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American literature happiness loss memory

Trivia quiz on Edith Wharton, “The Age of Innocence”

Trivia Quiz for The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920; winner 1921 Pulitzer Prize)

(with answers below)

For West Seattle “Classic Novels (and Movies)” book club, 4/24/22

1. Husband, Wife, Stranger?  May Archer (née Welland) and her husband Newland Archer seem to understand and love each other in their own way. But they also find fault and misunderstand each other. What one trait does May not have, according to her husband?

a. she takes care of herself     

b. she lets her imagination run wild  

c. she is loyal and gallant       

d. she prefers to ignore unpleasantness         

e. she is a true New Yorker and knows how to act

2-5. Social Portraits. Familial, societal, and marital obligations loom large over the characters in The Age of Innocence; those characters who are unmarried or estranged from their families are seen as lonely outcasts. Yet even the most privileged seem pitiable. Match quote to the character. Characters include:  a. M. Rivière; b. Newland Archer; c. Countess Ellen Olenska; d. May Welland

Quotes                                                                                                         

2. “’Sameness—sameness!’ he muttered, the word running through his head like a persecuting tune…”

3. “I want to cast off all my old life, to become just like everybody else here. …  If you knew how I hate to be different!”

4. “You musn’t think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine.”       

5. “Ah, good conversation—there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.”

6.  New York, circa 1870: A Uniquely Historic Urban Setting. There are many famous and familiar places named in The Age of Innocence, where the action mostly stays in New York city. Which one of the following places is not named?

a. Grace Church                     

b. Washington Square            

c. Metropolitan Museum of Art

d. a home on West 23rd Street            

e. the Academy of Music       

f. Central Park

g. the Empire State Building             

h. Wall Street 

7. Intimacy and nostalgia. Some of the most poignant passages endeavor to describe times past, longing, and how people who are otherwise intimate perceive life so differently. Which one of the following is not in the novel?

a. “You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath.”

b. “Odd, he thought, how the thought of childhood keeps coming back to me—the result of seeing Clarissa, perhaps; for women live much more in the past than we do, he thought.”

c. “She was frank, poor darling, because she had nothing to conceal, assured because she knew of nothing to be on her guard against.”

d. “My good father abhorred hurry. But now we live in a constant rush.”

8. Style and technique. With her mixture of omniscience and interior monologue, Wharton’s narrative provides readers with a feeling of listening to the characters’ most secret and changeable thoughts. Which one of the following thoughts occurs to the hero, Newland Archer?

a. “Don’t let us be like all the others!”                      

b. “Women ought to be as free as we are—”

c. “We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?”          

d. “It’s worth everything isn’t it, to keep one’s intellectual liberty; not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation, one’s critical independence?”

9. Keywords and thoughts recur in Wharton’s description of upper-class New York society. Which one of the following quotes is not drawn from Wharton’s book?

a. “keep out the ‘new people’”          

b. “rather bad form”               

c. “morbidly sensitive”

d. “low-toned comments”      

e. “a naïve, generous country”           

f. “it’s confoundedly dull”

g. “ritual was precise and inflexible”            

h. “the occasion was a solemn one”

10-11. Maxims or life lessons. Similar to many of her contemporaries, Wharton peppers her novel with pithy bits of wisdom. Which two of the following are from The Age of Innocence?

a. “Living’s too much trouble unless one can get something big out of it.”

b. “The worst of doing one’s duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else.”

c. “It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.”

d. “The children you don’t especially need, you have always with you, like the poor. But the bright ones get away from you.”

12. High tech and futurist scenarios. Which one of the following modern ideas and inventions is not in the Age of Innocence?

a. long-distance telephoning              

b. 5-day Atlantic ship crossings, from the US to Europe

c. women’s suffrage                                      

d. electric lighting      

e. Debussy’s music

13. Age = wisdom? At the beginning, Newland Archer seems to be in his early twenties. How old is he at the end of the book? 

a. 57 years old            

b. 42               

c. 78               

d. 85   

ANSWERS

1. b.

2. b.

3. c.

4. d.

5. a.                

6. g.

7. b.  (That quote is from Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway.)

8. b.

9. e. (That quote is from Willa Cather, My Ántonia.)

10.-11.  b. and c.

12. c.

13. a.

A special thanks to Carl and Daniel for the violets from their garden, featured in the nosegay seen above: a symbol of Wharton’s lost world and the nostalgia we all feel for long-lost times, places, and loves…

Categories
American literature art creativity dogs loss quilts social media T'ai chi wisdom

daily message, if not daily joy .. today we need Roethke

closeup sign of the times coronavirus WE ARE OK

Hi out there,

Here in Seattle (Ground Zero USA), it feels like months have already gone by since we’ve gone into health-scare hibernation. It is a strange time. We’re in here, poring over the awful statistics and fascinatingly grim reportage from the New York Times, (Yikes! latest headline is: “New Yorkers Told to Stay Indoors and Shutter Most Businesses”), our stomachs flip in anxious sympathy, our backs stiffen and shoulders tighten as we wonder and worry. Meanwhile just outside our windows, we’ve had-all week!–glorious spring weather, fragrant breezes through the pink and white flowering trees, and a gazillion birds chirping, zooming by, and squabbling in the trees around our yard. (Advice: Get and install a hummingbird feeder! Super fun.)

hummingbird March 2020

Apart from my husband and son, I have not been in close contact with any human since Monday. (Today’s Friday.) Ooof!  It feels much longer than five days. Luckily, I have three things that guarantee well-being and you can have too: 1) a passion for some manual art or activity, 2) a nearby dog to love (it doesn’t have to be your own dog), and 3) lots of books and stuff to read. With those three things, you can do OK in times high and low.

My manual art passion is sewing (see HGBG website; quilts are it!). My dog is Honey Girl, who helps in every way she can to make me happy, which is apparently what dogs love and live to do (if the adorable books of W. Bruce Cameron can be believed).  See Honey Girl here, in a quiet moment with her squeaky pig.

HG and squeaky pig March 20 2020

The books are for my head: that annoying voice of critique and complaint that talks too much unless given something else to do. You know what I mean. I work on my head, regularly, as if it were a pony, a plant, or a high-powered engine that harms itself if left to its own devices.  (I now practice Qigong and T’ai chi at home too; they care of the body-mind.) Many, many writers are close at hand, to remind me how to live and why it’s worth the bother. (I read a paragraph or two from the Stoic philosophers, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, on a daily basis and I enjoy others such as Jane Austen, W. Bruce Cameron, and Lori Gottlieb, just for fun and relaxation.)

My conclusion? It is time to act, to share the wealth.  People are reading more on-line these days. Maybe my bookish discoveries could be distilled into small bits on this blog, where people like you will read them, and maybe you’ll pass on the good thoughts through the internet, and we as a species will benefit.  Maybe we’ll remember why it is worth the bother to go on living. We might even learn something important. Is it beyond hope that we might evolve for the better? Must gun sales soar? (One friend writes that people are buying guns to protect their toilet paper stash, haha; virus humor.) Maybe we’ll become more thoughtful, introspective, and grateful for the present-day and careful with each other and our living planet. However, we’ll be poorer in pocket, though… and there’s a whole lot of misery going around.

I can’t do much, apart from offering quilts and good thoughts. But at least I can do that. So from now on, I vow to post a good thought from one of my books every day for the duration of this virus crisis, here on this blog. If you like it, pass it on.

Today, I think we need Roethke, “I wake to sleep”:

 

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Of those so close beside me, which are you?

God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,

And learn by going where I have to go.

 

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Great Nature has another thing to do

To you and me, so take the lively air,

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

 

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

What falls away is always. And is near.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

Theodore Roethke (American, 1908-1963). I never had the honor of meeting him, but he looks like such a nice person.  Love this photo. Looks like your favorite teacher, doesn’t he?

