I’ve enjoyed living at the edge, preferring the challenge and difficulties, the hardships and frustrations of having to make-do to a tame and predictable world…convenient but, for me, tepid and bland, not enough spice. As I age, my desire for creature comforts grows… you know, the pleasure of basking older bones in the sun. But as a young woman, moving to the country and managing well without all the conveniences of city living was a good in itself and the trade offs….beauty of landscape unsullied by the ubiquitous long arm of materialism was fine with me. Away from the hustle and bustle, we rusticators took our cue from the rhythms of the natural world. Twilight is a span, a daily occurrence, not five o’clock sharp with demerits for tardiness. I suppose we were simply apunctual, we who had fled neckties and panty-girdles, seven meetings before lunch, three phone calls, six letters and a memo, not because we were lazy, but because those tight schedules made knots in our stomachs, hard places under the rib cage and closed places in the melon patch…no time to watch, to even think to watch a spider spin a web or a pelican crash-dive for perch or to simply stand around in herring season in the amorous stench of the spawn.
My soul inclined to the pastoral. I loved the rolling hills, the lion mane gold of summer roused to a fiery burnish in the late afternoon backlit by the westering sun, the lush green of winter, green when it rains that is, such is our climate. Everywhere cows: freckling the hills where they grazed, gathering under the shade of cypress and oak at mid-day, rubbing up against a tree or even the barbed-wire fencing for a good scratch, or suddenly running, kicking up dust, calling to mind the thundering herds of the plains. Dairy cows. Big stately black and white Holsteins, the little heifers giddy with spring. They were a part of the landscape and their presence a comforting sedative, much like purring cats evoking an alpha wave state in their human companions… a there, there, Mama is near kind of lullaby. Not that we were subdued into a pastoral torpor like Fielding’s Squire Western snoozing in the huddle of his hounds, alliteratively alluding, but calmness rather than the nervous excitability of the high strung, wound-up tight, obtained. In a very real sense, community was the true plum of living in our hamlet in the Seventies. Everyone knew everyone else, including the dogs and cats, chickens and goats, cows, sheep and pigs, ponies and horses, not to mention visiting grandmothers and far-away friends. We weren’t segregated into age bands, so it was possible to have companions much older and younger, and no one thought this odd at all. This is what made evenings at the Tavern so delicious. There were little kids spinning in circles, dizzy in the late night hour, or milling about in the dancing frenzy common to all ages while the horns wailed, the ivories tinkled and the drum beats resounded in the old wooden floor. Elders came to boogie, too, and everyone in between: singly, in groups, in pairs.
The Tavern: the word, the name reverberates, brimming with memory, redolent of romance, imbued with possibility like the scattered seeds of wildflowers in early spring, with the wild uncertainty when you walked through the door to who knows what rendezvous, fated encounter, or fleeting pleasure. It was for us the center, the nucleus, the hub: meeting place, communion table, the house of spirits where we worshipped as the Shakers did, in ecstatic communal dancing, but not in lieu of connubial bliss. The spirit of revelry and good spirits on the dance floor, good food from the kitchen, a great view of the bay from the dining room, the booths and tables pleasantly arranged, were all conducive to relaxation and enjoyment, to intimate conversation, to the spell of love.
The Tavern seemed alive, exuding like pitch from pine, the sap of animal magnetism and even primitive magic. People you wanted or needed to see showed up exactly at the right moment, as if you had phoned in advance and arranged a meeting just so. Once when I was a little shy of the ready, my brother whom I hadn’t seen in a long time, pulled into the parking lot on his BMW chopper ( Is that an oxymoron?) and laid some change on me, as we would have said at the time. It wasn’t only the synchronicity factor. There was something alive in the building itself…maybe all the good vibes emanating from the throbbing bodies rocking out on the dance floor, or the diners happily chewing their artichokes and crab or pan fried oysters and sourdough bread. In the bathrooms, the water taps were reversed, cold from the left, hot from the right, strictly through the looking glass. The bathroom walls attracted graffiti, but not the scatological splatter, the wrath of repression, nor the doxologies of lost souls, pornographies of despair. No. On our walls, we witnessed the groping of the isolated human soul longing for love and understanding. There were conundrums of existence and the paradoxes, including the ponderings of Lao-tze and Heraclitus, Emerson and Blake, deep meaning-of-life bleep that didn’t reduce us to rats or machines, harlots and jokers, objects in diminished capacity, but scribblings which were meant to enlarge our understanding, to elevate our spirits, and encourage our capacity for enjoyment. And best, there were excellent recipes for braided loaves and corn bread.
I’m not saying this was a perfect charmed circle. Excess, inebriation on a regular basis, chronic intoxication is problematic, and we certainly had our fair share of dipsomaniacs. We were a road house and open to the public. The bartenders seemed amply equipped to deflect unpleasantness, as if they had been studying for years an Aikido of every day life, returning pleasantries without accepting any bad-mouthing from the itchy surly ones, looking for a fight. If we knew then what we know now, we would have had a bottle of Vitamin B stress tabs along with the jars of hard boiled eggs and smoked fish on the bar. Those guys were light on their feet and inventive to boot. They made up some unusual drinks like The Oliver Plow, concocted of Scotch, cream, and a little who knows what served up in a Mason pint jar. But the best of the Tavern was its stage and the music and theater scene it attracted. Rock and roll dance bands, Joan Baez, Mimi Farina, Queen Ida and Her Bon Temps Zydeco Band were hot, as were the Palace Players, actors from the Dance Palace performing in the provinces. One night Neil Young showed up and played gratis, claiming he had a sufficiency of peanut butter and every other good thing in his cupboard and wanted to give something back to his fans. He traveled up the California coast visiting road houses including our tavern. He sang and played and we boogied, heart and soul. The glory days. Friends keep so much of who we are, remember what we cannot even remember we’ve forgotten and carry for us what we cannot carry. My late great Goomba,Budley, the Commodore of the our local Navy, Yacht Club and Dancing Society, was recalling the good old days when time was available to fill as we would, when possibilities were possible and gas was cheap. He remembered my menu and recalled an incident I had entirely forgotten which restored to me a sense of who I was in exuberant youth, an ebullient feisty young woman whose sardonic proclivities made me name what others have called Caesar or Nicoise, Irving. Salad Irving. One evening a distraught diner called me from the kitchen and pointed to the buzzing fly staggering through the garlic suffused greens on his plate. “What is that?” he demanded. “That,” said I, “is Irving.”
Jefferson called our country the great experiment. If it doesn’t work one way, try another. The Hopi say that to get to the next world, we must be industrious, generous, hopeful, and happy. The bumper-sticker says: Think globally; act locally. If we bring everything back down to a manageable size, so that polis equals neighborhood and community, our problems won’t go away, but we will have a chance to work them out. Of by and for the people. It is in our hands. I remember the pledge of allegiance back in the Fifties, which seemed to me a dream of what we might become, if we grew up: One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The word, indivisible, came from healing the rift between the North and the South after the Civil War. The “under God” phrase which was inserted between one nation and indivisible, so that the noun and its modifier are too far apart and sense is garbled and the meaning forgotten, signifies the current dividing wedge. Only we didn’t see it because we were mesmerized by the charm. Utter the God word and most of us back then faded into a stupor of sanctity and obedience and our faculty of critical thinking dulled like an old paring knife. It was during Ike’s term this happened and it was he, that war hero and affable golfer who warned us of the danger of the industrial military complex, the big fish gobbling up the little fish. He was right. The mom and pop businesses have folded. The small farmers have bitten the dust. The chain stores have a chokehold on us, convincing many it is better to be predictable and safe, to take the work out of choice. Add to that, leave it to the experts, to the authorities… everything homogenized and wrapped up in plastic. Let my people go.
Oh la. I am not a Soprano. Then why did I sing last summer with the Sopranos at the United Methodist Church in a Gospel Music Workshop? I’m not a Christian. I haven’t been born again. I’m not drawn to organized religion and haven’t been since I was a kid and jettisoned pew attendance in favor of ecstatic woodland worship. As a little kid I loved the Creator and Creation and have a strong memory of when I was maybe three-ish, being deeply sad and befuddled because I could no longer remember what it was like before I was born. I’ve wanted no Intercessors, screens or filters between the ineffable and myself. I wanted to experience and know from the inside out and commune directly with the great spirit infusing everyone and everything. Even now, I am a pagan knocked over by the sheer loveliness of creation, the loveliness of a swim in the bay, the loveliness of a ripe peach, a well sung aria, a great line of verse, a well turned phrase, or an assemblage of molecules so exquisitely contrived on canvas or screen, I jump out of my skin for joy.
Suffice it to say I am a sucker for a spiritual and love the all out, full tilt boogie of Gospel. When my pal who has been egging me on to join her in an annual Gospel Singing Workshop which she’s been devoted to despite her proclivity for reason and inability to get behind the message asked again, I couldn’t think of any reason not to. Since another dear neighbor had signed up for the ride, car pooling clinched the deal. I sat with my friends for fellowship, as we say in church, and they sing Soprano. It was a stretch, but I let the spirit take me to the highest reaches of the stave, beyond my range. And it is pure joy to sing with a choir, take direction from demanding directors who are talented and skillful musicians, primarily African Americans whose tradition this is, who asked for our all.
In the past, I’ve brooded about the unfortunate rift between the Secular Humanists and the Fundamentalists. I’ve come to see this as a dispute in reading….whether we read the sacred texts as prose or poetry, as the revealed word or mythic narrative, the only story or one story among many, symbolic rather than literal truth, poetry. If text is read as prose, as the Gospel truth, there’s no room for variation or multiple voices and this has troubled me. How, I’ve wondered, can you have a dialogue with orthodoxy if everything comes back to the last word, the final authority of the deity. Why? Because God said so, end of discussion. I began having misgivings, almost reneged. Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite or imposter, mouthing words I didn’t mean? Fortunately, I remembered Coleridge’s advice to readers of poetry. He recommends a willing suspension of disbelief and in this spirit I went to sing in a choir, one voice among many.
I know a lot of people who think religion nonsense who swear by the Course of Miracles, Eckhart Tolle’s work and most recently The Secret, the premise of which is that we create our own reality. This is not a new idea. I encountered the notion years ago in a class at San Francisco State taught by an ex Harvard philosophy professor, who gave up his first field as pointless and futile. He had us read Scientific American articles on sense perception, Eric Erickson’s Childhood and Society which details the psycho-sexual stages of our development and a lot of poetry. His thesis was: we create order and project our world moment by moment. This was both a thrilling and terrifying proposition to encounter, one which invites us to be responsible for our perceptions and choices. In its minimalist form, is the bumper sticker: You don’t have to believe everything you think. A late great friend and neighbor wrote several books on the idea, one of them titled, As you believe, in which she too notes the primacy of self fulfilling prophecies. But here’s the rub: I found these ideas latent in Gospel Music read as poetry.
In my inherited tradition, the old Rabbis loved to dispute interpretation so they could understand what God wanted of us, so we could live fulfilling lives and be happy. One of the hymns our choir sang told us to be still, to listen, much as the Buddhists speak of being empty, empty of preconceived notions, empty of ego, empty of desire. This makes so much sense that I began really listening to the seemingly simplistic lyrics, what we were singing. One of the lines that really got to me was “ Look how far the Lord has brought me. He’s brought me from a mighty long way.” The Reverends kept suggesting we pay close attention to the words and meditate upon their meaning. I don’t know if this is what they had in mind, but all I could see was the mainly white choir obeying every minute hand gesture of the able black directors and know that we have all indeed come a long way since Plantation days and the fantasy of white supremacy. So my counsel for all who want to dismiss the fundamentalists is to sing with them. E pluribus Unum. Hallelujah!
“The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it.” -Madame De Stael (1766-1817)
Surely it is our chance now to give up the self- indulgent misguided follies of the wooden puppet, Pinocchio, and become real beings. Listening to the still voice within will help us align with purposes beneficial to all. I know that voice well. When I was a full of myself eight or nine year old, one blithe spring afternoon when my braided and pinafored friends and I were sitting our front steps trading cards and my pack was growing and theirs shrinking, one of a throng of delicate blue butterflies landed on my lap and without considering, I pulled off its wings. I knew in that moment I had done something utterly wrong, that I had sinned against life, though there were no words at the moment, only a sinking sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach, revulsion and shame for what I had done. I suppose that was the birth of a conscience. Awareness and reverence for life and living creatures manifests in my practice of relocating insects and birds accidentally trapped inside. I am not always able or willing to heed the little voice…at first. It is so much easier to be scrupulously considerate of the non humans. I’ve lost patience and temper with fellow human mortals on numerous occasions and sorry to say, have trespassed, for which I have been chastened and am still atoning. But it is so often the trivial inconveniences and nuisances that get to us, even if we know better.
Thus, I’ve been screeching, sotto voce of course. I’m saturated with annoyance. Help. Somebody please wring me out quick! How can I empty myself of vexation and chagrin that I feel witnessing and experiencing the inundation of the mediocre and inane, the vapid tepid irrelevancies of modern life? Just try dialing the phone company, a credit card so-called customer service number, an HMO, hmph. They want us, I mean a machine tells us to key in a lot of numbers. No, no, thank you. This is not what I want to do in my precious spare time. And if you make an attempt to bypass the instructions, by pressing 0 or *, a nasty pinched machine voice tells us that was not a recognizable option, but, undaunted, I do it again, pushing on the pad with the pressure of fermenting frustration and then, having bypassed or surmounted that obstacle, I am connected to the next set of options and having chosen one, am then transferred to several minutes of elevator music. And yes I am bothered by these ups and downs. And the jerks really bother me. My buttons are pressed when I’m asked to press buttons…by a machine, no less. It’s enough to drive anyone stark raving bonkers and sleepless, wavering on the edge, wondering whether or not it’s worth getting, encore un fois, a grip.
It is hard to be serene, to find the still point in the turning world, even sitting on a pillow. Oh moan, poor moi. The soma of meditation practice eludes because while I have in theory retired I am still bound and constrained by the necessity I so long postponed while I filled my cup with every joy and inclination. In that golden age of serendipity and youth, to boot, I read, studied, and wrote. I contemplated the universe and its concrete particulars. I wandered in the woods, explored the museums and galleries, frequented the concert halls, studied our species in our myriad manifestations and habitats. This gave me a true present, an unalloyed and centered attention. Thus empty and open, filling the hours as I would, not as I ought or must, I was observant, blissfully aware, keenly awake, alive. But in order to have that era, that unfettered time, I mortgaged the future which is the now I presently inhabit, a now filled with a surfeit of work, obligation, duty, apparently unable or not yet able to contain the spillover frustration which comes with the madding phone, the unsolicited solicitations, the effort it takes to speak with a real person in an institution or corporation.
I haven’t even mentioned the self important drivers going the wrong way in the one way parking lot at a popular food emporium. Several years ago, I witnessed two old parties, two aging alpha males, one in a Jaguar, one in a Mercedes simultaneously back out of their parking spots, and stopping, just short of bumping bumpers, like two massive elk locking horns. And there they stayed for minute upon minute, neither willing to budge, neither willing to defer to the other, claiming by right of what? superiority, status, rank, title, worth? right of way. I stayed to watch this drama, along with a number of other bag toting spectators, as long as I could, but never saw the resolution, having elsewhere to be. It was the scene at the bridge with Friar Tuck and Little John, the scene on the bridge outside Thebes with Oedipus and his father, the first scenario resolved in merriment, no hard feelings, the latter in tragedy. Wounded vanity says Jane Austen, wounded pride… wounded ego keep us from merriment. Of course there are circumstances beyond our control, but we can attend to the ones that are in our keeping.
Thursday November 13
Still brooding about language, I am ambivalent about the way English is evolving or devolving. On the one hand, it’s fascinating to be around the dynamic activation of something long dormant. Suddenly something we’ve taken as a fixed given begins changing. For awhile, I sided with the purists, the guardians of structural integrity upholding correct syntax and usage. And I do worry about the loss of prepositions, both in use and in the understanding of use. But/ and language is a living thing it turns out. Any excursion into the history of usage shows that meanings and applications do indeed change. The word presently denotes now, this very moment, but has a currently prevailing usage which is: in a while, soon, and even by and by, Go away I’m busy. I’ll get to it as soon as I can. Stand in line. On the other, I became less partisan and more of a dispassionate observer when I became tired of reacting to the assaults and affronts, the negative impacts on my nerves, the toll annoyance takes.
When Reagan and others finalized rather than completed, ended concluded, finished or even fulfilled his arrangements, I and others were surprised and some offended that he had turned an adjective into a verb. The final bell for lunch had already been morphed into a noun, as, for example, when final exams became Finals. Folks were put out because our so–called great communicator had trouble finding le mot juste. Some example he was setting for the young and impressionable, some example for the national blotter absorbing everything he said and did. My personal theory is his little jelly bean habit kept him revved up a bit too fast…or maybe his inability to recall words was an early sign of what finally claimed him, in which case, my bad and apologies. I suppose this is displaced disgruntlement. Many of us were vexed because he deregulated industry and emptied mental hospitals which were oasis and asylum to people who couldn’t cope, and thus seeded our homeless population. No small thing and really too important for a parenthetical aside, but there it is.
To continue my lament: finalizing was a small spud compared to the objection my grammarian cronies made when people started turning nouns into verbs, impacting the language rather than making an impact. The use of impacting is fine if we’re speaking of molars. Impacting is a contraction made to speed things up, much as 4U is a current text messaging contraction, meaning of course “for you.” Bear with me while I leap from this to the glittering appeal of the fast and easy by which consumers are seduced into buying every this and that promising to deliver a fast fix. Many thinking people winced watching the national attention span dwindle as news stories were reduced to bare bones and people relinquished a leisurely perusal of the front page for a sound bite of hot news sans commentary, sans context. News stories became prized for their entertainment value and market share, once the provenance of yellow journalism… which was never respected by people of good sense because in the tabloids, sensationalism trumped sober reflection, a tawdry and poor substitute. Jefferson said a democracy can flourish only when the people are both educated and informed.
