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“Making a Difference” on a Day Made for Fools

Thanks to Rich, a student in my Public Literacy class, for sharing this 2013 Harvard graduation speech by Jon Murad, a police officer. “Making a Difference” has, for me, become a cliché, filled with increasingly impossible-to-meet expectations. I’ve come to cringe whenever I hear it. Having said that, I like what  Murad so eloquently points out: everyone makes a difference, not just a special few.

During the last few weeks I have not been spending much time on poetry. My manuscript received its latest rejection yesterday, leaving me more and more determined to publish it myself if there are no incoming offers within a month or so.  I “aspire” to have it in tangible form on June 6, the day of my recital, for giving away.  As Cynthia Ozick, in a recent NYT column called “Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat,” indicates, “Aspiration is not the same as ambition. Ambition forgets mortality; old writers never do. Ambition wants a career; aspiration wants a room of one’s own. Ambition feeds on public attention; aspiration is impervious to crowds.”  Crowds? Maybe not, but I still believe that there needs to be an audience, of sorts, to receive one’s creative endeavors, in order to complete the process.

One recent poem, based on an encounter I had in January (see January 5 entry) with a homeless woman, was also recently rejected. Nevertheless, as usual, since then I have been revising it and will publish the current version of it here, perhaps appropriately, on April Fools’ Day:

 

Sheherazade on the Streets

 

…expect truth only from [she] whose belly is full.

                                                Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes this World

–After five years my eldest sister returned to me in beggar’s gear with her clothes in rags and tatters and a dirty old mantilla; and truly she was in the foulest and sorriest plight. At first sight I did not know my own sister; but presently I recognised her and said “What state is this?”

                         “The Eldest Lady’s Tale”—The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night                                                    (tr.Richard Francis Burton)

 

Listen: stories can save your life.

 

She began with what she could tell

from my face and dress and hurry

I most wanted to hear:

Lady, I ain’t askin’ for nuthin.’

 

Neither old nor young, fat nor thin,

black nor white, she perched on

the edge of a stone planter by the Walgreens’

snow-banked lot.  Five pm,

and tears were streaming down her cheeks.

 

I ain’t askin’ for nuthin’,

she went on, but I just

can’t take the cold no more.

Cops can’t do nuthin’ for me

‘cause I am sober. Gave me

a breathylizer.

If I was drunk they would have took me in

out of the cold. I be lookin’

to trade the rest of my food stamps for

27 dollars to buy a bed

for the week, someone told me ‘bout.

I call the shelters on my Obama phone

every night but I’m 26th

on the list. They turnin’ away

every single woman in this cold.

 

She rocked back and forth, not looking

me in the eye. It was ten

degrees of meanness  out there with

a killing wind. I didn’t need food

stamps, but intrigued, I scurried back

to the Walgreens’ ATM,

which quickly spit out 40 bucks.

 

Where is this place? I asked.

I’ll show you, she said,

jumping right into my car.

 

My mother and me, we used to live in

my grandfather’s house. He was a preacher

and ‘cause of that his property tax was put

on hold. But when he died they finally come due

but my mother, she couldn’t pay.

After she died I was tossed out on the streets.

A neighbor took me in for awhile to mind

her kids but when her man came home from jail

he took one look and kicked me right out.

I been sleeping in doorways ever since:

one thousand and one hard nights.

 

This here the ghetto, she gestured like a guide

as we neared the old house with a sagging porch

she readily pointed out.  I stopped. We hugged.

 

I asked her name and she told me. I told her mine.

I watched her dart up the stairs, then drove away.

 

After just one night of listening

to the wicked portents of the wind,

I threw back my warm covers,

drove again to the ATM,

punched out five more twenty

dollar bills, and easily wound my way

back into the ghetto, this time

crossing a no-longer perceptible line.

 

She was huddled on a broken-down

dirty couch in that cold house 

watching a blaring TV. Wrapped up

in all her raggedy clothes, she said

my room’s upstairs, but

I’m worried‘bout what I’ll do

when this week is up.

 

Happily, I presented her with

the twenties and my cell phone number.

She smiled. We hugged again.

 

Back home, my people shook their heads and

told me I’d been scammed;

a reporter  I called said this woman

was well-known for her stories.

Change your phone number, she advised.

Give her no more money.

 

And so I did, and

I did not. But I’ll tell you

this:

 

Like all great storytellers  

who subsist on that bare

thread between harsh truth and

the sweet recompense of fiction,

she charmed me, made me

believe every single word, and changed me

in the telling. I still worry

about her these cold nights,

am anxious about what might happen next.

 

Wherever Sheherazade continues to spin

her tales, I hope her listeners will hoard

every nugget of their gullibility,

let their hurry, for a moment, fall

away, wrap themselves snugly  in what

she’s woven from whole cloth, perhaps

even pay a little something toward

the royalties that are, no doubt, her due.

 

Sheherazade costume in ballet by Daighilev

Reflections after a Week of Being Seventy

by L. DavisIt’s my belief that most seventy-year-olds in good health do not consider themselves old. I add the caveat “in good health” only because I have learned, at least for me, that even a day of the stomach flu can make me feel as if I’m on my “last legs.”

I just missed qualifying as a member of the baby-boomer generation, which has made common such statements as “50 is the new 40” and so on. But I believe that there have always been hale, generally hearty seventy-year-olds who do not feel old—at least most of the time.

Indeed, I hunt out such examples wherever I can find them, for I have very few in my personal experience. For me, nothing is as convincing as a good example. All sorts of marvelous things, it is said, move into the realm of possibility if one has seen it done even once.

