Monday, January 27, 2014

Two Days Left at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School

So already, only two days left as a public school educator.  It's an extraordinary time -- especially sweet and intense given the prospect of Scott's gallery talk at Johnson State College on Thursday. But it's also a disorienting time, both wondrous and unsettling.

If you read my blog post of about a week ago, you saw pictures of the sculptures that Scott has included in Darkness and Beauty, his M.F.A. show at JSC.  The sconce you see at the left, which Scott recently gave me as a gift, is related to that work in terms of materials, subject matter, the presence of duality.  It rounds a corner and looks in two different directions.  Its two faces exist cheek-to-cheek, like close sisters or kindred spirits who sense each other through peripheral vision, actual or spiritual -- or like one person with two different orientations. And it feels to me like a near-perfect expression of my current situation: I am rounding a corner, but with such a strong sense of connection to the person and places I have been.

Today I had as nice a final day of "teaching" as I could have asked for. Too many carbohydrates for sure, but so many expressions of appreciation -- and so much wisdom and caring as my students shared their thoughts on a number of topics. I love how this group of students has come to value one another over time -- as human beings with particular perspectives, as sources of particular kinds of knowledge, as possessors of particular talents that have been developed and then shared for the pleasure and enlightenment of all of us. "Only connect" doesn't always come easily for worried, over-committed seniors.  But we connected.

I suspect our "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" VoiceThread Project clinched it:  so many students, in the asynchronous conversation that VoiceThread makes possible, articulated how much their own understandings of the poem developed as a result of others' comments and choices of images to represent particular stanzas. After that project, the students collectively and individually seemed to have surer knowledge and a keener appreciation of sensibilities, experiences, and knowledge each one of them brings to the endeavor of interpreting literature and life.

Speaking of "Prufrock" and in honor of the many wonderful students I have taught at CRLS who have encountered "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and embraced the chance to learn with and from one another, I am publishing in this blog four essays and one drawing created by students in my "last" CRLS English class who connected to "Prufrock" in personally important ways.  Klara's, Solomon's, Rachel's, and Sam's literary personal essays were written for our class; Elizabeth's drawing was created for her art class.  

Two days left  . . . 

Klara's Literary Personal Essay: "The Lovesong on All of Our Minds"

[Please note:  this essay is completely in italics as a reminder that it is Klara's work.  Klara, who is eighteen years old, gave her permission for her work and picture to appear here.]

After a few days of devastatingly chilly temperatures, a soft rain had drizzled away the remnants of snow and I was biking to school. Even though it was still dark, the air felt warmer and there was this beautiful fog on the streets and in the air. It wasn’t a lively yellow fog like in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but more of a soft gray. As I was biking down Bay Street I remember thinking about how normally fog only exists when you look at it from far away; it seems so tangible but disappears when you get close. This fog wasn’t like that, though. I saw it on the road ahead of me and expected it to disappear as I grew close, but it didn’t: it was there right up until I was in the middle of it. There are so many things we don’t understand until we’re in the middle of them. You could say life is like that, but we’re all on the middle of it, and none of us really has any clue what’s going on. How can we measure our lives? Do our little, everyday moments make us who we are, or is it the more important, decisive actions that define us?

I can imagine Eliot coming home after an evening out on the town, thinking of the prettiness of the fog even in the dreary streets, the weariness of his routines and regularities, the way people age and let their destinies fade. Already he struggles to recall the complexity of that feeling. He writes  “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in an effort to record it. I thought of the line from the poem in which the narrator, J. Alfred Prufrock, contemplates the yellow fog as he journies through a deserted city:  “And indeed there will be time/for the yellow smoke that slides along the street...there will be time, there will be time...and time yet for a hundred indecisions/ and for a hundred visions and revisions” (Eliot 23-33). Prufrock’s walking down the street, thinking about the smoke and his life and probably a real jumble of things, and I was too, riding to school with this fog around me and this poem in the back of my mind. 

When I look at this line now, I know that I felt the same as the narrator. As I watched the smoke sliding along the street, I was mentally preparing myself to go back to school after a long vacation. I thought about all the little decisions and the actions that would fill my day before I get to the ever-distant lunch B, my version of Prufrock’s “taking of a toast and tea” (Eliot 34). Even as he ponders all the tiny things that make up his life, Prufrock takes solace in the knowledge that there will be time: time to make hundreds of little choices and hundreds of huge ones. His life stretches before him, all of the glory and the boredom and the indecision, all before he even has lunch.

As one gets older, the days seem to get longer but, in a funny trick, still manage to pass more quickly. A week is the work of a moment, a month is easily passed, three months are foreseeable. I think of years as cycles revolving around school, starting in September and ending in August. The school year is divided by strips of colors; the beginning of the year, Halloween, Thanksgiving, the winter, all of the vacations until it’s summer and then the whole thing starts up again. This year is different for me and my friends. We don’t know what’s coming next. Most of us don’t know where they’ll get into college, much less where we’ll end up. We’re contemplating the future, for we have so many choices ahead of us. There’s a lot of wondering “do I dare?” in my life right now. 

