Monday, July 30, 2012

Myth-Making

"We have to make myths of our lives; it is the only way to live them without despair."
--May Sarton

Well, the month of July seems to have gotten away from me.

But it did so in a good way.  I spent a stretch of time in the Berkshires and it turned into a beautiful literary-themed vacation in the mountains.  I walked the woods and fields walked by Melville, Hawthorne and Wharton.  I went to a poetry reading by Taylor Mali.

I had wine and lunch at The Gypsy Joynt on a beautiful summer afternoon.  I had beer and Mexican food at Xicohtencatl on a beautiful summer evening.

I read and read.  I finished Joan Druett's In the Wake of Madness (2004) and it gave me a new way of thinking about Melville's novel, Moby-Dick and my ideas about Ahab.  I read Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted (1994).

(It would seem that I was on a bit of an "insanity" theme in my reading, which may be because my time was so peaceful--when my life is nutty, I can't read about other people's nuttiness.)

I've also been reading May Sarton's Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), a beautiful book about the poet's purchase of a home in Nelson, NH and her life in the wake of her parents' death.

In the chapter, "Learning About Water," Sarton describes her decision to drill for an artesian well after the water supply to her home dried up during a drought.

This decision coincided with a particularly difficult period in her life that had started out looking quite promising: she went to Yaddo and began writing poetry again, on a writer's high.

And then, much to her surprise, she was suddenly not renewed as poet-in-residence at Wellesley.

And then, a letter from her agent told her that the novel she had worked on for months was no good and not publishable, and that she should scrap the idea and start over.

Matters came to a head when, in the process of having her well drilled, the workmen she had hired used a bit too much dynamite in their effort to blast through rock.  The blast left her entire (previously white) house covered from roof to doorsill  in black, slimy mud.

She literally had to get out there with the sponges, buckets and brushes and start scrubbing--after she finished crying and screaming, of course.

And then, things changed.

Although her agent didn't like her novel, her publisher loved it. (She had told her agent to send it to the publisher anyway, in spite of the initial reaction.)

She was invited to serve as poet-in-residence elsewhere, at a salary higher than the one she had been earning at Wellesley.

And when they finally drilled for the well, they hit water a mere eight-six feet down.  Sarton writes,
I do not believe I shall ever again experience the panic I lived through at Yaddo.  When water flowed up at five gallons a minute out of all that anxiety and despair, it suggested that if one can go deep enough, one will come to rock.  By the end of the bad time, I had learned a lot about water, and where and how it is found.  
Tomorrow is the six-year anniversary of my dad's death.  I have had to drill deep over the past six years, to try to find the rock.

When I came back from the Berkshires, I adopted two rescued cats.  I had been hesitant, because I missed my other cat so much and I couldn't bear to think of "replacing" him.

He could never be replaced.  I know to a lot of people, he was "just a cat."  But he was with me before I became a professor, when I got my first job offer.  He was with me when I bought my house.  He was with me when my parents died.  He has always been with me, for 16 years.

There is no replacement for that.

Six years ago today, when my dad was dying, my little orange cat did something he hadn't done since the time when I brought him home as a very small kitten.  When I went to bed that night, he came up and tucked his head under my chin and went to sleep there. 

He hadn't done that for years.  And he never did it again until a month ago.  The night before he died, my cat climbed up on my bed, tucked his head under my chin, and went to sleep there.

What I have realized over the past six years is that, for me, there is a bedrock in my life that comes from being able to care for others, to offer them comfort and a safe-haven.  You can tuck your head under my chin and go to sleep with me, literally and figuratively, even if one of us is at our most vulnerable.

That is a source of joy for me.

I have had to realize, though, that there are people who will pose as friends in order to try to steal from the source.  They'll take what they can and then retreat like the cowards they are, trying to poison the well on their way out.

As the writer Frederick L. Collins puts it, "There are two types of people--those who come into a room and say 'Well, here I am!' and those who come in and say, 'Ah, there you are.'"

Anyway, the gist of all this is, I decided to find a cat (or two) who had some "issues" (at least, as far as the world at large is concerned), to whom I could offer a better life and better circumstances.

I found them.

And when I did, I brought them home.  And what the world identified as their "issues" or "problems" vanished almost instantly.

I think they just needed a chin to tuck their heads under.

Last night, I was putting clothes away in my bedroom.  When I turned around, one of my new kitties had climbed on my bed.  It was the first time he had climbed up there since I brought him home. 

