Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Ordinary Instant

On Thursday afternoon, I checked the messages on my cell phone.  Everyone who knows me knows I'm notorious for leaving my cell phone off or set to such a low volume that I never hear it unless I happen to be 1) sitting right next to it and 2) actually looking at it.

There was a message from my best friend.  We've known each other since I was 16.  In all those years, I don't think more than a week has gone by that we haven't been in touch.  We don't do email or Facebook or MySpace.  We either write letters (yes, actual letters, written by hand) or we talk on the phone.

She's lived in California, Mexico, New York, and South Carolina, while I've hobnobbed up and down the East Coast.  For 26 years, we've been in touch weekly and, when there's a crisis, daily.

Her nine-year-old son, my little godson, has been sick for about a month.  At first, it seemed like a stomach bug coupled with nerves about starting a new school year.  No big deal.

Then it seemed like maybe an anxiety problem.  A thyroid problem, possibly.  Lyme disease?  Migraines.  Something neurological, somehow.

The message on Thursday: a brain tumor.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion comments on her husband's sudden death from a heart attack: "Life changes in the instant.  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."  She describes how she leaves out the phrase "the ordinary instant" to describe the life-changing moment itself because "there would be no forgetting it:"
It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it... confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy (4)
How could we not have known? How could we not have expected it? How could something life-changing not have heralded its own arrival?  How could it not have warned us, so that we could be ready, somehow? 

We would have tried to be ready, if we had known.

You wake up in the morning and think, "This can't have happened.  There's been a mistake.  It'll stop now."  The unthinkable and the unbearable have no right cloaking themselves in the ordinary instants that make up our lives. 

But they do.

And suddenly, all of the unnoticeable and tedious minutes that accumulate in our lives become terribly precious and we wish we were back in the thick of them.  Back in a life where nothing ever happens and where it would feel good to be bored, because we now know the alternatives.

There is no solution, of course.  Sometimes we make a path through our lives, and sometimes we have to follow the path in front of us because there's simply no way around it.

George Eliot once wrote, "Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together." 

Great pain and sadness require great efforts of human consolation, and there is no impulsive gesture equal to the task.  Only the painstaking ordinary attentions that make up a series of small and inadequate kindnesses.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Birthday Post

 O may my heart’s truth
   Still be sung
      On this high hill in a year’s turning.
                                                      --Dylan Thomas, "Poem in October"

Today is my birthday.  I'm 42.  In American culture, it seems like no one ever celebrates their birthday (it's a downer) and no one admits their age (it's a downer).  I do both.

I wonder why we fear aging.  Actually, I know why.  We fear death.  We think of age as a diminishment of who we are, a mark of the ever-increasing incapacity to do, say and be what we want to be.

But this is life.  When we enjoyed youth, we knew that time would pass and age would come and with it would come a range of different experiences and, with any luck, a little wisdom too. 

Why fear what can't be changed?  Why not simply head towards it, with dignity and thoughtfulness, savoring what the journey brings along the way?  Why assume nothing good remains to us, when there's so much evidence all around us that that simply isn't true?

Faces filled with botox and collagen erase all of the story lines of who we are and how we got to be who we are and where we are.  When I see someone who's had all of that done, I feel like I don't know what to look for or what to pay attention to about them, what questions to ask them about who they are and what life has meant to them.

Instead I just wonder, "Isn't it weird to want to have a needle stuck in your forehead or your lips, when you don't have to?"

I would never want to be 18 or 24 or 30 or 35 or even 40 again.  It would mean I would have to move backwards in time, erasing all that has come to me in the meantime, and all simply for the sake of a youthful appearance that was never the sum total of who I was anyway.

Every year, on my birthday, I check my life over, to see if I have any regrets from the previous year.  If I do, and I can fix them (and I usually can, because no more than a year has passed since the last time I checked), that's what I do.  Mostly, I spend the day being quiet so that I can measure the weight of time on my life.

Today, I'm thinking of the lines from Dylan Thomas' "Poem on His Birthday."

Dark is a way and light is a place,
Heaven that never was
Nor will be ever is always true


Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Howl" and the Ferlinghetti Case

This weekend, I saw the film "Howl."  Focusing on Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," the film explores the poem itself, Ginsberg's own experiences with the Beat Generation and its major figures (specifically Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady), and the subsequent trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on charges of obscenity, for his publication of Ginsberg's poem.

For me, the film was a bit disappointing because my interest, besides Ginsberg's ideas about writing and his poem itself, is in the trial, not in the escapades of the Beat Writers (admittedly, they have never been my favorites: I appreciate what they're doing and why, but I just can't get past the blatant misogyny and stereotyping of women).