That’s why such articles as “Finding Success, Well Past the Age of Wunderkind” by  Abby Ellin from the Personal Business section of last Saturday’s NYT draw me in. She gives many examples of her premise that “many people are discovering that the latter part of their lives can be just as (or even more) rewarding creatively, emotionally and spiritually.”

She quotes Karl A. Pillemer, professor of gerontology at Cornell University, who found, after interviewing 1500 people age 70 and older, “that a large number. . .said they had achieved a life dream or embarked on a worthwhile endeavor after age 65. ‘There was this feeling of somehow “getting it right” at 50 or 60 or older,’ he said, noting that this sentiment applies to creative efforts, relationships, and work.”

I agree, and am ever grateful to an old friend who, when I was in my 50s and thinking of starting formal piano lessons again, said, “Don’t wait too long.” He gave me that push that sent me on my way.

I also appreciate Pillemer’s connections among creativity, emotional relationships, and spirituality. There seems to be an experimental, unrushed openness that comes in later life–as well as a willingness to surrender absolutes of all kinds—that can free all aspects of life.

David W. Galenson, in his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, (2007) speaks of the difference between conceptual and experimental minds. “Conceptual minds tend to be younger and typically better with abstractions. Experimental minds, on the other hand, take longer to gestate, working by trial and error.”

Seymour Bernstein’s memoir, Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music (2002)—see my previous post –narrates his finding his main passion in life—teaching, NOT being a professional musician—when he was in his 50s. He says, “Ask career-minded students what their goals are in their study of music and you receive responses such as ‘I want to win a big contest!’ or ‘I want to perform with a major symphony orchestra!’ or ‘I want to concertize all over the world!’ Rarely do I hear from such students what almost all amateur musicians would say—that they study music for the sheer love of it.”

I taught my first English class when I was 23, and so I have been teaching for a rather long time. Last weekend I completed my first two weeks of part-time teaching for two classes of returning adult students at Marquette University, something I’ve been doing since I “retired” in 2007. I greatly enjoy teaching returning adult students, largely for the reasons Ellin outlines in her article above. The concept of Success shifts meaning as we grow older, and it often takes time to discover our personal, unique definition. Almost always, when students return to school after “stopping out” for awhile,  they have a better sense of what matters most to them than they did in their youth.

I know I do, and I’m still learning about it.

 

 

 

On the Other Hand….

Although I leave many of my lessons happy and inspired, as I described in my last post, there are also those times when I leave thinking, “What am I thinking? I can’t do this! There are so many people who can play these pieces better than I. What is the point? “

But before I whine too long in my corner, the piano beckons and I am off again. There are no such thoughts when I am actually practicing.

 

Two amazing people have come to my attention this week, and I would like to offer a window into their worlds.  Seymour Bernstein, 87-year-old pianist, composer, teacher, and philosopher, is featured in a film that opened on March13th (though not, to my knowledge, yet in Milwaukee)—a documentary by Ethan Hawke called “Seymour: An Introduction.”  The link is to a trailer for the movie; if you are intrigued, I urge you to look at the longer interview with both Hawke and Bernstein about the making of the film.

Manohla Dargis, in his review of the film, “In Music, as in Life, the Lesson Is Perseverance,” says,  “Among the lessons, musical and otherwise, that Mr. Bernstein offers is that surrender isn’t an option. ‘The struggle is what makes the art form,’ he says. ‘I had to go to war for my art form.’ . . . What Mr. Bernstein reveals through both the example of his life and the many recollections and conversations threaded throughout this documentary, is that struggle—long, brutal, enervating, interminable-must have its due. That this is as much a movie about life as about art is clear from the first few minutes, as is the sense that the terms are inseparable for him.”

 

The other amazing person of whom I was made aware through the gift of her book The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations is Zhu Xiao-Mei. She says in an interview accompanying the liner notes for her 2014 cd The Art of the Fugue,  “’The Art of Fugue’ is a work that’s sometimes discouraging to practice. It’s very difficult in terms of notes. The sustained notes are tricky for pianists like me who don’t have big hands….I’ve never suffered so much when practicing a work. And when I say suffered, I’m also talking about physical suffering: I was sore all over, sore hands, sore shoulders.” So what makes you do it? asks the interviewer: “There’s a paradox with this work. To practice it causes you cruel sufferings, but to perform it give you the impression of entering a state of perfect balance. And as you know, for the Chinese, the search for balance—of thought, of the body, of life—is the ultimate goal.”

But then there’s that self-doubt. Both Bernstein and Zhu faced in childhood immense struggles for their music. Bernstein’s musical interests were apparently not supported by his entire family. In fact, Dargis says, “his father said he had two daughters and a pianist…. Bernstein played at the front in the Korean War and in concert halls afterward, winning praise and admirers, only to give up his public career [for teaching] when he was 50.”

Even more dramatically, Zhu spent five years in a work camp in Mongolia as the Cultural Revolution closed all art schools and sent artists away for “re-education.” As a teenager, Zhu struggled with the brainwashing strategies of the Communist party, which turned family member against family member and friend against friend. Since then, she has struggled greatly to reclaim enough self-confidence to play. As she says in her book, “Success in itself is nothing. Once you have achieved it, the most difficult task still lies ahead—mastering yourself.”