Diplomacy similarly suffered when the long trans Atlantic crossings were abandoned for the faster journey by plane. Faster wasn’t necessarily better. During the slow passage of an ocean liner, there was sufficient time to ponder and select the best course of action or invent an ingenious compromise. What the perceived advantage of the plane really meant was a journey with insufficient time to determine what was best, which certainly affected matters of moment, much at stake. So impacting seemed a symptom of malaise: the tendency to contract and reduce, to maximize effect ( ahem) with a minimum of effort. It’s curious about the turning of nouns into verbs. Per che? Let’s pose the question as a cultural anthropologist would, treating phenomena as artifact or text that invites a reading. Perhaps it’s because we no longer define or see ourselves in repose, but in terms of what we do, as some have opined, that we’ve become or have come to regard ourselves not so much human beings as human doings or even human havings, as the bumper sticker suggests: the one with the most stuff wins! And what to make of the construction our spiritual nature? not natures? our is plural, as are we. Isn’t specificity with reference to embodied reality preferable to abstraction by which individual distinction is lost? Sometimes we have to make up our minds, not make up our mind because abstraction distances the speaker from what’s real. We are not a collective of indistinguishable and interchangeable parts, digital components or apples designed to fit so many to a box. What else when individual identities are blurred and obliterated than the practice and danger of totalitarianism? No, thank you.
And what about the redwoods and dinosaurs of language. Thruway is more concise. Through is an ancient form, a trace of our ancestors, of the remote past still alive in the present in the utterance. Anyone who has walked among the ancient and enormous Sequoias has direct contact with living entities whose lives span many decades and generations, living components of the past. We almost lost the pelicans when their eggs weren’t forming properly because of DDT. They are part of the landscape and our lives and we are fond of, would miss them. The pelicans are old, close, it seems, to the Pterodactyls of the Reptilian Age. Well, of course it can be argued that matter is finite, that life forms come and go, and it’s no use hanging on. William Blake wrote, “He who binds to himself a joy, doth the winged life destroy.” Still, the ones who said through and brought, with guttural grunts are our remote ancestors. It’s important to retain an image of the past, to remain connected to our progenitors… so that we may understand the present in the large context of our histories… to see and know what is happening over the long wash of time, to become agents in our own story, our own stories rather than cash cows and walk on extras in someone else’s get rich quick scheme. Am I belaboring the obvious?
Today the Supreme Court overturned a ruling that protected Marine Wildlife, that created a 20 mile buffer zone along the coast which is their habitat, where Cetacians hang out, insulated from the Sonar blasts, from the Sonar testing that interferes with whales’ powers of navigation and well being on the grounds that our safety is more important than their survival. I cannot agree. That’s buying into fear. And it is fear, a perceived threat, imagined worst case scenario that leads good men and women, to make decisions that is counter to good sense. The sky is falling says Chicken Little. They might come after us. We must defend ourselves from any possible assault. We cannot take any chances. Let us forestall any possible loss with fool proof strategy that, true, has side effects perhaps more dangerous than the so called solution. This is the kind of thinking that brought us DDT. Of course we don’t want our crops to fail and of course we want to feed our families. But as we are now coming to understand “Better Living through chemistry” was an illusion. They meant well, but no. Herbicides and pesticides have poisoned the well, have created more problems than they solved. We need to stop the toxic in soil and water as scientists advise. The Bioneers is an organization of eminent environmental thinkers devoted to restoring the balance of nature, the health and well being of the planet and therefore each and every one of us. We need to listen to the ones who know, rather than those speaking with vested interest in the companies and products that are inimical to our well being or to those whose games will be over if good sense prevails. There’s no future in previously employed chemical farming because our soils lose nutrients, efficacy. Desertification is the shadow of a future if we continue on the present path. Surely an intelligent and impartial fair-minded assessment tells us we need to return to time honored agricultural practices that do not injure and degrade but which maintain and sustain the soil, water, and life on the planet. I have just heard of a newly formulated nature based chemistry that may have safe application for agriculture. Read Michael Pollen’s research. A great many small organic farms of 100 acres worked with ingenuity and knowledge, the rotation of crops and animals can indeed feed the world. Live and let live.
Friday, November 14
Admittedly, I’ve been too taken up with the pleasures of Babylon, on however a reduced scale. I’ve bought my silks and cashmeres at the Goodwill, the Salvo, thrift shops, flea markets, garage sales, and deep discount emporiums. I’ve indulged myself thus, not because I’m a cheap-skate, but on a teacher’s salary, there’s only so much to go around. I want to be able to be generous to my friends and causes and if I bought the perfect sweater in season, I’d not have much left for else. But It’s not just my penchant for feeding and garbing my friends or the need for the ready when dropping into a box office, book or CD store, that’s made me frequent the second hand shops. I like recycling and the treasure hunt, the you never know what you’re going to find, what odd collectable or adorable relic, what exotic has-been, superannuated frock or beautifully made shmata. I’ve believed myself to be on a rescue mission, saving the exquisite old darlings from the shredder or the dump, oh the delusional spell of rationalization.
Retail therapy is a drug for the polite, the mildly disgruntled, the burdened, the discouraged, the over-worked, the overwhelmed. It’s what I do when blue or spent or confused, when in a daze after too much hard edge focus and the press of plans, duties and obligations all threaten to consume me utterly. On the one hand, it is a perfectly harmless if silly form of recreational escapism as well as an inexpensive source of clothing. On the other, it is an activity promising a temporary relief from the challenges of life and therefore a form of balking, a refusal to step up to the plate, bat the ball, play the game as best I can, try myself in the arena, maybe even score a single, double, hoboy! grand slam home run. In a roast given him at the end of his life, film director John Huston observed that most of our lives are lived by our understudies. It is my understudy who shops. I myself sing, dance, and type. There comes a moment when a habit, an addiction, becomes an onerous burden rather than an outlet, pass-time, or spree, when going to usual kick-back haunts there isn’t a ghost of a thrill. We know too much, have too much, know too many are doing without, so how can we continue to shop? We’ve had it with extraneous time and place holders. A surfeit by any other name is, enfin, too much. The shopping, the patrolling the rows and rows of cast-offs, looking for the ne plus ultra of well made timeless outer ware, the very togs of chic. Genug. Farewell Goodwill, Salvation Army, Sack’s Thrift Avenue. Sob.
Oh if it were that easy. Years ago I had another little habit. I walked three miles almost daily to our hamlet’s post office. After posting my letters, I stopped by the general store and bought my daily dose of corn nuts, a nickel a bag….harmless enough, though hard on the molars….oh the path to perdition! And later when I ceased smoking cigarettes, not quite through with my oral fixation
( Ach du lieber, I’m aFreud ve do know too much), I took up blue corn and Kettle chips and threatened to start a chapter of Chips Anonymous. In college, I thought of making a hand book for compulsive eaters and printing it on ham and Swiss on Rye, in case you couldn’t wait, hold the mustard. Naturally I am grateful my obsessions and compulsions have been trivial-ish. There were some who latched on to more serious anesthetics with stiffer consequences. I get it. Life is tough and sometimes unbearable. I have friends who have little bonbon habits who will understand the pattern. However, mitigating awareness, presence, and the observant self watching nibbler or shopper, noting the need for comfort, provides the space required for choice, not mindless caving in when we are immersed in drives and longings, blindly unaware. Our mothers told us to count to ten when we were angry so we would have the presence of mind not to indulge in a temper tantrum, to choose not to. There comes a moment when we have to reclaim our lives and send the understudy packing.
Growth is painful. Self Mastery. The process never ends.
” Human Beings are rational and reason should shape our impulses and choices. This means we can take a long term view of our own interests, and so on occasion reject what appears immediately advantageous, but also that, knowing ourselves to be but a part of the universe, we should realize that the apparent interests of the part must be subordinate to the interests of the whole.” F.H. Sandbach
Carry cards? I don’t. Owning a vacuum cleaner is a concession to the necessities, but I don’t subscribe wholesale to any given ideology, doctrine or drama. I am drawn to art, music, beauty of landscape, flourishing gardens, home made soup and whole grained breads, to the reciprocal gifts of friendship, kindness, generosity and love, to being moved by the realm of the mysterious and invisible spirit, where all things are nascent, possible. It occurred to me while reading the Pre-Socratic philosophers that what the Western mind has accomplished in all the intervening years A.D. has been to invent instruments to prove what the early Greeks perceived and surmised, intuited and concluded without the intervention and extension of our faculties through instrumentation (microscope or telescope) by which, perhaps, confidence in our ability to know, apprehend and mediate the unfolding circumstances and events of being is undermined or, at any rate, diminished. We come to depend on external apparatus and no longer remember how to perform the same tasks of measurement or observation, that we once could, using our own lights. People used to add up columns of figures in their heads and not rely upon calculators, for example. And in the days when I was a practicing photographer, I learned to read the light quite accurately without the use of a light meter. Now, out of practice, I am not so acutely present or aware and use one when I shoot. And little by little, we give greater authority to objective data and instrumentation than our own powers of perception and observation, making us vulnerable to the powers and protection of authority
I once heard Angela Davis suggest racism was a ploy of the corporate elite. Keep everyone fighting among themselves and while they’re preoccupied, shorten the roll and double the price. Hmmm. Divide and conquer, the division of the world into black and white, us and them, is the means by which competition and the ruthless struggle for power and wealth are perpetuated and our failure to mature and cooperate insured. If we project our demons out there onto the so-called bad guys, without owning the shadowy and dark aspects of our own lives, we remain unconscious, vulnerable to the come-ons of our fast and easy, celebrity-crazy, understudy-riddled disposable culture. One of the tasks and imperatives of artists is to engage, undermine, subvert, overthrow, or at least resist controlling authority. Kafka’s The Castle is a hyperbolic portrait of our current circumstances. The male authority figures of the castle lounge in a labyrinthine milieu of red tape and mountains of paper that characterize bureaucracy. This is an entirely secular mundane world devoid of spirit or vitality. There is no sense of the sacred here. It is not a fit place for human habitation.
We have to ask: is the human spirit weakening as it does in this hallucinated vision, in this place of nightmarish brooding angst, in this shadow land that strangely echoes the increasing distortions of life on Terra Firma in the early days of the New Millennium? In The Castle, because the line between waking and sleeping, what is real and what illusory is so blurred that no substantive act is possible to affect, change, or save K( Everyman, us), the outcome is terrifying. K’s struggle to find a place in the world is hopeless, futile, and tragic. It is a paradigm of the human predicament: to be cast out among the shifting illusory realities with no rooted connection to the foundation or ground of being. Stephen Dedalus, artist-hero of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man says: “ all history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” The nightmare has virtually laid us in the dust.
How do we counter repressive control and the destruction of the planet? Jacob Needleman, a contemporary philosopher, observed that our lives have been governed by Logos, the unfeeling and dispassionate rule of reason, rather than warm inclusive Gnosis, the love of wisdom. He suggests that a return to Gnosis, an integral way of looking at and being in the world will resolve the perilous dualities, that in extreme opposition pit quality against quality. An integration of the Dionysian and Apollonian, masculine and feminine, justice and mercy, strength and grace, mind and heart, spirit and body, reason and compassion, objective and subjective elements, no longer in an antagonistic impasse, would leave the species free to grow, evolve, mature. Both/and. Life is in the balance.
Saturday November 15,2008
I sleep so well in between the waking ups, maybe six times last night. I have managed not to care so much, not get upset when I do waken, as I did when I was teaching 200 students a semester at two colleges, driving between 2-3 hours a day and rising shortly after 5 a.m. But the upset only compounded stress and there’s no point in suffering over our suffering. A late great pal had a saying on her wall: suffering is optional. I sort of got it. Yes, but, I’d say. Life is suffering. People get sick. Our near and dear croak on us, and then what? When my brother died, a close friend my binocular vision. On the one hand, I could take the long and cosmic view and accept with equanimity dust to dust, but and, this was my kid brother and I took it personally and took it hard. It wasn’t a self-indulgent pity party. It was grief. This was about the time the second bout of insomnia set in. The first was shortly after my mother died. As we get older, our cronies kick the bucket. Friends and kin disappear from our phone books, our dinner tables, our lives. The way of life. I know why loss keeps me awake, the holding onto memories, so hard to let them go. Perhaps as well, our own mortality begins to sting and fear takes hold. Perhaps we fear death only if we have not fully lived. Well then, onward.
Living with uncertainty, the anguish and anxiety generated
at the advent of the Button, the hair-breadth between survival and extinction has been unbearable. But this knowledge has made a moment of truth, as well. Surely we can awaken from nightmare and ignorance, the sleep of our not knowing and understand what the real stakes and choices are, realize that everything is, as always, in our own hands and hearts, that we can and must, like Sebastian, the child in The Never Ending Story, intervene.
Who really wants the wounding of our planet, the ground of our being, the mother ship that provides sustenance, all we need to live, to have our lives? It seems imperative and essential to come face to face with the demons of our excesses and abuses and relinquish enfeebling self deceptions that “lay waste our powers.”
The journey to maturity is ours to embrace. No longer youngest among nations, but the new world, is, never the less, forgive me, juvenile, adolescent, undiscerning. The journey to the mature and authentic self requires we name, own and shed our vices, our short sightedness, our selfish attitudes and behaviors, our misunderstanding Darwin’s survival of the fittest by which the social Darwinists vindicate their sense of entitlement. Darwin clearly equates fitness and adaptation. The fit are those who best adapt to the environment. However, what we have witnessed are those who force the environment to adapt to them, to satisfy their hungers. I know because I too have done so and rue with all my heart having been so blindly childishly greedy and self serving, wish I had known and been better. Most of us have a secret stash of shameful mistakes. If we are fortunate, our anguish and remorse instruct us, though may never entirely absolve us. We may never receive pardon by those we have wronged. Never-the-less, we need to take a longer view that seeks the greatest good, to claim a life that embraces and cares for all life. This is a maternal act of which we are all, women and men alike, capable. In a state of unfinished development, we cast aside generativity which propagates, nourishes, and insures a future. Reclaiming care for futurity, for the Seventh Generation, stewardship is our collective task until the sun sets for the last time, and who knows when? It’s a mystery. This grail is filled with a bitter medicine, but one that has healing restorative powers.
A little over a decade ago, Harold Pinter delivered the Herbert Read Memorial lecture for Salman Rushdie who had been put under fatwa or condemnation of death for writing The Satanic Verses, which challenges the fundamentalist certainty that orthodox views, and only these views, are right because they iterate the revealed word of the Almighty and are the absolute truth… end of discussion. This novel, a work of fiction, of art, is not about religion. Rushdie said, ” The subject is not faith, but loss of faith.” However, the act of casting doubt was enough to provoke not a polite demur but a death sentence by those whose faith was absolute and exclusive, by those who would brook no dissenting, hence, heretical voice. In this lecture, he observes: “We have been witnessing an attack upon a particular work of fiction that is also an attack upon the very idea of the novel form, an attack of such bewildering ferocity that it has become necessary to restate what is most precious about the art of literature — to answer the attack, not by an attack, but by a declaration of love…. Unlike the true believer, the devotion of the lover is not militant. I may be surprised- even shocked- to find that you do not feel as I do about a given work of art ; I may very well attempt to change your mind, but I will finally accept that your tastes, your loves, [your point of view] are your business and not mine. The True Believer knows that he is simply right, and you are wrong.” Rushdie tells us that Carlos Fuentes calls the novel
” a privileged arena,” privileged because it is the stage upon which the great debates of society can be conducted. The novel is essentially democratic because it is filled with many and diverse voices…communing, opining, arguing, laughing. Anything, everything can be said in every possible way. And a good thing, too.
In a free and open democratic society, we want to be able to express our views and our neighbors to be able to express theirs, whether or not we agree with them. Tolerance for views not our own is the hallmark of an enlightened society. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” has been used as the justification for backbiting and exclusionary competition which divides rather than unites people. Perhaps even more valuable is his observation that survival is best served by diversity rather than uniformity. This means obviously that if the aphids get one variety, there are dozens of others remaining. In the human community, this means dialogue rather than monologue. Aristotle prefers democracy to monarchy which may easily become a tyrannical dictatorship. He says that in order to have the most complete understanding upon which to make the most reasonable and efficacious choices about the disposition of our communal lives, people need to engage in public debate and share points of view. Individually, we see in part, but together, we have a better chance of seeing things whole and acting in the best interests of the whole: the greatest good for the greatest many. My point? I’d like us to forgo the us and them dichotomies that separate and pit people against one another, as sufficiently evidenced on our benighted, beloved planet. Let every community be a place where we embody the privileged arena and debate the great and troubling issues of our time without losing our respect and compassion for each other. What was that you said, Jessie?
” Come on people now, smile on your brother …. everybody get together, try to love one another, right now.”
I stopped dreaming of writing the great American Novel which was the carrot my mentors held before me. Art imitates life imitates art? I couldn’t invent incidents like Watergate, Contra-gate, The exploits of the CIA and the School of the Americas in Central and South America, the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearing, the Rodney King decision and the explosion of South Central Los Angeles. T C Boyle ( Tortilla Curtain) and Tom Robbins, the first two who come to mind, spin great yarns that represent and illuminate current themes and so have our great playwrights Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, August Wilson among many others. Films like Wag the Dog, Manchurian candidate, All the presidents men, Network, Broadcast News, Silkwood, The Insider are some of our great history plays and worth watching as are Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and Michael Moore’s documentaries. It is from them I have so reluctantly sadly, resolutely learned the hard truths of the state of our nation. No doubt there are other great flicks which I haven’t seen yet which have helped you see.
I’ve referred to our world before neon lights, billboards, a beautiful world. Then came the proliferation of plastic, the invasion of television, the availability of and mania for cheap throw away objects that began infiltrating our homes, public spaces and finally our refuse disposal sites, a dump by any other name and currently, our dumps runneth over. Things don’t really disappear. Things are matter which, as our science teachers tirelessly mention, can be neither created nor destroyed. Cheap and shabby begat Styrofoam begat roundup… Hems rise and fall before the genetically engineered corn can ripen. Colors come and go before the leaves have turned again. Spuds in the oven or baked on the coals? Nope. Zapped in the microwave. A cuppa java hot in sixty seconds flat. Our cars speed down the highway engendering smog. We stockpile weapons and throw away surplus while the homeless, while the stark reality of famine, while Mega Death looms… Stop the world. I want to get off! Change the channel. The disposable is disposable. Keep the nifty lasts a life time tool and give a prize and stipend to anyone who can figure out how to undo all the plastic schlock, save for a few items to be exhibited in museums along side the rack and the iron maiden.
