Sunday, April 29, 2012

THE FALLING SANDAL: SELF-HELP THEN AND NOW



 

 Last week a non-Catholic friend and I went to Little Italy, a pleasantly gentrified tourist trap in San Diego, and toured the church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Most striking are the two frescoes, one showing the crucifixion between the two thieves and the other, meant to be seen as you exit the church, the more horrifying scene of the Last Judgment. But on the side wall I spotted a reproduction of one of my favorite icons, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in which the left sandal of little Jesus is shown as dangling loose and about to fall down.

“What’s the symbolism of the falling sandal?” my friend asked. “I don’t think there is any mystical symbolism here,” I replied. “It’s just a charming realistic detail.” My friend wasn’t buying that. “Mary is the one who’ll pick up the sandal and tie it back on, again and again” she said. “That’s why Mary is called Our Lady of Perpetual Help. A mother is a perpetual help machine.”

No one would argue with that. There is no competing with mothers when it comes to perpetual help. But in a minor way, ever since Ecclesiastes, we’ve also had another form of perpetual help, or rather an attempt in that direction: the self-help books. Not long ago, after a particularly strenuous, tough-love Pilates session at the Y, I glanced at the shelf of donated books, and picked up Getting the Most out of Life, a selection of Reader’s Digest articles published in 1955. Since self-help books are an interesting cultural mirror, I was wondering about central themes back then compared to now.

The first article bore the title: “The Perfect Blueprint for Happiness.” That blueprint turned out to be the Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who spitefully use you.” It was a stunning reminder of just how radical Jesus sounded even two millennia later, and how perennially disregarded. Matthew’s remark: “The people were astonished” continues to be relevant even now. The eye-for-an-eye people back then must have been flabbergasted. But what struck me even more was that it all concerned your conduct toward others. There was no mention of “following your bliss” (although I will mention one important exception) or trying to fulfill your "unlimited potential."

I don’t think the Sermon on the Mount was ever intended to be a “blueprint for happiness.” It’s about the radically new ethics of compassion, humility, and peace-making.  Those who are now the "first in the world" (the Top One Percent?) will be made the last -- I still don't understand why Republicans embrace Christianity, which inspired various Socialist movements. 

True, if people followed the high ideal of Christian ethics (which might be summarized as “no revenge”), life would be a lot happier, but we know that individual happiness was not the point. This was not a self-help sermon. The purpose of the teachings was to make us rise above the vicious cycle of revenge. The Sermon on the Mount urges us to do good, rather than feel good. What a concept!

The article that followed was “Stop Worrying.” “Men who have achieved the greatest heights, whose names are immortal, have been instinctive worriers. Yet they have nearly always had to contend . . . with mental strain, and have taught themselves to overcome it,” the author argues (that author being a once-famous writer Archibald Cronin, who wrote The Citadel and The Keys to the Kingdom, novels turning around protagonists with a strong sense of ethics). Cronin’s advice relies on Thoreau’s challenge to “simplify, simplify” and Thoreau’s boast “How many things I can do without!” Pondering how after 9/11 the then-president of the United States told us to “go shopping,” I can’t imagine any public official quoting Thoreau.

Cronin goes on to state that “the best antidote to worry is work.” I nodded my head, having discovered that for me the opposite of depression is not happiness, but work (though eventually the anhedonia dissipated and I could enjoy not only work, but also music, the beauty of nature, and other deep pleasures that one article in this anthology calls “minor ecstasies”). Where Cronin startled me was his saying, “Worry is a form of atheism” – it reveals a lack of faith in God. Besides, religion teaches us to be like the lilies of the field and take no thought for tomorrow (I wonder what insurance companies think of that).

I can go along with Cronin’s statement if I translate “atheism” to mean “lack of faith in your intelligence and resilience, and in people’s willingness to help.” I agree that that’s not what Cronin meant – maybe it’s even the opposite of what he meant, faith in yourself and in your fellow human beings being perhaps what you need to give up, acknowledge you are powerless, and rely entirely on god. But then the book was published in 1955, and the word “atheism” was meant to make the reader shudder, just like communism, which could be arguably defined as faith in humanity instead of faith in a supernatural deity. There could hardly be a greater condemnation of the habit of worrying than to call it atheism.

The article after that, about having an “educated heart,” concluded, “The educated heart does kindness with style.” Some other quotations from other articles: “To love the fine people about me, to avoid the wicked, to rejoice in the good, endure evil – and to remember to forget: this is my optimism” (André Maurois, another famous writer – no authors of today’s self-help best-sellers are eminent men of letters). An article on marital happiness says the greatest cause of unhappiness is unwillingness to have children. (Need I point out that practically all authors of these articles are men? Yet even then, the great majority of self-help book readers must have been women. My guess is over 90%. "Real men" didn't read self-help books.)

The longest portion of this anthology is a condensation of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, telling the reader never to criticize, but always try to find something to praise about another person. In a nutshell, success comes from being interested in others rather than yourself. “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” Even more important is the motto: “Never criticize, condemn, or complain.” “Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance, and kindness. To know all is to forgive all.” This reminds me of Spinoza’s motto: to hate no one, despise no one, envy no one, ridicule no one; only to understand.























Baruch Spinoza

The importance of praising others is mentioned frequently in Getting the Most out of Life. “Something good can be said about everyone. We only have to say it,” another article concludes. Yet another suggests “casting your bread upon the waters,” i.e. giving generously and with no thought of return, because the return will take care of itself – “it is almost impossible to give away anything in this world without getting something back.” That appears already in Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast thy bread upon the water, for thou shalt find it after many days.” Remedy for self-consciousness? Help another person feel comfortable (this, amazing for this male-world book“condensed from The Independent Woman”). 

To be sure, some articles don’t put emphasis on ethics or the art of persuasion as making someone else think the idea was his, but pronounce verities such as “The really successful man is the fellow who gets paid for doing the thing he likes to do” or “He is a happy man who has simplified his tastes to the point where a good book and a fire and a quiet evening are for him not a chore or a sign of increasing age, but a preference and a badge of wisdom and distinction” (Thoreau would agree).

An article on “adding years to your life” states that ill health stems mostly from “no enough liquids, too many starches and a dangerous shortage of thiamine, the age-fighting vitamin which the nervous system needs increasingly after 40.” This is not so far from today’s condemnation of carbohydrates (the “starches” of the nineteen fifties), warnings about dehydration, and a greater appreciation of B vitamins (though it’s possible that it’s not so much thiamine as its metabolites, such as benfotiamine, increasing deficient as we age, that may be involved in preventing neural degeneration and brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s). But the most striking thing is the simplicity of the advice, the opposite of the complex and discordant bits of advice in thousands of recent books on health and longevity.

