The Bully

In Clyde there always hummed the deep machinery of violence. His pale, lashless, empty eyes, his emotionless mouth — they were a lie. His easy, liquid stride and the subduing murmur of his voice were all a lie. Clyde was blonde and lean and three years older than I. And evil. The boy could kill.

Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace by Walter Wangerin

I had pushed the memory aside, a habit I have with unpleasant memories. I choose not to think about them.

When I dropped my daughter off at camp one summer, though, it flooded back. Try as I might, to stuff it back under the rock where I had hidden it, it was there, leering at me, taunting me, stripping me down to nothing. Again.

SCN_0406I think I was eight years old when it happened. I went to Girl Scout camp, all by myself. I had begged my mother for the opportunity. Probably someone had come to my Brownie troop and given a presentation. Oh, those presentations can make camp seem so appealing! Girl Scout camp – swimming and hiking and singing around the campfire. It sounded so fun.

“But you won’t know anybody there,” my mother had said. I went anyway.

Our tent was of heavy green canvas, set on a wooden platform. The doors rolled back like jellyrolls and were neatly tied. The other girl inside were unrolling their sleeping bags onto cots. As the last to arrive, I got the leftover cot near the back of the tent.

tent-romanyThe counselor had us all sit on our cots and say our name, our age, and where we were from. I was the youngest by two years and from a different town. They all knew each other. It didn’t faze me. Oblivious to all but the fun ahead, I never saw the danger.

About the third day of camp, I went to change after swimming. The counselor wasn’t in the tent, but most of the other girls were. As if on cue, one of them stood guard at the door while the rest circled around my cot. They took my clothes, all of them, and threw them out of the tent.

One girl called the shots. “Hold her down,” she said. “Tickle her.” They obeyed her commands. “Keep tickling her.” They held me on the cot and tickled me until I wet myself and cried.

As quickly as it started, it ended. They left me alone in the tent, shivering, wet, crying. I grabbed my towel, a wet dirty heap on the floor, wrapped it around myself, and ran outside to get my clothes. No one was around. I spent the rest of the day with my counselor, probably annoying her with my puppy-dog closeness, but never whispering a word of what had happened.

It happened a second time before I wised up to the fact that I should not go in the tent alone or when the counselor wasn’t there.

Something is twisted inside the heart of a bully. The funny thing was that I grew to fear not the bully, but the pack.

As a psychology major in college, I learned that experiments have shown that what people do as part of a group is different from what they do as individuals. They give it names and labels — mob mentality, herd mentality, pack mentality — but it all amounts to the same thing. We don’t always think for ourselves.

What I learned from my bully experience is that we walk a fine line of independence and interdependence.

It’s important to think independently. I don’t think every girl in the pack of girls that tickled me was twisted. One came up with the mean idea; the rest followed. I will think for myself, thank you very much, and not be sucked into some perverse idea of fun.

A lone wolf, though, is a prime target for the bully. It’s important to know who the safe people are and to trust ourselves to them. There is strength in numbers, but those numbers don’t have to be a pack.

In Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace, Walter Wangerin places himself, over and over, in the role of the villain. In the story of Clyde, Clyde is clearly the villain, and yet Walt still blames himself for giving information to Clyde that allowed him to bully another weaker individual.

His mother, knowing that something was wrong, tried to get him to talk about it.

“Did he hurt you, Wally?”

This was my mother beside me on the street. I accepted her coming without surprise. I stood up and buried my face in her stomach and continued to cry.

She held me. “Did Clyde hurt you?” she said.

I shook my head, but I couldn’t answer her. I just hung on.

“Wally? Wally?” she said, stroking my hair. These tears of mine were endless, bottomless. “Wally? Why are you crying?… How can I help you if I don’t know why you’re crying?”

Because I am the one who told the other kids about her in the first place. …

Walter never told his mother about the bully any more than I told my mother about my experience. He blamed himself too much.

For me, some things just stay inside.

Although hidden, they shape us.

