So hungering for a slower, non-technological experience, longing for something to inspire me or at least distract me thoughtfully, wanting to recline on my sofa rather than hunch over my laptop, I picked up the July 20 New Yorker last Friday afternoon. Because I was feeling angry, useless, and generally out of sorts, I expected to find little in it to engage me.
Instead, though, I found lots to engage me. First there was the Sempé cover illustration with its arch title, "Under the Same Hat." Ah, that everyone had such a summer garden in which they and their friends, cool and composed, might gather around the ritual of tea or something else. Nice idea, but hardly likely, Sempé's title suggests. It mocks and jabs lightly but surely at the similarly attired foursome assembled amidst four perfectly pruned trees. Perhaps the genteel, closed social circle exists to affirm the world view its members trust one another to hold fast to in the face of the crazily changing, majorly disordered world beyond the garden. And just how how often, and for how long, do the members of this foursome imagine the existences of the inhabitants of that majorly disordered world? I know what I think, but I could be wrong about them. And it's not that no one should ever drink tea in a garden, either. Maybe the problem is those hats.
Despite my desire to escape the world's problems, the first actual article I was drawn into explored a long overdue earthquake's potential impact on the Pacific Northwest, given the region's current inadequate state of readiness for such an event. Reading the scenarios Kathryn Schulz sets forth in "The Really Big One" reminded me of reading Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth in three New Yorker installments in the early 1980's. There are haunting lines in Schulz's article, and they seem to apply to so many situations that crop up on my news feed routinely:
"The Cascadia subduction zone . . . poses a danger to us today because we have not thought deeply enough about the future. That is no longer a problem about information; . . .. Nor is it a problem of imagination. If you are so inclined, you can watch an earthquake destroy much of the West Coast this summer in Brad Peyton's 'San Andreas,' . . .. As these movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less of a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps us to avert them."More bad news for sure: if the ladies in Sempé's cover illustration are drinking tea anywhere near Seattle, they won't stand a chance, even if their hats convert into flotation devices. But there was something helpful in Schulz's analysis and her tone. Imagining can't be the endpoint, and we're in big trouble if envisioning our own destruction makes us feel we're responding adequately to the possibility of it. But Schulz's tone makes it possible for people who've been looking the other way or simply living in ignorance of this information to begin acting helpfully right now.
Near the end of the article, Schulz talks about a Pacific Northwest school superintendent who has unsuccessfully sought funds to build a campus outside what the article calls the "tsunami inundation zone." No such funds are being made available to him, due to certain regulations, and he lives with the knowledge that one of the elementary schools for which he is responsible cannot be evacuated to a location that would ensure the students' safety. Schulz's article was hardly uplifting, but I was grateful to Schulz for sharing Superintendent Doug Dougherty's willingness to imagine a terrible scenario and do all in his power to prevent it. I am waiting to see if something good and proactive might come of Schulz's advocacy for Dougherty and his students.
I was next drawn to a Tony Hoagland poem, a good counterbalance, I hoped, to the serious problem Schulz's article had educated me about. I always count on Tony Hoagland to slap me upside my head, always by holding the mirror up to himself and keeping it in place until we both laugh and know all too well who we are, even if those around us may not see it. In "Giving and Getting," Hoagland experiences rubbing the feet of an old friend who's been hospitalized as being "like reaching into some/ thick part of my heart that couldn't feel/ and kneading away at it . . .." Recognizing that he's receiving although he's ostensibly giving, he reflects on his "persistent selfishness," manifested by "one of my hands offering the gift, the other/ trying to take something back." And the problem is that this self-knowledge doesn't make the selfishness okay, doesn't in of itself reconcile and accommodate those ideas and acts which are mutually exclusive:
Giving and gettingAny mention of horses in a poem invariably reminds me of Mark Doty's "Source"* and James Wright's "A Blessing." So Hoagland's poem washed over me as if redemption, usefulness, and peace were indeed possible, imaginable in a basically good world. Our own weaknesses, our arrogant selfishness--we can transcend them as long as we look reverently beyond the universe of ourselves. And yet, when we do look beyond ourselves, how hard it is to reconcile the flat, placid world where these two horses stand, far from any ocean shore, with the endangered coastal world of the Pacific Northwest. That's our challenge, holding it all, not being drowned by it while thinking about the seriousness of drowning.
like two horses arriving at the same time
from opposite directions
at the stone gate
that will allow only one to pass.**
Holding it all somehow is one of the problems of the protagonist of Lauren Groff's short story, "Ghosts and Empties." Groff shares Tony Hoagland's reverent irreverence, his ability to mock himself, but her story is more serious than Hoagland's poem, perhaps because its protagonist is a wife and a mother whose behaviors necessarily have impact on those in her family. I still don't understand Groff's title much at all, but her first paragraph spoke to me right away, even though I'm not the mother of sons:
"I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell."
