Thursday, December 26, 2013
Not to realize we have changed would be a failure of memory; not to realize we will change is a failure of imagination. The most ecologically efficient way to exercise the imagination is one person telling a story to another, an activity that consumes no external resources. With current technology, stories can be recorded and sent to many people, consuming some bits of resource. The least efficient way to tell a story right now is to make a film: hundreds of people consume staggering amounts of resources. A book, especially an electronic one, is the work of primarily one person with editors and publishing company people supporting it. The reader takes care of the actors, the scenery, and the special effects. So with a few additional resources, a shared act of the imagination in the form of an MP3 or a book can engage many people. An important characteristic of the book, too, is that it is private: one author talking to one person at a time. No peer pressure from the reaction of fellow audience members becomes an inextricable part of the experience so the individual imagination has a chance to build up muscle before confronting the Captain Bringdowns of the world.
I have another self-serving suggestion. To encourage our imaginations to break the shackles of the world view of the culture that surrounds us, we might look to literature from the past. There have been some wonderful modern reimaginings of the world in film—The Matrix, Inception, The Adjustment Bureau—but they all have their roots in the present and reflect extrapolations from our current fears and wishes. The past, however, is beyond our experience. The past has never heard of us. When we look at the way storytellers from past ages imagine another world, we can see the constraints they impose and the freedoms they allow themselves.
The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a Middle English poem from the turn of the 15th Century, plunges Gawain into a bizarre adventure when he accepts the challenge to deliver a blow with an axe and then a year later to receive one back. He beheads the Green Knight who recovers his head, and, after reminding Gawain of his obligation, rides off. As a result of this beginning, Gawain ends up in a castle where he discovers himself enmeshed in a set of three interlocking games. The anonymous poet who wrote the story was immersed in a world so saturated with meaning that there were no random events or meaningless objects. Deus's organizing Logos reached to the bottom of creation. Gawain's shield contains a pentangle and the poet spends many lines, admitting that he is delaying the story, to describe the "five fives" the shield symbolizes. Whatever bizarre thing happens, it will be part of a plan. The medieval poet could casually dispense with realism, but he did not imagine a world without ubiquitous meaning.
Such cultural constructs remind us that we understand our experiences within a frame of reference that on some levels seems inevitable. Climbing into the past (or another culture) suggests ways to step outside our tidy sets of assumptions. Even if the past is entirely wrongheaded, it may suggest a crack in our own thinking that we may be able get some purchase on, so we can see what happens when it starts to break apart. Sometimes all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put our old thoughts together again, and we need to make something new of the pieces.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th Century German nun, wrote of her transcendent mystical experiences with such clarity that modern doctors (Oliver Sacks for one) have been able to diagnose them as migraines. Within the last few years I have been getting ocular migraines, whose dominant feature is not the severe pain, so much as the way the vision is disrupted. As with all things migraine, there is a great deal of variation, but those admitted to the order of the migraine understand each other's experiences in a way not available to outsiders.
I had misunderstood what my daughter meant when she said she could not read with a migraine, since I thought it related only to the pain making it too uncomfortable to read. When I had my first ocular migraine, I discovered I could not read because what I looked at on the page made no sense. Print began as squiggles, and as the episode passed, they became individual letters. Then they became individual words that I could not string together into phrases. Within an hour, having worked my way through all the intermediate steps, I found the sense effortlessly flowing from the page again. Once I was diagnosed, I also realized I had been having symptoms for years, instances of disorientation, faintness, and difficulty seeing that had disturbed me but had spontaneously disappeared.
I am not trying to dismiss Hildegard's experience; there is no reason why her god should not use the migraine to communicate with her. Even a mild migraine attack for me has the skeleton of a transcendent experience. As with the letters, I will notice that the world around me is changing. Individual objects seem to glow from within and begin to stand out so that things don't seem to be connected with each other or at least their relationships are slipping. The bathroom disassembles itself into sink, window, toilet. The last square on the toilet paper role attached by its perforated edge hangs down and seems to tremble almost imperceptibly; its irregular stubby fringe, sometimes with a small triangle that did not rip properly, makes it clear that something is gone that was a part of the whole. My life falls apart as each perceivable thing demands center stage. The fabric of interwoven events that make up my day separate into threads, and at some point I realize I am going to die. I too am going to fall apart. Because I am alive, I cannot get out of dying. I begin to feel weird, light-headed, unsteady on my feet. I wonder how I will stay vertical all day, talk to people when they ask me questions.
