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Monday
Dec152014

Stop the Sun; "Now I become myself"

A fourth press rejected my manuscript this month. Four are still thinking about it (I hope).

Perhaps like most journal-writers, I enjoy reading the published journals of others.  In certain moods I even enjoy reading my own old journals (I have kept one, off and on, for over fifty years).  If nothing else, they aid a weak memory and remind me that bad times do eventually get better.  Things change.

For one reason or another I have been re-reading two journals by other journal-writers –May Sarton  and Madeleine L’Engle—both of whom, of course, had other writing careers: Sarton as a poet  (A Durable Fire, etc.)and L’Engle as a novelist (A Wrinkle in Time, etc.).  I read them for similar reasons as I re-read my own journals: for reassurance that, as dark as things sometimes get, not only will they eventually get better, but that there is a community of people who feel and have experienced the same things.

For instance, in December of 1982, May Sarton (1912-1995) writes in At Seventy: A Journal,

Why is it, I wonder, that Christmas brings so much depression with it, so many people struggle against an undertow? It is partly because this moment of light shines out of the darkest and shortest days of the year, the lowest ebb of the cycle when wise animals dig themselves in for a long sleep, while we, driven creatures, spend immense energy on wrapping presents, sending off packages, baking cookies (this I used to do but have stopped doing myself, so other people’s cookies are speicailly welcome). Partly it is that memories well up and not all are happy ones. We are dealing with a host of faces and times and sorrows and joys, and there is no time to sort them out.

 

Madeleine L’Engle’s 1977 journal The Irrational Season includes this fragment of poetry:

This is the irrational season

When love blooms bright and wild.

Had Mary been filled with reason

There’d have been no room for the child.

L’Engle (1918-2007) muses, about this season, “primitive people used to watch the sun drop lower on the horizon in great terror, because they were afraid that one day it was going to go so low that it would never rise again; they would be left in unremitting night. There would be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, and a terror of great darkness would fall upon them. And then, just as it seemed that there would never be another dawn, the sun would start to come back; each day it would rise higher, set later.

                “Somewhere in the depths of our unconsciousness we share that primordial fear, and when there is the first indication that the days are going to lengthen, our hearts, too, lift with relief. The end has not come: joy! and so a new year makes its birth known.”

The world is a strange, unpredictable, and often dangerous place. How lucky we are for the “old,” for those who reassure us that, having been through many such periods of darkness or“into the woods” yet again, light will return.  I often send my younger self such reassurances.

From the period of 1977 and 1982, I was struggling with unemployment and single-parenthood, trying to find enough time to write because that was what I sensed I needed to do. The future was so uncertain and I was so impatient to know “for sure” what was going to happen.  I had had a few poems published here and there and had been interviewed by someone in Madison for an NPR radio show, but that was the extent of it. My piano sat, out of tune and untouched, in a corner.

Sarton and L’Engle were two writers who experienced long periods of self-doubt stemming from what they saw as repeated rejections by publishers and “the academy.”  But by the times they had written these journals, they had achieved a modicum of recognition.

Just as “Sabbath” means, etymologically, “heart-rest”—a time for the heart to rest--“solstice” means a time when the sun "stands still."  And so I close with this wonderful, heartening poem by Sarton, which seems “made” for this week’s winter Solstice.

And thanks to Linda Terwilliger for this performance of the poem set to music by Gwyneth Walker.

Thursday
Dec112014

Wonder Child

I suppose that most of us have had a time when we saw someone in passing in a window reflection and later realized that it was ourselves. Or we heard a recording of our laugh or speech and didn’t recognize our own voice.

