Sunday, January 7, 2018

Nothing Without Art: January 7, 2018--Love Socks

So already, maybe love means never needing to exaggerate. Maybe a list of similes drawn from the known and daily is more than enough to convey "How do I love thee."* Forget "Now I shout it from the highest hills"**: the worn living room couch suffices as the place of proclamation. 

Traci Brimhall's "Love Poem Without a Drop of Hyperbole in It"** certainly makes the case for that. I came upon it earlier today as I was turning through this week's New Yorker while finishing my morning coffee. Its first line, "I love you like ladybugs love windowsills," hooked me--because one of the windowsills ladybugs love most is the one beneath the afternoon sun-heated front window of our cabin just west of Williamstown over the New York border. Since the rest of the poem kept me smiling just as much as that first line, I share it with you here. I mean how often do "tongue" and "socks" get mentioned in the same line of poem? Whenever this poem starts to go erotic, it veers back to cozy; whenever it presents love as utterly consuming and ecstatic, it sends us right back to earth with references to things like roadkill and cellphones. Here it is:

Photograph of Section of Page 33 of The New Yorker
We're giddy but still wise when we're really happy; we know too well feeling this good won't be the eternal new normal; why else that "A little hopeless"? I think the only place that I might have a different opinion than Brimhall is when she says, "I swear/ this love is ungodly, not an ounce of suffering in it." Yes, humans are bound to suffer. But to posit that love is "ungodly" because it's so thoroughly, relentlessly pleasurable doesn't work for me. "To every thing there is a season," says The Book of Ecclesiastes.

You might also enjoying listening to Brimhall read her poem; I did.

* Check out Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43): https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/how-do-i-love-thee-sonnet-43
** A line from "Secret Love," which Doris Day sang in the movie Calamity Jane: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiueIiFJdN8
Brimhall, T. (2018, January 8). Love poem without a drop of hyperbole in it. The New Yorker, XCIII(43), 33-33.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Nothing Without Art: January 5, 2018--What the Camera Saw

So already, when it comes to the visual world, light changes everything, and light is ever-changing. That's why I almost never walk around my neighborhood--the Wollaston section of Quincy, Massachusetts--without my camera in hand. Usually, what I seek to capture, and manage to capture from time to time, is an effect of light on something quotidian--like the Lutheran Church I see from my living room window that gleams in the late afternoon sun from late November to late February.

Sometimes, my camera sees more than I see, presenting me with a photo that says, "Here's what you think you saw, and what you also saw." I think if I were a photographer--somebody who really knows how to use their vision, craft, and materials to convey beauty, meaning, and feeling--and not simply someone who takes pictures, I might be surprised by the pictures I've taken less often.


But I love my experiences of photographic shock and wonder. For example, I knew last Wednesday's sunset, especially when the late afternoon shadows kicked in, was nothing short of spectacular. 

But while I was taking the photo, I didn't realize how much the swath of white extending from the photo's upper right-hand corner to its lower left-hand corner created movement--or was it flight?

As I look at the photo now, I realize it's not just the clearly delineated blue, white, black "stripes" that create the flow behind the scrim of naked tree branches: it's the shape of the bright white area.


What did that white area remind me of, with its two arm-like protrusions and its pointed "head"? Was I seeing a ghost* following a diagonal flight path? a thunderbird, the emissary of spirit world known to few of us who are relative newcomers to this continent? the ghost of a thunderbird embarking on a journey to a lower world? The shape seemed right for an angel, too, though I personally don't think of angels when I imagine the Divine within or among us. Another theory, inspired more by science fiction than anything else: the reverse track of a comet moving with calm, caring intelligence across a darkening neighborhood.

The truth of the matter is that I thought of none of these things, none of these beings, when I took this photo: I just hoped my camera would allow me to see something again that I thought was beautiful and about to evaporate into night. Sometimes when we think we're holding on to something--in our photos, on our hard drives, in our hearts or minds--we're actually holding on to more than we think we are. Maybe that's true more often than not.