Both Bernstein and Zhu insist on the close connection between music and life. Zhu says in her book, “After everything I have experienced, I cannot take an intellectual approach to music. When I play, I try to speak to people, to tell them something, to show them the beauty of a work, to move them. Having an audience is crucial for me. Some of my fellow artists assert that they play for themselves rather than for an audience. I take the exact opposite approach: my goal is to share with others.

“Humanity is the truth of music. What is important to me is that, this evening, I may be able to reach one person, someone who is not a musician. That I might be able to reveal a part of his or her humanity, of our shared humanity, of which he or she may be unaware. And one day, who knows, perhaps this may help that person to speak out when what is essential is threatened.”

I have no such great ambition as Zhu or Bernstein.  Anxiety has always threatened my playing, as well as other important elements of my life.  And yet I hope, at my recital on June 6, to give back, in some small way, the gift of music that has been given to me. Zhu closes her book with this: “At night I question myself, I am afraid of others, of myself. I have an acute awareness of my impotence, my inability to achieve perfection. But in the morning, I know that it is still there, in the next room, waiting for me. It always keeps its promise of fulfillment. My piano.”

So, on this, my 70th birthday, I raise my glass to all piansts who struggle—indeed, to all who struggle with anything– as well as to the rather fierce-looking seven-year-old child I was when I began lessons. Here’s to you, kid! You have an amazing ride ahead of you! And I’ll be with you every step of the way!

                    

Re-Runs, Re-Reading, and Making Room for Change

Time seems to be flying by. This is good in that spring is only two weeks away; not so good when one is preparing for an audition/recital.

It usually seems to me that things are going well, but then there is the reality check of a weekly lesson. I am always grateful for that, however; the polishing and honing of work already on its way is the part of the process that I enjoy the most, whether it’s practicing a piece or revising a poem. I love how the things I haven’t noticed before gradually step up to the front, seeking attention and possible redress (in the old sense of “putting to rights”).

I guess that’s true of relationships as well—both present and past.  I suppose it’s “normal” to proceed in life assuming that the people around you are staying just the same as always, unless something that we usually consider unfortunate comes about, demanding our attention. It’s probably true that the essence of a person never really changes; however, it also seems true that different aspects or facets of who they are come into play at different points in their lives. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of the changes in everyone around us, not to mention in ourselves.

After listening to my stumbling through the “prestissimo” movement of the Beethoven Sonata, Stefanie pointed out (kindly)—not just the errors, which were the least of it—but the missed opportunities for emphasis and interpretation—phrases and other structural points that had been, quite literally, outside of my awareness.  This is what I love about the work such lessons entail—the opportunity to expand your awareness about something which you thought you had nailed. I guess it is unsettling at first, but the opportunity it provides for new complexity and richness outweighs, usually, for me, the sense of being disconcerted.

It keeps things alive, fresh.  And reminds us that there is usually more to anything than the snapshot we have taken of it at any particular time. But we can become attached to those snapshots, those “stories.”

I watched “Roman Holiday” again last night—because it happened to be on and Steve was watching it. I rarely re-watch movies or re-read books (except for books of poetry). As Dana Stevens, film critic at Slate, writes in today’s NYT’s Bookends, “there’s such an infinite wealth of new titles to discover that slipping back into that well-worn groove of already experienced pleasure can feel like simple regression.”  But she does make some exceptions for those few books that dare her “past self to find new evidence for that old love.”

It’s a cliché that you cannot step into the same river even once, but watching the young Audrey Hepburn change from girl to woman in that enchanting story from 1953 brought me to tears in ways it never had before. She looked so much like what my 16-year-old sister was trying to look like during that time: the shorn hair that was so much in style in the early 50s, the scarf lightly knotted around the neck. It sent me back to photos of her at that time which, enlarged, showed me aspects of her that I had never noticed before: how much she looked like my mother, for instance, as well as the expression I would have found annoying had she been my daughter!

Sharp segue, but I hope you stay with me: another NYT article from Friday, “Astronomers Watch a Supernova and See Reruns” describes a process still only faintly understandable to me despite the journalist’s, Dennis Overbye’s, admirable attempts. Basically, he writes, “astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope say they have been watching the same star blow itself to smithereens in a supernova explosion over and over again, thanks to a trick of Einsteinian optics.”

planetfacts.org“The star exploded more than nine billion years ago on the other side of the universe, too far for even the Hubble to see without special help from the cosmos. In this case, however, light rays from the star have been bent and magnified by the gravity of an intervening cluster of galaxies so that multiple images of it appear.” These images have been seen in 1964, 1995, 2014, and are predicted to be seen again in 2015-2020.

As enamored as I am of the metaphorical possibilities of both quantum and astro physics, it seems clear that our “everyday reality” is not adequately described by the weirdness of the very small or the very large. NEVERTHELESS, the metaphors continue to compel many writers and poets. My poem “Baubo Ponders Questions of Quantum Physics” appears in two of my chapbooks: Ties that Bind and Avatars of Baubo, and was in part inspired by the 1978 book by Robert H. March called Physics for Poets.

Here are two more that I just happened to read again, more or less at random: Ruth Stone’s “The Illusion” from In the Next Galaxy (Copper Canyon, 2002), and Mary Jo Salter’s “Nora” from Nothing by Design (Knopf, 2013):

 

The Illusion

 

I am not genes and the genes are not me.

We are identical twins, separated at birth.

This is my sinew. This is my fertile ovary.

What is worth the universe is also worth me.

 

I am not me. I am the genes. The double helix.

My future is spelled out. Tool of the universe:

pricks, cunts, genuflections; the orgasm’s curse,

brief span, holy thou: I am the neutron fix.