Arriving at his destination, Prufrock hesitates, asking himself, “Do I dare/Disturb the universe?” (Eliot 45-46) What he’s really asking himself is; can I leave my neat little orbit; can I upset the balance of things, if only slightly; can I change and make change? Do I dare do something other than the path that’s expected? I recognize Prufrock’s gravitation towards action as well as his fear of failure and the unknown. The universe is right there, do I dare disturb it? I love the diction Eliot uses there, because the word “disturb” is so powerful there.  If he had written, “Do I dare change the universe?” or “Do I dare upset the universe?” the meaning would have been so different. The alliteration with the two “d” words aids the flow of the poem, but more crucially the word “disturb” suggests the image of a small, fearful child prodding something much grander despite their fears. There’s no idealistic chatter about changing the way things are, or stirring them up-- the narrator is questioning if he, in his small way, can muster the courage to act.

I have the comic version of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by Julian Peters taped up on my wall. My favorite panel is the one captioned “Do I dare disturb the universe," because I find it fascinating how Prufrock reaches out to something which is somehow both the door and a vast, starry universe. This duality is found everywhere in life. The universe manifests itself in monumental things like firemen saving a family from a burning house or somebody‘s being found innocent after a trial or an astronaut’s walking on the moon or an earthquake or the explosion of a far distant star. The universe can also be found in the smaller things: a baby’s speaking her first words, a friend’s biking to your house in the middle of the night, your favorite song on the radio or a new pair of socks. The universe is vast but it’s also a nervous man mustering the courage to knock on a door. [Image]

I dwell on the fading of life, the jadedness and the ennui. Prufrock claims, “I have known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee how should I presume?” (Elliot lines 49-54). Prufrock has made the choice for himself-- he chooses to look at his life in terms of the coffee spoons, of the plodding times. I know it’s important to cherish your average days, because that’s what you’ve got in the end, but I don’t think that’s quite the answer. I eat the same thing for breakfast every morning: toast and butter. I take the same route to school every day. I sit in the same seat in class. I have an expected rhythm. 

*Variety is the spice of life, and I make an effort to season mine, but I worry sometimes that I can measure my life in Iggy’s bread. I close my eyes and think of the rows and rows of toast that I’ve consumed in my lifetime, and I worry that I have known them all, the evenings, mornings, and afternoons. I worry that I’ve experienced my best moments already, that they’re all pictures I tape to my wall and stories I tell, that I’m reaching my peak, and soon will start the gradual demise. My hair might not thin like Prufrock’s, but will I start wearing a “simple pin” instead of a kitschy necklace? I’m afraid of letting my best times slip by me; I’m afraid that these are my best times.

The only thing that you can guarantee about life is that it has no guarantees. No one can promise me that I still have my best times ahead of me, because that might not be true. There’s no way of knowing if I’ve already felt everything that I’m going to feel, or if I’ve already surmounted my peak. The only way that I can really ensure that I still have greatness ahead of me is to believe that I do, and live my life with that in mind. We are our great times and we are our feeble times, we are what makes us cry and what makes us laugh, and most of all, our lives are what we value in within them. 

* As an initial exercise in developing our understanding of the poem, each student creates a visual representation of a line, image, or stanza from the poem that makes a strong impression on him/her.  Our class hangs these images on the wall in the order in which they occur in the poem and listens to the poem being read aloud while looking at them.

Solomon's Literary Personal Essay: "Eliot"

[Please note:  this essay is completely in italics as a reminder that it is Solomon's work.  Solomon, who is eighteen years old, gave his permission for his work and picture to appear here.]

I was in my sophomore year of high school when I first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. However, after reading it again senior year, the poem took on a new meaning to me and rose to the top of my list of thought-provoking, relevant, writings of a deeper level. The words flow beautifully together and ring true to my understanding of the world. I am not sure whether a strengthening of my convictions at such a young age might end up closing me off to new ideas and reducing my open-mindedness... But I don’t care, because this poem rings true to me in so many ways, beyond the allusions and context, into a realm of deep enlightenment. The passages that made the deepest impressions on me will be explored and heartily praised for their effectiveness at conveying truths about human nature. 

“There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces you meet.” How beautiful. How maddeningly true. In this day and age, it seems an individual is rarely accepted for who he/she truly is. Our society seems to scream, “Come you extroverted fast-talkers. Come and be successful, for you will surely thrive in this here Eden.”

The quiet and the introverted must put on a “face” if they wish to be a “success.” Indeed, even silence is unwelcomed by our society. A time spent quiet is time spent not collaborating, we are told. The prevalence of this societal dogma is astounding. I enjoy sitting alone in Starbucks for lunch, drinking a coffee and reading a book. However, this clashes with societal norms, and my “friends” flock to me like ovulating dogs, disturbing my silence with sympathetic, unnecessarily kind barks of, “Oh, you’re all alone” and “Here I’ll sit with you,” as if I couldn’t possibly be enjoying my time away from Them. That bothers me. Sometimes, I believe that I must be feeling incorrectly! Yet these lines of poetry remind me that I am not the one acting. It is those who greet me in order to rescue me from from the loneliness I must be experiencing who are truly putting on a face.” And to meet me! In a way, conformity is a sad habit, yet, if there was no conformity, then would not we all be conforming? And so I wonder: “Do I dare.” Do I dare to be myself in a society that values a behavior few possess, yet many strive to attain? It has been said that Henry David Thoreau sent his clothing home on the weekends to be washed by his mother. Perhaps I could live two lives, as he and Prufrock did. Perhaps I myself can “prepare a face to meet the faces that [I] meet” at times, but also be my true self at others, reflecting, much as I am now—as Thoreau did in those famous Concord woods when he wasn’t picking up Tide cleaner for his mother—when I am not among those who value the sort of outgoing, expressive, achiever that I am surely not. 

