Comfort zones redux

What do we mean by “comfort zone”? People use it frequently, especially in self-improvement and creativity-related writing. Has it become an empty phrase? It’s so subjective–which is entirely the point, I suppose. If we can manage to agree on what the idea means, we still must confront the continuum of such a zone. I reflect on my tolerance for aesthetic discomfort often, especially when I am reading or observing creative work. For example, I like listening to jazz; some jazz soothes, some excites, and some takes effort to hear–I have to be in the mood for confrontational experiments with sound such as performances by The Art Ensemble of Chicago.imagesAEC

Similarly, while I love art, I cannot imagine living with “Guernica” on the wall…or Goya’s “The Third of May.” Or anything by Francis Bacon. Some creative works are meant to push viewers out of their comfort zones; some are no doubt as uncomfortable to create as they are to view. A work of art that takes emotional and craft risks puts the artist not only at risk of critical rage or misinterpretation of intentions, but also at the very personal risk of failure.

And that effort is important, that willingness to fail. Without it, nothing invented or imagined can be achieved.

I am not a good painter, and trying to paint clouds or winter trees or landscapes means I am going to paint bad pictures. I have better gardening skills than painting skills, but I love trying a new seed or plant or cultivation method, even though the results often don’t succeed. Pushing the comfort zone has mixed but invaluable rewards.

Poems practically cry out to enter such territory. Often I find that even poems that contain in their lines and imagery moments of hope or great love and comfort simultaneously discomfit me. It fascinates me; how does the poet first compose, then revisit and revise, the poem that must surely be even more uncomfortable to write–to confront? (Search for any anthology on a difficult topic and therein will be many such poems.) Most of us prefer to avoid pain zones, so we stay within our comfort zones.

~

In Zechariah 12:2, the Lord promises terrible punishments for the enemies of Judah. Elaine Scarry approaches the conundrum of pain’s subjectivity (among other things) in The Body in Pain. I find wonder and ideas in the continuum of pain zones, in the concept of pain as punishment versus the concept that life is dukkha and inevitably contains suffering, and many other perspectives that people take concerning anything from mild emotional stress to mental illness, age-related physical problems, various forms of “disability,” and the Wong-Baker FACES pain rating scale.

Here, from WORDPEACE online, a poem of my own that I found uncomfortable to write, and which some readers have told me is uncomfortable to read. Taking the risk:

A Cup of Reeling [for the sufferers]

“Pain is…language-destroying.” Elaine Scarry

It is I am told all in my head but the body how the body loves the head
where language resides in the soft and voluble brain
and hurt undoes every synapse until sweat and stress the bullet
between clenched teeth [as if to aid?] good god deliver me
groan swear-word ululation weep and reeling, eloquence undone.
The crucible my own right leg: fire pulley strain does not allow
gravity or, god, motion, my evidence convincing to me only to me
unavailable to others [no one privy to, spare me, my—agony—
no object but destruction of objects no intention but self-obliteration]
Pain’s constructed in waiting rooms, waiting for morphine
or anything anything; I am animal in pain and sentient in my pain.
Good god who dares believe in me now that I believe in nothing?

 

~

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Ways of reading

Conversing about books with a colleague recently, I began to reflect on how readers of literature read. The topic had come up earlier in the day when several students came in for tutoring on literary-analysis papers. In addition, a student in the Education program was devising a curriculum for third-graders; the lesson focus was about “different ways of reading.” I have always loved to read, and I never spent much time considering how I go about it. It just seemed natural to me…and then I encountered academia’s approach to reading and had to reconsider the way I devoured fiction.

My coworker consumes novels the way a literature professor does. He savors passages, re-reads earlier chapters in a novel to find connections with later parts of the book, and looks up references and allusions to be sure he understands the deep context of a literary text. He asks himself questions about what he’s reading. The questions keep him reading and engaged with the words on the page.

That method is how I read poetry. But it is not how I read novels or non-fiction books; those I read at a clip, almost inhaling them, seldom stopping. I read them for pleasure, for fun–I even absorb sad novels and memoirs this way, in a mad whirl of reading enjoyment, caught up in the events and characters and setting of the book in my hands. This is not to say I never look up words, places, references, but generally I do so after I have finished the book. I guess I examine such things in retrospect.