He was lying in exactly the same spot my other cat had occupied every evening during the days when he was dying.  My new cat had chosen the spot himself, immediately; he was lying down exactly the way my little orange cat had done during his illness. 

And he was looking at me, as if waiting for me to notice.

I too have learned a lot about water, and where and how it is found.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Remembering

Today is the one-year anniversary of my little friend and godson Ezra's death.  I went to a reading given by the poet Taylor Mali this week, and this poem made me think of him.


Remember Me From Now

If for years before I die,
I linger and wither and forget
myself, like the old apple tree
in the orchard I cannot bring myself
to fell; if sadness or some other cancer
has spindled me to breaking;

then add that blue future
to the list of reasons to remember me
as I am now, bursting in my glee,
in love with this day, this forest,
and these trees, these dark
and lovely trees.

--from The Last Time as We Are (2009)


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mind-Mountains

It's somewhat fitting that, just as I'm trying to finish up an article I started a while back on Melville's famous novel, Moby-Dick, I'm visiting the Berkshires.

So, I spent Sunday morning hiking Monument Mountain and hanging out on the Devil's Pulpit, and yesterday, I went to Arrowhead.

For those who don't know the story, in August of 1850, Herman Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne for the first time on a picnic arranged by friends.

One of those friends included Oliver Wendell Holmes, who used to tell visitors to the Berkshires, "You must carry mountains in your brain."

The group hiked Monument Mountain and read a (rather overwrought) poem of the same name by William Cullen Bryant. 

It's about an "Indian maiden" (of course) who fell in love with her cousin (of course), had sex with him (of course) and felt so guilty afterward that she flung herself off of the mountain (of course). 

For his part, her cousin does not appear to have been all that fazed by any of this.  But legend has it that her tribe built a monument to her death, hence, Monument Mountain.

At that point, Melville, Hawthorne and Holmes got caught in a thunderstorm, and did what any sensible group of American writers and thinkers would do: designed makeshift umbrellas and passed the champagne.  (For a full account of the picnic and its aftermath, see here.)

For the record, I would not want to be on the summit of Monument Mountain in a thunderstorm, but if I were, I'd probably say "yes" to the champagne, although normally, I would not advise staying hydrated with alcohol while on a hike.

Melville greatly admired Hawthorne and his work, and the two developed a brief but earnest friendship that summer.  Hawthorne was influential in redirecting the course of Melville's literary ambitions: Moby-Dick is in fact dedicated to him.

Hawthorne thought Melville could do better than the kind of sea-faring adventure stories he had written for his first few novels and, inspired by the older writer's encouragement, Melville attempted something very different in his epic tale of the white whale.

As they will point out to you if you visit Arrowhead, the home in Pittsfield that Melville purchased a year later (and the place where he resided while writing his (in)famous novel), the dual peaks of Mount Greylock, visible from the window of his study, look a bit like a breaching whale.

The tour group at Arrowhead was small, but it was a bit sad to me to find out that no one except myself and one other person had actually read Moby-Dick in its entirety, and the other person made it quite clear she hadn't enjoyed it and certainly wouldn't do it again.

I'm not a huge Melville fan.  I'll admit, I started Pierre, his next novel after Moby-Dick, and fell asleep on page 12.  I reawakened on page 15, read on and wondered, "What the $%^&*?! on page 18, and then fell asleep again on page 20.

I couldn't help but think that Melville might have been hitting the bottle a bit too hard by that point.

But I love Moby-Dick (and I actually love Melville's short story, "Bartleby the Scrivener," as well).

People always say, "Oh, my god, it's about a WHALE.  And WHALING.  How boring.   No one wants to hear about a WHALE.  Or WHALING.  It's boring."

But it's not about a whale--or rather, it is, and it isn't.

It's about what it means to live and to think.  It's about what it means to have convictions that you pursue regardless of all consequences, and about what it means to lack the courage of your convictions.

It's about how the individual can destroy the community, and how the community can nevertheless save the individual.

I always feel sad when students read Moby-Dick and roll their eyes, without--in my opinion--giving it a chance.  It's actually hysterically funny in spots.

Melville includes some of the raunchiest sexual puns you're ever going to see (hint: they're buried in those chapters about whaling--the ones most people skip).

He also does really interesting things with narrative form.  And although so few people "like" Melville's novel, everyone knows the names of Ahab and Ishmael--and not because they've read the Bible.  (Because yes, Moby-Dick uses biblical references extensively, and draws on myths and legends as well, in ways that resonate with Melville's own story.)

