January 19th, 2018.
… Then, there is the wisdom of old women.
I tried to wrap myself with that once, and my 21 year-old son said, “Mom, you’re not that old yet.”
It’s the weekend, and after meditation this morning I pull Words Under the Words from the bookshelf and settle onto the couch with a cup of tea. Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Grandfather’s Heaven” ends with these two stanzas:
I think Grandpa liked me too
though he wasn’t sure what to do with it.
Just before he died, he wrote me a letter.
“I hear you’re studying religion,” he said.
“That’s how people get confused.
Keep it simple. Down or up.”
I once wrote about my Grandfather telling me, “Stay away from philosophy. There’s nothing of God in it.” (I must have shoe-horned that into a poem, because I can’t remember the rest of the poem.)
When I try to remember if my Grandmother ever gave me this kind of straight-up advice, I remember, “Don’t slouch.”
And, “Don’t tell your mother. She is going through a lot, and can’t handle this right now.”
Looking back, I try to understand how people make simple rules, and routes of least resistance. I remember asking my Grandmother if she saw Goodnight and Good Luck when it came out. She said, “I don’t have to watch it, I lived through it.”
But she didn’t want to talk about it with me.
I’m sure she knew I thought I had something to “contribute to the discussion“. I really was young then. I hadn’t learned to listen — even if I ‘d known the right questions — the way in. It would have been a waste of time.
If she had opened up about the complexities of her experience, I might well have tried to solve them, simplify them with labels and analysis. I’d gone to college, after all. I would have made absurd parallels in an attempt to empathise.
I must have been an ass. If she hadn’t loved me, she wouldn’t have liked me. Looking back, I don’t like me.
When I look back at that woman I was, not that long ago, I love/h– no, not hate. Is there a word for that tender but oh-so-indescribably-annoyed feeling one has for the foolish people we love? Ourselves?
Maybe that is love/love.
How do you pass on the wisdom of knowing that you only know of fraction of all that you don’t know — and nothing else?
How can you teach that the decision not to put a dog in the fight isn’t apathy, but perspective?
Not every route of least resistance is the foolish choice.
When I do the math, I see my grandfather must have been about 60 when he told me to stay away from Sartre. And at 80, he stopped going to church. The thirty-something preacher kept preaching about women obeying their husbands, and Grandpa called, “Bullshit.”
I didn’t ask him how he squared that with God’s rules.
When my Grandmother was 89 she stopped referring to African-American men as coloured boys. She voted for Obama. She laughed when I told her that her grandson was gay, and said that she “used to give a fig” about things like that.
I am afraid I’ll die before I become wise.
I am afraid time will move backward and reveal that wisdom itself is an illusion. It’s just a matter of the “right” answers, according to the prevailing opinion.
Or maybe it’s all about learning not to give a fig.
I read poetry. Poetry that asks questions, and never offers answers. Poems that aren’t tied up with bows. Plays that don’t have “messages”.
About the impossibility of the surety of empathy. The narcissism of surety of knowledge. The quagmire of identity politics and reading, writing, theater-making.
And does all this empathy lead to catharsis? And it catharsis really a valuable experience? Does bypassing empathy — pure intellectual understanding — lead to social activism? Does unfettered narcissistic immersion in “feelings” lead to personal growth that contributes to a greater good?
(Forgive me, I have been teaching Brecht and Artaud again this term.)
Or does it all simply lead to self-satisfying, simple answers?
Maybe: “I just don’t know” is one of those.
Or maybe “I don’t know” is the wisdom of knowing when no one is listening for the questions.
The negative capability of wisdom.
The recognition of the ego-driven nature of persuasion.
Maybe all poetry is love/love poetry.
So I read. And I learn that I don’t/can’t know. (Like all the implications of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem.)
And I write. And I feel misunderstood, and overlooked.
But I’ve grown up. At least grown up enough to drink. So now, I drink when I get rejection letters. Or when my writing is met with shrugs.
After a glass of wine, my inner critic no longer tells me I need to get the answers right for anyone.
After a glass of wine, she actually sounds a lot like Dorothy Parker — ’cause when she’s tipsy she sides with me, and turns on everyone else. She love/loves me. And I, her.
Like I said. I am afraid I’ll die before I become wise.
So, in the meantime. I’m going to go write a list of questions. Maybe if I leave enough questions in the world, someone will wrap my corpse in the mantle of old women’s wisdom.
And I am still ruminating over Jim Brock’s post about Virginia Woolf’s writing. And, oh, yeah – there’s that word again: empathy.