Fully human

A student who grew up in Viet Nam and arrived in the USA just two years ago scheduled an appointment with me for assistance in revising her final paper for Philosophy.

My job is to help her with her articles, subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and plural forms and uses, and when to use a capital letter for proper nouns. I also assist students like her with claims, thesis statements, and rhetorical structure–but I am not a “content tutor.” Of course, I often understand the content and find it interesting to observe how young people interpret, say, literature or philosophy.

In this case, Western philosophy, in English, as interpreted by a person raised in a culture quite different from the Western university system norm.

Philosophy 109 challenges many native-born and US-educated freshman students; taking this course as an English-learner with very little “Western” experience must be ridiculously difficult. So I first assessed how the course had been going for her, and she said, “So-so.” What had been most difficult? Note-taking, she said. With the texts she could take her time, translate, and eventually tease out the ideas; but class lectures were really hard. In addition, she struggled with the concept of opposition and rebuttal as structured in the philosophical argument.

 

Her assigned argument for the term paper was: “The arts, sciences, and philosophy are valuable because they help us to become fully human.”

The paper began with her assertion that the arts make us more fully human because they are beautiful to behold and inspire in us joy and appreciation.

“Is the best art beautiful?” I asked. She said yes, and I asked her, “Is it only art’s beauty that makes us human and good?”

“Not only,” she said, after a moment of hesitation. “Sometimes–sad is beauty. Sad is not good, but sad also makes us human.” She hesitated again and then went on: “I think good art, and good science, has both sides. I think this but it isn’t in my paper. Should I put it in my argument?” We agreed to work on a sentence or two that might express her interpretation more completely while heeding the general conventions of Introduction to Western Philosophy.

Sometimes, syntax is content.*

Without exception (well, almost), I learn so much from student interpretations of ancient concepts. Rather than rolling my eyes and scoffing at how little they know, I’m searching their perspectives for what it is I ought to know about them and their experiences. The stance of most older authorities is that young people must integrate themselves into our norms and conventions; but we will age out of our power base, at which point we’d be better off recognizing their norms and points of view and exercising our neurons by learning how to adapt to the next set of conventions.

Philosophy and the arts will stay around. I have no doubts about that. The ways in which human beings interpret them may change; all to the good–stasis would destroy philosophy and art, thus keeping us from our potential to be fully human.

~

 

*[You might want to read Sister Miriam Joseph’s classic text, The Trivium, for a deeper explanation of how to approach ‘mastery’ of the liberal arts and learning.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lament

Today, another draft of another poem, also recent. Next, I think I’ll move to older work…material that I haven’t submitted for publication (or that I have submitted but has not been accepted). For now, though–this recent, perhaps too-fresh, lament.

~ ~ ~

The Work of the Body as It Ceases

Before we know ourselves
the body exerts itself, pulses,
lungs open into breath
blood sings with that air.

Unless there is ache
or ecstasy, the body labors
unnoticed while we tend
to other forms of work.

Look, now, at the last days
when the reliable diligence
of heart, lungs, kidneys halts
under strain the body can’t abide.

The throat cannot do its job
though body needs sustenance
and consciousness yearns
to say something unconveyable.

There is work always.
The long labor of maintenance
which, being humble, produces
no outcome except living.

The body’s nothing if not persistent
even as it dies, as vision narrows
and breathing weakens.
Those lively nerves? They settle.

Slowing is also work, as is
decay: work of a new sort
to which the workhorse body
can adapt in the quiet room

where those who loved the body
during its years of industry
do the work of mourning
which does not ever cease.

~

sunset1

Dementia, fears, & mirrors

Dementia: the very idea raises fears about the loss of control, loss of beloved memories, loss of self. Is a person who is deep into dementia still sentient, still conscious? If we lose our ability to connect with who we are–let alone with other people–have we misplaced whatever it is we call consciousness, or mind?

Yet no one who has interacted with a person who has dementia would say the person has no consciousness. It is, instead, an altered consciousness: sometimes a loss of ego or sense of self in the world, or the disintegration of social or emotional “filters,” or a series of cognitive gaps that collapse into fugue, fears, or blankness. There are people who lose everything but the distant past, and people who lose everything but the present moment. Dementia has many causes and takes many forms. We do not understand it, and that creates fear.

Of the things I fear that are actually not unlikely to occur, dementia–more than death–unsettles my equilibrium. I have watched it unfold among a number of people, uniquely and inexorably each time, devastating to the loved ones of the person who has become ill and frustrating beyond measure to the victim.

I try to avoid the word victim when describing illness, but there it appears.

Personhood, consciousness, rationality, emotionality, familiarity, habits and the framework of the person’s life erode while the person goes through the usual day; nothing stays usual. Sometimes all that remains are useless habits, physical tics, fragmented phrases that no longer convey social information.

Because I struggle with the concept of mind, because I read philosophy concerning mind and neuro-psychological texts about human consciousness, because I am a writer and feel passionate about human expression and interconnectedness and how we originated the tools of speech, metaphor, storytelling narrative and writing, the loss of sentience that dementia seems to bring represents the deepest kind of loss.

How do you face your fear?

~

How about in a mirror? Through a glass, darkly…*

Through some sort of glass–of which there are so many varieties, a huge number of which I encountered recently at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY. It is worth the trip to western New York state to experience this gallery of art glass, collection of glassware spanning 35 centuries, interactive exhibits on the development of such commercial and scientific glass innovations such as Pyrex, tempered glass, shatterproof and mirrored and flexible glass, fiber-optic glass, telescope mirrors and lenses, silicon chips, and bottle-making equipment. The huge museum, established as an in-house exhibit in the Corning Glass headquarters in 1951, has had several major architectural upgrades and expansions from 1980 to 2015 (and suffered a disastrous flood in 1972).

We can face fear through changes in our perspective, I think.

inverted

photo by David Sloan

~

*1 Corinthians 13:12, King James Version:For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

 

Support for poetry

It is April, and April is National Poetry Month, among many other things that April is.

2017npm-poster_0People have told me that poetry has helped them through times of fear and times of grief. That’s a familiar response when, on rare occasion, I happen to tell someone I am a poet. The thing is–I am not sure poems do that for me. Maybe writing poems helps, but reading them sometimes hurts even more.

Not that hurt is such a bad thing when one is grieving; there is the comforting recognition that sorrow is a shared experience, that others have been through and survived pain and sadness, that there is a community of Others who feel compassion and who can express it well and honestly. Too, there are poets I find myself reading when I just need to hear a familiar voice in my head. That familiarity in itself offers a kind of comfort to this reader.

This week, I am turning to familiar poetry voices although I am reading collections I have not read before. Jane Hirshfield, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry. “Old friends” of mine.

I am not contributing to National Poetry Month much this year: I am giving no readings and attending only a few. My contribution this year is to book-buying: I have made several purchases of books by poets I do not know well or who are completely new to me.

Book-purchasing from small independent presses and through the poets themselves–not through Amazon, not second-hand–supports poets and poetry publishers. Another way to support poets is to borrow poetry books from your public library, so that the books are noted as “circulating” and thus are less likely to be culled when the library updates its collection.

Love can be expressed and shared in many forms. I ❤ poetry!

The morbid book group

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

~

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.

~

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!

 

 

The skill of grieving

In a recent post, Sigrun of the blog sub rosa pointed me to Poetry Society of America’s page on Natalie Diaz; I’m even going to post the same paragraph she does, in which Diaz states:

When I write, I bring all of my truths, even the Judas-truths that make me feel like the betrayer whose dirty hands are resting on the table for everyone to see, including God. For me, writing is less a declaration of those truths than it is my interrogation of them. Uncovering the darkness in me that led to some of the poems about my brother also lights up the hard, bright way in which I love him and the small wars I wage to win him back…the truths that have built in me a strength and compassion that help me to survive this world. Truth is that little animal we chase and chase until we suddenly glance over our shoulder and realize it has been chasing us all along.

This passage about “uncovering the darkness” and the hard ways in which we sometimes love–maybe with some people, there is no other way to love–interestingly coincides with my recent reading of Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise, a manifesto on how we die and how we might die better (wiser) if we carried our darkness better, as Diaz suggests in the passage above. While I am reading Jenkinson for specific reasons around end-of-life concerns, there’s no doubt that there is often poetry in his philosophy that we need to learn the skill of how to grieve and to learn all that such a skill contains, including its “Judas-truths” and its unflinching confrontation with the ways in which death is a gift to us collectively and individually.

Most of us do not see death as any kind of gift, and Jenkinson admits it can be a challenging perspective; he endeavors to persuade the mostly-American or European reader that each of us and each of our societies or cultures would benefit by reclaiming death as a natural sequence in our being in the world.

Claiming or reclaiming death (you might read here: darkness), says Jenkinson, requires us to face the fact that we have no language for dying, not really. He says “we are taught almost nothing about what language to use or why when we are trained for the job [of tending to the dying].” The Dying, he writes, are “them,” meaning they are “not us.” Which makes them outsiders and invisible and yet all of us die; we are all of us dying–and we work so hard to distance ourselves from the fact.

Poetry is a language that, I think, sometimes guides us toward the hard truths, when poetry is well-made and conflicting and sundered with surprise. Poetry isn’t the language that gets us to dying, exactly; but it can do some of the hard work of teaching us how to grieve.

This is not to say that poets or artists are any better at dying than the rest of us. Sometimes the darkness uncovered in the fiction or poem or painting is true and authentic and deep, but the artist does the grief-working well in art and not so well in life’s physical dying process. Artists who choose suicide may be people who suffer pain and can express it artistically without actually learning the work of grief, which differs from suffering. If we learn that anything that does not last forever is meaningless (an idea drummed into many of us through the concept of “eternal life”), we are apt to feel bereft at every loss and may embrace a kind of horrible existentialism. Sometimes our artists strive to overcome the meaningless through lasting works of art, but their personal desire to be somehow immortal may bog them down as death nears.

We admire this artistic striving, but it is a kind of working against our darkness rather than confronting it with the love Diaz mentions. Jenkinson writes: “Dying isn’t the end of true things…It is one of the true things, that is all.” [My italics.]

However, I do believe that art–particularly the storytelling arts–can offer much in the way of teaching us the physical, on-the-level, hard work of grieving. Really good novels and plays can help teach us if no one in our “real lives” does. Even if we weep at the end of the book and wish the author had chosen a different way of ending it. Good poetry that leaves us excited and confused by complexity or blasted with gut-level sorrowing might be teaching us the ways of grief we aren’t learning from our culture.

When a loved one dies, we often get lost, pushed away from grief through the signing of papers and the bland condolences of marginal friends and the plea to move on with our lives. Good poems can keep us dangling in the now of real grief and force us to figure our way through the losses we incur–losses which do not exclude even our selves. Because “death waters the living.” And so does poetry.

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/82820.html

Rain [La Pluie] Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Thanks to the Philadephia Museum of Art

 

 

Quiet earthiness

The beloved life partner of a long-time friend was interred in a green burial today, a glorious May morning full of flowers (she loved gardening…); and I find myself with little to say.

It’s been that way for the past two weeks. Not exactly writer’s block, as I have in fact drafted several poems, but an extreme sense of turning-inward. My nature is reflective–I’ve always fallen into the introvert category (INFP for those who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs assessment)–but my job requires pretty constant interaction with other people, students and colleagues for the most part, and quite a bit of listening and talking. I enjoy my job and find it rewarding; but the stressful weeks just before exams, when term papers are due, can be challenging for a person whose inclination is to read books and putter in the dirt.

I planted seeds in the earth, and picked flowers. And then placed flowers on a coffin woven of reeds which was lowered into the earth.

Returning home the quiet overcame me. I’ve been reading poetry today instead of the Sunday New York Times.

Also, I’ve been reading books on “good death” and “mindful dying,” and the guidance of some sensitive and experienced authors seems appropriate and grounded.

But grief is hard. It’s probably one reason we invented philosophy, religion, and poetry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

One of my go-to anthologies for sorrow is Pinsky’s The Handbook of Heartbreak, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. In addition, I opened Christian Wiman’s book Every Riven Thing at random and came upon his poem “From a Window“–

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving…

 

The poem comforted me (and I read other poems today, by other poets, that also comforted me). This one ends with the following stanzas:

 

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

 

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

 

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

 

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

 

~
The joy comes in, somehow, through the quiet and the dirt and the trees.