“I want to be such a conversation”… is what Neil Reid said about what can become of us when we witness someone else’s examination of the world (which includes one’s self), and then take those questions into our own examination of our own world.

And if one takes note of that process – could there be a richer conversation? And isn’t this really the definition of poetry?

I haven’t been making space for good conversations, and I miss them.

There are a lot of reasons I was lonely as a child. All of them were paths to books, and thus to “conversations” with people too far away to touch. Often too dead to be moved.

Though never too dead as to be fixed in regard to their significance.

If I have any faith in any thing, it is that our lives can be meaningful – and only in ways that we cannot control – and only in the sense that others will create meaning for the random juxtaposition of their lives with ours.

What is history but a series of perspectives, created by the juxtaposition of our worldviews with those of the dead? For good and for bad: heroes become villains, villains heroes.

Heroines become.

Reading someone’s journal – someone’s story – is like meeting them in a secret forest where anything wild might breathe in your ear, might open your veins, leaving you weaker – but wiser.

“I knew that was true.” But didn’t want to face it.

Witnessing someone else’s nature is witnessing our own. It can be frightening. But it can also be reassuring in the way that the idea of life-after-death can be reassuring. Whether that is a heaven from which we look down, or atoms that create new constellations of life. Things continue without us: most likely because they were never dependent upon us in the first place.

I find that thought freeing.

I have been reading too little poetry lately. Allowing too little poetry into my life, too much social media – where conversations are almost non-existent. I have been thinking about the word social and why nothing is called “conversational media”.

Social is a descriptor for “society”, and a society is an “aggregate of individuals”. Aggregates form a consensus. And isn’t that how social media functions for the most part: not sharing, but shaming, posing, labeling, sorting, “canceling”. It is the hard work of keeping people “in line.”

I failed Social Skills 101. And to be honest, I am okay with that now. I’m okay with having been something of an urban nomad, half-hermit – an emigrant/immigrant. I am content being someone who misses the social cues that weren’t illustrated by the likes of Judy Bloom, PG Wodehouse, Anais Nin, and Stephen King. (Imagine them coming to a consensus). With good conversation, loneliness can soften into solitude. And that kind of solitude can be freeing in that one can fearlessly look outside one’s self.

I suppose one could charge a kind of narcissism in the reader who takes on the “both” roles in a conversation found in the written word. But maybe they (we) are just playing the long game: those readers having become writers who are hoping the conversation continues once they have left the world.

There is a difference between believing you have something to give the world, and believing you have something to contribute to it.

It’s worth entering a conversation on the subject.

Be humble for you are made of Earth. Be noble for you are made of stars.
SERBIAN PROVERB

I have to be careful to not say that I have a poor memory. I have memories like a collage that is reordered with every consideration. What falls into place behind me are like discrete lead fragments drawn to a magnet.

Though it isn’t often I look back. Dredging.

It’s odd though, how sometimes no matter where you turn—what (or whom) you were trying to avoid will find you: in a film that you slip into the DVD, hoping for a bit of an escape; in the book you take off the shelf, looking for distraction or comfort.

I sat down here to write about a book. I suppose that is why all these thoughts, all these memories are forming. Books have a way of collecting our webs of experience between two pieces of cardboard.

*

I believe I was 10. I remember the house well, because I lived there twice. They say you have to build memories, like maps, recollecting/re-collecting and tracing patterns of neurons in the brain. I can walk the layout of the house in my mind still today, running my fingers over the sticky, humid walls on Orange Drive.

Unlike the women in a lot of stories like mine, my mother didn’t have a revolving door when it came to men. But that one man she should have left for good, she returned to.

And when she did return—when we returned—there was another man living in our garage. He had a key to the front door so he could use our bathroom when he needed. He paid me to tidy his room once a week. To collect the beer cans, and neatly stack the Playboys. That was all. A harmless man. The men who seem to have all their ducks in a row: they’re generally the ones to worry about.

But I’m veering off, as memories lead us to do on occasion.

*

The book.

