Hunger for words, words for hunger

When I was very young, our church became involved in the War on Poverty outlined by the Johnson administration (1964). My father attended events and marches to raise awareness about the fact that many people in this wealthy nation, the USA, were struggling–even starving. It seemed, probably idealistically, that a country as prosperous as the US was in ’64 would find a way to insure that all its citizens could have enough to eat and a roof over their heads. (This was Johnson’s “Great Society”)

A memory:

My sister, my mother, and I are seated at the table in our little apartment kitchen in Yonkers, NY. My father is away on pastoral business, but the previous evening, he’d told us that we were going to fast the next day in solidarity with poor people who never had enough food to eat. The reason for fasting was to let us feel how they must feel.

My little sister thought that was unfair. She was, in her defense, only four years old.

Of course it was unfair. That was the point. Why should some people have plenty of food while others went hungry? That is unfair. (This logic she understood, though I don’t think either of us made more of the connection at that time.)

“You kids won’t fast the whole day,” my folks said–just suppertime.

Now it is suppertime. We are at the table, and the table is bare. We each have a glass of water, not milk. And we are hungry. Our mother has fasted the whole day. Isn’t she hungry? Yes, she says. She’s hungry. It isn’t a good feeling, and we whine awhile, hungry and in addition, bored.

“Okay,” she says, “you can each have a piece of bread. One piece.”

It is something, but it doesn’t fill the stomach.

bread

bread

Another memory:

I’m in my thirties, with young children of my own now, and talking with my mother about her past–a past she has kept from us, and from herself, and is slowly learning to accept. A past that included growing up during the Depression with five siblings. How her father refused, out of pride, any kind of government relief. How hard her mother worked to keep the family from going hungry.

I think, then, that my mother knows what it means to be hungry.

~~

Many decades later, the term for hunger has become, in legislature and grant proposals, “food insecurity.” The jargon, the euphemism, distances us from the facts. People without enough good nutritious food are not insecure. They hunger.

I don’t want words to operate that way, moving the reader away from understanding. I want words to bring us close, to open up the mundane and horrible real and the fervently imagined possible. Language that sears and mends, the interpretation of which also can sear and mend, words that do not act as misprision but as multi-faceted revelation. Those are the words for which I am hungry.

Something that fills the stomach: embodied, flavorful, wonderful words. That’s one of the reasons I love poetry so much, that hunger for the non-distancing. The relationship that brings us truth. The truth that is often unspeakable.

Poems can take us there:

One Kind of Hunger

The Seneca carry stories in satchels.
They are made of  pounded corn and a grandmother’s throat.

The right boy will approach the dampness of a forest with a sling, a modest twining

wreath for the bodies of  birds. A liquid eye.

When ruffed from leaves, the breath of  flight is dissolute.
What else, the moment of  weightlessness before a great plunge?
In a lost place, a stone will find the boy.
Give me your birds, she will say, and I will tell you a story.
A stone, too, admits hunger.
The boy is willing. Loses all his beaks.
What necklace will his grandmother make now.
The sun has given the stone a mouth. With it, she sings of what has been lost.
She sings and sings and sings.
The boy listens, forgets, remembers. Becomes distracted.
The necklace will be heavy, impossible to wear.
~

Lehua M. Taitano

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Not enough

The fall semester is about to begin, a very busy time for me and my colleagues. I need to be nose-to-the-grindstone, yet I have some deep and worrying concerns that distract me from the evaluations, curriculum preparation, scheduling, and staff meetings. Among the 40+ students who attended our university’s summer “bridge” program for college transitions, at least six openly expressed fears about being accepted and wondered how to deal with prejudice on and off campus. I am pretty sure they spoke for others who kept such fears to themselves.

We do not have answers for them. We can only say: Be yourselves, and be that well; say what matters, and say it forcefully but non-violently; and tell us if you feel afraid or need support–we promise we will stand with you.

That promise I take as seriously as any promise I make to my family members or best-beloveds–even though my students are “strangers” to me. I will intervene if I notice that they are threatened in any way. I’m a writer; I know that words, too, can cause harm.

And maybe that promise is not enough.

And maybe marching is not enough (read about marching here and here).

I am by nature a quiet person. But being quiet is not enough.

hate has no home

It is not enough. It is, however, a start.

Tendrils

In the vegetable patch, pole bean seedlings send up new, green tendrils–slightly streaked with purple–that wrap around the bamboo “teepee”. Sweetpeas begin to stretch their threads out and up as though seeking support; they’ll even twine around grass stems. With all this rain, tomato plants surge and leaf out.

