We Do Language

Chloe Anthony (Toni) Morrison Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities Princeton University Princeton, New Jersey photo: © Timothy Greenfield-SandersWe die.

That may be the meaning of life.

But we do language.

That may be the measure of our lives.

Toni Morrison


mary-oliver It is a serious thing

just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in the broken world.

Mary Oliver


madeleine_lengle

The great thing about getting older is

that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.

Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007)


angelouI’ve learned that

people will forget what you said,

people will forget what you did,

but people will never forget

how you made them feel

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

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Word surplus

I was thinking today about the cruelty of the Internet for a lifelong reader. I barely kept up with books and magazines and one newspaper.  Barely? No, I didn’t keep up.  I was always awash with words, a printed ocean of facts, fantasy and information. More words than I could consume in a lifetime. A rich experience of the world, through history, imagination, travel, cooking, gardening, healing… I could go on, endlessly, about the smorgasbord of delicious words I enjoyed.

Then the web arrived and the tempting mountain of words became swiss_alpsthe Swiss Alps. Suddenly I was (frankly, am still) like a child alone, without instruction or experience in finding my way.  The avalanche of words and images and sounds does not stop, ever.  And it is a kind of torture for this word-loving geek.

On the Internet I sometimes read/taste a sample of a philosophical piece or a political analysis that is way over my head, way above my pay grade.  There are threads in these articles that intrigue me, but where is the quiet time to try and parse them? Then (somehow?) I am swept along and literally waste minutes reading an article of supermarket tabloid value.  Why?  Because its there. Some word catches my eye and my finger responds, clicking a naughty-princelink and I’m gone.  It’s not that I haven’t read People Magazine in a waiting room or even purchased it when going vacation, but some of the places the web links take me are embarrassing trash heaps.  I can scurry away, but I can’t really erase the smudge of cheap ink.

Yes, I read some bona fide news and I’m glad of the information.  Yes, there are poems that I read aloud (if I am home alone, this is always a great pleasure.). I’ve found some pretty wonderful things when following a chain of links, but how do they compare, really, to the linking chain of authors I followed as a young woman, a young writer?

mary-oliverA poet would mention another poet she admired and I would check them out.  Reading the prose of an author I loved, she would refer to obscure writers from the past, those who had given her sustenance and I would set out to find them.  Even fictional characters would sometimes give me a lead to a writer who then opened a new world for me.

Yes, yes, we can do this on the web; the Internet universe is limitless and while that is a great thing, it is also what frightens me.  Too deep, broad and vast, like those snowy alpine slopes, I am left feeling… well, adrift is the word that comes to mind.  Nice word.  It applies to both image trains: the enormous amounts of snow and also floating about, sans anchor, in an endless sea.

Which reminds me about the speed element.  Like any other Internet browser, my desire for faster access to the next thing is persistent.  My habitually minor need for instant gratification is triggered, as are both a brief attention span and a need for stimulus!  These urges, which I consider unhealthy and detrimental to both my own soul and the life of the planet, are stoked by the abundance laid out before me.

Lest this appear to be a diatribe against a fantastical tool of our times, as well as a futile railing against a fact of life, let me say that it is not.  Allow me to return to my original thought, which is that access to the World Wide Web of wordsinternet is a form of torture for a word lover and a voracious reader like myself.  It is naughty (but then I am a proud ‘naughty woman’ of 2016) that the image of water boarding comes to my mind, but there it is. Tortured by being helplessly immersed in a tub of words.

This is the complaint of a ‘first world’, privileged person; I know that. I am humbled to remember that overindulgence is the bane and burden of very few.  I am among them and now I am going to add these words to the ever-expanding heap (picture trash or pristine snow, your choice) of words available on the World Wide Web.  My apologies.

This house

doorI have lived in this house for thirty-five years. This morning when I heard the familiar sound of the front door closing, I was flooded with feelings of contentment and safety. I would say flooded with joy, but what does that really mean?

Can I describe the rattle bang sound? First of all, the bang was not an angry or aggressive bang, simply the sound of closure; wood meets wood as the door is received by the door frame. There is a rattle in the mix, slight, but noticeable to the careful ear. The panel of windowpanes, inserted for winter into the outer door 1knob– known seasonally as a screen door or a storm door – has its own particular sound. Again, wood meets wood and the rattling, receiving sounds merge like instruments in an orchestra. Their pitches are different.