I bought it at a yard sale with my own money — ah, I see now why the digression: I owe my most prized possession to Budweiser and Playboy.

A Gift of Joy. The first owner stamped his name on the end page and the title page. David W. Jones. But it’s Helen Hayes’ autobiography. It is as much anthology as autobiography. It’s full of monologues and poems she loved to perform. She includes Hecuba’s speech from The Trojan Women, and describes performing it in a whisper for friends on the ruins of the stage at Epidaurus, Greece. Those pages are marked with the marginalia of my 16-year old self, who performed it in a classroom in a backwater high school in Kentucky.

I’m not sure if I’d known who Helen Hayes was when I bought the book. It’s possible. I had a sitter when I was six or so. She had season tickets to the local theater in L.A. And she had a player piano. I listened to roll after roll of show tunes, and I sang along until her own kids got home from school every day. In those days, I was sleeping on an army cot in a walk-in closet with love beads hanging in the doorway. We had black lights in the living room so the pot plants would thrive. But the sitter’s house had a manicured lawn beyond the big, sliding-glass doors. It had hard wood floors, and everything smelled crisp. I might have learned about Helen Hayes in the sitter’s living room. I might have held on to Ms. Hayes as a symbol of middle-class genteelness.

Then again, I might not have known anything about her. I might have picked up the book, read the first lines, and simply understood:

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.

*

There is no one left to ask who it was that read to me. But someone did. Someone must have held me close, and helped me make all those neural connections between books and comfort.

Books are the one, safe place to confront your fears. A book is a therapist office. A confessional. And the stories sprawled over the pages offer absolution for being human.

img_20161007_095640The Gift of Joy, with its warped and tattered cover, feels different from all the new and used books I have since sought out online, and had shipped overseas to read to my own children: books by Dr. Seuss, Judith Voigt. Although, I admit that I cried so much reading Charlotte’s Web to my first son, I couldn’t bring myself to choke through it with my second. (But that was E.B.White’s doing, not nostalgia.) Only a few years ago, I found on E-Bay the brown-marble covered Children’s Bible with the illustrations that had given me so many nightmares. The horned Satan hovering over the cliff.

The Gift of Joy is the only sacred relic in my library. It’s one of only two objects I have from my childhood: the machine-sewn quilt my grandmother made for me before her back gave out and she gave up sewing, and this book. Everything else is a cheap replica.

*

“And the Word was God.” And Helen Hayes explains how she misunderstood the lines from St. John. But I am not sure it is a misunderstanding. The Word is mysterious web: the dark forms and the shadows. It is Connection in Absence.

And what better definition is there for a truly unconditional love?

 


(This began as an attempt to write a prose piece for Silver Birch. But it got out of hand.)

It is true?

Is it kind?

It is necessary?

The New York Times’ columnist David Gelles suggests these questions as mindful guidelines for posting on Facebook.

At first glance, fair enough. But on second thought, at least in my case: stifling.

To tackle them one at a time, I will begin with is it true?

We live in a post-truth era, conscious of the fact that at any point the truth can be altered, in effect–or rather, with effect–so that consequences (sometimes global) derive directly from a perceived truth only.  We won’t give up even our simplest of stories: Van Gogh committed suicide, Gandhi is a positive role-model.

Though largely free from the constraints of an imposed dogma, we have truth as a populist construct(s). Our decisions are so often based on misinformation, that some facts are entirely, and literally, inconsequential in regard to the values we hold, the decisions we make.

I would argue that there is a difference between facts and truth. Some facts are omitted from the histories, and others are largely unknowable, glimpsed only on occasion, in hindsight and even then often obliquely from behind a veil (of the current) truth. The coastlines are flooding. The bees are dying. Not because of a lack of facts, but because of faith.

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Occupy Wall Street. 2011

We find our respective narratives. Stick with them.  Repeat them.

Buy the t-shirts.

Truth will always be a matter of faith.

The specific faith of those who write the history books.

