Thursday, February 13, 2020

Expansion


Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

            John Donne, in his wonderful “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” is writing about his anticipated travel away from his beloved, forbidding her from mourning their temporary separation. He describes their love as “an expansion / Like gold to airy thinness beat.” I’m struck, as Valentine’s Day approaches, by the idea of love as “an expansion.” This can happen even if the beloved is 1000 miles away or just sitting across the table from you. Your heart expands (not, hopefully, as a medical condition) to include the person you love. And it can be golden.

            But expansion is not always easy. I vaguely remember reading in War and Peace a scene in which a character is overcome by a feeling of vulnerability upon first seeing his newborn son. As a parent, he has expanded his field of potential pain. If you are empathetic by nature, by which I mean capable of expanding your heart more easily, love can bring pain as well as rich rewards. You share pain.

            I say this as a person who is more comfortable compartmentalizing than expanding. My lid is screwed on tight. I’ve only deeply loved once – now. Yes, I know, there are different kinds of love. The ancient Greeks had different words for kinds of love. Here are the most well-known:

·      Agape – spiritual love - the love of God for man and man for God
·      Eros – sexual passion – though Plato argues that eros helps the soul understand Beauty as a spiritual truth
·      Philia – friendship, including love of family

Something is missing from the list, don’t you think? There are, of course, other kinds of love. Kim and I have talked about the way that every experience of love is uniquely its own thing, sui generis. But all, I believe, involve “expansion / like gold.” But “gold to airy thinness beat” misses the sense of depth that my heart has learned to feel. 

            I remember hearing or reading an interview with a couple talking about their arranged marriage. They agreed that the first step is commitment, and that love, if it happens, will follow as a consequence. You commit to the whole person, and that wholeness gives love its depth, or perhaps its weight. The expansion is three dimensional. I’m not saying that the sequence of commitment à love is required, but that the two are required to get beyond a crush or infatuation. Our daughter uses the term “all-in” – taken from poker when you bet everything – to describe this kind of commitment, which I believe to be a dance between love and commitment.

            And yet . . . I saw a Valentine card on which a praying mantis said, “I know it’s love because I didn’t eat your head.” You can be all-in, fully committed, fully and vulnerably expanded – but don’t let your beloved eat your head. That’s my advice, anyway . . ..


            

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Music


            Sometimes popular music can have a powerful emotional effect on us, despite its relative simplicity when compared with more sophisticated and complex classical forms. So be it. I remember reading a snobby music review were the writer said that rock music is only good at expressing two emotions: horniness and rage. Perhaps he was right, but still . . .. Sometimes we are just touched, deeply, if we are in an emotional situation that makes us open to the music. It will surprise none of you that these are all oldies.

            My choices:

            “Yesterday” by the Beatles. Just the opening verse, omitting the part about his girl’s leaving him:

Yesterday
All my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday
Suddenly
I’m not half the man I used to be
There’s a shadow hanging over me
Oh, yesterday came suddenly

            Then, in a more optimistic vein, “Blackbird,” also by the Beatles. Two lines in this song strike me at this time:

“Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”

Impossible, perhaps, but so, what? Leading to:

“All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

This can be true no matter what “this moment” is.

            Also on my list is “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” by Bill Withers. This song is familiar enough that I don’t need to quote any lyrics, but it has power for me at this point in our lives.

            I’m not sure why “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd makes the list, but it does. I’ve played it often the last few months – so often that Alexa recently said, “What, again?” If I thought about it long enough, I could probably come up with an explanation, but I don’t want to go there at the moment.

            “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack. I’m the one that song should be directed to, not Don McLean. It’s one reason why I write.

            Finally, “Someone to Watch Over Me” by Ella Fitzgerald, which Kim and I defined as “our song” when we married 30+ years ago. It’s a love song that defines an important part of our relationship.

            Sorry about the melancholy tone of these selections. Just keepin’ it real.

“Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”


          What popular music has a similar effect on you? Please write, and let me know, and I may share your thoughts on a future blog post.
dstring@ix.netcom.com
stringer.david13@gmail.com


From Steve Smith:

I'm moved by all kinds of music from folk to country to classical (daughter is a trained opera singer -a lyric soprano- my favorite that she sings is Puccini's: “O mio babbino caro” .  Here is Renee Flemings cover:  


The country one that initially stunned me early on though was "Get Your Tongue Out Of My Mouth; Im Trying To Kiss You Goodbye" BTW, while I think I am in love with Carrie Underwood, I still like the Kingston Trio.