* Photo-shopped photo featured in the following blog post: Weird Jon. (2013, October 19). Axworthy flying ghost--Gravedigger's local 16 [Web log post]. Retrieved January 5, 2018, from http://www.gravediggerslocal.com/2013/10/axworthy-flying-ghost/

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Nothing Without Art: January 4, 2018--Joyce's "The Dead"

So already, the much forecast snow began this morning at 7:10. The winds picked up, and the blur of still-gentle snow began blunting the edges of dwellings, objects, and vegetation.* As often happens when snow begins to fall across a broad swath of place, uniting all who reside in it in a common experience seasonally ordinary but nonetheless serious, my mind intoned with these words from the last paragraph of James Joyce's "The Dead": "snow was general all over Ireland" (225)*.

Really there couldn't be a more apt time for resurrecting "The Dead": at the center of the story is a Twelfth Night dinner party given annually by the main character's maiden aunts and their devoted niece. And since Epiphany--Twelfth Night--is just two days from now, the time and the weather are both twisting my literary arm.

I often taught "The Dead" as a high school English teacher--always with some trepidation because of the story's scant physical action: people go to a dinner party; they talk, listen to music, dance, eat, and sing; and then they leave, one long-married guest couple for a local hotel. I warned my students that the story might seem more like a still-life than a film, though we would watch a film version of it. To emphasize its interpersonal activity, we read the central dinner scene out loud as if it were a play, with class members playing the parts of the story's various assembled guests. Every year, the whole class enthusiastically sang in appreciation of the party's three hostesses (206-207); later, they paid close attention to how the film's actors performed the lines they had read.


But what really saved the educational day was Joyce's language and choice of details, especially those that conveyed the state of mind of Gabriel, the story's main character. "Gabriel's eyes, irritated by the floor, which glittered with beeswax under the heavy chandelier, wandered to the wall above the piano" (186). A polished floor as a source of irritation? A chandelier providing light and heaviness? What was really going on with this Gabriel guy, the kids wondered.

As I look out my window, there's no question that the snow has intensified. It's time to share that final paragraph of "The Dead": 
      “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead" (225).
As I read this yet again, I can hear the "light taps," understand how "silver" can be "dark," easily envision "the treeless hills" and "the lonely churchyard." The assonance of "thickly drifted" and alliteration of "soul swooned slowly," "faintly falling," and "faintly falling"--oh, I love that near-repetition--almost lull me. But not quite. The gates have "spears," the monuments to the dead are "crooked," and the "barren thorns" can prick. The "journey westward" is never fully smooth; the waves themselves are "mutinous." 

Snow is contrary stuff. Peacefully, stiflingly, or dangerously blanketing, depending on any number of subjective and physical realities. Mostly I have every reason to love it, and I'm both loving it and taking it seriously today. If you've never seen the film version of "The Dead," be sure to watch to the very end: the final paragraph is read in its entirety, and the images*** that accompany it are near perfect companions to the text.

* This is not a photo of Ireland; it is a photo of the Princess Eve Salt Marsh in Quincy.
** Joyce, J. (1993). "The Dead". In Dubliners. New York, NY: Penguin Books. 
*** Photo from the film version of "The Dead" found in Phelan, B. (2010, December 7). Classic scene #25 [Web log post]. Retrieved January 4, 2018, from http://secretcinema1-accidentalbeauty.blogspot.com/2010/12/few-light-taps-upon-pane-made-him-turn.html (The whole blog is entitled "The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of.")

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Nothing Without Art: January 3, 2018--"Winter Dog"

So already, one day before an impending snowstorm* that already has whipped local newscasters and meteorologists into a frenzy, I write to share an excerpt from a short story by Alistair MacLeod, a Canadian author who was unknown to me six weeks ago. Thus far, the stories I've read affirm the statement about him on the back cover of As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories **: "In a voice at once elegiac and life-affirming, MacLeod describes a vital present inhabited by the unquiet spirits of a [Cape Breton] Highland past, invoking memory and myth to celebrate the continuity of the generations even in the midst of unremitting change."