Even on a personal scale: whose truth is the truth? Compare two people’s recollections of an event and there are two truths. Both would bet their lives on their version. Simple things, like who ate the last piece of cake all those years ago, that Saturday (or Friday) night when Aunt June came by drunk (or not), with the pink (or brown) bakery box.

And science? Which scientific truths would you bet your life on? In the 1800s “psychiatrists” could read the bumps on your head, and there would be real-world consequences. Bumps in the wrong places might land get you identified as a criminal and land you in an institution for “rehabilitation”.

There is the truth of blood-letting that falls in and out of fashion as a (carefully circumscribed) truth. Anti-depressants. Chemotherapy. Truth is dependent upon a timeline.

What is your measure of truth, should you choose to pronounce one on Facebook? Is it an obligation to correct misinformation? To challenge every person’s faith with facts? (While I doubt such a practice would be unkind, is would certainly be unpleasant).

What about opinions? Educated guesses? Ethical standpoints? Are these untenable as public posts? On Facebook, among “friends”? How do you learn if you limit yourself to making statements regarding what you already believe is true?

I am in no position to know all the truths. And uncertain where my threshold is for defending what I do have faith in.

I am obviously over-thinking this one. Maybe I am not ready for Facebook.

Is it kind? I will admit, I am not always kind. In fact, I am suspicious of people who are only kind, or silent. Silence can be manipulative. And cruel. “Cruel to be kind” is a cliché. And kind to be cruel is, in praxis, a common tactic.

Does this mean it’s not mindful practice to denounce that which one finds inhumane?  To denounce it in a way that doesn’t soft-pedal, or back-pedal, or tolerate what one believes should not be tolerated? Does “generous of spirit” have a limitation, an obligation to shut down in the face of… well… (perceived) evil? Or do you just throw your hands in the air in the face of multiple truths and say, “anything goes”?

Alain de Botton describes tolerance as leaving space for concepts we find incomprehensible. To coexist, parallel without the drive to convert or squash. This is generous. This is kind.

But incomprehensible is not the same as reprehensible.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”Edmund Burke 

There need not be a binary at work: not being kind is not necessarily being “unkind” (dictionary definition).

No, I don’t have a good grasp on the concept of being kind. Not yet. I don’t have faith in the absolute goodness of it.

Is it necessary?

I need a definition of necessary, as well. Because this seems like the easy one: the world will keep turning, and human beings will either continue on generation after generation, or destroy our own habitat and leave the earth to the beetles. In either case, I am not necessary.

I might be important to specific people, be able to make a slight difference here and their on a personal level, but still not necessary. At least, I am in no position to assume so.

Even if I subscribe to a faith that deems every person’s existence as integral and meaningful in a cosmic whole, it sort of follows that even worrying about the necessary-ness of things would be unnecessary.

Clearly, I need to find something better to do with my time.

I can’t function with Geller’s mindfulness guidelines. In my mind, to attempt to do so would be to accept a gross oversimplification of applied ethics. Perhaps Geller tried to boil things down to positive bullet points, which is helpful. But if I haven’t worked along through that process, the bullet points looks like platitudes to me.

So, grateful for Geller’s suggestion, I’m making up my own guidelines for mindful posting on Facebook: in positive and negative terms.

  1. Do I suspect this to be a lie, a distortion or oversimplification of what is likely true?
  2. Am I posting with a malicious or selfish motive?
  3. Is this noise, or do I believe it is useful contribution to a social discussion?

One of the things that keeps me on Facebook is the daily post from Frankie Zelnick. I believe that making people smile is probably one of the most useful things one can do in this world.

Me?

I’m still not sure I will ever post again.

 

 

 

 

“You may begin to notice that you’re invisible. Especially if you’re short and gray-haired. But I say to whom? And so what?” – Grace Paley

 

Reading Brainpickings this morning.

