2010/12/31

Choosing again

One of the blogs I keep in my reader had this poem posted today, and honestly, I do not know a better one for the beginning of a new calendar year.

The Wild Rose
by Wendell Berry

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart.

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.


That's it, really. "Choosing again what I chose before" and being able to feel in my bones and skin that this is the path for me. Sensing in the soles of my feet that I am walking on ground that wants me here, and seeing with my eyes and breathing deeply into my body the air of a place that knows and loves me as much as I do it.

In this year of our Lord, two thousand and ten, I turned fifty years old. I have been on my path for half a century. Every time I say this fact, I try very very hard to say it soberly. But I can't! It makes me laugh! The fact that I am fifty years old makes me want to throw my arms in the air, and reach into the vastness of space, and laugh so loudly that the echo comes back to me from the mountains on the other side of the frozen Gorge I can see from here, where I am, indoors, and in my own living room (throwing my arms in the air, and laughing). What a glorious and marvelous thing it is to be so ridiculously old, and so hilariously young at the same time. And I'm not the only one to be nuts in this way.

I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming... suddenly you find - at the age of 50, say - that a whole new life has opened before you.
Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976)

See? Me and Agatha. Aware of a second blooming.

Now, I still have more in common with the child playing on the floor than I do with the incessantly talking heads on the television (now more than ever, since the apparent fashion du jour is a combination of tortured colloquialisms and Barbie and Ken hairstyles on people too young to know what they're talking about). But I know I'm not a kid anymore, and I'm finally free from wanting to be.

And I do not want to be a teenager either.

Or a twenty something, or a thirty something, no, nor even a forty something.

Or a superhero.

I do not want to be a spy.

I do not want to eat meat pie.

My kids are grown and I am too,

And I know what I want to do.

I do not want to go back there,

I even like my graying hair.

It's true! It's as if I curled up with a book when I was about 10 years old, entered the magic palace inside the fairy tales pages, and fought the wicked stepmothers and monsters, and broke the spells, and got imprisoned and freed over and over again ... and while I was in there, even though I didn't even realize it at the time, I drank the elixir of radical acceptance. I have swallowed the cupful of Goodlife. I am full of the light-bearing liquid of Yes.

And the funniest part of the whole thing is that this ridiculous surefooted sensation probably looks to the rest of the world like the most wandering, goofy, purposeless saunter anyone ever took. It couldn't be any further from a "purpose driven" life if I were -- well, if I were still a child, curled up with a good book. This is not "the secret," and it's not the "power of positive thinking." I'm not reciting affirmations to myself either, although that can be a good tool to use. I haven't climbed a corporate ladder, or even bothered about an uninterrupted employment history, for that matter. My life has often looked (especially to the more - uh - linear people who've had opinions) like Billy's shortcut home from school. Trajectory, it is not.

But life, it is. It's not "all good," but it's also not nearly as distracted as it looks. This is my path. Mary Catherine Bateson is right. Life is Improv. It's freestyle, even if there are compulsory events. The artistic merits weigh at least as much as the technical ones, and I don't care any more if the judge with the unibrow is glowering at me. In fact, I think I just might twirl on over there and blow her a kiss.

Goodbye, 2010. And thanks.

2010/12/23

Standing Close By

It's the twenty-third of December. It's my grandpa's birthday. Last year, I found a YouTube recording of I Jesu Navn, and the year before that I had just discovered the fire and ice of the Trio Mediaeval. This year, a friend asked me about Grandpa Les, and I told her that he was the grandfather who cried (for happiness) at my wedding, and who told me when I was a girl that I had beautiful handwriting, and that the reason his tie was colored like that was because he had once stood too close to a rainbow.

I typed those words to my friend - that my grandpa told me he had once stood too close to a rainbow - and I started to cry. I miss him, of course, but not in any regretful way. I miss my girlhood, too. And I grew up, and he passed on, and that it as it should be, and that is a life I love, and today - on December 23rd, Grandpa Les is standing close by, as much a part of my girlhood and my selfhood as my handwriting.

He gave me my first roller skates, and the joy of roller skating on a summer afternoon is the joy of a granddaughter. He built us our stilts, too - and the thrill of the danger and the height and the practice and the sound of the butt ends of 2x2's on the sidewalk are the gifts of a grandfather. My cedar chest was built by his hands. My Norse identity was offered to me by his grin.

The taste of buttered and sugared lefse, rolled up into a tube and always slightly messy to eat, and the taste of Kringla, soaked in melted butter out of the oven, kept nice and cool between the sheets of waxed paper inside grandma's wooden container and then spread with more butter by the uncles when they finally got some, and the taste of blue cheese salad dressing on iceberg lettuce ... these are the flavors that came to me from my Norwegian grandfather.

Today, in this December after my girlhood and before my own grandmothering, Grandpa Les is as near to me as a rainbow and that's why my life is colored this way.

2010/12/21

All Good


In the midst of the last week before Christmas, a list of new things I can welcome with joy:

  • Continued production of candelabra candles from IKEA, candles I use in this flat black metal candelabra from Michaelmas until Easter
  • Adult children who bring presents and food and things like that to the party, making it possible to spread out the responsibilities of party-making -- and many hands make light work
  • Readiness for the first year of the grownup tradition of real egg nog to be served to arriving adults
  • Tiny little class holders that perfectly fit the tiny little "Glimma" tea lights from IKEA, and can be scattered throughout ... well, throughout everything everywhere
  • An old headboard, discovered in one of the garages (or maybe the barn), once owned by and probably made by the same great-grandpa who built this house, ready to be cleaned up and brought into our freshly painted bedroom in time for Christmas
All in all, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here, and even though it looks a little different from any of the others, I think I kinda like it. Hmmmm... yes .... I like it.

2010/12/14

Linen Closet

This isn't a picture of the linen closet in the house where I grew up, but the closet in the picture is definitely of the era. It's the same idea.

Have you ever lived in a house with cupboards in the walls? We had one upstairs that had the sheets and blankets and towels and things in it. Our linen closet was on one side of the center square of space on the second floor of the square house. The bedrooms were ringed around it.

Across that little center room of the second floor of the house was the cupboard where we kept the vacuum cleaner, and next to that was the door that opened to the dark stairs that went up to the attic.

The stairs that came up through the middle of the house from the first floor opened into this space, and so we had to pass through this center square whenever we went to our rooms, or to the upstairs bathroom, or to the attic.

Downstairs there was another cupboard in the wall, near the kitchen, in what we called "the playroom." That cupboard was also in the center of the house, on the main floor. It butted against the back wall of the front coat closet in the entry hall, across from the front door. That deep, deep front closet reached under the stairs at the back, where it gathered old coats and mittens into its belly, and gave us a good place to hide in a game of hide-and-seek. There was one long winter and slow spring when opening that closet would show you the box - right at the front - under the coats hanging on the rod - the box that contained my new roller skates. Grandpa Les gave them to me for Christmas, and oh, it took so long for spring to arrive so I could go outside and skate on the sidewalks! (Mom wasn't all that tolerant of indoor roller skating for some reason.)

