Saturday, November 29, 2008

Music I like- The Weakerthans

Music in its highest form ought to stretch us and leaves us better than we were before we heard it. It might break our heart, or make our being swell. It might help us to think in a way completely foreign to us, or make us remark "I've always thought that, but I never had the words to say it." The music of The Weakerthans does all of is music which I find nearly impossible to listen to in a passive way.

Louis Zukofsky, an American poet wrote " Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody”. To me this is precisely what the lyrics of Weakerthans songs accomplish. The lyrics might be written from the point of view of a cat, or a bus driver, or as in the song above- a man lingering at a curling lounge reluctant to go home. The lyrics are detail, and combined with the music the songs powerfully focus on the emotion present in the given situation. Ezra Pound wrote of poetry "Only emotion endures." (Zukofsky goes on to write "Only emotion objectified endures.)--and as such many, many of The Weakerthans' songs are the essence of the emotion in a given snippet of the presented situation.

Their music reminds me when I feel overwhelmed by the business of my life that the white dogwood blossoms against a deep magenta sky at sunset-matter. That the people I meet who each have their own unique stories of joy and heartbreak-matter. That the deer crossing the frost covered field and have a life of their own-matter. And they matter because they are all connected and bring forth the very essence of living the human condition.

As a great example, here are the lyrics from the song, "Without Mythologies" from the album Left and Leaving:

Without Mythologies

A soft breeze with the slippery concrete black and full of muddy slush,
contrasting with the hoarfrost,
clean and hung on a tunnel of silent shivering trees
(the ones you said you'd like to be),
and the birds that screamed at the sun
now buried deep down below the ground,
beneath the snow, I press my shoulder to this wall between us.
I know you are behind me but I press my shoulder to this wall,
determined not to turn around.
I know I'll see you standing,
still that statue that I molded in my mind to kiss,
so beautiful you'll never move again.
Someplace far away, at some sad table littered with bad light,
with chipped plates,
in 48 frames from a movie on the cutting room floor,
you said "True meaning would be dying with you",
and though I wanted to, I did not smile.
But now I will give up on this wall that we have fought with,
never uncover meaning behind our rich words.
If I could I would make you a raging river,
with angry rapids, supplied with rain,
so you could always meander
and forever be able to run away
without contending with myths wrongly interpreted with pain.
A harsh wind.

If you'd like to hear more Weakerthans they have a great MySpace page. There are lots of songs to listen to for free--if you click on the "Choose playlist" button on the music player on the page, there are selections from several albums and the "artist's choice". The Weakerthans homepage has a really great set of links to peruse-with other interesting music, some great visual art, and literature, as well as some other things. And lyricist and lead singer John K. Samson also runs? a progressive publishing house , Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

Happy listening!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Year of Giving Thanks in the Midst of Suck

I can't help but feeling a little annoyed every year as Thanksgiving rolls around. It's not that I object to a day focused on being thankful, but the sap of it all gets under my skin. Every day, ought to be a day of thanksgiving. Every day ought to be a day of reflection for the abundance which we have. It also bothers me that the mythology behind this holiday involves a cooperation with a people who ensured the settlers' survival, who we then went out to subjugate and eradicate. Talk about burning bridges...we taught you and fed you and then you drove us out of the land of our ancestors where we had lived for centuries. Let us give thanks for imperialism!

Sarah Josepha Hale

And so to find meaning in Thanksgiving, I will look not to the history of the early European settlers, but rather to Abraham Lincoln's establishment of Thanksgiving as a National Holiday. (Interestingly after 40 years of pressure and lots of editorial and political writing, ala Shawshank Redemption, by one determined woman- Sarah Josepha Hale):

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one

thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

To me this is such a poignant reminder, not to just simply be thankful for blessings, to be thankful for the things which have gone well, to be thankful in our abundance- but rather a call to remember to be thankful when things are going horribly wrong. Lincoln signs this into law, in the midst of immense death and suffering and upheaval. He calls on the nation to stop and give thanks as their loved ones are far away from home and dying in unprecedented numbers.

As we come upon the end of the year, and as a Catholic- the beginning of a new liturgical year, I feel called to declare this next year: The Year of Giving Thanks In the Midst of Suck. I want to try to focus each day on being grateful for the things which are the most challenging, the most awful and the most difficult. I want to cultivate a heart of gratitude, and in doing so nurture a heart of peace. Our souls are forged and created in difficulty. Our compassion for others grows exponentially in our hardships. If we can learn to say , "Thank you!" in the midst of struggle, then I believe that we also become open to learning what there is to be learned through those hardships; we become open to being stretched and growing as human beings. And this is what I shall try to focus on throughout this next year.

