Just speak

Much has been going on in the blogger’s back-of-the-blog life, compounded with news of the nation. And frankly, I have been mulling for well over a week on how to say what I want to say; or how to say anything, for that matter. There are times in the life of a writer when said writer recognizes the limitations of words.

Also: words can be dangerous–inflammatory, distracting, powerful, persuasive, false, painful, hurtful. People get defensive at words they feel are “aimed” at them. Aimed, a weaponized word. I have had people (okay, white people) tell me they are tired of hearing about their privilege, because they and their families worked hard for their place in the world and because many, many white people are underprivileged and suffering, just as people of color are suffering.

While this is true, it is also fails to address the argument. Defensiveness is a diversion tactic used when people are too uncomfortable to address hard discussions. A student at my university recently exhorted us–“us” being mostly the uncomfortable white people who teach or take classes here–to speak up. “Even if you’re afraid you’ll say something the wrong way,” she said, “if you let me know you are uncertain but that you really want to have a discussion, speak up anyway. Because then at least I know that you’re reaching out to me, and I’ll dial it back a bit.”

It’s easy to understand why people would want to avoid the topics of privilege and of systemic racism. We are taught to be polite; one of the social contracts I was urged to respect was to keep conversation friendly, to avoid religion, politics, and other hot topics in order to get along with my neighbors and coworkers–to maintain friendships with people whose perspectives are different from my own. This approach does work, to a degree. Politeness, though, is not the same as compassionate interest and doesn’t always encourage listening and reflecting.

So it stops the conversation just when the conversation might be getting interesting. Or difficult. I have seen this play out in the course I teach time and again. Some students try to mediate as soon as a disagreement starts. Some tune out; some get embarrassed; some shut it down. Some talk to me after class, individually. Only a few times are my freshmen confident and mature enough to speak up assertively but in a way that admits of, and permits, other points of view.

That behavior is what I try to teach and to encourage. We need to admit of other perspectives rather than keep comparing this with that or bring up side arguments or shut people down with ad hominem attacks. That means ideologically “liberal” people also have to listen and to allow opposition, by the way. I teach in a fairly conservative university; and as a rather unconventional thinker in that environment, it can be a challenge for me to let students express views with which I disagree. But that’s the point: to listen and try to understand, and then to show where the argument goes awry–if it does–and acknowledge the validity of the stance, as there often is some.

I am not defensive about my privilege because I can admit to it. I acknowledge that things I have little control over–the society into which I was born, the family that raised me, the historical structures of the social contract norms, the assumption that I would be educated–have randomly assigned me to accepted norms of privilege. In simplest terms, I’m lucky, randomly fortunate.

Which had little to do with how hard my ancestors worked. They scraped and toiled and suffered, they may have been run out of Europe for their beliefs, or out of poverty or risk of prison, they may have arrived with nothing and been poorly treated by the elite in the early USA. All true. They worked their butts off for generations and never became wealthy or politically powerful.

They were permitted to attend school, however. They were permitted to own land. They were permitted to vote.

These foundational opportunities for equity were denied–often by the laws of this democratic nation–to black slaves, who were brought here completely unwillingly and indeed by main force under even worse conditions than any poverty-stricken European on a ship headed to this continent. These opportunities were denied to the Chinese who labored on our railroads. They were denied to the original residents of this continent, whose own nations and norms were largely and purposely erased by the European immigrants. The historical barriers became legitimized into social norms.

Do I have privilege? Yes. Do I value my privilege? Yes. Do I think I’ve earned my privilege? Absolutely not.

I am for equity. I have no idea how we can possibly achieve it in the United States, and I cannot say I have a lot of hope. My dad was working for civil rights back in 1965;  55 years later, there are more female than male students at my college, and more students of color or of diverse national, linguistic, and religious backgrounds…so some things have changed, though mostly due to “leg up” approaches rather than “barriers down” actions. It is a start.

Equity means that no mother residing in this nation would have to worry about the safety of her young adult son while he is driving to work, walking down the street, taking a jog or a bike ride, or going to a pool or a beach. That’s been one of my privileges. Of all the concerns I may have had as my son grew up (he’s past 30 now), I never needed to think about the danger of “walking while black.”

Because he isn’t black.

And that’s not equitable.