"Winter Dog" is a story for winter-lovers, for dog-lovers, for people-lovers, and for anyone who's ever been waiting to hear the news of a loved one's death while the whole rest of the world--even the rest of one's own family--is caught up in gleeful anticipation of something else. 

In the case of this story, the children, "half crazed by the promise of Christmas," respond to the "unexpected giddy surprise" of an overnight snowfall by insisting on going outside to play at 4:30 in the morning (32). Their father gives in, warning the children against disturbing sleeping neighbors. So begins his journey into the past and perhaps the mystical:


     "Through the window and out on the white plane of the snow, the silent, laughing children now appear. They move in their muffled clothes like mummers on the whitest of stages. They dance and gesture noiselessly, flopping their arms in parodies of heavy, happy earthbound birds. They have been warned by the eldest to be aware of the sleeping neighbors so they cavort only in pantomime, sometimes raising mittened hands to their mouths to suppress their joyous laughter. They dance and prance in the moonlight, tossing snow in one another's direction, tracing out various shapes and initials, forming lines which snake across the previously unmarked whiteness. All of it in silence, unknown and unseen and unheard to the neighboring world. They seem unreal even to me, their father, standing at the darkened window. It is almost as if they have danced out of the world of folklore like happy elves who cavort and mimic and caper through the private hours of this whitened dark, only to vanish with the coming of the morning's light and leaving only the signs of their activities behind. I am tempted to check their recently vacated beds to confirm what perhaps I think I know.
      "Then out of the corner of my eye I see him. The golden collie-like dog. He appears almost as if from the wings of the stage or as figure newly noticed in the lower corner of a winter painting" (34-35).
"In the Studio" by Robert Motherwell
I leave it up to you read this short story if you want to watch that "golden collie-like dog" roughhouse with those children and set into motion interactions among the story's various levels. I leave it up to you to read the story if you wish to plunge with the narrator into his searing recollection of a near-death and salvation experience with another golden collie. At least as far as I've gotten, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun gently but firmly asserts that all of us are always making our ways in terrains shaped by inner and outer realities often simultaneously mystifying, comforting, and disturbing. Baffling as they may be, they are sure as stone, so we accept them, even embrace them, though they often make us lie awake at night.

* MacLeod, A. (2002). As birds bring forth the sun: And other stories. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. 
** Photograph in Blog entitled Meditation Travelogue: Thoughts from the Mystical Road by Noelle Vignola: Vignola, N. (2014, December 28). Night walk: Part III [Web log post]. Retrieved January 3, 2018, from https://noellevignola.com/2014/12/   
*** In the Studio, 1984/1985. Courtesy of the artist in blog: Shaw, C. (2014, September 8). Form, gesture, feeling: Robert Motherwell retrospective opens at Pearl Lam [Web log post]. Retrieved January 3, 2018, from https://www.wallpaper.com/art/form-gesture-feeling-robert-motherwell-retrospective-opens-at-pearl-lam-hk

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Nothing Without Art: January 2, 2018--Early Bird Singers

So already, the Peabody School Early Bird Singers* are the artistic inspiration that I report on today. Last evening, they performed at the Inauguration of the Cambridge (MA) School Committee, and they were just plain excellent! I woke up smiling because of them.

As the Peabody School page of the Cambridge Public Schools web site explains, "Our Early Bird Singers are a dedicated group of students in Grades 3 - 5 that meet before school two mornings a week. They learn very challenging music."