So this year as we gather around our Thanksgiving tables, let us not just say thank you for those things which have gone well this year, but also let us include a thanksgiving for something which has been the absolute hardest part of our year. And then--along with me- let us try each and everyday before bed to call to mind three things this day which have gone well for which we are grateful, and three things which have just really stunk and say thank you. Let us try to habituate gratitude in the midst of our lowest points, and live Thanksgiving throughout the year.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Hero of Mine - John Cassavetes

"[People kill themselves because of] society's inability to educate, in terms of love, any further than a given point. Nobody in this world seems to be able to love beyond a certain point; they all go up to a certain point then they become emotionally tired of it, or bored or hurt. They change, and their love doesn't transcend certain obstacles. For somebody who is very sensitive and idealistic, as we all start out to be, it becomes a dramatic experience. You can either make that bridge or not, and we are going to make this picture for people who are possibly lost, and try to point out the reasons for it.

My films are expressive of a culture that has had the possibility of attaining material fulfillment while at the same time finding itself unable to accomplish the simple business of conducting human lives. We have been sold a bill of goods as a substitute for life. What is needed is reassurance in human emotions; a re-evaluation of our emotional capacities."-John Cassavetes
How can we live well? Isn't that the essence of the most fundamental driving force behind all of our choices? Of the philosophy which we adopt each day? And yet looking at the world, at the people around us, at ourselves-we seem to be abject failures at living well. So many nights we climb into our wrinkled sheets thinking how much we have left undone, how far we have ended our day from our greatest aspirations we had when we awoke that morning. How many of us reach middle age and look back and wonder what happened to all that we had planned to do with our lives? What is it which keeps us from living deeply?

The essence of love is vulnerability; having the guts to be vulnerable and not punishing others for their vulnerability. Those we love, we love because we feel that they know us better than another, we feel safe to take risks. Those who hurt us are those who have exploited our vulnerability, those who have made us pay in some way for our weaknesses. In the wake of being hurt, we most usually decide to learn our lesson, and alter-sometimes radically, sometimes subtly-our mode of living. What we want most is to not have to suffer, and so we learn our lessons from those who have exploited us, vowing to be stronger and smarter and wiser the next time. We will be on guard against giving our power away.

However, the fundamental difficulty with this fortress building is that it separates us from one another. We become calculated and look at others suspiciously as potential inflictors of hurt. We stop being vulnerable, and learn to despise vulnerability. We begin looking for ways to manipulate relationships so that we don't have to put our entire selves out there on the line. We kill off the mystery of others with paltitudes and generalisations, so that we don't have to be challenged by them. We keep tucked away inside ourselves as much as we can. And that is where love dies.

Let us then make a vow for today, to give up any care for feelings of powerlessness, and risk the depths of who we are with every person we meet today. Let us not view them in relation to how we can keep them at a safe distance-but rather how can we lay a part of ourselves bare before them. Let us look at evey person with whom we interact today as a mystery, who has come to this moment in time with his or her own story and experiences. Let us give up any care for suffering as something to be avoided at all costs, and embrace pain and hurt as part of the human condition. Let us see that these are changes which can make the world better, for us having lived better while we are here. Let us not be afraid to risk it all.

"Most people don't know what they want or feel. And for everyone, myself included, It's very difficult to say what you mean when what you mean is painful. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to... As an artist, I feel that we must try many things - but above all, we must dare to fail. You must have the courage to be bad - to be willing to risk everything to really express it all."-John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes was an American actor and film maker. His films as director include Shadows, Faces, Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, and Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A little poetry --

The Wife
I know two women
and the one
is tangible substance,
flesh and bone.

The other in my mind
She keeps her strict
proportion there.

But how should I

propose to live
with two such creatures
in my bed--

or how shall he
who has a wife
yield two to one
and watch the other die.

Robert Creeley from For Love
art: Hotel Room, 1931 Edward Hopper

To always be die a million deaths and to be brought back to life. That is marriage. That is the supreme struggle of merging of two souls, two bodies. We begin marriage holding the other as an ideal, as an archetype. We see in the object of our passion a chiseled torso of unchanging marble. We hold that ideal other close to our hearts. And yet time, and experience, and sorrow, and children up all hours of the night, and dinners to fix, and overtime again this week cause us to change and morph--oftentimes without even knowing that we are becoming or unbecoming . The temptation which is ever present for the lover, is to love the ideal-rather than who is...because in marriage she who is, is oftentimes grumpy and unattractive and so far away from the vibrant being she was before the weight of it all has become hers to shoulder day in and day out.