*Eliot captures my fear. He captures my dissatisfaction. He captures my acceptance. My unhappy, defeated acceptance. “Would it have been worth it,” he asks. And so I ask the world: “WOULD IT BE WORTH IT? To be different? To be myself?” I am “not Prince Hamlet” either, “nor was I meant to be.” Indeed, I am even driven to question whether or not greatness itself is simply a creation of society, propagated by those women who “come and go,” speaking of the “great” Michelangelo. No. It cannot be. Greatness surely transcends the banal culture that they reside in. Prufrock seems to mock their pitiful attempt at understanding the great artist. He recognizes Michelangelo’s greatness. Perhaps it is Prufrock’s true observation of greatness in the artist that drives him mad as he watches the old women nip and yip at the other while they ponder this “greatness” over a pleasant afternoon tea and scone. Perhaps the “human voices that wake us” are actually the voices of the conformers, and they cause us to “drown” because they detract from the truth and wisdom innate in all of us, that we ignore in order to be accepted. 

As Prufrock was, so am I also stuck between a rock and a hard place. Conform, and I am lying to myself. “Demur,” as Dickinson proclaims, “and [I] am “straightaway dangerous.” And I am different. Fear not reader,  for I am no tortured soul. The inner faces of others do emerge to greet my inner face. Perhaps Forster’s “Only Connect” was in reference to that which resides deep within us all: a wisdom and beauty, easily deemed “useless” for many activities and professions, that forms a relationship, like a butterfly to a flower, with the innermost truths of others. 

In misery or bliss, Prufrock utters, “I grow old… I grow old…” I have many interpretations of this passage. And what is so wonderful is that they absolutely oppose each other. He is blissfully liberated from his youthful fears of being an outcast, or he is utterly resigned and defeated that, even in his advanced age, he is unable to escape his insecurities. Perhaps a combination of the two, or perhaps neither, were intended. 

The most beautiful part of this poem resides in its potential to be interpreted in extremely different ways. Another individual could read this poem and understand it to mean something so remarkably different that one would believe we had read different poems. That is the power of this poem. It is personal, yet it is applicable and understandable by all who choose to examine it. And so it goes—life, that is.

* As an initial exercise in developing our understanding of the poem, each student creates a visual representation of a line, image, or stanza from the poem that makes a strong impression on him/her.  Our class hangs these images on the wall in the order in which they occur in the poem and listens to the poem being read aloud while looking at them.

Elizabeth's Cell Portrait

Elizabeth also wrote her literary personal essay about "Prufrock."  However, since she has provided our class on multiple occasions with doorways into literature, especially poetry, through her drawings and paintings, I asked her if I might include a work of art that relates to "Prufrock."  All of the students in our class created "Greatness Gallery" exhibits, and Elizabeth's was in part about the distinctions between good and great visual art. Eighteen years old, Elizabeth has given permission for her "Cell Portrait" -- one way she "prepared a face to meet the faces that you meet" -- to appear in this blog.

Rachel's Literary Personal Essay: "Drawing Parallels with Prufrock"

[Please note:  this essay is completely in italics as a reminder that it is Rachel's work.  Rachel is seventeen years old; thus, both she and her father have given permission for her work and picture to appear here.]

For a large part of my life I’ve felt awkward and unlucky. Growing up watching perfect TV lives where everything happens for a reason and a misstep can easily become the best decision of a person’s life, I developed the expectation that everything I did, no matter how it felt in the moment, would have a positive outcome. I failed to take into account that my life was not a scripted sit-com, though the absence of a laugh-track tipped me off eventually. As I grew older and this result continued to elude me, I became less and less sure of myself and my actions, becoming more withdrawn with my decisions. I began — and continue — to second-guess my actions before performing them, much like the narrator of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Like him, I start with the idea of what I want to do, but slowly convince myself the course of action either is not for the best or will be detrimental to my mental health. Also like our dear narrator, I am scared.

          I suppose this could be seen as a cycle of sorts. Prufrock starts full of a kind of confidence, the sort one has when he/she first arrives at an idea and makes a sweeping gesture such as “Let us go, you and I,” showing his belief in himself. His initial action reminds me of me: I’ll begin with a thought such as “Okay, Rachel, it’s time to do ___! You know you should go talk to ___,” and I list all the reasons why I’m right and imagine exactly how the conversation is going to go. I’ll plan every moment, exploring every possible contingency, making sure I’m prepared for anything. As soon as the plan is formed, I begin to attempt to put it in motion.
But this is where the second part of the cycle commences. Like Prufrock, I begin a series of claims much like his “there will be time, there will be time…time for you and time for me” that allow me to procrastinate, for I will have ages to do it, it’s not the right time, or it’s much too awkward just then to commit to my action. Like Prufrock, I stall and lie to myself for the sake of my nerves.
*I don’t acknowledge the real problem until stage three of the cycle. At this point, Prufrock starts to list his worries, which are rooted in an understandable fear of rejection. He’s afraid that if he tells his companion his true feelings for her, all his planning will fall flat. “In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions and decisions to reverse,” expresses Prufrock’s fear of having everything he’s planned go astray. At this point, he imagines the humiliating position his failure would place him in. Like Prufrock, I also begin to worry about the reaction of my peers, and my resolve begins to crumble. More often than not, my plans end with the fourth stage: giving up.

