Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Nothing Without Art: January 23, 2018--Ignorance and Hope in an Iron Age

"Prepare the Nest Below"** by Scott Ketcham
So already, we live in an iron age. I've been thinking that for a while, and I definitely thought a lot about it while I was reading Ann-Marie MacDonald's The Way the Crow Flies: A Novel.* What happens and why is something I encourage you to discover by reading this book. There's so much that's so wrong here, so much that's given power because it's omitted or shuffled to the side. Too many adults protecting other adults, children, and their own pet myths of heroism, duty, and happiness; too many children keenly aware of their parents' need to view them as untroubled, safe, and innocent. 

And still, there's a happy ending. Hope, though perhaps more for us as individuals than as a whole society. I could go on and on about how personally and deeply I was drawn into the protagonist's agonizing journey toward a happy enough place at the end of the novel--really, a place from which to take flight into the rest of her life--but that deserves its own blog post, one which might take a while to write.

The real issue is how one lives, works, and raises children when "Happy Days Are Here Again" is the mandated soundtrack of an era, despite not only the realities of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Space Race, but the evidence of past realities, in this novel best represented by the tattooed numbers on a German-speaking neighbor's forearm. How dare anything require explanations that might require telling a story that's so disturbing?

The problem is we become untethered when we fail to tell the deeply disturbing stories that actually make things make sense, especially if we bury them so that even we ourselves cannot find them. And we become monstrous if we rewrite the stories to make ourselves the good guys--when, in fact, we let, made, or helped to make the "bad thing" happen.

Photo from the Hawaiian Army Weekly, December 14, 2012****
Thinking about the whole ages of man idea, I went back to my old Mythology: Greek and Roman*** book and reread the chapter entitled "Myths of Deterioration and Destruction." While I'd recalled some aspects of the Gold, Silver, and Bronze Ages, I'd forgotten that Zeus had created a "race of heroes" when the Bronze Age waned. The heroes were considered by many to be demi-gods, and most lost their lives in wars, including the Trojan War (65). They reminded me of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation," who were defined by their valiant military service in a war that so many believed had to be fought and won. My father missed this war-related opportunity for greatness: entering the service as an 18-year-old in 1944, he did not see any "real action." Instead, he was a beneficiary of the sacrifices of this celebrated group. I think he always felt a little left out and a little guilty.

So what's the effect on a whole generation, or on multiple generations, who feel lucky but lesser--especially when, as is the case presently, its leaders are "coarse and brutish and callous" (65)--and whose stories of defining arcs of history are second- and third-hand? I'm not sure, but I suspect some of them continue to yearn to be part of the heroic war narrative.

Meanwhile, those who either lived or otherwise know a narrative that was hardly just heroic are often conflicted about how much to recollect, how much to feel obligated to recollect, and how much to share with others in order to make them understand. "Never again" can be a call to action, a statement of committed vigilance; or it can mean, "Don't ask me to go there again. Let me forget this. As far as we're concerned, this is over and done with." And who doesn't want to say "Don't worry" to those whose happiness and peace of mind are terribly important to us--such as one's children?

Ann-Marie MacDonald talks about this directly:
     "When stories are not told, we risk losing our way. Lies trip us up, lacunae gape like blanks in a footbridge. Time shatters and, though we strain to follow the pieces like pebbles through the forest, we are led farther and farther astray. Stories are replaced by evidence. Moments disconnected from eras. Exhibits plucked from experience. We forget the consolation of the common thread--the way events are stained with the dye of the stories older than the facts themselves. We lose our memory. This can make a person ill. This can make a world ill.
Postage Stamp Photo on Wikipedia*****
   "In 1969 a rocket piloted by men reached the moon. Men walked there. They were changed by the sight of the milky blue jewel of Earth across that vast darkness. But we were not changed. . . .

     "We were all supposed to think it all began with NASA. But it began with the Nazis. We knew this, half remembered it, but a great deal was at stake and we put it from our minds. Events without memory. Bones without flesh, Half a story--like a face gazing into an empty mirror, like a man without a shadow.
     "What do shadows do? They catch up" (pp. 590-591).
It's hard enough when an individual character tries to do what it takes to reclaim her shadow. The problem is that a society can only "get well" when a critical mass of its members are willing to engage their shadows and to delve deeply and earnestly into the stories they've "put from our minds."

If as a whole society, we don't tell the stories that make the world make sense, or we revise or let others to revise them so that they omit, conceal, or minimize difficult but essential truths, we intentionally or unintentionally condone deception and irresponsibility, demonstrate the hollowness of our professed values and principles, and approve the use of ignorance as a means to an end. Though we ourselves may not be the "coarse and brutish and callous" problem, we're also not part of the solution. And so the iron age takes hold and persists.

An iron age in a velvet glove puts at risk souls and lives, our own and those of children. Nor does the velvet fool children, at least not for very long--which doesn't mean their road is easy. MacDonald's protagonist's certainly isn't. Still, the novel ends with flecks of silver and gold, and with reconciliation and peace that feel genuine and genuinely achieved to me. I recommend The Way the Crow Flies enthusiastically.

* MacDonald, A. (2004). The way the crow flies: A novel. New York, NY: Harper Perennial. 
 ** "Prepare the Nest Below" http://www.scottketcham.com/post/152229929832/528-prepare-the-nest-below-2016-30-x-40-oil
*** Gula, R. J., & Carpenter, T. H. (1977). Mythology, Greek and Roman. Wellesley Hills, MA: Independent School Press. This book was the backbone of the "Greek Mythology" course I taught for years at the Pilot School at Cambridge Rindge and Latin.
**** Screen shot of photo on this link: http://www.hawaiiarmyweekly.com/2012/12/14/the-greatest-generation-remembers-dec-7-1941/ 
***** https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a4/First_Man_on_Moon_1969_Issue-10c.jpg/800px-First_Man_on_Moon_1969_Issue-10c.jpg

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.