In his ruling on The People of the State of California v. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Judge Clayton W. Horn offers a fascinating and nuanced interpretation of the issue of obscenity and its relationship to the protection of free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

It's particularly interesting to me that, at the outset of the trial, Judge Clayton W. Horn was regarded as relatively conservative, and that this was initially viewed as a severe handicap for the defense.  It was generally assumed that his interest in upholding the prevailing moral standards (which condemned the practice of homosexuality and any expression of homosexual desire) would outweigh his ability to look at the case objectively.

Under the Statute referenced by Judge Horn, material can only be deemed "obscene" if it exists solely for the purpose of eliciting "erotic allurement" in the average reader and if it possesses no redeeming social importance.

The fact that Ginsberg's poem represents specifically homosexual desires and experiences is obviously an underlying factor in the prosecution's charges of obscenity.  The concern that the poem "Howl" will deprave and corrupt the average reader seems to boil down to a rather thinly-veiled concern that its publication will ultimately encourage or endorse homosexual practices in American society at large.

Basing his ruling on the precedent set by Roth v. United States, Judge Horn notes that "Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest. The portrayal of sex, e.g., in art, literature and scientific works is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press."

In short, sexual content alone does not mean a work can be considered "obscene and indecent."

Specifically, Judge Horn argues that the poem "Howl" possesses redeeming social importance.  In a concise summary of the poem's themes and literary strategies, he notes that "The first part of "Howl" presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identified as materialism, conformity, and mechanization leading toward war. The third part presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a general condition."

Most interesting--and most relevant for our current political climate, I think--is Horn's conclusion regarding the choice of language that Ginsberg used to convey his subject.  In response to the State's claim that Ginsberg could (and therefore should) have used other words than the ones he chose to depict his subject, Horn argues, "life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same or conforms to a particular pattern. No two persons think alike; we were all made from the same mold but in different patterns."

In 1957, a conservative judge upheld the idea that conformity is not a formula for the conduct of our lives as Americans and that we are fundamentally guaranteed the right to think in ways that are inherently different from one another.  As Horn notes, "The authors of the First Amendment knew that novel and unconventional ideas might disturb the complacent, but they chose to encourage a freedom which they believed essential if vigorous enlightenment was ever to triumph over slothful ignorance."

I wonder how and why, a little over fifty-three years later, we seem to be headed in a direction in which we systematically resent having our collective complacency disturbed by novel and unconventional ideas.  If the writers who framed the Constitution respected the value of innovative ideas and endorsed a framework in which those ideas would be awarded fundamental and overarching protections, why then have we increasingly resorted to referring to the document itself as a kind of inflexible standard against which to measure the rightness (or wrongheadedness) of our direction as a nation? 

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Secret Deposit of Exquisite Moments

In Virginia Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway, the narrator describes how Clarissa Dalloway arrives home after running errands for her upcoming party and thinks that "moments like this are buds on the tree of life" and that in everyday life, "one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments."

When she is teased about how much she loves to give parties, Clarissa recognizes that, "What she liked simply was life."

Considering that I'm writing this post while in the middle of a full-fledged cooking extravaganza for a party I'm giving tomorrow afternoon, I obviously agree with Clarissa.

Parties are what we pay back to daily life from our secret deposit of exquisite moments.

I'm not talking, of course, about keggers or other alcohol-soaked events in which people end up in the back of police cars or lying unconscious on other people's lawns in the wee hours of the morning.  I'm also not talking about highbrow cocktail parties where everyone is dressed to impress (and usually unimpressive in every other category).

Instead, when she asks herself, "what did it mean to her, this thing she called life?", Mrs. Dalloway describes how, when she thinks of the people she knows, she "felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it."

"It was an offering; to combine, to create."  An offering to life itself, a chance to overcome the inherent separation that marks our lives.

My neighbor down the street stopped by yesterday to see if I'd need extra chairs or another table.  My neighbor across the street called over to me to tell me not to worry, that the storm will clear everything up in time for good weather tomorrow.

Paying back to life from their own secret deposit of exquisite moments.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My To-Do List

I found a great quote online that is guaranteed to freak out the anxious among us: "Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday."

I also found one that I had to reread several times: "Worry ducks when purpose flies overhead."  I thought "worry" was an imperative, so I thought I was being told to go out and bother mallards while purpose was winging its way over my head. 