They are also blended by the alchemy of air being compressed as the atmosphere inside the doorknobhouse is separated from the air of the wide world outside. And finally, if there can be a finally in this tonal moment, there is the drift of these sounds, up through the stairwell to the third floor.

All the reading I have done about emotions and the brain instructs me that the surge of good feeling I experience is the result of chemicals (hormones) released in my body when my brain is triggered by a stimulus, in this case, the sounds. That is a crude description, but I’m trying to say that I know this is mechanical – cause and response. I know, but old as I am, a rush of good feelings still seems almost magical to me. ‘Where did that come from?’ I wonder. Even as I analyze the sounds, it is the ‘feel good-ness’ of the moment that lingers.doorknobs

I have spent most of my life in this house.  Far more than in my childhood home. Thousands of days, thousands of mornings and today I noticed my emotional response to the sounds of the front door closing.

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PS:  I love old doorknobs…

Twenty sixteen

redstarsingersWell, my friends, I don’t know if you enjoyed yesterday’s post, but I hope so. Please check out this link, which is a recording of the song ‘Pig Nixon’. It’s worth a listen, I promise.  Click the ‘more’ below the video and you can read all the words. I was delighted to read in the notes:

“In the ’60’s a lot of spirituals and rock ‘n’ roll songs were overhauled to become freedom songs for civil rights demonstrators. ‘Pig Nixon’ comes from ‘Oh Wallace,’ (‘…you’re never gonna jail us all’) which people sang in Alabama. We use ‘Pig Nixon’ as an all-purpose song, writing verses for the occasion, each verse about a current issue.”

I read that as an invitation, if not an exhortation (noun: an address or communication emphatically urging someone to do something) for another rewrite. Someone please come up with some new words and transform ‘Oh Wallace’, which became ‘Pig Nixon’ into…? We have issues aplenty these days, have we not?

I am quite ambivalent about the blog-o-sphere, particularly my place in it. I don’t want more people to follow me and read my ramblings.  So don’t misread my next request…

I really want to encourage folks to write protest songs for 2016. We need ‘em. So, I’m asking you to spread the word, not about my blog, but just get the idea out there to any singer-songwriters you know who might be receptive. And ask them to tell others. The creative arts may be one of the best ways to fight this fight. Plenty of other practical suggestions are being made and I support them all, particularly excessive amounts of human kindness. It would be fun to have a song or two to hum.

You may remember that the title of this blog is EatingArtWork and that I have written many posts, both personal and more general, about food, the food industry and so on. I’ve just learned about an organization called Civil Eats, which is “a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system. [They] publish stories that shift the conversation around sustainable agriculture in an effort to build economically and socially just communities.” I’ve put in a link to one article that caught my attention.  nablopomo_badge_2016

Mourning, Gratitude

turtle-tanAh, the hoopla of Thanksgiving: family, a traditional meal, football games and the official start of the Holiday season. The shopping frenzy of Black Friday has become as iconic as the images of turkeys and Pilgrim hats. That’s not to mention Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

Being grateful for our blessings should be a given, everyday. I wince a bit thinking how much the idea of giving thanks has been relegated to this single day. As the ‘good will to men[sic], peace on earth’ message appears each year in December and is not in evidence in July or March. My cynical self notes the many un-peaceful actions that so often arise during the stressful weeks leading up to the gift giving celebrations.

I am especially aware of the mourning that our national holiday neglects to mention, but which is at the core of the Thanksgiving ‘story’. It is vitally important that we honor the millions of indigenous people, here in this country (and all over the world) who’ve been systematically murdered and displaced. In addition to supporting the activists at Standing Rock and other protests, I’ve embarked on some self-education.

Here is the link to a Native American Indian website that I recommend. I was fascinated, as a girl, by the stories of the Lenni Lenape people who originally lived in what is now northern New Jersey. My hometown of Hackensack is one of dozens of local place names that derived from the language of this Algonquin tribe. This site brings together a wealth of information and links to more information about North and South American indigenous peoples.