LoTheodore Roethke

Categories
friendship loss wisdom work

Warm up your self, and forget the failures for now

flowers in snow Feb 4 2019.jpg

In these dark, cold days of February, it may be hard to stay focused on what is good in life. The snow is pretty but it is killing the spring flowers. The winter cold is natural, but it makes life precarious for the homeless and elderly. A loving relationship is great, but a partner can be so annoying to live with day in, day out.  Today’s New York Times features an article by experts extolling the virtues of failing for long-term success (and that we should even keep track of rejections as they pile up). Yuck!  To hell with that idea, at least in February. Maybe in April, when life seems easier…

Receiving rejection letters (or the silent treatment, worse yet), is a drag. I know, because I have been piling up quite a pile of rejections lately, in my new role as CEO of a small business. And since I’ve moved thousands of miles from my old friends, and left behind the community with whom I used to commiserate and complain, the rejections feel colder, more final somehow. I might as well just give up, right? No, no, no! Never.  Or at least not yet.

OK, so what to do?

Reach for help. In the absence of a flesh-and-blood friend, I reached out to a friendly guidebook last night, and it helped. Here’s the advice from Right Here with You, chapter on “Making Friends with Ourselves” by Moh Hardin:

“It is like this. If we have had a bad day and are feeling flustered, angry, and upset, and if in that state of mind, a mother asked us to hold her newborn baby, we would naturally hold it gently. Why? Because that newborn life is so obviously precious and fragile. Likewise, no matter how difficult our problems may seem, no matter the obstacles we face, our lives are actually precious and fragile…

Like picking up a newborn baby, we can make a gesture of friendship to ourselves. … Making friends with ourselves is an ongoing journey. It is not a one-time thing or a one-week project or even a five-year project.  It provides the continuity of the human journey itself. It is like the ground that we walk on.”  (Right Here with You, pp. 35-40).

The author suggests making a gesture of friendship to ourselves (“You go first; I’ll follow”) and practicing sitting meditation for ten minutes, to get back in touch with our breath and our feeling of life. Those tools are simple and free, and I bet they will raise your spirits faster than a making list of all your failures!

As another guide points out in the New York Times today (“How to be creative,” by Matt Richtel), “Boldness is a virtue.  … there is a moment in each of these creative flights where I become convinced that, ‘Yes, yes, I have something profound and wonderful to give to the world, and it’s going to be great; it not just deserves, but needs to be heard and seen.’ This is audacious, at least, and possibly delusional, and it is 100 percent O.K. In fact, it is the price of admission. You are allowed and encouraged to give in to this feeling of ecstasy. In fact, if not you, who?

So go ahead! Be delusional, take a chance on yourself, and keep on going. I’ll be out here doing the same…

 

 

Categories
art children creativity death dogs loss storms

After the rain, blue skies

 

Hi readers,

Life has been like a day in Seattle lately: scattered showers, rain heavy at times, followed by blue skies and bright sun. Changeable. Our moods, our relations are constant shifts between yin and yang, shifting, swirling, and moving along through the hours. We all know that change is the only thing constant under the sun, but it takes events like death to make it tangible. And my family has been dealt a lot of death lately: a dear uncle and my awesome mother-in-law both died in the last month, and sickness has afflicted two other loved ones.

Life continues to bring beauty and joy, as well. Honey Girl’s goofy grin, the pinky-orange leaves seen on our daily walks, the sparkling skyline at sunset–those are all things that make me smile.

An invite, then, to something cheerful!

Curious Kidstuff toy store is hosting a display of products by yours truly, “Honey Girl Books and Gifts,” on Sunday afternoon, November 4! Come and enjoy some cozy pillows, and read an advance copy of the new illustrated book, The Frankenstein of the Apple Crate: A Possibly True Story of the Monster’s Origins, (ages 8 and up, available very soon on Amazon in paperback and e-book).

Learn how a discovery in the archives of revolutionary France became a children’s book!

I will be there from 2:00 – 4:00 pm, 11/04/18

I’m also excited to talk to parents and kids about the free writing workshop that I teach, “Write YOUR Story.” The workshop (for ages 8-12) will kick off at Curious Kidstuff toy store in January 2019; information will be on hand for parents to sign up their kids.

Curious Kidstuff is located at 4740 California Ave SW, Seattle WA 98116.