 

I am the hole, the dark other, the negative between

I was and I am. Wherefore yes, dense and disperse,

blinded visionary that locks the moon in place;

I am the simple sieve that drinks the universe.

 

Nora

 

Even in death your radiance follows me.

Or leads me. You’re ahead of me on the sidewalk,

pushing your baby’s pram as I push mine,

and you swing your head to greet someone driving by,

your sheet of black hair the shiniest anyone

has ever seen; you don’t even understand

that nobody in her thirties shines that much,

 

nobody laughs so musically at jokes

that are not that funny. Whatever it was I said

twenty years ago, whatever anyone said

no longer is heard, or can be, the way you took it

because you’re not here to beam it back, to turn it

funny or beautiful—even the saddest things

you somehow made useful to us who were sad

 

with those infinite eyes of yours, looking right at us,

that Oh that was all acceptance. Even in death

that swept down upon you, death that locked you shut

and the No that is locked inside your name now, Nora,

I see the Ra for sun god, too, which is silly,

but you’d understand; I take it for your radiance

that even now in the darkness follows me.

*******

And I have the following quotation from Lee Smith’s novel Oral History taped above my desk: “Nothing is ever over, nothing is ever ended, and worlds open up within the world we know.”

So Mote it Be.

 

 

 

 

“Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

This week we saw ISIL smashing centuries-old art because the irreplaceable statues were actually “idols” made by the godless.

This week our state governer has cut funding for the arts to the bone while saying that he can “handle” ISIS, given his experience with those (teachers and firefighters, mainly) who have opposed him in recent times.

During such times (and there have always been such times), there is, for many, a temptation to question the value of making art. What does it matter?

However, this week’s news has also brought us articles confirming the value of the arts: “A Refuge of Beauty in Gaza” in which the artist Nidaa Badwan has created a small universe of art in her small home, “seeking a refuge from Gaza’s restrictive religious atmosphere.”

And Pat, from Colorado, calls attention to this week’s NYT’s “Modern Love” column, in which writer Betsy MacWhinney recalls a time when she used any means possible to solace her teenage daughter’s depression over the state of the world.  Fresh out of ideas, she ”started leaving poems in her [daughter’s] shoes in the morning. [Her daughter] had used the shoes as a form of quiet protest [she stopped wearing shoes completely when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004], so I decided I would use them to make a quiet stand for hope. When one of your primary strategies as a parent involves leaving Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in your child’s shoe, it’s clear things aren’t going well.

“What I wanted her to know is: People have been in pain before, struggled to find hope, and look what they’ve done with it. They made poetry that landed right in your shoe, the same shoe you didn’t wear for four months because of your despair.

“Before she went to school in the morning, I wanted her to read the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver that talks about not having to be good and not having to walk on your knees for miles, repenting. As Ms. Oliver writes, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Or this, from Mr. Berry: “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

I would also recommend Jorie Graham’s “The Violinist in the Window-1918″—after Matisse—in her book Sea Change (2008)–first published in Poetry, March 2008:

“The Violinist at the Window–1918”–Matisse

 

Well, maybe all that wouldn’t fit in a shoe. But worth reading, anyway.

You can’t tell a teenager this, but sometimes we take our pain/our vision too seriously, and in so doing cut off the existence of possibility—that indefinable essence from which, after all, art springs.  One of the blessings of having lived to nearly 70 years of age is that one has seen the impossible happen, more than once. Things CAN get better, and usually DO, although if one measures progress by what happens on any one day (or month or year or even decade), progress is not always visible. I take heart from the Taoist belief that, if left alone, evil will wither: that it takes its energy mainly from those who fear it and fight it. It is my belief that the restrictive beliefs behind ISIL will eventually be its own downfall, although those who do not “fight back” are often criticzed for condoning evil. The temptation to put “boots on the ground”  instead of reacting with hope and compassion and the expansion of human rights. On Feb. 19, as cited on CNN, “ President Barack Obama called for a global effort to combat violent extremism and urged countries around the world to address the root causes that fuel groups like ISIS and al Qaeda….Obama urged countries to ‘break the cycles of conflict, especially sectarian conflict’ and called on governments to ‘address the grievances that terrorists exploit,’ both political and economic.” He went on to say,

“The link is undeniable. When people are oppressed and human rights are denied — particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines — when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.”

Thanks to my newly-appointed recital page-turner, Mark, who, this week,  reintroduced me to Victor Borge (1909-2000), child prodigy at the piano,  a Danish Jew who, because he was playing a concert in Sweden, was able to escape Hitler-occupied Denmark by traveling to Finland and then to America, where he eventually became a citizen.  In the following YouTube video, Borge is having fun with his page-turner, showing us that, even though making art is a serious thing, it is never so serious that one cannot poke a bit of fun at it—a good lesson for me this week. Thank you Mark. And thanks, Victor.

 Page-Turner

 

Playing with Cursive

As I understand it,  the word “blog” is short for web log.  Other kinds of logs, or journals, have, of course, been written for years before there was the Internet. I myself have kept a journal—off and on—since I was in my teens. More private than the public blog, the journal has been a place where I could explore what was happening in my life and reflect on its meaning. It has been, and remains, a great comfort.

