Face to face

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The physical, corporal power of poetry; the need for language and expression to originate in the body–these are concepts that resonate with me as a poet and that make poetry such a difficult art. For how can one be in the body through words? Words remove the physical language of the body which is so important a component of communication. That is why tweets and social media posts and email often work to the detriment of genuine understanding.

What follows are three rather diverse chunks of thinking concerning the corporal and the intellectual.

Ren Powell writes in her blog:

And it made me more certain than ever that the separation of the corporal and the intellect is truly the root of every evil. It’s why all the studies show that getting people to talk face-to-face, breaks down bigotry in a way nothing else ever will. A linguistically relayed concept has to be replaced by a body that we experience in the sensual world.

It brings me to Orr’s phrase to describe poetry: “the eros of language”. I think poetry is necessary because it bridges the gap between the corporal and the intellectual in a way no other writing can. Why we say novels that tell the truth are “poetic”. When we speak poetry, sing it, it becomes corporal. It’s funny that when we sing the word “love”, we are not supposed to sing “luhv”, with its stingy and clenched vowel, but we’re supposed to open the mouth, sing “lahv”- with a wide-open palate. Because it hits us in the gut with its beauty then. Openness.

And counter-wise (which should be a word),  we can infect our minds with the routine that reinforces ugliness: I believe writing or drawing words and images of hate can infect the body.

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Reading Ren Powell’s words, I thought immediately of two poems of Gregory Orr‘s, from his book Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved. Here they are:

How small the eyes of hate.
I’m not making this up
Or being metaphorical.
A man held a gun against
My head and I saw how
Small his eyes were
With what they refused
To take in of the world.
This happened beside
A small highway
In Alabama in 1965.
What history called
The Civil Rights
Movement; what I call
The tiny eyes of hate.

~

How large the eyes of love.
How the pupils dilate
With desire (I’m not
Making this up: science
Has proved it’s true).

Those eyes wide
And glistening: gates
Thrown open. What’s
Inside, free to flow
Out as feeling,
And the whole world
And the Beloved
Welcome to enter.

~~

I just saw the movie “The Arrival,” a science-fiction film based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life.” Any movie whose main character has a PhD in Linguistics sounds intriguing to me. The narrative uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a kind of plot point: the theory that language molds culture. An underlying possibility in the movie is that perhaps it is language that gives us consciousness, transforms us into sentience, and–possibly–has the capacity to unite and heal us.

But it needs to be face-to-face, as in the movie, wherein Amy Adams encounters aliens in person, insisting that in order to interpret any new language she must experience the process of “speaking” personally, to judge body language, movements–not just sounds or written “text.” How we communicate teaches us who we are. In order to understand one another truly, we need authentic encounters, not slogans.

We need to bid each stranger as Beloved, “Welcome to enter.”

 

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As to what matters

What matters, at this moment, are compassion and communication–and recalling that communication requires listening, especially when we assume we know what the Other will say. [The Other may be black, or white, or a parent, or a politician, or of a different culture, etc.]

http://blacklivesmatter.com/

To people of color in the United States of America, in particular to African-Americans: Ask your questions. Speak up. I understand that some of you are prepared for argument and rhetoric, others for fear, anger, and defensiveness. You are tired, perhaps, of speaking up. Tired of the resulting outcry and pushback and character assassination and judgment and stereotyping. Tired of the pain. I get what you are feeling, even though it isn’t my personal experience, even though my social experience differs from your social experience.

Speak up nonetheless. Many of us finally recognize the need to listen. It matters because once someone signals readiness, true perspective begins. Because connections must occur before listening can occur. Where do we begin?

“Why don’t you listen?” is a good question, though it tends to put the Other on the defensive. If, however, people can hear genuine curiosity behind the interlocutor, there may be a moment of pausing to reflect: “I thought I was listening. Why do you think I am not?” Both parties need to ease the borders a bit (not a popular thing to do, I know).

So often, perspectives vary so widely that each of us carries into the discussion a host of unspoken assumptions based upon the only experience each of us has–our own. No one can ask the child-like, curious questions without being accused of hidden or not-so-hidden agendas.

I am reminded of an old saw one of my high school teachers wrote on the chalkboard:

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Learning to listen and to accept and to formulate questions reminds me of the process of raising children. Really. My perspective as an adult in the world–my assumptions–so often trumped what my children were experiencing as small people with totally unexpected and intriguing perspectives on life. I had to learn to listen to their points of view at least some of the time, and I was always rewarded with insights I would not have discovered on my own. (I referred often to the Faber & Mazlish book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk when my children were at home.) We have to make ourselves more aware, and much much much more patient than usually comes naturally, as parents and as members of a wider community than human societies have ever encountered before.

Yes, we yearn for answers. We do. That yearning may be part of the human genome. But just like our brains, and our conscious sense of self or selves, it’s complicated.