I was listening to my iPod while exercising the other day, having just added a lot of old cds to the mix. When I put it on “shuffle” some very strange but interesting combinations come up—from Janis Joplin straight to a Schubert impromptu. Well, as I started to pedal the exercise bike, I was listening to someone playing Brahms.I knew it might be me since I often record my own recitals, but then I also record the pieces As Played By Real Professionals.  After only a few bars, it was pretty clear that the pianist was indeed I. I’m not sure I’d ever before played that recording of me through; like many people, I dislike hearing/seeing myself “caught” on tape of any kind.  But I continued listening and did indeed “catch” the many (small?) qualities that separate amateur from professional: not only the missed notes here and there, but also a tendency not to modulate the dynamics as carefully and gracefully as a professional does. In fact, “banging away” was the phrase that came to mind. Not to denigrate what I had done, but as the following selection in the shuffle was Wynton Marsalis tenderly blowing his horn, and then Mitsuko Uchida breezing through a Beethoven sonata, it was quite easy to see the difference.

Similarly, I remember having to video a “mock” client session during one of my long-ago MSW courses.  Though I probably asked most of the “right” questions, the sight that jumped out at me when reviewing the video was the way my head kept nodding, nodding, nodding—no matter what the pretend “client” was saying. And I would never have noticed (or corrected) it were it not for that “objective” feedback.

I’ve said elsewhere in this blog how important feedback is—in anything, probably—but certainly in the creative process. Others seem to see us, at times, much more clearly than we do ourselves: both the “good” and the “bad.”  And if we are of a particularly suggestible nature, we use that feedback to self-correct. Hopefully, the more experienced we are, we can comb through the feedback, rejecting what seems wrong for us and considering new possibilities about which we might never have been aware.

My dear piano teacher, Stefanie, has once again provided some excellent feedback in the form of her stated belief that I CAN INDEED play the last variation of Beethoven’s Op. 110. Since it was the double trills in that two-page monstrosity that had me near despair a few months ago, I had convinced myself that I simply could not do it. It was a deal-breaker. But a week ago, she simply said that she KNEW I could do it; that she wasn’t just patting me on the back, but she had no doubt THAT I COULD DO IT.

Sometimes, I think, teachers of all kinds (including parents) are unaware of the power of their judgments about us. Their positive or negative assessments of us and our abilities become internalized, to the point where we sometimes no longer attempt what we have been told we cannot do (or have unsuccessfully tried in the past). 

I spoke last time of a bumper sticker that I have NOT (yet) put on my bumper. But the one I do have reads “Do not always believe what you think.”  We are usually capable of much more than what we think we are. If we are lucky enough to be in a forgiving, open environment, we are free to experiment with those possibilities, and don’t worry too much about negative feedback, except in cases where it is helpful to us, in terms of necessary corrections.

musingsandmiscellaniesohmy.blogspot.comI had reason recently to revisit John Bradshaw’s book Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child. Initially written for the children of alcoholics, it has become a favorite book of many who seek to recapture the creativity of what he calls the archetypal “wonder child” within us all. He writes,

The wonder child has all the natural ingredients necessary for creativity. Carl Rogers and a group of psychologists and artists studied the dynamics of creativity. They looked for the psychological conditions that are necessary in order for a person to be creative. They found that the following elements were essential in fostering creativity: playfulness; spontaneity; ability to live in the now; ability to experience wonder; ability to concentrate; and the capacity to be one’s own locus of evaluation. [… meaning] that one has a sense of satisfaction with him[sic]self. …When we’re in touch with this part of us, we have our creative power available.

The archetype of the infant-in-exile, as he calls it, is universal.  In fact, come to think of it, it’s the theme of The Lion King, the stage version of which I took my grandsons to last weekend. The “real” heir to the throne is exiled, displaced by a harsh, critical, dark version of a king, who must be and is eventually overthrown when the “real” heir grows up and casts out the“pretender.” 

We all have this work to do.  Simba has to resist the voices telling him to stay and “not worry”--"hakuna matata." He has to face the danger and do the work of going back and reclaiming his rightful throne.  Bradshaw goes on to say,

By reclaiming and championng your wonder child you can let your light shine. Again, it was [Carl] Jung who said, ‘The child is that which brings the light into the darkness and carries the light before it.’…. The wonder child  opens us to the mythical divine child expressed in the infant-in-exile motif. It takes us beyond the literal child of our personal histories. All of our stories tell of a hero/heroine, a divine child who was exiled and who is on a journey to find his[/her] true self.