As a child, I loved my wooden straight pens, bottles of Scripto blue- black ink and the apple-shaped felt covered cotton filled pen wiper I made in the third grade to absorb the blots. The dark ink perpetually staining my fingers foreshadowed the ink stained wretch I was bound to become. Writing with such an implement taught us a lot more about craftsmanship and the care we must take in our work than a plastic disposable ballpoint pen ever could. Many thought the new item an improvement but it never flipped my Bic as the straight pens had. We traded too much for convenience. I remember my brother making a balsa wood model airplane which took a very long time, weeks and weeks. Each part of the project demanded time and attention. The cutting, gluing, and painting required also taught him skill and patience. In the end, he learned a lot and derived enormous satisfaction in seeing the product of his industry and work well done.
Years later, I lived next to a family with a boy about the age when assembling an airplane would have been a propos. However, what the kid received was a three stage plastic rocket which I watched him assemble in less than a minute! Instant gratification and what benefit the toy? and what about the loss of all that he might have learned and experienced? This is a less meaningful or even useful way of fitting a kid to the challenges of life, challenges that are in and of themselves of value. We feel best when we are using all our gears! Why deliberately deprive us of being all we can? and I’m taking the phrase back to apply to civilian life, thank you very much. No one in the long run, benefits from generations of people who can no longer do for themselves nor think things through. I do not say this with contempt, but with sorrow for this having happened. I’d like to take whatever energy that comes from righteous indignation to the table to find remedy. Let toy manufacturers take note. Three month long projects for boys and girls will do more for our future economy than a lot of other schemes being dreamed up by our best and brightest. That sounds arrogant. I certainly don’t know how do get us out of the economic mess we’re currently mired in. Obama has assembled a brain trust to apply collectively their intelligence, imagination, creativity and education to the work ahead, what must be done to reverse and improve an untenable situation. Cooperative problem solving seems like the best bet and we mustn’t expect or demand any quick fixes. Every thing takes time.
Sunday November 16
Ray Bradbury in a collection of essays on writing said that at age nine, he was teased and put down by peers for liking whatever it was and he rejected the beloved to regain acceptance into the pack. It took him only a month to see that his peers were nincompoops and he took up collecting Captain Marvel or whoever it was again, to make himself happy. Oh fortuitous genius. It’s taken me a lifetime and I’m still not sure I’ve mastered self-regard without reference to the world. This does seem odd since my path has always taken me contretemps, against the grain and Widdershins. In Seventh Grade, in the darkening days of 1953 ( darkening for me because that was the year my mother died, the era the Rosenbergs were exterminated, the McCarthy witch-hunt begun), I wore my de rigeur navy blue taffeta skirt, see-through frilly rayon blouse with the cap sleeves and sparkly buttons, and thinking the look too austere or bland, I bedecked myself with my father’s paisley silk scarf, fastening the drapery with my little twin pin ladybugs. Thinking myself marvelously, opulently attired, I hied me to Friday evening dancing class, where I was too young, naïve and ignorant to avoid being upset by the sarcastic remarks of a classmate whose scorn for my inventive garb left me in the dust. Thereupon I became a fashion junkie, a dresser, a shopper, a second-hand rose. Thereupon I became riveted to the wings where I am currently removing the curse, bit by bit…that I might leap upon the stage while there is still leaping to be leaped.
So in the Hippie days on Stanyan street when I could have worn anything outlandish and alluring, I was stuck in preppie-classic when I danced at Ken Kesey’s Halloween party with the map of the Yucatan on the wall and Kesey with a full head of red curly hair, a Captain Marvel T shirt and a melodious waterfall laugh. I was still wearing knee socks, penny loafers, tartan skirt, Shetland sweater and pearls. I remember the evening well, probably the only one in that glittering gathering, gauging by the standard, who can. I danced with high flying Merry Pranksters and more reserved and manly Hells Angels. They must have thought my garb ironic costume, for I fit right in. Out back behind the house Neal Cassady was pouring forth Jazz poetry into a tape recorder and I sat there for hours imbibing his words, blown away. I wish someone would find the tapes and publish those poems.
In Portrait of the Artist, the code of secrecy, silence and cunning was advanced as a way to protect and camouflage the vulnerable artist, the maverick who needs protective coloration, hence inviolability in a world that doesn’t readily accept or tolerate variation. I have rather loved my own skin and chosen invisiblity instead of outwardly manifesting inner difference, not wishing to be taken to task for my choice of, um, duds. But the bizarre part of fragmentation was an irreality that pervaded my youth. Hanging in my closet were garments better suited in color and line to a willowy blonde, than to a dumpling brunette, such was the hold wishful thinking had upon me. I did so want to be the perfect incarnation and embodiment of the American girl and standard imago of young woman beauty and it was she I bought clothes for and haven’t a clue what I could have worn in the meantime. I see now how I longed to belong, and took refuge in what I believed to be impeccability, wanting to be safe, sanctioned, approved. But what I felt was insecure. The journey to wholeness and integrity has been long and arduous but despite lapses of confidence in matters sartorial, I’ve fortunately had the sense to follow my nose, pursuing a wild and natural life in fields of wildflowers, and thickets of blackberry brambles in way- cool jeans.
The smooth surface of the lake appears unruffled.
But lately, a small interior scream makes a hairline
crack, a seam. A rolling ripple soon arises because
my life, a dreaming dust mote, dreaming and not drowning,
in the wings, waiting for its cue, is growing too large
for the dim and tepid waters I have called myself
from back stage and the ropes and pulleys can no longer
bear the weight of the embryonic creature
who is growing, who will soon bite the ropes
while the curtain descends and stand
on dry land, shaking the waters of oblivion
from her fierce and glossy skin
and howl and bellow for life,
During the decade I cultivated a passion for photography, I was no Diane Arbus filling up my attention and soul with bizarre, strange, even grotesque images, with the quiet and disturbing reality of off the grid beings in America. Some have said that Arbus set her camera towards perceived monsters to shock, but looking at a retrospective show not too long ago, I saw she was a very thorough enumerator of variant expressions of humanity and if her portraits were often of “monsters,” it was not because they were hideous or deformed as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Victorian Elephant man, but because they were different from the standard issue of the Middle America Madison Avenue appealed to, because they bore the distinctive, seemingly distorted expressions of individuals in pain, their true faces, the rest disguised with pancake make-up, nose jobs and then face lifts and Botox while thinking happy thoughts and paying the shrink a goodly sum. Different or out of scale were Arbus’s giants and dwarves, anomalies whose otherness made those of us who did not flinch and look away, look inward and wonder about our own refractions.
I recognized and honored the genius of Arbus’s vision, but I was loathe to focus on the darkened alleyways and images of the night. During the Viet Nam War when so many of my friends had come of age and found their voices, I was struck mute and silent. There were no words. I regained my voice through the camera’s lens and found myself a love struck woman, smitten with the beauty of the fleeting, enduring, phenomenal world. What my heart embraced, I felt impelled to record.
One day when I was tramping around with my camera, I came upon a cow in a field, a black and white Holstein in a field of long blue green grass the wind was moving through. Her belly was distended, not big with life, but her four legs straight up, erect and stiff in the lingering light of late afternoon. When I saw her there, I lowered my camera and thought of Arbus who would not shrink from recording this as well as every lovely blossoming that. I was now too much a celebrant of the every where I looked beauty of the natural world, embracing every living leaf, every cloud and puddle. I now see that this late cow or a hapless gull snagged in a buoy in the middle of the bay, expiring there as The Admirable and I came upon it so suddenly on a perfect summer day in a small boat with an eye painted on her bow are also images of life. But then, the I who I was then, who had just returned from the borderlands, the dark before dawn time after wrestling with angels in the dark midnight of the soul, the corridor time of reclaiming the fractured pieces and mending, was afraid to look too closely into face of death, the condition of mortality. Though I did not capture these images, I’ve kept them, fixed in memory as precisely as on film.
I chronicled the life of a small community for a decade and sometimes was lucky to come upon scenes of interest and grace, but the biggest fish got away. They came and went unrecorded, moments of beauty I wasn’t wise enough or sufficiently quick or ready. Rebecca at the well, for example, a clear eyed, open faced maiden bent to scoop water from a spring and drank with eloquent grace from her cupped hands, her beautiful hair cascading around her shoulders, utterly lovely. But by the time I fumbled for camera and measured light filtered through bracken and fern, what I saw in my viewing screen, was not the mythic maiden, but the adolescent girl, cheeks flushed with the effort of the climb, beads of sweat on her brow, a smudge of dirt on her cheek, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. Click. Another big one got away in Mexico in the early Seventies, when such a shot might have made my fortune or at least a nod from High Times. Down a dusty road in Palenque,Mexico, a large grunting black and pink porker was mounting a sow in front of the little shack of a police station, Officio de Federales. Verdad! Holy Frijole, man…Dos Muchos!
In the panoramic sweep of the tender green hills after the rains came one year, in the little hollow between the verdant hills and the long boughs of the billowing oaks, a big red and white Wonder Bread truck appeared, a perfect conjunction of the mother’s splendor and her child’s folly. Wonder Bread, the staff of life caricatured, denuded of nutrients, bleached to look, to appear pure and refined, but really bland, form without substance. Is what we make what we become? Sometimes I imagine the old gods feasting on the souls of men like peanuts: some quite tasty and some so bitter, they must be spat out at once. But for all the wrong doors, forks and turnings in the road, paths through the forest, we are educable. We are capable of noble thought and action. Are we not the inherent possibility of the given, coupled with the effort and industry of the made, the raw and the cooked? Isn’t the covenant between our mortal being and the immortal creative sparks and powers of life a joint work? Why not relinquish the superficial, the illusory, the ersatz substitute for the real, for really good bread, whole grained, nourishing and delicious? With butter.
Monday November 17
is a magic trick
not sleight of hand
fabrication or flattery
nor Trompe l’oeil artifice
conjured for connoisseurs
but the germination
in the heart of being.
can open up the dank dungeons
we’ve been huddling in
for countless years
while the water
into the metal bucket
which we listen to
in several dimensions
in order to stand erect,
emerge into broad daylight
and saunter into the tall grass
to the apple trees.
One of my best students….not best because of marks or deportment, but because he asked difficult questions which stirred sleepier more timid peers to break the barriers of silence of their preferred lecture format into a class discussion… asked me if I thought that the country would have been in a better place if the counter culture had never left the main stream during the already splintered era of the generation gap. I had to consider before I proposed that there was no way any of us could know the road not taken. We could speculate, of course, entertaining various scenarios. However, that said, I stood up for our having gone back to the land, built positive communities and lived as we thought people ought, imperfectly to be sure, but with affection and kindness, compassion, tolerance and forbearance as our guiding lights, and helping one another out. It is good growing gardens, walking in the woods, along the water’s edge, and dancing at the drop of a tune, our practices. We created a wholesome environment to raise our children in and on that account I have no regrets.
I suppose I became a drop out because I needed time to think, to construe what was happening to our world and country, so confounding and disturbing the events and circumstances since that cold day in November forty –five years ago when Kennedy was slain, a watershed moment… Jack, Bobby, Martin, maybe Adlai and the other inner circle victims of coincidental heart attacks, if there is a even a shred of truth to the rumors and allegations wafting around like smoke from the Gauloise, English Ovals and Balkan Sobranies in the dimly lit, hyper-angst-inducing coffee houses and art flick palaces, the little bistros where Bohemians and beats and black-clad students, hair growing long, could eat spaghetti and imbibe robust red wine for cheap. We started speaking to each other about everything. We speculated, read the Village Voice, Ramparts, Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Vance Packer, Eric Hoffer. Information. Alternative views.
We read the Dailies; we watched the news: the little girls burned in the church in Selma, the young boys murdered in Mississippi, continued lynchings in the Jim Crow states. Everywhere in the South, families suffered. In the North and elsewhere in the country? Chicago, Kent State, Harlem, Watts, anywhere, everywhere, the omnipresent war, inequities and iniquities at home, our growing awareness via the Telly of world hunger which was hard to bear, knowing we were dumping wheat to keep supply short and demand long. We were beginning to grok the dangers of over-population and many of us kept our vow stipulated by ZPG, Zero Population Growth, to have no more children than two, eliminating, we hoped, the geometric increase and ensuing problematic consequences. Alas. The prophetic observations of naturalists and conservationists concerning the degradation of the environment were dismissed and the scientists discredited through Ad Hominem attacks. They were called alarmist cranks, hysterical phonies. Better living was through chemistry. Progress was our most important product. That’s what we were told and we believed them.
I can’t remember when I stopped believing, when I began to question the status quo, authority, the official version of what was going on. The scales dropped slowly from my eyes. I was a good girl, did more or less what I was told, did what was expected of me, however rebellious my inward misgivings. The shock and jolt of November 22,1963 brought me fully awake. I don’t know what happened that day. I don’t subscribe to any theory. Maybe Stone got it right. Who knows? Actually we shall in 2013, fifty years after the fact, when the information, what they didn’t want us to know then, whoever they were, will be released. And let’s hold them to it. We want and need to know. Many of us simply could not believe Oswald was the lone assassin and felt confounded if not betrayed by the powers that be, by those we had hitherto given credence to, without question. November 22 was for us, the end of innocence, the end of naïve and simple trust. The friendly gum-chewing, chocolate dispensing Good Guys, the Liberators of Europe, the heroes of the Second World War, and the ingenuous, well-meaning ( But meanwhile, back in Los Alamos, back in Meridian) good-natured, open-hearted, public-spirited, everyday, decent, home town, down home folks, the true believers, were betrayed, were hardened, were corrupted, were numbed and subdued. Utterly altered. Easy as pie. Inch by inch, seduction by seduction. Yes, sir. No, sir, three bags full.
I continued for some years on an outward path in a direction planned in a more “world enough and time” frame of mind. I went to school. I taught school. I signed a loyalty oath… convulsions of the head-severed hen hopping around the yard until the last spasm and twitch of nerve ceases and the collapse in a heap of feathers and drumsticks. My collapse occurred in wintery Vermont. It wasn’t just Kent State or the lime green polyester pantsuits. The first chain store was established …Kentucky fried, and thus the diminishing of particular place, regional cooking, quirky idiosyncratic local culinary custom began. There were snowmobiles now growling through the holy silence of the woods. The wilderness was refuge for the spirit, Manna for the soul, hitherto so lightly trod upon by snow-shoers and skiers who leave only the most evanescent tracks, not disturbing the woodland homes or the silent watchers, the ones for whom it was impossible to say one thing and mean another. But these were the last straws…those images on the screen from Viet Nam, knowledge of what my age mates had done at Mai Lai, what had been done to them…the souvenir ears…unthinkable, unbearable.
I seemed to have stopped in my tracks, stunned, appalled. My generation was raised in the dark, in an era of dissociation. Babies didn’t smile. They had gas. Feedings were by the clock, not in response to appetite’s demand. Legally, until their majority, children were perceived as infants. On a document I signed when I turned 21 was my name with the apposition, late an infant, now a person. We were guided by and lived by the strict cold letter of the law, not the warm embrace of its spirit. In or out, black or white….not much gray, hardly any cerulean, magenta or mauve. We always knew where we’d be and followed the rules, the script, innocently complicit in a world that was steadily stultifying our growth, silencing our curiosity about life, cutting us off from radical trust, contact with the wellspring truth… stopping questions before we could formulate and utter them. A generation of mummies…until the Sixties and our poets, song writers and musicians roused us to life. We weren’t dead, only snoozing. For me, the outside track and inside ruckus were so far apart, the only way to mend was to pull down the house of cards. The kitchen got dirty. If the face we present is not the one we own, we become fractured beings bound to a quest for wholeness or oblivion. The sickened self harbors secret songs of unworthiness, while outwardly conforming to the public measure…what’s in, what’s out, what’s ok. Shame robs our spirit of efficacy. Thus diminished, the heart is vassal to the head, not the head servant to the body and the heart.
During Easter vacation, I visited a friend in Yonkers whose brother, an Episcopal Priest, was staying as well. One evening after supper, he told us a creation story. Once before time, there was a glass sphere which splintered into a thousand thousand fragments, a sliver now residing in every living soul. He said our human task is to join the fragments back together again. This heady mysticism pleased and also frightened me. I was opening up to the perilous journey of life, letting go of all the commonplace stories that fasten comfortable reality into place. I felt as if anything could happen, as if there were no gravity or firm footing or even the rising and setting sun to depend on, and I might go flying into the outer stratosphere. He viewed the Ten Commandments as God’s promises. Thou Shalt Not, he proposed, is not an injunction against, but a promise of future righteousness, an attained state of harmony with all. I found myself sinking into, wanting to be allied with, connected to the mysterious creative powers of the universe. In this opened state, I listened to Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River. A mother looking for her lost child, comes to the river where the Ferry Boat man is waiting to carry her across. This is the fertile bed of myth and the beginning of my own journey, a woman searching for the lost child of genuine being, her wholly occupied authentic self.
The next day, we went to the market and there in the parking lot was a jungle of Easter Lilies. A little girl reached up to touch one of the beautiful trumpets, powder white blossoms and golden stamen, colors of an egg. Hard hand, her mother swatted her. Don’t touch them. They’re Jesus’ flowers. Just like that, I snapped. Still transiting through ordinary time and space, I began tripping in the stars…. I left Yonkers to visit my Aunt in Manhattan, and stayed up all night leafing through the art books in her den, looking for the secret to navigation in the non- ordinary dimension I was blindly cruising through. I read the pattern in her Persian carpet for meaning, a magic carpet for the space I’m traveling in. Cuckoo- berries, nuts. Then I’m in a car with a friend who drives us back to Vermont. All the while, I try to make one line, unity out of the center double yellow line of dualism, division, polarity, synthesis from antitheses. Then I’m on the ward, drugged, unable to move, staring at the cracked plaster tear in the bare buff wall.