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The downside of reading fiction using my own “natural” method is that I tend to come away from a book with a strong sense of whether it was wonderfully-written or moving or amazing, but I cannot explain why it has that effect–how the author managed to get me to  believe in the characters or the world she created with her words alone. When I am reading for fun or information, however, there isn’t any need for analytical levels of cognition. If I forget a detail, I can go back and look for it later. Or forget about it. No great loss.

There are other methods of reading–certainly more than two ways to “get into” a book! The conversation about reading strategies (what feels natural to a literature-consumer, how readers savor a good book, questioning not just the text but also the self reading the words) piques my interest. I suspect some connection with consciousness and cognition, aspects of human-ness I have mulled about in previous posts.

Well, enough for now. I am signing off–to read a good book!

Storms

This week, I’m reflecting on Kyna Leski‘s marvelous little book The Storm of Creativity. How to describe this text? It’s written by someone who teaches architecture as well as designs spaces, and who reads across disciplines and thinks both deeply and widely. It is not a how-to book; more of a how-it-works book. I learned of this book through Deborah Barlow (in 2015!) and finally have gotten around to reading it.

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Leski uses the analogy of a storm system, from moisture in the ground or bodies of water through the gathering of the storm organizing itself into, say, a hurricane, and takes the process all the way through to dissipation (a kind of “death”) and restarting the cycle, when what we have is new again–and will not be exactly the same next time.

Rob Harle, reviewing the book, says:

“Leski’s approach is far better and much more practical than those found in books that delve deeply into neurophysiology, neuro-transmitters in the brain and so on when trying to understand what happens when creative people work. The neurological approach may be useful as far as it goes, and for specialized reasons. However, knowing that a certain neurotransmitter fires up a certain part of the brain doesn’t help us understand, or more importantly, deal with, for example, writer’s block. Leski’s storm metaphor and analysis does!”

Her vimeo video offers an animated visual of the storm process.

Here’s the thing: she captures the process as I myself experience it. I keep re-reading sections of this book and nodding in recognition. I am not the sort of person who spends much time analyzing creativity; I prefer to read how other people analyze the process and decide whether their reflections or analyses dovetail with my own. In this case, yes. For me, anyway, the creative process organizes like a storm.

The gathering part of the work coincides with that aspect of writing that I call observing. Gathering is a good word for it (Leski uses denotations and etymology as she defines her process, so that appeals to me, too). There’s a phrase my relatives used referring to someone daydreaming or loafing reflectively: “woolgathering.” Despite this interesting inquiry into the appropriateness of the phrase to mean loafing or daydreaming, in our family it meant daydreaming. I used to think the phrase referred to watching clouds–one of my favorite activities as a child–because clouds often look like wool. At any rate, woolgathering’s essential to my writing practice.

And sometimes, those clouds collect together, and create a storm.

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Bro-ken

In the northwest sky this morning, mackerel-sky and mares’ tail clouds like fins, wispy and broken up against the blue, brought to mind the book I’m reading: Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. In this book, essays on place and environment interweave with “word hoards” or mini-dictionaries, a rich lexicon of regional terms that describe specific observations concerning weather, geographical formations, topology, the sea, plants, moorlands, mountains, and mines. He uses the word adit! (See my post here.)

 

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mares’ tail clouds

 

Macfarlane’s word hoard draws mostly from the British Isles, but his essays–in this collection, many are based on books he has loved–assert that naming is noticing, noticing is loving, and loving means preserving or saving. “Language deficit leads to attention deficit,” he says. He’s not incorrect. My own experience concurs; for the past few years, I have had less time and energy to walk my meadow and take the two-mile amble along the back roads of our neighborhood, and as a result, my written expression feels both a bit contracted and less precise. I need to get back to the land.

Meanwhile, more broken things, from which (see this post) we may encounter or derive good words. The most recent break happens to have been the nose of a Best Beloved. I think it is time the broken things spell gave us a break.

In that vein, here’s a 1932 poem by Carl Sandburg, “Broken Sonnet”:

May the weather next week be good to us.
The strong fighting birds, so often ugly,
Jab the songsters and bleed them
And send them away; the wranglers rule,
The fast breeders, the winter sparrows,
The crows.  The weeds, the quack grass,
The tough wire-grass, they have it all
Their way.  May the weather next week
Be good to us.

~

 

Thesaurus obscurus

When I moved into my work office many years ago, I inherited a bookshelf with a few books on it. There was a battered paperback Volume I of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature; A Manual of Style, 12th edition (1969) from University of Chicago Press; The New American Bible for Catholics; a Catechism; a Bartlett’s; several old volumes of The Writing Center Journal; and Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus from 1976. There was a dictionary as well.

Of these older reference works, the one that most entertains me is the thesaurus. The editors employed the alphabetical-style organization, reasoning that a “main entry of a concise statement of the segment of denotation in which a group of words can be construed as synonyms, a strictly alphabetical organization, and the entry at its own alphabetical place of each word that appears as a synonym at a main entry” would “minimize the consultant’s need to grope and guess.” *

But what puzzles me is the choice of entry words in this 1976 text. What college student, ever, would be searching for a synonym for entrammel? Or phthisis? Or incondite? [By the way, WordPress’s spelling checker does not recognize any of these words, although they are all acceptable English terms.] Exanimate may be an interesting replacement for “dead,” but why make it a main entry in the thesaurus? I was a college student in 1976, and I cannot imagine consulting this book in order to find a suitable synonym for drossy. “Worthless” or “pointless” would have sufficed in most cases–and why make the choice of inutile? Wouldn’t that impede the reader’s understanding? Or maybe not–the reader for university writing would have been a scholar, I suppose. brad-hammonds-flikr-books

I find myself wondering whether these choices reflect an era on some sociological level, and on what level that might be. My freshman reading list was longer and “more difficult” than the reading with which my current students are tasked, but those assignments were based on the assumption that we had read considerable canon literature in high school. Nonetheless, in the 70s, we were not scrambling to find synonyms for fainéant unless we were trying to paraphrase a source.

Maybe the answer lies in how long it used to take to get a reference text produced. Surely the research for the collegiate thesaurus would have taken ten years or more; and the text would have been edited by many persons and proofread, typeset, proofed again and again before getting to the printing press, being bound, and finally reaching bookshelves in college bookstores. Were college students in the late 1950s more likely to write using the word culmen or adit?

Honestly, I’m thinking: No.

~

These days, there are many online thesauruses; but they tend to give short shrift to English’s wide range of approximate synonyms, each with their connotations. My students’ papers often suffer from vague and random use of online thesaurus “suggestions.” The electronic thesaurus, like the dictionaries and encyclopedias online, fail in another important way: it turns out that groping around for a word or a meaning can lead to stumbling upon new words, new connotations, and interesting forays into the depths that our language has to offer.

Anyway, I appreciate an out-of-date reference text for historical and linguistic reasons and because–you never know–sometimes those archaic words inspire, influence, or appear in one of my poem drafts. Groping and guessing may impel a Parnassian to chivy exceptional words through the adit of English and wraxel with new expressions.

~~

* Seriously. Try to unpack that series of dependent modifying phrases. I even edited down the sentence!

 

 

Acedia

While sorting through my work, I found a poem titled “Acedia,” and I have been musing on the concept again. The poem (below) referred, when I wrote it, to a kind of numb depressive state. In contemporary English, the term means boredom, ennui, apathy–with connotations of a spiritual aspect to the torpor. PsyWeb says, “Acedia refers to a failure of will to control one’s longings or reactions to daily life, while depression is considered a medical condition or a failure of the body.”

Doing a bit of research into the etymology and history of the word took me to the Desert Fathers, Christian hermits in the early centuries of the faith. Acedia referred very specifically to a kind of spiritual laziness. Here’s a little tour of the history by Kelsey Kennedy on Atlas Obscura:

Evagrius was a member of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a group of devout Christian monks and hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert beginning in the third century. By the time Evagrius joined their ranks in the late 300s, there were several thousand monks living in organized communities. They spent their days fasting, working, and worshiping, often in isolation. When the sun and the heat peaked, life could be quite uncomfortable. So it makes sense that Evagrius dubbed acedia the “demon of noontide,” a reference to Psalm 91. Siegfried Wenzel, in his book The Sin of Sloth: Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literature, wrote that “in the end acedia causes the monk to either give in to physical sleep, which proves unrefreshing or actually dangerous because it opens the door to many other temptations, or to leave his cell and eventually the religious life altogether.” Acedia could be resisted, but only through endurance, prayer, and sometimes even crying.

John Cassian, a student of Evagrius’s…helped spread the concept of the cardinal sins beyond the Desert Fathers. But as soon as acedia left the desert, the demon of noontide started to become a whole different animal.

What it became was the cardinal sin of Sloth. But Despair continued to be viewed as dangerously heretical, because it led to suicidal thinking (and suicide was until recently classed as one of the mortal sins).

Thomas Merton, in his book Thoughts in Solitude, supports (without quite saying so) the Roman Catholic view that despair is a sin; but, as is usual for Merton, he frames the depression experience with compassion and offers a gentler perception of the experience. He suggests that when a person believes of him or herself “I am nothing,” there is another way of being with that thought: “I am not who I wish to be.”

This concept strikes me as so perfectly sane. When I have felt deeply depressed, the ingrained mind-numbing idea that surfaces is that I am worthless or that I am nothing. And really, what I feel is that I am not who I wish to be.

Why does the latter sentence feel less like despair? Anyway, it feels that way to me. Thank you, Thomas Merton.

Now here’s the poem in its revised-draft form, though I’m not sure it’s really finished yet.

~~

Acedia

It is what looked up at you
from the eyes of the wounded doe
what the clock said to itself
when the mainspring gave way.

It is the last few shudders
your father’s body made
when his heart wrote hopeless
on the hospital bed

the long sigh of a black dog
and your beloved’s parched skin
when she could make no more tears
and told you go now.

It is the dead nut
in the infertile basalt cave
it is all the days I tell you I can’t
but you are right

there is desire.
The numb body’s in-taken breath
yearning to stay alive:
remind me that it is desire.

~

 

Silence & solitude

Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence. James Ragan’s Too Long a Solitude. Jane Brox’s Silence: A Social History. Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude

Is it just a coincidence, or did I subconsciously start reading books dealing with silence and solitude in the weeks before I planned to spend a few days alone in a friend’s rural cabin? And will the relative silence make my somewhat maladaptiveness to busy environs even worse? For I freely admit that living for thirty years in an area that borders on the rural, and spending so much of my time in the garden, has made me less inured to excess, human-made noise.

Sara Maitland writes, after spending some years outside of London ensconced in a quiet town, that “going to cities, to large parties, or to any place where there are a significant number of loud, overlapping but different sounds remains stressful and tiring at best.” This reaction is not mere “introversion”–indeed, for most of her life, Maitland appears to have been an exceedingly social and sociable person, quick with a retort, response, or witty reply and often in the company of boisterous, talkative people. She definitely cares deeply about relationships and communication, both between close friends or family members and between reader and writer/author. Like her, though more of a shy person in my younger years than she was, I value communicative aspects of conversation and togetherness while finding it harder than ever to live in the midst of noise pollution.

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Near Windemere, where Wordsworth trod…

Of course, writing is a communicative act, a form of creating relationships between reader and writer, and therefore may not always or necessarily thrive amid silence, or in solitude, though that Romantic notion remains intact in most people’s minds. When I consider my own work, I recognize the lyric “you” (implying an Other), the narrative action (requiring the behavior of living beings dwelling in the world with Others), and various interactions among the lines that set up relationships that are not only abstract or metaphorical but concrete and physical, even when the poem skates along the reflective mode (how can there be a consideration of  a Myself without an Other?).

So although part of my brief upcoming “retreat” is, in fact, for solitude’s sake–a few days to be alone with my own writing process and make some creative decisions–the solitude’s less urgent than the silence. I’m not an ascetic nor a spiritual seeker, just a writer who wants a few days unplugged (and not entirely so) to mull through ideas and revise some poems. This process seems easier to me when I do not have to deal with anyone’s society, even the companionship of those I love. It’s been quite awhile since I last made this kind of silent time for myself, and I’m curious as to what will result.

Maybe just some naps and daydreaming, which might not be an entirely fruitless harvest.

 

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