Yet another article on longevity has the alluring title “Do what you want and live longer.” It was written by Thurman B. Rice, M.D. The title sounds a lot like, “Eat all you want and lose weight.” And Dr. Rice would probably approve. If your child doesn’t like spinach, serve him strawberries and cream, he advises (ah, the days when “cream” could even be mentioned in a self-help article). “Many people make themselves miserable by adhering to a disagreeable health regimen.” But there is no “youth serum,” Dr. Rice warns, except for the glow of pleasure. “The very fact that you enjoy a thing is reason enough for doing it.” He hastily adds that he doesn’t mean “selfish indulgence or unbridled dissipation.” But that does sound like a forerunner of “follow your bliss,” doesn’t it?

There is yet another “follow your bliss” (though not in those words) exception that I want to highlight. It comes toward the end of an article “How to Avoid Work: a plan to relieve you of the drudgery of an uncongenial job.” First, there is the typical emphasis on getting along with others: “When a person is careful about his human relations, almost any job is a pleasure. Lord Chesterfield revealed one clue for getting on congenially with others when he wrote his son: Make other people like themselves a little better, and I promise you they will like you very well . . .

However, the best way to achieve true happiness is to express yourself with all your skill and enthusiasm in a career that appeals to you more than any other. In such a career you feel a sense of purpose, a sense of achievement. It is not work. A doctor who has felt the pulse of life does not feel he is working when he must leave a party to deliver a baby.

Altogether too much emphasis has been placed on what we ought to do rather than what we want to do. Amelia Earhart once wrote: I flew the Atlantic because I wanted to. If that be what they call ‘a woman’s reason,’ make the most of it. It isn’t, I think, a reason to be apologized for by man or woman.

Whether you are flying the Atlantic or selling sausages or building a skyscraper or driving a truck, your greatest power comes from the fact that you want tremendously to do that very thing, and do it well.”

**

But there is no denying that the strongest theme of the 1955 anthology is altruism. I don’t remember encountering the word “self-esteem,” but my guess is that the authors would suggest that the best way to build self-esteem is to esteem others. In order to be happy, you need to “get out of yourself” and do something for others. To be happy is to be useful, fully and sincerely engaged with others.

One anecdote is particularly telling:

“We were discussing the philosophy of “Live each day as though it were your last.”

“Well,” said the sweetest old lady in the group, “that’s a fine saying, but for 20 years I’ve been using a philosophy that’s a little different. It’s this: Treat all the people you meet each day as though it were their last day on earth.”

This fits in with the Capsule Course in Human Relations presented near the beginning of the anthology:

Five most important words: I AM PROUD OF YOU.
Four most important words: WHAT IS YOUR OPINION?
Three most important words: IF YOU PLEASE.
Two most important words: THANK YOU.
Least important word: I.

This is an explicit example of how Getting the Most out of Life urges the reader to think about others and not about himself (I use the masculine pronoun in the spirit of the book, written by men for men, never mind the overwhelmingly female readership). Worried? Nervous? Think about what you can do for others, and your problems will disappear. I can't imagine a recent self-help book that would insist that the least important word is "I." 

For the most part, the others whom we are to make happy (remember: in 1955 the main way to happiness is making others happy) are people we meet, but the final article presents an even broader perspective. “Peace of Mind” by Joshua Liebman states: “We should always remember that there are other forms of immortality besides personal survival. Man displays perhaps his most remarkable and is most unselfish genius when he turns from the thoughts of individual immortality and finds inspiration in the immortality of the human race. The more we concentrate upon the immortality of mankind, strangely enough, the richer becomes our own individual life. As we link ourselves to the heroes and sages and martyrs, the poets and thinkers of every race, we come to share the wisest thoughts, the noblest ideals, the imperishable music of the centuries.”

I don’t think that a paragraph of this scope can be found anywhere in The Secret, the greatest best-seller of recent years.

*

Since I needed to pick up a few items at Walmart, I strayed into their meager book section, expecting to see some self-help books. But the shelves were dominated by The Hunger Games and pulp romance. The only self-help book was Joel Osteen’s Every Day a Friday: How to be happier 7 days a week. Why Friday? Osteen claims that studies have found that people are 10% happier on Friday than on any other day.

You might think that this would lead to the conclusion that looking forward to the weekend makes people happier than the weekend itself. This is an interesting idea which makes intuitive sense: arguably, looking forward to an event makes us more happy than the event itself. (Maybe that is the merciful reason why the Messiah has no intention of actually coming, whether for the first or second time, depending on the creed.)

But no, Reverend Osteen draws no such conclusion, though he does urge the reader to “expect victory” and other great things. He starts by saying that you should choose happiness, since happiness is your right. God wants you to be happy right here on earth (I can’t remember any nuns or priests telling me that). There is some talk of being a good person, for instance not screaming at the snarly parking-lot attendant who denies you the right to park near the building. But the emphasis seems to be on receiving rather than giving. “Celebrate yourself,” Osteen urges. His main message, I think, is summarized in the motto “Wear your blessings well.” For instance, if you are blessed with a large income, go ahead and buy that oversize mansion that sits on two acres of land. Don’t feel guilty about it. What’s two acres from the divine perspective? A speck. So buy the real estate. It’s a wonderful way to praise the Lord.

I certainly see the point of Osteen’s critics who say Osteen’s teachings are New Age and not Christian. We certainly won’t find here “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Nor are we told to sell our possessions and give the money to the poor. No way! Osteen is in favor of acquiring more and bigger possessions; go ahead, buy that luxury car and wear the finest clothes – what better way to praise the Lord than to celebrate yourself? You’re not really showing off; you’re showing off God’s generosity.

Seeing the obvious disparity with the teachings of Christ, you’d think the statues of Saint Francis would come to life and start preaching to the birds again (since people would obviously rather listen to Pastor Osteen) . But his doctrine of “wearing the blessings well” is as American as the Thanksgiving turkey, being a continuation of the Calvinist doctrine of the Elect. One sign of being among the Elect was conspicuous wealth; who could possibly be more blessed than the Top One Percent? As for Osteen’s “being anointed with the oil of joy,” is he perhaps hinting at buying stock in oil companies?

This is perhaps off-topic, but I also found myself thinking that I’m not really interested in advice on how to be happy from someone who has not experienced tragedy in his/her life.