My confusion was doubled when I tried to figure out why "purpose" would be flying overhead, what it means for "purpose" to fly, really, and why bothering ducks would be the appropriate response to this.

I then began to get images of being pooped on by the ducks I had worried as they flew overhead, since it seemed to me like that's probably what they'd do when they escaped and flew away from me.  And I wouldn't blame them.

It all became much clearer when I realized that "worry" was being used as a noun and "duck" was the verb.  So, it's "Worry" that is "ducking"...ohhhhhhh.... okay.  Got it.  Still don't understand it, really, but I've got the grammar straight now, and that's something.

I love looking up inspirational quotes online, because it can use up all kinds of time when I'm supposed to be  doing something else.  And yet I never feel guilty, because I'm panning for electronic nuggets of wisdom and who knows how helpful that will be for me someday?  It may clarify everything, once and for all, and then I'll be able to get to work and be even more productive.

I remember visiting a stressed-out friend once when I was also quite stressed out.  Although that might sound like a recipe for disaster, we actually had a great time.  She had a copy of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (And It's All Small Stuff), so we read it to each other over lots and lots of cups of coffee.

By the time we were done, we had diagnosed pretty much everyone in our lives as demanding, self-centered bastards and we were quite pleased with the fact that we had put up with them for so long.  It showed how wonderful we were, even when people were totally out of line.

We then spent the rest of the weekend yelling out inspirational phrases from the book to one another.  So, when she would say, "I really need to run about 63 errands today," I would shout, "When you die, your 'in'-box still won't be empty!!" and we'd go get cake instead.  Or, when someone left me 4 messages on my voice mail, I'd stare at my cell phone and announce, "Yeah, well, sucks for you dude, because 'just because the ball's in my court, doesn't mean I have to pick it up!'"  And we'd go get lunch. 

I have a very similar approach to something that most people dread: the To-Do List.  I often write up my To-Do Lists in the evening, since I find that my work ethic is strongest after I've wasted an entire day drinking tea and telling my cat how cute he is.  Because of this, my Lists will often say things like, "Study Russian again." "Read Moby-Dick again." "Paint living room." "Prepare for class."  "Finish article on Defoe."  "Finish article on Moby-Dick."  "Vacuum."  "Call plumber."

When I was in a therapy session one time, my shrink asked me what I wanted to work on for our upcoming sessions, and I cheerfully gave her my list.  She then told me that all of that sounded fine, but she wondered if she could add something to it.  I told her, "Certainly!" (after all, I'm always open to suggestions), and much to my surprise, she wrote "Work on setting reasonable goals and expectations."

In my opinion, that one came pretty much out of left field, but I let it slide.  After all, she's the trained professional.

What I realized is that she misunderstood my understanding of the To-Do List.  Every morning, the first thing I do is clarify what I'm simply not going to do that day.  So, "Vacuum," no, I think it's fine--I picked up a couple of dust-bunnies on my way to the coffee pot this morning.  "Read Moby-Dick," no, I'm not interested in whaling today. "Write an article," well, really, I can't write if I'm being pressured to do it, I need to relax a bit first, and then maybe I'll call the plumber. 

My To-Do List is like a series of inspirational quotes for me.  Wow, what if I really did that.  That would be awesome.  I'd be like Einstein or something.

Instead, having ignored everything on my To-Do List, I now have the freedom to revise it.  So I set the bar nice and low.  I'm not above putting a load of laundry in and then writing, "Laundry" on my list--as I see it, I'm halfway there, so I might as well get credit for it.  Go me.  Since I'm on a roll (pun intended), I'll then write, "Make a sandwich."

I can't tell you how good it feels to realize that it's noon and I've already done two things on my newly revised To-Do List.  Plus, I'm in a good mood, so I can tell my cat how cute he is and really mean it.

And when the laundry's done, I can head off into the stressed-out world and watch everyone else trying to get ahead and finish everything on their lists.

Poor anxious fools.  If only they knew how easy it could be.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Compassion & Consequences

"Character is what you know you are, not what others think you have." 
--Marva Collins

This Sunday, my dad would have been 78, so I've been thinking a lot about him over the past week and I've been reflecting on many of the things he taught me (both directly and by example).  I've had some personal struggles and difficult decisions to make lately, and through all of my thinking, my dad's ideas and example have always been in my mind.  So this post will be about those ideas.

When I was very young, probably no more than 10, my dad told me very seriously, "When someone cares about you and means you well, they look you in the eye and they tell you the truth, even if they know it's not what you want to hear.  If they can't do that, for whatever reason, then they aren't looking out for you, no matter what they say.  You have to remember this."