I too have a husband who doesn't yell; I too often go stomping around the neighborhood when I'm out of sorts, and walking around the neighborhood when I'm less agitated and the world can penetrate my consciousness without my rolling it into a ball and hurling at someone or something else.
But as a rule, I don't go at night, when Groff's protagonist goes. She explains that as her neighborhood goes dark, "a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one." This was the first hint she offered me of a parallel universe, one that's dangerous and aggravating, but also mystical. To explain how the neighborhood is "imperfectly safe"--dangerous and not dangerous--the narrator reveals that
"There was a rape a month ago . . .; and, a week ago, a pack of loose pit bulls ran down a mother with a baby in her stroller and mauled both, though not to death. It's not the dogs' fault; it's the owners' faults! dog-lovers shouted on the neighborhood e-mail list, and it's true, it was the owners' fault but also those dogs were sociopaths."That no one died is the good news; but if you're looking for compassion, it might be better to be a dog in Groff's narrator's neighborhood than a human being. And can dogs be sociopaths? I don't know, but I can feel that our narrator is up to her ears in a certain kind of exasperation that reflects my own on occasion, even though I almost always feel people, including myself, are doing the best they can.
But in general, Groff's narrator likes strangers at a distance, as do I: there are certain people whom she encounters on her rounds, wonders about, monitors the lives of, cares about: she fears that the old woman who walks a Great Dane "the color of dryer lint" is not well, wonders if the obese teenage boy who is endlessly on his treadmill can see "how with each step his stomach ripples as if it were a pond into which someone had tossed a fist-size stone," and fantasizes about the hymn-singing of the nun-remnant--"the three kindly sisters squeaking around that immense [monastery] space in their sensible shoes."
There's something so beloved in her attention to the inhabitants of that second nighttime neighborhood. But they aren't the only ones taking up space in her mind, so she keeps yelling.
Which brings me to my favorite paragraph in this story, which is only three pages long in its entirety--something else I liked about it.
"It's too much, it's too much, I shout at my husband some nights when I come home, and he looks at me, afraid, this giant gentle man, and sits up in bed over his computer and says, softly, I don't think you've walked it off yet, sweets, you may want to take one more loop. I go out again, furious, because the streets become more dangerous this late at night, and how dare he suggest risk like this to me, when I have proved myself vulnerable; but, then again, perhaps my warm house has become more dangerous as well. During the day, while my sons are in school, I can't stop readingWhy--and how--does she think she's proved herself vulnerable? My guess is that anyone experiencing her passionate energy would think her strong rather than vulnerable. But if vulnerability is associated with feeling out of sync with the world marked by loneliness, ongoing dimunition, and large and small disasters, I so understand her feeling of vulnerability. And, oh, I so relate to her experience of compulsively "reading about the disaster of the world."
about the disaster of the world, the glaciers dying like living creatures, the great Pacific trash gyre, the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of species, millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious. I read and savagely mourn, a if reading could somehow sate this hunger for grief, instead of what it does, which is fuel it."
Still, the phrase in this paragraph that really pulled me up short was "this hunger for grief." When I was younger, I characterized grief as something that we necessarily endured with the hopes of moving beyond the excruciating pain of it at some point. But in the last few years, I've begun to recognize grief--hard, true grief that can hardly bear the loss of someone or something dearly loved, that sits so deeply within a person that it's all she can do to breathe--is something to savor on an important level. When you grieve, really let yourself know the pain of loss and permanent change, you feel terrible--terribly true to yourself and terribly alive. And everyone wants and needs know that they're really, truly alive, at least some of the time.
Every once in a while, some version of this grief, probably a distant cousin of it, rears up in me, surprises me, and holds me fast. The last time was when I was watching Woman in Gold on a flight from Dubai to Boston. I didn't know why I cried as hard as I did during the last half hour of the movie--it had to be about more than my understanding of the number and nature of profound losses experienced by the Helen Mirren character. So I sniveled and wept, taking comfort in the fact that everyone around me was sound asleep and insensible to my struggles to breathe through my congested nose. I knew I was crying for me, too, about something I still can't identify.