I did time, seventeen days, on the psych ward of the university hospital and I knew they couldn’t help. To prove my sanity or that I could think rationally, I was asked to count backwards by sevens, a task I couldn’t succeed at, given all the helpful ants in the world owing me a favor. My mind doesn’t travel in modes mathematical. Ask me for seventeen synonyms for change: alter, transmute, transform, metamorphose, transmogrify, mutate, shift, modify, vary, update, undo, fluctuate, reassign, commute, exchange, revise, transfigure, translate, transubstantiate and so forth. I was given too much medication and couldn’t control my body for a few days. The only part that moved was my all too fluid mind which had been ranging in the outer seas of the cosmos. Disassociation or visionary experience, the filters were gone. I knew what the next song on the radio would be before ears could pick up the frequency of the waves. I imagined myself a bridge over troubled water and lay perfectly still while the body of humanity traversed my broad back. I had my period and identified with Mother Earth, not with the blood of life making tissue, but blood from all the carnage of destructive acts, blood shed of humanity’s enmity and fear… on the battlefields, in the streets, everywhere we’ve raised our hands to inflict pain.
They gave me Thorazine to silence the too many open channels, to return me to normality. In another time and place, I might have been given guidance and a cup to hold the distillation of my vision, some container or grail, some recognition of the deep journey I had undertaken to retrieve my lost soul, the journey to the underworld to find and bring back a gift of guidance and aid. There was no resident Shaman on the ward. Ground level, bottomed out, I came to. However impaired my limbs and faculties were for the moment, I was still I and the experience was rather interesting, and at the very bottom of the well of my being, I knew I was all right, no matter what. And I knew that my ticket out of the ward was cooperation. I went to Recreational Therapy every day and caught the bean bag, counted backwards from 100 93 86 79 72 65 58 51… and little by little I did what I needed to do, which meant upon my release sha nanana sha nananana,,get a job… doing anything, it didn’t matter what. I needed to be self standing and self supporting, something I had hitherto overlooked while waiting for the prince, writing poetry and living, as my grandmother rightly noted, in a dream world. I began by stuffing and addressing envelopes and was grateful for that, then got a job at the bookstore and from behind a grille, cashed checks for students, reading, in between cashings, Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy. I looked forward to watching the BBC series, The Prisoner, every week which I relished. Soon came spring and I felt better when Dylan smiled on the cover of Nashville Skyline, and the Beatles sang “Here comes the Sun.” Soon I was out on the floor at the cash register playing Felt Smelts or Stinkity Pinkity with a fellow word-crazy cashier and I wondered what next and where. I didn’t know or care, as long as it was beautiful and on a body of water. A few weeks later, I received a phone call…would I like to come and cook at the Marshall Tavern? Not that I’d ever cooked for a living or imagined working in a restaurant, but it was just what the physician ordered and three apples bounced into my cranial slot. I couldn’t refuse the call.
I had forgotten the language of winter:
how things stop, jam up, constrict
like snap shots in the family album…
sentience stopped, collected pose.
Say “cheese” and the mask erupts;
each stifled yellowing smile freezes…
absent the living presence
under fixed glyphs…Whose mute impulse?
I walk on the crusted snow
among the root-like web of shadows
cast by bare boughed birch and oak.
My prints slide along the cloven tracks
of the reticent white tailed deer,
the skittery trails of squirrel
and I remember the snow blind bird
exploding into the windshield.
Fast and slippery roads a network
of inheld breath, banging heart,
bridges of ice along the spine…
The shivering dreamer crawls on.
What does not impede, restrain,
hold fast? I cry out against
the chill lassitude of body
icing over desire and intent…
Is that my torso in the freezer?
The dream evaporates before
I can decipher my streaming face.
Clamor of protest quickens.
Sap-loose and longing, I awaken…
old wounds surface and pulse in my skin
like muffled skaters gliding on the pond,
like water beetles skimming the surface
of a creek in the liquid season…
green murmuring, sun-fused, brimming
The crow caws
and the drip drip drip
of thaw speaks in a softer syntax,
a breathing season,
bird song and blossoming,
Tuesday, November 18
a frantic ant just scurried through the labyrinth of the keyboard. Poor ants. They’re little welcomed here. I have been known to erect a mountainous barrier of cornstarch along the kitchen window. I am respectful of them as long as they’re outside. Back yard is fine. Kitchen’s verboten because a nuisance as is the spraying of cats, though cats are sometimes sprayed because skunks are skunks and cats are cats and good luck unless you keep the kitties inside, safe from hazard, but insulated from a proper kitty life: deprived of the great mother, the sniff and feel of everything. But the point is pest and nuisance and what we do about it. Repellence and relocation are preferable to eradication. I still feel lousy about the tomb of the unknown yellow jacket in Sun Valley, in the county seat, where we lived several years ago. I couldn’t bring myself to enter the shed where they were poisoned and wish I had found better means to live with pests. Happily I found a way to live with the ants after terrible exterminations of their Mongol hordes by lethal sponge and worse. Ant Treblinka. Eventually I realized they were coming in to eat the cat food, so every evening I put a spoon full of canned food in each kitty’s dish and one in a tin outside for the ants … and that did the trick. They didn’t come inside anymore.
When we lived in another neighborhood, I cursed my dinner guest, a raccoon who had taken to prowling in the flower garden beside the door, snuffling and hunting for the garbage can I began hiding from him, ha, in different places around the yard. He bit through the plastic guard that secures the lid which I bought for a stiff price for the so called final solution, wanting merely to discourage him. Endgame it was not. Stalemate, perhaps. But I cursed him and his kind because I had not learned to live with him, the nuisance. Before I found the right combination of lid and bungee cord, I had to pick up the messy garbage from his foraging, the nightly meal I prepared for him, al fresco, in the covered dish. When I put the bungee cord around the can securing it to the fence, rather than fecklessly over the lid, he could climb in to dine and not spill. Voila! These days, my neighbor uses a humane trap and relocates the rascals. Fond and foolish creature, I miss their cunning fingers, their little bandit faces.
About the deer…I wept over Bambi as a kid, sobbed and sobbed, didn’t you? Kids can be so open hearted and sympathetic, recognizing animals as kindred spirits and entirely loveable are the strength and grace of deer. But. A gardener has got to stake out a territory and erect a stockade to keep them from nibbling what she plans for her soup pot and salad bowl. And so I have, though in dry seasons I leave water out for the nocturnal neighbors, am delighted to come upon a doe and her fawn nibbling blackberries, or the young bucks trotting up the street, and feel graced by their presence. Truth is, I’m crazy about the wildlings including the skunk who sprayed the cat and stank up the night, and while anyone might rue the presence of wild turkeys in the hood, gobblers who would love to gobble up our greens, I am happy to see them. I just can’t help identifying. Turkey c’est moi.
If you have the misfortune of mice or wood rats at home, do yourself a favor and don’t name them. You probably already know this. I made the mistake of calling the wood rat who had taken up residence a couple of years ago, Templeton. I could hear him rustling and skittering about behind the walls, no doubt caching the almonds he had just lifted. Any reasonable person would have pricked up her ears and bought a trap, avoiding the replacement of parts for the stove and dishwasher. Dadratit, what kind of creature eats machinery? Any reasonable person, I say, and thereby hangs a tail. I have a mind to think, but “The heart has reasons the reason knows nothing of.” However, sigh, I was an idiot to have been charmed by Templeton. And when the peanut butter baited humane trap didn’t work, the rat trap did. R.I. P. Live and let live? sigh. Live and learn. A conundrum, truly, but/and where do we draw the line? No sooner writ, then I hear a scratching in the walls. Another rat.
Emma, my geriatric feline, once such a brilliant hunter there were no problems or infestations, has retired, and Oscar is strictly a reptile guy: only lizards and gopher snakes, aside from crunchies, get his attention. This rat has neither a name, nor future. Da da da da Dragnet!
I felt better when I put a yellow jacket outside on a daisy after he stung me in the kitchen ( finger actually) when I reached my hand into a bag of Farmer’s Market lettuce. At heart, at best, we want to live as fairly and harmoniously as possible with other creatures, pesky as they may be. Blake wrote: “The cut worm forgives the plow.” Collisions and casualties are inevitable without any intent to injure. So it is more a matter of motive than deed. Even so, we are all accountable. In his essay, “The Lowest Animal,” Mark Twain counters the prevailing view that our species is a little lower than the angels, the highest species, for whom creation was made, posing some thought experiments to prove his point. In one, for example, he puts three goats in a cage with an anaconda who eats only one leaving the others, stopping when full. Not so Homo um Sapiens, perhaps the biggest pest of all. Perhaps. But it aint necessarily so.
Being an adult certainly isn’t easy. There is so much endless upkeep and maintenance. It looks like the rat problem is back. Everyone in the hood is grousing about the multiple and talented rodents who are outsmarting the cleverness of the baiters and trappers. I’m starting to hear stories of rats using twigs to set off the trap and then leisurely snacking on the almond and chocolate morsel tied up with a sewing thread to insure the catch. It doesn’t help my cause as trapper to have seen The Rats of Nimh because when I hear of a tool using mammal I feel sympathy and want to send the kid to college. However, I am resolute now, having learned my lesson.
Some nuisances are simply beyond our control, are unavoidable and must be endured with as good a grace as we can muster. Last year, for example, we had a power surge in the neighborhood, followed by a brown out and for my household, a whole lot more. These words aren’t for the faint of heart or anyone who must keep an eye on the clock. No sooner said than Dali comes to mind and it is just this sort of unbidden imaging pop up that makes it so difficult to be direct and brief, to negotiate the mundane without exploring the adjacent waters or following the double entendre. Not only that, but, I find myself veering off course when something unpleasant must be faced, don’t you? Freud had a lot to say about avoidance, denial, indirection, substitution, but/and…onto the subject at hand.
The surge surged. ….I don’t actually know what happened, but since cartoons have taken their toll on my imagination, I envision Robin Williams playing the surge, a peculiar heady Elecropan. I’m quite certain things can speak, probably because I find myself apologizing to the chairs should I bump into them. I like the animism of ordinary objects telling their side of the domestic drama. What would the vacuum cleaner say? Life sucks?
Probably it would cough and sneeze because of all the dust and exhibit a personality not unlike Eeore’s. I didn’t really want attention anyway. The closet is quiet and dim, if you like that sort of thing, and I’m not saying I don’t. Still, it has been weeks and weeks and the rugs were rather expecting me, but don’t go to any trouble on my account. A long rest is probably good for someone as old as I, who hasn’t had a nip of oil in years, though you would think the rugs might have said something by now, not that it makes any difference, kachew.
The surge protector bit the dust and saved the computer. As well, the septic pump fried, though not immediately detected. It was long enough for me to have entirely forgotten about the surge. Everything backed up and exploded through the drains downstairs where I had not been for awhile, family members and houseguests in absentia. I kept smelling a little you know and started eyeing the cats suspiciously, resentfully. I noted the proximity of the stench, let’s not mince words, to the furnace vent and having previously noted, during someone’s visit, eau de shampoo arise from the shower spray downstairs wafting through the vent, I suspicioned the trouble lay down there. Cats off the hook. And yes it was there. I opened the downstairs door and found a flood of water, soggy strands of t.p. and all the accoutrements… It was offal. Aristotle says no violence on the stage. It is enough for us to know without having to endure the visual evidence, without having to see the brutal and gory which he says is a violation of sensibility, a psychic wound…why Oedipus blinds himself off stage. So I will spare you the finer points of the fetid sluice.
It was a Saturday, not a day the friendly neighborhood plumbers want to be summoned. Still, I phoned a few, but it was hours before anyone returned my call. Meanwhile I did what anyone would…donned gloves, lead the towel and mop brigade and cleaned the mess up…to Ravel’s Bolero, a work generally associated with rather different sorts of feverish industry, but a woman does what is given her and what she must. Finally, a plumber called, told me to call an electrician because he thought it must be the septic system. The fourth electrician I called came over and diagnosed the immediate problem. The circuit breaker had been fried during the surge, but he could whaddayacallit when you hot-wire the car? well, there you are…hotwire, the very word… which he did, which meant I could turn the water back on and flush. My hero told me to call City Sewer and so I was visited by the clan who everyone hereabouts eventually meets. The pump itself had to be replaced. And then the insurance adjuster came who sent the guys who pull up floors and tile in a black water situation and guys had to come to remove the furnace until the new flooring and tile could be purchased and the floor and tile guy come to do what they do. It was a long cold winter without a furnace, but I did lay in a cord of wood and have a peachy wood stove and though I was for a long time adrift in the corridor of discombobulation, it was lovely to sit by the hearth of an evening and dream of spring…which I probably wouldn’t have done if the ordure hadn’t hit the air conditioner, etscretera.
Wednesday, November 19
What a species we are! My girl curls are, under the blonde, grey now and as I contemplate the life that I have been given, the life I have lived, I wonder what I really know. Can the sieve, memory, be trusted? As with a smoldering campfire, the wisps of tenuous data adumbrate and disappear, just out of reach. Ephemera…All this the poets noted, warned of, but my girl self, the young woman I, was haughty, heedless. Could I have believed myself immortal? I thought we could know all things, could keep knowledge in the cranium, at hand, ready and available always…but. And while I have spent my life in passionate search for awareness and understanding, what do I really know? What do we really know? Here now at the edge of new century and Millennium, I can’t help ruminating and taking stock. In our tenure on the planet, we’ve whacked and hacked, weeded and hoed. We’ve dominated, predated, laid waste and despoiled. And we’ve succored our children, cherished one another and cultivated our gardens. Intermittently scrabbling to the top and stopping to help each other up, strutting and stumbling on the high wire, we find precarious balance between hope and despair. Ever thus.
Is there no balm in Giliad? Surely we who have created the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Sphynxes and pyramids in Giza, aquaducts and the Roman Road, the Great Wall of China, Notre Dame and Chartres, Uxmall and Chichinitsa, the pueblos high on the mesas of Arizona and New Mexico, Stonehenge, the great figures on Easter Island, the cave paintings in Lescaux, Hoover Dam, Mt. Rushmore, surely we who have built a channel through the Isthmus of Panama, rerouted rivers to make the desert bloom, sunk cables under the ocean, sent rockets to the moon, surely we who have built outriggers and schooners, bathospheres and submarines, airplanes and helicopters, automobiles and trains, surely we who have nearly eliminated Smallpox and Polio, invented telescopes and microscopes, radar and sonar, printing press and Internet, XRays and MRIs, resisters, transisters, woofers and tweeters, computer chips, pizza and apple pie, surely we can clean up the mess we’ve made, solve our problems, and heal the planet and ourselves made sick by our excesses and ignorance, our carelessness and greed.
The systems in the body work in harmony and accord, complementing and supplementing each other. The body seeks homeostasis, balance. If we look at the corallary macrocosm, we see the earth is similarly a net of interweaving systems that require harmony and balance. Each individual is a part of a family and community within any given environment and a part of larger and larger wholes. We are masses of swirling molecules and energy, fabricated of elemental building material. Our DNA and RNA can be said to be on Inter-galactic Loan to us. We are the ephemeral vessels through which they pass. From this perspective, in such a context, we are able to see ourselves as one among many. Thus what is good for the whole must be taken into account. We know in our bones we need wilderness, clean air and water. We need a supportive and nurturing environment that produces optimum chance for survival, flourishing and thriving of the sentient beings, life forms, organic and inert particles here on Terra Firma, the blue planet, rotating on its axis, orbiting the Sun, inside the Milky Way. Ancient wisdom traditions, which are often alluded to and seldom heeded, may offer a way out of the apparent impasse, the stalemate created by the conflicting claims of the one and the many, individual and community. Shall we continue to strive for personal gain and glory, via ambition, competition and dirty tricks ? Oh the loop holes, the bailouts, the laundering, the PACs, the clubs, the patronage, all the quid pro quos of golf course and board room, the special interests, the some pigs is more equal mentality that infests private and public spheres. Or shall we remember the commonweal, the good of the whole, via compassion and cooperation and like the ancients, choose the Middle Way? We have seen the excesses of extremes: the pampered few and the hard pressed many; one size fits all. The former is clearly unfair and the latter obliterates individual differences. Let us consider the Middle Way.
Over the gateway to the temple at Delphi are inscribed next to Know Thyself are these words: Nothing in Excess … an onerous onus for Homo Sapiens. We, for whom too much of a good thing is never enough, have struggled with temperance. But there is a way to Carnegie Hall. Through trial and error we learn, if we choose. We are an educable species and that is what is left in Pandora’s box. We are not necessarily doomed to repeat the nightmare of history if we, like Stephen Dedalus, try to awaken from it. Obi wan Kanobi would amend: There is no trying, only doing or not doing. Here now, encore une fois, take it from the top, Louis, we are up against the wall of time.
Now my plump and dimpled girl hands are weathered. They are grandmother hands with thinning skin, articulate veins, and a thousand creased and wrinkled lines emboss the parchment of flesh. Never the less, they are beautiful hands, these crone hands whose adolescent fiddle fingers loved the violin, clever hands that have kneaded bread, weeded the garden and planted for beauty and food, gentle hands that have held and caressed my child, all my near and dear, willing hands that type. What a fortunate species to have such hands… and not just my hands… your hands… so much is in our hands.