From Bill Lavery:

As your comments were of a long perspective and deep, I turned initially not to music but Emerson.  He represents a long missed appreciation for me as I attended his high school where to my memory he was never mentioned.  On trips east, we tend to drift to Concord and Walden Pond, attempting to connect late but good.  But this morning I put on a cd created by a St. Joe lawyer friend entitled  "America #42 (Geography and God Bless the U.S.A.)   
That was Woody Guthrie there with "This Land Is Your Land."  It helps as this challenging moment in our history.  And now there is Hank Snow with "I've Been Everywhere" and, hold on, John Prine singing "Ol' Crazy Bones with everybody in their old folks homes."  Here comes Lefty Frizell with "Saginaw, Michigan."  And I'm into it now.  Glancing at the list of 24 songs, I see Gary, Indiana, the Grand Canyon Suite, Kansas City, The Great Divide, "Hopelessly Midwestern,"  Detroit City - ach.  It will help me prepare for my call in a couple of hours to talk with the woman who leads the Saline Leadership Institute with its 400 graduates.  Our subject is the recent national news of Saline's racist incident in a public school meeting and what SLI and CQC can do to address it.  Up next is Bryan Bowers with "The View  From Home", and another reading of your piece.  Thanks for sharing.


From Charmaine Stangl:

I empathize strongly with this.  "Popular" music can get into our minds and hearts and stay around forever, awaiting the right moment to pounce on us.  Shortly after I told my first husband that i wanted a divorce I was driving on Ann Arbor-Saline Road and "She's Leaving Home" (Beatles) came on the radio.  Though I wasn't in the same situation as the girl in the song,  my husband was as clueless as her parents.  That line, "She's leaving home after living alone for so many years,"  had me sobbing so hard I had to pull off the road.  It spoke to exactly how I'd felt for so long.  Those words and music washed over me with the power of nine years of loneliness.  I can probably think of more to say on this issue, but it will need to wait. I'll try to get back to you soon.


Thursday, January 30, 2020

Puzzle


            A friend texted us recently to apologize for not getting back to us sooner, explaining that she has been very busy at work.

            “I’ve been busy, too,” I told her, “working on a jigsaw puzzle.”

            Why work on a jigsaw puzzle? Good question, I suppose, especially when I see Kim so busy doing real work – cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. Yes, I do some real work, too, most of it involving snow, but my jigsaw puzzle contribution to our functioning home carries with it a seasoning of guilt. I’ve told Kim several times that one thing I really enjoy is being useful. This puzzle is not that one thing.

            Kim has been great about it – not giving me any static about wasting my time. Occasionally she will walk by the puzzle and put in a couple of pieces. (As it turns out, all colors of blue are not the same, and dark blue is not the same color as black.) Keep in mind—to give you a feel for the speed at which I operate—that I’ve been “working” on this puzzle for about a month. Kim has also offered, several times, to help by putting the unfinished puzzle back in the box.

            I am proud to say that I put together the entire outside border, and I ended up with two extra pieces with straight sides. 

            What causes puzzle-pleasure? It may be a deep enjoyment of creating order. The world seems to be a mess, a jumble of pieces, in so many ways: the Middle East, the planet’s health, domestic politics, just to mention a few. There is not a lot I can do, in the British phrase, to “sort things out” in those areas. But I can do that with my puzzle pieces sprawled on the table. Kim suggests that I can also create order by cleaning up the top of my desk.

            At least, I think I can create order out of my puzzle pieces. My progress, already slow, is getting slower, and I do have to find a place for those straight-edged pieces. Pretty much all that remains are about a hundred nearly identical black pieces. I’ve started to think of excuses: I bought the puzzle used, and maybe somebody deliberately messed with the pieces, and that’s why I’m stuck.