So, no, I don’t feel particularly bad that I can’t play as well as Mitsuko Uchida.  I have had too many other interests in life to give the piano those 15,000 hours necessary to become a “master.” But I can see progress, which, in itself, is “heady,” especially at my age. And it’s when I’m at the piano or writing that my “wonder child” comes out to play, seeking all the helpful feedback she can get.

www.cahlil-therapy.co.uk

In this season of darkness and light, of stories of divine children fleeing to safety, I hope you protect, encourage, and let your inner child come out to play. Listen carefully and lovingly to his or her story.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday
Dec052014

The Lies of Memory and the Truths of Poetry

“Trust those who seek the truth. Doubt those who have found it.”  This is a bumper sticker I have on my refrigerator but have never dared to put on my car. I have been harassed because of  my Obama stickers; who know what encounters this challenge would lead to?

These days, when I think of my sister who died sixty-two years ago, I remember only flashes of the times when she was moving away from me: leaving me to fend for myself at a Halloween party; asking my mother to make me leave her and her friends alone; abandoning me (on an earlier Halloween) while trick or treating, leaving me to encounter a door-hung skeleton alone at age three. 

These are not, however, the memories of others who knew her.  A cousin, who is now as old as my sister would be, remembers only how much my sister loved me, how she never minded my hanging around, as other big sisters did. Others, too, have said that she “adored” me and loved being with me.

Which memories are “true”? 

Probably both, perhaps neither, and I am still working to accept the fact that I will probably never “know” for sure.

There was a fascinating article on the Op-Ed page of the NYT on December 2 called “Why Our Memory Fails Us,”  written by two psychology professors: Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.  Pianists, of course, expect memory to fail them, and I have written about that elsewhere (see September 27, below). But what about the memories that poems are built on? Do they fail us too?

“We are all fabulists,” say Chabris and Simons, “and we must all get used to it.”  They go on to say that the content of our memories can easily change over time.  They tend to “morph” to match our beliefs about ourselves and our world. “When we recall our own memories, we are not extracting a perfect record of our experiences and playing it back verbatim. Most people believe that memory works this way, but it doesn’t.  Instead, we are effectively whispering a message from our past to our present, reconstructing it on the fly each time. .. Studies find that even our ‘flashbulb memories’ of emotionally charged events can be distorted and inaccurate, but we cling to them with the greatest of confidence.”

Why do we do that? No doubt because we are emotionally invested in things having been a certain way, even traumatic memories.

A controversial study publicized this past spring discussed the possibility of erasing certain traumatic memories through the use of electroconvulsive therapy. “The lead researcher, Marijn Kroes, a neuroscientist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and his colleagues found that by strategically timing ECT bursts—which induce seizures by passing current into the brain through electrode pads placed on the scalp—it is possible to target and disrupt patients' memor[ies] of . . . disturbing episode[s].

“In the study, participants were shown slideshows of two ‘emotionally traumatic events’—a car crash and a sexual assault—which were also narrated to the participants so as to better entrench them in their minds [emphasis mine]. One week later, participants were asked to recall the events, and a treatment group received ECT bursts as they tried to retrieve the memory. The next day, participants were given a multiple-choice memory test. It turned out that the patients who underwent the electroshock treatment were significantly worse at remembering details from the stories than those who were either anesthetized or given no treatment at all. Those who were treated with ECT performed no better than if they had simply taken a guess.

“Such a finding raises serious questions, not least of which is: Should we be tampering with our memories? But in order to answer this, one must first determine the value of a memory. If it is true that our actions, our personalities, our very notions of self are based on the experiences we have had and on the memories we have collected, then to delete our memories would be to destroy a part of ourselves.”

In her autobiographical essay, “A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” And William Wordsworth, of course, defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” [italics mine].

To do away with our memories is to do away with the past, and to do away with the past is, in some sense, to do away with the present.  And would "doing away" with bad memories also “do away” with a lot of poetry?