The beauty of the autumn palette, the luminous reds and oranges and yellows of the deciduous trees get to me. The green leaves of our ancient plum tinged with corals and lemons and browns are lovely, especially on an overcast day, the light diffused and the air growing colder and wetter and moisture is saturating the ground from last week’s rain so the earth is a rich loamy brown and green is infusing the new grass that grows each fall in our northern California climate. The mushrooms are popping out and the mushroom hunters have begun their rounds. There is something so poignant in this season, the ending of the year, the dying back into the time of stillness and hibernation. Some days are still so warm, hearty neighbors are taking one last swim on a balmy afternoon sandwiched between cool days and chill nights. I have been content to drive to one of our ocean beaches and walk along the water’s edge, drinking in the rhythmic pounding of the surf, the tumult of waves crashing against the sandy shore. It is so lovely just to be outside listening to the chitter of a squirrel and the thrash of leaves as it leaps from bough to bough, to catch sight of a blue jay, to come upon quail or find the delicate tracks of deer in my yard. I’ve been holed up indoors for days writing and writing and having my say and the reward for my labor is being outdoors, walking around the woodsy block, sniffing the air and simply being. As a kid, I never wanted to come inside, even in winter. I’m beginning to be that way again which feels very good. I sense long walks will help me sleep better. I still wake several times each night, but am getting enough rest somehow, because I am feeling chipper and inspired, partly because I am doing what I love to do and feel so very much alive. And also because Obama is our president and we elected him. Enough of us have had enough, though I haven’t seen a paper in days and the particulars elude. Obladi oblada…life goes on…ladadada…life goes on..
Thursday, November 20
Ah the pleasures of travel. Travail. Travailler…hard work and then you eat. Late last spring my daughter, her pal and I travailed to Italy where as a young woman I lived and studied Art History and the Italian language through my university’s program in Florence which fulfilled my deepest longings to be immersed, as we then said, in the worlds of art and culture which western New York didn’t entirely provide. My nineteenth year in Europe formed and confirmed my tastes and proclivities. I had a Euro Rail pass and 25 cents opened the door to any concert hall or stage I hankered for…and there were many. True, I sat in what is called the nose bleed section or The Gods, but I had no fear of heights or anything else for that matter. My business was learning. I learned languages, read voraciously, visited museums and cathedrals and looked at everything and everyone on boulevards, in cafés. It was paradisiac. Le style. The chocolate. Life.
So fueled by fond memory tinged with hyperbolic nostalgia, I booked tickets and flew to Italy. Everyone travels for different reasons: to visit family and friends, the haunts of our youth, or the land of our dreams. We leave the cold of winter for tropical climes, get out of town because we’re fried, bored, disillusioned, lost or whelmed by loss and grieving, in need of a change. People have always been impelled to roam, explore, discover, to gaze upon and attend great works of art and culture, to meet new people with different world views and alternate realities or encounter flora and fauna of hitherto unknown varieties, bump into landscapes by Watteau or Ansel Adams. We fling ourselves from the comforts of home to go to school or work, to build a career, learn languages, purchase and collect, or even spook for the CIA, MI5, caught up in the games of black and white, us and them. All those are compelling motivations and I subscribe to several, but after having recently both amused and exhausted myself in travel, I have to confess…no surprise here… we also travel to be fed, to eat. And what’s wrong with that?
I bet I don’t have to tell you of the pleasures of the table. Melanzano al forno is one of the best uses of nature’s bounty and energy and I don’t seem to tire of it. Put the eggplant in the oven and pour the wine. I don’t generally drink wine with lunch, but in Italy, they go so well. Everything goes so well. Everything we ate was great: Minestrone with a dollop of pesto, ravioli, gnocchi, and steak Florentine which two of us couldn’t finish. Tiramisu. Gelato we ate everyday. Such flavors: melon, cinnamon, pistachio and chocolate. On several occasions, we were treated to an after dinner grappa which will put hair on your tongue which is not the same as the dog that bit you, but close. The miracle of walking everywhere to get anywhere and eating absolutely everything we could cram into our eager boccas: we didn’t gain weight.
Some of the unexpected encounters, reflected in tranquility, afford much pleasure and I don’t know how to explain the happiness I felt. Going to the University of Pisa where the Wandering Scholars of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance came to study, where Gallileo, that splendid maverick, did his research thrilled my nerdish soul. Even though the actual building was rebuilt in the 18th century and Gallileo had never actually stepped upon the stairs I climbed, I felt a tenderness for the stone because he had been there, not there there, but there. On the train from Pisa to Genoa, we passed through Carrara and could see miles and miles of gargantuan slabs of their famous marble. Having recently visited Michelangelo’s David at the Academia in Florence, and been moved by the august beauty of that iconic sculpture, I found it lovely to see the raw material. When asked how he accomplished his masterpiece, Michelangelo is said to have replied: I chip away all that is not David. That’s been a touchstone, a beacon for those without the conventional script.
Another odd thrill came to me while cruising through my dictionary en route. I noted that the Italian word for jelly fish is Medusa. Isn’t that crazy? I began thinking of our little Moon Jellies and then remembered the very large and toxic Portuguese man of war I avoided as a kid in the Atlantic in Florida. I could see how someone could imagine the Medusa, a sea nymph and chthonic monster with snakes for hair ( how like a jelly fish!) whom Perseus beheaded, viewing her through the mirror of his shield and avoiding directly gazing which would have turned him to stone. I thought I could see into a chink in the past through evocative image….worth all the trouble to get there.
In a culture with different assumptions, expectations, customs and habits, it’s easy to make faux pas. I asked for Parmesano for my
Linguine con Vongole. In Venice it just isn’t done. Worse, we offended our host when we told him the milk and orange juice which had expired in March were out of date. He sent someone to check and he assured us they had not. They would not expire till March of 09. I didn’t think to read the last digits. Who knew they were box drinks? When we visited the oldest most revered perfumery in Florence, I proceeded to douse myself with what looked like the floor sample. No, Madam. That is not for persons. It is for the moths. Well that was a plus. Whatever else happened we would be safe from infestation. The other big plus, small gesture that it was, came from the Florentine pharmacist who dispensed cough medicine to me so my companions could get some sleep at night. I said something that really amused him and when I extended my hand for a friendly goodbye, he kissed rather than shook what was proffered, and I knew why I traveled so long and so far to a much older world than ours.
How close I came to missing a small impossible sight. I really don’t know what to call an unexpected and improbable image floating in mid air: two tiny red leaves from a Japanese Maple tree, bobbing up and down looking like a miniature, a toy galleon floating on an unseen current, an illustration in an old fashioned children’s book, painted at a time when no expense was spared and artists were paid handsomely because their work was much honored and appreciated…an era of nuanced aesthetic appeal. Of course when I walked closer to confirm my suspicion, that the mid air ocean bobbing vessel was in fact the twisting and spinning of cast off leaves curling into each other suspended from a long strand of spider silk. What work was this? Artifice and artificer? The Deist argument for the proof of God runs like this: just as a watch posits the existence of a watch maker, the existence of a world posits the existence of a world maker. Probably happenstance, random and happy confluence of this and that, product of a collision of natural processes… unless we want to claim artist status for the spider, as someone who had read Charlotte’s Web might. What matter? A magical moment, unexpected, evanescent, delightful….So much is or could be if we are in the right place at the right time, if we are alert.
I didn’t sleep much last night. I drank chamomile tea, went to bed early, and woke in an hour. I came out of my bedroom where both Kitties had encamped and sat down at the keyboard and turned on the computer, planning to harvest the flotsam and jetsam trapped in the neural net, keeping me from sawing logs in the land of fluid dreams. But I sat in my chair at my desk a long time without communing with the midnight spirits and went back to bed where I tossed and turned, unable to find the exact right place for my head on the pillow, the right disposition of flannel sheets and downy comforter, no comfort there. So I arose again and made a mug of warm milk for the tryptophan. It works for some and sometimes for me. But there is a sub-rosa track and story line, confidential and invisible even from an otherwise fairly examined life. The obvious… The world is in a parlous state of which I have said quite enough. And so the big empty places, the blank spots… what I don’t remember in daylight hours: love, for example. Having occupied enough territory on my own and strong enough, having, as my esteemed friend, Visionary Activist Caroline Casey says, gotten all the good out of loneliness, I’ve been looking for an eligible gent. I’ve done the online thing, and advertised in the NY Review of Books which turned up some close but no cigars. I enjoyed a number of exchanges, but all on line and virtual isn’t enough reality, sigh. The score of all those volleys? Love all. My memorabilia file is filled with dozens of hopeful dead end exchanges. I could write a novel, an epistolary novel of email exchanges revealing all the invested effort and wishing and wanting and longing and pining and spinning of wheels getting, as we used to say, nowhere fast. But no. In life and in novels, plots really do have to thicken. All the great men I know are married, gay, dead, and the rest I don’t know, are far away, or out of reach, so what’s an old broad to do?
Friday, November 21
I just started thinking about the obvious. The root of November, nove, is nine, no? And October is eight, September seven, and December ten. That’s what the words mean. And if that is so, then counting back, March is the rightful beginning of the year, the first month, which makes sense…the renewal of life, the new growth of spring. That was the Roman calendar, not ours. And these days we round out every holiday to the nearest Monday to give everyone a three day weekend, but somewhere in this convenient smoothing out, we’ve lost contact with the significance and meaning of the days we are meant to remember and celebrate. Armistice Day became Veterans Day, and while it is good and right to reflect on the sacrifices made by the heroes who value love of country above their own skins which they risked doing what they thought was right, it is also important to remember that the Armistice signed on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour was a symbolic end to hostilities, the end of war. All war. That is also something we need to reflect on.
When we were kids, we didn’t celebrate the abstract idea of president’s day, which now means sales at stores more than anything meaningful historically or culturally. We celebrated Washington’s birthday on his birthday and Lincoln’s on his. Every year our teachers geared their lesson plans to reveal as much as we could take in and learn about our formative presidents. We spent a lot of time reading about them, doting on them and making them our models. We learned the values of honesty and integrity. “I did it, Father. I chopped down the cherry tree with my little hatchet.” We learned to venerate the leader who had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and had written his own very great speeches which perhaps, come to consider, we might make a requirement for all presidential aspirants. Imagine candidates capable of writing their own speeches? What leaders we might elect. Sigh.
Meanwhile, getting a good deal on a mattress or sheet set seems a very poor substitute for burgeoning citizenship and we are the worse for such a tradeoff. If we become perfunctory, going through the motions dutifully, present in body and not in spirit, or getting through the day, our hearts not really in what we’re doing, where are we? What kind of a life have we bargained for a paycheck and keeping up with the digital components? I don’t simply want to grouse and gripe per se, but to summon us to a more conscious keeping of our history, to really see what has happened, what has changed, been diluted or denuded, denatured of nutrient so we can revive what has, what gives heart and meaning to our lives. Those with long memories remember the space race during the cold war and the funding of math and science generated by the advent of Sputnik, how hard Sciences were privileged over Humanities and through all the gifts of granting and funding, universities became the satellites of industry and political agendas that sponsored corporate hegemony. Even the Humanities became more rigorous and theory began to surpass and supplant primary documents, works of literature, which because we don’t simply ponder but fall in love with them, humanize us. Art speaks the language of the spirit which without… we come to the pass we are currently in.
At the community college where I teach, and I doubt this is an isolated instance, the administration currently makes decisions which over-ride faculty discretion. I have been an educator for many years and the main business of any school is education, obviously. Our college or university faculties have enjoyed hard won academic freedom since the late middle ages when our guild protected members from the consequences of the charges of heresy (the rack, iron maiden or stake) at a time when church orthodoxy challenged such eminent lights as Galileo. Inquisitors could and did torture anyone deviating from orthodoxy, so the accused would recant and abandon heretical views and save their immortal souls from eternal damnation. Scholars require freedom of thought in order to first find then profess what we know. We have traditionally elected from among our members those who would administer our precepts. In most departments, serving as chair was considered a duty, one that required time and attention away from real work: research, scholarship, transmitting the body of knowledge to the next generation of workers in the field as well as inspiring them to think.
The tragedy of education we are witnessing lies in the jettisoning of a long established and functional institution and a replacement, an appropriation of the rights and prerogatives of our guild by a corporate model of executive, top- down administration which has made many colleges dysfunctional. Yes a college needs to be solvent, even affluent so we can grant many scholarships, but a center of learning is not nor should it be construed as a business with fiscal impact the bottom line. I sense Board of Trustees members who probably know business practices better than education have sanctioned the reframing because they did not consider that conducting the affairs of an institution of higher learning as a business isn’t appropriate to the academic setting. It’s as if the methods and techniques of baking were applied to medicine. No. Do not put the patient in a 350 degree oven and bake. What good is education if we don’t listen to the ones who know?
I just read in a recent number of The Week, that the U.S. has plummeted to 30th place of all nations retaining and graduating high school students. Why is this? Last year the local papers were filled with the crowing of triumph because the numbers were better, the scores a bit higher in elementary schools in our county. I’ve been mulling this over glumly. Yes, we want our children to do well, and the numbers to reflect their attainments, but more important is their interest in and enjoyment of learning. The work of childhood is play: experimentation, exploration and encounter with the world they live in. Many of us were fortunate enough to have the kind of education that sponsors a life-long practice of gaining knowledge and understanding that comes from and leads to love of learning. In New York State under the John Dewey system which furthered the classical concept of sound bodies and sound minds, we did have rigorous academics, but we also had sufficient rest and recreation after school and time to do what we were inclined to do. We had many recreational activities so that when we went back to school, we enjoyed learning English skills and Math facts. We were not inundated or overwhelmed and we managed to study for quizzes on the material we had just learned, without undo hardship or stress. I feel for teachers and students today who have to cope with tests from afar that don’t match what they’ve been doing, a source of frustration to both students and teachers. It’s never too late or too soon, for that matter, to adopt a pedagogy that works, that educates rather than frustrates and alienates. Love of our learning is our birthright, curious monkeys that we are.
What’s keeping us from reconsidering Dewey? In keeping with his philosophy of education, we had no homework until the sixth grade when we studied for spelling quizzes and wrote book reports. We worked hard during the school day with recess mornings and afternoons to stretch our bodies. During free play there were no regimented activities…we were allowed discretionary choice, to do what we wanted, what our bodies required: vigorous activity. In PE, three times a week, we learned gymnastics, climbed to the tops of poles and did turns on the rings, skills that thrilled and strengthened us. Our bodies were strong and our minds clear because we were not burdened by the busywork that little kids now have to get through after school instead of being able to have their afternoons at liberty to play games, practice instruments or dance. This free time is being stolen from them in a system that demands incessant cramming.
To occasion discretionary recreational free time, someone needs to be home after school with the kids. If both parents in families fortunate enough to have two parents working, there is no one to afford children the refuge and opportunity for art lessons, sports or free play with the kids on the block. What if families with kids were able to be at home after school? What if each parent worked 75% of the time? That would leave 50%, 25% from each available parent and surely between them, someone could be there every afternoon. Perhaps single parent friends and neighbors could buddy up to provide a similar arrangement. But this arrangement would necessitate our shifting focus from what is profitable to what is in the best interests of kids and families. Not by bread alone…
Children today would be as pleased and strengthened as we who had art three times a week, music twice a week and a performance in the spring. We all took part in the holiday pageants. Our art projects mirrored the seasons which we loved to work on, being close, as children are, to nature. There was time to admire and love the beauty of the world. Our precious time and life force were not commandeered, as they are for many kids today. Who is education for? Whose needs should our schools serve, anyway? What societal goals and values should we espouse to make sure the needs and wants of our children are not overlooked, but rather fulfilled?
So much languishes, huddles, lounges, basks in the lost sock warp… not just the missing socks from the dryer, but essential things, thoughts, places, people… that won’t stay put where I can find them. Who knows what they’re up to, those escapees, those naughty, wild puppies, roaming etheric streets, free from human constraint and scripted obedience: Stay! Refusing to stay! Gone missing: words, phrases, whole lines from poems I once knew by heart; beloved songs– first the words and then the melodies; names of friends, people I’ve known for thirty years I meet at the post office and we smile and exchange neighborly pleasantries, filling up the moments until the lights go on and we remember each other’s of course, how could I forget? name; and in my classroom I refuse embarrassment when I can’t recall the particulars of what I profess, which could be construed as not knowing– book titles, authors, characters, times and places, settings and plots. I hold up the self mocking mask of the good natured absent minded, still articulate, but ditzy professor. I say the information is hung up at a traffic light or, my favorite refuge, we have data; we don’t have access.
Memory is now a sieve, more like a colander. And we all have our reasons and explanations: too much in the memory bank…the drawers stick and there’s no WD40, or like water overflowing the vessel, too many onions for the basket…as if the brain hadn’t capacity. How much grey matter is waiting in the wings at the ready to receive the footprints of our migrations and discoveries? Lots, honey, lots. Well, ok, because of all that smoke in the days of rock and roll, not that we’re not still dancing. Stress, then, and preoccupation… my mind footsore and heart sore, my sleep troubled in time of war. I grieve for friends lost, gone by neglect, product of my nomadic inclinations, my longstanding habit of setting up camp, inviting kindred spirits to sit at my table, to take warmth from my hearth, then packing up the 10,000 things and moving on. And lost through the last breath those beloved whom I would not have left, who could not stay. I barely know my feisty young woman self anymore, that nimble and lithe being, or find her smooth skin and unflappable, unharried disposition under the wrinkled knees and circumstances of a woman of a certain age, a woman who has lived and died a thousand times, suffering the slings and arrows, fortune’s fool. What gets me, though, the lowest blow, the cruelest joke is that I don’t remember the words to John Lennon’s “In my Life” nor Bernstein’s “Tonight” nor what’s his name’s “Autumn Leaves.” No, blankety blank, what I do remember is the sappy and insufferable ballad sung by Eddie Fisher.
”First the tide rushes in, plants a kiss on the shore
and rolls out to sea and the sea is very still once more.
So I rush to your side
like the oncoming tide….”
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Today is the 45th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. He has asked us what we can do for our country and two things are uppermost in my mind. I am sad and sorry we passed Prop 8 in California and denied Gays, non standard couples who love and adore and are devoted to one another, the right to marry. It’s a Civil Rights issue in a country where there is avowed, professed, though not manifest, not recently, separation of church and state. I made my argument in discussing women’s right to choose for themselves, for adopting natural priorities in determining here-to-for impasse issues. We do not have to agree with other people’s choices, but as long as what they are doing doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s doing, they are, in a free country, free to do as they choose. And while this next is a bit out there, I hope you will take my point. Why are we so afraid of homosexuality? Anyone who has ever masturbated has had a homosexual experience. ….long pause. big breath… some laughter in recognition? Good grief. What’s the big deal? Variety is the spice of life. We don’t have to be clones. We are who we are. Good. Let’s be happy for one another. To find one’s beloved is no small thing. I still haven’t found Mr. Right…. still looking for a heart of gold. If others have found their soul-mates, let us rejoice and dance at their weddings! Get a grip, kids. Cake is cake, chocolate or vanilla, pink or purple or blue.