            At the fourth and final stage of this cycle, Prufrock has already imagined his friend giving him a negative reply: “That is not what I meant at all/That is not it, at all.” He has scared himself into believing his chance has fled, that he was never worthy of the chance to begin with. He says to himself, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” believing himself unable to be the hero of his own story. Sadly, my mind goes the way of Prufrock in similar situations. I tell myself that my plan wouldn’t have worked out anyway, that I’m not in a movie, and that’s not how life works. I let fear control my actions and rule my mind and, like Prufrock, I let the moment fade away. 
In my life I’ve gone through moments that are very Prufrock-esque, such that I allow myself to abandon a fully formed idea before it can come to fruition. I feed myself excuses to make myself feel better, but at the end of it all nothing gets done. Reading "Prufrock" was like seeing myself from the outside, and it was extremely enlightening. At first I didn’t realize how alike we were and judged him harshly, but as soon as I acknowledged the similarities I became worried. Prufrock is not who I want to be, and now that I’ve seen how damaging a lack of decision-making is, I know how to address it. The best way to combat my fear is to face it head on, not hide away from it. I can’t allow fear to rule my life, or I won’t accomplish anything in my life. I refuse to let myself become a Prufrock, old and grey and afraid of living. 
* As an initial exercise in developing our understanding of the poem, each student creates a visual representation of a line, image, or stanza from the poem that makes a strong impression on him/her.  Our class hangs these images on the wall in the order in which they occur in the poem and listens to the poem being read aloud while looking at them.

Sam's Literary Personal Essay: "The Love Essay of S. Elliot Mazer"

[Please note:  this essay is completely in italics as a reminder that it is Sam's work.  Sam, who is eighteen years old, gave his permission for his work and picture to appear here.]
Every person has some stories, works of art, or ideas that he or she just won’t understand the first times around; for me, T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” fell into this category. Two recent developments in my life, however, have allowed me to appreciate Eliot’s poem in a surprisingly personal and tangible way. Indeed, my perspective on the world has changed forever thanks to two life-altering endeavors: applying to colleges and watching PBS travel videos. The college application process forced me to reflect on my life goals endlessly until I felt like the center of some scholarly universe. My body, rejecting this feeling like the stomach rejects rocks, felt a sudden urge to binge watch PBS vacation-planning programs. Luckily, while catching up with the history of Ancient Rome and modern tourist sites, I was reminded of how large and how filled with other narcissists our world and history have been. Today, I find the character of Prufrock to be a representation of a pandemic mental condition in the Western world -- being so immersed in a culture that idealizes great people of the past that a person is kept from being content with his or her own life. Ultimately, Prufrock’s own unhappiness forces the reader to consider whether greatness should be aspired to at all. 

         Throughout his poetic ponderings, Prufrock references historical figures and artwork legendary in Western civilization, clearly defining what he believes a man should aspire to be. While the first stanza establishes Prufrock’s less than luxurious lifestyle, describing his nights spent in “one night cheap hotels” (6), the second stanza introduces a seemingly tangential idea: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” (13-14). In our initial examinations of this poem, I failed to understand fully what relevance Michelangelo had to the piece. In my moment of need, however, a well-timed PBS show titled "The Best of Europe: Rome’s Ancient Glory and Baroque Brilliance" opened my eyes. The show focused on the works of architecture and art throughout the city: the millennia-old marvel of the Pantheon, the elaborate buildings built to memorialize ancient emperors, and even the sculptures and paintings by Michelangelo himself. As I watched PBS travel guide Rick Steves tell me about these impressive cultural attractions, I was fixated on how great they all were. These were true feats of their times, and surely remain some of mankind’s greatest creations! I admired and envied Michelangelo for being so darn good at seemingly everything, and for being so famous for it. Similarly, Prufrock repeatedly notices that, as he is living his life of mediocrity, Michelangelo manages to still be the talk of the town centuries after death. Prufrock wishes to be remembered the same way Michelangelo is, and the presence of such “great” figures in his everyday life is inescapable. Despite Prufrock’s continued assurances that “there will be time” (23) for him to find his place in society, a second mention of the women discussing Michelangelo reveals the urgency Prufrock truly feels. As he grows older and older, dappling in constant new “visions and revisions” (33) of his life, the ghosts of the greats like Michelangelo loom greater, becoming even more difficult to live up to. Rather than enjoy the creations of the past, Prufrock feels increasing pressure to be “great,” just as we today live in the shadow of celebrated cultural figures, past and present. Amidst the college application process, as I feel strangely pressured to live up to societal standards even in choosing where I go to college, I can certainly relate.

Though his life has not turned out how he had expected or hoped, Prufrock is still cognizant of some virtue in his life of simplicity—he briefly accepts that he may not be great, but he can still benefit his society. During a lengthy bout of existential questions, Prufrock asks, “And would it have been worth it, after all/After the cups, the marmalade, the tea.../To have squeezed the universe into a ball.../To say: I am Lazarus, come from the dead…” (88-89, 93, 95). Prufrock notes that he has done much in his life that he does not regret: enjoying simple pleasures like drinking tea and eating a marmalade spread. Such small moments as these have been the truly memorable ones for him, not those when he was progressing further in a career. If this is true, he wonders, was there any incentive to try to squeeze the world to fit into his own narrow goals, or to become so great as the biblical saints like Lazarus? 