But it’s not fair to pitch Osteen against a whole anthology of 1955 self-help. Even The Secret, possibly the self-help book of the dawn of the third Millennium, is not quite the equivalent. Instead, I chose 50 Self-Help Classics, summarized by Tom Butler-Bowdon, published in 2003 both in the United States and in Great Britain. True, several of those classics go back in time (e.g. The Consolations of Philosophy), but the vast majority are relatively recent. I’ve also sampled articles in the “happiness” section of Psychology Today online.

Butler’s compilation starts, oddly enough, with something akin to The Secret: James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh, first published in 1902. But the message is more challenging: You don’t get what you want; you get what you are. And – oh-oh – he advocates staying calm and practicing self-control. But at least on the basis of Butler’s summary, I don’t see any emphasis on altruism. For one thing, that was long before the research that showed altruism increases the levels of oxytocin, a “feel-good” hormone. But that wasn’t known in 1955, either. Somehow the earlier authors discovered that when you do good, usually you also feel good, and that the real secret was to shift attention from yourself to others, or at least something outside yourself (I love it when a raven lands on the ledge of the roof outside my window; large as a duck, he lands with a thud.)

One of the most influential books in Butler’s compilation if Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life. Where Dale Carnegie urged the reader never to criticize others, Hay says, “Stop criticizing yourself!” Unconditional self-acceptance (acronym: USA) is the foundation of happiness. 

Now, I’m not about to say that Hay panders to the “culture of narcissism.” Hay is a marvelous complement to Carnegie. Hay's message is “no guilt” and self-love. One of the simple self-love exercises is standing in front of the mirror, saying “I love you” to yourself. This is very difficult for some people. They are the ones who need Hay’s books most. She shows a way out of victimhood and into hope for a fulfilling life. The loving, no-blame tone in which they are written is healing in itself, even if the reader doesn’t share any of the New Age beliefs. And Hay has known a lot of tragedy in her life, and speaks from personal experience.

Another excellent book summarized by Butler is Richard Koch’s The 80/20 Principle: the Secret of Achieving More with Less (1998). I wish I’d been familiar with the 80/20 principle at a much younger age; I could have avoided so much misery, and be way ahead as a writer. The principle is fairly well-known, yet not widely applied. It’s counterintutive, yet it has been verified: 80% of results come from 20% of the efforts. Twenty percent of employees do eighty percent of the work. Eighty percent of the income comes from 20% of the products, and so on. We should concentrate on the 20% that matters. This has also been called the “Law of least effort,” and it applies particularly to education, career choice and time management. “Most people try too hard at the wrong things,” Koch says. Concentrate on what comes easily to you and that you love; then, if you keep working at it, you can achieve extraordinary results.

One reason I love this principle is that it doesn’t argue for a “balanced life.” It’s a strong argument for going deeper and deeper into what you love doing. Most likely that will be an area in which you have a natural talent, and hence a chance to excel. Don’t try to excel at everything (if only I knew that when I was in college); focus on developing your greatest talent. How can you know where your talent lies? When what you do seems easy and brings you joy. Again, “follow your bliss.”

On the whole, Butler’s anthology stresses the uniqueness of each person and the importance of finding your “true self.” Thus, James Hillman (The Soul’s Code, 1996), says that “when we fall in love, we feel super-important because we are able to reveal who we really are, giving a glimpse of our soul’s genius (or daimon, to use the Greek term). The meeting between lovers is a meeting of images, an exchange of imaginations. You are in love because your imagination is on fire. By freeing imagination, even identical twins are freed of sameness.”

Likewise, Emerson is quoted as saying that our primary duty is not to family or country, but to our calling, our unique path (Self-Reliance). One’s calling, Hillman says, “becomes a calling to honesty rather than success.” By “honesty” Hillman means being true to your inner self as opposed to the social self, the people-pleasing persona. You are an acorn; your purpose is to become an oak. (I wonder if great achievers such as Hillman ever pause to note how very few acorns develop into oaks, and why.)


**

Some of the articles in Psychology Today are fascinating. Speaking of what I now call the “Friday effect,” we learn that this is an instance of the “focus illusion.” Focus exaggerates the importance of whatever it is that we focus on. Thus, anticipating something wonderful is more thrilling than actually getting it (which can be anti-climactic). We overestimate the wonderfulness; conversely, we also exaggerate the awfulness of something negative. Unlike books that cheerfully urge you to change your life in 20 days, articles of this sort shine the flashlight of reality in the cluttered attic of our thinking.

But when I looked at articles that ask questions, I did not feel like reading them. Is personal growth a danger to your relationship? What kind of people prefer to buy experiences rather than things? Is parenthood linked to joy or to misery? What will make your kid succeed in kindergarten? What is bad sex? How far along are you in your pursuit of happiness? Odd, somehow I have no interest in the answers. The whole topic of happiness suddenly seems shallow, meaningless. Give me the pursuit of excellence any time. “Play the piano till the fingers bleed a little” – I can identify with that. I get most satisfaction from mentally stimulating work, including challenging reading, so maybe I’m hearing “Are we having fun yet?”

Perhaps it’s better to hear the crack of the whip, at least now and then. Remember the simple and downright kindly article on longevity in the 1955 anthology? Now the trend seems to be: don’t delude yourself; make a radical change. Thus, Deirdre Barrett, the author of Waistland, points out that no one tells a heroin addict to stay clean for a week and then “reward yourself” with shooting up on the weekend. Sugar is finally seen as addictive, the fructose half of it as downright toxic. So there: no rewarding yourself with sugary “treats.” This satisfies the ascetic in me.

There are also warnings that obesity significantly increases the risk of dementia, heart disease, diabetes, and many kinds of cancer. I think we are seeing the beginning of what happened when cigarettes were finally declared to be both addictive and carcinogenic. What followed was a dramatic decrease in smoking, but some people still chose to smoke, with full-knowledge that it’s self-destructive. I predict we’ll see this with the consumption of toxic foods and beverages. Is this the end of Coca-Cola, both the sugary and the “diet” kind (both result in insulin release)? No, some people will continue their self-destructive eating and drinking patterns, but they may become a minority, and if this happens, they will likely become branded as addicts. But the junk food industry is even more powerful than the cigarette industry, so it will be a long, hard battle.

Also: a much tougher approach to exercise. Taking a pleasant walk every day won’t do it. Exercise needs to be vigorous and daily (but let’s not forget those runners who had a heart attack while running, including the father of the whole running movement, Jim Fixx).

(And, to be fair, there is an occasional article on self-control and even, yes, the joy of altruism. The trends in self-help literature change quickly. The “marshmallow study” which showed that those children who could forego one marshmallow now in order to get two marshmallows later went on to become high achievers. Thus, delay of gratification is again is in the air. Self-control [which I don’t see as the opposite of self-love; it’s an important part of self-love]. Anti-consumerism: you don’t need 90% of the things you buy: simplify, simplify [choice is stressful]. Don’t try to organize your clutter: throw it out. I love it.)

I’m all for the glow of pleasure as long as it’s individualized. I’m the kind of person who finds Poe’s Raven more interesting than the bluebird of happiness, and after my unscientific survey I feel sick of the topic. I decide it’s time to get out of the house and watch the ravens.  

But before I leave, I think again about that church and the small, poorly reproduced icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Amid depictions of barbarous cruelty – a huge fresco of a public execution by torture facing the fresco of the Last Judgment, with the damned falling into the jaws of hell, and Stations of the Cross along the side walls, there is that small icon: a child’s sandal is falling off, and his mother is going to pick it up. It’s not about the pursuit of happiness, but it’s the most meaningful image in the whole church. We live both for ourselves and for others – which is fine, and need not be called altruism, since others live both for themselves and for us. And that’s one of our primary needs – to give and receive the “perpetual help” of other humans, to be useful, to experience kindness and tenderness. Self-help books have some wisdom, but we learn how to live and be happy by living.  


Scott:

Love that last picture. It reminds me of C S Lewis' last Narnia book where the gallant Mouse Reeicheep is telling everyone 'Further up and further in! It also reminds me of the Beatles 'Long and Winding Road....beautiful song, one to be savored at the end of a long day with a cup of coffee. Give me simple joys every day; few things are better than the pleasures easily at hand and cheaply bought.

When I say 'cheaply bought', I am in no way meaning financially. I'm referring to those things that we have perhaps we take for granted; time spent with a good book or friend, a nice walk, the 'starry archipelagoes' at night, an incredible sunrise. As one, who like you, have come out the other side of depression, to simply enjoy those types of pleasures are a slice of heaven...I would not trade places with Bill Gates....truly, I would not.

Just reading today one of my favorite passages from Melville; he was describing his last whaler, which was not having any luck actually catching whales. He writes, 'So what of that? We have all the sport of chasing the monsters but none of the detestable work that comes from catching them. So, hurrah for the coast of Japan! Thither we were bound.' Hurrah indeed for Japan...and for Sea World...and a week at Myrtle Beach..all places my family are 'bound' to this summer. To have my girls, my books, my travels, my Internet friends AND my birds, coffee, whaling and Melville??!! How could one NOT be happy, Warren Buffet should be so blessed and content.

Work, hobbies, interests and passions are in my mind vital for happiness and when I say work, I don't mean the occupation that provides your living (though many are fortunate in that their 'pay' work is also their passion); to millions( like me) it’s drudgery, pure and simple. My passions, interests and hobbies ARE my work and I am quite diligent. But my 'pay job' is over by 4:00 most days and the majority of my life is spent outside the office....in 'New Nantucket'....everyone should have that 'Corona' or 'Almond Joy' island to escape to!

Oriana:

Interesting, a friend used the expression “winding road,” and soon I emailed another friend about the “long and winding road,” and here you come quoting the title of one of my favorite Beatle songs.

I wouldn’t trade places with Bill Gates or Warren Buffet either – though I’m sure they wouldn’t want my “quiet life” either! To each his/her own pleasures. We need a greater understanding of the importance of pleasure.

Though I am tempted to say that when you become dedicated (play-acting at first), even a drudgery-type job can become rewarding, I have my own memories of jobs that just were so contrary to my personality there was no way of enjoying them. None. For instance, when I worked as a temp, I hated the way I wasn’t able to concentrate on typing a letter because I was constantly interrupted by the ringing of the phone.

My awful jobs didn’t last too long, but twelve years (or was it fifteen? – I can’t bear to count) seemed like a century. Only in one case, my last such job in fact, and not secretarial, I did suddenly become more dedicated. It was extremely exhausting at first, but it paid off – in a while I got to enjoy the job more. Still, my real work, my real life, was at home with my books and writing, so I know exactly what you mean.

Here’s to passions, interests, and hobbies!


Michael:

Add Rilke's line to the mix. I have never figured out what Rilke intended by the image of the sandal ("velvet sandal falling from your foot..."). Would that picture be a reproduction of something in Europe? Might Rilke have seen it?

Maybe you've got it right.

What will you do, God, when I die?
I am your pitcher (when I shatter?).
I am your drink (when I go bitter?).
I, your garment: I, your craft.

Without me what reason have you?
Without me what house
where intimate words await you?
I, velvet sandal falling from your foot.
I, cloak dropping from your shoulder.

Your gaze, which I welcome now
as it warms my cheek,
will search for me hour after hour
and lie at sunset, spent,
on an empty beach
among unfamiliar stones.

What will you do, God? It troubles me.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, I.36, The Book of Hours, translated by Barrows and Macy

Oriana:

Though the sandal is not velvet in the icon, it’s very likely that Rilke did see a copy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in a Catholic church (many times, I suspect, during his childhood in Prague). And yes, it’s plausible that the image of falling sandal in this famous icon inspired the sandal line. (For my opening image I used an ancient copy that used to be in a convent in Lvov, and was saved by the nuns who took it with them to Poland. I believe that particular copy is now in Torun, in Pomerania – close to where I was born. I chose it because it shows that clearly this was a Black Madonna.)

Another influence here might have been Nietzsche’s statement that churches and cathedrals are now the tombs of the dead god. European churches usually have a stony interior; you are inside a magnificent tomb.

Not trusting Macy’s translation, I turned to the original. The last sentence is Ich bange, which means “I’m frightened” – the dictionary suggests “afraid, worried, alarmed”– stronger than “It troubles me.” But more important here is the line mit mir verlierst du deinen Sinn. Literally it means: “With me [dead] you lose your meaning.” A more free translation would be “When I am lost you lose your meaning.” Then, in literal translation: “After me you have no home /where words greet you, warm and near” (it’s the words that are “warm and near”).

This makes more clear “I am your garment and your trade [occupation]” – the garment that’s going to slip off, the sandal that will fall off, etc., once the speaker is dead. God then will have no meaning and no work to do, since (it’s strongly hinted here) he exists in the speaker’s consciousness. True, this meaning-deprived, homeless god will still for a long time seek the speaker, then give up and lie down next to the sunset” “in the lap of unfamiliar stones” (no empty beach, no “spent”). I know it sounds immensely strange in English, but Rilke had that kind of radical daring, often softened by his translators who don’t dare sound so strange.

By the way, this is my favorite poem in the Book of Hours, but strictly the German version, beautiful, hypnotic. The music is like an exquisite song (Bin dein Gewand and dein Gewerbe). I remember reading the poem for the first time; almost right away I began singing it like a slow church hymn. It felt completely natural to do so; the poem sang itself.