For me, a home is a place you go into for shelter. Within the shelter - at its center - there are stairs to go up or down, and in that center space, in and under and near the stairs, there is a cupboard in the wall. In the cupboard are clothes for the beds, or favorite puzzles, or vacuum cleaners sitting like fat pigs with hoses extending from their noses and metal tubes leaning near them against the closet walls.

Recently, I've realized that this is not only a description of the house where I became a person, but it is a description of me as well. I wonder ... are we all shaped by our homes in this way?

I don't want to live a life open to the street, for instance. Our house was above the street, and our folks removed the stairs that once led up from the sidewalk (which I would keep), and so it was necessary to walk up the driveway to the front porch steps and then up to the door. That's the right amount of privacy for me. I want a public face exposed to the world, and also a separation, but with a way through so that I can go out and come in when I want to.

It was a "single-family" dwelling, and I don't like apartment living. I also don't like too much time spent too near to too many people, and have a few close friends even though I'm hospitable to many in my life.

We invited people over, and my parents still love to invite people over, and I wonder ... all of those nights when I was up in my room, listening to the sounds of grownups together downstairs in that house ... did that form in me my deeply abiding longing for the writerly life of observation more highly valued than participation?

Lots of things about that house seem to me like pieces of myself. Today, I do not know why, it's the linen closet that pulls and draws me. I remember that I used open the doors to stand in front of it. Sometimes I would pull boxes down from the deep, top shelves and open the boxes to see what was in them. Photos, sometimes. Mementos. Bits and pieces of gift-giving or vacation-taking, hidden here. Baby books and a box of buttons. The things to be found inside a closet which is inside the middle of the inside of our house ... they were not hidden. But I had to go looking for them to find them.

2010/12/08

The Thermodynamics of Family


In Thermodynamics, a closed system can exchange heat and work (for example, energy), but not matter, with its surroundings. In contrast, an isolated system cannot exchange any of heat, work, or matter with the surroundings, while an open system can exchange all of heat, work and matter. For a simple system, with only one type of particle (atom or molecule), a closed system amounts to a constant number of particles.

That's what wikipedia says.

And what I say is this.

I used to be the mom in a closed and simple system. We had a constant number of particles (five). We kept things closed, but not isolated, and simple for the sake of strength. Little particles do better when not disturbed by overwhelming matter from their surroundings, and so all our heat and work had limits. Overwhelm was something I was pretty vigilant about.

We even homeschooled our kids - but we rejected the isolated system. This is the "homier than thou" homeschooler type who grinds her own wheat for making her own bread (and buys the wheat from a Good Christian, who probably also homeschools), has all her babies at home, and has church at home too, with all the anachronistically dressed children sitting straight and tall while they participate with a whole heart and a willing spirit. (feel a little ill yet? ... you should ...) We wanted our kids introduced to the wide world - not kept away from it, in a sterilized place where no immune system can develop.

Get the idea? We parented consciously. There are at least as many ways to be a fully conscious parent as there are parents to be conscious, and we did it in our way, and we chose to be a closed but not isolated system while the three particles were developing.

But they are all developed now.

And they've blown apart my system!

I resent this!

I resent the blast of the brightest supernova ever, and I resent the flying particles and heat and light and matter and exchange with so unexpected a set of surroundings, and I resent the apparently endless Are You Kidding Me? moments!!

I liked the closed system, okay?

I liked it.

There is a theory that at the beginning of the universe, the blast of heat and matter spun the solar system into place. This, so goes the theory, is how the earth spun about, like a drop flung from a hot spoon of boiling sugar accidentally dropped off the stove, and in its perfect distance from the heat source of our sun, and after a few little scrap meteors crashed into it and broke up the surface and put the right minerals into the shell, we had a fertile planet.

I hope I put all the things they'll need into the three particles, but in any case, they're on their own now. The spoon has dropped, and the drops are flung, and what they make of themselves is up to them now. But in the meantime, I seem to be living in a permanent meteor shower, and the novelty is wearing off.

Is there hope of a new, closed, stable solar system for spent Big Bangs, I wonder?

2010/11/30

Wondering What the Winter Weekends Will Bring

Registration for winter term is finally here! Three courses at Marylhurst this winter - one online (Poetry), one that takes three Friday/Saturday sessions and online work (History of Film), and one that takes a Friday evening and a Saturday (a workshop introduction to Art Therapy).

And here's the advert for the course I'm teaching. See it? Click on it to make it bigger. See? There I am! Second one down from the top, and so so so excited about this! This course is a toe in the water, testing what might be the beginning of another career for me, and one that could last for a couple of decades or more.

Winter weekends filling up and all sorts of possibilities are right 'round the corner.

When I get there, "the holidays" will have come and gone. The decorations that are not yet up will have been taken down. The meals will have been eaten. (Standing rib roast this year, I wonder? A goose maybe?) Advent, and St. Nicholas, and St. Lucia, and Midnight Mass (carrying in it all the other Midnight Masses we've gone to) will be over for another year, and I will spend January wondering why I feel a little depressed but this year I will be too busy to think about it. By the end of February, I'll be done with all my weekends at school, I'll be done teaching my courses, and I'll be much more than ready for our annual getaway at the beach.

That's what keeps going through my head. In a few more weeks - one winter - which I know goes in a flash - so much of what I am now planning will have become part of my past. I'll be the person who did all that. The planning, the dreaming, the wondering, the wistful wishing and the memories of days gone by ... the moment ... everything after the moment.

Remember these? These wooden mazes with the knobs that make the two inner boxes tilt up and down or side to side? The little metal ball bearing to keep balanced on the line by resisting the temptation to over steer, stopping the momentum, or looking too far ahead?

Every once in awhile, you could get the metal ball into one of the corners along the way, and you could re-gather your focus and get more calm and determined.

But it's not a good idea to try to stop the momentum to try to balance the ball in the middle of the travel sections. For those, you have to stay in the game all the way - you have to keep your eye on the rolling ball and the line, and you have to feel the way the knobs move in your hands. Most of the game is always going to be before or after where that ball is at any moment - and the game happens at the spot where the ball touches the painted line, and it happens in motion. One moment at a time.

2010/11/23

Extreme Shepherding Indeed!

Go, Border Collies! Go!

2010/11/13

More notes

I've just spent a few minutes looking around at images, trying to find a pile of rubble with a surprised yet gratified person standing in the midst. There are no images like that. Rubble is depressing or terrifying or wearying. Rubble follows in the wakes of disasters and wars and attacks.