*Prufrock may have not lived a life of greatness, but he has certainly enjoyed what Rick Steves refers to while sipping tea at quaint markets overlooking the Mediterranean as “the good living.” Prufrock has had the opportunity to live a life of goodness, of simply enjoying time without feeling the need to gain more fame and riches. However, until this point, he has not been able to appreciate this opportunity because he has been taught by his society that lack of ambition is synonymous with failure. He goes on to admit, “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/ Am an attendant lord, one that will do/ To swell a progress, start a scene or two” (111-113). Prufrock seems ready to embrace a role in society he never expected to: that of the common man. After all, even if a select few historical figures lead and shape movements, it is ultimately the everyday people, the side characters, who have to make the movements move anywhere — Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he reasons, would have no plot if Hamlet were the only character.  

After I applied to college and, in the process, made myself overdose on narcissism from all of my supplemental essays describing what a promising and incredible specimen I am, I found in these PBS travel videos the same feeling that Prufrock has. I was sick of trying to be a great, superlative college student; all I wanted was a nice view and a cool culture to experience while floating around in a Venetian gondola. I didn’t feel the need to be Michelangelo, as long as I could occasionally go to the Sistine Chapel and give him an imaginary pat on the back. I considered this desire more of an entertaining dream than anything I would actually consider doing in the near future. 

And, wouldn’t you know it, so does Prufrock. While he does decide that his dreams of greatness are no longer achievable, he also proves unable to let them go, and thus unable to either achieve his goals or find happiness by straying from them. Although Prufrock is glad to have experienced simple pleasures in the past, he is resigned and depressed at the thought of living so normally in the future: “I grow old...I grow old.../ Do I dare to eat a peach?/ I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach,” (120, 122-123). Prufrock will endure, rather than enjoy his retirement of long walks on the beach, for he feels he has still not earned anything in his life. He is so mired in disappointment with himself that he even doubts whether he is worthy of eating a peach; surely, he thinks, such bounties of the earth were meant for people greater than he. Prufrock has grown old pondering his indecisions, and now he believes it is too late to bother deciding any of them. 

He concludes his thoughts on a nihilistic note: “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea.../Till human voices wake us and we drown,” (129-131). To him, there is no point in attempting to achieve greatness in the eyes of his society because he has romanticized even the greats themselves: had he been more critical of the works of Michelangelo and Shakespeare, he would have realized sooner that their lives were no more meaningful than his. Now that he can see past the transcendent artwork his idols created, hear their real “human voices,” he understands that they were just as depressingly imperfect as he is. Any higher moral values they chose to communicate in their art were not the rules they themselves lived by, but the rules that they knew they should have been living by and weren’t. Hopeless, Prufrock submits to drowning in time, letting himself be flushed away just as the supposed greats of yore had been centuries before. He convinces himself that what happiness he found in living the “good life,” and what hope he maintained as he sought the “great life” were both equally pointless. He believes he has been, to this point, constantly romanticizing the world and his place in it, much as I did while watching travel videos and taking in the gorgeous Mediterranean vistas. There is no point in seeking a good life, he reasons, because his has built to disappointment.

            Prufrock, stagnating in despair after a life of indecision and disappointment, possesses the most dramatic version of the mindset that we all have in some capacity, or have had at some point in our lives—the anxious, insecure mindset that arises from searching for our places in a society that calls specific individuals great and tells all others to try to become like these elite few. Indeed, I have always idolized these figures myself, and wondered whether I could live up to their legacies in some way. The question that so many of us high school seniors seem to be asking ourselves right now is “Do I want to go to a college that seems fun and happy, or do I want to try to get into one that’s prestigious and enviable?” Having applied to upwards of ten colleges over the course of winter break alone, I have now become able to find significant meaning behind “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Eliot’s Prufrock spent his life asking himself whether he wanted to live the “good life” or the “great life,” and as a result achieved neither. By tracing the development of Prufrock’s thoughts throughout the poem, I have concluded that my most important goal in life is to not become like Prufrock. While migrating to a foreign country based on the information I received from a one-hour TV program may be slightly too irrational for right now, I do know that I must be decisive in all of my endeavors—some of these decisions may even just be to sit back and relax for a day or two. The last thing I want to do is waste another day sitting in my room and procrastinating writing college essays the same way that Prufrock has, essentially, procrastinated his whole life away. 

* As an initial exercise in developing our understanding of the poem, each student creates a visual representation of a line, image, or stanza from the poem that makes a strong impression on him/her.  Our class hangs these images on the wall in the order in which they occur in the poem and listens to the poem being read aloud while looking at them.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Scott Ketcham's "Darkness and Beauty" at the Julian Scott Memorial Gallery

So already, Scott Ketcham's M.F.A. degree show is up!  At the Julian Scott Memorial Gallery at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont, Darkness and Beauty runs through February 8. Scott's gallery talk is January 30.  

I am inspired the individual pieces and the totality of Scott's work. And I am thrilled for him, and for all of us who can make it to Johnson State College and have the experience of being immersed in it. The show is magnificent.* Surround-sound for the eyes. Images that allure and repel, and then allure again.  Works that compel moments of uncertainty and recognition, that unsettle and settle us. As Scott's artist statement explains,
Dark images come to me, from me -- a happy man with a comfortable life. Yet these apparitions do not threaten but seduce me, for all darkness radiates mysterious beauty, all loveliness casts melancholy shade.
My work celebrates beauty and darkness, longing and departure. Within a gaze equally primal and decadent, high-minded and voyeuristic, squirmy nakedness and luscious paint join in erotic delight. A magic climax transforms paint into mortal, living flesh. Metamorphosis comes as a surprise.