With God’s grace, they don’t twist us, but they mold us into wiser and more compassionate people.


Life is like a Boondoggle Keychain

This was first published in August 2011 in my now defunct blog “Hot Dogs and Marmalade.”  When my friend, Julie Silander, wrote a post called “The Lanyard” for her Greener Trees blog, it reminded me of this and I dug it out of the ash heap.

Boondoggle keychains — a must have for this season’s fashion. I know some of you already made infinity of these at scout camp, but here goes with a boondoggle keychain post…

Laurel tried making a boondoggle keychain this summer. I never was very good at crafts involving plastic, so I wasn’t much help to her. Still she completed a good inch.

I was thinking about her boondoggle keychain and how life is like a boondoggle key chain.  Some many different strands come together to form our thoughts, our ideas, our intentions, our lives.  I have four strands to share with you from different times in my life, seemingly unrelated, but oh-so-related.

Strand #1 —  In the Fall of 1980, I took General Biology from Professor Marvin Druger at Syracuse University.  He began our first class with words I have never forgotten — “I hope that by the end of the year taking this class you will know less than you do today.”  It was an arrow shot straight at the heart of every know-it-all in the auditorium, and I doubt that they even understood what he was saying.  He was addressing the paradox of the more you know, the less you know;  the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.  I, for one, knew far less by the end of General Biology than I knew going in, even though I did win the coveted “Fetal Pig Award” and carried the card signifying this recognition for years in my wallet.  If I was ever to be in a car accident, I wanted the paramedics to know that I had won the Fetal Pig Award.

Strand #2 —  Sometime in the late 80s, I met Bud’s one and only uncle.  They called him Unkie Joe.  Unkie Joe taught architecture, but he was also an artist.  We had a very interesting discussion one evening about his art.  I should just preface this by saying that the more modern the art, the less I understand it.  His art is made up of black panels that he covers with layers and layers of graphite.  He explained it all to me (of course, I still didn’t get it) and,  quite honestly, I’ve been pondering it ever since.  Somehow the layers of graphite represented the unseen world around us.  He said that he believed that there were beings and battles that we can’t see, but they’re right there.  While this is a Christian concept (Ephesians 6:12), Unkie Joe had been studying eastern mysticism and that’s what he was drawing on — literally.

Strand #3 — One of my readers recently sent me a book that I have been enjoying immensely, A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie.  Written over 60 years ago, it contain morning and evening prayers for 31 days.  One morning, this was part of the prayer —

O Eternal God, though Thou art not such as I can see with my eyes or touch with my hands, yet grant me this day a clear conviction of Thy reality and power.  Let me not go forth to my work believing only in the world of sense and time, but give me grace to understand that the world I cannot see or touch is the most real world of all...

Strand #4 — The other day I picked up a book at Willis Monie’s.  Actually, I walked past it several times trying to pretend I didn’t see it.  The cover was so intriguing that I finally gave in.   Haunts of the Black Masseur:  The Swimmer as Hero by Charles Sprawson chronicles a history of swimming in a way I’ve never seen before.  It understands the strange powerful pull the water has on some us.  One little section, however, illustrated to me the fact that sometimes we think we know something or are being smart about something, when in fact we know nothing and are quite foolish in what we do.

For years swimmers had adopted as the model for style the actions of the frog…  Frogs were kept in tubs by the sides of pools as a mean of instruction.   People admired the wonderful screwlike motions of their legs below the knees…   The Boys Own Paper of 1879 recommends the learner place a basin half-full of water on the floor, put a frog in it, lie face downwards over a stool and try and imitate its movements.

In my life as a boondoggle keychain, I hold these four strands in my hands these days:  the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know; there is an unseen world all around us;  the world I cannot see is the most real world of all;  what we think we know, we may not know at all.

As I weave and intertwine them, I see potential for something beautiful — that unseen world being the most real world. We may not know what we think we know and the more we learn, the less we know.  It’s all such a paradox.  It’s all such a boondoggle.