But I have happy rubble! There aren't any pictures of happy rubble. My rubble is what happens after a concerted and deliberate effort to push over a wall. Bruises and scrapes and blood and tears of frustration, alternating with highly Zen periods of 's-all-okay, and more impatience and more blood and tears, and a rock fell out now and again, but the wall held ... and now, all at once, crash!!

Me: A Timeline

  • Child stage: complete.
  • Adolescent stage: complete, with amendments* made at a later date.
  • Young adulthood: complete, despite necessary catching up (*see above).
  • Active motherhood: done, and done! No really. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Pay no attention to the adult in the bedroom. And, no, actually, I am NOT fussing about things over which I have no more control. It was an excess of sugar that gave me insomnia, okay? (shut up)
  • Transition into new phase of adulthood: geeeeeeez! Y'all? Transitions suck!
  • The year of turning 50 in A.D. 2010
  1. Soldier daughter home from a year in the Middle East.
  2. Older son graduates from college.
  3. Pairing off happening, prospects very happy-making.
  4. Course work at school serving as a means for focusing intent.
  5. Heard Mary Catherine Bateson speak - remembered that I am still me. I am the me I have been becoming my whole life.
  6. Literature of Resistance + Nazareth House Apostolate + finding out how to be a person in a specific and disciplined practice of a traditional faith ("see the person, not the ideology")
  7. A conversation with Andrew Pate, the painter and community activist
  8. An accepted proposal, and now getting ready to teach my first session of Voice Lessons
That's what I want to do. I want to offer Voice Lessons. The walls fell down, and the stones rolled all over the place, and I think the entire decade of my forties was a process of birth-giving -- of life composition -- of learning not to be afraid of improv.

I'll call the series (something like):
Hearing Your Voice (lots of shared reading aloud + free writes on prompts)
Finding Your Voice (journals, poetry, letter-writing + intentional self-discovery)
Using Your Voice (poetry, records of personal experience + testimonial literature)

... and in conjunction with local artists? Things like, maybe, but I don't know because we haven't talked about it yet ...
Word Streams
Imaged Narratives
... words fail ... this will be a team effort, and it's not time yet to know these titles

Now that the rocks have rolled away and I stand in the midst of the rubble, blinking and a little stunned, I have started to laugh. This is the old dream - it's here again - this is the Art Therapy dream (from February of 2007), but I don't have to do the "art" part!

2010/11/10

For ME?? THANK you!!

Transformative Language Arts Concentration

The low residency MA in Individualized Studies Program offers a 48 credit concentration in Transformative Language Arts with masters degree.

The Transformative Language Arts concentration is for students interested in the intentional use of the written, spoken, and sung word for individual and community growth, development, celebration, and transformation. Students choosing this concentration ...

Third Day Thoughts: That Thing I Do

I need to get this stuff written down.

Yarn fibers and hanks of thread.

Twisting maybe strands of belts or straps and
I cannot figure out what it is and
I know it is important
because it was given
to me
this past weekend.

I keep teasing the strands apart
running my fingers through it
like hair I'm trying to braid
behind my head.

Embroidery thread. First,
pull apart the strands.
Lay the threads against each other
so that their spun nature aligns

It is impossible to attend (be attentive, be in attendance) for a weekend of Testimony, Night, Woman at Point Zero, The Little School, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Death and the Maiden ... the palpable answering pain of my fellow students ... without being permanently changed. I was right. I'm back from The Village, and everything here is the same, but I am not the same. So everything's different now for me.

It's becoming a theme for the year.
2010: The Suffering of Others.
2010: The year my soldier came back from Afghanistan.
2010: The Year of Nazareth House. (Give if you can. Please. Click on the link and give if you love the people who love without condition of litmus tests. Color, creed, politics or past - none of it matters to these people. All they do is love.)
2010: The year I heard the pain of men whose women are destructive - several such men, concurrently and all in this year
2010: The Literature of Resistance




Pull apart the strands and feel
the places where it grabs
every tiny scratch or hangnail or rough
place on your fingers.

I hear you. I can feel you here
in the palm of my hand
and along the inner edges of my own touch
You are no longer

Softly faded into the neat and woven
threads of destiny and the history channel
is not pausing for a commercial
and I hear you now.



I find myself wondering if there is anything in the natural world that has its layers peeled back over and over, and yet neither dies nor hardens. Are cork trees like that, I wonder? Cinnamon, perhaps? I know why I was not peeled to this depth before now. I would have died in some way. I think the sounds of this sort of pain would have caused me to turn away in self-protective need ... and maybe that is what happened. Maybe we can stop our ears and block the sounds if we are not yet strong enough to hear them.

But now I've heard them. I cannot un-know, and I cannot un-hear. I got back off the island, left The Village again, I'm back at my flat in London, and I have no idea what to do about what I know and heard. How do I give this into the safe keeping of another?

I think this is becoming a "thing I do." A few weeks ago, my adult daughter called me from the army base, and asked, "What 're ya doin?" I was not yet fully back into the room in which I'd answered the phone -- I mean to say, I was still in the last clutches of my thoughts. And so, to give myself a few more seconds to become conscious again, I said, "Ruminating." She laughed and answered, "Yeah - because that is a thing - that you do." I suspect now that finding ways to help people hear is becoming a thing - that I do.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God
walking in the garden
in the cool of the day
and Adam and his wife hid themselves
from the Presence.

The knowledge of good and evil
the innocence of not hearing
and now it's gone
and there is nothing left to do but listen.

I heard Your voice
in the garden and I was afraid
because I was naked.
And I hid myself.

Lord, teach us to pray.

2010/11/09

Aftermath

On Thursday I went into town in time for the midday Mass, and afterward I met a friend for lunch. He went back to work. I tried to study - tried to get ready - to focus my attention at least. But I couldn't do it. The course to start on Friday morning was The Literature of Resistance, and my theory book was fascinating and my poetry book entrancing, and the lyric mourning of Elie Wiesel's Night almost too beautiful for sorrow, almost too sorrowful for beauty ... well, I just didn't have it in me to read The Little School or Woman at Point Zero. I think perhaps I'd already gone as far as I could go without company. I needed my classmates with me for the rest of the material.

Because I'm still me. I'm still the me I've been becoming all these years, and I was once the me who could not witness verbal arguments without beginning to shake like a sort of nervous purse dog -- or survivor. And what did I have to survive? Who could be sad in Pleasantville? Sadness is just so very unpleasant, and I'm sure it was not allowed.

Thursday night, I walked to another neighborhood eatery. The places for meals and conviviality are as thick as the falling leaves in that neighborhood. A visitor once asked some of us if there was a place close by where he could get a good beer - and we laughed at him. "Go out onto the sidewalk," we said. "Throw a rock, and head to whatever building it hits. There's probably a good beer in there. A burger too, if you want one."

