Aesthetic values

Today, the weather was beautiful; the trees, early-greening, and the gold tassels of oaks shimmering in the sun, and the cherry and dogwood blossoms: beautiful.

I think about how we value beauty. And maybe do not know what it is–or recognize its many forms–as it is, by its nature, subjective.Liz MZ

A friend I knew was physically beautiful. Or was that mostly her generosity and cheerfulness, her sparkling eyes? She had specific aesthetic tastes she followed with delight; but she remained practical, full of humor. Today, there was a poetry reading in commemoration of her life.

A beautiful day, a beautiful event, a beautiful friend.

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The aged best-beloved who recently departed was also a person who had particular ideas about beauty. She cultivated flowers, liked certain artists, wanted her rooms decorated just so. She had an expectation that she could control her death, too–she wanted it, also, to be beautiful.

She was, I fear, thwarted in that desire.

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My brother the amateur science historian has taken it upon himself to defend the reputation of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a late-Enlightenment scientist best known in the 20th century for coining the term “Caucasian” (though there is some dispute about the neologism). An overview can be found here, but my brother’s argument hinges upon the way the word “beauty” was defined in 18th-century Germany and the ways Blumenbach employed it in Latin in his 1795 masterwork, De generis humani varietate nativa (3rd ed).

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What do we mean by beauty? Must the meaning hinge upon perspective and culture?

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There are tumors in the body of the beloved. The surgeon, with his amazing equipment that can take photographs deep inside the tubes and organs of a human being and his unimaginably small and precise surgical tools, shows me “before and after” images.

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His enthusiasm enlivens his description of the surgery: Look at these tumors–unusual, hardly see these and I’ve been at this thirty years–but afterwards, very clean. Look here–no sign. Went very well. Beautiful!

Beautiful?

Does he mean the tumors, or his surgical work? In either case–would I define this as beautiful?

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And a colleague who has had major surgery does a close reading of the (“rather horrifying”) fluoroscopes from the operation and in them finds something beautiful. Something she can create her own art from. Because what the surgeon accomplished was to her mind art; and art is beautiful, though often in a way that isn’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing as, say, a lilac in bloom is pleasing.

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Does it matter–should it–that something is ‘beautiful’ ?

I am asking but I do not expect to find an answer, myself.

 

 

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Randomness & poems

The past weeks unloaded upon the blogger a host of responsibilities and reasons for reflection: reams of student essays to read and grade, piles of snow and the resultant delays and work closure leading to backlogs, and such usual complaints. In addition, the dropping-of-everything while attending to the death of our no-longer-resident nonagenarian, not to mention the bureaucratic heaps of forms and notifications that follow a passing.

I’m writing poems. It seems to be what I need to do at present, despite the state of my household environment and the backlog at work.Untitled-writer

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The blizzard put my gardening on hold, though I remembered to purchase some seeds and thus can get to the tomato-starting process within a week or so. Before the snow came, I did get outside to prune and deadhead a bit while the weather was unseasonably warm. A little at a time. Such things are sustaining to me, emotionally.

And watching the birdfeeders has been soothing and delightful. Today a small nuthatch joined the party. My youngest cat spends large segments of his day crouched by the window, as fascinated as I am (but for different reasons, I suppose).

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I am thinking of a friend-in-poetry who has need of special care and financial assistance while going through and recuperating from some extremely painful, delicate, dangerous and potentially-disabling surgery-&-rehab. She will need more than the initial $4K this GoFundMe portal suggests, so if any of my readers feel inclined toward a random act of (financial) kindness: Jessamyn’s Medical Fundraiser. Thanks.

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Addendum: Yes, I’m sticking to my determination to read more poetry. And it is helping. Most recently, re-reading early Li-Young Lee, Mark Doty’s Deep Lane, Dave Bonta’s Ice Mountain: An Elegy, and a really wonderful new collection by Kim Roberts: The Scientific Method.

 

Spiritual quantum fields?

 

Herewith, an intriguing paragraph about physics, biology (the brain), and consciousness:

Wave-particle duality, a fundamental concept of quantum mechanics, proposes that elementary particles, such as photons and electrons, possess the properties of both particles and waves. These physicists claim that they can possibly extend this theory to the soul-body dichotomy. If there is a quantum code for all things, living and dead, then there is an existence after death (speaking in purely physical terms). Dr. Hans-Peter Dürr, former head of the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, posits that, just as a particle “writes” all of its information on its wave function, the brain is the tangible “floppy disk” on which we save our data, and this data is then “uploaded” into the spiritual quantum field. Continuing with this analogy, when we die the body, or the physical disk, is gone, but our consciousness, or the data on the computer, lives on.