My response is to do what is in front of me, moment by moment. Considering even a few links in any chain of events that could bind me would be too overwhelming. I stagger along one word at a time, and eventually, I realize connections are reemerging, and I am steady on my feet without thinking about it. My faith grows stronger; though the world is still composed of bits and pieces, the irrational faith that the pieces fit together into something begins to recover. And when I realize that has happened, I feel joy and relief. From the outside I am engaged in routine activities, but on the inside, I have been passing through an ordeal. It is not a realization of something new, but a rebirth of the sense of wonder at the constructive experience of being alive. It would not take much to turn that into a religious experience if the faith that holds life together involves a god.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
It is November and we are back in Amesbury, MA, again. We left in August so I could return to teaching and we could prepare our Wellsboro house for sale. When we left the trees were leafed out, and the hill behind our house was a tangle of green all the way to the edge of the pond. The pond itself was nearly covered in green, growing out from the water lilies in the middle to the water chestnuts (?), which reached almost to the shore. Now, as we return in winter, the leaves are wind-piled in heaps and the pond looks as it did when we first saw the house--an expanse of open water seen through the skeletons of trees. The view that seemed so hemmed in in summer, though the big trees doing the hemming are a wonder themselves, is now open and expansive.
Being is about place and time. I keep wanting it to be about abstract ideas and transcendent truth, but being is what it is, and since we are people, even at their most abstract, our ideas must be embodied. Whenever I think I should have been a philosopher, I always come back to the idea that ambiguous truth in the context of story appeals to me more than absolute truth in the context of a constrained system.
This afternoon I saw a white gull flying over the pond in a fog that seemed to arise out of its flickering surface like a magic spell. The arcs the gull traced with graceful ease may or may not have had meaning in any human sense, but the gull was doing what it wanted to do--by design or instinct or both. It landed on the surface of the pond and floated for a few seconds, and then it was up and making another big swoop. I am intrigued by the question, "What does this experience, which I was both part of and not part of, have to do with me?" Finding the answer without forcing it is what literature is all about.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
I drove from Wellsboro to Erie, PA to meet with nine of my fellow Venard graduates, and I began drafting this blog post in a motel in Erie at the end of the day; I left early the next morning. The Venard was a Roman Catholic junior seminary (i.e., a high school) where we lived and studied with the intention of becoming Maryknoll missionary priests. Thirty-four of us graduated from the high school; two of us actually became Maryknoll priests: one left the priesthood and the other eventually left the order and became a diocesan priest in Erie. Father Tom Hoderny is living at a priest's retirement home there, and we met at his place. Three of us are dead.
As usual, when we get together we talk about the past, present, and future as if they were a single thing, as indeed they are. But we have gotten older and while our thoughts and words can travel up and down the flow of our lives, our bodies are carried by the current in one direction only. I was surprised at how many of us had survived cancer. After we separated for the day, I felt a twinge of uncertainty about whether the particular group that met that night could meet again. It is not that there is anything special about this particular third of the class; it is just a thought experiment that sparked a response. This feeling is a new ingredient, and one that will leaven more and more experiences. For how long does this reality last? When does a state of being become what was instead of what is? When did I become no longer young? There was a day when I could still be young the next day, but the day after that one, I could not be young again.
The reality in which we ten can meet again did not end when we parted that night because, with the will to do so, we could reconvene and, if we did it quickly enough, we would likely all be pretty much the same as we were. But the will to do so cannot be a given; it is a real contingency, and we will not know when it will no longer be possible to summon up the collective will to gather, and we cannot know when the ability to reconvene will be beyond our will. Deus vult.
We all gathered in the first place because we each thought we had a vocation, a call from God. No matter how godless any of us might have become, it is hard not to think of our time together without some scraps of tattered grandeur clinging to the memory. We gathered then to save the world; we gather in the flickering now to celebrate the time we shared so much. Tom Hoderny gave us each a card with a quote from Psalm 133 that captured the spirit of that time and explains the connection among us: Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum [See how good it is and how pleasant, to live as one like brothers]. And for us, of course, part of the deal is that it is in Latin.
Friday, November 8, 2013
Why, for example, in English is there no way to describe our relationship to a parent's siblings or their relationship to us without specifying gender?
(From Encyclopedia of Genealogy)
That is the only relationship in our family tree that is like that. On the other hand, why is there no way for us to describe our relationship to their children in a way that does specify gender? These are collective decisions made over generations. Language shapes discourse, inserts itself into the conversation, creates ambiguity all on its own.
"All that glitters is not gold."
How much of what glitters is gold? When we use that sentence we mean some of what glitters is gold and some is not.
"All who lie are not trustworthy."
How many liars are not trustworthy? If we were to say it that way, we would mean that all of them were trustworthy. Why is it some in one and all in the other? What about,
"All of the people in the room were not represented."
Is this a golden clause or an untrustworthy one? I recall from my linguistics class that in the US, the tendency to interpret this clause one way or the other or as ambiguous is affected by what part of the country we are from. Regardless of that effect, it is likely that we could use a statement like this one unaware that it is a problem. Every conversation takes place in the context of our cultural history, even if we are unaware of it. All our efforts to be accurate will not work.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Since I care about my university and by extension the whole educational matrix it is part of, I fret about the future. But Christian's reference to Asimov's world immediately put my concerns in a productive new frame of reference. Hari Seldon's psychohistorical analysis of the future and the establishment of the Foundation were designed to reduce the period of inter-Empire chaos from 30,000 years to 1,000. The university as a social institution is nearly 1,000 years old. On the one hand, it seems to be a durable institution; on the other hand, it does have many miles on it. Maybe the university has outlived its usefulness and is beginning to collapse toward the center. Institutions that seem inevitable from the inside can, from the outside, reveal themselves as fragile while the world changes around them and they fail to adapt. Some aspects of the Foundation series are based on Gibbons' Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Republic lasted for only about 500 years and the Roman Empire for another 300 years. The university has already outlasted both the Republic and the Empire, yet they shine in our historical memory as signal accomplishments. Of course, the City of Rome still exists, though nothing like what it was. Perhaps the university—from the Latin universitas*—is also no longer what it was. The university is an already irrelevant institution, but those of us on the inside, in the center of one of these institutions, have not noticed yet, and it will be a decade until it becomes so apparent that even a highly educated person can see it. But before that happens in an effort to adapt, universities will twist themselves into many unsustainable mutations. But I suspect that whatever replaces the university dinosaurs will not be their offspring, but something smaller and more agile, something easy to overlook at first.
|*"In early use post-classical Latin universitas denoting an academic institution was modified by the genitive plural, as in universitas magistrorum , universitas magistrorum et scolarium (both 13th cent. with reference to the University of Paris)" ("University." OED). The modern university—tangled in elaborate rules of matriculation and hemmed in by accrediting agencies hoarding power and boards of trusties hoarding money—is hardly a community of teachers and students any more.|
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
The concluding insight of Carly Simon's "Anticipation," that these are the good old days, resonates with those moments when in the midst of tension I pause, step back and consider my situation in its larger context and realize how good things are, how good I have it driving along on a warm autumn day through mountains covered with fall yellows and reds to a job teaching in college, a permanent job that pays a good wage and allows me to do something I see as valuable.
But I wonder at how valid it is for me to do this self-soothing. Usually I am uptight despite the idyllic context because I have not gotten things done as a result of my lack of discipline and my self-indulgence. That is at least how I feel, but am I right? Perhaps I am feeling sorry for myself and wallowing in self-pity, and by recentering further away from the present moment, I am able shake off a distorted view of it and then return to the present moment more aware of the true value of that moment. Or maybe I am just more deluded about my right to enjoy it.
The Buddhist approach says that I should stay in the moment and realize that everything outside of that moment is present only because I am thinking of it. Memories and anxieties impinge on the present only insofar as they are present in my consciousness and subconsciousness since they have no other physical form in which to be there. Much as I try to see the wisdom of that approach, I still see it as denial. At least my recentering requires me to find a context in which I can accept what of my past and future appears on the stage to demand attention, rewriting its part from delivering a soliloquy, foreground, center-stage to becoming part of a conversation with other players per chance in preparation for an exit pursued by a bear.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Yesterday we gave away one of the wooden storage boxes that Christian and I build for us to store things in the barn. I realized after the boards were laid on the trailer, I felt a sense of relief, a microscopic lightening of the load, as when a few days earlier we loaded the dining room set into a pickup truck, and it was gone. Each thing we get rid of lightens the load: the dining room set is gone; the bedroom set has been purchased and it will go. Today, two sets of people looked at the house, and one set is coming back tomorrow morning. We are trying not to get too excited about it, but it is clear that even as the prospect of our selling the house becomes clear, will still see its loss as a net positive gain. We'll see what we see in the future in the future.
Monday, October 21, 2013
I am watching the TV series called "Arrow," based on the Green Arrow character, about whom I know very little, except that he is an archer and a modernized version of Robin Hood. In this version he is the son of a billionaire and a ne'er-do-well in the classic sense of the word. He is shipwrecked on an island after his father's yacht sinks and his father dies. He spends five years on this island, not alone it seems, but cut off from his previous life. I expect we will gradually find more and more about the transformation process (a clever idea so that it is not all used up in a big origin episode), but the important thing is that at the end of this period of isolation, he is transformed into a superhero who fights against corrupt corporate powerbrokers.
It made me realize, in so many stories, the importance of a time away from the familiar and the comfortable to allow for a transformation. Even on a small scale, significant personal change is through periods of time apart. To master anything, we need time alone: time to study, to practice, to learn to know of or to do something—speak a language, run a half-marathon, play an instrument, shoot an arrow, write, quilt. Transformations require us to detach so that we can change ourselves. When we return we bring with us what we have extracted from the time alone, the time away, and those we love can share in it. If we never withdrew, we could not bring that gift. It takes an odd blend of selfishness and humility to do such a thing, unless, of course, it is thrust upon you by a shipwreck.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Sunday, October 13, 2013
While going through some of the detritus in one of my detritus boxes from the basement, I came across a map we had made when we first thought about moving to Massachusetts. Using a pencil and a ruler I had drawn lines on a Google map that contained the three places our children live: Littleton, Salem, and Amesbury. I had drawn a triangle, which had turned out to be a perfect right triangle, then had drawn lines from the apexes of two sides to the center of the opposing side. The lines crossed in Andover. I remember looking at Andover and being impressed by how expensive the houses were. When we talked over that map, the possibility of moving was brand new and we were being quite speculative about it. Ultimately, when we began to get serious, we began to steer away from a central location and to think about locating closer to a point. What got us started on Amesbury, what actually got us to start looking at houses, was one on California Street in Amesbury. When we saw it, the house was overgrown, looking strange and mysterious. The house was intriguing and we did look at it twice, but ultimately we decided we did not want a house that required that much work. But the big thing is that it got us started.
That we even got that far was partly because the place where we were living in rural Pennsylvania was changing due to the gas industry, so if we were leaving it, it was also leaving us. The pace of change has slowed down, but there is no question that over the next decade Tioga County will get twisted out of shape. To stay would be to decide to live in a different place, though what kind of different place is unclear, but unlikely to be of our liking, certainly not the rural place we moved to where nature dominated people. It began to make sense to make a deliberate move rather than just slide downhill. So looking at houses in the North Shore of Massachusetts began to seem reasonable.
But moving is not just about geography, not when one component of the move is my retiring. I plan to write and to study mobiles and to get involved in the community and the lives of our children and grandchildren. But still, the shift in identity is a worrisome thing and leaving the university where I teach seemed like a bold decision. However, like the place where we live, the university seems to be leaving me. In response to budget cuts, the administration is cutting positions using a logic symptomatic of a vision of the university that is cramped and commercial. They are not trying to protect the aspect of the university that has led me to keep pouring energy into it—the chance to open up the life of the mind for students who don't even know it exists; if the place continues to exist it will have been so changed that it will no longer be what it was.
So my bridges are burning themselves behind me.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
To ferret out the underpinning of that laziness, two questions would be worthwhile:
- Do I believe that it is possible to make those connections, that by trying to, I could create something true and moving?
- What will it accomplish if I do make the connections?
The answer to the first one is a resounding, "Yes." I believe in the magic of words since I have experienced the way that, as I handle them, they talk back to me. All those people who lived before me and shaped the language I inherited from my culture in expanding circles around my family, the collective experience of millions is captured in the delicate attraction and repulsion in the spaces between words that create the linguistic network, which reflects the neural network that both shapes and contains it. So the language itself sheds light on what I try to put into it. That may be part of the thrill I sometimes feel when I find the right words, which at once embody and clarify my thoughts, moving the meaning that crucial one more click so something is unlocked. All that takes effort, but I have no doubt that with effort it can be done, and though starting the process can require great energy, the process itself is regenerative and exhausting both.
The second question is more complex and it is there that I am vulnerable. I have often gone back to John Fowles' The Tree to be reassured that the act of creating art is the important thing; the art itself is a kind of souvenir of that act (perhaps in the way vacations should be about the experience not the photographs). And while I still cling to that in the face of my rejection slips, I still wonder if such a rationale is enough to sustain the effort. Perhaps—despite Johnson's "No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money"—perhaps the best motivation for writing is to discover something, use language to explore the world.
But still, it would be good to share it, to have others read what I have written and have them tell me they found it, they found it what? I suppose anything, that they learned something from it. I was wondering today whether I want to inspire people to action, and decided maybe I did not want to. Burke says, I believe, that an idea is an incipient act. I want to write things that give people ideas, complex enough so that they do not convert directly to action, but will engender action, will influence it, will be input into a process. When I wrote for Mountain Home, however, though I was pleased when people commented on what I wrote, the writing did not feel that much different from all the other writing I was doing that went off into a dark hole.
So that second question needs some qualification. Perhaps what it needs is a list of what I might accomplish, and then an evaluation of how likely I am to accomplish it: I may build a good character as a person by writing, but no reputation as a writer.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
|A Maxim: gen. A proposition, esp. one which is pithily worded, expressing a general truth drawn from science or experience. OED.|
One appealing aspect of fairy tales is the magic word, the fantasy that simply by speaking it we get something done, like Yahweh making the world.
* * *
Our younger selves schedule our days in the morning and dream of what we will accomplish. By evening, we can recapture only vaguely that naïve vision of clean stables in just one day.
* * *
A word is a metaphor: it is both the thing and not the thing. Language simultaneously brings us the world and holds it at a distance: we float in the balance.
* * *
Self-pity is comfort food for the inert mind, the pity-patty of little feat.
* * *
It is not so hard to set priorities within a frame of reference—which vegetable to plant first, which book to read next—but since we do not plant books or read vegetables we need a frame frame in which to set priority priorities.
* * *
Fleeing to imaginary worlds or imaginary futures or the imaginary past—where we can do nothing—we create gardens where over and over we cannot eat of any tree.
* * *
We make lists to remember what to do in the complex web of the present; we keep journals to remember what we have done in the simplifying web of the past.
* * *
Sometimes I write in my journal about writing in my journal. Here I write about writing about writing in my journal. But it's turtles all the way down.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "emergency situation" in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.
According to the administration, the university where I teach is in a constant state of crisis, a crisis which precludes our reflecting on what we are doing in any meaningful way. We must spend all our energy bailing out the boat to prevent it from sinking so that there is no time to consider the direction it is heading in. I had not realized before that "the emergency situation" is itself a tool of oppression. It is even more effective when a crucial cause of the emergency is articulated as too many faculty, and the current round of crises is announced by saying that it is hard to see how we can deal with it without the retrenchment of faculty. This emergency may well be real, but we have had false alarms in the past, and over the past five years students have declined by about 5% and instructional faculty have declined by almost 20% (full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty by 11%).
Ultimately, however, the association of a state of emergency and an oppressive environment, one that inhibits the free flow of ideas, is an evocative perspective that suggests that rather than focusing merely on the emergency at hand, we must come to understand why we are formulating the current state of affairs as an emergency.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
Why did it take so long for us to get rid of it? How do we get rid of such things? We could not just throw it out because it was not damaged. Who would we give it to? We are not cheese-board people, and if any of our friends were, we would know it because they would already have a cheese board. Besides giving one as a gift would imply we believed in them. But we have had garage sales before. Why was this not part of one? Why did we wait until now to get rid of it?
The difference is that now we are moving to a place that will force us to make decisions about what objects we have. Up until now, we have always had houses with places where we could store things we never used without interfering with daily life. Now we must be more deliberate. It is not just about enough space; however, it is also about time. Over the past weeks many of our decisions about objects have forced us to admit we can no longer harbor the illusion that someday something will be useful to us. We have limited time left, and the aged perspective makes clear how quickly time is moving, how few things will fit into the boundary of a day, and how rapidly one day replaces another. This moving sale was less about making money than about settling up with the limits of space and time.