And of course I love the daring reversal: it’s god who’s totally dependent on human consciousness for meaning and having something to do, for “perpetual help” (in Polish, the phrase is “constant rescue.”

As you probably know, Rilke requested that no priest conduct his burial service. The service was secular, with village children singing the poet to his rest.


Charles:

There is so much condensed wisdom on this blog.

My favorite part is, “Mary is the one who’ll pick up the sandal and tie it back on, again and again.”


I think the name "Our Lady of Perpetual Help" should be changed to "Our Lady of the Loose Sandal."



Love the sunset, tree and two roads.

Oriana:

For the wisdom, I have to give most of the credit to my sources.

The explanation of the symbolism of the falling sandal is my favorite part too. Who needs theology? You don’t even have to be a parent to understand that a mother (and now many fathers too have to be included) is indeed a dispenser of “perpetual help.”

I love the pictures that you love, and the ladybug riding a milkweed seed (if that is what it is). Part of the reason that this blog needs to remain in e-form is that it would be very expensive to print the images. Alas, alas . . . 


Marjorie:

Do you know Peter Meinke’s poem “Advice to My Son”?

Advice to My Son

The trick is, to live your days
as if each one may be your last
(for they go fast, and young men lose their lives
in strange and unimaginable ways)                    
but at the same time, plan long range                
(for they go slow: if you survive
the shattered windshield and the bursting shell
you will arrive                                                        
at our approximation here below
of heaven or hell).

To be specific, between the peony and the rose
plant squash and spinach, turnips and tomatoes
beauty is nectar
and nectar, in a desert, saves—
but the stomach craves stronger sustenance
than the honied vine.
Therefore, marry a pretty girl
after seeing her mother;
speak truth to one man,         
work with another;
and always serve bread with your wine.       

But, son,
always serve wine.

I understand the wine, of course, metaphorically as a kind of enjoyment or praise for what we enjoy--though it could also suggest sacramental wine.

Oriana:

I love the poem. Where Meinke says “always serve wine,” I say, “Always have flowers on the table.” It’s fairly recent with me, this realization that for a long time I lived without flowers on the table, one of the “icons” of my childhood. No more. “Man does not live by bread alone.” For me there has to be beauty and good books. That’s my “wine” – the deep pleasure, or what some might call “soul pleasure.” Jack Gilbert says “delight” –

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

~ Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense” in Refusing Heaven




Saturday, April 21, 2012

NEGATIVE INFINITY



THE TWO RAVENS

Last week I watched two ravens  struggle over territory. The old bird, the “Raven King,” held his ground, perched on top of a lamp post. The young one was a fabulous flier, and handsome too. He kept dive-bombing. After each pass, he wouldn't simply glide into a U-turn. No, this aerial acrobat would stop in mid-air, vertical like the Holy Ghost, hold his position for a while by flapping his long-fingered wings, then turn his body and launch another dive-bombing pass. The old Raven King, huge and beruffled, held on to the lamp post from which he guarded his domain. His only response was ducking and croaking.

This went on day after day. Then suddenly the lamp post was empty. The following day, I saw the handsome young raven circling over the ravine with the eucalyptus grove, where I know ravens nest (they chased out other birds). Wondering if the old Raven King keeled over from stress, I thought, “It’s hell being male.” I realized that it was the first time in my life that such a thought crossed my mind.

Seconds later I was flooded with thoughts reminding me of all the difficulties of being a woman. I think it’s enough to ponder the fact that every day Orthodox Jewish men say a prayer of thanksgiving for having been born a man and not a woman. Wondering if the sentiment is still current in the modern age, I asked a few men if they were glad to be men rather than women. “Definitely” was the instant answer. “I’d never want to be a woman.” No surprise.

You may ask, yes, but what about those men who insist they are women trapped in men’s bodies and undergo sex-change surgery? One interesting brief interlude in my life was being a counselor to a small group of trans-gendered men and those who were still only contemplating the surgery. Yes, it was amazing to hear things like, “The great dream of my life was to be a housewife.” On the whole these men had completely deluded ideas about what it was like to be a woman. Their ambition was to be beautiful women, even if they were 6’2” and had a prominent Adam’s apple and a deep voice (the testosterone-induced deepening of the voice is irreversible).

Above all, their egos, their assertiveness, high self-esteem and risk-taking were in line with what one typically sees in men but rarely in women. Even though they were saying things like, “I think I’m developing female intuition,” I was never so struck by gender differences. A boy’s brain gets virilized in the womb when the Y chromosome switches on and signals a release of testosterone. This remodeling of the brain away from empathy and in favor of aggression and sex (also spatial ability) is irreversible. Likewise, I think, is having been raised by a mother who thinks you are god.

That’s not to deny that men have their special challenges. Tony Hoagland wrote some excellent poems on the “coarsening” that an adolescent boy undergoes, since sensitivity and softness of heart would not serve him well in a competitive milieu. It would be like trying to run with your shoelaces undone, Hoagland says in a poem about watching his younger brother being initiated into manhood. He laments the coarsening, but accepts it.

THE GOOD SHEPHERD DREAM

I think “coarsening” is an excellent word for it. A man yelling obscenities does not raise anyone’s eyebrows. Men have the cultural permission to use ugly, hurtful language, to vent their rage, demean others, hire prostitutes, and more. But once I had a dream in which, lost somewhere, I met a kind and protective young man. I was so moved by his kindness (which wasn’t extraordinary; mainly, he gave me directions) that I said to him: “I know who you are: you are the Good Shepherd.” The man in the dream looked like an average American youngster and nothing like the standard Jesus in paintings. His gentle voice, far from the booming, domineering basso, was enough for me to perceive him as Christ-like.

James Hollis, an eminent Jungian writer, finds cultural standards of masculinity cruel and harmful. He laments the lack of soulfulness, the competitiveness expressed in slogans such as “Who dies with the most toys wins.” Yes, it’s meant ironically, but we also see the underlying keen perception of reality. That sticker is usually on expensive cars.

NEGATIVE INFINITY

But, let’s face it, there are also plenty of crazily acquisitive women, even if their toys are less expensive. No, that’s not the difference that gets at the heart of how difficult it is to be a woman (“a full-time job”). The essential difference is biological: only women bear children. Modern medicine has complicated this matter by offering women truly effective contraceptives, so that women don’t have to bear children if they don’t want to. For some women, chiefly educated women, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” got translated into “to have a child or not to have a child.” It has become a choice. And whatever becomes a choice has the power to become a torment.