13568809_10210037198150804_7456809613944121549_oAmong the perennials, weedy vines snake and coil: poison ivy, virginia creeper, bindweed, creeping charlie, nightshade, wintercreeper, wild cucumber. These plants make the process of keeping my perennial beds “clean” very challenging.

But the clematis vines, which I love, also use tendrils to spread themselves over bushes and trellises.

~

 

In botany, the curl or tendril is termed cirrus. Visualize the cirrus cloud, thin and thready and curled:

200px-Cirrus_clouds2

It’s easy to imagine how the apparent action of tendrils inspired metaphor and why humans so easily anthropomorphize the twining and vining as grasping, embracing, tugging, clinging, clasping–terms that are by turns tender and aggressive in implication. The plant’s tendril is, in fact, sensitive, another word that can be used to describe people but which means, in botany, something closer to irritable (susceptible and responsive to touch). The Encyclopedia Britannica says:

Tendrils are prehensile and sensitive to contact. When stroked lightly on its lower side, the tendril will, in a minute or two, curve toward that side. As it brushes against an object, it turns toward it and—the shape of the object permitting—wraps about it, clinging for as long as the stimulation persists. Later, strong mechanical tissue (sclerenchyma) develops in the tendrils, thus rendering them strong enough to support the weight of the plant.

Usually, that means a movement upwards–toward light, against gravity–another metaphor we human beings like to adopt.

Because these are things all human beings need: support, and a way to move toward the light. A little sensitivity helps. Then, strength can develop; we can bloom.

 

Depression narratives

I have been an avid and interested reader of books, usually memoirs, describing the authors’ experiences with depression, unmanageable grief, or depressive episodes. There are a number of reasons for my interest, one being that I have an interior depression narrative of my own and the other because of my passion for delving into concepts of consciousness. Consciousness and depression must be intimately linked, of course; a person cannot feel depressed if he or she lacks a reflective sense of self or Mind. Sorrow differs, but some grief is so deep that depression enters in and squeezes the soul dry. Each narrative contains parallels to other narratives, and yet each is as unique as the author. We are “storytelling animals,” and the impetus to tell the story of depression may be to help others or to assist in re-knitting the disjunctions depression creates in consciousness.

For example: This Close to Happy, Darkness Visible, An Unquiet Mind, H is for Hawk, Hyperbole and a Half, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Solace of Open Spaces…even in the relatively brief Chapter 75 of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run–there are dozens of such memoirs on my bookshelves, and this list does not even mention the books by poets, psychologists, and philosophers who have explored the human challenges of depression. [I have not yet read Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon; but it is on my list.]

Porcelain doll, “Rain,” by Alexandra Koukinova of “Alexandra” Company.

Because I am a writer, these narratives, and the lyric inventions crafted by poets, teach me much about how to explain the un-nameable, to describe–in words–the kind of numb grip that a depressive crash or a monumental grief exerts on a person’s sense of self, or even of language (which fails); the way depression shrinks into nothingness a person’s feeling of shared community/communion/communication with others, even with beloved others. There’s a story there, the story of how the story itself gets subsumed by stasis.

In these cases, metaphor: the person is the story; the story loses its narrative, tapers off, stands still. No longer interesting, expressive, alive.

Unfortunately, I know that feeling. I know how it arrests creativity and savages my ability to write.

~

Why do we “get” depressed? What does depression do to the brain? Does the brain itself cause depression? Despite the insights medical researchers have gleaned about neurological networks, cells, synapses, the anatomy of the organ we call “the brain,” there are no answers to these questions; the former can be tracked through scans to some extent, but there is seldom a “before” MRI or PET scan with which to compare “normal” and “depressed” in a unique individual. A New York Times Health & Science article from 2005 puts things pretty succinctly:

” ‘I think that, with some notable exceptions, the community of scientists was excessively optimistic about how quickly imaging would have an impact on psychiatry,’ said Dr. Steven Hyman, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard and the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. ‘In their enthusiasm, people forgot that the human brain is the most complex object in the history of human inquiry, and it’s not at all easy to see what’s going wrong.’

For one thing, brains are as variable as personalities.”

brainOne of the problems is determining causation: which was first, the disease or a perceived (and possibly inaccurate) difference in brain structure or function? Is it chemical or hereditary, or is it traumatically-induced? Or are we not really seeing a difference in brain structure? Why do medications work for some people but not others? And why and how do medications work, exactly? Twelve years after Carey’s NYT article, psycho-neuro-biologist folks still do not know any definitive facts, though there is slow movement toward progress. [For a quite up-to-date and thorough but readable article about the complexities involved in depression, I recommend Harvard Health Publication’s online pamphlet “What Causes Depression?”]