Some argue that it is worth it to change a bit of our personal identity in order to get some relief from horrible memories in the past. “Yet,” writes Cody C. Delistraty in the May 15, 2014, issue of The Atlantic, “even if researchers do find a way to entirely delete memories in a clean-cut, simple manner, we would still be posed with a moral dilemma. . . the question of whether we no longer want our past to inform our present. Would total forgetfulness really guarantee our mental freedom? Or would a mind void of bad memories only presage a future of monotony, of a tendency to lose track of who we were, and in so doing, lose track of who we want to be?”

Good questions.

I have been told that the sudden death of my beloved sister when I was seven; my sitting in the car in the hospital parking lot, alone, for seven hours, forgotten, while attempts were made to save her life; my having been told never to speak of her again because it upset my mother so much (the resulting lack of “narration,” as Kroes suggests, probably adding to the erasure of whatever memories I had): that these constituted a traumatic event from my past that has greatly informed the rest of my life.

It’s true that the first poems I ever wrote were baby-steps toward understanding and dealing with that trauma. And many poems that I have written in the past have been ongoing attempts to  “integrate,” as psychologists say, that event into my psyche. And so: would I want to eliminate that memory in order to have a trauma-free past? Quite the opposite. Actually,  my father’s directive about never speaking about my sister probably destroyed many of the memories I did have. I wanted, and still want, to remember her. But after years of trying to ferret out “the truth” about who she was and about our relationship, I have slowly come to make peace with  the realization that all I have are my own reconstructions and fabrications.

The traumatic experience of her death was my opening into the world of poetry, of art. Would I give that up? I cannot speak for or judge the wishes that others may have to forget experiences of extreme horror.  But for me? Never in a million years.  Yes, there is guilt in having survived, but poetry has helped me to explore even that, for instance, in my poem “Survivor: Banking on It”  (from my 2011 chapbook Rescue Mission).

I knew, even in my teens, that my memory was not very good. The following is from a journal entry written in twelfth-grade English class (I bless that teacher who gave us twenty minutes a day to write, though I have forgotten his/her name!):  “Life would take on more meaning [if we knew that]only impressions of experiences, not the specific experiences themselves would be remembered.  Therefore, the sonnet by Shakespeare that contains the lines ‘This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long’ takes on more meaning when applied, not just to one person, but to the memory of life’s experiences themselves.”

I have no memory whatsoever, either of writing that, or of sitting for the snapshot included at the beginning of this entry.  But that did not keep me from “fabulating”—creating something from those unremembered experiences. Here is “Family Snapshot” (again from my chapbook Rescue Mission):

 

Family Snapshot

 

You sit at the center:

the older sister,

the only one of us smiling,

the only one composed, gazing

direct into the eye of the camera

as if to affirm (though the rest of us

won’t know this for another month):

your life stands complete.

 

The rest of us are caught

somewhere in the midst of our lives,

perched on the porch steps

(despite cracks in the cement).

We are blurred or blinking or glancing off

at the horizon or down at the dogs.

We have so many more things

to do. We can hardly wait to

shift, to be released from this enforced

immobility.

 

Grouped in still life, no one looks

at anyone else. No one touches. Unposed,

we suffer the shot in the thick of our

own separate, suspended lives.

 

Though we didn’t see it then,

it’s clear as the sky before a quake:

you were to become the core of our epic,

your approaching death

(forever after) our epicenter. 

Monday
Dec012014

How to be Both

Much is being made of Scottish photographer and writer Ali Smith’s new novel How to be Both, long-listed for both the Man Booker and Orange book prizes, and which is to be released in this country tomorrow. (Attention: people to whom I might give it--don’t buy it yourself until after the holidays!)

In it, reports The Guardian, “the textual order depends on an element of chance. The book has two interconnected stories. There is a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father. And then there is an Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure responsible for a series of striking frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.

“Depending on which copy you pick up at random, you will either be presented with George's story first or with Francesco's. The two narratives twist around each other like complicated vines – one of George's last trips with her mother was to see the Ferrara frescoes and del Cossa is haunted by strange visions of a teenage girl who uses ‘a votive tablet’ and holds it to heaven ’like a priest raising the bread’. The fact that this votive tablet is an iPad and that the reader is in on the joke while Francesco isn't, is just one of the witty touches with which Smith splices the novel.”

