Monday, April 25, 2016

A Week of Thomases

I did that dumb thing where I stacked up books with dozens of dog-eared pages and then quickly lost what I wanted to tell you.   I got sick and then Samantha got sick.  The weather turned cold.  Spring in Southwest Michigan is doing this weird, hot-flashy thing where I'm not sure if I need wool socks or shorts from one day to the next.  It makes me cranky, which makes me pause: who am I to tell the earth what she should be doing?

In happier news, Samantha turned two and started speaking in full sentences overnight, and I read a book I've been meaning to read for years: The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch.

Lynch is a poet, an essayist and, incidentally, a funeral director.  It's hard to believe that's his real name, but I'm pretty sure it is.  He writes about the living as he views us after years of handling the dead. 

It was a little surreal to finally read a writer I'd heard about for so long after moving to his state, because I never truly realized where he lived before picking up the book.  It's probably because I didn't realize the state of Michigan actually existed before I lived here, too, so it all serves me right.

ANYWAY.  I'd like to share a beautiful passage from The Undertaking with you.  Concerning making funeral arrangements before you die, Lynch writes:

"We are uniformly advised 'not to be a burden to our children.'  This is the other oft-cited bonne raison for making your final arrangements in advance - to spare them the horror and pain of having to do business with someone like me.

But if we are not to be a burden to our children, then to whom?  The government?  The church?  The taxpayers?  Whom?  Were they not a burden to us - our children? And didn't the management of that burden make us feel alive and loved and helpful and capable?"

I love this concept so much, that we would never in a million years choose - or even wish on anyone we dearly loved - the events, responsibilities, and duties that make us truly grow.  So much of what happens internally while parenting feels too universal, too fleeting, and too human to discuss.  I never want to offer up the "hardest job you'll ever love" kind of crap that makes me go blind with boredom when I hear it, but I live most of it daily and totally understand it comes from. 

And maybe that's how it should be.  True intimacies are hard to put into words without cliche or, worse, jarring, socially-transgressive honesty.  They require long friendships where anything goes, or whole novel plots, stories set up and walked through hand in hand with the writer.

Some things are even too sacred for books, which seems to deposit us right at another book I wanted to talk about: Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore.  This book has circled my life like a coyote for years, or maybe I'm the dog and this book is the innocent I've circled.  Or maybe we've circled together, Ouroboros-like.  Who cares?  The point is, I finally had occasion to wade into its dense waters and I'm happy I did. 

Friends, it is wondrous, a real education. I wonder if one could ever exhaust its gems.  Like a Terrence Malick film, I'm not exactly sure what I touched as I waded through its darkly-lit poetry, its imagery, its mythical tones, its Jungian exploration of dreams, and Moore's painterly expression of ideas.  There's so much in the book that it's not possible, and I don't want, to sum it up, but I can say that it is about examining the particularities that build a soul, which Moore differentiates from a spirit as a sort of earthly, gravitational pull inside - the part of us that likes, say, cookie-dough ice cream - versus the seemingly sophisticated "elevated" parts of us that want to be "spiritual."  Much like in yoga, where attention to the ground beneath you can become a path to greater lightness and forms of levity, Moore contends that care for these particularities of our soul is what leads to healing, and to peace. 

Warning against fundamentalism of all kinds toward the end of the book, he writes:

"I have said that the soul is more interested in particulars than in generalities.  That is true of personal identity as well.  Identifying with a group or a syndrome or a diagnosis is giving in to an abstraction.  Soul provides a strong sense of individuality - personal destiny, special influences and background, and unique stories.  In the face of overwhelming need for both emergency and chronic care, the mental health system labels people schizophrenics, alcoholics, and survivors so that it can bring some order to the chaos of life at home and on the street, but each person has a special story to tell, no matter how many common themes it contains.

Therefore, care of the soul for such a person must begin in the simple telling of her story."

That's a pretty dense passage, and I'm not sure it's the right one to offer you as a sample of what this book feels like to read.  I guess I just appreciate the dignity this man approaches everyone with, the dignity he implores others to see in themselves which he's convinced (and I agree with him) does not come in big important packages but rather in the simple, humbling moments of being alive. 

I watched a robin pull a worm from my neighbor's lawn this week, watched it stretch long and wet between the bird's beak and the ground, pinking in its center as it stretched and then popped toward  the bird.  How many children's books are about this very thing?  So many of them, and I love them all.  Children's books are, in fact, a great example of Moore's theories, studies in this world's ocean of particularities.  Children are so sure in the moment, demanding without anger.  They tend and it is an honor, a purifying education, to walk alongside.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Obvious - And Not So Obvious - Virtues

I wasn't at all sure I was going to finish Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's book, The Wheel of Life: A Memoir of Living and Dying when I started it.  Kubler-Ross is best known for her work on the five stages of grief, and if her writing is any indication, the woman did not lack for confidence.  It probably helped her as a psychologist and researcher, but as a writer, especially one of memoir, a little humility sometimes goes a long way.  Within the first pages of The Wheel of Life, I found myself craving a lot more humility from the writer, something the book never quite delivers. 

But in some ways, Kubler-Ross's story is so full of obvious virtues, it's easy to forgive its tone.  She writes about volunteering to rebuild villages in Poland after World War II as a young adult, visiting gas chambers and touring a Holocaust facility, and meeting one survivor who lost her entire family there, who told her, "There is a Hitler in all of us."  These stories, and the ones that come later about Kubler-Ross's ground-breaking work with people who were dying, feel so important, so educational and full of compassion, and I feel grateful to have learned so much while reading about one woman's life.   

The thing I didn't expect is how the book and Kubler-Ross's life swerve into psychic territory.  I won't say any more about it, so I don't spoil anything if you read it, except I don't know why a book about a psychologist who examined what dying people could teach us about life for a living shocked me when it veered into the world of spirits, but it did.  It also amused me.  (Life!!) 

I don't quite recommend the book, per say, but if only to learn about the too-recent past where we institutionalized people with physical deformities and treated psychiatric patients with cruel ignorance, I'm glad I read it.  These were practices Kubler-Ross felt strongly needed to change. Her medical interactions, at least those recorded in the book, put the primacy of people's emotional life at the center of her focus, and that is something this Pisces lady can get behind.  (Hello, watery depths!) 

The other thing I loved about the book was how aphoristic it could sometimes be regarding spiritual matters.  For someone who grew up going to church, who believes strongly in the undercurrents of grace that carry us all along, I found Kubler-Ross's intensity a welcome visit to some forgotten themes in my life, or a welcome fervor piling onto convictions of my own.

The following quote comes from a passage about a woman whose child is born blind, a woman who has been encouraged to put the otherwise healthy child in an institution (the practice at the time). Kubler-Ross tells the woman to keep the child and send her to school.  She writes:

"Obviously, I could not offer any miracles that would return her daughter's eyesight, but I did listen to her troubles.  And then when she asked what I thought, I told this mother, who wanted so badly to find a miracle, that no child was born so defective that God did not endow him with a special gift.  'Drop all your expectations,' I said.  'All you have to do is hold and love your child like she was a gift from God.'

'And then?' she asked.

'In time, He will reveal her special gift,' I replied.

I had no idea where those words of mine came from, but I believed them...Many years later, I was reading a newspaper when I noticed an article about Heidi...All grown up, Heidi was a promising pianist....I wasted no time looking up her mother, who proudly told me how she had struggled to raise her daughter.  Then all of a sudden, Heidi developed a gift for music.  It just blossomed, like a flower, and her mother credited my encouraging words. 

'It would have been so easy to reject her,' she said. 'That's what the other people told me to do.'" 

I know the topic of divinity is sensitive for a lot of people, and it's hard to do justice to spiritual discussions on the internet (or in any kind of writing, for that matter), but I love the confidence Kubler-Ross showed when a panicked mother consulted her, and also the extreme, daring compassion she offered as a medical professional.  I also happen to agree with this philosophy of child-rearing.  We don't all need to be good at everything.  We really only need to be good at one or two things.  We can help each other out with the other things.  That's how community works.  I'm not saying I practice this perfectly, but the older I get, the more I prefer to watch wildness unfold. 

Speaking of wildness, RIP Jim Harrison, the man whose prose knew no end of meat, drinking, and poetic, comic truth-telling.  Who will write about prostitutes and bird-hunting on the same pages now?  It won't be me, but Harrison's stunning 1988 Dalva may have changed my life.  I may forever remember discovering his novellas and reading about dog-training and wood-splitting and achy tangled relationships, as I sat against a window in bed, chilled beneath the hooded sweatshirt I had borrowed from my new boyfriend, Tim. 

This not-so-recent but well-written story from Outside magazine is a great primer on Harrison for those who desire one.  At the end of it, Harrison says something that feels so true about being an artist-wilderness-type, and that is he gave up all kinds of opportunities to keep going "outside."  He needed to be able to wander and roam, something that takes time and patience and for him could not be comfortably fit into an academic environment. 

Every time I try to lure Samantha to the car for an errand lately, I am coaxed up our hill and around the neighborhood by her.  Sometimes she sits on strangers' stoops.  Other times we sneak up on rabbits.  Often she picks up sticks and rocks and leaves, not to collect them but simply to handle them.  Yesterday, she identified a robin on her own with glee, and today she stood in front of one and offered it a guileless, "Hi."  I also had to beg her not to sit in thawing, muddy ivy, and I don't think a single plane has passed overhead without her hearing it long before it appears.  This girl is awake and aware and wants to range.  I can't believe I'm surprised. 


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Blind Cave Fish (and Other Miracles of the Midwest)

It has been a shamefully long time since I last wrote, although I have mostly fallen out of habits of shame this winter.  But winter is close to over now where I live, a fact I welcome.

We went to Indiana for vacation because who doesn't like to visit landlocked, overcast states?  It was glorious to be away from home, which I have a habit of tidying too much and worrying about, shuffling paint swatches like puzzle pieces while also staunchly refusing to actually paint anything, because toddler. 

It's always a good idea for my brain to travel, I think.  Changing the scene and getting in the car with Tim and Samantha, driving and talking and occasionally eating shelf-stable pastries sometimes just makes my life work.

Also, we really did have a good time, and I found out something that makes me happy to be alive: there exist in the world fish who have no eyes.  NO EYES.  What?!  They live in deep, dark caves so Tim joked the gods said: "You're not gonna need those where you're going." 

I don't know why finding out about an animal like this makes me so happy, but it does.  It blows my mind and having my mind blown by a scientific, biological fact is so much more welcome than having it blown by too little sleep, which is often the other way it blows these days.  (Not because our daughter keeps me up at night or gets me up in the morning, but because I do things like stay up late watching Shakira belly dance on YouTube.  True story.)

On that note, due to a misfire of the keyboard while on my library website one night, I discovered and then read a book by a chef I didn't even know existed: Cat Cora, whose memoir Cooking As Fast As I Can was ghost written by Karen Karbo (whom I mistook for the writer of Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, written by Koren Zailckas.  I know, I know - they aren't even close).

This is all to say I liked the book's cover so I read it and guess what? I liked its insides, too.  (Gross.)

One of the things I'm finding out about myself as I age and my eyes sting reading certain pages of certain books, is that I really love a good heart-tug.  I don't mean I like to be manipulated by sappy crap, but when I read about Cora, who was adopted, searching for her biological mother and how that mother had written a letter to the adoption agency every year since Cora's first birthday telling her how much she loved her and hoped they will know each other someday, I was weeping in the corner of our hotel room, crouched over the book with my headlamp while Samantha snoozed in the dark. 

I also liked a passage early in the book about Cora's grandmother, who moved in when Cora's mom temporarily moved out of town to pursue a PhD (weird, huh?). 

Cat Cora/Karen Karbo writes: 

"Our mom was a firm believer in the character-building values of chores, a set bedtime, and a strict schedule....But when Grandmom Alma moved in during my freshman year of high school, she dispensed with all that.  She delighted in taking care of us....She spent her days producing a nonstop stream of classic egg salads and chicken salads, stupendous cheesecakes, and for our birthdays, her silky Italian cream cake..."

That passage is actually one of the few in the book that describe food, and while I'm not at all opposed to descriptions of foods, I do prefer them to be written by people who work with food.  I guess one of the things that kind of moved me about Cooking As Fast As I Can is that it was about life, and one woman's life
in particular, and while I can't express how little I care about Iron Chef or television or celebrity in general, the events of this woman's life--her closeness with her family and her access to Greek and Southern culture through family and friends and cooking--seemed remarkable to me. 

So I'm remarking on them, okay?

I guess what I'm trying to say is, the older I get, the more life moves me.  The more real family feels to me, and literature about it makes me cry.  In a good way, like happy/sad tears.  Like: Life Is So Crazy, Can You Believe That Happened?  

On that note, I give you a Jack Gilbert poem.  This poem was on The Writer's Almanac sometime in February, a month which is always full of fun events and good wine, and is so short but so full of chocolate that I'm going to cling to it as my excuse for not writing to you, okay? 

To make up for my sloth/hibernation/studies of life, here is a master who loved life enough for all of us.  

Failing and Flying 
by Jack Gilbert

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

One last thing.  My sister-in-law J.L. Conrad has a new chapbook of poetry coming out soon called Not If But When (what a title!) and you can find out more here.  I first heard some of her delightful "Poems In Which" when we were all younger and childless, when she and her husband visited Tim and I in Colorado, where we ate tortilla chips for dinner, walked the dog, and debated the artistic merits of Lady Gaga's meat suit.  Those were magical times, and vacations with Tim's family may be some of the few times I might trade motherhood for youth.  His clan's family-ness is admirable and earthily Midwestern to me, and I am so damn grateful to be a part of it year after year.

Until soon(ish), my friends,