My first journal ca. 1961

I have been reading one of my favorite authors’, Gail Godwin’s, new “writer’s memoir” about her publishing life, called, perhaps somewhat predictably, Publishing.  In part of it, she reflects on how her methods and attitudes toward her writing have changed in her mid-seventies.  For one thing, she found herself writing Flora (her most recent novel—2013) by hand, after having used only a typewriter or computer for all of her previous work. Why?  Aside from the sensuousness of cursive writing, she says, “Covering the lines [of her notebook] with black, slanted letters wet from the pen connected me with the flow of my whole life.”  Yes.  I would add that, for years, I wrote my journals only in pencil, wanting to be sure that I could erase and change what I had written. I rarely did, but having that option, even when there was no reader but myself, felt right.  And I loved the smell and feel of a sharpened #2 pencil—the pre-sharpened Ticonderogas remaining my favorites.  Yes, on a computer, one may more quickly “revise” a page, but the previous version is usually lost, whereas crossings-out and erasures leave behind a few faint hints about its evolution.

I have been told that cursive writing is no longer taught in the schools, for the assumed reason that people today write only on computers and will continue to do so. It would be interesting to study whether the content of writing changes, depending upon whether or not it is hand-written or typed. My guess is that it does, if for no other reason than it takes more time (and thought?) to write out a sentence by hand than it does to type it (assuming you can type at least 50 wpm—the goal of my high school typing class).  Writing something out by hand grounds it in a way that the “qwerty” keyboard can never do. 

Neuroscience tends to agree:  In an article by Brian Braiker of World News, according to associate professor Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre, “those who learn to write by hand learn better.

“Mangen points to an experiment involving two groups of adults in which participants were taught a new, foreign alphabet. One group learned the characters by hand, the other learned only to recognize them on a screen and with a keyboard.

“Weeks after the experiment, the group that learned the letters by hand consistently scored better on recognition tests than those who learned with a keyboard. Brain scans of the hands-on group also showed greater activity in the part of the brain that controls language comprehension, motor-related processes and speech-associated gestures. “

Those parts of the brain also have to do with visual art. And art is a form of play.

There seems to be more “play” in the way hand-written, cursive letters are formed. Even though the computer allows us to choose from dozens of “fonts,” none will ever match the idiosyncracy of one’s own handwriting on any particular day, which can speak volumes about one’s state of mind. They used to say that one’s personality revealed itself in one’s handwriting: e.g. whether the loops were high or low, whether the letters were spaced out or clumped closely together, etc.

The idea of “play” appeals.  Godwin quotes Pablo Casals, the famous cellist, who said, “The first twenty years you learn. The second twenty years you practice. The third twenty years you perform. And the fourth twenty years you play.”  Of course, “progress” never falls so neatly or chronologically into those four categories; and if one hasn’t learned to “play” before the age of 70, it’s likely not to happen at all.

In fact, “play” to me connotes a kind of looseness that I associate with youth.  For instance, because of age and injury, my left shoulder has lost its “play” and I am now involved in a rather labored attempt to regain at least some “play” in that tight shoulder so that I can more easily “play” the piano.

But I think Casals (and Godwin) are correct when they suggest that age (like childhood) provides an opportunity to “play”—in many ways–without worrying too much about the consequences. Whenever Godwin still finds herself too caught up in what the world thinks of her work, she recalls a classmate in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1967 who was criticized by her classmates for going “too far” with experimental writing.  Godwin has never forgotten her reply, which was simply, “So? What do I risk? Obscurity?”

Indeed.

According to my old Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, “obscure” comes from a Sanskrit word meaning to “shield” or to “cover.”   Sometimes “risks” have to be taken in obscurity,  without public scrutiny. And so, despite this “blog,” I still sometimes take my college-ruled notebook, go sit in my favorite restaurant, and risk seeing what unfolds when I take the time to put pen to paper.

What I Should Be Doing (or Follow Your Inner Duck)

It seems to me that doing what I “should” be doing at certain predictable stages of my life has never turned out very well.

When I was twelve, after taking a summer of religious instruction preceding my “Confirmation” as an “adult” member of the Methodist Church, I confided in my mother that I didn’t understand and/or believe a lot of what I was going to have to “affirm” in the ceremony. This put her in such a complete tizzy that she had me talk, one-on-one, to our minister in his office. I was mortified, of course, but stammered out, as best I could, the issues that concerned me.  And the minister said to me, “Don’t worry about that. Just go along with the ceremony and say what you’re asked to say.”  On some level this was a great relief; on another,  I wondered about the point of it all if one could just lie in order to fulfill an expectation.

Similarly, I went to a college during a time when, upon graduation, if one were not at least engaged to be married, then one headed to unknown territory. Not wanting to go to unknown territory, I duly became  engaged to be married (insisting upon it, as I’m ashamed to recall). But in the weeks leading up to the wedding, I started having doubts about whether this was the right thing for us to be doing. I shared some of these fears with my mother–again–waiting until the night before the wedding. She listened, but then attributed my doubts to the wedding jitters and told me to go through with it anyway. People had been invited. The dress was hanging in my closet. Everything was in place. Again, I went through with something a part of me doubted, to the detriment of everyone involved.

At this point of my life, retired,  the next stage is supposed to be “giving back.”  This expectation still gnaws at me. Yes, I mentor younger people and am starting to teach a couple of returning-adult classes in just a few weeks.  But is that “enough”?

These events put me in mind of the supposed purpose of it all—what is the expected outcome of education these days?   Much has been made of our governor Scott Walker’s recent comments about the purpose of higher education being closer to prepare students for jobs rather than, as the UW Mission Statement reads, to extend “training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition,” as well as [enabling] “the search for truth” [which] is “basic to every purpose of the system.”

