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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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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Safety

LET US GO FORTH WITH FEAR AND COURAGE AND RAGE TO SAVE THE WORLD

                                                                                                 Grace Paley

 

Safely becoming. Already becoming. Always becoming. It is safe to become who I am. That sounds weird, but what I’ve been addressing lately was the un-safety of becoming a young woman; the un-safety that I experienced as a girl. I am really tired of re-plowing that ground and want to move on to something a little lighter.

And I do feel lighter, as if by sharing that story I’ve spit a stone out from my gut. Which implies that I once swallowed that stone. Did I? Or was the stone something that grew inside me like a kidney stone? Anyway, yesterday was a little rough, but by evening I began to feel that I had successfully regurgitated the stone. I am lighter and feel relief.

I got my first car, a 1966 Volvo wagon, just before I turned twenty-one. It was namedvolvo122samazon Amazon, not just by me, but by the Volvo company. No joke. When I checked out the owner’s manual, passed on to me by the guy from whom I bought the car, there it was. The manual was tiny, just over an eighth of an inch thick, compared to the volumes that come with cars today.

There on the binding it said AMAZON in small print. As a young feminist, I was delighted. The probably mythical Amazons were strong women, fighters from an ancient matrilineal society. It was imagery that I needed and eagerly grasped. If I could take on the bearing of an Amazon, I would be safe, without the need to be protected by others.

greekvaseamazonAmazon was an image that meant a lot to me in my twenties. I stood tall as I made my way into fields that had been previously defined as male-only. I took some flak for pushing my way in, but I didn’t back down. Then, somewhere in my thirties I lost sight of the Amazon incarnation, except as it applied to my cars. Each successive (I’m currently driving my fifth, and possibly final) Volvo wagon has been my Amazon.

It seems that I didn’t need to hold that self-image during my parenting years. I was strong because I was a mother. I was the protector of my child and always told her that what mattered the most to me was that she was safe and happy. Safe was and is a really important element of parenting. But now that she has begun to guide her own life and take responsibility for her own safety, in both the literal and figurative sense, I am back to me.

So I think once again about the Amazon within. What I sense is that the Amazon no longer needs to fight. She no longer needs to strike a pose, assuming the posture of a defender. I am a retired Amazon, solid and safe, by my own design. The world is no less threatening than it was 45 years ago, but I can meet those assailants, face those battles from a less militant stance.

I am solid, I am safe, a retired Amazon, content to focus more on my inner life than battlingavt_grace-paley_9439 the nightmares of my youth. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not stepping away from the need to speak out against injustice. Among the sheroes and fighting female role models I have known, the late Grace Paley was a shining example of a woman who never quit speaking (and acting) up.

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