~

Untitled-writer

Unsettled sentences

One of those unsettled-weather days…rain all night, cloudy mild morning. I weeded the vegetable patch and made note of bean sprouts and zucchini sprouts, pea blossoms and strawberry blossoms.

Then, more rain, so I worked on some housekeeping and writing tasks indoors. I wrote sentences and thought about the loss of syntax and vocabulary.

~

Eastern Bluebird-4299_Laurie Lawler_Texas_2013_GBBC_KKThe day warmed and brightened. I harvested spinach, found more weeding to do (it never ends), watched a pair of bluebirds perch like sentries and swoop toward their nest in the magnolia tree. Fast-moving clouds morphed and swashed overhead. We had a sunshower, and I had a flashback to one of our son’s earliest sentences.

We were indoors on a day very like this one–he was not yet two years old. I was nursing his infant sister while he perched on a chair and peered out the window.

“Sun out, rain coming down!” he said. Observant, expressive (communicative), and properly syntactical (though missing the to-be verbs). A moment of major language development!

Also, cute.

~

I cannot visit my mother, whose aphasia worsens by the week. It hurts me to listen as she struggles to get her point across, endeavors to employ expression which used to come so naturally. Loss of vocabulary and syntax: unsettled sentences.

~

A funnier anecdote about sentences: our daughter’s first full sentence likewise made an observation about the environment around her. She pointed to a corner of the rug and said, “Look–cat barf, Mama!”

We rarely lose that urge to get our point across. Let us be listeners.

 

Wish, will, motivation

Lately, I have been turning my mind to thoughts about what we human beings mean by “will” and how closely will coincides with, or basically means, consciousness. I think Kant defined the difference between wish and will by saying that the latter involves action–people wish for peace, but will leads them into war. Maybe I am perpetuating a too-simplified (or simply wrong) concept regarding Kant. I should look it up before posting. Anyway, consider:

Suppose I wish I could win $50 million in the lottery. I may wish to win as much as I like; but while buying three $1 tickets doesn’t increase likelihood of my winning by much, it is nonetheless an action that moves me from wishing to possibility. (Very small statistical possibility, but better than buying no ticket.)

Voting, for example, is an act. An act of will. Though I may wish to have had other choices on the ballot…

~

“What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?” (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781)

~

I am much more familiar, though not intelligently conversant with, Kant’s writings on art and aesthetics. It does cheer me that he posits poetry as the “greatest” art because it expands the human mind through reflection, stimulates the imagination [not that I am at all biased about poetry, myself].

Much of Kant’s thinking about what is provocative, expressive, and beautiful in art seems logical on the page but does not quite feel true to my experiences of art, however; except that it does feel true that creating art is an act of willing, not wishing, and that art emerges from the will to express.

Is what philosophers call “will” the same as what psychologists call “motivation”?

~

How about this statement, which I hear frequently from students and which I readily admit to having uttered: “I wish I were more motivated.” Is that wishing to have the will, but lacking the will to have the will?

(No wonder learning English is so difficult.)

Perhaps needless to say, these past few days I have been feeling a lack of motivation.

astronomy clouds dark evening

Photo by Tomas Anunziata on Pexels.com

 

“Star light, star bright
first star I see tonight
wish I may, wish I might…”

 

 

 

Death & beauty

I may be misquoting Edvard Munch; but I think I once read a translation of his letters in which he said, “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”azurea

There’s a famous line in Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” that reads, “Death is the mother of beauty.”

Simone Weil wrote, “The destruction of Troy. The fall of the petals from fruit trees in blossom. To know that what is most precious is not rooted in existence – that is beautiful.”

Many human cultures have, from all appearances, created beautiful rituals, art, cultural objects, music, literature in commemoration of the dead, or have believed that death is a necessary part of a cycle that would lead, again, to living beauty. What is it about human beings that inclines to such an impulse? Is it just fear? Or a desire to be remembered, or to remember the beloved?

Poe claimed that there was no subject more suitable for poetry than the death of a beautiful woman; but he was full of crap about that or, at any rate, too swayed by the culture in which he resided in his awkward and outsider way. Nonetheless, he puts forth the assertion that from death can come something that is itself beautiful: a work of art, a lyric, a poem. I do not disagree with him on that point.

virginia poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s sketch of his young wife Virginia

Certainly many poets end up writing about, with, or against death; raging or praising; querying, challenging, wondering, fearing, fighting, sometimes embracing or accepting. Do I hear Emily Dickinson in that chorus? Dylan Thomas? Walt Whitman? Marie Howe? Mark Doty? Ilyse Kusnetz?