The dictionary definition of boondoggle is “an unnecessary or wasteful project or activity” — and yet I find that the boondoggles of my life are paradoxes too.  The years spent raising babies and toddlers, which may be viewed by some as wasted years — after all, I could have been pursuing a career or earning money — the repetitive nature of reading the same book over and over, telling people what’s for dinner over and over,  — these are the very things that prepare me for helping with my aging parents.  Is it possible that these things which seem so mundane are really the most important?

Some simple instructions for making a boondoggle keychain highlighted these words — Under, Around, Over

Under — the more I know, the less I know

Around — there is an unseen world all around us

Over — the world I cannot see is the most real world of all

Under — what I think I know, I may not know

And so we weave this spiral braid of life, of knowledge, of the Almighty… a boondoggle keychain.

The Story of the Weeping Camel

In the quiet of the morning this morning, between waves of family – one group up and out the door to work and school, the others still snug in their beds – I watched a movie all by myself.  For the first hour, I had the leisure of no interruptions except my own thoughts.  Then the second wave of family started coming downstairs.

Laurel stood behind me for a few minutes, then asked, “What are you watching?” as we saw a mother laying her sleeping child down to bed.  I looked at my little girl and remembered the many times I had participated in that very scene.

“It’s a movie about a camel,” I told her, but it sounded so lame.  She kind of shrugged at me and got her bowl for cereal.

I should have called her back to me and told her that it was a movie about parenting and family and the things that draw us together and the things that push us apart.  “A movie about a camel” — the words barely scratched the surface of what it was about.

Recently one of my friends posted on Facebook about the push-pull relationship parents have.  Sometimes, parents say things about dreading the summer vacation because their children will be underfoot.  Probably because I homeschool, I’ve never really felt that way.  Season blends into season, waves washing in and out on an unseen shore, the ebb and flow of time that happens even in Mongolia.  With camels.

The camel for whom the movie was named experienced a difficult birth with her first calf.  It was painful.  I could relate.  Giving birth is painful. With one of the other camels, the people had noted that her nostrils were flaring and therefore her time must be soon.  I don’t know if my nostrils flared, but I do know that I felt like kicking at people when I was feeling the pushing pains.  This leading lady camel also kicked at people.

When her calf was finally born, they began circling each other warily.  The beautiful white calf wanted milk; the hurting mother wanted nothing to do with it.

Thus began a parenting dance — young and old circling each other, one wanting the other near, the other pushing away.

The parenting dance of the camels was primal.  It had to do with survival. I’m not going to anthropomorphize the camels and say that they had human feelings.  The mother battled pain.  The calf battled hunger.  In so doing, they were at odds with each other.

In the film, however, there was another parenting dance going on, a multi-generational one, in the little huddle of yurts.  Great-grandfather kept the stories alive by telling them to the young ones.  Grandmother bribed the baby with sweets when her mother went out to help with the herds.  The older brother guided the younger brother on his first big trek to the town.  Mother and father together kept the herds. From the outside came the push and pull with civilization/modernization in the form of television and video games.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that technology came to the human family, but it is not what saved the camel family.  This is a movie worth watching.  In the quiet. Alone. In the morning.

Learning How

My husband and I have fairly different backgrounds.  Yes, we both grew up in upstate New York in rural towns.  We both had dairy farmers for neighbors.  We grew up in variations of the large family — mine with five children total, and his with thirteen and a cousin who came to live with them when her mother died.  Both of our mothers stayed home and did the work of a housewife.

But our differences are also many.  My father was a physician, his a high school teacher.  While my parents did not live lavishly – it’s that Scottish influence – we did do things like go on family vacations and occasionally go out to eat.  His family did neither.  Vacations were only done with a few children at a time, and those happened in later years.  Eating out at a restaurant was almost unheard of.

ponderosaI can’t remember if we were dating or newly married, but I suggested we enjoy the fine dining experience of Ponderosa.  If you’re not familiar with Ponderosa, it’s a buffet-style steak house. Bud was not sold on the idea.  I convinced him that we had enough money (and coupons), but he still was somewhat hesitant.