This comes from a brief article by Janey Tracey on Outerblogs. I spent a few minutes trying to find more on the physicists she quotes, among them Christian Hellwig, also of Max Planck Institute, and Robert Jahn of Princeton. But I have been too busy to follow up by reading papers and books–between semester mid-term and concerns about our Resident Nonagenarian, who is at present “declining” toward death, things have been…challenging. We are experiencing with our best-beloved the waiting period as the corporeal body shuts down organ by organ, bit by bit, consciousness becoming semi-conscious, then intermittent, and unresponsive, as the mind enters that realm none of us can understand.

Life closes in many ways–swiftly, at times, but more commonly in increments. This death is not the one our best-beloved would have chosen (in one of her recent moments of clarity: “This isn’t what I wanted,” she said). Alas. The slow, to all appearances agonizing, shutting-down toward death probably rates low on most people’s desires list.

The Rolling Stones warned us you can’t always get what you want [skip the ad, listen to the rock n roll]. I suppose that song has already been uploaded onto my spiritual quantum field. Not to mention the spiritual quantum fields of millions of humans. If Dr. Dürr’s speculations are correct, that may mean Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, et al are among the immortals already. And while I am mentioning this possibility with a sense of humor, I do ponder the interesting concept of a quantum code that encompasses human memory-processing, experience, and mind. It seems to be distinctly likely that consciousness is a tangled hierarchy.

Tangled hierarchy as in strange loop, or paradox, explained in Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorems. Douglas Hofstadter, trying to get his mind around the problem of consciousness, suggests that such a “flipping around of causality” appears to happen in minds possessing self-consciousness. The mind perceives itself as the cause of feelings, thoughts, etc. Our 20th-century scientific models posited that feelings and desires are caused solely by the interactions of neurons.

Though maybe quantum theory and biophysics and 21st-century neurological psychology studies will indicate we are still pretty far from the Whole Story.

Meanwhile, one story of one person draws nearer the close. No–that is not the case. The body will die. Her story–her many stories, told from many perspectives, her paradoxes, her own strange loopiness–91 years has only been the beginning.

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Rene Magritte “The Treachery of Images” 1928. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

 

 

 

Further shifts

Shifts are necessary now and again. Here are a some I am undergoing.

For example, readers of this blog will notice that the writer’s focus tends to move from interest to interest, month to month, year to year. And yet there’s poetry to consider, always. During the past year, I have read more non-fiction books than poetry books. More history. More memoir. More science. I have been pursuing the consciousness and neurology and physiology texts.

I have learned a great deal from all of this reading, and it is inspiring. I find, however, that it’s taken its toll on my writing poetry.

My shift now: Read more poetry.

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But what about my love for difficult books?

Well, there is no doubt in my mind that poetry can be difficult. Difficult to write, difficult to read, difficult to understand. Time to go there, further and deeper.

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Another shift: in the spring semester, I will be teaching a more advanced course in writing comp and rhetoric, one that will be more challenging for the students and especially for me. One of the arguments I will be making to them is that they recognize the need for credibility in the sources they use as evidence.

Making that case runs rather counter to the way US society operates. We shall see how well I can make my argument to these young people.

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One further shift–certainly not the last. There’s my constant inquiry into consciousness…because sentience and human beings–and their brains, and their mind-body problems, and their relationships, and their stories and metaphors and art forms and pains–intrigue me endlessly, I turn to books and art for understanding. I do not expect to learn what consciousness is, where it originates, or how it came to be. But I ask because asking is interesting.

The reading has been enlightening. Philosophy, yes, and neurology and cultural anthropology. Oh, and evolution, religion, and medicine. Not to mention texts on death and dying (and the unanswerable “is that the end of consciousness?”).

My shift here lately has been to read less and to encounter more. I have been volunteering as a hospice companion/caregiver relief assistant, sometimes in the home but most often at the inpatient hospice unit at a nearby hospital.

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There are bodhisattvas among us, and I have met them on the ward floor. This particular shift does not mean I will never read another book on consciousness, but it has reminded me that kindness is a constant act and that kindness is conscious and aware. It does not reside in a book but in the daily world, which is all we have.

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I have to work on that in my own relationships, the ones that don’t take place on the hospice wing.

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May I prove resilient to these shifts. The days are incrementally longer now. Time to read poems.

 

 

Transcendence & education

I am in the thick of midterm madness and have temporarily abandoned my post as speculative philosophical muser, gardening enthusiast and poet.

However, I maintain my efforts to stay in mindfulness whenever I can. In the car, on my way to work. In the phlebotomist’s chair, waiting for a blood test. At a staff meeting, or with a student–trying to be aware of what I say, and who the person in front of me is, rather than zone out and get anxious about the next thing I have to accomplish before bedtime. The practice, however badly I manage it, rewards me with moments of clarity and observation that help get me through a day and complement the practice of writing poetry.