In a previous post, I alluded to the death of a beautiful woman (a friend), and asked about the value(s) we humans place on beauty–and the way(s) we define, describe, and name it.

Because death’s one of The Big Mysteries–and writers tend to gnaw around the edges of things that are not easily put into words, and mortal is what we are–poets poke at death, encounter it, question it, and question the religious, biological, and social accretions that surround it. Can we find beauty in death, from it, surrounding it? Recently, I attended a philosophy lecture concerning death and the soul from a Catholic (Thomist) perspective,* and the talk briefly moved into inquiry concerning the intersection of death and beauty. I did not ask, what sort of beauty–aesthetics, or awe?

But I am asking now.

~~

 

*Dr. Marco Stango, DeSales University

Twist & shout

We are only at the year’s ninth month, and already 2019 has been, for me, a year of broken things. It began with the broken furnace, then the water heater and the entire water handling system (we have a well); then the septic pump gave out, and the stove broke, too. During the second, and longest, heat wave, our central air conditioning unit fried itself with a snap and sizzle. We had plumbing under the kitchen sink to replace, and hail damage to the roof and porch railings. Also broken hearts at the deaths of people we wanted to keep in our lives. And a few days back, I twisted my foot and damaged a metatarsal muscle–now I, too, am one of the broken things.

It’s “an unusual injury” according to my physician, in that the way I rolled my foot and twisted led to damage (inflammation, at this point) to the flexor digiti minimi brevis muscle, which is not one of the foot muscles people usually injure. While not serious, it’s painful and slow to heal. The first weeks of the semester have arrived, and here I am stumping around campus with a wrapped-up foot and a crazy-busy schedule.

Endeavoring to be mindful of the moment and keep equanimity in my life proves difficult, but I have been working at the challenge by asking myself how we measure our losses and whether there’s any benefit in doing so. After all, that I possess enough things that can break demonstrates that I have considerably more comfort in my life than most human beings on the planet; so who should care if I rant? On the one hand, measuring loss seems judgmental and arbitrary–and there’s no way a broken cooktop can be assessed against a friend’s death. Yet we do need to make some kind of accounting for loss, because if we never acknowledge it, we smother compassion. Bearing witness to our brokenness, our losses, our fears, permits us to feel with others and with ourselves.

The temporary rant serves a purpose, as long as it is temporary: a shout of frustration, irritation, and grief that can, after its release, allow us to settle into forgiveness, compassion, and acceptance (quite a twist in another direction).

continuum

Twist: Yin & Yang

Click here for a Tricycle essay by a roshi about the Three Tenets and bearing witness toward acceptance.

~

For the Isley Brothers’ “Twist & Shout!” click here and work it on out. I, however, will not be twisting for awhile.  😦

 

 

 

Repetition

Repetitive tasks often lead directly to boredom, then to daydream, and then–if forced to continue said task–to numbness. The sheer effort involved in repetitive operation makes for drudgery; if the labor is also dangerous, hot, physically difficult, and unrelieved, the human mind gets sapped of joy and creativity. For much of human history, our time on earth has consisted largely of this sort of work, constant toiling, just to survive.

My thoughts dwell on that fact when I spend a day or two as a re-enactor and when I harvest beans and other produce that won’t keep and need immediate attention, else the food will go to waste. I think of all the people now and in the past who have to cut firewood and stack it, keep it dry, then keep fires burning in stoves or hearths and watch the food so it doesn’t burn. And do the same, day in day out.

I think of my grandmother who, when she was still in her 50s and 60s, kept a large truck patch from which she fed her extended family. All the canning and processing and freezing she did…the jars of peaches, jellies, tomatoes, beans…meant hours of often-tedious, not to mention exceedingly hot, work.

green peas on white ceramic bowl

Photo by R Khalil on Pexels.com

I cannot recall ever assisting her with canning; but from the time I was a very small child, I would sit beside her on a wooden bench or chair and “help” her shell peas or snap the ends from green beans. I suppose I prattled to her, because I recall her distracted “Mmmm Hmmm” responses. After awhile, however, I’d get quiet and daydreamy just opening the green pods and slipping the fresh, round peas out with my finger over and over, listening to the plunk as they dropped into the bowl in my lap. It was soothing.

~

I remembered that long-ago activity today as I shelled black beans from their dry, tan husks: two or three pounds of them! My shelling created a crackly noise that intrigued our kitten, who has otherwise been drowsy from the heat. I’ve been freezing green beans, cooking tomato sauce, and harvesting pears and black beans for days in the humid August heat–but not non-stop (I have a day job, and the students have returned to campus!).

black beans in a bowl

So for me, the potential boredom of the repetitive task gets replaced by a rather Zen attitude. Be here now, shelling the beans, stirring the pear butter. Appreciate bounty and what the earth has given us. Remember childhood. Daydream awhile. Think about poems.

~

In this case, repetition means abundance. New poems as autumn arrives.

Waves & relationships

I had planned to take a little “vacation” from difficult books this summer and read a bit of fiction, go to the movies, work in the garden. And while Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid covered the challenging topic of reading and delved into some neurological explanations for the process of how we read and how literacy changes our brains, Wolf writes in layperson’s terms and divides her text into easily understandable chunks. It was a relatively easy read on a complex topic and reminded me that I need to re-read Proust’s famous essay “On Reading Ruskin.”

Then my dad said I should read Reflection in the Waves by Pablo Bandera. Here’s a physicist with a philosophical bent who tries “reconciling the realism of Aquinas with the empirical evidence of quantum mechanics.” I like Bandera’s interdisciplinary approach, a blend of physics–his main area of expertise, a “true” science–and philosophy, anthropology, evolution, even theology. Does Bandera entirely succeed in persuading me that the observer effect of quantum physics is a human-based, perspective conundrum that may not be a problem at all? Not completely, but it is an intriguing theory about which I remain open-minded. The recognition that being human alters the observing mechanism seems sensible to me.

I would never suggest that Reflection in the Waves is an easy read for the average informed person. It contains a few fascinating observations and summaries, however, that relate to human relationships (our need to connect), to communication, literature, and art. He writes:

What distinguishes us humans from other objects around us, including other measurement devices, is not that our reality is not somehow irrelevant for the physical world, but that our relationship to this world is such that it transcends the mere subject-object relationship currently envisioned by the physicist.

Reality=relationship to others and the world. That’s a contemporary way of interpreting Aquinas. I’ve never before thought of myself as a Thomist, and the very idea makes me giggle. But as a writer, especially as a poet, the relationships and connections in the physical world are the stuff of metaphors that engage the conscious mind of abstract thought and help to put the poem across to other readers’ minds (thank you, Maryanne Wolf). Perhaps not so far from philosophy, or physics, or neurology, after all.

Altered perspectives

One of the arguments Arthur W. Frank makes in his book The Wounded Storyteller–and in his subsequent books about “illness narrative”–is that there’s a compelling ethics for medical diagnosticians and caregivers involved in just listening to the other person’s story. The difficulty emerges when the storyteller cannot put his or her story into words or lacks enough objective distance from the illness to narrate the kind of story that others are expecting.

When people’s circumstances push into the chaos realm, they’re in the midst, overwhelmed; few of them can construct a cogent and concise narrative. In their pain, in their grief, everything seems equal–no beginning, no end, all middle.

The listener expects: a beginning. a middle. an end.

The listener expects: chronology. a goal. a desired outcome.

If the listener’s job means determining a course of healing, the listener requires history, onset, comparisons. Truly good diagnosticians therefore need more than sleuthing skills, experience, and education. They need to listen well in the midst of the storyteller’s chaos; Frank calls this listening with.

That often means taking a deep breath and endeavoring to change perspective.

~

[Which, by the way, is excellent practice for poets.]

Tibet-Mountains-Everest-Kailas-Tibet-tours-Tibet-travel-Tibet-trekking-Tibet-hiking-3-of-8-1024x676

Himalayas: view from a high lake plateau (Snow Lion tours)

natural_fractals_tibet

Himalayas from satellite: a fractal view

~
We cannot climb into an airplane and get an overview of a human being’s situation. Nor can we get into another person’s thought processes to determine what’s going on. Listening without rushing the person, without offering advice, without finishing the sentences with what we expect to hear–that’s a hard task.

In a previous post, I tried to replicate what it was I could hear when someone I cared for experienced cognitive damage.

It was very, very difficult to listen. For me, heart-breaking because of my previous understanding of who the person was. It was only in her final days that I started to realize I’d needed to change in my relationship with her in order to get some idea of what she wanted to say. And it was too late, really.

~

As another Best Beloved is now experiencing significant cognitive changes, I want to do better. I need to acknowledge the chaos narrative, the interruptions, the lacunae in the person’s story. It’s important that I develop a new perspective on what a conversation entails, too; my expectations surrounding a conversation no longer hold, and both of us will get frustrated if we stick to former habits.

If sometimes a visit feels a bit like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, so be it. There’s a story in that, after all, thanks to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

mad hatter tea party tenniel

Tenniel’s sketch for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

And, just as an aerial view of the Himalayas alters the perspective of what the mountains are and how they appear, an altered perspective of a loved one keeps the person, as a human being still in the world (no matter how changed), in view. True, perhaps with changed patterns and unexpected gaps that we who love them may grieve the loss of. The conversations may be interrupted and chaotic, or full of long pauses and grasping for words and concepts. It is just a different kind of human communication.

Not what I expect, but what I am given. I’m trying to listen with, before it is too late.

Lyric, narrative

I love hearing stories. Telling stories. Inventing stories. Often I choose to create a story using the first person perspective, whether the story is my own, someone else’s, or totally invented. In poetry this gets called the lyrical narrative.

~

A Toast to the Brown Bat

We are on the porch, drinking wine
late in the long summer day, dusk hovering
the way small storms of insects do
the day after a hard rain, and we’re talking
about something not especially dear to us,
no deep discourse, past that, watching
candles glow and the first wink of fireflies
when a brown bat flutters over like
an autumn leaf and my friend asks, “what
is it like to be a bat?” And as I’m somewhat
versed in philosophy I mention Thomas
Nagel, whose essay with that title is
justly famous but who does not really answer
the question; and she responds, “it must be
alternately stifling and soaring.” I think she
means that every flight’s like Christmas—
freedom and feasting—and every day an
imprisonment in the tightly-packed dark.
“But what if colony life is cozy?” I ask, imagining
small bodies light as sparrows breathing
together softly, fur-lined and snuggled,
fingers folded over the bellies, a generous
communion of sleep. “I can’t quite get over,
though,” she says, “that they sleep upside-
down.” “It might cure your migraines,” I say,
and we devote our next toast to the bat.

~

Poetic naturalism

I have been reading poetry, as usual, and also non-fiction about various aspects that could be deemed scientific, such as Michael Pollan’s Changing Your Mind and physicist Sean Carroll‘s book The Big Picture. 

On my way to work, I posed (in my mind) an argument with Carroll about his use of the word “poetic” in his definition of poetic naturalism, which he defines thus:

Naturalism is a philosophy according to which there is only one world — the natural world, which exhibits unbroken patterns (the laws of nature), and which we can learn about through hypothesis testing and observation. In particular, there is no supernatural world — no gods, no spirits, no transcendent meanings.

I like to talk about a particular approach to naturalism, which can be thought of as Poetic. By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world…

The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms” … There is more to the world than what happens; there are the ways we make sense of it by telling its story… The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. But these moral and ethical and aesthetic vocabularies can be perfectly useful ways of talking about the world … We just have to admit that judgments come from within ourselves.

Despite my doubts about his use of “poetic,”  it may be that Carroll’s term describes me; at any rate, his definition comes close to my own thinking about the world.

And hence, another draft for my poem-a-day challenge.

~

Brown leaves bouncing across Preston Lane
late afternoon, air currents swirling.

Road shoulder cradles raccoon carcass,
fur shudders, though body’s still, and sun

highlights the gray-white hairs as travelers
speed past. Chlorophyll greens local lawns

and ditches beside the creek, molecules moving,
nitrogen atoms taken up through root and rhizome.

Sudden, yellow, early–narcissus blooms near
the neighboring farmhouse–all of which

recommends itself as The World As It Is.
A reality for at least one universe,

even though there exist other possibilities
in the realm of Undiscovered.

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael