“Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

This week we saw ISIL smashing centuries-old art because the irreplaceable statues were actually “idols” made by the godless.

This week our state governer has cut funding for the arts to the bone while saying that he can “handle” ISIS, given his experience with those (teachers and firefighters, mainly) who have opposed him in recent times.

During such times (and there have always been such times), there is, for many, a temptation to question the value of making art. What does it matter?

However, this week’s news has also brought us articles confirming the value of the arts: “A Refuge of Beauty in Gaza” in which the artist Nidaa Badwan has created a small universe of art in her small home, “seeking a refuge from Gaza’s restrictive religious atmosphere.”

And Pat, from Colorado, calls attention to this week’s NYT’s “Modern Love” column, in which writer Betsy MacWhinney recalls a time when she used any means possible to solace her teenage daughter’s depression over the state of the world.  Fresh out of ideas, she ”started leaving poems in her [daughter’s] shoes in the morning. [Her daughter] had used the shoes as a form of quiet protest [she stopped wearing shoes completely when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004], so I decided I would use them to make a quiet stand for hope. When one of your primary strategies as a parent involves leaving Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in your child’s shoe, it’s clear things aren’t going well.

“What I wanted her to know is: People have been in pain before, struggled to find hope, and look what they’ve done with it. They made poetry that landed right in your shoe, the same shoe you didn’t wear for four months because of your despair.

“Before she went to school in the morning, I wanted her to read the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver that talks about not having to be good and not having to walk on your knees for miles, repenting. As Ms. Oliver writes, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Or this, from Mr. Berry: “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

I would also recommend Jorie Graham’s "The Violinist in the Window-1918"—after Matisse—in her book Sea Change (2008)--first published in Poetry, March 2008:

"The Violinist at the Window--1918"--Matisse


Well, maybe all that wouldn't fit in a shoe. But worth reading, anyway.

You can't tell a teenager this, but sometimes we take our pain/our vision too seriously, and in so doing cut off the existence of possibility—that indefinable essence from which, after all, art springs.  One of the blessings of having lived to nearly 70 years of age is that one has seen the impossible happen, more than once. Things CAN get better, and usually DO, although if one measures progress by what happens on any one day (or month or year or even decade), progress is not always visible. I take heart from the Taoist belief that, if left alone, evil will wither: that it takes its energy mainly from those who fear it and fight it. It is my belief that the restrictive beliefs behind ISIL will eventually be its own downfall, although those who do not “fight back” are often criticzed for condoning evil. The temptation to put “boots on the ground”  instead of reacting with hope and compassion and the expansion of human rights. On Feb. 19, as cited on CNN, “ President Barack Obama called for a global effort to combat violent extremism and urged countries around the world to address the root causes that fuel groups like ISIS and al Qaeda….Obama urged countries to ‘break the cycles of conflict, especially sectarian conflict’ and called on governments to ‘address the grievances that terrorists exploit,’ both political and economic.” He went on to say,

"The link is undeniable. When people are oppressed and human rights are denied -- particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines -- when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.”

Thanks to my newly-appointed recital page-turner, Mark, who, this week,  reintroduced me to Victor Borge (1909-2000), child prodigy at the piano,  a Danish Jew who, because he was playing a concert in Sweden, was able to escape Hitler-occupied Denmark by traveling to Finland and then to America, where he eventually became a citizen.  In the following YouTube video, Borge is having fun with his page-turner, showing us that, even though making art is a serious thing, it is never so serious that one cannot poke a bit of fun at it—a good lesson for me this week. Thank you Mark. And thanks, Victor.




Playing with Cursive

As I understand it,  the word “blog” is short for web log.  Other kinds of logs, or journals, have, of course, been written for years before there was the Internet. I myself have kept a journal—off and on—since I was in my teens. More private than the public blog, the journal has been a place where I could explore what was happening in my life and reflect on its meaning. It has been, and remains, a great comfort.

My first journal ca. 1961

I have been reading one of my favorite authors’, Gail Godwin’s, new “writer’s memoir” about her publishing life, called, perhaps somewhat predictably, Publishing.  In part of it, she reflects on how her methods and attitudes toward her writing have changed in her mid-seventies.  For one thing, she found herself writing Flora (her most recent novel—2013) by hand, after having used only a typewriter or computer for all of her previous work. Why?  Aside from the sensuousness of cursive writing, she says, “Covering the lines [of her notebook] with black, slanted letters wet from the pen connected me with the flow of my whole life.”  Yes.  I would add that, for years, I wrote my journals only in pencil, wanting to be sure that I could erase and change what I had written. I rarely did, but having that option, even when there was no reader but myself, felt right.  And I loved the smell and feel of a sharpened #2 pencil—the pre-sharpened Ticonderogas remaining my favorites.  Yes, on a computer, one may more quickly “revise” a page, but the previous version is usually lost, whereas crossings-out and erasures leave behind a few faint hints about its evolution.

I have been told that cursive writing is no longer taught in the schools, for the assumed reason that people today write only on computers and will continue to do so. It would be interesting to study whether the content of writing changes, depending upon whether or not it is hand-written or typed. My guess is that it does, if for no other reason than it takes more time (and thought?) to write out a sentence by hand than it does to type it (assuming you can type at least 50 wpm—the goal of my high school typing class).  Writing something out by hand grounds it in a way that the “qwerty” keyboard can never do. 

Neuroscience tends to agree:  In an article by Brian Braiker of World News, according to associate professor Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger's Reading Centre, “those who learn to write by hand learn better.

“Mangen points to an experiment involving two groups of adults in which participants were taught a new, foreign alphabet. One group learned the characters by hand, the other learned only to recognize them on a screen and with a keyboard.

“Weeks after the experiment, the group that learned the letters by hand consistently scored better on recognition tests than those who learned with a keyboard. Brain scans of the hands-on group also showed greater activity in the part of the brain that controls language comprehension, motor-related processes and speech-associated gestures. “

Those parts of the brain also have to do with visual art. And art is a form of play.

There seems to be more “play” in the way hand-written, cursive letters are formed. Even though the computer allows us to choose from dozens of “fonts,” none will ever match the idiosyncracy of one's own handwriting on any particular day, which can speak volumes about one’s state of mind. They used to say that one’s personality revealed itself in one’s handwriting: e.g. whether the loops were high or low, whether the letters were spaced out or clumped closely together, etc.

The idea of “play” appeals.  Godwin quotes Pablo Casals, the famous cellist, who said, “The first twenty years you learn. The second twenty years you practice. The third twenty years you perform. And the fourth twenty years you play.”  Of course, “progress” never falls so neatly or chronologically into those four categories; and if one hasn’t learned to “play” before the age of 70, it’s likely not to happen at all.

In fact, “play” to me connotes a kind of looseness that I associate with youth.  For instance, because of age and injury, my left shoulder has lost its “play” and I am now involved in a rather labored attempt to regain at least some “play” in that tight shoulder so that I can more easily “play” the piano.

But I think Casals (and Godwin) are correct when they suggest that age (like childhood) provides an opportunity to “play”—in many ways--without worrying too much about the consequences. Whenever Godwin still finds herself too caught up in what the world thinks of her work, she recalls a classmate in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1967 who was criticized by her classmates for going “too far” with experimental writing.  Godwin has never forgotten her reply, which was simply, “So? What do I risk? Obscurity?”


According to my old Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, “obscure” comes from a Sanskrit word meaning to “shield” or to “cover.”   Sometimes “risks” have to be taken in obscurity,  without public scrutiny. And so, despite this “blog,” I still sometimes take my college-ruled notebook, go sit in my favorite restaurant, and risk seeing what unfolds when I take the time to put pen to paper.


What I Should Be Doing (or Follow Your Inner Duck)

It seems to me that doing what I “should” be doing at certain predictable stages of my life has never turned out very well.

When I was twelve, after taking a summer of religious instruction preceding my “Confirmation” as an “adult” member of the Methodist Church, I confided in my mother that I didn’t understand and/or believe a lot of what I was going to have to “affirm” in the ceremony. This put her in such a complete tizzy that she had me talk, one-on-one, to our minister in his office. I was mortified, of course, but stammered out, as best I could, the issues that concerned me.  And the minister said to me, “Don’t worry about that. Just go along with the ceremony and say what you’re asked to say.”  On some level this was a great relief; on another,  I wondered about the point of it all if one could just lie in order to fulfill an expectation.

Similarly, I went to a college during a time when, upon graduation, if one were not at least engaged to be married, then one headed to unknown territory. Not wanting to go to unknown territory, I duly became  engaged to be married (insisting upon it, as I'm ashamed to recall). But in the weeks leading up to the wedding, I started having doubts about whether this was the right thing for us to be doing. I shared some of these fears with my mother--again--waiting until the night before the wedding. She listened, but then attributed my doubts to the wedding jitters and told me to go through with it anyway. People had been invited. The dress was hanging in my closet. Everything was in place. Again, I went through with something a part of me doubted, to the detriment of everyone involved.

At this point of my life, retired,  the next stage is supposed to be “giving back.”  This expectation still gnaws at me. Yes, I mentor younger people and am starting to teach a couple of returning-adult classes in just a few weeks.  But is that "enough"?

These events put me in mind of the supposed purpose of it all—what is the expected outcome of education these days?   Much has been made of our governor Scott Walker’s recent comments about the purpose of higher education being closer to prepare students for jobs rather than, as the UW Mission Statement reads, to extend “training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition,” as well as [enabling] “the search for truth” [which] is “basic to every purpose of the system.”

 Frank Bruni, in a New York Times op-ed piece called “College, Poetry, and Purpose”, interviewed one of his former college instructors, Anne Hall, now 69, who is still teaching work by “old white dead men” (especially Shakespeare) in a culture that denigrates such learning “for its own sake.”  In the article,

“She praised an undergraduate business major in the class that she is currently teaching, Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece.

‘She said that going to college develops something in you that’s like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles,’ Hall told me, adding that she agreed with the student.

“That brought Hall to her own answer about college’s mission: “It is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

The muscle of thoughtfulness. Reflection. A part of me thinks, “but there are those who cannot even READ, let alone have the tools to reflect on what they have read.” Such observations have led me in the past to volunteer for literacy programs, after-school reading programs, etc. But in every case, I have had, for one reason or another, serious doubts about what I was doing, and why.

I was moved, this morning, on reading Oliver Sacks’ piece entitled “My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning That He Has Terminal Cancer.”  He is 81 years old and writes, in part:

”I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

“This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

“I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

“This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

“I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

While I am over 10 years younger than Mr. Sacks, I agree with what he says about the fact that most of the current problems on earth will be solved by people much younger than we.  He believes that he has “given back” as much as he can in that regard.

Maybe reflection IS the gift—both to and from—us who are classified among the old and newly old.

When we were in New Orleans, Steve and I visited Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter. It was just a little hole in the wall, but at least one/quarter of the books were poetry—and not just the “old faithfuls” either. (The owner confided that he judged a bookstore on the quality of their poetry selection.) While Steve browsed the fiction, I started to read one of BillyCollins’ books, Horoscopes for the Dead, which I ended up buying.  I love many of the poems in that collection, but this one, “Silhouette,” is one of my favorites, partly because of the fun it pokes at what we think we “should” be doing:




There is a kind of sweet pointlessness

that can visit at any time,

say this afternoon when I find myself

rustling around in the woods behind the house


and making with my right hand

the head of a duck,

the kind that would cast a silhouetted

profile on a white screen

in a darkened room with a single source of light

if one were in the mood to entertain.


But I am outdoors today and this duck

has a wrist for a neck

and fingers for a beak that never stops flapping,

jabbering about some duck topic,

unless I rotate my arm and let him face me.


Then he stops his quacking

and listens to what I have to say,

even cocking his head like a dog

that listens all day to his master speaking

in English or Turkish or Albanian.


There was talk of war this morning

on the radio, and I imagined the treads of tanks

churning over the young trees again

and planes hacking the air to pieces,

but there is nothing I can do about that

except to continue my walk in the woods

conversing with my hand—


so benign an activity that if everyone

did this perhaps there would be no wars,

I might say in a speech

to the ladies’ auxiliary of the Future Farmers of America.


And now it is getting to be evening,

a shift from blue to violet

behind the bare staves of trees.

It is also my birthday,

but there is nothing I can do about that either—

cannot control the hands of time

like this hand in the shape of this duck

who peers out of my sleeve

with its beak of fingers, its eye of air.


No—I am doing no harm,

nor am I doing much good.


Would any bridge span a river?

would a college of nurses have ever been founded?

would one stone ever be placed on top of another

if people were concerned with nothing

but the shadows cast by nonexistent ducks?


So the sky darkens as always,

and now I am tripping over the fallen branches

as I head back downhill

toward the one burning light in the house

while the duck continues its agitated talk,

in my pocket now,

excited about his fugitive existence,

awed by his sudden and strange life

as each of us should be, one and all.


But never mind that, I think,

as I grab the young trees with my other hand,

braking my way down,

one boot in front of the other,

ready for my birthday dinner,

my birthday sleep, and my crazy birthday dreams.


The Plateau of “I Can’t” and the Six Magic Words that Might (or Might Not) Help

After several months of doing “all right,” my shoulder is hurting again. So far (knock wood) it hasn’t limited my abilities to swim or play piano, but the shoulder is definitely weaker and needs a return to some of those boring repetitive exercises.  Because things seemed better—guess what-- I stopped doing the exercises!  I start physical therapy again tomorrow.

My piano lessons have started up again after the holiday break, and I was pleased to learn that the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music will only require two audition pieces this spring rather than four. This frees up a big chunk of time to focus on the pieces that need more work for the recital: i.e. the Beethoven memory work as well as the final variations in that piece, and the Rachmaninoff variations, as well as the Jennifer Higdon I played last year.  I really need to tackle the remaining, recurring technical difficulties so that I can begin to smooth my way toward performance.

I complained to my teacher Stefanie that improvements on the last Beethoven variation were not coming quickly enough—in fact, I said, I saw little improvement at all. This is where a teacher  can give you the perspective and encouragement you need.  She told me to stop telling myself that it hasn’t improved : it has. She also noted the common experience of “plateau” when seeking to learn or change a behavior. Sometimes we just need time to allow ourseves to catch up to the changes we have made before moving on. It’s hard to wait because, impatiently, we often seek much quicker results.

Recently Steve and  I hosted our grandsons for the weekend. One of them has been taking piano lessons for about a year but has run into a serious case of the “can’ts.”  “I can’t do it,” he said as he looked at the new piece he was supposed to practice, then turned around on the bench with his back to the music. I know that he loves music, so it is difficult for me to watch him wind himself up into knots about playing it. Perhaps that’s because, on occasion, I do the same thing, especially if I know someone whose opinion I value is listening and quite possibly judging me. There are so many “players” in the world, so many “writers.”   What standards we hold ourselves to!

So I tried the six magic words that have made it around Facebook over the 18 months or so since the article “6 words you should say today” by Rachel Macy Stafford  first appeared in The Huffington Post. Those words are, simply,  “I love to hear you play.”  If you haven’t read the article, I hope you will take some time to read it now.  It’s what we all need to hear—appreciation, minus the judgments and criticisms we often expect, sometimes most cruelly from ourselves—no matter what our occupation.

But right then, even those six words were not immediately effective with my grandson. He is traversing his own “plateau” at his own pace. When he gets tired of the easy monotony with few challenges, perhaps he will tackle another hill.

I doubt that my physical therapist will say that he “loves to watch me pull that resistance band,” but at this point I just need some encouragement, or perhaps, at my age, a whack on the head to remind me that it’s time to climb that hill again.  And no, it’s not supposed to be easy.


Vanity, vanity.....

In about a month I will start one of several classes I teach yearly for Marquette’s College of Professional Studies, a degree program for returning adults:  a class in civic literacy, as opposed to academic literacy.

In one of the assigned papers, students will analyze and evaluate three different news articles on the same recent issue, using a 2007 Committee of Concerned Journalists’ six criteria as the basis for their evaluation: citizens should expect from journalists truthfulness, loyalty to citizens, independence from those they report on, giving voice to the voiceless, a forum for public criticism, and news that is proportional and relevant. 

It will be interesting to look at Brian Williams’ fall from grace this week in light of such criteria, and to discuss the difference between print journalism (it still exists) and the “celebrity” kind of news bites that is typical of NBC Nightly News, which I have often watched, by the way.

In terms of the criteria above, Williams, to many, definitely “failed” the important first criterion of reporting “truthfulness” and quite possibly the third: “independence from those they report on.”   (It will be interesting to see if any of my students choose this “event” to compare coverage by different national and international newspapers.)

It has been interesting to read the “side” stories related to Williams’ skewing of the “facts” involving his own role in a situation in Iraq in 2003. Some, like Tara Parker-Pope of the NYT, discusses Williams in terms of recent discoveries about memory itself: that Williams’ “conflation” of two events “offers a compelling case study in how memories can change and shift dramatically over time.” At several points in this blog, I have considered how “selective memory” has no doubt affected me and the events from which much of my poetry springs.

But I am not a journalist, and if I conflate memories about my sister, there is no one left to question my “trustworthiness.” We do speak of “poetic license.”

But David Brooks, on the Op-Ed page of yesterday’s NYT, considers Williams’ “sin”  (how American is that?) in the light of something called “rigorous forgiving.”  According to Brooks, there are those who try to balance accountability with compassion. The whole article is worth reading, and I recommend it, but what interests me most at this moment is  Brooks’ classification of “sins”—each with its particular source and corresponding “cure” or reconciliation. Bigotry, for instance, must be expunged by “apology and cleansing”; stealing by repaying, and so on. Brooks identifies Williams’ “sin” as “vanity” which “can only be treated by extreme self-abasement.”  Unlike many, Brooks does not see Williams’ “transgressions”—unlike those of more traditional journalists—as “part of his primary job responsibilities.” He goes on to say that as a society we must do less exiling of offenders and more offering of “tough but healing love.”

I am all for that. But his analysis still begs the question of whether or not Williams intended to lie outright about his role in those helicopters over Iraq. Yes, I do tend to believe people’s stories, sometimes with little reason (see Jan. 5), but then I am always a sucker for stories.  I sometimes have trouble figuring out the “truth” of my own experiences, but I am well aware of how “vanity” can skew one’s “take” on things.

For instance (stay with me a moment):  maybe Williams wanted on some level to be a “part” of what he was only supposedly “reporting” and thus “exaggerated” what happened that day—told himself a different story in which he was in more danger than he actually was.   He was obviously no James Foley or any of the other world-wide journalists who have lost their lives by daring to put themselves in danger so as to bring “truth” to those who would otherwise not have access to it. But maybe Williams admires such people and (in this story I’m weaving) wanted to be like them so much that his memory “re-shaped” the events on those helicopters so as to make him seem a bit more like what he admired.

Have we not all done this? If we have not actually told a whopper to someone else, inflating our own importance, have most of us not told such “stories” to ourselves? Are these deliberate lies? or have they moved surreptitiously-- as memories apparently do-- from “truth” to “wish”?

They used to call publishers that accepted payment to publish any manuscript “vanity presses.”  And as I suggested in my last post, often writers will go to at least some length to hide the fact that they have published their work themselves instead of having it “chosen” by someone else.

As a species we seem hard-wired to seek out the approval of our peers.  We want to feel useful and, at least in our culture, important in some way. Exile or isolation is a pretty extreme punishment in all cultures.  Currently, as a culture, we seem to have “exiled” Williams for “untrustworthiness.”  I understand that it’s wrong to take away from someone else’s legitimate (i.e. documented)  hardship story by saying that you experienced the same thing when you didn’t.   But how do we separate/rank the “wrongs” of wanting to be part of something; of vanity; of wanting to be valued? 

Don’t we all make up the stories of our lives: our own histories, to embellish and add interest to the single “history” that we “agree on”?  I guess it’s important to have such an agreed-upon history, but I’m sure glad we have individual stories about it as well. Sometimes that's where the deepest meanings can be found.