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Fear & Speaking

Earlier today I read a NY Times article by Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, entitled: For Women, Glass Ceilings, and Glass Walls, Too. I’m trying to be selective about the post election articles I read, because it can take up a lot of time and often leaves me feeling sour. Here are a couple of quotes where she touched on topics that I’ve been chewing on this month. They relate to the behavior and comportment that is expected of women:

The psychologist Raymond Cattell coined a phrase — “coercion to the biosocial mean”… Society punishes people who deviate from culturally expected patterns or push boundaries. …Once, for example, a colleague told me that he thought I was “scary” when I voiced a strong opinion about a job candidate during a faculty meeting. I went home feeling chastised. The next day I checked with a few female colleagues; they had found me convincing, not scary.

[During the campaign] Reince Priebus, the current head of the Republican Party and future chief of staff for Mr. Trump, tweeted that Mrs. Clinton needed to smile more, a coded reminder that women must project beauty and deference to the male gaze.

I am reminded of occasions when I donned that Amazon cloak, precisely because I was fearful and ended up being criticized for “coming on too strong.” Damned either way.

So, today I’m asking myself: “Why do I write? Why am I ‘doing’ NaBloPoMo again this year?”  I struggle to say anything worth reading. No one is more surprised than I am when I reread a paragraph and find something in there that makes sense or is a good use of words to describe a sensation. Of course that can only happen if I do write down some words. So is that the point of writing? To occasionally surprise myself with some insightful (hopefully not merely clever) string of words?

I’ve always been keenly observant of people, a skill born of self-preservation as a child. Self-preservation and to be honest, fear. If someone was angry, I needed to know, almost before they were aware of it themselves, so that I could avoid the explosion. Then and now, if someone is sad, I feel compelled to tune in and too often, compulsively try to ‘help’, which really just amounts to butting into things that are not my business.

As a child, I was always fearful that someone might hurt themselves – or me – because they were hurting emotionally. Bad logic. Kid logic. Eh, I’ve never been very capable of logic. I am a gut instinct kind of girl. That can be good sometimes, I suppose, but it seems that my gut is just as likely to lead me down an unwise path.

Now I’m going to close this disjointed post with another quote. audrelordeMaybe I can use that as the topic of my remaining NaBloPoMo posts… quoting the writers that I admire, whose work has influenced my life and writing.

The late, great poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote:

I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken… My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you… What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.

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Shaping, part two

When I think of ‘shaping’ what comes to mind is sculpture.

There is obviously a type of sculpting that is additive… I picture an artist applying lumps of clay.  But the image of sculpture that I have is, well, subtractive, which is not a word that rolls off the tongue.

Somewhere, long ago I heard or read a sculptor describe the act of sculpting as finding, exposing, uncovering the figure or object that is inside the piece of wood or marble.  That is the way I have always pictured sculpture…

Finding what is hidden inside the raw material and exposing it, setting it free.

You can see where I am going with this, I suppose.  This wasn’t a conscious motivation when I felt driven to write about the childhood experience that laid down the law for me about the importance of female appearance. But it makes sense to me today. Those ‘formative’ experiences are what shaped me.

My personal experience may be more singular than other girls’, but I can state with confidence that each of us received that layer of shaping at some time in our youth.  It still assaults us from multitudinous directions. The best that I can say is that today it is possible for a girl to also receive the message that she is more than her looks, that she has intrinsic value as a human being.

But honestly, on this November day in 2016, it is too easy to yield to the belief that the tide has shifted.  The wave has pulled back from the shoreline that we have spent so long approaching.  Okay, perhaps I’ve gone a step too far with the metaphor.  My point is that the volume of regressive voices seems so much louder than the progress we have made.  Girls now can hear positive messages about their value, but the din of female value = appearance has never lost it strength.

You know, I didn’t intend to rant like this.  I guess it is the sound of another layer of anger being scraped off.  At this point, that seems to be the essence of ‘shaping’ my life.  It is about removing each lamination that has been applied over the years, in order to expose my true self.  Like a sculptor with a chisel facing a slab of marble or a beautiful piece of wood.

Chip, chip, pause; step back and look.

What is inside there to be discovered?   Me.

I’ve provided links to the eight women sculptors that I have featured here.  Their work is breathtaking and moving.  They are each amazing. 