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Mindfulness does not come naturally to me; I am a daydreamer by temperament, a tuner-outer. It is far too easy for me to get carried out of the now by thoughts of “what if” or “what’s next,” and if I function in that way, I am not living my life in the present moment. Poets may start out as daydreamers, but if imagining never turns to the practice of writing and revising and reading the work–the daydreamer stays a dreamer, and does not mature into poetry-writing.

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Among many other things, I am a teacher. I tell my students that English and Philosophy are “friends,” that they share many concepts, and that philosophy and English classes should educate people about The Big Picture. About life. I did not come to mindfulness or a consciousness of the value of the present moment in church or in school or on my own, though. People taught me. I came upon these concepts through philosophy–first, Western philosophy and later, Eastern philosophy.

Here are professors John Kaag and Clancy Martin presenting some of philosophy’s timeless questions (under the lens of Faust, for starters):

Faust knows everything worth knowing. And still, after all his careful bookwork, he arrives at the unsettling realization that none of it has really mattered. His scholarship has done pitifully little to unlock the mystery of human life.

Are we and our students in that same situation? Are we teaching them everything without teaching them anything regarding the big questions that matter most? Is there a curriculum that addresses why we are here? And why we live only to suffer and die?

Good questions.

In their article, Kaag and Martin take the question of life in the present, with its present meaning–if there is one–and propose an even deeper inquiry, one that I sometimes discuss with my colleagues in The Morbid Book Group. The authors write that

[w]hen dying finally delivers us to our inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. But that reason cannot, unfortunately, be articulated by many of the academic disciplines that have gained ascendance in our modern colleges. Why not? Why shouldn’t an undergraduate education prepare students not only for a rich life but for a meaningful death?

Then they compose a nice thumbnail sketch outlining some major definitions and explorations in Western thought and then suggest that higher education’s typical intellectual approach to The Big Questions has, to our students’ loss, lacked fullness of the lived experience as a part of its inquiries.

The need to have authentically lived and also to know what to do about dying are knotted together in a way that none of our usual intellectual approaches can adequately untangle. It is related to the strange way that experience is both wholly one’s own and never fully in one’s possession. Experience is, by its very nature, transcendent — it points beyond itself, and it is had and undergone with others.

The authors write, “Who needs transcendence? We suspect that human beings do.” I am certainly in agreement there; exactly how to convey transcendence to students is probably beyond the scope of most college professors, but we can encourage them toward inquisitiveness. We can be mindful about where they are now, and where we are now:

The meaning of life and death is not something we will ever know. They are rather places we are willing or unwilling to go. To feel them, moment by moment, to the end, authentically, thoughtfully, passionately — that is an answer in itself. And for us as educators, to show our students the importance of trying to go to those places — that may be one of the best things we can teach them.

What are we teaching our students about experience and the fullness of the present moment?

“…he not busy being born is busy dying” (“It’s Alright, Ma” Bob Dylan).

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And even those being born are already dying. What have we got but the moment? I try to be mindful of that.

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Read the article here.

The ethicist & the healer

The “Morbid Book Group” recently read John Lantos’ book on ethical issues in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs), The Lazarus Case. As one of our members is a pediatric physician, one is a NICU nurse, another a hospital social worker, and another a former obstetrics nurse–we had quite a bit at stake when discussing this book, and quite a few different perspectives. Add to the mix my armchair-philosopher and educator point of view and all the questions a non-medical person has to ask to clarify the issues, and we spent the evening in lively and often challenging discussion.

Lantos tells his readers that medical ethics questions are not really answerable. They depend too much on cases, contexts, and–whether we like it or not–economic situations. An example: Until third-party payer systems are dismantled or significantly changed, confirms the doctor in our book group, NICUs will continue to be profit centers in addition to places where terrifyingly premature babies are saved, or not saved, not so much by technology as by individual circumstance over which doctors and nurses have less control than the parents of these neonatal patients may think.

The NICU nurse told us that Lantos’ book made her question her vocation. One of his observations is that NICUs have become the profit-hub of many hospitals in the USA; then, he asks tough ethical questions about “viability” and “pain and suffering.” The nurse says she sees these babies suffering and feels that too often, the suffering is prolonged when the baby is clearly unlikely to survive–prolonged because the parents cannot let go and the technology promises miracles that only occasionally occur. The doctor in our group gave us her point of view, which many of us found a bit too “scientific”–but that’s how doctors are trained, as she reminded us, while acknowledging heartily that doctors need more real-life experience in compassion, listening, and psychology than they receive in med school or as interns.