Thanks for reading! I hope you too can warm up to sunny skies today, despite the weather that’s swirling through your head.

Julia

Categories
art children conflict creativity dogs happiness health loss meditation T'ai chi

5 months later.  Sequel to April 13 post, “On health (and pharmaceuticals), calm, and joy’s return (no matter what he says)”

 

 

Reading the post of April 13 now, it is painful to witness how conflicted I was. The blog post speaks of a person who was trying so hard to find happiness. In vain. The grumbling negativity she heard daily only compounded the sadness she felt over her employer, the woebegone infrastructure of the town she called home, and the despair she felt from the constant news of local youth dying violent deaths, week after week. No wonder the daily grind was such a grind.

Five months later, I am surprised, actually, to announce that it’s all gone!  No more sadness over the employer, nor sorrow over the town that was left behind. As for the “daily grind”: what daily grind?!  My partner no longer grumbles angrily or blows off my efforts at cheer: he too feels good! It feels like 1979 again, when we first met and fell in love right in this town. Wow!

The insights screaming from this development are clear: as Alan Jasanoff writes in today’s New York Times Book Review: “Nature does not see the brain as a prime mover … the environment always plays a role.”* Instead of reaching for an anti-depressant, perhaps we should consider what’s wrong outside our heads instead.

My case is striking. Five months after eliminating the medications I was taking, there are no adverse effects. It was sometimes a bumpy ride, but nothing good happens without incurring some pain, does it? You just have to hang in there.  Did I sometimes wonder if I should get back on the anti-depressant? You betcha. But I didn’t.  I stuck with my decision, and guess what? The sadness went away when the environment changed.

Our country is so gorgeous out here!  Check out the pics from last weekend’s trip to Grayland near “the other South Bend” on the Pacific Coast. Who knew that rainbows could arise right out of the surf? Or that water on the sand could make such pretty patterns? Or that driftwood could be infinitely fascinating? (Honey Girl loved it too, though she got a bad case of sandy mouth from biting the waves!)

 

 

I do not regret a thing. Neither changing my name, leaving my career, nor opting for a much smaller house located thousands of miles away. Some friends remain; others will fade from memory. Time will tell. The inner turmoil has calmed.  The practice of T’ai chi and meditation continue to provide strength and solace for life’s ups and downs. Instead of toiling over a job I no longer loved, I feel the warmth of a little flame and a growing sense of contentment. It feels like I’ve discovered what the Buddhists call “right livelihood”: a pastime one can pursue forever, with no regrets.

Remembering Epictetus’s advice in The Art of Living, we must put aside questions of popularity and acclaim, and remember that pursuing one’s own vocations—no matter how quirky or unpopular they may appear—is what makes life worth living.  As he wrote in the chapter “Create Your Own Merit”: “Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source. … You have been given your own work to do. Get to it right now, do your best at it, and don’t be concerned with who is watching you.”**

Living here has helped me become stronger and more committed to that stoic philosophy. My new vocations may be unprofitable, they may remain unknown, obscure, and be forgotten to the world. But they fill me with joy, they lighten my step, and they make me happy.  (FYI: The five new kids who’ve joined “Write YOUR Story” are hilarious! We are already having a great time together and the future looks bright.)

What more could one ask of life?

And yet, academe has not entirely let go of me. Not quite. In a couple weeks, I’ll be speaking (via Skype) to a conference of graduate students at Michigan State. I was originally invited as an expert on the French Enlightenment. I expected the organizers to dis-invite me when they learned that I am no longer wedded to that identity: I quit that job in July!  Much to my surprise, one of the organizers has since become a client of Honey Girl Books and Gifts, and both organizers embraced the idea of speaking on a very different issue. Without dissuading people from a life of study, I will aim to share some of the wisdom I’ve gained this year.

My title?  “The Wisdom of the Side Gig: On finding happiness in and out of academe.”

 

 

The Frankenstein Patchwork Pillow no. 2, “Scary Thoughts”:  on sale now for only $25 via HGBG’s Etsy shop until 9/30/18.