I cry at the end of Moby-Dick.  It's a terribly sad novel, and I often think of the final image of the Rachel, aimlessly wandering the seas while a father weeps and desperately searches for his lost child.

(Years later, Melville's own son will die of a gunshot wound to the head, which may or may not have been accidental, and Melville will be the one to find his son's body.)

I think of the fact that, in Moby-Dick, the first mate, Starbuck, is a good and principled man, and because of his goodness and his principles, he cannot bring himself to do something he believes to be wrong (namely, kill Ahab and seize control of the ship), even though he knows that Ahab is insane and will end up killing them all.

I think of the fact that the novel is essentially about how otherwise good and independent people will nevertheless follow someone they know is on a vindictive, personal quest that subverts the very meaning of their lives and puts their own survival in jeopardy.  They will repeatedly acquiesce in the insanity.

Why?  Why?!  That is the tragic question that resonates throughout Melville's thought-filled narrative.

It's a novel about judging people based on their appearance, and then learning to know better and love them for who and what they are--both the good and the bad.

It's about how death and madness are everywhere in life, shadowing life and joy and fertility with their own strange and intoxicating beauty.

It's about the fragility of American democracy.

And yes, it's also about whaling.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Feinting

"Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that's in rhythm or you're in trouble."
—Sugar Ray Robinson

I've started boxing again.  It was time.

I've blogged about boxing before, and how much I love it. As I said in my earlier post, "Thinking Inside of the Box," I think that boxing, when practiced as a sport (and not as a money-making bloodbath), can teach you a lot that is useful intellectually, if you take what you learn and apply it to situations where its lessons might not seem so obvious.

But boxing also has an emotional component for me.  I have a temper.  And it's an impulsive one.  I don't like being angry, so I'll often bite my tongue and walk away, or vent in private.

The problem is, that doesn't really take care of the problem.  The anger still builds, particularly if someone keeps pushing my buttons.  And sometimes they do.

I don't like people who lie or people who do sneaky things.  I never have.  It strikes me as pointless and immature and downright stupid, and there's something in the very fiber of my being that gets really, really angry when I watch people behave that way for any length of time, whether it's towards me or towards other people.

(As you can probably tell from that last sentence, even just writing about that kind of behavior steams me.)

People who do it and think they're clever, the ones who smile in your face and feed you a bunch of lies and expect that you'll just keep eating it up and coming back for more (because you'll never figure out what they're really up to) are a real pet peeve of mine.

If you want to piss me off, do that.  If you want to really piss me off, do it repeatedly.

I'd much rather someone walk up to me and say, "Look.  I think you're a jerk, I don't like what you did, and I don't want to be your friend.  I don't like you, and here's why."  And we'll take it from there.

I'd respect that.  I may not agree with it, but I'd respect the person for telling me openly, to my face, and I'd understand their anger.  We're not always all going to get along, and as we all know, shit happens.  Ironically, I'd probably walk away thinking that the person who spoke to me that way would eventually be my friend again someday, because we clearly respect each other in very important ways, despite our differences and the circumstances that spawned them.

But people who do the sneaky email thing?  Not cool.  People who do the sneaky Facebook thing? Not cool.  People who are sneaky in general?  I have no patience for it.  None.  Not a bit.

But, I value patience, so I try to practice it no matter what.  As the Greek proverb says, "One minute of patience, ten years of peace."  St. Augustine claimed that, "Patience is the companion of wisdom."  And, as Bulwer-Lytton points out, "Patience is not passive ... It is concentrated strength."

I would rather possess the concentrated strength of patience.  So, I make a conscious choice to give people the benefit of the doubt and try to err on the side of kindness.  And generally, it works.  It drives my good friends nuts, because they hate to see me being treated badly or run around in circles, but in many cases, it works.

Because even though I don't like people who lie or do sneaky things, as one of my friends often says, "You never know what kind of torture someone's got going on."  I've had friends who have lied and done sneaky things on occasion, and I didn't like it.

But I was patient (although I did give them a wide berth, obviously), and one day, they came to me and said, "I want to tell you something.  I lied to you, and I'm sorry.  I shouldn't have done it, but I did, and here's what was going on with me.  I just couldn't be honest with you at the time."

Actually, that's happened more than once in my life, and it's one of the reasons I continue to practice patience, even if, in the moment itself, the recipient really doesn't seem to deserve it.

But then, there are the others.  They're pretty few and far between (thank god).  I meet dozens of people a year, at least, and I can count on one hand the number of people I've lost patience with and permanently excised from my life. 