We had gone out to dinner before, once to a fancy restaurant where we had seen a waiter drop a tray of food down the stairs, and often to little sandwich shops and other college student fare.  Why the reluctance to go to Ponderosa?  Bud finally confessed that he didn’t know how.  He didn’t know how things worked in restaurant like that.  How would we order?  How would we get our food?  What if he did it wrong?

Once I convinced him to go, he found it really wasn’t that hard.  Although I haven’t been back to a Ponderosa in years, we did go back a number of times, mostly because it fit our budget at the time.

I tell you all this to tell you that I envy Jeffrey Overstreet (author of Through a Screen Darkly) having a teacher like259 Mr. Demkowicz.  Mr. D. taught his high school class how to watch a movie.  He taught them to regard the cinema as an art form, not just a form of entertainment. The movie used to introduce this concept was Babette’s Feast.  Overstreet says,

Most entertainment is assembled for the purpose of satisfying common audience appetites.  A lot of these movies have been commissioned and assembled by a committee, not an artist, with more than a little thought invested in what will sell the most tickets….

Mr. D. presented Babette’s Feast in a way that told us this was not just a centerpiece for a class party.  It was going to be more than entertainment.  It was an experience to share.  We would be invited to share our impressions of it… There was a sense that we would learn from the experience.

How have I reached 53 years of age and never seen that many movies are meant to be far more than entertainment?  The answer is that, just like my husband didn’t know how to eat at Ponderosa, I didn’t know how to watch a movie. No one ever told me.

And I kept doing it all wrong.  It would be like to going to Ponderosa and not understanding that the meal was more than the strip steak they brought to the table.  It included the salads and sides and fried chicken and ice cream machine.

I can’t believe I’m comparing Ponderosa to fine art.

But then, when Overstreet talked about repeated viewings of movies because of the layers and layers of meaning, the movie that came to my mind was Napoleon Dynamite.  Don’t you think that, in a way, that fits with the Ponderosa analogy?

Yet, I love Napoleon Dynamite, and every time I watch it I see something new that makes me laugh.  I just never thought of it as great art, but I suppose there is something great about it.

So I’m learning how to watch a movie.  Finally.

And I’m only three chapters into Overstreet’s book.

Won’t you join me in this feast?

Confessions of a Non-Movie Goer

I rarely go to the movies.  By rarely I mean less than once a year.  Sometimes years will pass between one movie and the next.  Usually, when I go, it’s at the behest of my children.

Sometime in the 1990s, around Silence of the Lambs and Schindler’s List, I reached my fill of movie violence.  Both of those were movies I chose not to see despite the rave reviews they received.  I think it was about the same time, in my living room, when I saw bodies floating down the Kigali River courtesy of the nightly news.  I turned the television off, too.  The world is an ugly place and I needed beauty in my life.

Oh, I went to the occasional movie, testing the waters periodically.  I saw Tom Hanks in Castaway, which I found insipid.  It had been promoted as the new Robinson Crusoe, but in reality bore little resemblance to Daniel DeFoe’s book.   When some of the girls I coached told me they were seeing Titanic for the sixth, seventh, or eighth time, I decided I had better see it.  Once was more than enough for me. I saw the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice in the theater, but it felt flat to me after watching the BBC version at home.  I went to The Lord of the Rings movies, but watched most of the last film through my fingers. I don’t do well with violence.

I decided that I was pretty much done with the movies.  I would go for my kids, but little else would oblige me to go.

Coffee, Bible, and Through a Screen Darkly -- how I started my day

Coffee, Bible, and Through a Screen Darkly — how I started my day

Then I started to read Jeffrey Overstreet’s book, Through a Screen Darkly.  After the first chapter, I felt like King Agrippa before Paul.  Paul had boldly spoken to King Agrippa of his conversion to Christianity.  While  Festus pronounced Paul a lunatic, King Agrippa said, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”

After the first chapter of Overstreet’s book, I wanted to say, “In a few pages would you persuade me to be a movie-goer?”