*Alan Jasanoff, “Sick in the Head.” Review of Eric R. Kandel, The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves. In The New York Times Book Review, 9/23/18, p. 21.

**Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, p. 12.

 

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dogs happiness health humor loss Uncategorized

Sorry folks, still no complaints here

Having your dream come true can be a sobering experience. The now-completed move from the Heartland to the Pacific Northwest, and from work to non-work, has made me less prone to write for you. I stayed away partly out of modesty, partly out of embarrassment: how dare I express the slightest complaint while living here, where I can hear seals barking and see ferries passing by from our windows? Who would read or believe it? Yet how could I admit that life really is better out here?  I know my readers: the stats for this blog show that people prefer postings about depression or ambivalence, unhappiness or dark feelings, over the simple joys I aim to extol.

Joy is had nonetheless, and Honey Girl–pictured here on a recent trip to Vashon Island–incarnates the attitude I seek every day: silent acceptance and easy pleasure over whatever comes her way.  (Including joy of discovering disgusting-looking crap by the side of the road.)

Salty Honey Girl

Today’s New York Times loosened up my self-censure with a cheerful article about other people who are unlikely to complain:  “Retiring at 43? You’re on FIRE” by Steven Kurutz. Although the happy people featured in this article are all male and younger than me by a decade or two, I too feel like I’ve escaped from the rat race ahead of my time, by retiring from my tenured position at age 60 instead of 72 (or never!). Academia may seem privileged and it is a comparatively “easy” way to make a living, if you don’t mind spending your life writing stuff no one wants to read and sitting at a desk for 30+ years, but ….  I just got sick of it. And especially sick of living in the “college town” where I was stuck for 27 years.

Even if we are now the poor folks in the Seattle neighborhood we call home, it’s worth it to live in a place where people look and act like they are happy to be here. There really is a difference–it feels like we’re in a different country, maybe Bhutan or Denmark. A place where people can attend open-air concerts without fearing a shoot-out, and leave their windows open without worrying about sirens destroying their sleep.

So I’m off (on foot, naturally) to the local library now to check out a new kind of reading material: how to be happy with less, how to embrace frugality despite the status-seekers around us, and how to find meaning in life without the “official” identity of a job. Sounds like the life of a well-loved but unremarkable dog…  like our mixed-breed pal Honey Girl. Although she doubtless misses Chloe and her other pals from Indiana, she has made many, many new friends already! And she is certainly untroubled by the existential navel-gazing that’s been consuming me….

So this post is, like most of them, primarily for me. If I had to give myself some advice, I’d say: “Get over yourself! Be happy while you can! Stop feeling guilty over a dream come true. Kick the gloom habit.”

As Carl Hiaasen writes in Assume the Worst: “Here’s all I know about happiness: It’s slippery. It’s unpredictable. It’s a different sensation for everyone.  But one thing happiness is not is overrated. When you luck into some, enjoy every minute.”

Got to go now. I hear the seals barking … and a ferry boat horn too.

brian seal from West Seattle blog 2010Samish_helo.jpg

Categories
American literature humor loss nature trees

strange smoky weather brings back childhood memories

 

 

We rejoiced over our arrival here in Seattle in early July, when we discovered our amazing view of downtown across Elliott Bay. But look at it now.

The weather report is weird:  “77 degrees, Smoke.”

Honey Girl and I went for our walk as usual this evening and my eyes have been burning ever since. It is a very strange sensation to live in smoke. The neighbors I talked to on my walk all seemed kind of rattled by this too. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” we think anxiously, but it does not make any sense. We’re surrounded by water on three sides!

Seattle_Map_-_West_Seattle

(map of West Seattle)

One of my favorite children’s books has a harrowing forest fire scene that I’ve never forgotten. It’s not Bambi, it’s Smokey the Bear. 

Title page Smokey with funny childlike signature.jpg

I so love this book. As you see, when the fire engulfs the little bear cub, separating him from his mother, Smokey follows his mom’s advice: “When danger threatens, climb a tree.”

Smokey and the forest fire.jpg

But still, it is a traumatic experience!  The text reads: “So up a pine tree Bear Cub went. Around him the forest fire roared and crackled. Flames licked at Bear Cub’s shaggy fur and singed his tender paws. But he closed his eyes and just hung on. When he opened his eyes again after a while, he could scarcely believe what he saw. Instead of the cool, green, shady woods, all around him stood hundreds of ugly blackened sticks with trails of smoke still curling from them.”

Smokey gets better with the little girl

The scene where the forest ranger’s daughter gets to play with Smokey was always my favorite. What a dream come true to play with a living Teddy bear!

However, the shrewd critic might point out a few flaws in this tragi-comedy. Where is Smokey’s mother, for example? And what about Bambi and Dumbo? Why do writers of children’s literature dispense with mothers so often?

Maybe because the kids secretly wish for that…

Then there’s the little problem of watching Smokey grow into a grown-up man-cub. Like the female creature dreamed up, then destroyed, in Shelley’s Frankenstein, the grown-up Smokey of reality might not be quite so nice…

grizzly-bear-upclose-igbc.jpg

Wish it would rain.

 

Categories
Chinese literature conflict creativity death French literature humor loss meditation memory T'ai chi wisdom Zen philosophy

Ripping off the Bandaid, or must moving become existential turmoil? Remember the worry-wort centipede!

b96028bcbc4bdb7ad68f18c15fb5d620 centipede

Now that it is only four weeks til D-day, I have felt touches of that sickness known as nostalgia. It starts with a slight taste of nausea that spreads to the temples with dread and then cloaks the whole body in heavy, dank sadness. I know it well, having lost my mom just three years ago and my dad in 2008.

I hate nostalgia! I hate thinking about the past, wallowing in sorrow for babies grown, marriages sealed, friendships ended. I hate thinking all the time. The Mind, it was revealed to me during the past 18 months since I discovered meditation and T’ai chi, is not necessarily a friend. It does not naturally have any compassion for you. It can attack you, remind you of weakness, and torture you all day long if you let it. Moving your household is an activity that gives Mind free rein, because when you must spend several hours a day poring through cupboards, drawers, and shelves, choosing and tossing vestiges of the past, Mind creeps in easily and emotional turmoil may ensue, believe me.

The conflicting emotions whipped up by the storm yesterday have subsided to mental nagging today. As Peter Ralston points out, “We have a tendency to get caught up in things that don’t serve being ‘in’ or being responsive to the present moment and condition—we become enmeshed in figuring out, being anxious, upset, angry, fearful, reactive and so on.”

His solution is a brilliant series of mind experiments and exercises designed to unify the physical core and the Mind. It does work if you remain calm. Being calm for me requires preparation: doing T’ai chi daily, concentrating on even breathing, and holding a correct spinal alignment at all times. As Ralston writes, “Instead of trying to make those things disappear, we can simply let them be, not feed them energy and attention, and let them float in the base we now call being calm” (Principles of Essential Power, 6). But when you suddenly rediscover a handknit baby blanket, a cute old photo of your kid (whose present self isn’t quite so cute or unproblematic), or even a yellowed bank statement, emotions are prone to fill the idle Mind.

Better to channel that emotional richness into creativity, as Bob Klein, Twyla Tharp and so many other sages have advised. Therein lies our life’s purpose. Creativity for me is writing (a little) and especially sewing. Sewing is a bond to the past and a disciplined way to beautify the present and make people happier, if only for a few minutes now and then. My intentions are kindly, the results are heart-warming, and that is enough for me.

But our world does not promote such simplicity, and it never has, as long as humans live in community and compare our fate to that of others. Faced with our own mortality and limitations, we humans can easily become off-balanced and fall into existential turmoil. French literature testifies to this fact all the time: just think of Victor Hugo’s poem, “The Slope of Reverie,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s works Being and Nothingness or Nausea, and Beckett’s entire absurdly depressing oeuvre.

Why is that? Because most people in the West are dominated by a tyrant named Mind or conscious logical socially-conditioned thought patterns. Mind tries (and often succeeds) to convince us that only Mind can keep us together.  Only worrying holds us upright, gets us out of bed and off to work. Only other people’s opinions of us count. If we stop worrying and trying to measure up to external standards, we will fall apart and turn into mush. That is a powerful lie. But each must realize it in his own time.

Remember the tragic fate of the worry-wort centipede!

The centipede was happy, quite,

Until a toad in fun

Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”

This worked his mind to such a pitch,

He lay distracted in a ditch,

Considering how to run.

 

–reproduced in Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 27

 

image reproduced courtesy of Kaneki and a Centipede Plush ||| Tokyo Ghoul Fan Art by verticalforklift on Tumblr

Categories
cats death loss wisdom

On bad surprises and apologies (and good-byes to Iris)

iris.jpg

Iris, circa 2001

Much has happened since I last wrote. This week brought some bad surprises and a lesson which I will share with you.

  1. Real estate surprise: bad

On Monday, some potential buyers made their second visit to our home. We were naturally excited as second visits are considered precursors to offers. However, it is now Friday and they have neither made an offer nor provided any feedback. (btw: Please, readers, if you are shopping for a new home, remember to pass along feedback. An hour and a half in someone’s house may not seem like a lot to you, but the owners had to clean, stop what they were doing, and go out while you were there.  They —like us—are likely anxiously awaiting your reply.)

Well, we are not really waiting any longer because we suspect we know why those people will not buy our house. To make a long and awful story short, here is the email I sent to our agent after the people left, on Monday night:

“Important update: Today’s people found what looked like the mummified remains of a raccoon in the attic crawl space. I just went in and brought it out and alas, it is Iris. Our long-lost black cat. She disappeared years ago and was clearly not feeling well. I think she went in there to hide and die in peace. We looked and looked, but I guess we never looked at the right spot.

There is not much sign of a struggle. Poor Iris.  I’ll take a picture to prove it was a cat, if you want, but we will bury the corpse. Please pass along that message so that they do not think we have rodents in our attic.”

Awful, right?!

Later that evening when I was up here in my little attic study meticulously grading sophomore essays and blog posts (argh), I suddenly realized that the place where Iris died was directly behind where I sit at my desk–about ten feet and two walls behind me. Isn’t that interesting?

Sweet little six-toed Iris. She was the cat who came with us to France and had that amazing accident in Angers–she fell more than six stories from our apartment balcony to the parking level below–and suffered nothing more than a disjointed jaw. The veterinarian said they see such things all the time. A dog or a person would certainly not survive. But cats go into l’effet parachute after the third or fourth floor (it has to be high enough), and it slows their fall almost magically.

Poor Iris. May she now rest in peace.

  1. Teaching surprise: bad

This week I found myself issuing a veiled threat to some sophomores about what I thought was their disrespectful attitude toward my deadlines. On Tuesday, I said something like, “If your performance report is more than 10 days late—I don’t care if it is 11 days late or 111 days late—your final grade for that performance will be reduced by an entire grade. I know who you are! Turn in those reports!”

On Wednesday, one of the students came to see me and told me that he could not find any trace of such a deadline on the syllabus. He apologized profusely for bringing the discrepancy to my attention. And I felt HORRIBLE.  He was right; I had discarded that policy months ago when realizing that it did nothing to improve learning and only increased the students’ already heavy burdens.  (btw: Notre Dame is a very anxious world. To see the students walking around, earbuds plugged in and cell phones in hand, you’d think they had the weight of the world on their 19-year-old backs, and were dealing with international crises on a regular basis. That their anxiety is largely self-induced does not make it any less real.)

  1. Ending the week on a good note: the lesson

After realizing my blunder, my stomach churned, my head ached, and I sat down immediately to apologize to the class via email. I apologized again the next day in class. The students got a reminder of the fallibility of authority figures, and I implored them to never hesitate asking questions because faculty members—like authority figures of all kinds—often make mistakes. I think we’re all ok. I know I felt better.

Before bed last night, I was reading Subhadramati’s Not Being Good: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Ethics, and came across the following quotes which sum up this week’s lessons.

“Apologizing is a spiritual act because it is a deliberate letting go of self” (110).

“This painful regret, in turn, becomes an incentive to act more skillfully in the future” (106).

***

Hope springs—or rather crawls out cautiously—anew.

 

 

Categories
creativity food friendship happiness loss meditation memory nature

meditation on a sound–the red-winged blackbirds are back!

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Walking down the hill to the river with Honey Girl tonight, I got that weird feeling of déjà vu; a flashback suddenly took me to another me, another present, walking the dog around these same streets in winter 2015-16.

Like many thoughts that come from nowhere, this one was elicited by a sound. It was the sound of a red-winged blackbird, sitting in the river grasses and singing at twilight. (You can listen to one singing here.)

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Back in winter 2015, I was thinking about red-winged blackbirds a lot. I was thinking about black a lot and thinking about death a lot too: my mom had died in early spring that year. When spring came around in 2016, the blackbird’s call took my breath away. I had forgotten all about spring. It made me laugh and cry for sheer happiness to feel alive again, to hope and try again.

The bird belongs to a story I wrote and illustrated to present at a conference on wild children (les enfants sauvages) in Paris in December 2015. The story concluded a post-colonial analysis of the jeune fille sauvage de Champagne who I first studied years ago for a book called The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster (2002). Instead of seeing her through the prism of European artists, through woodcuts and crude engravings that depicted her in insulting primitive stereotypes, this time I depicted her as a healthy young girl running through these woods in pursuit of bluebells, chipmunks and daisies. I saw her as an Amerindian growing up in this region near Lake Michigan.

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Although the archives record the quiet death of an outsider to Paris, in my little story-book, Native Daughter, Marie-Angélique gets the last laugh. She does not die with despair, like Europeans–she lives on!  First she becomes a black alley cat, and then a red-winged blackbird. The book ends with the reader hearing that incredibly sweet trill that I just heard tonight.

I was lonely and wistful then, and felt some kind of grudge toward the French who “took” Marie-Angélique from her home, “showed” her for entertainment, and “graced” her with a pension to live–and doomed her to a lonely life. I tucked my emotions neatly into Native Daughter and decorated it with collages cut from books on Indians, guidebooks to Midwestern plants and birds, and commentaries on Parisian society. One copy ultimately ended up in the hands of the conference organizer: a scarily famous French writer… who has since become a dear friend.

***

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Like me, the setting sun was sentimental tonight—the lower horizon was ocher and cinnamon layered with tangerine and blood orange, ending on top in a bit of peachy froth, or that pinky-orange foam on the top of an Orange Julius, against an eggshell blue sky and a half moon. (Not exactly like the hills of Tennessee, seen here, but you get the orangey feeling!)

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Speaking of which, Rich served a blood orange and red onion salad with dinner tonight! (the oranges and onions were sliced thin, and had just a trace of extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. It was sweet, tangy, soft and crunchy).

***

You cannot know how surprised I am to see the words I just wrote. After all those years of striving and judging and aching with academic isolation, angst, and frustration, I feel the weight is finally lifting. I don’t care if my writing seems silly. If you don’t like it, click out!

Life feels good again, like it used to in childhood. Alan Watts’ Wisdom of Insecurity describes the feeling like this:

“When you realize that you live in, indeed that you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists … Obviously, it all exists for this moment.

[…]

How long have the planets been circling the sun? Are they getting anywhere, and do they go faster and faster to arrive? How often has the spring returned to the earth? Does it come faster and fancier each year, to be sure to be better than last spring, and to hurry on its way to the spring that shall outspring all springs?

The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. Like music, it is fulfilled in each moment of its course.”  (Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity, 115-16)

***

BTW: Can anybody tell me where does the spring “return” from?  And where does winter “go”? Those metaphors are bizarrely misleading!  Not to mention that the two seasons overlap. Just go outside if you live in the northern hemisphere and walk around right now: you’ll see what I mean. Winter is clearly here. And so is spring. Change is in the air again… but then, it was all along. As was the present. Which is now the past.

***

Advice: Sunsets are free entertainment. Walk up to a hill, walk down to a beach, or gaze over the valley to the West. Stand there and watch one, some time this week. Enjoy every moment.

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