Some thinkers were onto the torment of choice long ago. Hegel called unlimited choice negative infinity. What a marvelous term for hell. “Keeping your options open” sounds good, and for a while it may indeed be good. But if it keeps going on, you descend deeper and deeper into the hell of indecision.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

I’m sure you’ve met middle-aged people, both men and women, who still haven’t settled on a career. Once in a campground restroom I overheard a woman say: “I still haven’t decided what I want to be when my children grow up.” You probably know some attractive singles who are always dating but never get married, or – my special focus here – women who keep considering the pros and cons of having a child until they find themselves in menopause. Then they may have a crying fit or two, they mourn, they regret – but after that’s over, when it’s perfectly clear that they don’t have a choice anymore – ah, the relief. (This is not an argument against having children. If you are a parent, just don’t read any articles on the benefits of being child-free. Your brain will provide plenty of reasons why whatever happened was “for the best.”)

At an art colony, where you often meet childless women who still kid themselves that they’ll have a child “after I finish my novel” or “after I’m established in the art world,” I met a happy mother of three grown-up children who said, “How can anyone make such a huge decision on a conscious basis? Life chooses for you.” I hasten to say that I’ve met even more men and women who said they’ll give themselves to art “after I retire” or “after the kids leave for college.” And once – I’m not making it up – I met a rich woman investor who said, “After I make ten mil (meaning “ten million dollars”), I quit business and start painting again.”

Artists smile faint Mona-Lisa smiles when they hear that. They know: if you are meant to be an artist, you do it because you have to. You can’t help it. You’re compulsive. That painting has to be finished, so you stay up late or you get up at dawn and just do it. If you are Louise Nevelson, you give your child to your parents to raise while you go to France to study art. (“You can’t imagine the guilt,” I remember her saying in a TV interview. “There are things you simply can’t afford to look back on.”)

Louise Nevelson Painted Woods

And I strongly suspect that those women who are meant to be mothers (whatever “meant to be” means) are the ones who can become pregnant even under what seem the most unlikely circumstances. No method of birth control works for them, even if they use two at the same time: “The condom broke, and I guess the diaphragm must have slipped out of position.” We’ve all heard those stories. From the point of view of contentment, the best policy seems to be to fully commit yourself one way or another and never look back and think “what if.” To refuse to live in regret. My favorite Zen saying is: When you sit, sit. When you stand, stand. Above all, don’t wobble.

“A LIFE I DIDN’T CHOOSE CHOSE ME”

Here you may object: “But Oriana, you can’t just let life choose for you. Some choices do matter a great deal and we need to give some serious thought to them.” This sounds so reasonable that I can’t deny it. Cogito, ergo sum. The faculty of Reason. Isn’t that what makes us human? Put the pluses on one side and the minus on the other – and no running to a psychic either!

Yet no one decides to become a poet on a rational basis. Who’d possibly choose to be seen as marginal and even crazy, definitely not the cultural image of “success”? A book of poems does not become a New York Times bestseller, nor is it ever turned into a movie (the success of “Cats,” based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” is monumental irony). Nor do we (poets and writers) really choose what we write about. We may try, but our central themes soon emerge anyway; there seems to be no escape from our central themes. 

Now, I don’t understand how anyone becomes a tuba player either, but I don’t suppose that the person has tried out every instrument there is, and after much deliberation decided on the tuba. I’ve never interviewed a tuba player, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear something analogous to what poets say when they claim, “I didn’t choose poetry; it chose me.” Or, as Adrienne Rich said, “A life I didn’t choose chose me.” Is that by any chance a universal statement?

For that matter, I don’t know anyone who has fallen in love as a rational choice, even though a couple of men tried to persuade me that only women’s love is irrational. I have met a few couples whose marriage choice looked pretty rational on the face of it – these people had a lot in common and knew how to work around their differences (oh sure, now and then one of those “ideal couples” would create seismic shockwaves by splitting, and we’d hear reasons such as “I couldn’t stand the way he smelled in the morning” – or, in the movie “About Schmidt,” “It’s so disgusting the way she takes out the car keys a long ways off from where the car is parked.”).


The “good enough” couples I knew, including my parents, all got married late in life, after they had already “found themselves.” On the other hand, practically all those who married at a young age now invite the question, “What did he/she see in her/him?” Have you ever asked a friend, “So why did you marry him?” only to hear, “I have no idea”?

But that’s another huge topic, and I am now making a rational decision to stay away from it.

**

THE TALE OF TWO MAGAZINE ARTICLES

Another huge topic that won’t go away is precisely those creative women who keep kidding themselves about how they need to publish a book first (or whatever it may be that comes first), and THEN they will have a child. I was one of those women. Because of the biological clock and the knowledge that you can’t delay forever, the “choice” has a way of haunting you. After all, feminism aside, deep down we know that women are supposed to have children. Basically, a woman is a mother. Perhaps to have just one? One won’t wreck your life – or will it? I couldn’t forget the woman painter who said, with deep sorrow in her voice, “I shouldn’t have had a child.” I could shrug off occasional other women saying, “I shouldn’t have had children,” but the painter’s confession hit home. She let her partner pressure her into having a child, and it did mess up her life (he left the country before the baby was born).

In my thirties in particular I kept reading articles on the pros and cons of having a child. Two of them proved influential. The first one asked, “If unable to have children, would you consider adopting a child?” “No, of course not,” I instantly replied. This gave me a long pause. Enlightenment seemed near.

But even that didn’t stop the agony of indecision because of the old argument that it would feel different with your own child. Another article brought massive enlightenment. It easily dismissed arguments such as “a baby will make me happy.” It presented just a few pros and cons, but those were very intelligently chosen. One of the reasons against having a child read: “Your work or vocation demands a lot of solitude and quiet.” That was it. I said yes and for the first time felt total clarity as to whether or not I should have a child. It didn’t feel like a “no”; it felt like a yes to myself.

Even that clarity proved wobbly at times, and baby fantasies would haunt me for a while. But I knew those were just fantasies, like dreaming of dancing with the Prince. I felt the truth of Gloria Steinem’s famous remark, “I could not give birth to myself and to another person.” Having the time to read and write, take classes, develop my mind – that’s what I wanted: to give birth to myself.

And then life chose for me: “later” rolled into “too late now.” I had a good cry; then I felt at peace at last. “That was the one mistake that I didn’t make,” I thought with triumph. Given that I felt my life was mostly a series of mistakes, I felt lucky. I felt blessed.

THE BLESSING AND THE WOUND

By a strange linguistic coincidence, the French verb blesser means “to wound.” Could a blessing also be a wound? “No blessing without a curse in it, no curse without a blessing.” But it’s a matter of degree. A blessing can feel 90% positive – that’s good enough for me.