In marriage there is death. There is death to self, there is death to the other, there is death to dreams, and hopes. It is not by necessity a fatalistic death--as the aim is to die and be resurrected into better life, fuller and more deeply satisfying; a life which yields to the very best person one has been created to be. But so often the beloved- only dies. She never grieves. She never even recognises that she has died. And so, there is no afterlife, no second coming, no new creation. She surrenders all claim to her life unto others-her children, her aging parents, the PTA and twenty different worthy groups and charities. As well, the lover so often cannot make sense of this death. He cannot rectify his Grecian bust with this tangle-haired woman lying beside him. He fails to recognise what he feels as the process of grieving, or the depth of grief is too immense- and so he crawls back within himself. And there is nothing new.

This poem is a call to have the guts to recognise death in our midst. To view the overwhelming sorrow squarely in the face, and not to turn away--but to feel, feel, feel the loss and the despair. We must choose at some point between the ideal, and the actual, and then just endure as we grieve that loss-and if our marriage will be a vibrant permanence--we must grieve with the hope of the something better on the other side of the pain- even though me cannot see it now.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Golden MacDonald/ Leonard Weisgard, picture book extraordinaires

We are great lovers of picture books. It is always so exciting to stumble across a gem of a book. My latest trip to the library I was so excited to find Red Light, Green Light by Golden Mac Donald, Illustrated by the sublime Leonard Weisgard. It has been long out of print, and the copy we borrowed has that musty smell, and the smooth pages of a book which has been handled over and over and had its pages turned again and again . On every page of illustration, somewhere is a little green light and a little red light. The story follows a little town from dawn until dusk, and such characters as a little mouse, a jeep, a boy, and a cat. There is a wonderful cadence, which repeats "Green light they did go. Red light they didn't. Red light. Stop. Green light. Go." My children have loved to read along adding their own "Stop!" and "Go!"

Golden MacDonald is one of the pseudonyms for Margret Wise Brown of Goodnight Moon fame. The books written by her under this name target slightly older children, often interspersing pages of just illustration, with text. Many of them are illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, most notably The Little Island which won the Caldecott award. The Little Island contains one of my favorite passages in all of children's literature:

"So the kitten caught a fish. 'Answer me this or I'll eat you up,' said the kitten. 'How is an Island a part of the land?' 'Come with me,' said the fish, 'down into the dark secret places of the sea and I will show you.' 'I can't swim,' said the cat. 'Show me another way or I'll eat you up.' 'Then you must take it on faith what I tell you,' said the fish 'What's that?' said the cat--'Faith.' 'To believe what I tell you about what you don't know,' said the fish. And the fish told the kitten how all land is one land under the sea. The cat's eyes were shining with the secret of it. And because he loved secrets he believed. And he let the fish go."

Another worthy addition to the Golden MacDonald/ Leonard Wiesgard collection is the book: Whistle for the Train. For any who have poured over Margret Wise Brown's The Train to Timbuctoo or Virginia Lee Burton's Choo Choo, this book is an essential. Whistle for the Train is full of train pictures and train sounds put together in a simply stunning combination. This is also out of print- but available used or at the library.

And as I was writing this entry, my 8 year old daughter pulled out The Important Book, which is another fabulous collaboration by these two- though Margret Wise Brown is writing under her own name. The text is worked into the illustrations, and focuses on the essence of things in a way towards which children are so naturally drawn. It has a repetitive structure, which my children then carry over to their own observations of their world, their favorite things. My oldest daughter's favorite page as an example:
"The important thing about an apple is that it is round. It is red. You bite it, and it is white inside, and the juice splashes in your face, and it tastes like an apple, and it falls off a tree. But the important thing about an apple is that it is round."

For further information on Leonard Weisgard:
click here

For further information about Margaret Wise Brown (Golden MacDonald):
click here

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wanderlust, Dickens and Poetry

It is cold here. Colder than I think it's been in the last three years. The leaves have all changed and most have fallen. It's time for scratchy wool sweaters and hot cocoa. And from deep within me I feel the call to roam, to read Dickens and to wrestle with poetry. The wind howls and calls these things from their hidden places.

The first time I left home as a teenager, was at this time of year. Traveling by Greyhound from Augusta through strata of green leaves, then orange, then brown and finally to the barrenness of the Midwest in November. Though totally crushed by my little world- that motion, that refusing to stay still felt so much like freedom. It felt like standing for the first time, on the conviction that I was "I", uniquely me, breathing deeply and with purpose. Since then I have always equated the cold with wandering, the cold with freedom.

One of my fondest memories of adulthood comes from wandering around Idaho with my oldest son when he was a toddler and my mom. With no destination in my mind-- and only the drive to keep driving in order to keep that challenging little being asleep for just a wee bit longer--we rolled into
Stanley, Idaho. It's a tiny town with boarded sidewalks, and surrounded by snowy, jagged mountains. When I think of that place, the mountains, the cold-my heart increases, like the Grinch when he gives back Christmas.

The other call out of the cold, is one of the great loves of my life- Charles Dickens. The first Dickens I ever read voluntarily was Bleak House when I was 20. I stayed up late December nights immersed in Jarndyce and Jarndyce and themes of spontaneous human combustion. It was again that feeling of discovering something uniquely me. Since then I have purposefully limited myself to one Dickens a year-sometimes skipping it altogether when there's a little baby in the house, so that I don't fail to savor it. For some reason, Dickens is never summer reading-never something I grab for as the dogwoods are blooming. Rather it is inevitably the first long cold snap, when that surety comes that Dickens is what I must do with the next two weeks of my life. This year it is Our Mutual Friend, which I began last night under a wool blanket as the wind whipped the windows.

And finally there is one of the final pieces of winter Shannon-ness: poetry. When I met my husband it was cold. He was reading a biography of Charles Olson. I was wrestling trying to find a voice, my voice, in poetry for the first time ever in a studied and concerted way. The first gift I ever gave him was the Library of America Wallace Stevens when it first came out. The first gift he ever gave me was a couple of used Charles Reznikoff books tied up in twine. We would sit outside in the cold on our breaks from the bookstore-drinking coffee and approaching poetry in our completely different ways--freezing on the metal chairs outside the coffeeshop--and yet for me, feeling again like I was accessing the very foundational uniqueness of who I was created to be. I write so very little now- not with the urgency which I had then as I was shrugging off girlhood --but in the dim light of late November and early December, my heart aches for and longs for poetry.

What does the cold mean to you? What does it conjure up from your depths? Do you come alive as the world around you dies?

Monday, November 17, 2008


I think I get the whole knitting craze. Last week, my 8 year old daughter taught me how to knit. It is very slow going for me, my hands far more attenuated to catching a football or diving into the water without making a splash. Certainly ,though exercised hours a day clacking away on my keyboard, my fingers are not conditioned for this fine motor movement.

But sitting there entangled in a skein of yarn, like Charlie Brown and his kite, I get why this domestic phenomena is all the rage. Knitting has been embraced by the earth mommas, the professional mommas, "normal" mommas, the serious religious mommas. I honestly think that I was one of the final few holdouts, clinging to the foundation of my American girlhood--that is, clinging to my absolute and complete ignorance of all the domestic arts. Hey, somebody needs to be a traditionalist...

So it turns out this activity created initially so that people could cope with the cold after that apple incident of yore--which then morphed into an activity to keep idle hands from being
plaything--let's you look like you're busy and productive, while actually doing absolutely nothing!!! Now I know why there are mommas knitting at the park, and on the train and in the rain. When you are knitting, it looks like you are doing something, you end up with some knotted string to prove you've done something, but really you are just sitting around and shrugging off other responsibilities.

So now, when I don't feel like refereeing the "He touched me, she looked at me, she thought about looking at me" death matches...I don't need to look like awful mom sitting on the bench with my book (gasp! can you imagine a more detached mom, reading a book while her kids are playing!)---I can look like a domestic goddess, as I sit and knit and tell my children to work out their own problems. Which, while lauded by parenting experts- all mom's know the "go talk to each other and work out your problems" tack is really just code for "go away and leave me alone". Now when my husband wants to watch some French New Wave film, with 3 hours of subtitles and stark angles (because parenting all day is nothing like that) --I don't need to look like unenthusiastic-to-his interests wife, I can sit right next to him as he watches and click away.

The whole knitting thing is all a ruse, allowing women to have total and complete freedom, allowing women to be completely unengaged from their families, to shrug off other house work, the blow off their children, to sit through hours of husband interests...and yet looking like the most womanly women, producing yet another scarf for their family, because you just never know when you might need one....So if you are feeling overwhelmed, and over burdened and somehow have missed this knitting craze- I urge you- Right now! Today! Go out and buy some needles and yarn--and watch your responsibilities fade away (just don't look in the hamper).

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saturday Night Movie Night

Tonight we watched Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause. I hadn't seen it for a long, long time- at least 15 years--at least since I was a disgruntled adolescent. I wondered what I would think about t now-from the perspective of motherhood and adulthood.

My gosh- it's a powerful movie. The emotions captured in the film, particularly through James Dean's performance are so intense and so raw. His body, his every movement, aches with his internal conflict. He doesn't simply sit on the couch--he contorts himself with anguish to sit on the sofa, and once there remains restless with unfulfillment. I found the search of the teenagers for family and tribe to be so akin to my own experiences.

Particularly interesting is that this movie is not made in the upheaval of the 60's...but rather a decade earlier. So many people express a sort of longing to return to the "glory years" of America- the 1950's-where everything was neat and tidy and people were more moral, etc. , but this movie poignantly depicts the anger and isolation which was just simmering in the homes of America in the wake of the Great War. Out of the 50's grow the Beats and the Abstract Expressionists. Out of the 50's explode the 60's.

It seems too, that so much of the conflict depicted in Rebel Without a Cause--is conflict which still plagues us as a nation. We remain a nation of broken, wounded people. So many homes--even "good" ones- like those of Jim Stark and Judy in the film- are full of disconnected and wounded people. Parents still waffle between being totally authoritarian (Judy's father), and trying to be their children's pals(Jim's father). Many parents through divorce or through work schedules have essentially abandoned their children leaving them to find their own way (Plato's parents).

Kudos to Nicholas Ray for another movie which depicts very complicated emotions, and a very dynamic, multi-surfaced set of characters!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

What I Am Reading

I am 2/3 of the way through Native Son by Richard Wright. I've had such conflicting reading behaviour as I've been reading, which I think turns out to be reflective of the vortex of emotions in this book. I have wanted to just quit reading-overcome by the stark nature of the brutality. I have wanted to greedily skip ahead to find out what will happen. I have put off reading for hours. I have had periods where I have shut everything else out while I read voraciously.

Native Son, published in 1940, is the story of Bigger Thomas, a black man in Chicago in the 1930's. The story tells of his acts of murder, his flight from justice, and his trial. There is also some discussion of Communism thrown in there for good measure-as Richard Wright was at one point affiliated with the communist party. Mr. Wright's attempt in writing Native Son is to write a novel about race "which is so hard and deep" that readers would have to face the truth "without the consolation of tears." Feeling that a sense of pity, can lead one to believe that one has led to an understanding of the characters--and this sense of consoling identification can yield to a person feeling as though they have actually accomplished a good, done a right to correct a wrong-Mr. Wright rips away any sentimentality an interloper might feel towards Bigger Thomas.

Recently on a forum, I was told that people like me are the reason that racism lingers on. Not because I am a racist, but rather because I am of the opinion that centuries of systematic and intentional oppression of people of color in America cannot be undone in a few mere decades. It was said that if white people like me would just let it go--that we'd be able to move forward. (This was written by other white people) I am of the opinion that race relations are still tenuous, and that African Americans still do not have truly equal opportunities, because of the disproportionate numbers of black people living in poverty. Though the recent election has demonstrated that we have definitely made some enormous strides in the right direction, it seems to me that we still have a long way to go to undo treating an essential component of our society as sub-human. Acknowledging what is, doesn't seem to me inconsistent with healing and progress. Rather it seems like an essential step, if we will ever have true equality--both in law and opportunity.

I mention this only by way of prefacing a few quotes from Native Son, perhaps to explain why they resonated with me:

He shut their voices out of his mind. He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, they shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair.
And one other:
There were rare moments when a feeling and longing for solidarity with other black people would take hold of him. He would dream of making a stand against that white force, but that dream would fade when he looked at the other black people near him. Even though black like them, he felt there was too much difference between him and them to allow for a common binding and a common life. Only when threatened with death could that happen; only in fear and shame, with their backs against the wall could that happen. But never could they sink their differences in hope.

So far while reading I can't help but feel like one of the Daltons. Someone who is well meaning and trying to do right --but yet is still so far outside anything approaching understanding or empathy that it is just another sense of enslavement.