There's been a kind of birthing here.  The large painting you see in the photo of the gallery above makes no bones about it.  The only painting in the show that has a title, it's called "The Birth of Abraxas." The work on the walls of the gallery both emerges naturally from Scott's earlier figure work (including the figure work he did during the early innings of his M.F.A. program), and steps out and away from it into some new emotional, conceptual place that's been waiting -- even yearning -- to stretch to its full height and width, to flex its unfolding muscle, to assert its heft and substance, to announce and then manifest itself.

Scott's journey recalls for me the response of Betonie, the unorthodox medicine man in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, to Tayo, the novel's central character who fears that he is hardly up to the arduous, high-stakes ceremony ahead of him: "You've been doing something all along.  All this time, and now you are at an important part of the story." It also recalls for me the wondrous, dangerous knife at the center of Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife that can carve doorways into other worlds. Scott may not have cut an opening into another world, but he has definitely managed to slide the blade of his vision into another room, and to follow it there.  No doubt this has been "an important part of [his] story."

I've been watching the evolution and movement sometimes, sometimes hearing "the music from a farther room,"** sometimes not.  When we arrived at the gallery on the morning of January 11, I understood for the first time that a further creative process lay ahead. The final challenge was to transform the empty gallery space so that our eyes, imaginations, minds, and hearts could take in Scott's work and hold it close. "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you," says John 14:2.***  And so on that Saturday, Scott and Leila Bandar, the gallery's director, combined their energy, vision, and design sense to "prepare a place for you." Together, they made that space into a place, a room, a mansion if not a world.

The gallery is a nearly square room with high ceilings and tall windows on one of its four walls. At night, the windows on the outer wall reflect the contents of the gallery (as you can see in the top photo above); during the day, they admit the blue and gray light of Vermont winter. The three remaining walls host approximately fifty of Scott's paintings, loosely arranged in groups by content and theme.  One set of paintings features birds; another features -- or at least gives the impression of featuring -- couples.  Another set  is distinguished by the non-rectangular shape of each panel's design; I refer to this set of six, which you can see hanging in the middle of the wall shown here, as the "keyhole group" because every painting makes me feel as if I'm peering into a dark, forbidden space. Three sculptural installations and one animation complete and define the space.

Part of what feels alive and exciting about Darkness and Beauty is that it contains works that hadn't been part of Scott's working vision of the show because they did not exist before late December. Right after his teaching semester at Massasoit Community College was over in early December, Scott began to do some sculpting, working with cast plaster and built plaster to explore emergence and divergence, and other passages. He worked without feeling pressured to create something worthy of the gallery show, but he also worked with energy, purpose, and excitement -- and with the hope and possibility that he might create something that could go into the show.  Ultimately, he decided this work had something to contribute to the show, so it journeyed to Vermont, too.

The sculpture you see in the last photo above captures for me Scott's journey, and even his present state as he concludes his M.F.A. program: almost fully emerged, but still struggling toward full realization of his capacities to fly, perhaps even to soar. Who knows what will come next?

* So already, I know I'm Scott's wife and I know I'm biased, but the show is still magnificent.
** From "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
*** From the King James Version of the Gospel of John.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Howard's End #4: The Wisdom of Solomon and Estuaries, and Persistent Questions of Home

So already, the battered cover of my copy of Howard's End says it all. This blog post has been a long time coming. In terms of the intentional yet still haphazard process I've gone through to understand why this novel enthralls me, I feel as if I have been keeping company with T.S. Eliot's three kings in "Journey of the Magi":

      A hard time we had of it.
      At the end we preferred to travel all night,
      Sleeping in snatches,            
      With the voices singing in our ears, saying 
      That this was all folly.

It's very early on Saturday morning -- still dark -- and the voice on the radio has just reported that it's three degrees outside.  I've been awake for a while thinking about this blog post: fears of folly for sure, but then a moment of self-recognition at least -- folly still perhaps, but self-recognition.  So, as the last line of Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine says, "there . . . [is] nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home." 

But I warn you. This is going to be one long, rambling blog post!

Through my window, as if to encourage me, the pale apricot of dawn has now appeared.  As I struggled yesterday, I had the insightful, heartfelt blog post my student Solomon published on December 10 to inspire me.  Yesterday, I still feared that my over-identification with Margaret -- actual and sometimes aspired to -- was impeding my ability to get to the heart of this novel, was making it "impossible to say just what I mean!"* Today, I understand that my identification with Margaret -- not my over-identification with her -- must be essential to the meaning that I ultimately make and convey. 

Solomon's discussion of the "our own obtuseness" was what drew me in and began to "unmire" me:

The idea of connection exists throughout the novel. However, it is an abstract form of connection, a form that begs for a deep understanding of, and link to, the clarity and wisdom within us all. It is our obtuseness which blinds us to that wisdom. Until we connect, we are all Margaret's charity cases, EM Forster's charity cases, the charity cases of those who see the stain of obtuseness that abstracts our view. Howard's End is beautiful because it viciously swipes at the stain that so easily distracts us to what lies before us.**
Solomon's blog helped me to understand that in viewing my identification with Margaret as a source of "obtuseness" and seeking to set it aside, I was, ironically, bidding myself not to connect.  Furthermore, even as tried to disconnect, I couldn't: I kept noticing more and more aspects of Margaret's sensibilities that the movie version of the novel did not and could not convey fully, and my sense of connection to Margaret only grew.

It's fully morning now; blue skies with some clouds edging in from the west.  If you could you extend your line of vision from my dining room window (which happens to be in an old factory building that's been converted into condominiums) beyond the far housetop at the right-hand edge of this photo, you would soon see Black's Creek and, beyond it, the southerly end of Wollaston Beach.  This fact isn't merely incidental.  You'll see.