Second on my mind is war, what I brood about in the middle of the night. I want us to finally understand…really know that war is futile and make up our minds to pursue diplomatic solutions to our problems. Our future is in mediation and negotiation, tolerance and acceptance, benevolence and accord. I don’t care how naïve you deem this view. It is the way through the eye of the needle. We can cease and desist. How do I know? When we were toddlers, we wore diapers because we couldn’t wait until we got to the potty. And then one day, having gotten hold of ourselves, we learned self control. Having made the effort, we don’t poop in our pants anymore. To become adults, mature generative beings, we must again get hold of ourselves. Yes there are those who pose a threat, individuals and groups of terrorists. Let us stop fighting the countries of their origins. Let us, as journalist Chris Hedges advises, discredit them among their own people, deflect the threat by marginalizing them, diminishing their power and influence, cutting them off from the base, laughing them off the stage and forthwith arrest and bring them to a world court to be tried as the criminals they are. And meanwhile, those whose behaviors have provoked the desperation that ignites formerly good men, besides themselves with frustration and defeat to commit acts of outrage, need to reconsider and behave with the civility and consideration with which they wish to be treated. The Golden Rule… Swords into plow shares…May the path open before us.
I am now reaping the fruit of retirement, though I am only semi retired. There’s time to sit down everyday and pour my thoughts through my fingers onto a virtual page and instantly print: Voila! Last spring in preparation, I booked tickets, filled out retirement forms, weeded the garden, and for the briefest of pauses to inhale the vernal air, avoided yet another stack of waiting essays who cleared their throats, ahem, whenever I walked by. You wouldn’t think I was the retiring kind, natural born show off that I am, but I am. I filled out the forms on May Day… sort of appropriate, I thought, for a working stiff like moi who has done her best to corrupt the youth in two counties, and by corrupt I mean, of course, inciting them to think. An uphill slog if ever there was and I regret not a grey hair earned in the process. For the last fifteen years, I’ve provoked between 100 and 200 students a semester into becoming creative and critical thinkers, creative and collaborative problem solvers who are coming to terms with the paradigm shift all able beings are summoned to address. Many are not only willing but honored to be summoned to useful occupation. They know we are but one of many species, but one of many nations and that all people everywhere want to be healthy and well fed. They now have a vision of sustainability, understand the meaning of moderation (well, more or less), and the value of presence and attention, community, friendliness, kindness, reciprocity… more important and urgent than splitting hairs over infinitives or even, sob, the sonnets and plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Austen, the letters of Rilke, the poetry of Keats and, and…
And now it’s time to pull weeds….sort of the same thing as teaching …an endless process that instead of bending over backward to get any where, you bend over forward. And then next year they’re back again. The weeds and the students. And they still don’t know the difference between fewer and less, more’s the pity. Year by year I have had fewer incentives and less inclination to extend my professorial career beyond this very now and that’s not considering the steep price of gas nor our deepening carbon print. The early morning drive is lovely in the autumn and spring, but I won’t miss leaving a warm bed in winter at 5:24 a.m. … a wise woman knows the very latest she may arise in order to perform the endless and vain ritual acts of maintenance before the porcelain shrines and mendacious mirrors in the semi dark. I say vain because more than once I’ve arrived in my classroom only to note that my mix and match duds didn’t, that the shades of black and blue clash or I’ve one brown shoe and one black, or my eyebrows…well, never mind that.
And by the way, and you’ve probably already figured this out, multi-tasking is for the birds, though they’re way too savvy a species to indulge in such foolishness. I realized this one early a.m. while performing my ablutions at 6 a.m. when I saw myself in the mirror, one hand wielding the tooth brush and the other, the hair dryer, in the frenzy of cleansing. I giggled, but only briefly, no time to spare. I would have rather fallen apart laughing at myself, probably the most important of all acts of hygiene. Hence the current 5:24 Reveille, which allows time for a little rosy fingered epiphany should one occur. And how smart is multi-tasking when I’m keeping an eye on the road and simultaneously planning the next segment of my classes’ foray into the bowels of academe, you should excuse the trope. I realize I’m probably making an ass of myself, analytically speaking, and I’ll probably be the butt of some asinine jokes, but wadayagonna do? Sorry. I’ve restrained myself, been as seemly as I can, but the seams seem to be splitting and I do like an oafish double entendre…glutton for punishment that I are.
What I’m most looking forward to, in my emancipated state, is not knowing what I’m looking forward to…or giving a flying fig whether or not I end a sentence with a preposition, full steam ahead. Serendipity is the way for me, following impulse and inclination, a curious scene, a heady scent, a beckoning path. There’ll be time for all the tasks, projects, and activities I’ve back-burnered: really cooking and baking, making music, plotting gardens and stories and who knows what. Who knows what? The joy of not knowing where I’ll be at any given moment, opportunity for chance encounters off the beaten track, leisure in which to unwind my skein? Gloriosky! I think I may take up the tango, perhaps make a quilt from all the velvet scraps I’ve been saving, or take some watercolors, brushes and paper down to one of the local beaches when the weather warms again with picnic basket, straw hat, and mat. And in the next flush of summer, when all the local food is ripe: Gazpacho, tomato sandwiches. Ratatouille, home made peach and rhubarb pie, biscuits, honey, for the strawberries and cream.
I’m sleeping better but there’s more I must get off my chest, what keeps me up nights worrying about, despite my awareness of the AA prayer which is as much a part of our culture as bagels and cream cheese, burritos and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I am not sure which things I can not change. Perhaps it is wisdom to know the difference, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Over the years, we have sponsored our causes and principles, for what our consciences tell us is right. Some of us have marched. There is something solemn and moving in peacefully protesting, to be walking en masse. The public spectacle of gathering, going some where, en route together, has heartened us, though we have not yet brought an end to war which is, as you will remember, not healthy for children or other living beings. Think what we can do with all the money not spent on war. We have big debts and urban renewal….isn’t it about time we bail out Katrina stricken Mississippi and New Orleans, so it is not just the blue chippers who can rebuild their homes and the people who were suckered into mortgages with escalating interest rates and declining market value? Oh I’d like to see Homeland Security disappear and the president replace it with a newly invested H.E.W. Health. Education. Welfare. Many working people think welfare is unfair because they work so hard and other people should too. Of course. Able bodied and clear headed people who are independent adults are so by virtue of standing on their feet and working for a living. Welfare does not mean hand outs for idle hands but help for those who are indisposed, incapacitated, too young or too old and infirm to carry their own weight anymore. I don’t want to put Grandmother on the ice floe, wave goodbye and trudge on. Veterans, the critically disabled, wounded, those who cannot work are the ones who need help. There were a lot of programs including Head Start envisioned by Johnson’s great society, a lot of good came out of that era and we could do worse than rekindle the lights of public beneficence that were doused and buried under the crushing and demoralizing weight of the Viet Nam War, the era of deregulation, the win at all costs ethos of me and mine. We see where that has led. Better to put the welfare of our people first and then do what we can to be good global citizens. Principles of ethics and codes of conduct require that we do no ill or harm, do good ( beneficence), play by rules of fairness ( justice), and tell the truth (veracity). And then there’s equity, dignity, forbearance and trust. Reciprocity, kindness, ease and enjoyment. Pursuit of happiness.
Merciful Minerva, it’s bad enough we’re all pumping gas and some of us more often than not, but recently I rolled into a station and thought I’d finally flipped my lid. I heard singing and there was no one there. I didn’t smell blossoms. The trees weren’t bare. No. There are TV sets at the pumps. Hmm… advertising and oil. Oui. Connect les dots. In his short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut limns a futuristic dystopia in which equality is enforced by the Handicapper General who mandates and dispenses artificial disadvantages for the gifted. The athletes and dancers have to cart around sandbags lest they be stronger, lither, more graceful than others. The brainiacs must wear head sets with bells and whistles, sirens and loud crashes that kaibosh their streams of thought so they won’t be smarter than anyone else. “Their thoughts fled like bandits before an alarm.” Hmmm. Not that the gas pump is where we necessarily go to meditate or sort things out, but you know while we’re fueling up just standing around, virtually captive, idle, available, if we’re not cleaning the windows, who knows what thoughts may come? Or bumper-stickers….
I was mighty nervous when they launched the Cassini probe knowing there is a big bang waiting to happen, what with all that plutonium orbiting hither and thither, what with asteroids out there cruising around, an accident in potentia, signaling if not devolution, then The End: Exeunt Omnes. It may never happen. It may even be foolish to worry when the folks at Cape Canaveral are so sure no harm will come, certain as they were when the Challenger was launched, not allowing for human error which escalates exponentially when the payload stakes are high. Five degrees off course is negligible if you’re sailing a small craft on the length of a seventeen mile bay and can correct…no harm done. But out on open waters, you could end up in the shipping lanes and the obit column. And that’s not all.
Was anyone else taken aback if not put out when they, whoever they are, threatened to launch Space Billboards or Logo Satellites, so that any innocent mortal among us ( even the not so innocent) could look up at the starry panoply of the night sky: Look! There’s Venus, yon Rigel, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse… also NBC, Nabisco, Shell Oil…Ptooey. When you wish upon a star/know they’re rich and we’re at war. And if you think that’s nasty, how about the new interactive TV commercials which I’ve heard are tailor made to the viewers’ own tastes, predilections, weaknesses and impulsive buying practices. Consider the collection of data that makes this possible, never mind the intent, the end in view. Oh Brother!
My list of plaints and lamentations is nigh encyclopedic. Noting the reactionary vocabulary in the face of such invasive and nuisance idiocy, I confess I do so want to retreat and retrench to an era previous, before neon, billboards and commercials, but with Internet and blue jeans, CDs and DVDs. sigh. What’s a woman to do? Wait for the pendulum to swing? Alan Watt’s tells an old story maybe from the steppes of Mongolia where the other cowboys flourished for centuries. A man captures a herd of wild horses. An admiring neighbor says: Lucky you. Man says: Maybe. Next day, the man’s son is thrown from a horse and breaks his leg. Neighbor says: Too bad. Bad luck. Father says: Maybe. Next day the army comes through to conscript the able bodied youth and the boy escapes. So we never know. We cannot precisely predict the far ranging effects of things that go bump in the night, however ill or well we play our hands, wield our cues or move the pieces on the board. But TV at the pumps? Puhleese.
I find myself in a snit of indignation, even an occasional full throttled fury over all the unnecessary impedimentia to and thwartage of the common weal. I now understand my gentle and music smitten grandfather’s vocal disdain for commercials in the early days of TV. He saw what was happening… the insidious sell, the seduction, the coming age of materialism. He, otherwise so reticent, so soft spoken, shook his finger at the TV, and muttered with contempt, “The Mumsers!” And so great gusts of distress sometimes blow me off the steadfast and steady, as great storms of winter unsettle seemly trees, the howling winds knocking down large limbs as well as weedy branches which fly about the yard, landing in scattered heaps, the tell tale signs of the much ado. A lot of bending, lifting and lugging are now required to set things aright.
Monday, November 24
Our yard is strewn with curling leaves, yellow and brown, and the cherry tree, leafy with melon and mustard, saffron and lime, is still…not a riffle, just the cold air saturated with moisture, the penetrating fog and the return of green to fern and grass. Such loveliness. I know I fly around so, am endeavoring to be a little less restive, more tempered. I’m dreaming of a more tranquil time about the speed of To the Lighthouse, when everything quietly unfolds, year after year, while we immerse ourselves in the life of the family, absorbing day after day, season after season, the patterns dwelling in minutia, the projects and prospects of the characters. In this tale, the married woman takes the cake, has and eats, and provides soulful love and dies midstream, happy, spent. She was fulfilled dispensing the traditional comforts in the best sense, the ministrations of archetypal mother. She is indulgent and her husband, classic father, acts as corrective, a clear gendered division of labor: head and heart. He’s the professor whose doctoral student staying with them balks, and whose readers find his essays not quite up to snuff…commentary on the theme of dwindling powers, winding down.
I’m still pointing towards a zenith in the midst of the gravitational pull. I identify with the artist who refuses to define her life in terms of a man. Rather she endures, taking the path not taken, forfeiting a surfeit of satisfaction for the pleasure and passion of pursuit, in making, creating, commenting, having a say in her medium. Ja, compenzashun, but. She is alive in her work, in soulful communion with the canvases upon which she gives life to vision through tint and shape. She, like the mother, is gravid and prolific. Both mother and father to her offspring, the artist empties herself of presuppositions. She empties herself of competing impeding distractions, the ordinary pastimes so there is enough time to paint and paint and paint, looking for the center, the focal point amidst the welter of detail, the ten thousand things. Of course I am a mother as well as woman with a mind and a million questions. As a working mother, I have been a deficient cookie maker. Perhaps I shall be able to make cookies for grand-children. Who knows? And truth be told, I want my cake and eat it too. I want to be artist and
( Where are you?) wife.
In the darkening diminishing days of autumn, my mind sometimes wanders back to seed-time. There is something so delicious about the spring after a long hard winter that gladdens the heart and quickens the step, a truism if not a cliché, but none the less pleasurable in the living. When we first looked at our yard in the dead of winter, my daughter and I saw a scraggly sapless superannuated entity, a lot of useless wood taking up space which could be more fruitfully occupied by a younger tree. I flirted with the idea of trading the remains to my favorite wood turner, in exchange for a cherry wood bowl and platter….but when winter turned into spring, she blossomed and I was smitten. Ever since I have adored her beautiful self. The second year there were signs of tiny cherries and the third, last year, she profusely uttered small aromatic fruit, the flavor of the lifesaver’s wild cherry. Mirabile Dictu! I am in the midst of a page turner of nature…what will happen next? Charming, elegant, she bears her age with majesty and what the old boys have claimed as a trait of their own: gravitas. I feel so honored to have landed in her yard. One Sunday morning last spring, the bees’ loud buzzing in her billowing blossoms pulled me out of restless night to stand speechless before this rite of spring. Elsewhere, bees are threatened, but here they gathered in throngs to inhale the heady nectar of her fragrant budding. And at her age!
So I would be, should I be granted fullest measure, making old bones as has my mother’s sister, my incomparable Aunt Helen, Kewpie Doll child, Flapper maiden with a boyish bob, opera and symphony lover, art maven woman, and down right adorable nearly 98 year old elder, game for anything. There are black white pics and fading color snaps of her on the backs of horses, camels, elephants, model Ts and golf carts. Nothing small about her except her stature, she’s always been willing to try anything, a dare devil who ate chocolate covered ants, rattle snake during the think yourself tough? Then prove it! culinary avant-garde era …hmmm…how would you cook a rattle? phooey. She ate with relish (garlic butter, actually) escargots, the little pests we sail over the garden fence or worse. I’ve never heard her grouse or grumble and have watched her bear with grace life’s ebbs and flows. I marvel at the run she’s had… gone everywhere, done enough of everything and thoroughly enjoyed herself. And she’s still so good looking…”yeah, “she says, “not bad for an old lady.”
“You’ve got to take the bitter with the better,” is her motto and of course it is better to accept what is, graciously, though it is a blankety- blank nuisance and a bore. True, no more toxic midnights that plague fond and foolish youth. The occluding wool has all but fallen from our eyes. No prophylactic buffers which could be a plus in the right context. But really, can any woman of a certain age who never leaves the house without a pair of tweezers be entirely thrilled? And of course it’s pointless to protest. Two year olds, the little Id people, the Cookie Monsters saturated with wanting what they want, right this very nowwwwwwwwwwwwwwww jump up and down, howling with desire. We too. How hard to stop the Wa Wa over wrinkles, fewer calories/ more exercise, no caffeine past noon, unwanted facial pasta, seeing the dentist more than the kid, falling asleep in the seventh row during a matinee, just like a Fogy, and at night, not sleeping at all. And then there’s aching joints and other body parts that require the tedium of compensatory mega pill and supplement swallowing every single morning. In the words of the immortal Gilda, “It’s always something.”
To become a caricature of a formerly glorious being in full possession and exercise of ample faculties and powers, to little by little relinquish the main arena for the side show is harder to swallow than the horse pills. Having to accept the diminishment of range and aptitude, slippage and losing altitude is damnably daunting… or could be if we let ‘em pull the rug out from under. Better to remain calm cool and collected, as our mothers advised, to stay or land on our feet. (“At last!” I hear my mother’s smug belated satisfaction from somewhere in the stratosphere… “Sixty and finally she listens!” ) Better to bear with what we’re given with grace, the bitter with the better. Sometimes it’s not our call at all. But that’s another story. In the meantime, there’s Aunt Helen and the Cherry Tree. It is possible to flourish into the Centenary. What I’m saying.
For the record, to salve not so much my conscience as a sense of inaccuracy, there are a few linguistic malapropisms in current use that drive me bonkers. Beware a lady with an umbrella. It’s not that I’m perpetually peevish. It’s the loss of sense engendered by mistakes of the kind I am about to detail that troubles my sleep. How can we come to our senses if we are careless and unconscious in our speech? Magic bullet is the expression I most want to set straight. This is a term now used in place of magic potion, an elixir of great restorative power that could revive the ailing king or wounded maiden, anyone, to health and wholesomeness. The potion was a mythical and magical substance of great power and value because it could heal, make hale and hearty, make whole. It was a draught taken from a fountain or remote spring or sylvan stream that could return the moribund to life, hence often called the water of life. There are stories, sagas, tales, and legends of this potent and efficacious liquid from all over the world. King Amfortas, the Grail King in Parsifal, is thus restored as are countless worthy mortals in folk and fairy tales we read and loved in childhood. One such tale, ”The Water of Life” was collected in Germany from many sources by the Brothers Grimm.