And yet, he would.  In paragraphs like this,

I’ve always had a sense that there is another language I once knew, a joy that was mine before I was born.  When I get a glimpse of that glory through art, I can feel the memory of it pressing against the back of my mind, and the longing for that peace and resolution wells up inside me….

And in statements like these,

Transforming moments at the movies differ substantially from person to person…

The things that move you will depend, in part, on your own experiences as well as the artist’s own history and personality….

Overstreet reminded me that there were times when I was deeply touched by a movie. I felt like I was being given permission to not necessarily buy into every review and popular opinion of a movie, but to form my own opinions, good or bad, of movies.  In the past, when I viewed box office hits like Castaway and Titanic and found them banal, I felt that maybe movie-going wasn’t really for me.  The truth is, however, I have had transforming moments via cinema.

The movie that came immediately to mind was Fiddler on the Roof.  Maybe it’s that the story is so compelling, but I think it’s more than that.  Watching it today, the filming is so 1970s.  The filmmakers played with the zoom and telescoping features of the cameras, like new toys, zooming in on Tzeitel’s eyes and telescoping out from Chava as she told Tevye about Fyedka.  It didn’t bother me, though, because my heart was too busy breaking for Tevye.  I identified so strongly with Tevye, with his plodding life, with his intense love for his family, with his deep faith, that little else mattered in the movie.  At the risk of sounding trite, I felt Tevye’s pain.

I also thought of A River Runs Through It, a movie starring Brad Pitt and featuring fly-fishing.  Although I can’t tell you exactly what it was (I’ve never gone fly-fishing in my life), there was something about that movie that touched me in a deep place.

The same is true for a movie called A High Wind in Jamaica, from 1965, starring Anthony Quinn.  I watched it on television once when I was maybe 12 and got that kicked-in-the-gut feeling.  I sort of want to watch it again to figure out why, and I sort of don’t.

My brother once tried to teach me how to golf.  I was pretty terrible.  No, I was downright awful.  I hit the ball well only twice over the course of nine holes.  Each time he said to me, “That’s why people come back. That feeling of hitting the ball well is such a good feeling that they want to do it again.”

Not me.  I gave up on golf just like I gave up on the movies.

Jeffrey Overstreet reminded that I have experienced golden moments via the silver screen.  Maybe I’ll go back and try it again.

First I’ll finish his book.

On Winning

I just read a book about winning.

No, it wasn’t Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” — that’s a book one of my children just read, and keeps quoting to my chagrin.  It’s not that I don’t like Dale Carnegie.  Honestly, I never read any Dale Carnegie other than the random quote.  It’s just that winning friends has never been my goal life.

And influencing people?  God placed eight of them right in my home and gave me great opportunity to influence without ever reading Dale Carnegie’s book.  Indeed, more than Dale Carnegie, I probably subscribe to William Rose Wallace‘s treatise on influence, summed up with the refrain —

For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world.

But winning, oh, winning is a funny business.  I’ve read and heard many coaches talk about winning.  I suppose, as a swim coach, it should be a higher priority to me.  Winning, however, is not always the first person who touches the wall.  I’ve seen that truth more times than I can count.

In fabric stores I’ve seen shirts and mugs that say “She Who Dies With the Most Fabric Wins.”  I smiled the first time I saw it, but cringed a little inside.  Accumulating stuff makes us a winner?  I don’t think so.

Back to the book on winning….

IMG_1094I just finished reading Leif Enger’s book,  So Brave, Young, and Handsome.  It’s all about winning.  Told as a winding journey from Minnesota to Mexico, a reader might think it’s the tale of a writer, or a boat-builder, or a fugitive, or a Pinkerton.  While those characters are part of the story, the story really is all about winning.

SPOILER ALERT:  If you’ve never read the book, I may reveal some things about the ending that you may want as a surprise.  Personally, I don’t like being surprised in books.  I read stories the way the ancient Greeks watched plays, not so much to know the ending, but rather to know how the author gets there.