~

From the standpoint of a person who has had a lifelong relationship with depression, I’m not sure I need a cure at this point. My depression narrative includes taking a pill that seems to help considerably; but that has not been the magic bullet that alleviated a chronic, possibly chemical, condition. What has balanced my conscious mind with my chemistry is at least as likely to be related to support, friendship, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral changes, personal motivation, love, reflection, experience, information, aging, writing, spiritual study, Zen, nature, environment, valuable work, art, and tai chi.

The Nautilus article (cited below–do consider reading it) suggests there may be an “up” side to depression:

In a study of 61 depressed subjects, 4 out of 5 reported at least one upside to their rumination, including self-insight, problem solving, and the prevention of future mistakes.

“It may be best to let depression work its miserable magic, under protective supervision.”

“Most episodes of depression end on their own—something known as spontaneous remission…” says Steven Hollon, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

The Nautilus article cites several researchers who use the evolutionary model of fitness and bargaining, concepts that Marjorie Grene might caution us away from relying too heavily upon. Drake Baer of The Science of Us, whose article was certainly titled by editors, not scientists, writes “that, in some circumstances, depression may be, in the arc of a life, yielding of insights and personal meaning. All of this is in no way meant to minimize the suffering that depression can cause — but to suggest the uses that it may serve.”

Baer’s article dwells upon the idea that there are structural and cultural concepts at work in the identification of, experience of, and healing of depression; that the “illness” or disease resides in the subjective, non-empirical, non-testable world of human consciousness (interiority). I’m on board with that suggestion. Baer closes by relating depression to katabasis, an ancient Greek word that refers to the inexorable downhill slide, the descent into the underworld, the sinking down into darkness.

Baer writes that “Katabasis leads to catharsis; not coincidentally, there’s a shared theme in the personal narratives of people who reach midlife with a sense of well-being and generativity toward others: redemption.”

My personal depression narrative, just past mid-life (by some reckoning), suggests redemption. Which is to say there’s hope.

~

2011A-rainbow.jpg

Totally cheesy rainbow photo.

See also: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/116/3/620/

http://nautil.us/issue/45/power/does-depression-have-an-evolutionary-purpose

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/a-new-way-to-understand-and-treat-depression.html

Please, if you or someone you know and care about has challenges with depression, read the Harvard article linked in the text at very least; and check out the other links as well. This is as close as I ever get to a public service announcement, but the urgency is explicit.

Prunes & store tea

I just returned from an extended family gathering where a conversation or two arose concerning specific, regional, well-known-to-the-family phrases and sayings perhaps invented by some ancestor. These idioms are outdated; the young people often find them hilarious, quaint, or mystifying.

“What does that even mean?” became a common refrain.

I have heard these terms and phrases since I was a very young child, and they usually don’t seem strange to my ears. But a cousin reminded me of the phrase “full of prunes and store tea,” and while I know it means that the person full of said comestibles is lively, wound up, and possibly talking nonsense (in the region where I now reside, the term might be ruchy), I had never really thought about its origin.

Ruchy is a combination of Polish and Pennsylvania German derived from the word ruch (meaning movement or motion). So that new-world regional neologism makes sense. But prunes and store tea?

I did a little hunting around on various etymology and idiom websites (yes, this is part of my job!) and found that being full of beans and being full of prunes are somewhat but not entirely synonymous, depending upon region. Both can mean being wiggly and mobile, and both can mean acting silly. The layperson’s theory is that beans and prunes cause intestinal gas, hence fidgeting about or, alternately, being full of hot air. *

Store tea. Okay, tea purchased at a store? I suppose there was, in the days when the US was thinly populated in many areas, a reason to differentiate that which was made at home from that which was purchased at a store. I remember my great-grandmother saying that someone well-off she knew in her childhood had a house with “boughten rugs” rather than rag, home-woven, or rush rugs.

As for the odd combination of prunes and tea…eventually I found success by changing the and to in.

Prunes can be stewed in tea! This delicacy goes back centuries and is–no surprise here–probably British in origin. If you are curious, here’s one of several recipe sites you can check out for methods of stewing prunes in tea: melecotte. The author provides links to other tea & prune confections.

So it turns out that, all along, the idiom is “You’re full of prunes in store tea!” Though I doubt that will change the way we say it–in the rare times we blurt out an old-fashioned regional phrase at a ruchy child or a bullshitting teenager.

StewedPrunes2

Thanks to Melecotte

* See comment below…

Untranslatable

Speaking of difficult books…and I know I told myself to read more poetry (and I am, really, most recently Michael Burkard’s Fictions from the Self)…I am entranced and overawed by Barbara Cassin’s amazing Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Here’s a thorough and intelligent review by Michael Kinnucan, going into more depth than I have time to post on this blog. What I want to mention about the text is its beauty and its acknowledgment of ambiguity, a quality that translates (ha!) into every aspect of human existence: our ambiguous relationships with our environments, with other humans, with our foods and our governments, our psyches, our cosmos.

138701

We cannot write about the act of translation without encountering ambiguity. We cannot really address philosophy without acknowledging that differing perspectives [context, culture, era, psychology, and of course, language] pose serious complications to understanding across languages and cultures. And even within a culture! For jargon and specialized terms can make understanding by even the most educated layman very, very difficult indeed.

While Cassin’s tome–and it is a collaborative work, with many brilliant people as contributors–presents itself as a philosophical lexicon, the connections with other disciplines (psychoanalysis, for example, with Freud’s famous coinages, and certainly poetry) are unavoidable. It may be challenging to translate the German Schicksal, a Kantian form of the idea we call in English fate, but in such cases the reader is generally going to be familiar with Kant and perhaps aware that the subtle connotations may vary. Take the word sign, however, and each reader–even those who have linguistics or anthropology or philosophy as a background–brings his or her own connotations to the definition and to the problem of translating what any individual author means by the use of the word.

Maybe this doesn’t sound fascinating to you. I relish it! And who knew (I sure didn’t) that even the word reality is a neologism, “coined by Duns Scotus” in the 13th century?

At 1200 pages of small type, this text is a tool, not a beach read. What a find, though. I have no doubt I will be referring to it for years to come, and that it will keep me wallowing in marvelous ambiguities.

 

A whilom history major

In an effort to get myself to sleep during a recent spate of insomnia and to enrich my understanding of ancient Roman history after reading Beard’s SPQR earlier this year, I have been reading a 1904 anthology of historians writing on various topics pertaining to the early Roman republic. History writing has changed a great deal in the past century; perhaps the historians of yesteryear were entertaining and concise by the standards of the time, but perhaps there is a reason history has a reputation for being dry. It is an undeserved reputation, in my opinion, yet I admit to finding a few of these fin de siècle commentaries soporific.

These historians toss names around as though we readers could be expected to know one 3rd-century BC general from another and assume we are already well-versed in the Punic Wars. Admittedly, it is likely the average educated reader in 1904 had more Western Civ background than the educated reader has today. I have heard of the Punic Wars, but I was rather hoping the historians could frame them for me in a way a modern reader might understand. So far, no luck with this anthology.

Perhaps that is not possible anyway–a modern reader really cannot fathom what life was like so long ago, or what constituted “civilization;” although current re-creation attempts offer a sort of immersion, no one can know how accurate they are (see: experimental archaeology). Contemporary historians, however, seem more willing to do a bit of cultural speculation, relying on archeology and artifacts as much as–or more than–upon the ancient texts listing wars, generals, leaders and enemies. One reason I decided not to pursue a history major in college long ago is that the discipline required so much task-reading of names, dates, and places before the student could move into the interesting materials of everyday life, food, culture, livelihoods, skills, crafts, religion, the arts…the kinds of things that interest me. I lacked discipline.

~

But words interest me. Another reason the 1904 book is so helpful at bedtime is the general pacing of the prose, but the word choices are fascinating. I do not just refer here to archaic history jargon but to vocabulary in general. It’s what one of my colleagues among the English instructors terms “ornamental.” Ornamental prose has its place, and there are times I relish its languid character, but it tends to drag for the reader more accustomed to contemporary American-English conciseness. So I get sleepy.

There are charming rewards to this stuff. Last week, the word whilom kept me from slumber. I had to find out what it meant before going to sleep and was about to throw off the blankets and get my dictionary. My kind spouse had the smartphone on the bedstand, however, and dictionary.com identified it as “archaic; erstwhile.” Here’s a little bio of the word from worldwidewords. Reading a compendium such as this one offers me insights not only into ancient Rome but into the world of scholars of 100 years ago–quite a different culture from today.

~

Ann E. Michael is a whilom history student and umquhile psychology major who turned to philosophy and English and then earned a graduate degree in Creative Writing. She recommends The Historians’ History of the World Volume 5 (ed. Henry Smith Williams) as both educational and snooze-inducing.     🙂