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Breaking, Shaping, Becoming

Over the last six months, I have been slowing reading and absorbing a fascinating book, edited by Meredith Maran: Why We Write About Ourselves, Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature. I found the title very intriguing; the volume includes authors whose work I have read, and many I have met for the first time, but whose books I have begun to seek out. The pieces are short and filled with insights, some of which seem to be answers to questions that I hadn’t known I wanted to ask.

Perhaps because the Big Family Holidays are almost upon us, my family of origin, 1particularly my mother, has been showing up recently, in memory. Thanksgivings were pretty miserable when I was a girl and in my mind, the turkey was to blame. She could never cook it to my father’s liking, so I remember a scene every November. I once thoughtlessly suggested that he should cook it, but that crazy idea was met with unequivocal rejection, by both of them. So, the holiday continued to be thick with stress and tension; there was usually an explosion of some sort. We would go to the high school football game, but the cozy concepts of family and thankfulness just weren’t part of the day, at least not for me.

In any event, there are a few passages from Maran’s book that I want to share. The first comes from Pearl Cleage, a prolific novelist, playwright, poet and memoirist. She is an author I am delighted to have ‘met’ and I encourage you to take a look at her work. She says:

My mother’s passing was so important to my own realization that I was a grown woman. I understood then that there was nobody to stand between me and the shaping and living of my own life.

It has been more than eight years since my mother died and the impact of her death on my life has trickled into my existence, a little at a time. Maybe seeping is a better word, because it seems that I don’t notice a shift until it is well underway. I’ve gotten used to that sensation and in fact quite comfortable with it. I don’t need dramatic epiphanies. I will settle for what my dear friend P calls epiphanettes; a lovely and useful concept.

The well-known and popular writer Annie Lamott is the source of the next two quotes:

I like to write about the process of healing, of developing, of growing up, of becoming who we were born to be instead of who we always agreed to be.

blue-leavesOh my, yes. The constricting suit of clothes, (straitjacket or suit of armor?) that I agreed to wear, the girl and woman who I agreed to be, the script I numbly read, the denial of who I was born to be… That feeling of enforced agreement and the loss of authentic self casts its shadow on so many of my youthful memories. And now, that gift, that lift, that comes when someone offers the words, simple words, to describe an internal emotional state that has always seemed inexplicable. Lamott goes on to say:

With memoirs, you break the contract you signed when you were three years old, promising not to ever, ever tell the truth, promising your family secrets would go with you to the grave.

Breaking the contractual agreement “… not to ever, ever tell the truth…”, “…shaping and living my own life…” and “becoming who [I was] born to be…”.

Yep, that’s the story I’m living and writing.    nablopomo_badge_2016

Words form the thread

Words form the thread on which we string our experiences. – Aldous Huxley

Words are the thread, form the thread. The image resonates for me, gives me pleasure, so I will explore it a bit. Words are sometimes used as weapons; words sometimes are an effort to reach, connect and communicate. They can hurt and they can soothe, even sometimes heal. They are the thread on which we string our experiences.  cherrytree

I see a clothesline, with experiences clipped on it, dancing in the breeze. Early experiences, represented by clothes, may have faded a bit, but they are also softened and somehow timeless. They sway in the glow of memory, even the difficult experiences. Adolescent happenings look a little stiff and outdated. The self-assurance of those choices, represented by outfits that were once so trendy and essential, now hang stiffly on the line, overly starched.

The length of the clothesline varies, of course, but for myself I see the adventures quite clearly, each marked by an almost iconic item. Flowing, full length skirts from the California years, followed by denim overalls worn while working as a baker and cook. Shall I go on? Where am I headed with this metaphor? Does it go somewhere? Does it need to?

Words form the thread on which we string our experiences… Yes. And words also drift like falling leaves or passing clouds. They offer pleasure in sound, in the mind’s ear. The recent loss of poet/singer/songwriters like Leonard Cohen, remind me that when joined with music, the beauty of words is exquisitely amplified.

The opportunity to honestly express thoughts and emotions, using words, can be a challenge. It is also a gift. And so, today, I will look upon this blogging experience with gratitude. Were it not for the World Wide Web and NaBloPoMo, all of my words would be hidden tightly in notebooks or on crumbling bits of paper in that bottom desk drawer.

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