 Frank Bruni, in a New York Times op-ed piece called “College, Poetry, and Purpose”, interviewed one of his former college instructors, Anne Hall, now 69, who is still teaching work by “old white dead men” (especially Shakespeare) in a culture that denigrates such learning “for its own sake.”  In the article,

“She praised an undergraduate business major in the class that she is currently teaching, Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece.

‘She said that going to college develops something in you that’s like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles,’ Hall told me, adding that she agreed with the student.

“That brought Hall to her own answer about college’s mission: “It is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

The muscle of thoughtfulness. Reflection. A part of me thinks, “but there are those who cannot even READ, let alone have the tools to reflect on what they have read.” Such observations have led me in the past to volunteer for literacy programs, after-school reading programs, etc. But in every case, I have had, for one reason or another, serious doubts about what I was doing, and why.

I was moved, this morning, on reading Oliver Sacks’ piece entitled “My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning That He Has Terminal Cancer.”  He is 81 years old and writes, in part:

”I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

“This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

“I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

“This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

“I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

While I am over 10 years younger than Mr. Sacks, I agree with what he says about the fact that most of the current problems on earth will be solved by people much younger than we.  He believes that he has “given back” as much as he can in that regard.

Maybe reflection IS the gift—both to and from—us who are classified among the old and newly old.

When we were in New Orleans, Steve and I visited Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter. It was just a little hole in the wall, but at least one/quarter of the books were poetry—and not just the “old faithfuls” either. (The owner confided that he judged a bookstore on the quality of their poetry selection.) While Steve browsed the fiction, I started to read one of BillyCollins’ books, Horoscopes for the Dead, which I ended up buying.  I love many of the poems in that collection, but this one, “Silhouette,” is one of my favorites, partly because of the fun it pokes at what we think we “should” be doing:

 

http://www.guidodaniele.com/hand-painting/art

 

Silhouette

 

There is a kind of sweet pointlessness

that can visit at any time,

say this afternoon when I find myself

rustling around in the woods behind the house

 

and making with my right hand

the head of a duck,

the kind that would cast a silhouetted

profile on a white screen

in a darkened room with a single source of light

if one were in the mood to entertain.

 

But I am outdoors today and this duck

has a wrist for a neck

and fingers for a beak that never stops flapping,

jabbering about some duck topic,

unless I rotate my arm and let him face me.

 

Then he stops his quacking

and listens to what I have to say,

even cocking his head like a dog

that listens all day to his master speaking

in English or Turkish or Albanian.

 

There was talk of war this morning

on the radio, and I imagined the treads of tanks

churning over the young trees again

and planes hacking the air to pieces,

but there is nothing I can do about that

except to continue my walk in the woods

conversing with my hand—

 

so benign an activity that if everyone

did this perhaps there would be no wars,

I might say in a speech

to the ladies’ auxiliary of the Future Farmers of America.

 

And now it is getting to be evening,

a shift from blue to violet

behind the bare staves of trees.

It is also my birthday,

but there is nothing I can do about that either—

cannot control the hands of time

like this hand in the shape of this duck

who peers out of my sleeve

with its beak of fingers, its eye of air.

 

No—I am doing no harm,

nor am I doing much good.

 

Would any bridge span a river?

would a college of nurses have ever been founded?

would one stone ever be placed on top of another

if people were concerned with nothing

but the shadows cast by nonexistent ducks?

 

So the sky darkens as always,

and now I am tripping over the fallen branches

as I head back downhill

toward the one burning light in the house

while the duck continues its agitated talk,

in my pocket now,

excited about his fugitive existence,

awed by his sudden and strange life

as each of us should be, one and all.

 

But never mind that, I think,

as I grab the young trees with my other hand,

braking my way down,

one boot in front of the other,

ready for my birthday dinner,

my birthday sleep, and my crazy birthday dreams.

The Plateau of “I Can’t” and the Six Magic Words that Might (or Might Not) Help

After several months of doing “all right,” my shoulder is hurting again. So far (knock wood) it hasn’t limited my abilities to swim or play piano, but the shoulder is definitely weaker and needs a return to some of those boring repetitive exercises.  Because things seemed better—guess what– I stopped doing the exercises!  I start physical therapy again tomorrow.

My piano lessons have started up again after the holiday break, and I was pleased to learn that the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music will only require two audition pieces this spring rather than four. This frees up a big chunk of time to focus on the pieces that need more work for the recital: i.e. the Beethoven memory work as well as the final variations in that piece, and the Rachmaninoff variations, as well as the Jennifer Higdon I played last year.  I really need to tackle the remaining, recurring technical difficulties so that I can begin to smooth my way toward performance.

I complained to my teacher Stefanie that improvements on the last Beethoven variation were not coming quickly enough—in fact, I said, I saw little improvement at all. This is where a teacher  can give you the perspective and encouragement you need.  She told me to stop telling myself that it hasn’t improved : it has. She also noted the common experience of “plateau” when seeking to learn or change a behavior. Sometimes we just need time to allow ourseves to catch up to the changes we have made before moving on. It’s hard to wait because, impatiently, we often seek much quicker results.

Recently Steve and  I hosted our grandsons for the weekend. One of them has been taking piano lessons for about a year but has run into a serious case of the “can’ts.”  “I can’t do it,” he said as he looked at the new piece he was supposed to practice, then turned around on the bench with his back to the music. I know that he loves music, so it is difficult for me to watch him wind himself up into knots about playing it. Perhaps that’s because, on occasion, I do the same thing, especially if I know someone whose opinion I value is listening and quite possibly judging me. There are so many “players” in the world, so many “writers.”   What standards we hold ourselves to!