In the book, Siringo, a crusty Pinkerton agent, captures his man.  The last words we hear Siringo say are, “You are not winning,” to his quarry.  It is pitiable.

Siringo thinks that he has won, just as so many people in the world think they have won when they achieve some long-sought goal.    It must be like getting to the top and finding no one there.  It’s not winning.

A turn of the page reveals the winner and what winning really is.

I don’t know that I ever saw a stranger event than Glendon’s surrender to Charles Siringo, for at the same time that he lost everything — the very direction of his own steps — he won the thing he’d held so precious he wouldn’t approach it in words.

He won Blue.

Winning is surrender.

I thought about the scene in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, when Aslan slowly walks to the White Witch in surrender.  Her evil army shrieks with glee as they bind him and cut his mane.  She thinks that she has won.

It’s the deeper magic, however, that rules the day.  A magic of surrender.  A magic of love.

Love wins.

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?…

Matthew 16:26

In the Locker Room

The other day, the head swim coach for our team was telling me about the previous practice she had run with the senior group.

“It was a tough set,” she said, and she told me exactly what kind of swimming she had the kids do. It was, indeed, tough.

“Luke got out in the middle,” she said. Luke is one of the top boys on the team.  He works hard;  he plays hard;  he swims hard.  “He went in the locker room and threw up.  Then he came back out and finished the set.”

Throwing up in the middle of a set is a sign of putting in maximum effort. I have a friend who is an elite level distance runner. He says that if he doesn’t throw up at the end of a race, he feels like he hasn’t run hard enough.

“When the kids finished, they all said what a great practice it was,” the coach finished.

“Even Luke?” I asked.

“Especially Luke,” she replied.

And therein lies the paradox.  Doing something so challenging that it makes us throw up (or want to) yields the greatest reward in the end.

Which brings me to chapter 4 of Helen Gardner’s book, The Art of T. S. Eliot.

I thought it was enough that I really wasn’t familiar with his Four Quartets.  Okay, I thought, I can study the Four Quartets while I read Gardner’s book.  I have now spent some time with Burnt Norton, highlighting and underlining and writing notes to myself in the margins.  I looked up words that were unfamiliar to me, like ehrebung and tumid and appetancy.  I felt like I was making progress.

Then, chapter 4 hit me.  “What?!” I’m sure I said it out loud.  “I have to study another poem, too?”

Waste-Land-EliotGardner spends all of chapter 4 discussing The Waste Land. 

I pulled up a copy of The Waste Land on the internet.  The Waste Land employs at least seven languages.  Eliot starts with a little Latin and Greek before he turns to English.  Then he peppers the poem with German, French, Italian, and Sanskrit.

I went in the locker room and threw up.  Figuratively, of course.

I can’t do this, I whined to myself.  It’s too hard.  Just as Luke could have gotten dressed and gone home in the middle of practice, I entertained thoughts of dropping out of the reading group.  But what would I miss by doing that?  A treasure, I’m sure.

T. S. Eliot said,

But the essential advantage for the poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal;  it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness;  to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.

Helen Gardner, on page 82, said,

This sense of the boredom and the horror behind both beauty and ugliness is expressed also by the trick, learned partly from Ezra Pound, of juxtaposing the beautiful and the ugly, the heroic and the sordid, and makes it more than a trick.

ralph fasanella ice manSeveral years ago there was such an exhibit at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. Two rooms were dedicated to a modern folk artist, Ralph Fasanella.  “See if you can find ice-tongs in some of the pictures,” the museum worker told us as we entered the exhibit.

In some paintings, a crucifix was present, but it wasn’t Jesus on the cross;  it was a man with ice-tongs on his head. In at least one painting, the crucified ice man was the main subject.  When the curator came to explain the exhibit, he specifically addressed the ice tongs.  Ralph’s immigrant father sold ice in Brooklyn from a horse-drawn wagon in the early 1900s.  It was back-breaking, low-pay labor which was never enough to provide for his family.  As a child, Ralph sometimes helped his father, but more often rebelled against this life of poverty.  Each crucified ice man that Ralph put in a painting, each set of ice tongs, was a tribute to his father. Ralph saw in his father the ugliness of poverty and thankless labor, but he also, later in life, realized the sacrifice his father had made for his family.

The concept of juxtaposing beautiful and ugly has been on my mind these past several years as I have walked the Alzheimer’s road with my mother. There is nothing beautiful about a disease that a robs a person of her mind, her memories, her dignity.  Before she went into the nursing home, I was, at times, a nursemaid, cleaning my mother in unmentionable ways, taking the brunt of some angry outbursts, battling hallucinations that were more real to her than I was.  But her Alzheimer’s was also a beautiful gift, allowing me to forgive and love her completely, and drawing out of my daughter a desire, no, a calling, to care for these challenging, and at times unlovable, elderly people.

Sometimes the most ugly is the most beautiful.  The crucified Christ is the epitome of that.

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hid their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Isaiah 53:3

When I put it all in perspective, throwing up in the locker room is such a small thing, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) perhaps there is a beauty even in vomit.


Are there ugly things in your life?  Can you find the beauty in them?

Gary Larson, Helen Gardner, Mozart, and Me

I feel as though I am trapped in a Gary Larson cartoon. You know the one I mean; it’s the one illustrating what dogs hear.

what dogs hear

Except here is my version:

blah blah blah

Every once in a while I have an “aha” moment where something clicks.  I had one this week.

It happened while I was driving.  I was on my way to a full afternoon of teaching swim lessons and coaching.  Confession time: I get anxious. So I was driving along and feeling anxious.  Then I thought, I can’t be anxious alone.  What can I do to make my two daughters anxious too?

Actually, I didn’t think that.  But I did do that. I don’t text while I drive.  It’s illegal in New York State, plus I don’t know how to text.  However, I do something akin to texting which is trying to find a certain song on my MP3 player.  It makes my children incredibly nervous.  New York needs to make it illegal.

So, I was driving along, feeling anxious, and suddenly had to find a certain song on my MP3 player.  I needed to listen to the 4th movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony.  Don’t ask me why;  I just knew that it would set my world right if I could listen to it.

Scrolling through the symphonies on my MP3 player is not an easy task while sitting at the kitchen table.  It’s even harder while driving.  I let my children help me.

“Find the Mozart album,” I instructed, “then find Symphony 40 and go to the 4th listing under that.”

Success without a car-wreck!

As we listened together, they asked, “What’s this one about?”  I’ve told them the stories behind some the music I listen to — you know, like Swan Lake and Peer Gynt.

“I don’t know,” I confessed.  “I just needed to hear it.”  Those poor kids have such a strange mother.

I listened, and wanted to close my eyes, but didn’t, because I was driving.  Words from Helen Gardner’s book came flooding back to me.  Well, not actual words, but a concept.  I looked up the words later.

The Waste Land is given coherence not by its form, but by its underlying myth… But in Four Quartets the title of the whole poem tells us nothing of its subject.

Just like the 40th Symphony in G minor.

The ‘thematic material’ of the poem is not an idea or a myth, but partly certain common symbols….

By relying on form and these simple underlying symbols, Mr. Eliot has found not only a personal solution of his personal problems as a poet, but a solution, which may greatly influence later writers, of the problem of the long poem.  He has freed it from its dependence on a subject that can be expressed in non-poetic terms.

Just like Mozart’s 40th.  It, too, expresses a subject that cannot be expressed in non-musical terms.

My ‘aha’ moment.  I needed Gary Larson and Mozart to explain Helen Gardner who is explaining T S Eliot to me.  Easy, right?


I love learning new words. Helen Gardner, in The Art of T. S. Eliot, taught me a new word:  pastiche.


Definition of PASTICHE

1: a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work; also : such stylistic imitation

Gardner refers to Eliot’s work, Gerontion, as having a “flavour in it of pastiche.”

We hear his voice through it, but we hear it rather in spite of a voice he is putting on.

First StepsIt reminded me of a van Gogh painting I had seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, First Steps, After Millet.  Van Gogh greatly admired Jean Francois Millet and made multiple copies of his painting, First Steps.  Talk about pastiche! If you look at van Gogh’s First Steps and Millet’s First Steps, there is no mistaking which one is the van Gogh.

And yet, I think that, to some extent, to learn our own voice, we must try other voices in the process.  In some ways, it sounds as though Eliot resented that part of the process when he said in his British Academy lecture,

Milton made a great epic impossible for succeeding generations;  Shakespeare made a great poetic drama impossible;  such a situation is inevitable, and it persists until the language has so altered that there is no danger, because no possibility, of imitation…. For a long time after an epic poet like Milton, or a dramatic poet like Shakespeare, nothing can be done.  Yet the effort must be repeatedly made…

That Eliot made the effort and persevered is not unlike many great artists who start with imitation and develop into something more.  Creative genius needs to be fed and nurtured to come alive.  That nurturing and growing process, it would seem, happens in part through imitation of previous masters.

I love watching cooking shows on television, probably because I spend so much time in the kitchen.  As I watched Top Chef this week, I thought that the kitchen is not unlike paper and pen, or canvas and brush, or any other art form.  Danny Meyer, this week’s guest judge said,

If the food is really delicious and people freak out a little bit with the concept, you might be onto something. It means you’re breaking new ground, and the next thing you want to watch for is how many people copy you.

Breaking new ground in the culinary world is just as challenging as finding a new way to write poetry.  People may freak out at first with the concept, but then, just watch how many people choose to copy the new thing.

It seems that in The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot broke ground.

I can’t wait to get my copy of the book.

Slogging, Murder, and T. S. Eliot

I am most definitely slogging through The Art of T S Eliot by Helen Gardner.

katewinsletI should define “slogging” for you because, for me, it has one mental picture whenever I see or hear that word. Remember Kate Winslet in Titanic?  Remember the scene where she is trying to run through the halls of the sinking ship wearing a ballgown and the water is rising?  That, to me, is slogging.  The three elements of a slog are a long dress, water, and running.

As I started reading TAoTSE, I could feel the water rising.  I prayed, Please, God, help me.  The more I read, the more I could feel the water rise — ankle deep, knee deep, almost waist deep.  I wasn’t quite drowning, but I sure wasn’t getting it.

Then I found this sentence:

Any attempt such as this to analyse … must murder to dissect.

My daughter Helen is taking Anatomy and Physiology this year.  She is dissecting a cat.  Because we have a much-loved (although rather annoying) cat, Trinity, Helen knows about cats.  She has stroked her fur, watched her pounce, felt and heard her purr, seen her eat, and maybe even cleaned the litter box.  I’m sure that as Helen looked at the muscles on her dissected cat, she could picture them put to use in Trinity.  In other words, familiarity with a cat makes the dissection a little more meaningful.

Here I must make a confession that may get me thrown out of this group.  I am not terribly familiar T S Eliot.  In fact, I think the only thing I remember ever reading of his was “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” which I read in 10th grade and from which I remember one line, “Do I dare to eat a peach?  Shall I part my hair behind?”

If only we had chosen a book analysing e.e. cummings!  I have read and re-read, savored and pondered his poems.  Or how about Billy Collins;  Owen just gave me a book of his poetry which I love. Or Shakespeare’s sonnets — I have memorized some of those!  In fact, I have memorized poems by Lewis Carroll, Robert Service, Alfred Noyes, A. A. Milne, and so many others.  For whatever reason, I have stayed away from T. S. Eliot.

So please forgive me, dear Greener Trees Reads friends.  I may fall rather behind.  Before I go any further in TAoTSE, I need to track down a copy of The Four Quartets, one that’s in a book that I can hold in my hands and dog-ear the pages.  I need to read and re-read.  I need to familiarize myself with the cat, as it were, before I dissect it.

And, odd as it may sound, I’m looking forward to this slog.