Right after I started my blog in late June, I was struck by a passage in Chimimanda Adichie's Americanah:  Adichie's main character's "blog was doing well, . . .  and yet there was cement in her soul.  It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness . . . that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness."  The whole issue of where one is at home, feels at home, lives without "cement in her soul" was also on my mind:  my approaching retirement, which signaled less time in Cambridge and more time in Quincy, raised questions about how much Quincy did and could feel like home to me and what "home" actually meant to me.  As I wrote in my journal in early July, 

Over the last few months, I've been thinking a great deal about home as place -- trying to understand it, when I've never had the experience of having [any kind of an idealized] spiritual home that belonged only or in part to me.  A few months ago when I first thought that a good answer to the question of "What are you going to do when you retire" was "Drive around and listen to the radio," I also had begun to wonder why I felt so much like myself when I was driving around and listening to the radio.  And I know a lot of other people who feel similarly "at home" when they're between places, caught up in that simulation of rootlessness and possibility -- as if with gasoline and time, they could go anywhere, do anything, be whoever they wanted, become whoever they wanted, start anew.  So is home about possibility? certainty? possibility and certainty? . . . Is home a world or a base camp?. . .  Is home the raison d'être, the destination, the meaning, the purpose? Or is it the stronghold from which . . .  -- fully aware on some level of one's tendencies, weaknesses, strengths, and dreams -- one ventures forth to discover new tendencies, weaknesses, strengths, and dreams?
The only thing I know is that real home cannot exists without real truth. 
Enter Solomon's wisdom about the threat obtuseness poses to our inner, essential clarity and wisdom. And enter Margaret Schlegel, who for most of Howard's End is without a home -- or technically, between homes. For much of the novel, there's much in Margaret's life -- most notably her engagement and marriage -- that might ordinarily contribute to the feelings of support, comfort, and the sense of being in place often associated with home.  But those feelings are practically non-existent for Margaret:  her engagement and marriage are both futile exercises in trying to cultivate Henry's abilities to connect emotionally and spiritually and, in so doing, to create a bond between them that could feel like "home."

It's her first visit to Howard's End that offers Margaret her first temporary liberation from the unrest that has characterized her life since she aligned it with Henry's:
Her evening was pleasant. The sense of flux which had haunted her all the year disappeared for a time. . . . She recaptured the sense of space, which is the basis of all earthly beauty, and, starting from Howard's End, she attempted to realise England. She failed—visions do not come when we try, though they may come through trying. But an unexpected love of the island awoke in her, connecting on this side with the joys of the flesh, on that with the inconceivable. Helen and her father had known this love, . . ., but it had been hidden from Margaret till this afternoon. It had certainly come through the house and old Miss Avery. Through them: the notion of "through" persisted; her mind trembled towards a conclusion which only the unwise have put into words. Then, veering back into warmth, it dwelt on ruddy bricks, flowering plum-trees, and all the tangible joys of spring (204-5).
Interestingly, Margaret's first impulse upon experiencing this liberating peacefulness and "sense of space" is to "realise England."  Because Margaret is a seeker of "visions," home must be not just a haven, but a vantage point, a place to see from, understand from. Shortly thereafter, she reflects that  ". . . [Howard's End] was English, and the wych-elm that she saw from the window was an English tree," observing later in the same paragraph that "House and tree transcended any similes of sex. . . . Yet they kept within limits of the human. Their message was not of eternity, but of hope on this side of the grave. As she stood in the one, gazing at the other, truer relationship had gleamed" (205-6). Howard's End is never mere real estate for Margaret; nor is it merely the potential physical and symbolic locus of familial affection, connection, and tradition. For Margaret, Howard's End embodies the eternity of England, past, present, and future wrapped up in the "now" which she feels instinctively at a later date when she and Helen ascend its stairs on the one night they expect to spend there:

The peace of the country was entering into her. It has no commerce with memory, and little with hope. Least of all is it concerned with the hopes of the next five minutes. It is the peace of the present, which passes understanding. Its murmur came "now," and "now" once more as they trod the gravel, and "now," as the moonlight fell upon their father's sword (315).
"Time past and time future/ What might have been and what has been/ Point to one end, which is always present." Margaret might have thought these lines from T.S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" said it well.

But the fact of the matter is that Margaret has intimations about the "something moreness" of life long before she lays eyes on Howard's End.  In initially representing to herself the different ways she and Henry think, she explains that