These are the cases where boxing helps me emotionally.  When I was in elementary school, I confess, I got into a couple of fights.  Nothing serious, but if someone pushed my buttons and kept on pushing them, I would get exasperated and start swinging.

And, as I mentioned before, I don't like sneaky.  In my experience, sneakiness and immaturity tend to go hand-in-hand--and they each carry backpacks loaded with cowardice.

After my grade-school altercations, I'd feel bad.  Well, sort of... maybe... a little... "morally and intellectually unsettled."  In any case, I'd accept whatever punishment was doled out to me, because I did realize, "You can't just hit people," and I did genuinely wish that it hadn't come to that.

But as I told my dad one time when I was a child, "I can't help it.  I don't think about it, I tell them over and over again to 'knock it off,' I turn my back on them and try to walk away, but then all of a sudden, they say something and I spin around and start punching them.  Or I see them bothering someone and that person's not fighting back, and I just can't let them do that to someone, so I charge in and hit them to make them stop."

I was a joy to raise.  Truly.  A fighting bookworm.  How often do you see such a thing?

My mom once said that it was difficult to teach me "discretion," because I "didn't feel fear the way normal people do."  She said that she and my dad realized early on that I simply did not seem to feel an instinctive sense of caution, so they would have to teach it to me. 

She also said that they realized that, because it was a learned behavior, it would have its limits.  My mom said, "We knew that, if someone really made you mad, well... all bets were off as to what you might do."

On the bright side, she pointed out, "We also realized that it was really, really, really hard to make you mad.  Your sense of humor and your sarcasm generally kicked in and deflected it, long before it got to that point.  And you've always been good about warning people that they were taking it too far with you.  You're not subtle."

To help me out, my dad told me a story about my grandfather.  He too had an impulsive temper.  And one day, when my grandfather was cutting wood with his father, they got into an argument over some silly, pointless thing and his father made a cutting little remark while my grandfather's back was turned.

In short, he pushed his buttons one too many times.

My grandfather, without thinking, grabbed the axe on the woodpile next to him, spun around, and tomahawked it at his father.  It missed his head by inches.

My dad said that, after that, my great-grandfather would always walk away if he saw my grandfather getting a bit hot under the collar.  He knew my grandfather didn't mean it, he knew he couldn't control it, and he knew he could end up doing something he'd regret.

This was my dad's lesson to me: "You have to find another way or you'll do something you regret.  Walk away, use your brain, and find another way."

I remember my dad paused for a bit after he said this.  Then, when my mom left the room, he leaned in with a mischievous little smile and said to me quietly, "And then, when you see a chance and they're not expecting it, get them.  And make sure they know it was you who got them and that they know exactly why you did it."

His logic? "Because then, they'll know better than to try to pull that shit on you again."

Because, my dad taught me, if you want to get anywhere in life, you simply can't let people bulldoze over you, even if you want to be a kind and forgiving and patient person.  You just can't.  And you can't expect people to stop doing it and just walk away, the way my great-grandfather did.

The better people won't do it in the first place and the good ones will walk away, because they know that the goodness of a person's life isn't about their intentions, it's about their actions.

The not-so-good people will keep at it, particularly if they're not getting caught and no one's getting hurt (except you).

Some people don't learn a lesson unless it has a bit of a sting and some unpleasant consequences.  I wish that weren't the case, but I'm afraid, it is.

I never fully realized how much I had internalized my dad's advice until I began boxing.  One day, as I was sparring with an opponent, the coach came over and watched us for a bit.  She then told the other woman, "Okay, here's the thing.  She's going to stay light on her feet.  She's going to duck and slip and feint and do her best to keep you from landing a punch.  She's a defensive fighter.  She won't charge out and go all aggressive on you right away, she's just going to wait and watch and try to keep you from hitting her."

I told her, "Well, I know we're boxing and all, but I really don't want someone hitting me.  That'll hurt."

The coach laughed and said, "Here's the other thing.  While she's staying light on her feet and moving and dodging, she's doing two things.  She's wearing you out and she's watching to see what you've got.  She's going to see how you move, how hard you hit, size you up, figure out what you're all about.  But you need to realize: all the time she's doing this, she's getting you to use up what you've got and she's saving herself."

She concluded, "And then, when she sees that you have nothing left and she knows exactly what you're all about, she's going to move in and start hitting you.  And when she hits, she hits hard.  At that point, it'll be over quickly."

She told my opponent, "You're going to have to try to be quicker than she is, anticipate the direction she's going to take, and try to cut her off before she gets there.  Good luck with that.  She's fast and she's tough and she likes a challenge.  I wouldn't ever want to make her mad."

She turned to me, shook her head and said with a smile, "English professor, hunh?  You should have been a boxer.  You have the heart of a boxer."

When I walked home that night, I thought, "My dad would have been proud."

"Made me learn a little bit faster,
Made my skin a little bit thicker,
Makes me that much smarter."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Random Third

Once again, I've been meaning to have a coherent thought--or a series of coherent thoughts--to blog about for nearly a week now, but it has simply not occurred.  So this post will consist of a bunch of random thoughts, and it will have to suffice.

I thought I was off to a good start at the end of last week.  I got a ton of writing done last Thursday, had an awesome time in Boston with a friend (pizza, mohito, perfect summer weather--what more could you want?), and an awesome bike ride and sunset swim on Friday.

I was in the existential Zone.  Ridin' high.  Golden.

Then, it tanked.  I went on a date that I probably shouldn't have gone on in the first place, but I'm committed to "keeping an open mind," and let's face it, sometimes, you should just unapologetically close your mind off entirely and be done with it.

It lasted less than 2 hours (never a good sign), but it has taken me days to recover from it.

Bad dates are either totally ridiculous, in which case you can just shrug them off, or they can really get you down.  This one got me down.  I came home from it, had a beer, and called my best friend.  She expressed all of the requisite shock and outrage that someone as wonderful as I am would be forced to endure something as un-wonderful as a bad date.

Luckily, I had a road trip planned, so on Monday, I hit the road.  That went well, except that once again, I encountered an accident en route that had involved someone's vehicle bursting into flames.

It's unsettling to be reminded that you really are just cruising along at 70 mph in a metal shell mounted on a tankful of explosive and flammable substances.

None of the songs on the radio quite do it for you after that.

It was extremely hot everywhere, which made me aware of the fact that, where I had been, people were complaining needlessly.  It was really not that hot there.  So, I was grateful that I would be returning to where it wasn't so hot after a mere 36 hrs away.

This gratitude increased exponentially after I bumped into a neighbor in NJ in the grocery store.  When she asked how I was, I tried to tell her that my kitty cat had died and make it into a joke, somehow.

I have no idea what I was thinking.

Anyway, it failed royally and I started to cry instead.  Right there in the big old grocery store.  In the dairy isle, amidst the lactose and the lactose-free.

Ugh.  To be fair, I had just finished taking my kitty's stuff out of my condo.  I had been dreading that process, and it was exactly as bad as I had expected.  (It was so bad that I think I would have preferred to go on that stupid date all over again instead.)

My neighbor is very nice, so she simply gave me a hug, said, "You've had a lot this year," and promptly changed the subject.  Luckily, she has a very cute little baby that I could ask about and she and her husband are house-hunting.

And I once again had a beer when I arrived home.

I tried to console myself with the idea that "it's all right to cry."  I don't know if anyone but me remembers that Marlo Thomas album from the '70's, Free to Be You and Me, but it was played almost constantly at parties and assemblies throughout my grade school years, and I eventually saved my allowance and bought it for myself.

My parents flat-out refused to buy it for me.  They felt it was put out by hippies and preached all kinds of touchy-feely ideas that they could not condone.

In retrospect, I can see why "William Wants a Doll" would not go over well with my dad.  (He wouldn't ridicule William or take his doll away from him, he'd just never give him one in the first place.)

One of those touchy-feely ideas was that "it's all right to cry."  There was actually a song on the album, sung by Rosey Grier, that said, "It's all right to cry/ Crying gets the sad out of you." 

The song also pointed out that, "It might just make you feel better." 

In the case of my kitty, that has not yet proven to be the case, but we can always hope that one day, the "raindrops from [my] eyes" will end up "washing all the mad out of [me]."

Currently, the tendency seems to be for me to sob until I begin cursing and blowing my nose and reflecting on the nature of mortality.  And then I have a beer.

But today, I drove back into the cooler climate and took another bike ride and swim.  And I came upon a story of some very, very kind people who clearly love kitty cats as much as I do.

And then I didn't feel so bad anymore.  Happy 4th, everyone!

Not the loss alone
But what comes after.
If it ended completely
At loss, the rest
Wouldn't matter.

But you go on.
And the world also.

And words, words
In a poem or song:
Aren't they a stream
On which your feelings float?

Aren't they also
The banks of that stream
And you yourself the flowing?

--Gregory Orr