Consider the raison d’etre of folk and fairy tales, the repository and collective wisdom of the ages. Children understand the symbolic value of stories in which the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Our sense of the rightness of things is satisfied. We know instinctively what is fair and just. Give any two kids a cookie to share and both know an even break down the middle is fair and square. They know goodness consists of kindness friendliness and generosity and that wickedness is brutal cruelty and meanness of spirit. It is so satisfying to be in a movie theatre with kids to hear the welling and outpouring of feeling in the roar of yeas and boos, the quieter sighs and groans as the plot thickens and the powers of good and evil are tried in the arena of mythic encounter. When Obi-Wan Kenobi says: ”Use the Force, Luke,” and he does, the audience in the Saturday matinee I attended exploded with joy. Similarly, when the arrogant and calculating step mother and her narcissistic daughter are banished to the laundry room in Ever After, we are well pleased and satisfied.
In fairy stories, the hero or heroine often has a series of tasks to perform, among them the sorting of lentils and beans, a symbolic rendering of discernment and good judgment, learning to distinguish one thing from another, to know what is good for us and what is not. Learning values is at the heart of the hero’s adventures. Learning what is important, what matters is the work of our growing up. For ages past, women routinely died in childbirth and men in the hazards of work and war. The fairy tales taught children whom life has thwarted or hurt through the loss of a beloved parent, patience to endure what now befalls, to await a better chapter later on, especially if he or she is like the youngest child, guileless and kind. In the tale, “The Water of Life,” it is the child who, making his way up the road, goes neither to the left nor the right as the older brothers do, the ones who take the goldness of the road into account and avoid treading on it because of its importance and worth. The youngest brother is heedless of such considerations and only wants to make his way to the princess at the end of the road, to love. It is the youngest child who restores the king to health by being kind to a dwarf the others disdain, who tells the lad how to succeed in finding the magic potion and wins love by being unaffected by the glitter of material wealth.
So now to the point. Magic bullet was a term coined to describe the trajectory of a single bullet alleged to have passed through both President Kennedy and Governor Connelly which common sense tells us was not only wrong but physically impossible. Since then, the term magic bullet has been used instead of magic potion, meaning a quick fix. We’re said to be looking for a magic bullet to end world hunger, poverty, homelessness, joblessness, pollution, the shrinking ozone, the warming globe. Not me, kids. I’m still sorting through the lentils and beans, searching for the magic potion, the healing balm of words and deeds.
Lady, we no longer spill wine
upon the earth
without question or reprisal,
calling a woman to account
because we no longer remember
of victim and conqueror,
the death of the poet.
Never the less,
I light this candle
and spill this wine
upon the ground
to the four directions
and listen well
to the counsel of birds,
the warnings of dogs,
and the voice of the wind
in the trees
calling me to observance.
Listen to the silence of old women
parched as cornhusks
in the wash of a dry wind,
over the body of earth,
without pitcher or bell
or song of observance,
wakeful, watchful, waiting…
Among them comes one
dressed in the ancient
black of the crone.
Maria Callas comes
onto the great stage
and on bent knee,
pommels the earth
with tender hand
and cries out in
the terrible truth.
I can no longer hear
of the Earth.
It was not
for jealousy or spite
the breath of life
from her beloved children.
Pity her suffering,
blossoms shot forth
from her bough
beneath her feet
crushed back into
the arms of Earth,
for love silenced
for love undone
for love rudimentary
as the fertile fields
unmarred by marble
flute or frieze
I can no longer hear
the voice of the earth.
swimming in cloud form,
the senile gods and goddesses
recline, drift and dream.
they do not speak.
even as the jet trail
cleaves the sky
as the rent in the garment
of ozone grows.
I spill wine
upon the earth.
Make me a clear lens,
a permeable membrane
a tuned string.
Through my skin
wash the torrent
of sorrow and defilement
I approach the moving water,
the sacred stream
to drink and cleanse,
return to the fig tree
in the evening
the return of morning.
What else can a woman do?
After the long night
after the long night
of nearly knowing,
we puffed-up ones
sentient as dinosaurs
with ravening appetites
and locked-up senses
still scrabble for a foothold
in the crumbling ruin
the nomad shepherds built
Do we now await
the breakfast of Revelations?
Drought and Famine
Set upon our table
Or is there at work
some unseen Alchemy
in the realm of the Ineffable,
spilling the wine
the sacred soil.
And we awaken
as if from a dream
to see night become day again
and the spring return
after an arduous winter
and listen once more
to the voice of the Earth?
Pre Thanksgiving gratitude has overtaken me and I find myself not exactly tongue tied, but filled with the whelm and beauty of being available if we slow down enough. Remember Abraham Mazlow whose research led him to report the qualities and states available to self actualizing people? His work underlines the value of values, philosophical ends, things or states intrinsically worthwhile, goods in and of themselves…Our lives … goodness… truth… justice… beauty… humor… kindness… friendliness…
Kind of a latter day Keats:
“Truth is beauty, beauty truth,
that is all Ye know on earth,
and all ye need to know.”
Wednesday, November 26,2008
A while back, my daughter asked me what Kathleen Fraser meant by wooden rollers, in her poem celebrating ample legs. I explained that not too long ago, we had such a dim understanding of body chemistry and dynamics that we thought we could rub against resisting surfaces, using friction to vibrate the flab away. Those cartoonish Rube Goldberg health club vibrators buffed (as in shined rather than toned) the beefy torso or derriere in the 1940s and 50s. And each new interpretation of data, spoken in the voice of authority and expertise, may or may not be an accurate account, real knowledge. Thigh cream for Eighty bucks an ounce promises to erase the chub. Right, and I don’t drink or smoke or tell the truth. Witness the fad diets. O.K. Everybody eat bran. No, complex carbohydrates. No, the zone. No, this, not that. We are still in the process of experimenting, through trial and error. And what we have yet to hear is the voice of authority (the medical or nutritional experts) saying: listen to your own body.
We thrive, trusting our own instincts, urges, preferences, predilections, inclinations, hungers and desires, including knowing when to consult with the experts. Well, say the experts, what if people are so out of touch with themselves, they no longer recognize the self-regulating mechanisms? What if, when they’re full, they don’t stop eating? We’ve got to give them rules of conduct, nutritional guidelines for sensible eating, establishing and breaking habits, instructions, reminders, helpful hints. And they give us their counsel and advice and professional opinions, everything and anything but help us get back in touch with who we are and what we really want and need. As long as the directives and dicta come from the outside, and we follow one practitioner /teacher/ guru/ healer after another, we give our power away. Physician, heal thyself.
The perks of controlling knowledge are power and wealth and a life replete with freedom of choice and movement – the ways and means to fulfillment, gear for the pursuit of happiness. I don’t begrudge them their pleasures. And if I break my leg, I want a competent doctor to set the bone well …so I may walk, unencumbered, when I mend. This the docs know how to do well and I honor the knowledge and appreciate the expertise. We used to consult them in the consulting room. Now we wait patiently, in the waiting room. The middle man of insurance has made a wedge, an impediment. I’d like us to adopt universal health care and a return to the consulting room. I’d like to see Doctors study nutrition in their chemistry classes and organic food, locally produced available for all.
Is anyone really surprised that the FDA found no medicinal value in the use of pot? We know that studies can be skewed to favor a desired outcome. You must forgive my apparent cynicism. Our government hasn’t cared about us in recent years. I am a teacher and have witnessed the diminishing of our programs for lack of funding. I am also a survivor of breast cancer, grateful for the cessation of nausea a single puff of pot provided in the aftermath of chemotherapy. We need to consult those afflicted to determine the efficacy of a drug which was part of the pharmacopoeia of every country practitioner in the 1930’s until the chemical Industry waged a war on hemp, the raw material used in the manufacture of Bakelite, an organic biodegradable compound, in order to corner the plastics market. I’ve connected the dots. Let’s call the bluff that impedes a reasonable use of a useful medicine. The La Guardia report found no clear and present danger in its use and there are, I’d wager, a lot of pot smokers all over the country who have never been temped to try anything else, just as there are millions of our fellow countrypersons who eat three squares and are not afflicted by eating disorders, or have a glass of wine with dinner and not become alcoholics. One size does not fit all, and we need to know this so we don’t fall into the pit of suppression aka prohibition which leads to the black market and the loss of revenue if pot were as legal as alcohol and taxable to boot.
I know Doctors work with living beings and their job is more complex than a car mechanic’s whose skills as diagnosticians (systems analysts) are comparable. Still, the disparity in valuation of the medic and mechanic in our society is curious. When we finally come to realize we have some say in appropriations, we might better be served by dishing out more equity, yes/no? And what about teachers? A physician may only consult with patients for six hours a day, yet we know the long hours of preparation and thoughtful consideration good doctors give to their patients. Doctors receive and few of us would quibble over a significant remuneration for their services in and out of the office. Teachers, like physicians, should be paid commensurately for their skill and their salubrious impact on society. Even if we were to pay them by the hour, one could make a pretty solid argument that teachers ‘ work extends in time far beyond the hours of classroom instruction. Preparation of lessons, lectures and projects, evaluation of assignments, practices, quizzes, tests and examinations take a lot of time. I can attest to this. I am always thinking about course material, researching my subjects, writing, reading student essays and so forth. I can only imagine what it is like for elementary, middle and high school teachers who must review and assess assignments on a daily basis, the very real heroes of our world! There’s no end to their work. We as a society have shortchanged the mentors of our young long enough and rationalized our thoughtless ingratitude to boot. If the pigs who are more equal ( to butcher Orwell….sorry) would take their little trotters out of the cookie jar, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. We would show the respect and esteem we owe our teachers and pay them a full measure of their worth.
And build low income housing, and create jobs and and and…
In his last days, the Commodore, had nought to do but watch the tide flow in and out and contemplate. He concluded, along with other thinkers: Garbage In. Garbage Out. I took this to mean Tabula Rasa. We come in as empty vessels and whatever is imprinted in the scrolls of grey matter is all there is for us to combine in finite permutation, though if there is sufficient input, there is prodigious output. Garbage In. Garbage Out. This troubles me….because while I do not know enough science or even metaphysics to respond conclusively, I think the laws or rules governing our existence and all the systems we are embodied in and bent on configuring outside of ourselves are not the same. Inert and organic are the smae? ( I leave this curious dyslexic typo stand….to token chance mistake, accident, which surely must gum up or, in the spirit of wabe sabe, enhance the works). Are we but exquisitely manifest mechanisms, equations? We mortals are carriers not only of the DNA/RNA of which we are the transient vessels, but of whim and inclination, luck or Use the Force, Luke, as well. Or is this, too, program? I who love freedom, feel constrained by this idea. That we are animated dust is more seemly, satisfying.
Animated conjures the wild card, rabbit out of the hat, while the fundamentalist idea of fate (It is written, ordained, commanded.) makes us puppets and if we do what we should, we get to go on to life everlasting. Are we actors on the great stage as Shakespeare suggests? Does anyone really know what we have elected to do in undertaking this perilous voyage, if indeed we have had a say? Shakespeare’s “There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we may” gave me the notion I’ve been entertaining, but not necessarily attached to: That there is the given coupled with what we elect…a weaving, warp and woof. And somehow I can live with this, though I am not anywhere closer to explanation or understanding. I think it’s Calvino who calls us specks of time. I am not tempted to take the watch apart to see how it works, first because the design argument (As watch postulates watchmaker, creation, a creator) while good 18th century thinking, mechanistic, analytic, explains nothing. I think this is where my friend is stuck, between the tides.
I do not require total explanation and rather love mystery and magic…. how a spoon of yeast in water of a specific and necessary temperature, fed honey in a batter of flour and oil, and set to rise, kneaded and let rise again will, in an oven of sufficient heat and duration, becomes bread. True, one can predict and replicate, measure and weigh, but it’s still a mystery…..how it could can and does happen. And earth magic, how from a speck of possibility, germination, flowering, and fruition. Voila! Roses and red onions. Garlic and Marigolds in the mud. What is noble beautiful and wise may not be entirely reducible to diagram or chart. Garbage In. Garbage Out. I know I’ve not refuted, merely side-stepped the bottom line pronunciamento which I’ve tried on but can’t keep, not because it don’t fit, honey… but because it aint got that swing.
It was a wild bull I was running from
after I got off the train,
running to refuge in a brick building…
square rooms regular meals,
hiding out with the women and children…
and as I was leaving,
I saw his other face- Etruscan, chiseled,
Then why did I leave?
Why did I live, if you could call it that,
I slip out the back door and make my way
across the pale grey lawn to the curb
and get into the driver’s seat of my car.
Thursday, November 27
Thanksgiving. I am thankful. I am happy. The matriarch hundred year old cherry tree I met as a hunk of winter wood and nearly chopped down is, Merciful Minerva! viable, still fruiting and I just sampled the Cherry Cordial I made last year from the fruit the birds left. I’m going to bring some to the feast to which we’ve been invited. I am thankful for another blessed round of cordial making, year after year as soon as the berries ripen and the cherries fall to the ground. I’m not exactly a closet Moon- Shiner. I’ve been making Blackberry Cordial for over thirty years. But last year I branched out and made experimental batches from the cherry leather and the red and yellow plums in the yard. I decanted in preparation for picking and putting by. I need the mason jars for the coming dark and fleshy berries. I was nigh on snockered on the fumes at 10:00 a.m. and then I had to taste the new brew, purely in the interest of quality control, don’t you know, and thereafter blithely puttered about the rest of the day, thrilled to bits. Not exactly the confession of a dipsomaniac, for I am tediously industrious and sober, mainly, but it was absolutely lovely to depart from the grindstone mode and elevate the spirit for no reason at all, just because, a lark.
I was wildly happy last spring and summer because the finch couple were back and hanging about in the Bay tree and on the wire that stretches above the deck. Annually they return and add to their nest above a porch light in easy view. I guess they have short memories and the pull of this place strong enough to overcome a serious disturbance of domestic life a couple of years ago by my then brilliant hunter, a part Abyssinian Tabby from whose mouth I have wrested hummingbirds and bats. I had been watching the nest building and egg sitting with pleasure and concern. I was worried that Emma would, well, you know, but she didn’t…until one July evening when I was feeding a flock of friends and didn’t notice until too late, the nestlings were fledging and Emma licked her whiskers and sprang when each birdie attempted lift off and landed on the deck. I never saw the massacree but a few friends had and, gulp, requiescat in pace. It is the way of the world. I confess I do love chickens scratching in the yard and chickens roasting in the oven. Call me craven or crass, but there it is. Both and. We live in the countryside, “a soggy sort of place where birds and animals walk about uncooked” (from a Peter O’Toole flick I can’t recall).
I know some people feel cats are not cool in birdy places and while I sympathize, I am a hopelessly afflicted feline fancier and cannot do without them. May Sarton wrote in her purrfect book on the species, The Fur Person, “They are not our pets. We are their housekeepers.” Don’t I know it. On one of our many migrations, to graduate school in Albany, New York, I drove a truck across the country with my daughter and a minimal sampling of home to keep us among familiar things on the other coast. It was, as my people say, a schlep. The cats, however, were spared the inconvenience and discomfort of many hours and days on the road and flew. I have lived a heap of years and I know who I am, though young people recoil in dread of becoming a woman of a certain age apparently unable to carry on without catering to cat familiars. Ergo, we are all seasonally here: finches, tabbies, and yours truly keeping an eye on the feuding kingdoms. Emma the Terrible is now an arthritic old kitty whose hunting days are over. I rejoice without remorse, happy there is nesting and life humming along, though there are no guarantees.
I am in a Fugue state after the turkey, in a blur of sensibility. Sated, stuffed, replete, happy to be surrounded by kith and kin, I am fortunate and thankful for all the sweet familial connections, the annual gathering with all that is, all who are familiar, near and dear. My brimming cup overflowing, it is impossible to say more than this: The bottom line is love.
Friday, November 28
“Now We Are Sixty,” a title I’ve pinched from the book I loved and admired as a child and as a grownup reading to my child, became the headline of a weekly column I began last spring when I wrote the opening piece. This recalled me to my vocation from which there had been an interminable vacation. I only said that because of the alliteration. It’s been a long and windy road to this door. Oh the long years of longing to be here and now, back at the keyboard. I don’t know why it is only in writing that I feel most engaged, most myself, but I do. The column was provoked by my wanting to descant upon the familiar themes of aging: still in our prime, losing altitude and watching the rising stars rising, floating past us, spinning new threads we want to incorporate into our own weaving ( Facebook, anyone?), singing new songs, the words of which are so bizarre and mind bending, so hard to learn by heart. With all, we are dancing the slow dances as fast as we can. Here’s what I read to the Jane Austen heroine, editor of one of two local papers vying for the spot of the local paper, but that’s another story entirely. whereby hang quite a number of tales which, if I sit here long enough I shall tell, if not embroider.
“Now We Are Sixty”
I have become a dotty old Lady. No joke. I just got off the phone with a young mother of a nineteen month old from Georgia with a honeysuckle dripping- on- the –vine, Southern Belle kind of voice that evokes presumptions of such constitutional delicacy of demeanor, we can’t imagine her far from the fainting couch or smelling salts, the sweating crystal glass of minted iced tea with a quantity of granulated sugar, laced lavishly with a baroque silver spoon inherited from her grandmother, Charlotte, on her Mama’s side. Gracious, scripted, contained, she is gorgeously frothing in organdy, ornamented in exquisite white lace made by a good many patient relics of the ancien regime, dames in white caps and jabots of their own making, their wrinkled liver spotted thin- skinned hands tatting away season after season, dawn to dusk, sitting sequestered in summer under the branching linden or lime, hunching close to the hearth for light and heat in the short cold days of winter away from the ripping winds, the shaking bare branches. Belle hovers on the broad and awninged porch of her Daddy, the Colonel’s, Greek revival, column ridden ( Doric, ah believe, says the liveried lackey) Southern mansion, oozing Southern charm and hospitality, bourbon and branch water or juleps for the gentlemen who have loosened their starched collars and more than once, impelled by gallantry and seemliness, patted a dripping brow dry.