            Meanwhile, here’s a poem I wrote some years ago after a successful puzzle experience:

  Taking the puzzle apart

begins with a corner piece.  It
sticks.  I work it loose, place
it in the box.  Next I grab
a section where trees meet sky.
Pieces lift in an elastic mat.
I snap my wrist to separate
a hunk, then hold it over the box
as I gently work the fabric
apart and drop each piece back
into the box.  Doing this,

I think back to the work
I set aside to lock each
piece where it goes, music
I heard, the book that stopped
when I walked to the table,
sat, found the spot where peaks
edge the sky, or where the snow
on the mountains streaks just
so.  I learned the different
greens of trees left and right,
but now all pieces
                                       plop,
some gray backs up, down
in a heap back in the box.
Sky, trees, mountains, shrubs,
thistle, daffodils all disappear,
faster piece by piece.  It feels
good to get down to the maple
table, clean except for blue,
green and brown dust.  A sponge
takes that away.  I place the box
back on a shelf, find a sky piece,
slip it beneath the lid.

THIS JUST IN:

            After realizing that a number of pieces were missing, we scrapped the puzzle and dumped the pieces back in the box, headed for recycling. It feels really, really good having done this – another way to bring order to my world. Kim, as usual, was right.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Memory


            Kim and I have watched a few episodes of “The Mind Explained” on Netflix. The episode that bothered me most was the one on memory. In it we learned, or relearned, that memory is an unreliable, even slapdash affair, where we piece together fragments from different areas of the brain. Eyewitnesses are unreliable.

            Sure, my memory is getting worse – whose isn’t? But that’s not what bothered me.

            When the “Memory” episode was over, Kim asked me if I had many vivid memories of growing up.

            “No.”

            “Do you remember your high school graduation – walking across the stage?”

            “No. I don’t even remember if it was indoors or not. I don’t remember my college graduation, either.”

            My memory of the past is poor. Even the recent past. Always has been. My high school memories center around some pranks I pulled (e.g., detouring traffic into friends’ driveways), getting hit in the cup while playing hockey, and discovering William Blake’s “The Tyger” in 10 grade English (thank you, Mr. Hayes). A few more memories trickle in as I write these down, but not much, and not, I fear, very reliably.

            “Where did you put the spatula?”

            “I never touched the spatula, except for maybe a month ago. I distinctly remember not touching or even seeing it.”

            Kim has several theories about why I don’t remember where I put the spatula, the names of people I just met, or what she fixed me for dinner yesterday. This may be age-related, but I don’t think so. See the word “always” a few paragraphs back. (At my age, I don’t have to worry about early-onset Alzheimer’s.) My brain may be busy trying to figure out what’s going on in Washington or what my next blog will be about. And this week I put together a document, “If David Dies First,” detailing for Kim how to access passwords and financial stuff on my computer, what is set up for automatic payment, who to call for insurance, investments, etc. This, addition to figuring out the 130 settings (true!) that need to be made on her new camera. This shit has to be occupying a lot of brain space! Not much left to remember where I put the fucking spatula!

            For a few years Kim worked with a company called Creative Memories, where she taught people to make scrapbooks. What I like most about the company is the name. Most of my memories are creative. As I repeat stories about my past, as old people tend to do, I’m sure that I’m being creative, revising the story with each telling to make it more amusing or making me more wonderful. Memory is not at all involved here.

            Also several years ago, I read an insightful book by Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson called Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). The authors argue that the brain is wired for self-justification. I think that many of my creative memories are a product of that wiring, as are the many blanks in my memory. I loaned the book to someone. If you are reading this and have my book, please return it.

            I recall (I think I recall) hearing an interview with a very old Frenchman. He was asked about the secret of his being so healthy in old age.

            “Poor memory.” He went on to explain that he simply failed to remember the people who had offended him and wrongs he may or may not have done – too long ago to do anything about. Instead, enjoy your coffee and croissant in the morning and wine in the afternoon.

            By the way, the episode in The Mind Explained after “Memory” is “Psychedelics.” I have little to report on the subject at the moment, but stay tuned.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Song


            Last week a young couple, unrelated to us, told us they were engaged to be married. Somehow, it makes a difference in my life.