It would be helpful for all of us to recognize that listening to questions, and forming more inquiries–rather than answers or arguments–supplies the basics of Socratic inquiry. For the methods application in contemporary society, check out books by Christopher Phillips. Despite my occasional ramblings and speculations on rational thought (see many of my previous posts on argument, pedagogy, philosophy), argument may not be our best human tool at all times. The best human tool is compassion.

What matters is that human beings, whatever our color or culture, enter into relationships with one another and with our environments. That we admit to complexities and to questions; that we remain curious, which opens us to connections and enables us to see how vital all kinds of relationships are. Do people need to be reminded that #BlackLivesMatter? Yes, alas, people do. While a few of the social majority of human beings in the USA are more cognizant than usual, grab the moment. And people? Listen.

Because there actually is but one species of human being. Let us be homo sapiens–wise, judicious, sensible.

 

Hurricane & silences

Having been through some big hurricanes before, I was prepared as possible for the weather that hit along the MidAtlantic states of the USA (and west to Pittsburgh PA, and north to the New England states).

We are somewhat rural, and we do not have city water or sewer; so if the electricity fails, we lose those modern amenities along with lights and computers and a stove. In Europe, and in newer developments in the US, power lines are more often underground. A wise idea, but not in our current infrastructure at my home.

So weather events–as the news media terms them–are significant to us. They alter our relationship with our house, our land, the earth. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it is pleasant to wake at dawn and hear no humming, no sounds of modern appliances at work. We note, instead, the noise of owls or wind or starlings. The rustle of grasses.

We miss hot water the most. That the well pump isn’t working and the water heater’s not heating: that means our standards of cleanliness necessarily fall. We can get used to it, but we miss it. Cooking on charcoal or a camp stove takes longer but isn’t really a problem for us, however. We can sleep in the livingroom by the fireplace if the cold weather sets in before the electricity comes back on to make the furnace fans operate.

We lost power Monday evening, and since then the human-made sounds are those of vehicles, chainsaws, and generators. And a pleasanter noise: my windchimes.

~

When the winds were very high, I sensed the resolute structure of our house, which did not shudder, though the windows made some alarming sounds–a kind of whistle, a bit of rattling, the occasional thump.

~

Days without electricity take me back ten years when my family spent a week on an island off of Nova Scotia. Our host lived off the grid by necessity–no electricity or plumbing on the island even though it had been inhabited since the mid-1800s. Tides, sunrise and sunset were our time-keepers. The natural sounds were restful and healing.

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So, too, the kinds of silence I experience when a large tree falls on the powerline, though the sense is less restful because of anxieties over family members, job, and the awareness that there are messes and expenses to deal with once we are reconnected to the 21st century. For a day or two, however, I feel my breath returning to a more animal pace and fullness. I watch things more closely. The line of water droplets beading irregularly under the porch handrail, the grass tassels’ subtle color variations as they move in a breeze, a toad’s progress across the patio slate, a few brilliantly yellow trees that kept their foliage despite the gale.

~

Weather like this is refreshing, my sister says, even if frightening, because people need to be reminded that technology cannot control everything. The hurricane interrupted cell phone use, communication systems, transport networks, traffic, electrical grids. We ended up wet and cold and we needed to take shelter with friends and to share supplies and stories, to wait awhile before we hurry on our way.

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So here’s irony, that I am using technology to enter these words into a system that keeps them in an electronically-maintained, digitized data ‘cloud’ so people in the Netherlands or Norway, Seattle or Colorado, India or Britain can retrieve and read them…even though my theme is the joy of low-tech lifestyle (for awhile, at least). My power at home is still out, so I am posting these thoughts from a borrowed computer an hour from home; but I composed these thoughts at home, on paper, with a pen, by kerosene lamp. And I will be going back to that quiet, chilly environment later this evening to feed our pets and continue waiting for the valiant and hardworking utility crews to get to our backwater…

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My reading material during this ‘weather event’ has been The Ecology of Wisdom by Arne Naess, an excellent philosophical companion for study by lamplight. I was struck by his essay “The Place of Joy in a World of Fact” which is so life-affirming. Not playful–Naess is serious about joy–but sensible. Environmentalists need to get out and find joy in the environment, he says, not just focus on the joyless losses. He urges all of us to give up the “cult of dissatisfaction” and promote good causes by example.

“One may say, somewhat loosely, that what we now lack in our technological age is repose in oneself. The conditions of modern life prevent the full development of the self-respect and self-esteem required to reach a stable, high degree of acquiescentia in se ipso [self-acceptance].”

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What I feel when the power goes off is repose in myself. While it may not reside within me for long, the fact of its appearance–its existence–is gratifying, joyful, powerful. I do not require the fridge, the computer, the lights. I am an animal alive in an animate, changing, living world.

It’s good to be reminded, now and then.