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

Steam

I didn’t expect to run out of steam during the final days of NaBloPoMo. Then again, I didn’t expect to sprain the muscle on the back of my knee on Thanksgiving Day and windup in bed, leg elevated with ice on it. It seems that boredom empties the brain. Even choosing ‘interesting’ things to read from the bookshelves in front of me hasn’t sparked any interesting thoughts to share.

Yesterday’s post was, as they say, ‘random’. And it is rather odd that I’ve found myself ikedick2referencing two presidents this month. I really don’t know much about Ike (Dwight D. Eisenhower), except that he was a successful WWII general and looked like a grandfatherly man of his generation. I had also forgotten that RMN was DDE’s vice president, setting the scene for his eventual election.

‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon, on the other hand, played a significant role in my young adult life, from the Vietnam War to Watergate to his resignation. After searching for a photo of him, I found myself singing “Dick Nixon, you’re never gonna kill us all… Dick Nixon, your genocide dickspirois bound to fall… Shoobie doobie Ag-en-ew.”

Searching for the lyrics to that song, I found a lengthy and wonderful list of anti-war/anti-Nixon music from the 1970’s and 80’s.

There were Nixon references, from critical to scathing, in songs by everyone from Gil Scott-Heron to Jefferson Airplane to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to the Steve Miller Band to Country Joe and the Fish to Stevie Wonder to Randy Newman to Pink Floyd to the Dead Kennedys to Tom Paxton to Funkadelic to James Taylor to Elton John, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. And there I found The Red Star Singers album, Force of Life, which contains the song, Pig Nixon:

“Who’s that eating out of the White House trough?
It looks like that pig Nixon…Hey Nixon
You’re never gonna kill us all, your genocide is bound to fall…
Jobs are pretty scarce, welfare payments getting lower…
Now Nixon says it’s getting better, but the people know the score
Because with inflation, war and Watergate, he just can’t fool us anymore”

Apparently I had replaced the word ‘Hey’ with the name Dick.

It seems that the current PEOTUS, DT, is being compared to Richard Nixon…

DT to New York Times during a highly publicized meeting on Tuesday: “As far as the, you know, potential conflict of interests, though, I mean I know that from the standpoint, the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”

… footage from President Richard Nixon’s famous interview with David Frost. “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” Nixon said at the time.

“Trump and Nixon: just a couple of tricky dicks,” Seth Meyers said.

Dare we hope for a creative outpouring by contemporary musicians (heck, most of those guys are still around…) skewering the latest pig at the trough? Is it time for a folk revival?   I, for one, could use a few catchy tunes and pithy lyrics to help raise my spirits during this dark and depressing time, not to mention the next four years. Anyone?

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Loss

Couldn’t write today, so this post comes from my files… It was written about two years ago, when I was given LOSS as a writing start.

Probably the ‘purest’ loss experience in my life is still my sister Amy. The void that was left behind was so new, so absolute, so complete. She was there, so very there, and I’m tempted to say, ‘there for me’ although there was no conscious giving by her to me. But she was reliably there.

Wake up, Amy is there to cuddle, to touch and smell and care for… Come home from school and she was there, to cuddle, touch, smell and care for. It didn’t matter if I felt alone at school, if I was feeling lost, lonely or ‘other’ when I was out in the world. Amy was there for me. It didn’t matter if my mother was tense or unhappy, if the atmosphere at home seemed airless and tight, Amy was there to hold.

I didn’t have to work to please her, to constantly strive, trying to be ‘good’, or smart or helpful or edit my thoughts and hide my feelings. I was not on display, to be judged and measured and, inevitably feel inferior. Amy was there for me.

So the hollow space that I experienced when she was gone seemed huge and then it seemed to be expanding. In a way, the rest of my life, which really was my life and had been, but was held together by the safety of Amy being there, it all drifted away, quietly shattered and disappeared. Without that comfort zone, the pressure built: adolescence, academics, family drama and I shuffled along in it and through it. Pretense was the norm, so I got fairly proficient as a pretender. Took my performance cues from any voice that spoke, from Seventeen Magazine to my hater grandfather.

nixonI heard no inner voice until the day Richard Nixon’s helicopter landed in our high school soccer field. That was a seismic shift and another story. But the big, big hole that losing Amy created has been replicated with each significant loss over the years. My hope now is that I can be there for myself, to keep the void from expanding each time, because the struggle to get back to a solid form is exhausting.

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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

My plan was to write about shaping and living my life, as in this quote from Pearl Cleage:

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.

But then there was something I felt that I needed to deal with first.  Then I thought that I would not post this because it is too raw and personal.  Then I said: what the heck.ike2

The year is 1959. Imagine that. It’s the final year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term as President and still very much the 50’s. No Kennedys in the White House. No race to the moon. I am only seven, so if there is activity in the movement for civil rights, I don’t know about it. I barely see the news and in first grade, we don’t discuss current affairs.walter My childhood life is circumscribed, but seems okay, if I don’t focus on certain things at home. I can watch the mouse-clubMickey Mouse Club on TV and pretend that I inhabit that heartwarming and imaginary world.

My maternal grandmother is spending a lot of time with us in NJ, because my grandfather is in Europe for his job. She refuses to fly in an airplane, so they live apart for many months at a time. I suspect that suited both of them. He was a dapper, worldly man and by all accounts, he thoroughly enjoyed his traveling adventures. She did not have a domestic bone in her body, so the relief of not having to make and maintain a home for him was, I suspect, quite pronounced. I will never know how having her mother around so much was for my mother, but since they never seemed cozy close, I suspect it was a strain.

So Nanna, as we call her, is essentially living with us, for a week or so at a time. Then someone will drive her back to her apartment for a week or so and then back she will come. Because she is so often with us, she has become a patient of our family doctor. What her ailments are, I do not know. Dr. P. has been our backyard neighbor all my life, with his office on the first floor of his home. He has just recently moved his practice into a new high-rise apartment building a few blocks away.

Nanna goes to see the doctor at least once a week and I go along with her. Whatever. I don’t suspect anything the first time they weigh me, but when they begin to track my weight on a weekly basis, I am a little confused. What’s up? Neither my sister nor my brother is being measured. Then, one day, Dr. P. who is a very large man, sits me down to explain. Nanna sits across the room, nodding approvingly.

The problem is that my size is wrong and unacceptable. He passes judgment, invoking all of his power as a medical man, to tell me that I am five pounds overweight and this is a crisis. Soon, he tells me, boys will start to pay attention to girls and I will be rejected, unwanted, because of my size. This sentence of doom is passed on to me as if by an oracle. This is my future: to be unwanted, ignored, unchosen.

I’d like to say that I didn’t get it, that I didn’t understand these dire predictions. On some level that’s true, since I wasn’t yet thinking of a future need for boy approval. But part of the message came in loud and clear, with every weekly weigh-in and with the change in my treatment at home. I was not okay. How I looked was not okay. My appearance was what really mattered, not my behavior, not my thoughtfulness, friendliness, kindness, sense of humor, intelligence or any other aspect of me. It was all about how I looked. My value, my worth was measured by a scale and tape measure. And they were telling me that as a little girl I was failing.

So, what does this have to do with the topic of shaping? Well, this was pivotal for me, this moment and the years that followed. In the bosom of my family I was repeatedly reminded that as a girl, what was most important was that I be attractive to boys. Doctor, parents and grandparents shaped me, with their attitudes, into a girl and then a woman who was stifling her own anger at the same time she was trying to live up to their expectations.

The ability to shape shift, to change my sense of self, did not really open up until my mother died, as Cleage notes in her essay. By that time, my rage at their ignorance and cruelty had been bottled up for decades, with occasional minor eruptions. After she was gone, there was only my father, who never stopped his misogynistic rants, never imagined questioning the belief that female value is based on appearance.

Yes, there are echoes of the revolting attitude and statements of PEOTOS here. Yes, I am angry. The cutting edge of that anger has been essential in my ability to begin “shaping and living my own life.”

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Breaking the Contract

“…Break[ing] 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.”                                           Annie Lamott

Breaking the promise not to tell secrets. Breaking open the entire, so-often-toxic idea of secrets. Transparency has become a buzzword in the public sphere over the last couple of decades. Not that it has gone very well in that sphere, of course. The nature of the beast, public life, seems to include secrecy and behind-the-scenes manipulations in every public arena, from politics to business. But that’s not where I am going with this commentary. I’ll leave that to others who are more knowledgeable about those worlds. Mainly white men and those who have chosen to study and infiltrate those realms… women and people of color, for instance. Although learning a bit about those machinations intrigues me, I’m definitely not willing to invest my time to gain a thorough understanding.   jersey-girl

I am and have always been, perhaps by necessity, more interested in the secrecy and lack of transparency in the private sphere. My personal analysis is that white men, white Anglo Saxon men, men in general, have shaped the rules of secrecy in our personal lives in much the same way as in the world at large. ‘Protecting their power’ and control is one way to frame it. Of course there are widespread cultural differences of degree, but I feel comfortable asserting that this dynamic exists. I was raised in a culture that was rigorously shaped by WASP men and gender roles were fairly rigid. Men did not talk about feelings and if women needed or chose to, it must be kept out of sight. Hush, hush. No good would come of airing one’s emotions, much less troubles; that was the nearly iron clad rule.

On the most tragic level, this injunction forced women to suffer rape, sexual assault and abuse in silence. The victim-blaming and victim-shaming standards held sway for centuries and despite some advances in my lifetime, still hold women in a cage of secrecy. Trauma of any kind was something to be kept private, in spite of the obvious harm this caused to generally blameless humans, even or especially children.

Here we go…

If you have already seen something I’ve written about this, please forgive the repetition. goldtreeWhen my mother gave birth to a Downs Syndrome child in 1963, my baby sister’s very existence was kept a secret. When she died a little over a year later, the (dare I say, natural) need to mourn her death was truncated**, denied by the fact that if people did not know she had lived, how was grieving to take place? I was eleven years old. The package of secrecy and denial was tightly wrapped in a final (and I do mean final) injunction: we were never to speak of her again. The rare times that a spark of self-preservation leapt from my inner self and I spoke her name or referred to her life and our loss, I was smacked down quite vigorously.

There are chronologically earlier, and equally painful, examples in my family of the denial of reality by use of secrecy and others that came later in my childhood. They continued right through to the day I confronted my 84-year-old father about his excessive alcohol use. (The Alcoholics Anonymous program states that only the addict/alcoholic can take on that label and I agree, so I do not refer to him as such.) I confronted him and told him I had taken away his car keys. I named it, his drinking, a secret that had been protected by the family code of silence for my entire life. By naming it (and taking away those keys) I took away some of his power. He was furious, cursing me and trying to hit me with his cane, telling my mother that I did not belong in the family.

Those who know me, I think, would describe me as discreet, someone who can be trusted with confidential information; a compassionate listener, a kind and sensitive person. I also love surprises and will go to great lengths to assist in the planning of happy surprises. But do not come to me with a secret that is being held in order to protect someone who has power or that has the potential to harm someone less powerful. Mainly due to my early experiences, I’ve become a vigilante against toxic secrecy, down to my very core. I will not abide by the code of silence. I am committed to breaking that dreadfully coerced promise whenever I can.

** Truncated: ORIGIN late 15th cent. (as a verb): from Latin truncat- ‘maimed,’ from the verb truncare

I had no idea that truncated was also a mathematical term; I always pictured a tree trunk, like this:    5b3fopm8f7gsmkq7ovdd12xm7dlsjbclzjqimcqa1nlrx5wsughsjrwdgqwhihsc2lmds128 nablopomo_badge_2016

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