That dedication--and also their enthusiasm--were evident in last night's performance. The group performed two selections that required expressive unison singing, occasional polyphony, and lots of attention to well-tuned harmony. Diction is never easy, but I understood every word of "America, of Thee I Sing" (arraned by Mary Donnelly & George L.O. Strid) and "You Raise Me Up" (by Secret Garden). Adult choirs can struggle to achieve precision and expressiveness, but this group made it all happen at the same time. Their confidence, skill, and joy were just what was needed by those of us who'd come over to the CRLS Fitzgerald Theater on the first frigid night of the new year.

I wish I could recall who conducted the group last night--my web site browsing suggests it might have been Katie Bach or Megan Ankuda--just because she deserves so much credit and congratulations for guiding these students to create such a performance. And, of course, kudos to the kids: they really are the music-makers here. And let's face it, students in every school deserve such opportunities to be part of something that's truly excellent and really fun. Sing on, Early Bird Singers, all the days of your lives!

* Photo downloaded from Emily Dexter's Facebook page.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Nothing Without Art: January 1, 2018--Stories, Place, & Memory

So already, while I was looking back over 2017, I became keenly aware of how much the works of others' imaginations had kept me afloat during some of the year's darkest moments

Thus, my January 2018 writing resolution is to blog frequently (and therefore briefly!) about some example of artistic expression that got its hooks into me--or that currently has me in its grip. It's intensely pleasurable when some human being's expression of something, of anything, grabs hold of us and won't let us go, making us newly or truly see, feel, or understand. 

So today I share two paragraphs from Ann-Marie MacDonald's The Way the Crown Flies: A Novel. I am not very far into this book, but I love it already. And I've read enough to know what I believe this passage makes clear to you: that the family at the center of this novel moves often, which is something they have in common with many families in our present moment.
      "If you move around all your life, you can't find where you come from on a map. All those places where you lived are just that: places. You don't come from any of them; you come from a series of events. And those are mapped in memory. Contingent, precarious events, without the counterpane of place to muffle the knowledge of how unlikely we all are. Almost not born at every turn. Without a place, events slow-tumbling through time become your roots. Stories shading into one another. You come from a plane crash. From a war that brought your parents together.
     "Tell the story, gather the events, repeat them. Pattern is a matter of upkeep. Otherwise the weave relaxes back to threads picked up by birds to make their nests. Repeat, or the story will fall and all the king's horses and all the king's men. . . . Repeat, and cradle the pieces carefully, or events will scatter like marbles on a wooden floor (41).*
MacDonald has me thinking about being shaped by place versus events, and about how we--as individuals, and members of families and cultures--choose what patterns to enshrine in our stories. She also has me wondering how right she is when she says our human impulse is "to muffle the knowledge of how unlikely we all are." 

And yes, I love reading books where a philosophical digression like the one above fits so easily into the story of young family doing what it always does to make a new temporary place become "home."

* MacDonald, A. (2004). The way the crow flies: A novel. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Rounding Corners Into the New Year

A View of a Cambridge Public Library Corner from Within
So already, for the last month, I've been contemplating corners--the idioms and the spaces connected to them. People can cut corners or paint themselves into them. They can corner markets--or corner puppies that dash out front doors to temporary freedom and need to be brought back home. They can corner friends, colleagues, or acquaintances on occasions when they are bound and determined to say that important thing. And sometimes when they're feeling embattled or misunderstood, they can feel relieved to discover that others are in their corner. Depending on whether we're perceiving corners from inside or outside of them, we might round them, turn them, explore them, avoid them, or retreat to them. 

In 2017, I explored and reckoned with the contents of two corners and rounded two others. With each of these moves, I felt a little less cornered. By the end of the year, I felt beyond the thicket of corners I'd been navigating for the last twelve months: I could more comfortably contain the diverse directions, pulses, impulses, insights, and contradictions that are so often crammed into figurative corners. Our corners, ourselves, I say.