But no. This is my cable tech and she knows her onions, er, her modems and routers and cables. Not I. It is easily an hour from the time she has had me tugging at cords and cables, following a line from the what was I thinking? screen, for pity sake, when she clearly told me the computer, to the time when, after I have found my mistake and unplugged the proper lines from the computer, the ding an sich, she tells me a bulletin has arrived, that the trouble is general to the area, not specific to me. Well now. Thank you and goodbye. Have a good life, oh my patient forbearing mentor, allowing me, without demur, to fumble and curse, as I crawl gracelessly under the desk, to grapple with the rat’s nest knot of cable and line. I want to ask her how she came to be a tech, flouting the stereotype, and no doubt gratifying Mary Wollstonecraft, or anyone who has read and taken to heart : “You will forgive me ladies, if I treat you like rational creatures.” But I don’t ask, not wanting to break my concentration. I simply can’t throw up my hands in dismay: ah just can’t, ah need someone to help po lil ol me. If she thinks me slow witted or blind, she is too polite to mention it and as I am determined to succeed, simply must and do persevere, admitting a little slippage of powers, acceding, oh dear, the rights and lights of Alpha with a good grace. How fine a line between humility and humiliation, good sense and galling, pride-wounding loss.
But, even though I am losing altitude, I enjoy sidling up to the mysteries, rubbing cheeks with the ineffable in the green room of possibility. I pay attention. But meanwhile in downtown reality, there is abundant evidence from every quarter and era, of our species’ proclivity for ending as besotted, wandering- witted fools, enjoying what is commonly called and often ruefully regretted, the second childhood. Evidently it is a race between wisdom and senility and with any luck at all, we arrive with both at the Finish Line and joy to us all.
Saturday, November 29
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.” Oliver Goldsmith
While others are stockpiling weapons, I’m saving seeds. Every spare saucer in my kitchen is welling up with the little freckles. I had heard that Monsanto was creating mule seeds (seeds that can’t reproduce themselves), turning perennials into annuals. This means that farmers and small spuds gardeners such as ourselves can’t be independent of the purveyor, but must buy the seeds year after year instead of saving them from the crop just made. Hellfire and fiddlesticks: Another blasted Hornswoggle!
Here-to-for, this has been rumor and speculation, another pernicious fretillator, as if there were nothing else to brood about. But last week, I bought some organic green peppers in a fancy schmancy market, and when I cut into them, found there were no seeds…nada zip zilch….Well, all right, two or three, limpid, lugubrious, languishing on pepper flesh, barely there. And on that same shopping expedition, I bought a pot of dwarf carnations. The little name tag had some interesting information on it. To wit: a warning: “Asexual reproduction prohibited” and a patent number (xl ™ patent No D361,094) accompanied by a logo and fine print so small, the words are barely legible with the assistance of a rather good magnifying glass. The word, now writ large, is Mastertag. Mean anything to you? Hmm. Why do I think that it probably will? Consarn and Dagnabit, kids. Shades of Orwell! Prohibited? Patented?
I worry about the future of a free society when I see an accumulation of all the small encroachments, appropriations and, to borrow Jefferson’s term in the Declaration of Independence, usurpations… that are altering the circumstances of our lives. Just as water changes to vapor and ice by a critical degree, there may be a change in the quality of our lives if we give up, little by little, who or what has served us well. I worry about the corporate incursion into our lives. Even though we once busted the trusts, they’re back Not so long ago, the Pacifica Board, in a polite and quiet little coup, took over the rights and prerogatives of KPFA and WBAI et al, as an executive entitlement of a hierarchical management. What’s at stake is not only publicly owned and democratically run free speech radio but free speech, if every other station is owned and operated by those with a vested interest in what is and what is not broadcast.
“ The right to criticize; The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
The right to protest; The right of independent thought…The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us doesn’t? Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own. Otherwise thought control would have set in.”– Margaret Chase Smith…Republican Senator “ Declaration of Conscience” 1950
We who saw and could, came out of the woodwork, mobilized for common cause: a free press and our determination mattered, stood. To suppress the news or a perspective about the news because this may alienate corporate sponsors or agenda, is a subversion of American values and guarantees and some of the mainstream media have gone this route to their everlasting shame. Embedded… hmph! Any reasonable, intelligent, and attentive person knows that this is a sell-out, a betrayal of the trust and the will of the people. Dictators and tyrants do that. We do not.
Moreover, we’ve witnessed the virtual disappearance of the card catalogue in libraries across the nation. This makes us vulnerable to the nightmare revisionism of history so clearly depicted in Orwell’s 1984. I value the electronic repository, but want undoctorable hardcopy, as well. And there’s something to be said for the physicality of the card catalogue, the fruits of discovery during browsing. Several years ago we had to fight to keep open our libraries, the cornerstones of a free society! We rallied because we knew we could not lose our sources of information and illumination. We did not want our valued community centers and meeting places to bite the dust. We rallied then and I think we should rally now for our liberties. A few years before that, the citizens of our county went to the polls and voted against building a new jail in the county’s Civic Center. The next thing we knew, construction began and now we have a jail we said we didn’t want. Who made the decision to countermand the will of the people? And what does that do to undermine the democratic process? I think knowing this, seeing the fruit of our inaction, our standing by, mobilized our efforts to save our libraries.
Perhaps the next front will be management and communication style in old folks homes where many of us are headed. I’d like us to be consulted, our wishes known, honored, respected rather than accept and embrace an authoritarian ethos that is by its very nature inimical to the health and well being of the gracefully aging free spirits among us. I ask myself if I, who have lived a free and independent life, would wish to accede to the ministrations of those who deem they know better than I what is good for me, who would make decisions and act on my behalf in my “own best interests,” and I have not a moment’s hesitation in replying, no. I want to live by my own lights and want my preferences and wishes respected, as long as I can, as long as I am Compos Mentis.
What I most object to, what has always irked and irritated me is being told by another what to do, an appropriation of my prerogative, obnoxious, if not odious and unacceptable. I do obey the traffic rules, pay taxes, observe the etiquette of thoughtfulness. I am willing, even enjoy a la mode convention and fashion. The common local and generational experience of being alive at this time and in this place gives me a certain sympathetic awareness and understanding of the human condition which extends to all who currently share the planet and claim their fair share. There is a middle ground, between self-interest that becomes arrogant and selfish when no one else’s needs and wants are accorded respect and selflessness that becomes abnegation, victimization and martyrdom. This is enlightened self-interest. It’s what we need to drive our cars, row our boats, inhabit our lives to the core. We who have worked hard to own our lives, want to continue to be responsible for our choices and actions.
We will all probably need assistance at some point. Who do we want to be there beside us? Those who will put our preferences aside to accommodate a program or those who will stop the world to be really present with us, who can and will listen and attend? There are all kinds of appropriations and losses and what cannot be changed must be endured. How we spend our possibly best decades depends on the way we want to be regarded and cared for. I’d like our caretakers to work together and act as a family, as a team with the spirit of cooperation and open communication at all levels. I don’t want management to boss us around and take away our dignity, our choices. It is enough to bear that our worlds will have shrunk and our capacities will be sufficiently, frightfully diminished. Best case scenario: cooperation, respect, and the autonomy of free beings.
I want to say this now…
when confusion dispels
and light infuses dark corners
which become sacred caves
where mystery is born
and new life quickens,
I want to say
here where we are…
not nearly, but really
here and now
entirely present and awake
aware of the immense beauty
that blooms in our suffering
I want to say now
bleeds into the old wounds
and they begin to heal…
I want to say now and here
where we are really,
forgiven, healed, wholly new
as each morning reminds us
because the night is soon upon us
and while we are alive, we must live.
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sunday November 30
Elation comes unbidden, as apparently, does sleep. I awoke at 11 a.m. this last day of the eleventh month, gorgeously rested, renewed. It is a brisk crisp blue skied morning. I walked outside for a closer look and I stared too long at the rising sun radiating through the oaklings on the hill behind the house. In the other direction, three turkey vultures are circling above Mount Vision and an apple fell from my neighbor’s tree and clunked upon the wooden deck. The little glyph of light still in my eye looks like a hexagram from the I Ching. At the beginning of the month and today as well, I cast the coins. This morning, I drew Ta Chuang, The Power of the Great and gleaned:
“ Truly great power doesn’t degenerate into mere force but remains inwardly united with fundamentals of right and justice. Greatness and justice are indissolubly united.” Yes, for all of us, this matters: being in harmony with what is right. Not so difficult, really, though it will take some time, take some doing. It’s just a matter of getting from here to there. I think I can shed some light on this.
When I emerged from the bin way back when, in a dim and sorry state, I took a night class in Humanistic Psychology, looking for tools to set my life back on course. One evening about half way through the term, the Prof gave us an exercise that liberated me from the stall. He asked us to imagine where we were at the moment. I visualized myself entirely under water, not a hair in air, breathing through a straw. Then he asked us to visualize where we’d like to be. I imagined a beautiful beach with kids, grown ups, friendly dogs and the other little critters carrying on their lives in our midst… and in this exquisitely lovely landscape I am there with typewriter, surrounded by friends. He instructed us to return to where we are now and then go to where we want to be. And so I return in my mind’s eye to submergence with straw, stand up and realize the water is barely up to my knees. Not as bad or desperate a situation as I had thought. I crack up, cracked open, maybe not such a crack pot as I thought after the crack up. Mirth explodes from every pore and the spell is broken. Two weeks later, I received the summons to come and cook at the Tavern on a bay that has such a beach as I imagined, the beach we love and enjoy, where the little kids learn to swim.
Beloved Gary Larson imagined and drew a cartoon that illustrates my point perfectly. Just at land’s edge, there are five or six little fish wearing baseball hats, one with the bat tucked under his fin and they are all staring up onto the dry land where their baseball is. The caption reads: Great Moments in Evolution. There they are. And here we are. We are an educable species. We can sink in our tails like the finally chastened ferandulae and sing the song of the universe, and Charles Wallace will recover. And we are also in the position of Sebastion in The Never Ending Story. He isn’t just a passive inert spectator, the traditionally perceived role of the reader, the onlooker witness. He must actively participate in the story to save Fantasia. Some bright light on Wikipedia said: “Because thoughts and dreams have no boundaries, neither does Fantasia. The nothing that threatens to engulf and make Fantasia disappear is a product of human apathy and despair that eat away the dreams and goals of humanity.” We can metaphorically restore the fabric of our great world, even from the tiny grain of sand that remains.
We who dropped out (and everyone else, for that matter) needed to develop our inner and outer lives and vision. We are now called upon, prompted from within, concerned enough to make a serious commitment to not rest until we have transformed, restored, and remembered all that has gone by the wayside, thrown out with the bath water, lost but not forgotten. This is no time to lose heart. Julian Bond said at the last election before this: “not a victory, but momentum.” The glass is as much half full as half empty. As we believe…. When there is an impasse in a family or a community, we need to take the longest largest view, to step back from our own positions in order to see, understand and serve the best interests of the whole. This requires selflessness, humility and maturity. Still, this gambit may serve to heal the wounds of a domestic quarrel. Don’t we all want what is best, even if it means giving up some long cherished dream or desire or putting our own plans on hold while we give our children our time and energy? Parents put aside for a time whatever they can in order to be there for the kids. This is not, in the long run, such a great sacrifice because we know that in order to make everyone’s lives work, sometimes one, sometimes another accedes to the most pressing claim. So we need, as a family, to put our heads and hearts together in order to determine the priorities.
I do see how desirable it is to maintain tradition. There is something of great value in long and enduring customs and institutions and we should not part with them lightly or arbitrarily. There is something in all of us that respects and appreciates continuity and stability. I know how hard it was in our family, by way of an analogy, to give up calling our beloved Michael, his childhood nickname. Many of us didn’t recognize and acknowledge his claim until we saw that he found the kid-name irritating. He knew who he was and what he wanted. This was his name, after all. Because we loved him, we saw that he had the primary claim, and though it wasn’t easy, we backed off. No hard feelings. And as a side bar, at the end of his life, he relished his kid name again.
While I understand how difficult it is to accommodate those who likewise ask us to respect their dignity by asking us to change a name or alter behavior, we need to understand that no matter how invested we are in our perceived proprietary rights, we are offending and slighting those who have asked us. How can we ever redress the infamous treatment of indigenous people or the cultural appropriations that disrespected the vital traditions and cultures of those enslaved, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and rectification? We cannot rewrite the past. But we can offer the balm of compassion and the remedy of respect right now.
I also ask that we discuss the important matters before us with respect for one another’s positions, however misguided we think they are. Ad Hominem arguments which attack the credibility of those expressing views we disagree with confound the issue and do not further our understanding of what affects all of us profoundly. I admired the late brilliant debater, William Buckley, Jr, for his intellectual acumen, patrician grace and prodigious learning, but he played to win and often left his opponents in the dust by craftily outwitting and deriding them and this is where he and I part company. The aim of debate is not to win at all costs, but to understand. Public debate is one of the greatest instruments of a free society, whereby we may learn from one another’s views what we had not been able to see for ourselves. In so doing, we may find a course of action that stems from wisest counsel and which will solve the problem without compromising our values. To simply polarize our positions leaves us contentious, stalemated. Divided, we what? To be united does not mean we must all share the same views. Rather, we can put our heads together, not to butt one another into insensibility, but to reason together, to mutually inform ourselves through arguing the pros and cons and weighing the merits of the issues. Out of such discussion, we may come to synthesis and solution. This was the method of public discourse in the New England townships and is still alive in rural villages today. We can agree to disagree. We can be open to and to listen to others’ views, keeping in mind the good of the whole, rather than our own, parochial, possibly vested, biased positions. This is a challenge and incentive for evolutionary growth. We can and must rise to the occasion to cooperate as well as compete.
In 1989, in Texas v. Johnson, Justice William Brennan, Jr., appointed to the Supreme Court by Eisenhower, decided to uphold the First Amendment rights of a young man who burned an American Flag, a symbolic act intended to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Brennan opined: ” We are tempted to say, in fact, that the flag’s deservedly cherished place in our community will be strengthened, not weakened, by our holding today. Our decision is a reaffirmation of the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects, and of the conviction that our tolerance of criticism is a sign and source of our strength….It is the nation’s resilience, not its rigidity that we reassert here today….We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.”
Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, that it is not only our right but our sacred duty, to establish and preserve a government that is of, by, and for the people. We are the people. Let’s come together to discuss and debate with civility and compassion and in the interest of the whole. If it aint broke, don’t fix it, but if it is, repair, amend, redress and restore.
Humor, kids, is where it’s at. How much good Archie Bunker did! We more or less laughed racism off the national stage, debunking and making fun of the fatuous delusions of bigotry. Another round of “Laugh In,” please, the Smothers Brothers, Norman Lear and their kindred spirit heirs. How great that such brilliant grass roots satires and parodies erupted during the presidential election process. Good on the creators of the cartoons, spoofs and satires that have appeared, the work of far seeing artists and creative spirits, the avant-garde whose lights show us the way. Piers Anthony, a fine writer, sent all the fools who joined NaNoWriMo this year a note this morning. He wrote: “Consider the first card of the Tarot deck, The Fool….A Fool is a Dreamer…and it is Dreamers who consider the wider universe. Dreamers build cathedrals, shape fine sculptures, generate literature. Dreamers are the artists who provide our species with evidence of nobility.” It is why I admire, love and pay attention and tribute to our artists, the ones who see and know. To them we owe much, repaid by passing it forward, anyone who can. I felt that way when John Lennon died. Anyone who could, picked up a corner of the fallen mantle… We had hoped for, wanted comedy, not tragedy. So we continue to hope. Remember Will Rogers: I never met a man I didn’t like.
I find solace in pressing keys, at my own behest, on this very keyboard, in these very words. But and I don’t want anyone to drill for oil. You know how I feel about the war and the waste of life and revenue that could be so better spent in universal health care, libraries and literacy, maintenance of public parks and upkeep of infrastructure, summer camp and other outdoor recreation for our kids, all of our kids, and lots of educational opportunities for the development and fulfillment of our lives, for the pursuit of happiness. And then we could invest in the development of green renewable technologies and enterprises, building and growing and sustaining a world worth living in.
Enough Inferno. Let the Purgatorio begin. You know… the place and space where we learn our lessons so we can get on to the business of gardening in Paradiso, that is everywhere around us. You know, Pleasantville was in many ways a great place to live except for what was left out. Some of those values are worth rekindling…minus the repression…this time in living color. Every decade has something we could cultivate, learn from, renew. Even the Eighties, such a dim and vapid era, had a saving grace, a breathtakingly stellar grace. In the little era between shiv and pistol, all the cocky young roosters, vying for position in the flock weren’t stabbing or shooting each other. Nope. They were out break-dancing each other… bless them every one! At the end of Candide, Voltaire’s hero comes to understand that to be spared the three miseries of humanity: poverty, vice and boredom, we must cultivate our gardens. And, as is perfectly evident, all the caca we are mired in is just the stuff we need to make the garden grow.
For Our Planet:
May all that is at risk find surety,
sustenance, not merely a ledge or a whisper
but solid ground with enough margin
for perpetual flourishing.
May we grow strong and wise and able.
May we enter the fray, not as combatants
but as ardent lovers to help all live
without threat of untimely extinction.
May we find solace and balm
to heal the rent and barren places,
the damaged, destroyed, broken and
downtrodden, the polluted and defiled.
May we who heal be healed, made whole.
May we replant the clear-cut gashes,
restore habitat to our wilderkind.
May we take up the task with alacrity,
with a will, with steadfast devotion,
with unwavering determination,
efficacy and skill.
May loving kindness and gentleness
flourish where hatred and cruelty were.
May peace flourish where conflict and strife were.
May harmony flourish in the place of discord.
May understanding and compassion
grow from mistrust and retaliation.
May joy flourish in the place of sorrow.
May truth inform us.
wisdom guide us.
equity and justice bind us.
May beauty inspire us.
May hope quicken, love fuel,
and necessity ignite us
every day to action.
May we serve the great spirit
that abides in us all.
May we, dreaming, awaken.
May we, waking, remember
the beautiful bountiful world,
plant and cultivate
over and over again.