It's been a long time since I met people for a 6:30 dinner and didn't leave the restaurant until 8:30. One glass of wine - Prosecco, actually - because Prosecco goes with nearly everything in a pasta place. One meal of Rigatoni Zuccati. Only a couple of pieces of bread. And the conversation flowed, and the food took me an hour to eat, and it was good all the way to the bottom of the dish, and perhaps if I ate every meal that way, I would always sleep like a contented baby, safe and quiet inside, safe and quiet surrounding me.

Because I am still me. I am the me I have been becoming my whole life, and I was once afraid to be. To be in the moment. To be at the party. To be without performance or presentation. I've learned at last to be, and to be happy at dinner with people who are interesting because they're interested. (It's even more fun when they're in love.)

And Friday morning came. What is the speech act of testimony? What is it for? What does it do? How do we listen and how do we try not to listen and why?

The boy who wanted only to be his father's son and never can forget the sounds of his own fear as they beat his father senseless - never can forget the sounds of his father's death. The woman screaming about the chimneys and the fire and made silent by her fellow prisoners in a cattle car, who even then could not imagine chimneys and fire and silence. The Plague crept in and stole the people away. They did not stop it before it closed their town. Plague could not happen. Not now. Not here. They could not imagine it. We cannot imagine it.

Because that is what it is.

It is us.

We. You. Me.

We could not imagine it, and so it happened.

And we're still us. We are the us we've been becoming our whole lives.

L'chayim.

2010/11/07

Sometimes ya just gotta burst into song


On Saturday, October 30, 2010, the Opera Company of Philadelphia brought together over 650 choristers from 28 participating organizations to perform one of the Knight Foundation's "Random Acts of Culture" at Macy's in Center City Philadelphia. Accompanied by the Wanamaker Organ - the world's largest pipe organ - the OCP Chorus and throngs of singers from the community infiltrated the store as shoppers, and burst into a pop-up rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's "Messiah" at 12 noon, to the delight of surprised shoppers. This event is one of 1,000 "Random Acts of Culture" to be funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation over the next three years. The initiative transports the classical arts out of the concert halls and opera houses and into our communities to enrich our everyday lives. To learn more about this program and view more events, visit randomactsofculture.org. The Opera Company thanks Macy's and the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ (wanamakerorgan.com) for their partnership, as well as Organ Music Director Peter Conte and Fred Haas, accompanists; OCP Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden, conductor; and Sound Engineer James R. Stemke. For a complete list of participating choirs and more information, visit operaphila.org/RAC. This event was planned to coincide with the first day of National Opera Week.

2010/11/04

A free man

Nervous.

Jittery. Jumpy. Twitchy and unable to settle.

There are moments in a life lived consciously, when awareness seeps in under the door and through the cracks around the window frame, and just before losing consciousness you know. Now. It's now. From here on out, all of my reference points and indicators and familiar protections will be altered or gone.

I am choosing - and I know it. I am choosing to stand before the masked faces of my inner jury and make an argument. The changes we have in our lives - the big ones, I mean - they make us Number Six, taken to The Village, held captive there, and finally making our arguments to our own masked faces.

With a few exceptions, each episode begins with a repetition of some of the opening sequences from the first episode--McGoohan resigns; his file is dropped by a mechanical device into a filing cabinet labeled "Resigned"; he is gassed; he wakes in "The Village" and confronts (the new) Number Two. This beginning is followed by a set piece of dialogue:

Prisoner: Where am I?
Number Two: In The Village.
Prisoner: What do you want?
Number Two: Information.
Prisoner: Which side are you on?
Number Two: That would be telling. We want information, information, information...
Prisoner: You won't get it.
Number Two: By hook or by crook we will.

Prisoner: Who are you?
Number Two: The new Number Two.
Prisoner: Who is Number One?
Number Two: You are Number Six.
Prisoner: I am not a number. I am a free man.

Number Two: Ha, ha, ha, ha....

With few exceptions, this sense of knowing has preceded a profound and seismic change in my life. Although (I may at last have learned) "it" will all be the same when I return to my life at the end of the show, I will not be the same. I will have been a Prisoner in the Village, silenced at every turn, unable to make an argument or bring awareness - or find it.

The difference this time is that I have hopped onto the the helicopter of my own volition. I choose this change.

I choose this change - I choose this course in narratives born of pain - I choose this awareness. I choose to be the living clay on which the Literature of Resistance may be written, and I choose it for all of the Prisoners who have been silenced. I choose it for the silencing of gas chambers and columns of smoke, and I choose it for machete amputees and fearful children.

And I choose this next stay in The Village for the smallest darkling spot of confusion in the mind and soul of anyone I might ever stand before as a teacher. I do not compare our privileged lives and times to the unmaking of the Holocaust - the erasure of voices and unreality of a nightmare made corporeal and then snuffed out so easily. But I see that the planting of one healthy tree is an answer to the fire of mountain ranges, and I choose to plant the trees.

I'm afraid.

I've been here before. I've been drugged and captured and taken to The Village when I did not want to be and no one warned me and the panic of it nearly unhinged my mind and stopped my body.

But this is different. I know the white balloon is here, and I know it will not let me leave until it's time to make an answer to the masks in the gallery. But this time, I choose it.

2010/11/03

A Note Before Proceeding

Wow.

Every instrument in the symphony of my life is playing on key, in tune, and in concert right now. The course in self-assessment is ratifying my inner foundations, while the course in literary theory is teaching me to assess the literature, using Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a model, and the course in the literature of resistance and pain and injustice and atrocities is giving me the practicalities I need to be a valid witness ... and whether or not I teach at the community center this winter, I will - I know now - I will find ways to be a witness to the stories of others.

This is a thing I could not do before now. I knew I was not strong enough to stand as witness to the testimony of pain in this way. I wasn't born with the filter or the separator that makes some people so utterly capable of volunteering for Hospice or working in the cancer wards where children are the patients or doing art therapy for the PTSD sufferers. I couldn't do it, not because I didn't want to, and not because I would rather be deaf, blind, and dumb to the suffering of others ... I couldn't do it because I couldn't figure out how.

I know what bruises feel like in my body, and I know what injury means to my own loved ones. For them, I can stand as a witness and I can ratify and record their pain when they need a witness. But for strangers? For the people with whom I share no past? All I have ever been able to do for such people is -- well, nothing, really. And nothing else in my life pulls and tears at me like this knowledge - that I have done nothing. That I feel helpless to change such appalling inaction. I am ashamed of my cowardice and humbled by my helplessness.

But now -- because of this book required for The Literature of Resistance -- because it was written by a psychoanalyst and a lit professor who teamed up to "examine the nature and function of memory and the act of witnessing, both in their general relation to the acts of writing and reading, and in their particular relation to the Holocaust," and because in this book they have found a way to teach what they have learned, now I have tools. I'll have to practice to become any good at this, but here is what a witness needs to do for the one giving testimony. The list begins on p. 72.