I have been thinking a lot about this “invisible” thing. Wondering if it is true. Thinking, yes, I suppose “I” am invisible to Make-up companies, to Coca-Cola, to Nike… I’m fine with that. Maybe it is because people like me are too experienced to be seduced by the idea of buying an identity, so companies don’t waste their money trying. I know from experience what works for me and I research alternatives based on recommendations, not images. I’m not “stuck in my ways”, but I am less-easily manipulated. That the media realises this seems like a compliment – or at least a (-n unwitting) recognition of my resistance to dazzle.

12622519_975338355855194_1068449626315872291_oAm “I” invisible to the television networks? Well, maybe it is because “I” don’t watch much television these days because I realise that my time is limited and no longer want to spend a lot of it in a fictive world – or a world dedicated in part to the worship of fashionable, crass ideals? Or maybe simply because the sponsors of programs want to reach a demographic that they can still manipulate?

I’d rather go for a run in the woods. I do find books and films about people my age, if I look. They aren’t the blockbusters. They are the quiet books and films, without product placements or merchandising. There are stories out there, behind the loud curtain of 30-something.

I will be fifty this month, and I am not on my way out of the world. I think I see much more of it now than before. I am also far less concerned with how much of the world sees “me”. I am not any more invisible than I was at 20. In fact, I am probably increasingly visible as an individual, rather than a knock-off of a stereotype for someone’s consumption.

A wolf-whistle is not evidence of a person’s visibility.

The word poetry can mean many different things. I reach back to the origins of the word, the Greek poeisis: “to make”; and to the Aristotelian dramatic concept of mimesis (the representation of nature).

At an artisan level, poetry is a tool. The lyric poet uses words to  represent and communicate the experience he or she has of being in the world. But the poet also aims towards creating sublime Poetry (poetry with a capital P): The poet aims towards Art. All imaginative writers do.

Aristotle’s concept of Poetry in the form of drama, can be applied to verse, novels, and even flash fiction. Poetry is a “made thing”. But it’s not just a pleasant rhyme, not a pretty little story with tidy conflicts and a reassuring resolution. Poetry demands a representation that somehow conveys living consciousness. It’s transcendent of its own artificialness. Even dance (poetry-in-motion) has to rise above the mundane fact of a body’s movement in space: Movement becomes metaphor. And it is necessarily awesome, in the sense that it is also tinged with fear; if something conveys a true sense of life, it must also convey a sense of mortality. Poetry, as an art form, is not escapism. It is a confrontation with our truths.

Art as Experience

meandoscar
Kissing Wilde’s Grave, 2012

Oscar Wilde wrote that art’s function is to create “a mood”. And if by “mood” Wilde means an experience, I agree with him.

I believe Art is an experience. It is the recognition of one human has when viewing/hearing an artifact created by another human. Simply put: the experience of, “I recognise that aspect of being human, too; I see you, the maker; I feel what you felt when you made this.”

Art (unlike fame) is a gift from God, or the gods. Or if you are uncomfortable with that: it’s magic: It is a work-around for human limitations, and a way to cheat death.

However, Wilde also said that art is useless:

“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence.”

One can read Oscar Wilde’s little note on the uselessness of Art and the metaphor of a flower as his attempt to justify earning money as an artist. With all due respect, I dare say that Mr. Wilde had a limited understanding of a flower’s practical role within its ecosystem.

And although “made things” are not flowers, their potential for Art does not exclude their potential for usefulness. All art forms are tools for communication and discovery, whether or not individual works succeed as Art with a capital A.

Art as a Tool for the Good Life

Before Wilde, Immanual Kant also pointed out the useless of art. Kant said that an artwork is “intrinsically final“, but did make the exception that it is a tool for the cultivation of the human spirit.

The writer-as-artisan uses poetic devices as tools, first. There are theories that verse was developed primarily as a mnemonic tool for passing information through the generations. But poetry and imaginative fiction also helps us fulfil our need for creativity, for novelty. Writing is a tool that helps us exorcise our emotions. At some point, though, once we have mastered the tool – when we work with devotion – writing may help us communicate our unique experience so that others can recognise themselves through our Poetry. Art is a paradoxical event where uniqueness meets commonality.

Poetry, in verse or in prose – spoken or written- takes us out of our selves, beyond our pre-packaged thoughts. As Robert Bly suggests in Leaping Poetry, and as Aristotle described drama in Poetics, we use metaphor and mimesis (which itself can be accurately described a kind of metaphor) to “leap” to an understanding that we can’t reach by any direct route. Poetry, be definition, exalts our experience.

Choosing a Poetic Approach for Reinvention

Truth be told, “exalt” is one of those words that tends to put me off.  I’m more comfortable with words like “improves”, “challenges”, even “refines”. We can use the art of writing to refine ourselves, and to redefine ourselves. The writing process can be a way to explore perspectives. We can reject our family’s narratives and their resulting false truths. We can challenge our culture’s meta-narrative prophecies like “damaged for life”, “people can’t change”, or “no one gets over that”. Like a photographer, move around the space of your life, change your angle, change your point of view through Perspective Writing.  We can discover new possibilities for meaning and identity.

Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “My life resembles a work of art. Never does an artist start working on the same piece twice.” Regardless of his claims of uselessness, Wilde seems to be suggesting here that art can be a tool for reinvention.

Rex Jung is a neuroscientist who studies creativity. He defines creativity as what is “novel and useful”. By choosing to live a creative life, by choosing to seek out the poetic in the humdrum details of our daily lives, we can use writing to gain the perspective we need to become the person each of us wants to be:

We can live deliberately.

We can cultivate attention and gratitude; we can create stronger connections with the earth, and with each other. If we aim towards Art, and if we are very fortunate, we can transcend ourselves.

Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.

– Oscar Wilde

This choice is who we are. Which story are you choosing?


More information about my exprience with Perspective Writing.


 

“When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.” (William Deresiewicz.)

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that I wrote poetry before Facebook, before the internet. What drove me? I’d never actually met a writer. I had no concept of what the future could be. No ambitions for fame, or a textbook footnote.

But, at 15, I wasn’t spilling my hormones on the page in automatic writing in an effort to express myself, I was striving to emulate St. Vincent Millay, to express that something that was not unique. I figured that was the point of writing: the attempt to connect to other people by finding, revealing, fashioning through mimesis, this common ground: See? You see this, right? This is true.

Maybe I wrote because I was lonely.

A form of necromancy, since I didn’t let anyone read what I wrote.

At any rate, I mentioned this to a colleague a few days ago: my concept of the artist as someone who is able to present the essence of being human to others; in this way, a visionary and a guide, a kind of midwife to the experience of being more than an individual in the world.

She said she thought that was the one of the most arrogant things she’d ever heard: artists having special talents – “Everyone can be an artist.”

But how is my idea more arrogant that believing that every individual, if she pays close enough attention to her own experience, has something worth sharing with others?

Something that other people should pay her for (time is money, after all)? If all expression is of equal worth, isn’t all expression equally worthless?

How is it that we find ourselves in an economy that assumes it is a viable model to compensate each other for our unbridled (read: undisciplined) self-expression?

Who is the new underclass?

I cringe when I read/hear the term “Creatives”, which implies that, not only is it pompous to strive to be an artist/master, but that some people aren’t creative. Oscar Wilde, who held that no everyone had the ability to appreciate art, would be proud.

Or, in a more generous vein: some people aren’t ambitious enough to harness their creativity and instead, choose to work in factories or other mundane jobs that don’t involve following their dream, or leading a herd to do the same.

Who is washing the toilets at these motivational conventions?

To be very honest, “creatives” in my mind are people skilled at manipulating the market – they can actually (often) bypass excellence and sell their wares; in some cases, they can take the absence of a “ware” and turn it into income. I am not saying they don’t deserve their paychecks. These people have skills.

It seems to me, that on a very basic level, the new measure of the artist with a little A, the “creative”, is the total dominance of the familiar measure of P.T. Barnum’s capitalism. Perceived value. Perceived results of perceived “labor”? Who says we live in an age devoid of the mystical? The momentary feel-good vibe they provide has value. I pay for that, too.

617231_204306873038735_552840742_oThe figure left in the photo: Someone made that. Some pre-Dynastastic Abyssinian.

Someone knew those heavy breasts. Those curves. That hollowed-torso posture. I know those things, too. Recognize them. But I can’t share that knowledge by carving a figure from bone.

That artist/artisan lived, and breathed, and carved, and made a bridge from then to now. She wasn’t the only person living then. There’s no reason to think that she was among the more interesting of the people living then, the most intelligent, the most clever.

But she built the bridge: the object, conduit, magic portal that made this connection. Through some fluke of archaeology, this anonymous bit of humanity endured. Something in it transcends historical and cultural context.

This recognition I experience, is it just another kind of feel-good vibe? Nothing more? Is context vs. transcending context irrelevant/illusionary?

Is this Art? art? What is it worth? (Is it Branded? A Rembrandt? A Rembrandt’s pupil?)

I suppose the British Museum as a specific sum in mind. For insurance purposes.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my PhD.: my pursuit of excellence. About what a destructive time it was, and how I am still working to heal. How, on some days, I can’t remember why I write. Wondering if all this frustration flows from envy, because I am not one of the “creatives”; if I’m still a necromancer at heart –

Half-in-love with Mr. Wilde.

Because I’m half-in-love with the book on my shelf.

*And, by the way, I am all for artisan pickles. I can’t make those either.

IMG_20151201_161947I’ve been reading Lonely by Emily White this week. Taking stock and remembering the Christmas I spent alone in my mid-20s, when the phone didn’t even ring. Remembering deciding not to kill myself because no one would know for weeks – and then, there would have been no one to call.

It wasn’t that I had anything to prove to anyone, but rather, I was in the position I was in because I knew I had more to give, and was worth more than I had gotten in the past. I was in a cocoon and had to have faith I’d break out when I was ready.

Two years ago I had to go in for an ultrasound. The blood tests indicated pancreatic cancer, and every google search found the same story: the no-symptoms-but-three-months-to-live story.

I’d left my husband (a lovely man) the previous year. My best friend lives in the US, and my (now) fiancé and I had just begun dating.

I finally told my oldest son about the test. He happened to be visiting from London that month, and he asked if he could go with me for the scan. My first response was no. But then, I realised that it was his place, his *right* to be there for me. We made a 48 hour plan in case the scan showed a tumor. He’d come back to my apartment to be there for me. We’d call his boyfriend to come be there for him. We’d take it from there. I spent the weeks in the meantime accessing whether I should live differently in the time I might have left, whether I had huge regrets. What would I miss? What would I be spared?

After the scan, the three of us went out for a celebratory dinner. The scare made me realise that I am on the right track, if not there yet. Made me realise my oldest son had grown into a wonderful young man with more resources than I had given him credit for.

The thing is, since I was a kid, I’ve thought we are probably here for someone else’s sake. And we don’t know whose. Could be the man on the subway the morning you said hello and smiled in passing.

I have no idea who would miss me. I wrote a chapter in a book some years back, and I have had two letters from people thanking me. Just two. But that is one more than reason enough to have written it.

What I have to keep in mind is that I may not have yet written the chapter that the person I am here for needs to read. Might be my boys. Might be a student. Might be a stranger. But it is arrogant to censor myself out of feelings of inadequacy. (Still not sure I’ve completely convinced myself of this one.)

I don’t have a huge network of connections. I haven’t had a tribe since Jr. High School. But I have made a positive difference in individual people’s lives. Most of them have moved on, so they won’t miss me. But they would have, had I not been there when. I’ll just keep showing up, and hold onto my childhood faith.

I spent a half hour texting with my youngest son last night. He is in Denmark with his girlfriend and they had just finished watching Inside Out, as had I and my fiancé here. Coincidence. Connectedness. My macho-military dude texted that he almost cried when he realised how important sadness was. Today I am thinking loneliness is pretty important, too.