My dad had a very strong sense of responsibility and integrity; over the years, I have very much learned to value and appreciate the strength of character it takes to maintain such qualities.  The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argues that a sense of moral responsibility is often lost in philosophical generalities.  We know the Golden Rule ("do unto others"), we know about "right" and "wrong," but because those maxims are so abstract, we cannot act with ethical responsibility unless we confront "the face of the other." 

So in a sense, my father's advice was a kind of practical echo of Levinas' philosophical understanding.

My dad believed that words and actions had consequences and that people had to live with the consequences of what they had said or done.  We all make mistakes, but my dad made a distinction between the kinds of people who are willing to own up to their mistakes and accept the consequences that stem from them, and those who own up to their mistakes and believe that's all that should be required of them. 

Unfortunately, words and actions and their effects aren't easily erased.  

Although he was in no way a spiritual man, my dad would often end a story of someone's misdeed or mistake with the comment, "There but for the grace of God go I...".  It was an overt acknowledgment that, under different circumstances, he too could be where the other person currently was, in a state of sadness and difficulty. 

I think this is the essence of compassion.  It is not a willingness to overlook or ignore mistakes or deny their consequences, and it is not a willingness to give everyone a free pass if they simply say they're sorry.  It's a recognition that, when we see people who have done wrong, we should always remind ourselves that we too have the capacity to do wrong, and view their action through that lens.

I read George Eliot's novel Middlemarch while my dad was dying, and there is a scene in it that I particularly associate with my dad.  At one point in the novel, the young and irresponsible Fred Vincy borrows money and Caleb Garth, the father of Mary Garth, the woman Fred is in love with, agrees to guarantee the loan.

Caleb knows that his daughter is in love with Fred, and he believes that Fred is trustworthy and will repay the debt on time.  When he doesn't and the loan comes due, Caleb is forced to pay, depleting his family's already strained finances.

When Fred comes to explain himself, he is full of excuses--he blames the situation, the circumstances, Caleb, society, expensive horses--you name it.  He wants Mary to still think well of him and to believe that he is what he has claimed to be.  He thinks she is being unfair to him.

He tells her, "I am so miserable, Mary--if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me," to which she responds, "There are other things to be more sorry for than that.  But selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything else in the world: I see enough of that every day."

When Caleb later talks to his daughter, he knows that he will have to do more than simply discuss what has happened.  As a good father, he will need to look his daughter in the eye and tell her something that she doesn't want to hear.

And he does.  He tells her simply, "I'm afraid Fred is not to be trusted.  He means better than he acts, perhaps.  But I should think it a pity for anybody's happiness to be wrapped up in him."

But later in the novel, when a business opportunity comes his way, Caleb takes Fred under his wing.  Fred has suffered the consequences of his actions, but that doesn't mean that he is denied any chance of rebuilding the relationships he has damaged.

He has to learn how to take responsibility for his words and his deeds, instead of blaming others for the dilemmas he has created for himself.  When Fred's actions show his willingness to work and to put others' interests ahead of his own, he finds a new path that leads him back to the people that he has always sincerely loved and cared for.

I think this ending is very much the spirit of my dad's own optimism about people.  It is the fine balance between compassion, character and consequences that we all strive to strike.

Monday, October 4, 2010

How does your garden grow?

I have a little house that I love,with a pretty little yard and several flower beds that I enjoy tending.  So, imagine my surprise last Sunday morning when I was walking around the yard with my cup of hot tea, surveying my kingdom, and discovered several of these lining my flower bed:

According to (which is where I found these images, which may be subject to copyright), these startling fungi, known as "stinkhorns," can suddenly sprout up out of nowhere and grow to almost 10 inches in a few hours.

Imagine that. 

Blushing profusely, I ran for a shovel and quickly and discreetly dumped them over the fence into the yard next door.  Children sometimes play in my yard.  I can't have X-rated fungi, I just can't. 

There's probably an old Blue Law still on the books somewhere that prohibits unmarried women from having mushrooms like these in their yards.

But apparently, they can be persistent little buggers, popping up again and again in the most untimely and unsightly fashion.  I found a few more this Sunday as well--for some reason, Saturday night brings them out in full force.

Apparently, if you don't want to touch or handle them, you can simply pour boiling water mixed with bleach on them, and that will solve the problem.

Or, you can dig or rip them out by the roots, and then pour boiling water mixed with bleach on the ground and that should also solve the problem.

And yes, they are edible.  Sometimes they're used in making face cream.

Mother Nature is definitely a single girl with a sense of humor.