In retrospect I think it was always obvious that I would have children of the mind rather than children of the body. “There are many ways to be a mother,” a line in a poem by Muriel Rukeyser reassured me. Teaching, too, felt like a form of motherhood. But mainly there was the joy of having a rich inner life that led to writing. When I wrote this early poem I sensed, not yet clearly, that the most important thing in my life would be having children of the mind:

ASKING THE CUCKOO

Cherries burn in the orchards.
I wear cherry earrings,
a necklace of berries
that shrivel on the thread

like the faces of the very old.
Sleep smells of hay.
Honeysuckle twines
stalks of wheat.

After a while I cannot bear
the small weathers of the city.
The forest grows in me. 
Strips of birch bark

scroll around my fingers.
Mushrooms lie scarlet or secret.
The stream wrinkles to touch,
a live mirror.

I stroke pincushions of moss
and count cuckoo cries – replies.
One afternoon I ask
how many children I will have.

Sun shuttles through the warp
of crowns. The cuckoo,
countless, carries on.
Hundreds, the cuckoo calls.

**

Hundreds of poems . . .  I was yet to find out about po-biz and what it was like to have hundreds of unpublished poems. But at the time I wrote the cuckoo poem, the prophecy – finally understood – seemed glorious.

When I was older, I wrote a much more complex poem that had women in the audience nodding their heads.

THE WOMEN WHO DON’T WANT CHILDREN

want children. They comb the sun-silk
of their babies’ hair, tuck in a blanket
like a cloud. But I, I asked myself,
what could I give to my child?

Not the uncut ribbon of the river, the toy
blocks of bridges. Not bells of vespers,
that huge humming suspended in the sky.
Not a cascade of lit candles, the glow

bowing as the organist made the pillars
shake. Not that world I fled. Wasn’t it
too gray? And the story I was tired of,
how a cousin – I had ten –

came to welcome me, a new babe.
Asked: “Does she have a teddy bear?”
Told no, he disappeared for hours,
returned triumphant with a green-beige

teddy bear, not from a store, stores empty,
the bear perhaps from before the war –
his plush worn, but his glass-bead eyes
the first jewels to my newborn sight.

The bear went with me everywhere, sat
on the bookshelf wherever we lived,
his stiff arms stretched out to me.
The Gypsy was right, I didn’t know

I was loved. Love was in the winter
barley soup, in father’s giving me the first
slice of dark brown bread,
so warm it steamed like breath –

“We are all déclassé, we can’t give
our children what we had,” a friend said.
But it wasn’t about barley soup.
I was too poor to send my child

to a good school, and though I had
no child, my heart would spasm,
stabbed with the knife of that thought.
Yet in pine woods, when I was twelve,

a cuckoo told me I would have
children beyond all count.
I had to travel thousands of miles
through continents of life

to learn that they would be
the children of my mind.
I recognize those stubby arms
in their drab camouflage,

the sepia of autumn fields, of mud.
Look how they want to be held,
how their eyes want to shine
honey-green, like a forest in the sun.

~ Oriana © 2012



So the issue seemed resolved except for . . . dreams. Hamlet says something pertinent here. “There’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so . . .  O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” Dreams of what might have been have a way of haunting the dreamer. Mine weren’t exactly bad, but they were tinged with loss and sadness. But one dream was quite beautiful: moist, luminous, lit with love and lilacs. It allowed me feel the great love I would have felt for my child, while also helping me confirm the rightness of my choice (again, if we can even speak of “choice” – but let me not get entangled in that eternal philosophical debate – except to say that if we are lucky, we gather a certain clarity which may be delusional, but which gives a lovely light).

DAVID

He meets me at the train station.
A smile dances in his open face,
his elegant lean body.
More than I ever loved anyone,

I love my son in my dream –
the lost amber of his eyes,
marble cross of shoulders.
How do I know it would have

been a son? A mother knows,
I say, I who have no right
to call myself a mother.
We walk through a quiet town

dripping with lilacs, peonies.
Is it Pomerania where I was born,
cathedrals of clouds –
is it France, misty Eden

of the Yvelines,
river-rich Hungary
No, these are the Mourning
Fields, the green

country of that other memory,
rainy mirror of what didn’t
happen. How lonely I’ve been.
We step on a rain-beaded porch;

as always, he disappears.
And these words, this parched
paradise, what is it if not
the life he has given me.

**

photo: Rebecca Sweet

Scott:
So timely, your newest post. One of the things that most attracted me to an educational charity was the fact it emphasizes education for girls. Being the dad of a 14 year old daughter, I want her to have all the opportunities a man would. And you also touched on a subject dear to me; why do we become what we become and like what we like? In my case....why the obsession with Nantucket whaling...am not from there, none of my family were career seaman but it's a topic that more and more speaks to me. And there's even a great American poem to relate to, 'The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.' It hits all my three passions; literature, history and the sea.

Oriana:

Indeed, why do we become what we become? The interactions of genes and circumstances are too complex to unravel. If I’d stayed in Poland, I’d be a different person; if I’d had a child, especially in America, meaning without help, I’d be a different person. I remember with sorrow the time a male acquaintance told me, “Don’t kid yourself, you’d never be where you are intellectually if you had a child.” I don’t mention it in the blog, but in retrospect, that was as heavy a verdict as the two articles that influenced me and gave me the courage to follow the hunger of my intellect. That was my first no, don’t do it – and I was very sad that I needed to choose, that women are so heavily penalized for bearing a child.

What working women desperately need is good, affordable childcare. This way they would be able to have children fairly young, which is optimal for health, and still be able to continue education and/or professional work. Speaking of the latter, I also dream of a world where part-time work for both men and women is normal and honored.

With all its references to the Pequod and Ahab, I can see why Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” would be among your favorite poems. I especially like “Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose / Oh Ahab’s void and forehead.” It’s wonderful the way “void” comes before “forehead,” creating an oxymoron that makes both void and forehead vivid for us.

Hyacinth:

Beautifully done. I especially love “David.”

Oriana:

The dream that gave me the poem felt a great gift, starting with the European setting: a relative meets you at the train station. So it felt like coming home. But the town wasn’t Warsaw or any big city; it wasn’t even Grudziadz, a lovely river-port town where I was born and often visited. But it was northern, rich with moisture and blossoms. The surprise, on waking, was that I instantly recognized the handsome young man as my son, and the great wave of love that I felt just looking at him. I hope that love is in the poem. So much love for someone who doesn’t exist, except in my mind . . .  The love, the loss, and the gain are all there. 