  • Accept the sense of paralysis, brought about by the fear of merger with the atrocities being recounted.
  • Accept the sense of outrage and anger, unwittingly directed at the victim, knowing that this tearing apart is happening because of our inadequacy to respond and a consequent desire to make the pain the fault of the sufferer.
  • Accept the withdrawal and numbness in one's own reactions.
  • Know that the flood of awe and fear make it natural to endow the speaker with a kind of sanctity, and that this is a way to avoid the intimacy entailed in knowing.
  • Avoid hyperemotionality, which superficially looks like compassion, but in actuality floods the testifying victim in the defensive affectation of the listener.

and mostly ... for me, mostly ... for me, the missing piece ...

Avoid attempting "foreclosure through facts, through an obsession with factfinding; an absorbing interest in the factual details of the account which serve to circumvent the human experience."
I cried when I read that last night. I have hurt a lot of people by defending myself through my obsession with factfinding, and I could not figure out at the time what was happening. Now I know. And I find that I prefer honest regret and repentance to the horrible knowledge that I was only adding to someone's pain.

Thank you, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.

2010/11/01

Some of the books I'd use




I sent off that course proposal to the local Parks & Recreation people last week, and they said they'd make their decision this week, and I feel like I'm waiting for my plastic Junior Birdman wings to arrive after saving up 250 boxtops. I designed a front "cover" sheet for course handouts. I've been coming up with random ways to explain things like perspective and point of view when we write about our own lives and experiences. And, of course, books I could use -- I keep thinking of more. So, I might as well write it all down.

Here they are, for you. My favorite books of self-discovery coupled with the writing process. The covers are linked to the author sites wherever authors have sites, and to Powell's otherwise.

Some of these authors will probably seem a little "out there" for a lot of my friends who I know read my blog. And, to be completely honest, I did have some hurdles to get past, myself, when I first saw some of them.

But here's what I know now that I didn't used to know. There is a lot of value in "whatever works," and there is a lot of truth in home truths, and there is a lot of credibility in old ways ... and most of all, Love answers a lot of questions. Could I use this? Is it loving? Will this help me? Is it loving? Does it matter if I agree with the author about everything else before I can try some of the things that author does or explains? Is it loving?

See, I figure that if a thing in this world works a certain way, then it was made to work that way. If people blossom and bloom and become more fully themselves under certain practices or with very particular kinds of skills ... well, anyone who believes God made people would have to conclude God made people to work that way, right? That's what I think.

I know that we humans botch things up, and misunderstand, and get things wrong ... and I know we can hurt ourselves and often do. But you can figure out what kind of tree you're looking at if you know what fruit it bears. These books have borne good, loving, helpful, and transferable ideas and skills in me.

So here they are, in no particular order -- some of my faves, for lots of reasons. Some are presented as more profound, some as lighter. Some are meant for psychological and sociological study, some for personal self help. All contain exercises that show the reader/writer more of himself or herself, and all are worth owning. With two exceptions (I won't say which ones), I don't really think I'd be best buds with the authors ... but I'd love a meal or two and wine and conversation with all of them at least once.

So ... have they called yet? Check the messages. Can I teach this winter?

2010/10/29

You've been erased - probably - maybe - well, it depends

I can't help it. Eraser and True Lies (and all of the Die Hard movies - yes, all of them) - I love them. I get in a mood to bash up some bad guys, and I put the disk in (and I set up the ironing board and get out the shirts or the altar linens), and Arnold or Bruce or someone like that just clears 'em all outa there. And no mess for me to clean up afterwards! It's a pretty good deal, I think.

Somewhere near the center of my chest and up in my neck and shoulders, bashing up the bad guys is connected to having a good clear-out. That's what Jean calls it in As Time Goes By. "A good clear-out." From under the stairs, from the back of the cupboards and the closets ... a good clear-out for donating things or taking them to the country house or throwing them away entirely. A good clear-out feels very action heroey to me.

And so, apparently, does moving all my RSS feeds to a new reader. Who are all these people I've been "following?" Why did I put that one in there? Oh, good grief. I haven't looked at that in ages! ... or, sometimes, Awwww.... I'd forgotten about that one. I wonder why he's not posted in a long time.

But one thing about a good clear-out (or thinning the carrots in the garden, callously discarding so many tiny orange strands, playing God like that ...) one thing about a good clear-out is the moments of pulse-quickening, "You've been erased." You, Mr. Snarkyman. The tools of irony, wit, and even bare-knuckle sarcasm -- you're not up to it. You're a whiner. You've been erased. Oh, my. This woman. I'd forgotten about her. No wonder I never follow that link and look at her page. That level of intensity over sock drawers and flea market finds ... no thanks. It's just not going to happen. Some stuff goes away because, like the denim jumper, it's just not me anymore. And some stuff goes away because I'm tired of averting my eyes. Erased. You're not coming to the new reader, you ... You've been erased.

But there's another thing about a good clear-out. It's the reason I used to put money in my books at school (which turned out to be a bad idea, since I could never remember which books), and it's the reason putting away the holiday decorations between Epiphany and Advent II or III is better than Christmas in July. There's the thrill of re-discovery.

In my old web crawler, under the headings of Books and Writers, or Homeschoolers (the two largest categories in my list) are a few real gems. "Families" and "Folks" are pretty promising boxes to sort through as well. It's reassuring. Restorative, even. It's an exercise in appreciation of the friends and family and peers and admirable people that surround me - people to whom I want to measure up - people who help me remember to laugh or to rewrite my work or to say thank you.

No, I'm not going to share my list. I won't say who's being erased. But you? Have I erased you? Probably not. If you read this blog, you're probably going into the witness protection program. I'll know where you are. Me 'n' Arnold 'n' Bruce. We only shoot the bad guys.

2010/10/28

Totalitarian regimes ... like dormant recessive genes ... waiting to flare up at any time

Wrong in a thousand ways, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, and it has to stop. Creating horrors to fix problems isn't okay.

Feel a Thought

Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.
E. Y. Harburg


Even if music's not really your thing, this little tiny lesson sort of interview about a song you've heard a thousand times will be fascinating. And if you're a song writer, you should memorize it.

2010/10/23

Fall

All out of proportion to the number of years and the distance in the past, today, with the rain and receding colors of fall, come all the feelings of being separated from the man I wanted to marry -- a long time ago -- a lifetime of raising a family together has come and gone since then, and yet here they are.

All of these feelings, just as if I'd never left them. Just as if we'd never married, or moved so many times, or seen each other through the fears of serious illness or the fears about our children -- just as if we'd never moved here, to where his great grandfather lived with his own wife and six children -- just as if we were still young, and still separated and still trying not to breathe deeply enough to feel the panic of our separation.

Odd. I wonder why certain emotional seasons never lose their intensity. And I wonder what perverse little sprite it is that devilishly dances to the gates and lets the memories flood back, and why the memories are scenes or feelings or moments, and not narratives. I remember the stifling feeling pressing into my chest whenever I thought of the distance between Seattle and Pensacola. I remember the desolation of hanging up the phone after a weekly phone call (in the days before cell phones and email and facebook and blogs and unlimited long distance). I remember barely being able to breathe as the plane carried me out of the Pacific Northwest's air space ... and breathing faster and faster as another plane carried me back into it months later.

One winter, on my way into the Portland airport in a plane full of college students and military personnel, the rain started pelting the windows of the cabin, and everyone stopped talking. The stillness vibrated for a moment, and someone on the other side of the double-aisled, fat-bodied plane breathed out, "It's raining!" Only someone from our wet wet world would ever say that with so much relief and longing ... and everyone laughed.

I was only gone for four school years, and I was only leaving and then waiting to come home to my man for three of those years, and those years were nearly three decades ago, and yet the rain and the cool air ... and maybe my reading for school now and my grappling with ideas of the sort my man used to talk to me about back then ... whoever or whatever has done it ... I remember it again.

To paraphrase Mary Catherine Bateson, we're still us. We're the us we've been becoming for all these years. Today I remember how we started, and it makes me cry a few of those ancient tears.

2010/10/18

Check!

Whaddaya think? Once a teacher always a teacher? Once an eight-year-old always an eight-year-old? Whatever it is, I have wanted and wanted and wanted a way to keep track of my always too-flexible tasks and obligations and goals.

You know the recommendation, right? Everyone says it. Keep a record. Keep a food diary. Keep an exercise log. Keep a calendar. Keep a schedule.

(groan ...)

It's not just this quarter's online course (no regular hours for study, but deadlines for assignments) and the goals of other outside work for school, together with sub hours at the library (ditto the irregular schedule) ... it's not just the desire to keep track of simple things like vitamins and exercise (seriously - I forget to eat) ... it's not even the writerly bewilderment that makes me sing, "Where did the ideas go, Long time pa-a-sing? Where did the ideas go? I used to know."

It's everything. It's the fact that a lot of my life proceeds by the clock, but on top of the clock's ticking there is a flux that works like a tide with no table. And I am tired of getting a mouthful of water and a tangle of weeds wrapped around my ankles every time things shift again.

So ... there it is. (You can click on it to make it big, right?) I saw someone else's and I made one for myself. There are no clock times on this Habit Keeper. It's not about when I do this stuff. It's about doing it at all. I've written my various activities (not the specifics of how or when - just the names of the things I do) across the top, in those slanty slots, and there are only four blank places for things I didn't think of today. ALL of the things are things I've obligated myself to do, and I know I won't get to each one of them every day. But at least this way, when I check something off, I'll have some sort of record of what on earth I'm doing with my time.

All it's going to take now is remembering to make the mark on the page.

Word Search

Dear David Shields (1) has done the darn'dest thing
and made me look at words and how they are
arranged
at random but we know nothing
is random

About a word search.
And I never search a word.
I search words.
I search sentences.
I search phrases and authors and names and
ideas search
for meaning and a context.

Try "feeling" "feeling return" try
"waiting for the feeling to return."

I leaned into the wall, cradling my arm, waiting for the feeling to return, wondering if I could find my gun in the dark, wondering if I had time. ... (2)
And then it was all over and I was back home in Las Vegas, waiting for the feeling to return to my fingers. That's when I had an opportunity to reflect (3)
Exhausted, he rested a moment leaning against Prince waiting for the feeling to return to his legs. Everything was happening so fast. (4)

The feeling returns eventually.
I know the feeling returns because
I feel it.

I'm still waiting for the feeling to return and the rest of the toenail to fall off. I think she did it on purpose, too. (5) (but this one is about a goat, I think -- this is not a horror film)
our love had grown stronger into the distance of the wide sky sent up thankful for the day waiting for the feeling to return (6) (people love. They don't seem to be able to stop themselves.)
Squall said nothing, but exhaled, watching his breath dissolve into the air, and waiting for the feeling to return to his limbs. (7) (Squall a character. A final fantasy.)

Is there such a thing as the sense of words
I wonder
and I search.
I do a word search but I do not
search words.
I wonder when the feeling will return.

(Google searching made this poem. Credits are the following:
(1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7))

2010/10/09

Atmosphere


I didn't think she meant it. I didn't think my mom was really irritated at my desire to be left alone with a book. She was, though. She thought this was the height of hostile, rejecting, anti-social behavior. She did not like it one bit.

But who would be irritated with a reader? There are a lot of things a person could interrupt in this house, and the interrupted person would simply have to put up with it - nicely, too! But reading? Huh-uh. Reading and movie-watching. "Don't bug me." It's very very very rude in this house to interrupt a reader or movie watcher.

I'm re-reading In This House of Brede. I've put one of these on hold at Powell's because they had it for a good price in this edition, which is the edition I got from the library last week. I'll pick up my own copy tomorrow. I'm a fully growed woman with fully growed kids, and it's the middle of the day on a Saturday, and I'm not showered and dressed. I've been reading. (Reading, and doing course work, and reading, and talking to friends, and reading and reading and reading, and placing a book on hold, and reading. Now I'm so good at the reading that interruptions don't pop my bubble.)

But now I wonder ... I've resurfaced for awhile - there's stuff I have to do today. And I recognize the air around me as my reading bubble. The atmosphere of the book encompasses me, and it will stay with me like this while I'm reading the book. Next up, all those difficult reads for my Literature of Resistance course - and I'm resisting starting them - it's not going to be a nice atmosphere to live in. This is what reading does for me, and this is what reading does to me, and this is why my mother resented it when I "read too much" as a kid. Reading puts me into another place entirely, and right now I only look like I'm here in this room, typing on this keyboard.

And here's the problem.

Writing does it to me too. Now that I've gotten almost as good at writing as I am at reading, whatever I'm writing is strong enough to make an atmosphere of its own. A weather pattern. A season. Temperature and precipitation and light and dark and wind and pressure.

And so I suspect that my resistance to the writing I love just might be a resistance to barometric pressure changes. When a writer goes inside, deep inside where the real writing is ... it's a long trip back, and it's never to where she started from.

2010/10/06

And speaking of planning ...

I have started to gather up composition notebooks of all different kinds. (I have one from Powell's that's called a "Decomposition Book" because it's from recycled materials. hahaha!) One notebook is for ideas. One is for notes from all day, all the time, different places, heaps of writing fodder. One is for keeping random ideas written down for later. One is for the ongoing religious education curriculum I'm writing. One is even for keeping track of all the other notebooks!

And no, I'm not doing it electronically. Here's why.

Accessibility: electricity quits sometimes, computers crash, hard drives or software or mother boards or processors or whatever else is in one of these things stops working, and I never ever know why - nor do I have any desire to add computer programming, maintenance, or repair to my list of things to pay attention to.

Tactile: if I don't use my body to interact with my art (my writing and my projects), I lose my connection to it.

Lined, and sewn: Little Miss Magical World from the previous post is married to Mr. You're A Writer Act Like One ... and I work with him at the library sometimes, and he's the one that told me these this. If you keep your notes on unlined paper, you won't want to look at them in the future because it's too hard to read stuff not lined up properly. And if you used notebooks with staples or glue, over time (especially here in the rain forest) you'll have rust or disintegration. So ... lined, and sewn.

Cheap: turns out that writing things into a book that is too expensive or precious stops me from just writing. Notebooks are for notes, not for posterity. That makes it easier to fill them.

Matching bindings: I know - silly, right? But if all the notebooks have a cloth tape spine, and they're all about the same size, then they can line up on my desk, or stack nice and neat, and I can write with a white pen (which I need to find - so far, I haven't seen one I could use) to identify them, and they're handy and useful and neat and attractive and inviting.

I really need a good white pen.

Permaculture Brain

(warning: totally internal dialog ahead)

The tune and the song keep looping in my brain.

This is the way we wash our clothes
wash our clothes
wash our clothes
This is the way we wash our clothes
early in the morning!

This is the way we plan our life
plan our life
plan our life
This is the way we plan our life
early in the morning!

Yesterday, a friend who's studying permaculture came here to our place to walk around in the field and yard and garden and everywhere, to talk to me about possibilities and plans and let me know what to do next. She's a published author, married to a published author, and so, of course, a thought occurred, and I concurred, and we will probably write about this entire thing, from its present wildness to its conclusive sustainability and joyful restoration. We'll take pictures and talk about the folklore of the plants and the ways in which we can work with the natural world instead of trying to force it to be something it is not. Comfrey under the orchard trees, and many kinds of trees instead of a monoculture in the orchard. Carrots Love Tomatoes, after all. Might as well admit to nature's power and work with it, right? We can't beat it. It hurts us and it to try. Joining it is better.

As we were talking about all of this, she asked me about the way I come at a project, and said she feels a need for "all" of the facts before she can move - but she's letting go of that perceived need because permaculture is so huge that there's no way to do it! (hahaha! Nothing like a little dose of impossibility to make us stop a behavior, eh?) And I knew just what she meant. It's a habit I've been working on for awhile now, too. There may be wisdom in "look before you leap," but eventually a person setting out on an adventure has to leap, even if the statistics regarding leaping might not be fully memorized, nor the future fully imagined or pre-recorded. After awhile, you just gotta jump if you're ever going to do a thing. And there is also wisdom in knowing that "he who hesitates is lost."

(This is the sort of discussion that happens when Little Miss Huge Ideas plans a landscape with Little Miss Magical World, and neither can stop being a writer looking for the words.)

Anyway, I've been thinking about the way to approach a task - or a life, for that matter. My life. I've realized that I need the Macro-Plan first. Or, that I want it. I don't always get it, sometimes I have to move into the job anyway, but I hate like poison to work that way. I want the zoomed-out map, and I want the ability to zoom in on the particulars. I want the atlas and the guide to the local bacteria. Both, and the movement between them. That's how my brain works.

Before I could start on our landscape here, I needed a way to plan for the whole thing. For me, the plans morph along the way. That's okay. The thing's in motion, or it's dead - so movement and change are good things. But I really must have the Macro-View in my head - and on paper, or else the apparent (to me) futility of working against an ultimately more powerful Reality pulls all the wind out of my sails and makes me sadder than sad. Futility demoralizes me.

Some folks like to complete tasks. Some folks like to think up Ideas. I prefer Ideas to tasks (and now note that I've even capitalized the word Ideas, and evidently do not consider tasks to be a proper noun) but I know I need to be able to move between Ideas and tasks, or I find it very difficult to move at all. After yesterday's first planning meeting for our house inside our yard inside our fields inside our woods (a meeting of two of the most non-task-oriented brains in Skamania county), I think the name of this sort of thinking is Permaculture.

2010/10/04

The Siren Call of Easier


Remember this scene from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The Sirens? So pretty. So ready to "love 'em up" - so ready to delay and stop and drink and slow and distract ... their calls are oh, so attractive - so hard to resist.

The guys were trying to get somewhere. They had stuff to do. They had a treasure to get to before the flood came and swept it away forever. And along the way, they heard the Sirens.

I hear them too.

I think I passed the place where two roads diverge in a yellow wood. I think that fork in the road was several miles back, and I'm already on the road less traveled by.

I decided to go to school, for one thing. And then I decided to create an interdisciplinary degree instead of staying within a discipline. I decided to go back to work - but not because we needed the money (we did - we do). I wanted to work at the library again. I have let everyone know I'm doing it, and I have recruited cohorts to help, and instead of keeping or using the curriculum available now (which is seriously inadequate for the current situations), I have decided to design and write a three, morphing into nine, morphing into 12-year religious education curriculum that I hope will be useful long after my body has returned to dust. The road more traveled by? I can't even remember where the turn-off was.

Last week, when Mary Catherine Bateson was speaking at her Marylhurst stop on the tour, I watched her and listened to the main points - but I also heard her humor and I heard her being a good sport about the stuff we can all complain about.

An aging body does have limits, after all. The woman's not delusional. She's aware that, at seventy, she cannot stand for very long at a time, for instance. So ... what did she do about it? She perched like a 20-year-old college student, and sat on a table! She's not tall. Her feet didn't touch the floor while she sat there - but she did swing them back and forth a bit. Bateson is not young - but she's not "old" either. Her road has been one of the less-traveled-by roads, that's for sure. And today I wonder what her Sirens have sung to her during her life. I wonder if she can still hear them, and if she would sometimes rather have a less profound life. I wonder if she still wonders if easier would have been nicer.

I've been listening to the people my age and older, and I've been hearing something lately. There are two kinds of people after awhile, and they get more and more obvious. There's the more usual type - the type that always seems to be looking for something that's not this. The good old days or the way things used to be or the way (they thought) things were when they were growing up.

And then there's the type that does life the Bateson way, pursuing meaning and depth and conscious understanding and deliberate choices. This type is honest about challenges, but seems almost never to be ready to complain or whine or doom-say or fuss at life. This type finds things to smile about and approve of everywhere they go. They talk about what they enjoy. They laugh easily. They work hard to make things better, but they don't stop for very long to discuss how they, personally, feel about it all. They just get on with the work - and they know the old days were not something to romanticize and long for. More tolerant of ambivalence. More ready to work for the parts of life that matter.

My Sirens go mute when the voice of people like Bateson is in my ear. This morning, I wonder if she was ever tempted to stay home and watch Masterpiece Mystery instead of getting her books and working on her projects. I wonder if she kept her house better than I do, or if she was as distracted about it as I am. My Sirens are the voices of my peers from days gone by, and they have learned to harmonize with the voices in my present life, and the whole crooning chorus sings as I pass by the water. "Why must you do it the hard way? Why not rest? Why not stop? Be contented. Stay at home. Nest. You love to nest. Nest and write and calm down and stop working so hard. Just nest. Rest. Nest. Rest."

You know what irritates me about the really dangerous Sirens? They tell the truth. I do love to nest. In my own good old days, when the kids were small, we all cleaned up around here together. I taught math, and dictation, and history, and nesting. They can cook, and they can clean (when they want to), and they know how to do their laundry, and they like the Christmas decorations to go up. And now - now that they're off in their own lives and I need not be teaching math or nesting - if I were a person to do it, nesting and hostessing and staying home to write would be my best path. It's a true path for me. The Sirens know their music well.

But I can hear Bateson's voice, and it's getting stronger in my head. "More tolerant of ambivalence." "I'm still me - I am who I've been becoming my whole life." "Experience is the best teacher - but only if you do your homework." "Advocates for the future." We have longer, healthier, more active lives than ever before in human history, and the question before us is this: what are we going to do about it? With it? With this opportunity?

It feels like unnecessary difficulty in a lot of ways, but I will block my ears to the Sirens, and I will keep going. I turned fifty this year. That's how old Bateson was when she wrote Composing a Life. Now she's seventy, and she's written Composing a Further Life, to answer the questions. No ... to think about the questions. To posit some answers. To have the discussion. To wonder - in the deepest and wisest parts of our beings - what are we to do with this long life we're given? Evolution has granted our species a longer and longer period of time for reaching adulthood; active adulthood is so active that there is nearly no time for reflection, but we must make the time so that when we reach the second half of adulthood we are ready for it; and now we are being granted elder years like never before.

My sirens want me to want an olden days that, in truth, I always found slightly constraining. For a couple of decades I could see this freedom up ahead, and I tried to get ready for it. And now it is time. This is the year I begin composing a further life. Rest, in full measure. Reflection, in abundance. Activity to its fullest potential. Expansion beyond my expectations. It's not time yet for Easier.

2010/10/02

Changing my mind about the kid in the principal's office

Last winter, during our annual trip out of town for walks and movies and relaxation at the coast, we watched the entire disc set of The Prisoner, and I figured out (again) that other people think I'm unmutual. I was bemused (again) at this notion, considering the strain of mental and emotional effort I have always, always expended trying as hard as I can to understand and be understood. It's hard to express how important this is to me - to understand and be understood. It's a need that flows from my sternum and from my lower back, and it has caused the deepest physical and psychic pain in my life when this need cannot be met. (yes, really)

I know, right? Weird. What's anyone else supposed to do with that level of intensity in one of their friends? What were all my friends and family supposed to do with that?

Mostly, people just love me anyway, and tolerate my relentless drive for clarity and understanding. Mostly, it's a good thing I married a man who would put up with such an intensity of endless conversations that start with my saying, "I don't understand this," and he will have the conversation with me for the thousandth time, parrying with my mind, refusing to give in just to make me leave it alone. (Thanks, honey. I think this has kept me out of both the loony bin and the pharmacy.)

See, back when I was a kid, I was never - no kidding, not one time - sent to the principal's office in school, except on errands, to deliver messages in the days before intercoms were ordinary, or to retrieve the naughty student and escort that student back to the ordered, stable, mutual and socially predictable classroom. The classic teacher's pet. The good child. The natural student, in fact so naturally at home in the classroom that I started studying my teachers for methods, pedagogy, and classroom management techniques at about the age of seven. When you're a kid, no one's really listening to the kinds of questions you're asking anyway, so no one thought my desire to understand and be understood was unmutual. I was just a kid - and when I didn't get real answers, I figured it was because I'd made an error in the way I asked the question. (yes, I really thought like that, even then) And the island was not such a bad place. If you grow up in a very mutual place, the fact of imprisonment does not fully impress itself on the mind until you've been a grownup for long enough to see people escape - or try to.

Is this too metaphorical? I will try to be understood. Here is what I mean.

The parents and teachers and babysitters and camp counselors and club leaders and recess monitors who surrounded me as I grew were all people who gave me the same set of rules for living. They really did love me, and I really did trust them, and because of this, I really did believe that the kid who got sent to the office was a kid who had done something immoral. Wrong. Bad. Naughty. I thought, I mean to say, that every rebel - every unmutual - was wrong. (yes, I really thought that)

And yet ...

There was a relative or two who hinted to me that beyond the walls and beaches of the island, there was a wider world. Sometimes the parent in some other household, or a teacher who didn't stay long, or even one of my peers would let me in on a reality I'd never imagined.

And now that I'm so old all of my own kids are grown, and I've seen many, many people younger than I am try to figure out how to avoid being unmutual, and I've learned about some huge ideas like "civil rights" and "racial equality" and "war crimes" being committed by our side.

If the sign says "Whites Only," but you drink from the fountain with your colored face, you have been unmutual. Uncooperative. But wrong? Not really.

If you're a child in a school, and you hit back when someone weak is being bullied, have you disobeyed the rules? Yes. Are you very, very likely to get into trouble for standing in the way of oppression? Yes. But have you done something wrong? Morally wrong? No. Sometimes the rules are wrong.

So now I've decided that sometimes, in fact, much more often than I knew, being unmutual is the best, more moral, most brave thing a person can do. And I've even changed my mind about the kids who got sent to the principal's office. I might finally be beginning to understand the difference between being cooperative and being good. Yes, really.

2010/09/29

From the Frontispiece

(although, it's not an illustration, so ... is it a frontispiece?)

Yesterday afternoon, between my appointment for setting up the end of my PLA adventure and the coming Mary Catherine Bateson lecture, I found the library's book sale. I found a pristine copy of The World's Great Letters (1940), and I bought it. Best dollar I ever spent. From the frontispiece,

The post is the consolation of life. Voltaire

The earth has nothing like a she epistle. Byron

As long as there are postmen, life will have zest. William James

In a man's letters, you know, madam, his soul lies naked. Dr. Johnson

The public will always give up its dinner to read love letters. George Jean Nathan

Letters, such as written by wise men, are, of all the words of men, in my judgment, the best. Francis Bacon

I forgot to say that one of the pleasures of reading old letters is the knowledge that they need no answer. Byron

The need of composing letters was the earliest and most constant incentive to terseness, clarity, and exactitude of statement. R. L. Megroz

Let those who may complain that it (the Shaw-Ellen Terry "romantic correspondence") was all on paper remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love. George Bernard Shaw