Which leads me to Groff's narrator and the kind of wandering and neighborhood monitoring that is dangerous for her to give up--and not to give up. Groff's narrator doesn't give up her nighttime walks, and it's a good thing: during her second year of criss-crossing her neighborhood, she notices that the obese boy, "my flabby friend," has undergone "a transformation so astonishing it's as if a maiden had turned into a birch tree or stream" (as the former teacher of "Greek Mythology," how I loved this line!). She reacts audibly: "I yelp aloud because of the swiftness of youth, these gorgeous changes that insist that not everything is decaying faster than we can love it."
Has that been the root cause of the problematic yelling, the fear that all would decay and die before it could be loved, before she could love it? By this point in the story, the narrator isn't talking much about her yelling, which may have ceased altogether. The world too changes; and as the vernal pool frog-singing builds to a crescendo, the narrator has an experience of profound beauty, courtesy of the lighting installed by the new owner of the former nunnery which illuminates the full span of the branches of an ancient, commanding oak tree:
I've always known the tree was there, . . . But it has never before announced itself fully as the colossus that it is, with its branches that that are so heavy they grow toward the ground then touch and grow upward again; and thus, elbowing itself up, it brings to mind a woman at the kitchen table, knuckling her chin and dreaming. I stand shocked by its beauty, . . .Groff's narrator writes herself into natural and mystical worlds with her domestic metaphor. It's as if she herself, like the oak tree, has needed to grow down toward the dark earth before ascending again toward light. Which she's finally doing.
|"Beseeching Apparition" by Scott Ketcham****|
It's at the tail end of the story that I diverge most strongly from Groff's narrator: she asserts that the moon laughs, but not at us because "we . . . are too small and our lives are too fleeting for it to give us any notice at all." If anything, social media has been convincing me that we can be big and powerful, that we can organize and act, that we need not feel defined by what is and has been, though we must learn from it. That's the wonderful opportunity it creates.
But here's the shadow of that opportunity: with that understanding of our potential individual and collective power comes a whole new responsibility for wielding that power. If we belong to multiple virtual and face-to-face communities that endlessly and very responsibly share information about injustices and disasters churned out by a world in which violence, ignorance, and indifference do so much harm--the kinds of situations and tragedies that Groff's narrator was reading endlessly, addictively about--choosing how and when to act becomes a constant and therefore potentially exhausting responsibility and imperative. Especially when tragedies proliferate simultaneously, it's hard to know which to attend to and respond to first. Plus new tragedies create a need for us to educate ourselves so that when we do respond, we can do so knowledgeably and effectively. There's always so much to do and to learn. Can we be blamed for wanting and needing to retreat from it all at times?
I haven't yet figured out how to take good care of me and good care of the world simultaneously. And having now almost finished writing this blog post, I now understand that this has been at the root of my feeling so uncomfortable--and so angry about feeling uncomfortable that what I really, really wanted to do was yell--at everyone, anyone, everything, anything.
I know that Wordsworth, the romantic poet who worried about the effects of industrialization on society and the human spirit, was lamenting those of his era's increasing disconnection from the world of nature, but as I was lying in bed this morning, I found myself recalling one of his great sonnets:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,*****
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
|"Attendants" by Scott Ketcham****|
Now it's late Monday morning. Outside my window, summer hangs in the air as if it just might be endless; the trees couldn't be greener and more lush than they are. The humidity feels like it won't relent, but that's summer. At the moment, I'm feeling more like the front figure in the painting at the right than like the disgruntled, lonely wanderer I sometimes feel myself to be. I think that when the imbalance warning bell sounds, I'm going to be able to find or regain the balance that's necessary for both doing and being. Perhaps all it takes is an hour or two off and a good magazine. If I take those kinds of breaks more frequently than I have been, I think I should be able to do right by me and right by the world.
* "Horses at the Gate" photograph downloaded from <http://freehdw.com>: Free HD Wallpapers for Wide Screen.
** The poem "Source" follows the poem "Broadway" on this link.
*** Screen shot of <http://rantaboutfilm.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/womaningoldposter.jpg>
**** Check out other paintings by Scott Ketcham at <scottketcham.com>.