Such ambiguity is very interesting to me since I came long ago to suspect—and good poetry confirms--that life is never as fixed or events as rigid as we tend to think.

A recent article in the Huffington Post by Carolyn Gregoire suggests, for instance, that we are not neatly either “introverts” or “extraverts,” but, like many existing conditions, fall somewhere on the spectrum:  “To some extent, introverts can behave as extraverts, and vice versa. But if an introvert pushes themselves [sic] to act like an extravert for too long -- going out and socializing every night, or putting themselves in too many high-stimulation situations -- they're likely to burn out.

“An ambivert, on the other hand, consistently moves between the two orientations, and is more able to take advantage of the fluid nature. Having a flexible personality allows the ambivert to better adapt to different situations, and to make the most of various personal characteristics.”

This makes sense to me in terms of my own experience.  Thanksgiving, for instance,  for most of us (like many holidays) calls for a very extraverted attitude. People gather in large groups, with all the attendant conversation.  Such surface talk I do not enjoy, but have learned to do fairly well (sometimes digging deeper than etiquette suggests), but I have also found a kind of balance between such dinner-table conversation and one-on-one, more intimate talks, with each member of my family. Doing both keeps me much calmer and more centered.

It is also difficult, I’ve found, during gatherings of even our closest and dearest, to go off by oneself for awhile either just to silence the voices in one’s head and/or to practice some personal activity. For instance, over the long holiday weekend just past, at one point when I was not immediately “needed” for some activity, I went to the piano (in a separate room) and played the Beethoven sonata I’ve been working on. I did not “practice” it: I do have some trepidation about imposing my practice sessions on other people, as repetitive and discordant and filled with mistakes as my practice sessions inevitably are. But I did touch the piano, play for half an hour, and returned, refreshed, to my own beloved hoard of children, guests, and grandchildren. I also discussed a poem with one of my daughters and listened to another daughter play the piano (having seen me do it, she hopefully felt ok with doing it herself).  None of us was being “anti-social,” but that is sometimes how I fear it appears.

In an NPR interview with Ali Smith by Scott Simon, Smith speaks of surfaces and what lies beneath them: “it just intrigued me that there's the surface which we see, we see for all those hundreds and hundreds of years. And yet, below it, there's something else that we're looking at, that we can't see. And I just was interested to see whether we can apply that structure to the novel.”  Our third daughter, absent from Thanksgiving this year, recently taught me the word “palimpsest,” which means something written or drawn beneath something else (and which I used as a partial title for a recent poem).  It definitely adds dimension and possibility to be able to see/relate to both surface and depth.

Smith goes on to say, “there's a fabulous poem by the author Muriel Spark called ‘Authors' Ghosts’ in which she describes coming downstairs in the middle of the night and taking a book off the shelf and looking at it and thinking  that's not the book I read. This isn't the end I remember. An author's ghost has been in there and has changed it.

“So there's a constant aliveness in the form between us and it as we change. And I think great novels and great stories [and great poems] - they allow for our change and they come anew to us every time.”

I will end with this wonderful poem by Mark Strand, another of that generation of poets who recently died--this week at the age of 80. First published in his 1979 Selected Poems, today it reads like so:

 

 

Lines for Winter

                                    for Ros Krauss

Tell yourself

as it gets cold and gray falls from the air

that you will go on

walking, hearing

the same tune no matter where

you find yourself—

inside the dome of dark

or under the cracking white

of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.

Tonight as it gets cold

tell yourself

what you know which is nothing

but the tune your bones play

as you keep going. And you will be able

for once to lie down under the small fire

of winter stars.

And if it happens that you cannot

go on or turn back

and you find yourself

where you will be at the end,

tell yourself

in that final flowing of cold through your limbs

that you love what you are.

 

So tonight, may we love what we are, what our friends and family are, even what our world currently is, with all our contradictions, ambiguity, possibilities, and hidden shadows.

