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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Muses & musings

Muse, verb–from Merriam Webster online

intransitive verb
1:  to become absorbed in thought; especially :  to think about something carefully and thoroughly

2:  archaic :  wonder, marvel

transitive verb
:  to think or say (something) in a thoughtful way

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Muse, noun–from American Heritage Dictionary online

1. Greek Mythology Any of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, each of whom presided over a different art or science.

2. muse 

a. A guiding spirit.

b. A source of inspiration: the lover who was the painter’s muse.
3. muse Archaic A poet.

[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin Mūsa, from Greek Mousa; see men-1 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.] (It’s worth going to this link to the Appendix if you are a word geek.)
 ~

Musing, on a hot summer day, evokes Whitman’s lines:

I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

I observe a spear of summer grass, a meadow of milkweed, a small bee but a loud one buzzing about the hole where last year the grass wasp nested. Because it is a national holiday, the road construction crew next door has been absent, allowing me to hear the bees and the wind chimes and the bluejays screaming at the redtail hawks.

My poetry Muse, assuming I have one, has also taken a vacation.

In the meantime, there is summer novel-reading to do (Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan quartet, Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed, and others). I do have my day job, but I have scheduled a travel vacation and am musing on what to pack, wondering what it will be like to be in a new place…wondering if my Muse will follow me as inspiration or will guide me in some new direction. Even at my age.

It’s always possible.

~

Invoking Whitman again:

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

You will find me outside, in the shade, musing on perfection.

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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.

~

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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.

Citizen scientist

From as far back as quite early childhood, I have been interested in science: zoology, botany, biology, entomology, physics–if I had been mentored differently, I might have become a researcher instead of a poet. I possess that quality of curiosity that pushes for details, a trait that people refer to as ‘geeky.’ For me, it is fun to contribute my backyard observations to The Dragonfly Woman’s research or to the Eastern Pennsylvania Phenology Project, which asks for assistance from ‘citizen scientists.’ This evening, I am taking some elderly best beloveds to a fundraiser concert for March for Science.

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March for Science logo. The March is April 22, 2017.

~

Empiricists have to begin as observers, and here’s where my science and poetry passions twine. Today’s backyard notes involve gray squirrels and the hypothesis that they learn behavior swiftly through their (many) generations.

My backyard is essentially a lawn and meadow, quite open, with two pear trees and a quince almost halfway between the property lines, both of which feature narrow woodlots and brush hedgerows. For 16 years, we had a dog; between the dog’s presence and the fact of hawks–of which there are many–gray squirrels seldom ventured from one side of the property to the other. Both woodlots are replete with walnuts and sumac and wild cherries, so squirrels really did not need to get across the meadow.

As of last year, though, they have learned they can cross the lawn in relative safety, as long as they exert haste and stop nowhere along the way. The dog died, but the hawks are still around.

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Gray squirrels by Beatrix Potter, “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes.”

They may have learned this behavior last summer, when a mid-season drought led to very thirsty squirrels who were brave enough (no dog!) to dash to the pear trees and harvest pears. Juicy!

So now, they race across the lawn…to have sex. Squirrel sex is a frolic of prinking, rolling, tumbling–a bundle of tails and feet, a flurry of gray and white fur at the foot of a tree, dry leaves scattered by the wrestling. Then the pair scurries off side by side. Today is actually the first time I have witnessed squirrel mating, though clearly it occurs frequently to judge by the numbers of these creatures in our yard.

~

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From Potter’s “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes”

I think of Beatrix Potter as an excellent example of the citizen scientist. While her paper on mycology concerning the reproduction of fungi via spores [“On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae“] was not accepted as science at the time she wrote it, her observations were correct.

Her drawings of animals are marvelously accurate, even when she puts them into dresses, jackets, bonnets, and tiny slippers. Though she personifies them, she chooses human attributes that suit animal behavior rather than the other way around.

~

Science, then, is close reading of the world’s phenomena, not really so different from literary scholars with their close reading of texts. Poets also view the world with close reading–observation, curiosity, changing perspective–asking questions about what we think we know. And revelations sometimes occur. Like squirrel behaviors, including squirrel sex; like spores, and the life cycle of salamanders, and dragonfly swarms.

Writers. Groups.

Untitled-writerCreative writers, who are often solitary creatures given the kind of work we do, nonetheless must communicate with the wider world: that is, after all, the purpose of poetry. It is a form of artistic communication using words as medium. I do not know much about the (possibly long?) history of writers offering feedback, critique, encouragement or collaboration with one another aside from the more well-known spats and criticisms of Some Famous Authors. I do know that during the 20th century, evolving from artistic and literary salons of the 1800s, there arose the idea of writers’ groups and writers’ retreats, seminars, getaways, workshops…culminating in the MFA program, I suppose. Despite the popularity of the concept, I have had people ask me about writers’ groups and whether or not I recommend joining one.

First, I think we must ask: What is the purpose of a writers’ group? What do writers gain by meeting regularly and discussing their work, sharing their drafts, listening to feedback, and offering one another advice on publishing or goals or career moves? Is the writing group a place for jealousies and competition, or an environment of encouragement and networking? A bit of both? Is it good for friendships? Is it useful?

Then, we can ask: For how long can one expect a writers’ group to run? Months? Years? Decades? And how committed to the group is it necessary for members to be; and what number of members works best? How does it work, assuming that it does benefit the members? What happens if someone gets hurt, or angry, at the group or at a member in the group?

And where do we put the apostrophe? Writers’ group, or writer’s group? Or do we ignore the apostrophe? (Sorry. Had to make a punctuation observation.)

Full disclosure: I have been a member of writers’ groups for most of my writing life. I joined my first group in 1980 in Brooklyn, NY. I joined a loose coalition of poets when I moved to Philadelphia and some of us met for critique, though mostly we participated in readings. When I moved to my current region, I was invited to a feminist writers group; my spouse and I purchased our first house from one of the member poets! After that, I was invited to two other groups. One of the groups “clicked” for me. I have met with this core group of poets and writers for nearly 25 years now, and the experience has changed me.

The artistic question here is: Has the experienced changed my work for the better?

The personal question is: Have I benefited from the experience?

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Redbud leaf in fall

I could perhaps write a book on these questions, but I am far too lazy. As to whether my work is better because of the discussion and critique, I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. Even though my colleagues are not famous writers, they are excellent and thoughtful readers–and that is what one most requires from this sort of group. If you want to improve your writing, you must have readers who can tell you whether or not they “get” your work.

Or make you reflect carefully upon why it is they don’t.

Have I benefited personally? That one is an easy and certain yes. I have a community, a very small community, devoted to creative writing and willing to read and think about that sort of work. I have learned–from their writing itself and from our discussions surrounding ideas pertinent to the process of writing and revision–much about their daily lives, backgrounds and fears and hopes, their cultures and their passions, their careers, their health, their homes (in which we meet). We have shared recommendations on which books to read, which poets to learn more about. Often, we disagree. Without conflicting opinions, no forward momentum. We are passionate, we are gentle, we are probing. Sometimes we probe too deeply. We learn to back off when necessary. We also embrace.

During 25 years, there have been serious losses, real tragedies, that our members have lived through, written about, survived. Such strength. Such humility. Such proof of the ways art can help people to express to others that in their grief they are not alone. That in their love and in their confusion they are not alone. That others feel the weird varieties of joy, the ambiguous sensations, the coincidences, the empty hours, the gladness in small things that human beings experience.

And also…might you consider a different line break here? It might heighten the punch of that phrase, and function as stronger alliteration in the following line.

Just a suggestion.  😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surely compelled

Ann Lauterbach from her book The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetic Experience

We make music, painting, sculpture, films, novels in order to mediate our mortal visiting rights: a specifically human wish to intercede, to punctuate the ongoingness of time and the seemingly random distributions of nature. This punctuation is called history or, more precisely, culture, or, more precisely still, history of culture…

The phrase “to mediate our mortal visiting rights” feels particularly resonant these days, as some of my elderly best-beloveds appear to be navigating that region–mediating it–at present; [to mediate: “divide in two equal parts,” probably a back-formation from mediation or mediator, or else from Latin mediatus, past participle of mediare “to halve,” later, “be in the middle,” from Latin medius “middle”).  –thank you Online Etymology Dictionary]. The two halves, between one world of what we call the living and another which is the end of life, there is really more of a continuum, however. The “gray area” can be quite enriching and lively. Or not. These are ways we create, or punctuate, our personal histories: the year grandmother broke her hip, the year Susan entered school, the year the Twin Towers were destroyed. These, among other “random distributions of nature.”

I think it is true that the arts help us with the wish to intercede somehow, and also–a different sort of wish, it seems to me–the wish to mediate. Lauterbach seems to conflate these wishes. I see her point, but I am not sure I agree wholly.

~~~

Intercession. Isn’t that also a form of prayer?

[“intercessory prayer, a pleading on behalf of oneself or another,” from Latin intercessionem (nominative intercessio) “a going between, coming between, mediation,” noun of action from past participle stem of intercedere “intervene, come between, be between” (in Medieval Latin “to interpose on someone’s behalf;”]

~~~

…the way words make sentences and sentences paragraphs is also a kind of constellating, where imagined structures are drawn from an apparently infinite fund: words, stars….these acts of narrative and imagistic invention were surely compelled by the inexhaustible human desire to transfigure the incomprehensible into intelligible form.

Lovely–and here, I agree completely: “surely compelled.”

~~~

Writing for me is associative, meditative, and digressive.  ~ Ann Lauterbach

images                                        pompeiian woman-writer

 

Thanks to art critic and blogger Sigrun of sub rosa for alerting me to the existence of this book.

Beatrix Potter, interdisciplinary artist

Beatrix Potter came to mind yesterday when I watched a young rabbit struggle into a fix as it tried to escape from me through the newly-reinforced fencing. It had gotten in at a spot we left open after some hours of work on a hot day yesterday, but it could not locate the open span when I cornered it among my beans.rabbit-014

In “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” Potter writes: “Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate…he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I think he might have got away altogether if he had not unfortunately run into a gooseberry net…”

Very observant description of cornered-bunny behavior. I felt rather sorry for the bunny in my vegetable patch. It had squeezed itself between a gap and then found itself impressed against chicken wire, and for a few seconds there was a mash-up of fur, feet, and fencing in a whir of sheer panic. The rabbit freed itself, however, with an acrobatic twist through a gap, ran back into the garden; and after a few false tries, finally located an unreinforced section of the garden fence and escaped toward the hedgerow.

~

Potter was an admirable writer of engaging prose, a terrific watercolorist and an amateur mycologist whose careful observations of the plants and animals in her Lakes District farm environs still draw admirers to her work. I think of her as a kind of turn-of-the-century interdisciplinary artist, though I cannot imagine she would ever perceive of herself in that light. She might agree that she was an excellent observer of the world–a quality that benefits scientists, artists, writers, journalists, and farmers. If all you think of when you see her name is “children’s books,” go to the Beatrix Potter Society’s website and learn how much you did not know about her.