So I tried the six magic words that have made it around Facebook over the 18 months or so since the article “6 words you should say today” by Rachel Macy Stafford  first appeared in The Huffington Post. Those words are, simply,  “I love to hear you play.”  If you haven’t read the article, I hope you will take some time to read it now.  It’s what we all need to hear—appreciation, minus the judgments and criticisms we often expect, sometimes most cruelly from ourselves—no matter what our occupation.

But right then, even those six words were not immediately effective with my grandson. He is traversing his own “plateau” at his own pace. When he gets tired of the easy monotony with few challenges, perhaps he will tackle another hill.

I doubt that my physical therapist will say that he “loves to watch me pull that resistance band,” but at this point I just need some encouragement, or perhaps, at my age, a whack on the head to remind me that it’s time to climb that hill again.  And no, it’s not supposed to be easy.

Vanity, vanity…..

In about a month I will start one of several classes I teach yearly for Marquette’s College of Professional Studies, a degree program for returning adults:  a class in civic literacy, as opposed to academic literacy.

In one of the assigned papers, students will analyze and evaluate three different news articles on the same recent issue, using a 2007 Committee of Concerned Journalists’ six criteria as the basis for their evaluation: citizens should expect from journalists truthfulness, loyalty to citizens, independence from those they report on, giving voice to the voiceless, a forum for public criticism, and news that is proportional and relevant. 

It will be interesting to look at Brian Williams’ fall from grace this week in light of such criteria, and to discuss the difference between print journalism (it still exists) and the “celebrity” kind of news bites that is typical of NBC Nightly News, which I have often watched, by the way.

In terms of the criteria above, Williams, to many, definitely “failed” the important first criterion of reporting “truthfulness” and quite possibly the third: “independence from those they report on.”   (It will be interesting to see if any of my students choose this “event” to compare coverage by different national and international newspapers.)

It has been interesting to read the “side” stories related to Williams’ skewing of the “facts” involving his own role in a situation in Iraq in 2003. Some, like Tara Parker-Pope of the NYT, discusses Williams in terms of recent discoveries about memory itself: that Williams’ “conflation” of two events “offers a compelling case study in how memories can change and shift dramatically over time.” At several points in this blog, I have considered how “selective memory” has no doubt affected me and the events from which much of my poetry springs.

But I am not a journalist, and if I conflate memories about my sister, there is no one left to question my “trustworthiness.” We do speak of “poetic license.”

But David Brooks, on the Op-Ed page of yesterday’s NYT, considers Williams’ “sin”  (how American is that?) in the light of something called “rigorous forgiving.”  According to Brooks, there are those who try to balance accountability with compassion. The whole article is worth reading, and I recommend it, but what interests me most at this moment is  Brooks’ classification of “sins”—each with its particular source and corresponding “cure” or reconciliation. Bigotry, for instance, must be expunged by “apology and cleansing”; stealing by repaying, and so on. Brooks identifies Williams’ “sin” as “vanity” which “can only be treated by extreme self-abasement.”  Unlike many, Brooks does not see Williams’ “transgressions”—unlike those of more traditional journalists—as “part of his primary job responsibilities.” He goes on to say that as a society we must do less exiling of offenders and more offering of “tough but healing love.”

I am all for that. But his analysis still begs the question of whether or not Williams intended to lie outright about his role in those helicopters over Iraq. Yes, I do tend to believe people’s stories, sometimes with little reason (see Jan. 5), but then I am always a sucker for stories.  I sometimes have trouble figuring out the “truth” of my own experiences, but I am well aware of how “vanity” can skew one’s “take” on things.

For instance (stay with me a moment):  maybe Williams wanted on some level to be a “part” of what he was only supposedly “reporting” and thus “exaggerated” what happened that day—told himself a different story in which he was in more danger than he actually was.   He was obviously no James Foley or any of the other world-wide journalists who have lost their lives by daring to put themselves in danger so as to bring “truth” to those who would otherwise not have access to it. But maybe Williams admires such people and (in this story I’m weaving) wanted to be like them so much that his memory “re-shaped” the events on those helicopters so as to make him seem a bit more like what he admired.

Have we not all done this? If we have not actually told a whopper to someone else, inflating our own importance, have most of us not told such “stories” to ourselves? Are these deliberate lies? or have they moved surreptitiously– as memories apparently do– from “truth” to “wish”?

They used to call publishers that accepted payment to publish any manuscript “vanity presses.”  And as I suggested in my last post, often writers will go to at least some length to hide the fact that they have published their work themselves instead of having it “chosen” by someone else.

As a species we seem hard-wired to seek out the approval of our peers.  We want to feel useful and, at least in our culture, important in some way. Exile or isolation is a pretty extreme punishment in all cultures.  Currently, as a culture, we seem to have “exiled” Williams for “untrustworthiness.”  I understand that it’s wrong to take away from someone else’s legitimate (i.e. documented)  hardship story by saying that you experienced the same thing when you didn’t.   But how do we separate/rank the “wrongs” of wanting to be part of something; of vanity; of wanting to be valued? 

Don’t we all make up the stories of our lives: our own histories, to embellish and add interest to the single “history” that we “agree on”?  I guess it’s important to have such an agreed-upon history, but I’m sure glad we have individual stories about it as well. Sometimes that’s where the deepest meanings can be found.