            We live about two miles from a restaurant, where we eat about once a week. This past summer, under the direction of a Romanian-born manager, they hired about a dozen Romanian students for the summer, when we have a lot more residents and guests than we have now in January. Kim and I got to know a few of these kids, thanks largely to Kim’s warmth, curiosity, and talent for getting people to talk about themselves. We helped them with their English – for example, explaining what it means to serve a Manhattan “up.” Among the visitors was Ion, who was actually from Moldova, small country located between Romania and Ukraine. (No, I‘d never heard of it, either.) The students all left in September, visiting various parts of the United States (Chicago, Los Angeles, the Grand Canyon) before heading home. We miss their youthful energy.

            At dinner a few weeks after they departed, we were talking to Das, a young local waitress who had been hired that summer. Kim asked her if she missed the Romanians. She said yes, especially Ion, who is her boyfriend. Kim told her that she made a good choice in boyfriends.

            Fast forward to January, when Das escorted us to our table. We asked if she had heard from Ion, and she said, Yes, he is here, and they are engaged. He came to our table to take our order, and, this being a slow night, we got to talking about their plans. No date set. He’s seeking work as an electrical engineer doing environment-friendly work. She is training to teach math and physics. They are sweet kids, and we wish them well.

            Sweet, but so what?

            Iran. North Korea. Puerto Rican earthquakes. Australian fires. Impeachment. Another school shooting. Global warming. Tornadoes. Plane crash. Flu deaths. Jefferey Epstein, African drought. Extinctions. Racism. Hate.

            No, we do what we can, vote, sign petitions, write letters. And feel encouraged by sweet moments.

            Not quite on the same subject, but here’s a poem that found me:

Earl
by Louis Jenkins
In Sitka, because they are fond of them, people have
named the sea lions. Every sea lion is named Earl because
they are killed one after another by the orca, the killer
whale; sea lion bodies tossed left and right into the air.
"At least he didn't get Earl," someone says. And sure
enough, after a time, that same friendly, bewhiskered face
bobs to the surface. It's Earl again. Well, how else are
you to live except by denial, by some palatable fiction,
some little song to sing while the inevitable, the black
and white blindsiding fact, comes hurtling toward you
out of the deep?

Ion and Das are my “little song to sing,” at least this week. Maybe yours is a grandchild, a piece of music, a bird, a meal, a small kindness observed.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Power Failure


            When I was teaching Hamlet  I suggested that in Act IV, when Hamlet jumps into Ophelia’s grave and then jumps (or climbs) out, he is experiencing a symbolic “death and rebirth.” He can then go on to get his revenge on the man who killed his father. You probably find this as fascinating as my students did.

            Nevertheless, we find our “death and rebirth” moments wherever we can. Kim and I experienced one on New Year’s Eve. No, it did not involve midnight or resolutions. Rather, it was a result of the loss of electric power due to a heavy wet snow. Our power was off (or “down” or “out”) for about a day and a half.

            We made do. Our little gas Jotul stove has a back-up battery starter, so that provided heat to our enclosed porch. We had enough dry firewood for the living room, though the heating range there was a six-foot semi-circle. We could light our gas stove with matches, and we have a lot of candles. Kim, who apparently had watched The Little House on the Prairie, had enough foresight to store some gallon jugs of water for drinking and the occasional flush of the toilet. (Our neighbor, Joe, not so well prepared, used water from his toilet tank – we didn’t dare ask for what – until we gave him a jug of ours.) We used an old kerosene lamp for a while, but the wick was too dry to work well. The house is well insulated and we have thick comforters for bedding, so sleep was not a problem. In fact, after sitting on the semi-dark porch for about an hour, not watching television and reluctant to run down our cell phone batteries, we decided to go to bed early: about 8:30.

            We made some adjustments the next day. In the morning I drank a cup of cold leftover coffee (me? addicted?) until Kim showed me that she could heat it on the stove. We had been working on a difficult jigsaw puzzle, and that pretty much stopped, though I found that my progress in the dark was not much different from being stalled fully lit. 

            Once it was light enough to read the manual and the 430-page guide-book, we spent several hours trying to set up Kim’s new Sony camera. We made it through the process, which is not to say that the camera is working the way we want. We will have to wait for electricity to power up Kim’s computer to see if the dark muddy images on the LCD monitor are a problem with the monitor, the camera, or our screwed-up set-up. I’m guessing the latter.

            I shoveled snow a couple of times, partially because it needed shoveling, and partly because I don’t like waiting around.

            Meanwhile, we made a call to the local company that sells generators – a classic horse / barn-door scenario. They came right out and delivered an estimate of $8,000. I said I’d think about it.