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These are the sorts of circumstances that lead us to philosophy. Lantos writes: “Moral reflection begins with a particular type of suffering,” when we are faced not with abstract ethical dilemmas but genuine, frightening, life-altering situations. Lantos argues that doctors must not be “passive vessels” dispensing adrenaline, oxygen, delivering technology to a human being whose individuality the physician may not even notice in those crucial moments. He does not deny that there is value in the dissociated emergency response protocol, when the doctor’s training takes over and pulls the person acting away from emotion.

There is a “but,” however. Lantos says there are times when the healer is the medicine, when trust in the doctor, and the doctor’s willingness to take time to listen to the  patient, can “create a moral framework for dealing with the limitations of being human, of getting sick, suffering, weakening, dying,” when it is understood that the patient might die while under the healer’s compassionate care, and there need be no blame.

How do we get our society there?

“We make changes in medicine the way we make changes anywhere,” says our book-group doctor. “All of you are asking me very hard questions. I don’t have answers to all of them, and you may not agree with my answers or my rationale. And that’s great! Medicine needs to be challenged. There is no way for the medical industry–and it is an industry–to grow in a more positive way if patients and their families, ethicists, and even the damned lawyers remind us that behind the technology is always, always, a singular human being…it ain’t just a science. It’s an art.”

Doctors do need to be educated in the humanities, we agreed, and to spend more time learning about culture and psychology through experiences that develop compassion. Patients need to learn to ask more specifically for that kind of response, and to let hospital administrators understand how often it is lacking. Most of all, we need not to shy from asking the Hard Questions, those life-and-death ethics questions. Not for the sake of answers, but for the sake of discourse and understanding.

If you want a breezy article about how to go about the process of talking about what we fear and wonder at, here’s an article from HuffPost. A reply to Lantos’ critique of NICUs from Jonathan Muraskas and Kayhan Parsi is here.

 

 

 

 

The morbid book group

[FYI, readers, I have a poem in this anthology, which relates to this post.]

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A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a book discussion group that  focuses on texts that offer varying perspectives concerning health, surviving cancer, different cultural views of aging, and dying; books on “dying well,” hospice and palliative care, and on hope and healing; books on chronic pain and on neurology and the medical establishment, on birth traditions, on the history of medicine. We have also read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Still Here by Ram Dass, and discussed books that have topics such as placebo effects, psychology, alternative medicines, the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, the training and practice of doctors, and the death & dying ‘industries,’ including works by authors with personal and moral perspectives on how to live (and how to die). The people involved have included a pediatric palliative care expert, a NICU nurse, a hospice team spiritual counselor, a minister, a former nurse and massage therapist who’s a tai chi instructor, and others–most of us “of a certain age,” by which euphemism I mean we have been living through the experience of having parents in extreme old age and of having long-time friends who now contend with chronic or potentially fatal illnesses. At least one of us has survived cancer.

For a perspective on how most Americans view a serious study of such topics, I offer my husband’s assessment. He calls this “the morbid book group.”

In fact whenever I mention that I participate in a book group (a popular American activity), people ask me if the group has a theme; I tell them, “The theme is medicine, and wellness, and how we die.” And there’s inevitably a pause, and usually my friend asks, “Isn’t that kind of depressing?”

No. It has not been depressing, in fact. I have gained more than I can say from these books and from our small group discussions: information, perspective, philosophy, insight, dare I say wisdom? Not to mention freedom to talk about those things we tend to evade in polite conversation, the space in which to say “This really sucks” or “This saddens me deeply” or to ask, “What can we do?” The book selections have led to great discussions–and have helped me to forge some new friendships as well as to confront and accept different points of view on controversial issues surrounding health care. And death, yes (hello morbid books!), and grief, and–most of all–compassion.

Difficult books? Challenging reading? Have I ever shied from it? I relish exploring this kind of non-fiction-fact-science-ethics-cultural criticism. Participating in this book group is one of the highlights of my current life experience; it’s up there with my long-running poetry critique group and my MFA years in terms of transformational engagement and exchange of ideas.

Below, a list of some of the books we have read and talked about. Just in case any of my readers wish to begin a morbid book group of their own.

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Radical Remissions, Kelly A. Turner

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler

Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson

Death’s Door, Sandra Gilbert

Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich

Still Here, Ram Dass

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

Birth, Tina Cassidy

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Counterclockwise, Ellen Langer

The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom

Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni

Healing Spaces, Esther M. Sternberg

Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson

…& more ahead, as we plumb consciousness, placebos, the medical hierarchy, and compassionate ways of living in the world. By the way, readers–suggestions for further readings are welcome!