It is impossible to see modern life steadily and see it whole, and she had chosen to see it whole. Mr. Wilcox saw steadily. He never bothered about he mysterious or the private. The Thames might run inland from the sea, the chauffeur might conceal all passion and philosophy beneath his unhealthy skin. They knew their own business and he knew his (161-2).
In contrast, Margaret, cultivating the wholeness of her vision, deliberately contemplates civilization and the land and water that underlie and surround it.  She looks for the forces, natural and economic/political, that shape England, and wonders whether England belongs to the Henries or the Margarets among her citizens.
The water crept over the mud-flats towards the gorse and the blackened heather. Branksea Island lost its immense foreshores, and became a sombre episode of trees. Frome was forced inward towards Dorchester, Stour against Wimborne, Avon towards Salisbury, and over the immense displacement the sun presided, leading it to triumph ere he sank to rest. England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world's fleet accompanying her towards eternity? (175-6)
Despite her questions about to which English people England does and should belong, Margaret is certain  of England's bright eternity. Later, married but hardly settled, she offers a less optimistic view of England's future:
Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilisation which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task! (261).
While the flat, despairing tone of this passage reflects Margaret's concerns with England and civilization present and future, it also reflects Margaret's own transformative -- and therefore necessarily difficult -- moment.  Margaret is making new choices on the basis of a new sense of purpose and urgency:
As for theatres and discussion societies, they attracted her less and less. She began to "miss" new movements, and to spend her spare time re-reading or thinking, rather to the concern of her Chelsea friends. They attributed the change to her marriage, . . .. Yet the main cause lay deeper still; she had outgrown stimulants, and was passing from words to things. . . . Some closing of the gates is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power (262).
Even when "closing of the gates" feels absolutely necessary and right, it also feels momentous and definitive -- and therefore disorienting and strange. (That's what my retirement is feeling like right now!) The familiar we've outgrown always offers its own brand of comfort; a little despair is understandable.

But later, out of the "creative power" she's taken care to nurture in herself, Margaret offers a vision -- tendered not with certainty, but with hope --  for an England of the future that halts the frenetic "progress"  of the present civilization through a collective and renewed sense of the interconnectedness of civilization and the earth on which it rests and depends.

"Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever," she said. "This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilisation that won't be a movement, because it will rest on the earth. All the signs are against it now, but I can't help hoping, . . ." (339).
This is an adult, mature Margaret who's speaking here, daring to imagine a future that runs counter to currents of the day and risks being dismissed as foolishly optimistic.  She's been thinking of other currents for a while -- the motion of the Thames, the streams and rivers that continuously sculpt and resculpt England's "sinuous coast." Acting fully on her commitment to seeing life wholely, which requires consolidating and cultivating the mind's creative power,  Margaret really is at home, finally -- in herself. When Howard's End, in addition to being her spiritual inheritance, becomes her eventual legal property (through another Wilcox will), the event is anti-climactic yet nonetheless right. Though Howard's End has been more important as a means than as an end all through the novel, we feel vindicated that Mrs. Wilcox's perceptive dream has been realized -- and relieved that Margaret no longer needs to wonder where home will be.

When I first was drawn to and curious about the Howard's End passages about English towns, waterways, and land features and types, I knew nothing about estuaries. So I turned to the internet, from which I learned that
estuaries are coastal water bodies that combine fresh and salt water, often through the tidal movement of water. At the same time, I learned that Black's Creek was also an estuary -- one of four prominent estuaries located along Quincy's twenty-seven-mile coastline, and one of the two most associated with the early history of Massachusetts. While much has changed in Quincy since John Wollaston established a trading post at Black's Creek, the features of the land haven't, according to various sources I've read, for thousands of years.

Curious about Furnace Brook Parkway and why it begins on one side of but doesn't cross Quincy Shore Drive, I learned from Wikipedia that "Furnace Brook . . . begins on the eastern slopes of the Blue Hills and meanders for about four miles from southwest to northeast through the middle of Quincy, ending where it meets the Atlantic estuary known as Blacks Creek near Quincy Bay." I'm not fully sure why all of this means so much to me, but I suspect that I've been needing to build a relationship with Quincy's land and history in order to call Quincy home.  Furthermore, walking near this place on a regular basis connects me to time past, time present, and time future -- and, in so doing, gives me that feeling that, like Margaret, I'm trying, and sometimes succeeding, at seeing life whole.  Why this makes me feel "at home" I don't fully understand, but I think it has something to do with the feeling I have when I'm driving along "the open road" with my radio as my travel companion. 

I know that this sounds a little strange -- to me, too.  But herein again Margaret saves the day: 
"It is only that people are far more different than is pretended. All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. . . . It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences, eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey" (337-8).
So here's to sorrow and color, and to the chance to be ourselves, even when we baffle ourselves. Again, it's her creativity that empowers Margaret to take this stand against the dominion of the daily grey, which too often makes home -- and almost everything else -- subject to other people's conceptions. Here's also to the right we all have to see life whole, even when there's often so much pressure on us -- not just in the workplace, but in some of our associations with individual people and groups -- to see steadily.

As I finish writing this, it's very early afternoon.  Mid-morning's gray clouds have dissipated, permitting January's unrelenting sunshine to cast the shadows that are common just two weeks beyond the winter solstice. In this same two weeks, I have been struggling to remember another work of literature in which old, interconnected waterways figure prominently. Yesterday, I finally remembered that it's Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, another novel about literal and figurative homecoming, that ends with passage that refers to venerable waters:
The sun flared. I'd heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside. The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home. 
It's a car that Lipsha Morrissey is bringing home, but he's also going home with a new sense of who he is, where he fits, and where he belongs.  Margaret Schlegel would agree with him that we do live on dry land. But for many of us, it's a good thing to keep wetlands in view, in our mind's eye at least. And maybe even in the rear view mirror.

So thanks, Solomon; thanks, E.M. and Margaret; and thanks, Black's Creek. And however each of us envisions home, may it be, in all of its potential variation, a place of positive power and authentic connection.

*It always comes back to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" for me!  
Screen shot of open-road car dashboard from
Forster, E.M. Howard's End. New York: Vintage Books, 1921. Print.  
Wych Elm photo:  Screen shot from
Plum Tree Blossoms photo:  Screen shot from 
Map of Southern England: 
Estuary research:
Furnace Brook Parkway research: