Complicated distress

My recent reading list borders on the bizarrely unrelated: Helen Macdonald’s essays in Vesper Flights, Malcolm Lowry’s descriptive pastiche of a novel Under the Volcano, and Daniel Defoe’s wandering and curiously relevant A Journal of the Plague Year.

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin
..."is to learn something."
                               --T. H. White

Lowry’s book offers a strange escape for those of us preparing for yet another few months of pandemic quarantining. The escape is Mexico, its mountains and villages, its expatriates, world-travelers, drunkards, outsiders. But the characters cannot escape. The Consul cannot be saved from himself, from his tragic upbringing and his betrayals and his alcoholism. The novel’s so sensual and the descriptions so loving that I feel a sense of personal exile everywhere in the text. And I’m learning about Mexican-British politics in the pre-WWII years. It is a sad novel, but a different variety of sadness than the one I carry with me currently.

~

Most birds possess the power of flight, something humans have longed for and envied forever, inventing angels and airplanes to mimic birds. Macdonald’s essay on swifts’ vesper flights describes how the birds rise in flocks up to the top of the convective boundary layer, where the wind flow’s determined not by the landscape but by “the movements of large-scale weather systems.” The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (one of my favorite informational sites!) suggests the swifts–not intellectually, but somehow as a group–orient themselves using the many-wrongs principle:

That is, they’re averaging all their individual assessments in order to reach the best navigational decision. If you ‘re in a flock, decisions about what to do next are improved if you exchange information with those around you…Swifts have no voices, but…they can pay attention to what other swifts are doing.”

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights

We have voices; and yet we are not, in general, so good as the swifts at paying attention. Perhaps because there are too many voices shouting so loudly that the information gets confused. The sheep-following fashion of thinking goes with whoever’s most noisy, we follow; that way lies error. Paying attention and using a many-wrongs principle means we have to be willing to change course when new information arrives. It requires a certain humility that, let’s face it, most of us lack.

~

While reading Defoe, I am struck by parallels with today’s pandemic. But of course–times change, people don’t. His narrator feels torn–do I leave for the country, or stay in London? Is it wrong to shut people up in plague-touched houses, or safer for the greater number of the population? Is the Mayor making the best choices for the city? When new information about contamination arises, how are the people–as a community–to respond? And what do we do about those people who show total disregard for others? When there are so many responses, for good and ill, to a pandemic of such scope–what choice is best?

What can be said to represent the Misery of these Times, more lively to the Reader, or to give him a more perfect Idea of a complicated Distress?

Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

Complicated Distress: a phrase, composed in 1722, relevant today.

How can it be

Another book about how to die, or how to think about dying: Roshi Joan Halifax’s Being with Dying–the subtitle includes compassion and fearlessness, two qualities Halifax explores using Buddhist approaches, such as meditations. While I like to read about meditations, meditation itself eludes me; I am “bad” at practicing, but authors like Halifax and Kabat-Zinn give me hope that even poor attempts at meditation can be useful in dealing with grief, stress, and anxiety. Death is the most normal thing in the world. How odd that we must teach ourselves how to “be with” it. How to keep from worrying ourselves to death about the most normal thing in the world. Worrying accomplishes so little.

When I was a college freshman, I interviewed my great-grandmother (born in 1884) for a cultural anthropology project. She talked about living on a small farm, nursing her 12-year-old son through the Spanish flu, baking and slaughtering and canning and drawing water–life before rural electrification. She said:

Times was hard, but times is always hard, and our lives were no harder than anybody else’s.

Orpha Ann Parrish Smith

Good to keep that in mind at present.

My temperament has always tended more melancholic than anxious; but in these days of covid, flu, and concerns about my bereaved and elderly mother, worried thoughts arrive, especially in the wee hours, especially as cases climb upward in my region and my mother’s assisted living center starts yet another lockdown. I try to imagine the changes the extreme elderly experience…I imagine her being ‘assisted’ by caring, gentle people she does not really know and with whom she can barely communicate due to anomia and aphasia, which makes her grief for my father truly inexpressible.

“I can’t say anymore what I say,” she tells me by phone. “On the wall, it says, what is it? Now?”

“The calendar? It’s Tuesday, Mom.”

“No, the other. The…weather. Season.”

“Oh. October. It’s October.”

“How is it? And I am trying…when was it? That he died?”

“August, Mom. August 25th.”

“Has it been since August? Was it August? Already? So many now. Many…pills. No, ice. Ices gone by. I don’t mean that. I said–“

“Many days, I know. Can it really be October already? And he’s been gone since the end of August. Summer.”

“25. 25 days, August, October. How can it be?” she asks; and I can tell, over the phone, that she is shaking her head slowly the way she does, wondering, surprised, how can it be…

There are times she says exactly the right thing.

How can it be? Something I might want to meditate upon.

Foretelling

I have been on a Dickens kick since March, reading his novels and travel writings that I had never gotten around to in the past. He was, in many ways, a journalist: a consummate observer of human behavior, appearance, society. It struck me, reading American Notes for General Circulation (1850), how prescient he was about the USA.

Portrait_of_Charles_John_Huffman_Dickens 1843

Dickens, 1843, portrait by by Margaret Gillies

In 1841, Dickens was just 30 years old but well-regarded in England and in “America,” where he traveled with his wife for six months. His observations tend not to demonstrate the best about 1840s Americans, though he also reflects on the “good character and general friendliness” of the people here. He remarks at how free education means that almost everyone is literate–every non-enslaved person, that is.

What amazes me is his wrap up, where he concludes his book with a kind of warning to Americans, a warning about our inclination toward doubt in our fellows–our lack of trust, about hyper-partisan political ideology and its poor results, about the ruin slavery will visit on the nation, and about the sad tendency to reward/admire “smart men” over moral, kind, generous, or intelligent ones. He additionally blasts this infant nation for its insistence that trade (and capitalism) matters more than just about everything else except the vaunted concept of personal freedom, which of course is belied by the existence of slavery.

He expresses alarm at how the average American conducts his day and offers suggestions on how Americans could improve overall public and personal health:

…the custom of hastily swallowing large quantities of animal food, three times a-day, and rushing back to sedentary pursuits after each meal, must be changed; the gentler sex must go more wisely clad, and take more healthful exercise; and in the latter clause, the males must be included also.

About distrust of facts, politicians, and experts:

One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.

Americans maintain too much pride in their shrewdness and distrust, Dickens claims:

…any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.

So long ago, and yet here is a visible trait of the “American character”:

‘There’s freedom of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be easily overreached. That’s how our people come to be suspicious.’

Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust…and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel….are considered with reference to their smartness.

~

I need add nothing here that Mr. Dickens hasn’t said already…170 years ago.

NOTE: Project Gutenberg provides this text, including its 1868 postscript, online here.

Top ten, discourse, power

Last week’s New York Times Book Review listed, as always, the ten best-selling books. It’s rather heartening to note that this past week, in the non-fiction category, nine of the ten top selling books deal with systemic racism, historic racism, personal experiences as a person of color, and anti-racism in the United States. Granted, the NYT Bestsellers list projects the interests of only a small percentage of citizens and reflects the interests of a well-educated readership. These readers, however, tend to be people who have money and influence, who make hiring decisions and corporate policy protocols, and who are responsible for educating Americans. They may not think of themselves as people with power, for many of the Times readers are under 40 and middle-class.* But they seem to be showing an interest in learning more about privilege, power, and racism.

I have never considered myself a person who had any power; and yet I now recognize that just as I have privilege I never earned, I have power I never earned–and that I have indeed been using that power (as I have unwittingly benefited from privilege) and can do more with it. For educators possess power.

So do poets.

The past three months, as spring has bloomed into summer, poems of protest and poems that inform society have likewise bloomed. Poets of color, marginalized poets, poets who are disabled or queer or immigrant or for other reasons yearning to be heard are all over social media–which is not unusual in itself (the voices, the poems, have been online for decades)–but the difference lately comes through retweets and viral videos and shared posts at a higher rate than previously. These poems, and the prose and interviews that often accompany them, create discourse. Badly needed discussions. Confrontations that cannot be shoved away as easily as they were. I’ve been reading and observing, hoping a change is gonna come.

True, maybe change will not come. At any rate, it’s unlikely to come readily or rapidly; we have been at this pass many times before in the USA. One person at a time may make incremental changes, though, as my father did in the 1960s: a tiny addition to the marches, one person speaking to a small and largely indifferent congregation. One person at a time can be me, as I instruct my students in how to discuss and how to write about controversial subjects using genuine evidence while being respectful of other perspectives. Demonstrate to them how to notice that there are other perspectives. Teach them that they can read and listen in order to teach themselves.

That is power, and it is power to change. Incrementally, a drop in the ocean, a butterfly effect…why not? We have a dream.

monarch.ann e michael

~~

* I’ve gleaned demographic information from NYT’s published statistics and those from several media-advertisement websites.

Miscellany

I reside in one of the Pennsylvania counties under “shelter in place” advisory, but I can work from home; also, we live on almost 7 acres, so outdoors activities continue. The buds bloom. The insects waken, goldfinches molt to their bright yellow, the magnolia tree bursts into blossom. The meadow is muddy, and vernal pools appear in the hedgerows.

Today, a miscellany of links and virtual or reading-related forays.

My new chapbook, Barefoot Girls, can be purchased at https://prolificpress.com/bookstore/chapbook-series-c-14/barefoot-girls-by-ann-e-michael-p-317.html

(Here I am as a barefooted teenager)

bfg

1975, New Jersey, USA

Poets House is offering live workshops (video) and has a great archive of past readings. Check them out. https://poetshouse.org/

Dave Bonta continues to compile fascinating writing-related blog posts. From his site, you can link to many other poets and writers who are pondering pandemics and etc: https://www.vianegativa.us/2020/03/poetry-blog-digest-2020-week-12/

~

Meanwhile, I am still making my way through the 910 pages of The William H. Gass Reader, a selection of some of the prolific writer-critic-novelist-philosopher’s essays and excerpts. I love his piece on the book as a container for consciousness, and I suspect I’ll be saying more about that in future.

~

Two friends have come down with the coronavirus; it’s no joke, people, take the slow-down seriously and “level the curve.” Please.

Finally, here is a photo of the wonderful hospice staff at the in-patient unit where I volunteer (though, for now–no volunteers are permitted in the hospital to assist, so these folks are doing it all themselves, bless them!).

thumbnail

❤   ❤   ❤

 

Memoir-ish

While we are self-isolating, how about reading books? As it happens, I have a short chapbook of poems that’s being released just in time for National Poetry Month. Here are some thoughts.

~

I enjoy reading memoirs–a well-written memoir reads like fiction or poetry, with interesting perspective and description revolving around not an entire life but one event or series of events that has a dramatic arc the way fiction does–and, often, some of the same ambiguities. Now that my chapbook on adolescent New Jersey girls in the 1970s is coming out (March 26, Prolific Press), however, I realize that readers are likely to interpret these poems as memoir. After all, I was indeed a teenager in south Jersey in the 1970s. That being the case, I might go only so far as to call these lyrical narrative poems memoir-ish.

barefoot girls cover

What people who read poems often forget is that the poem does not necessarily reflect the poet’s experience, only her interpretation, only the potential or the possible–the imagined. Poets choose personas as narrators when we endeavor to imagine other people’s insights, points of view, or experiences. Or even other beings’ or objects’ “points of view.” But of course, we can only imagine–we cannot really know anyone else’s lived experience. That gives poets and fiction writers and dramatists room to speculate, pretend, imagine: “What must it be like?”

This booklet tries to evoke various voices from a collective past but, I hope, will feel familiar to anyone who has ever been an adolescent. These poems emerged from Bruce Springsteen songs, from memories, from rumors, from attending a class reunion,  from experiences my 21st-c students had, and from my imagination. I filled in some gaps and created perspectives that would certainly not have been my own when I was a teen. And yet, any writer’s disingenuous if she claims her characters or narrators have nothing to do with her own perspective, that everything she writes is completely made up; if that were true, readers would feel left out. There would be nothing in the poem to relate to, nothing from which to derive personal meaning or insights. No “Aha!”

Any poem that can be called lyrical takes up the close point of view. Any narrative poem tells a story of some kind. An example is Patricia Smith’s book Blood Dazzler. Readers find it easy to believe that Smith resided in New Orleans, was there when Hurricane Katrina hit, because the poems are so authentic and personal–fierce, believable voices describing the devastation and its particular toll  on elderly and non-white citizens. But Smith did not live in New Orleans, and it doesn’t matter. It is an excellent and shattering work all the same.

Here’s one of Ren Powell’s posts on the unreliable narrator of our own lives. What we writers work with, often, is evoking the emotional memory, which isn’t the same as other ways humans recall events.

Yet it often fells more “true.”

~

Type

 

I was looking in my archive files for something I didn’t locate, and I happened upon this.

In 1981, I was a typographer; actually, I was a typographical proofreader who often stepped in when we needed another typographer (or, in a real pinch, typesetter) during rush times. This is one of the many style guide pamphlets the type designer-producers gave out to sell their fonts and as demos for set style and sizing.

When I was working in that field, I loved experimenting with the way words looked in different fonts. Sometimes I’d typeset my poems, or other people’s poems, to get a sense of how they would read on a “real” page (rather than as typewritten text; this predates word-processing and desktop publishing software). Those experiments led me and David Dunn to establish–briefly–LiMbo bar&grill books as an independent arts small press in 1982. I designed and typeset the books with help from my coworkers at various typography companies, and David did the editing.

I still love print text for the feel and look of how different printing and design choices affect the holistic environment of the page. Paper texture. Type size and choice. Gutter width. Titling. Binding, covers, front matter.

At present, I’m not yet a significant consumer of ebooks, so I can’t say whether similar design choices affect the reading experience. Surely there are differences, subtle and obvious. For the experience of reading poetry, from what I’ve seen on ebooks, I prefer print when reading poems. Technology may eventually change my point of view–I’m aware of that and open to it.

Here’s a poem from Red Queen Hypothesis (due out in 2021), designed appropriately as a bookmark by designer Ric Hanisch.

berthold005

 

 

 

 

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.

brad-hammonds-flikr-books

brad-hammonds-flikr-books.jpeg

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.

storm-of-creativity-cover-367x550

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.

IMG_5605

 

 

 

 

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.

~