Sunday
Nov232014

Gratitude for a Late Bloomer

I read this morning that the best “cure” for impulse buying is a sincere gratitude for what you already have.  And if there is a week to curb impulse buying AND to be grateful, this coming week is traditionally it!

And, without even trying too hard, I have had several surprises this past week, for which I am really grateful.

  • ·         I remembered that I already owned the Billy Childs (who is 57, by the way) album, Autumn: In Moving Pictures, for which I was again ready to lay out hard-earned cash. 
  • ·         A woman in Walmart saw that I had stupidly left my purse on a counter and turned it in to customer service within five minutes with everything intact.
  • ·         Even though my shoulder has been hurting, I swam today and discovered that those upper back muscles I’ve been trying to strengthen with the wide resistance bands have apparently kicked in: they took SO MUCH pressure off my shoulder I could hardly believe it!
  • ·         And two days ago, my old (and I mean OLD) hibiscus plant that had been sunning on the porch all summer with nary one bloom, did this:

 I cannot tell you how happy I was and how I chortled to that plant like a proud grandparent.  So many of my houseplants have been rescued from curb-side so, as with rescued dogs, you never quite know what you’re getting. But this one bloomed in November—the only blooming thing in sight.

 It made me start to think about late bloomers in general.  We all know that Anna Mary Robertson Moses started painting in her 70s (because embroidery aggravated her arthritis). 

Winter Wallpaper

Norman Maclean published A River Runs Through It when he was 74.

Wallace Stevens, about whose use of metaphor I wrote my doctoral dissertation, didn’t start to write seriously until his 50s.  (He worked in an insurance company most of his life. When his colleagues finally learned that he was a published poet, they exclaimed, in disbelief, ‘Wally??’)

I was especially humbled this week after listening to Stefanie Jacob and Teresa Drews perform so athletically and emotionally Tuesday night. At my lesson Friday (another thing for which I'm thankful), like the good teacher she is, Stefanie acknowledged what she tactfully called my "different learning curve," and indicated that I have made "progress" in emotional expression over the past few years. So today I returned to the laborious process of memorizing some of the Bach Partita I will play at next April's scholarship audition: trying first for finger memory; then, when that fails, sound; and finally the realization that the note that kept tripping me up was, in fact, a D#. Learning a piece is a decidedly unemotional process for me.

Virginia Bell, whose blog appears in the Huffington Post (Post 50), today wrote something entitled  “It’s Never Too Late to Be a Late Bloomer.”  She starts by saying, “Late bloomers are a special breed and often misunderstood. They can appear ridiculous to the rest of the world as they pursue some private dream or else bounce from one profession to another. In the end, they have a longer road and a tougher climb for it requires tremendous faith, courage and an iron will to keep going, especially when there's no tangible success. In a way they are like the stubborn, dogged plants that thrive in unlikely places under harsh conditions; they are the desert flowers, the indomitable trees pushing through city sidewalks and vacant lots [like my abandoned hibiscus].”

She ends her thoughts with this: “ …we all have our own individual timing and like flowers, we bloom at different seasons. What's essential is to honor that timing and trust the process no matter how long it takes or where it leads. Sometimes that process is a direct route on a well-paved road but other times the road is filled with pot holes and detours. Maybe some people need longer to marinate and mature because they aren't just developing their craft or skill; they are also growing into the kind of person who can carry that gift into the world. Perhaps, in the end, it's not so important when we bloom but who we become along the way.”

So we come back to my beautiful, late-blooming hibiscus, whose blossom is even more special because it took so long, though, of course, like all blossoms, it will not last long at all.

I will end with the last few lines of one of my poems, “Sonata,” which is all about late blooming:

 

A woman, playing

alone, composes

herself, knowing

there is always more

to draw upon.

 

Early or late

makes no difference.

 

Space, and time, and

limitation, and failure,

are means.

 

To see that truth

is to see

the gate in the wall,

sequel, reassurance

there is yet more,

like flight,

to pull from impossibility,

from inaudible frequencies,

into the reach

of real.