The First Corner: Explored
I wrote "Corner Bones" because I was struggling to feel less at the mercy of my chronic worries about a particular unchangeable reality. My strategy had been to embrace meaningful opportunities, but I soon learned that chronic worries--the bones in the corner--exert their pull even in moments we believe will be worry-proof. But to acknowledge the power of the bones in the corner of a room is not to empower them to rule the room. Before I wrote this poem, I'd been in the habit of bowing to the bones. Since writing the poem, I've come to understand the bones as a fixture. But the room definitely is mine, not theirs.

The Second Corner--Which Really Came First: Explored
Envisioning corners in conjunction with writing "Corner Bones" got me thinking about another corner: a fertile one I'd heard about a summer evening some years ago when my husband Scott Ketcham and I attended a presentation by a visiting artist at the Vermont Studio Center.*

"Large scale work on paper by Dawn Clements"*
In the early stages of her MFA studies, Dawn Clements had focused her official artistic energies on painting--and her unofficial ones on drawing. One day after she and her faculty advisor had conferred about the paintings she had assembled for their session, Clements' advisor pointed to a chaotic pile of papers and asked, "What's the stuff in the corner?" Together they looked at the drawings that were the art Clements really cared about. The stuff in the corner was the real stuff, the beginnings of the oeuvre for which Clements is known.  

Recalling Clements' story got me asking myself, "What's the stuff in the corner? What makes your heart say yes before your mind can muster the counter-arguments and say no?" To ignore the stuff in the corner is to betray one's true self for the kind of safety or approval that imperils the soul--and sometimes even the world. 

The Fourth Corner: Rounded
This fall, paying attention to the stuff in the corner made me say yes immediately to invitations to be on several panels-- even though I'd been telling people and myself that I wanted to do "less education." In all of these instances, my heart said yes right away, and I chose not to let my mind interfere. The most recent panel most challenged me because it required me to speak to an international audience on behalf of teachers around the globe. I knew I would be able to learn about the OECD***, the PISA**** exam, and the new global competence framework that the panel would be discussing. I knew my long experience as a teacher periodically called upon to reshape curriculum and instruction to reflect new frameworks would be valuable. I knew the experience I'd had both inside and outside the USA of working with teachers from other countries would be helpful. Still, would I be able to globalize my responses sufficiently to speak authentically for teachers in many different nations and types of schools?

The Roll-Out of the OECD Global Competence Framework
With the panel's moderator--Veronica Boix Mansilla, one of the designers of the global competence framework--in my corner, I determined to rise to the occasion and even to enjoy myself while I did it. In retrospect, I know I enjoyed myself. And I also think I rose to the occasion. Frankly, saying that so publicly makes me feel that I just rounded another corner.

The Third Corner: Rounded
I suspect, though, that had I not rounded a few blind corners in the months before those panel invitations, I might have declined one or more of them. Last August I blogged about how I'd turned the corner  and gone from paying respectful attention to others' participation in demonstrations and marches to showing up and marching myself. Of course, this kind of political activism represents a very different kind of risk than does participating on a panel, but both are collaborative acts of hope that benefit from confidence in one's ability to think, speak, and act in the unscripted moment.

On the first leg of the Boston march against white supremacy and other forms of hatred the weekend after last August's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, all of us rounded the corner from Malcolm X Boulevard onto Columbus Avenue. Police cruisers prevented cars from turning from side streets onto the march route so no marcher would meet Heather Heyer's fate. But as high-rise buildings replaced low-rise buildings along the route, Scott and I grew increasingly alert: having read that march opponents might hurl acid into the crowds, we kept glancing upward, looking for any window opened enough to permit the hurling or spraying of acid onto the crowd below. We'd both carried extra water just in case we or others needed to be rinsed down in such an event. 

Scott and I were both very glad when the trees of the Boston Common replaced the tall buildings; we were also glad to be numbered among the 40,000 who stood against hate. Some risks need to be taken. But taking precautions along with them can help. Good intentions and past good luck don't provide good cover. I'm particularly aware of this because last fall's Las Vegas shootings happened on my birthday through one open window in a high-rise. It's sobering to have one's birthday linked in the public's memory to a horrific event.