Seen Jesus in a Grilled Cheese Lately?

Jesus in a grilled cheeseIn a recent Slate article called “It’s All Connected,”, author Katy Waldman describes the spectrum of apophenia: the human creative tendency to see patterns where “none exist.” According to those who have identified the tendency, “Unlike an epiphany—a true intuition of the world’s interconnectedness—an apophany is a false realization.”

Begging the question of “true” and “false” realizations for the moment,  Waldman says that examples can be cited on opposite ends of the spectrum : “it’s a profoundly human habit of mind that can underlie adaptive behaviors and reward flights of fancy, or induce all kinds of paranoia and silliness.”

Waldman goes on to cite scientists from the KEY Institute for Brain-Mind Research in Zurich who, in 2001, found that a “hyper-associative cognitive style” both nourished “belief in magical or psychic phenomena” and prompted divergent thinking—a measure of creativity. Apophenia’s defenders cite Leonardo da Vinci, who urged his students:

Look at walls covered with many stains … with the idea of imagining some scene, you will see in it a similarity to landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, broad valleys, and hills of all kinds … [also] battles and figures with lively gestures and strange faces and costumes and an infinity of things which you can reduce to separate and complex forms.

The connections among creativity, extreme anxiety, and PTSD have been well-documented.  In his biography of PTSD, The Evil Hours,  David J. Morris, former Marine, suggests, “Trauma destroys your connection to the universe. You can no longer make sense of the social and moral order; it’s as if reality has turned on you in a paranormal way.” A victim’s brain can respond by going into overdrive: “You try to explain what happened.”

Whether I was “born creative” or used writing and music as ways to adapt to the early, sudden, traumatic death of my sister (which I have written about in earlier posts), I would probably score pretty high on the apophenia spectrum. Perhaps coincidentally, such moments were more frequent before I finally received medication for my life-long anxiety.

It’s a fine balance to create “fictions” and yet to remain aware that you’re creating them. That high-wire act is what apparently separates the poet from the “mad” person and is what Wallace Stevens called “The Supreme Fiction.” It was his use of metaphor about which I wrote my dissertation many years ago.

“Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame,” he wrote in his poem “To a High-Toned Old Christian Woman.”

And in “Final Soliloquy of the Internal Paramour,” he writes:

We say God and the imagination are one . . .

How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind

We make a dwelling in the evening air,

In which being there together is enough.

Here is his “The Snow Man”:         

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

***

According to many, it seems nearly impossible to be human and NOT to see things that “aren’t there.”

Finally, in my post earlier this week I referred to the necessity of “Beginner’s Mind” when one has been long absent from writing poetry. My “solution” was being able to write a “bad” poem and to call it a “draft.”  Here, then, is the already-revised DRAFT I referred to, inspired by Waldman’s article on Apophenia:

 

Apophenia:  An Apologia*

Look at walls covered with many stains … with the idea of imagining some scene, you will see in it a similarity to landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, broad valleys, and hills of all kinds … [also] battles and figures with lively gestures and strange faces and costumes and an infinity of things which you can reduce to separate and complex forms.– Leonardo da Vinci

All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.–Isak Dinesen

 

Some see Jesus in a grilled cheese.

When I first fell in love, I saw my beloved’s name everywhere.

The world shimmered with dopamine, grew brighter.

Things light up when they connect.

You can see it happen in the brain, like orgasm.

 

An addict, I’ve sought the music of metaphor everywhere.

Synchronicity** still sets me buzzing with delight,

its mysterious invitations exquisitely penned.

Part of how the world works,

they flare but cannot last.

 

I am Pisces with Taurus rising;

my lucky number is 27,

my spirit animal the hawk

(or the heron, depending);

once when I asked to be affirmed,

a feather appeared

at my feet.

 

I’ve thrown Hexagram 8 three times in a row.

Think of the odds.

 

The swirling linoleum on my bathroom floor

speaks volumes to me, especially

when stomach cramps strike.

 

After her son killed himself

my friend found a heartshaped rock,

took it as a comfort, direct from him.

 

But when her friends found heartshaped rocks too,

and sent them to her, her own no longer murmured.

Only then was she truly alone.

 

A bright, windless January day

seeks reassurance of connection.

Tonight’s cold constellations might tell a tale.

We’ve peopled the cosmos with relatives,

named new dwarf planets Makemake, Eris, Haumea, Ceres .

Like us, they chatter: fly endlessly round something

they can neither escape nor understand. 

 

My imaginary friend Marcia stayed in my orbit

sharing secrets ’til I passed

some nebulous transit of age and she drifted,

unnoticed, away into space.

 

Yet poets still root around for fresh links.

Happy as pigs in shit or clams in deep water,

they continue to make meaning

compulsory, compulsively secreting

concentric circles of something

pearl-like around pain, then

with ceremony

presenting them to us.

 

Buddhists call that compassion,

which requires imagination,

which calls forth from the bench

apophenia.

 

If I squint hard at the moon,

I can see whatever it is, my friend,

that tonight you see there.

 

Go ahead: tell me your story.

 

I will tell you mine.

 

 

*Inspired metaphors, paranormal beliefs, conspiracy theories, and delusional episodes may all exist on a single spectrum, recent research suggests. The name for the concept that links them is apophenia.—Katy Waldman, “It’s All Connected,” Slate, Sept. 16, 2014.

** Carl Jung variously defined synchronicity as an “acausal connecting (togetherness) principle,” “meaningful coincidence,” and “acausal parallelism.”–Wikipedia