Mary:

Having a literal child is only one of many ways to be generative. Having literal children is not everyone's way. But I feel there is something in all of us that wants to create a legacy of something tangible and valuable. I've been thinking about these issues since I was a chronically ill child, & knew that becoming a biological mother would be risky for me. I've always wanted to find other or additional forms of creativity.

Oriana:

When I was growing up in Poland, I took it for granted that I’d have one child. Most professional couples, like my parents, had one child. So that was my early idea of normal, and it’s been quite difficult going against that social conditioning. Well, I kept kidding myself about “later, later” . . . since in spite of the wise articles and Gloria Steinem and everything else pointing the other way, I had the feeling that I “should” have a child. Now it seems so absurd, that instead of “I want to” I thought in terms of “I should.” But I never thought of childbearing as a form of creativity (not saying it isn’t, but that just didn’t occur to me, and when a professor said, “Women don’t need to be creative because they can have children,” I wanted to scream), but as something opposed to my creative work, and to the life of the mind in general – a kind of intellectual and creative death sentence, almost.

If a nanny had been possible, or if I were a man, how totally different my attitude would have been! I know that there are beautiful experiences connected with having children, and of course I have had my imaginary son, David, for decades now – I love imagining taking him to places like the Scripps Aquarium, and showing him the wonders of nature. I still engage in those fantasies, for pure pleasure – now that there is no longer any “threat,” so to speak. It was only after menopause that I finally saw young children were fascinating and beautiful to look at, and could even enjoy being around them for a while, especially the quiet bright ones, ages 6 to 9 – when they seem most affectionate. 

But I still wouldn’t adopt, no way. My life is so full, so rich I guess yours is too – great they you sought out other forms of creativity), there is really no room in it for a demanding, dependent human being. And it was always that way, really – I never “needed” a child. And when I thought of women who inspired me, women who had reached greatness, like Emily Dickinson and Georgia O'Keefe, those were mostly childless women. And here I am reminded that we don't ever hear about "childless men." 

I’m also reminded of Simone de Beauvoir’s “One is not born a genius. One becomes a genius.” I don’t think I’ll ever become a genius, but to even think of some development yet left is exciting. To just keep developing, working into the unknown. Yes, brain children rather than biological children. Because you can’t have it all. 

Mary:

I grew up in a large family and always knew that was not for me! But I did want to have at least one child--not because I "should" but b/c I enjoyed small children. i saw mothering as potentially creative if disentangled from conventionalities. And I did have a child, though on the Universe's timetable and not my own! But after that, I was done. lthough my husband and I are now very involved in helping to raise our daughter's little boy-another surprise person. when i was young i despaired that i could ever survive economically if i committed to poetry and music, so i sought other fields where creativity can be very important--life science, social work. but being a mother and becoming too disabled to work a "real" job brought me back gradually to my *real* work. i bet you could write a whole poem cycle about your adventures with your imaginary son."


Oriana:

When I did baby-sitting, I enjoyed one little girl, who was bright and hardly ever cried; not once did she howl like a siren. Other small children were a nightmare. Recently it occurred to me that perhaps my child would have been similar to me, bright and quiet. But a friend who’s a mother of five (“one for each method of birth control”) quickly squashed this: “There is no guarantee.” So now and then I just enjoy the fantasy of taking my bright, quiet fantasy child somewhere interesting – imagine showing him the beauty of the Eastern Sierra! Or, since this is fantasy, Italy! And I remember a woman gynecologist who said, while prescribing the Pill for me, “I think you’d be a fun mother for the child to have.” Of course I’d be entertaining; bedtime reading was endlessly imaginable as an outlet for the ham actress in me (my inner “hamstress”). And I remember a faculty wife who said, “Having a child will be a great adventure for you. It always is an adventure, but for you it will be a really great adventure.”

But here I can’t forget Adam Zagajewski’s saying that children don’t share their parents’ interests and passions, and he gave some pretty crushing examples. So David, my brilliant intellectual, now a mathematics professors at Princeton, or, rarely, my fantasy daughter Dara, with her lush dark strangeness and amazing literary gifts – all this is a very fragile fantasy even as fantasy, I know . . . Back in the years when I was still kidding myself about eventually, in the last moment, miraculously having that one child, another experienced mother gave me a look laden with weariness and said, “Having a child is like marriage. It’s not romance.” That was extremely sobering. As was the thought that dawned on me: I would make a great father. “Me too,” said my then best friend (we were both “graveyard poets” in Los Angeles). Two creative women, we shared a moment of gloom, and then re-entered reality – which we found fascinating regardless. Maybe we need another saying: “an artist is never childless.” 


Hyacinth:

Re: the “coarsening” of teenage boys. Adolescents male and female have so many hurdles to overcome. It’s a time of bullying both subtle and overt. If boys don’t adhere to the "code" of manhood they are called sissy, gay, geek. And girls are held up to the beauty standards of Hollywood. It’s all disgraceful.  I'm so grateful that I went to girls school where and when I was spared much of this.

Oriana:

I wonder if adolescence has to be so awful. And no signs that it's becoming less so! With boys we can maybe blame testosterone-driven aggression, but with girls the mass media are greatly to blame for constantly presenting the message that looks matter more than anything, and the right shade of lipstick is vastly more important than grades, and the right hairdo trumps what’s inside the woman’s head (nothing, judging from women’s magazines).

Now that we have movies made chiefly for teenage boys, with incredible amount of crude violence, as well as abundant Internet porn, I can see why some social critics are convinced that “we are falling apart.” But somehow, somehow, we are inching forward. People eventually recover from the wounds of adolescence and its barbarous standards, and in spite of the violent videos and movies the actual levels of violence have gone down.

My secret hope is that I’ll live long enough to see even one day without warfare anywhere in the world. Friends tell me it’s impossible, and my hope has waned, but I still have a feeling that I’ll live to see the idea that war is morally obscene take hold in many people’s mind. Personal violence will be next in line, and maybe the “coarsening” of boys will become less vicious. Maybe I’m just naïve, and it’s my idealistic streak.


Hyacinth:

I've just read the new comments. I was especially interested in the man whose goal is to find the names of all the ships that sailed from Nantucket and the names of the crew members. I can visualize many poems resulting from that kind of search, or a novel with a large scope. I find that area fascinating as well.

My mother used to frequent old graveyards to read the epitaphs, dates and names and Yankee humor. This was in Rhode Island and Connecticut

Oriana:

We wish Scott much joy as he pursues his unusual project. There will be all kinds of adventures as he travels, I’m sure. I also see a non-fiction book as a possibility, or at least a personal essay (the so-called “creative non-fiction”).