I believe that with practice, we get better at managing risk and worry--and we don't confuse that with being brave; we realize that though we may dread driving through snowstorms, we usually get to where we need to go without incident, and no amount of worry beforehand guarantees our safety. We calculate the risks, head out of driveways, and turn the corner, almost but not quite sure we'll make it back home. There is no such thing as no risk. So many corners are hard to see beyond.

The Corners in the Rearview Mirror  
An Annita Soble Hanukkah Card*****
And then there are those corners that we don't so much push ourselves to turn as realize we have turned. Only while I was writing holiday cards earlier this month did I recognize that I had adjusted to "retirement"-- my life post-Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and public school teaching. In the report that I wrote last spring for my approaching fortieth college reunion, I had described my blog, Facebook posts, and tweets, not with total comfort, as "being like me: all over the place." But somewhere in the process of writing those annual Hannukah and Christmas cards, I realized that I had to be all over the place in order to be true to the variegated, much alive, mysteriously arranged (or perhaps not at all arranged) "stuff in the corner." The "stuff in the corner" fails to obey the laws of linen-closet organization. It rearranges itself in the dead of night, usually for reasons I don't understand, so that what first catches my eye the next morning changes constantly. Sometimes it glows. 

When I realized that my retirement adjustment process had taken a full four years, I had to laugh: high school takes four years. So in honor of high school's enduring place in my consciousness, I offer this summary of my corner-related thoughts as a series of statements in the form prescribed by a thinking routine that will no doubt be familiar to many of my former students and colleagues:
Corners, Colors, & Coherent Randomness******
  • I used to think I needed to accept worry's dominant role in my daily life; now I think that worry's constant presence in a visible corner of my daily life does not mean that worry dominates my daily life.
  • I used to think the "stuff in the corner" was what I should pay attention to after I'd done what communicated to everyone--especially me--that I was taking proper advantage of being relatively young, still healthy, still professionally respected, and newly retired; now I think the "stuff in the corner" should be paid attention to first because it's critical not only to a good retirement, but to a good life.
  • I used to think that the phrase "being all over the place" was pejorative, synonymous with being superficial and confused; now I think it can mean having interests and commitments that range wide, run deep, and often combine--sometimes with our help--in unforeseen, enlightening ways. And yes, a corner filled with good, real stuff can be all over the place.
  • I used to think that my fears and worries would continue to deter and distract me from exploring and turning important corners; now I think I'm much more capable of not giving them the upper hand. (And I think my timing is good on this score, given the sad, dangerous state of our world.)
  • I used to think it was important to know what to say no to; now I think it's much more important to know what to say yes to.
Corner, Art, & Window, Museum of Russian Icons
Our lives are blessings, and many of us live with lots of freedom and choice in times that ask us to step up. There's something wonderful about being able to strive to be who and what we can be in such times. Our efforts often not only do some good for the world, but enhance our sense of belonging to it. Furthermore, if they reflect the "stuff in the corner," each of us comes into more harmonious, empowering relationship with her true self, an experience that may be not only important, but holy.

As we round the corner into 2018, may we be true to ourselves and the world. May we each have the courage, will, wisdom, and imagination we need to delve into some corners and round others. And may all of us round some important corners together. I believe that we can and will.

* Scott was at the Vermont Studio Center doing one of the summer residencies required by his MFA program.
** "Large scale work on paper by Dawn Clements" (photograph) in “Art Event: Dawn Clements in the Boiler.” JaquetteFITblog, Wordpress, 12 May 2010, jacquettefitblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/dawn-clements-in-the-boiler/. 
*** Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 
**** Programme for International Student Assessment. 
***** Annita Soble's work may be viewed at http://www.annitasoble.com/new/. 
****** A painting on display at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA. The exhibition is called "Migration and Memory: Jewish Artists of the Russian and Soviet Empires."