            We made several calls to the electric company, first to report our outage – we learned there were 14,000 people without power in six counties. Then I wanted to speak to a human being, not a recording, and I learned that saying I’m calling to report a tree fallen on a live wire would get me someone. They were very sympathetic when I told them that we have a 95-year-old neighbor who is just home from the hospital with pneumonia (true), and I don’t know if he is on life-supporting medical equipment (not true – he’s not, unless you count his television).

            I called again in late afternoon of the 31st, and I decided to mention Kim’s cancer as an additional reason they should restore ours soon. I figured that most people who called had a similar story, and mine was true. I was told, after a minute or so on hold, that we were next, and sure enough, about 4:30 in the afternoon the power came on. (Notice how we say the power went off, and it came on.) Now, with the power on, we decided that the generator was an unnecessary expense.

            We were very happy. I felt reborn, without all the hassle of actually dying. For Kim it was “no big deal,” probably because she was prepared. This was New Year’s Eve, and we celebrated by flushing toilets. Not at midnight, though. No, despite our newly powered television and our exuberant rebirth as empowered people, we were both asleep by 9:30.

            These death and rebirth experiences, as Wallace Stevens noted, “occur as they occur.”

One's grand flights, one's Sunday baths,
One's tootings at the weddings of the soul
Occur as they occur.

Kim and I experience death and rebirth, in a minor way perhaps, when we witness a sunrise, or for me, when I see Kim emerge, sleepy-eyed, from the bedroom in the morning. It’s just a matter of paying attention.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

New Year's Eve


          New Year’s Eve is unique among our holidays. It’s truly global, though many people wisely celebrate the Winter Solstice instead rather than an arbitrary product of the strange history of our calendar. But NYE (abbreviated to emphasize its brevity) is the only holiday that is focused equally on looking back and looking forward. It does not commemorate Something Special that happened on that day – such as Christmas, Easter or my birthday. It does not detach itself from its historical antecedents to take on a life of its own, like Hallowe’en or my personal favorite, April Fool’s Day, though for some NYE becomes just an excuse to stay up late and party. No, at the stroke of midnight and the times that frame the stroke, we look at the year gone by (who died, best movies, etc.) and the year to come resolutions – I’ve written about them before - http://www.dhstringer.com/2017/01/my-resolutions.html. It’s really a dimensionless point in time. Almost a nothing. That may be why we have made New Year’s Day the actual holiday – at least it has 24 hours, unlike the sliver of time when we move from one calendar to the next.

            Heraclitus said, famously, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” (Let’s assume that this is also true for women.) Profound, right? But Heraclitus did not take it far enough. None of us can step in the same river once, because, as he noted, the times they are a-changin’, and it ain’t the same river the moment you step into it. And what, similarly, isn’t changing in our lives as we move from one point in time to the next?

            We can look at NYE as a celebration of change itself. No, you probably won’t fulfill your resolutions, but the intention behind our resolutions is a celebration of change, or at least the possibility of change. And looking back at those who have died does give us a brief victory over time through the act of remembering, but for me the victory is subsumed by the sense of loss, death being the Ultimate Change. NYE is a point in time, perhaps a pivotal one, less than a moment long. It’s the moment when future becomes past.

            As I see it, we have three choices about how to deal with the fact of change: ignore it, lament it, or celebrate it. (There are other options, of course – deny it, mock it, or my favorite, change it. But let’s stick with the first three.) Most of the time we just ignore change because we are too busy washing dishes, driving to the store, or checking our email. Occasionally we slip into the lamentation mode, especially when looking in the mirror or at an old photograph, or lamenting a death. Hard to escape those moments. Celebration of change is harder to come by in our daily lives. We learn of a birth or marriage. Election results sometimes lead to celebration of change, though it’s often premature. Celebrating birthdays, as we get older, often move to the lamentation zone, though sometimes we are proud and pleased to have survived another year. Watch out, though, when friends and family treat your birthday like a Memorial Service, you know, a “celebration of your life,” – now, the unspoken phrase, pretty much over.

            All of which leaves NYE as a clear celebration of change. The numbers on the year change, but it’s not a measure of the march toward death. And since change is omnipresent, you don’t have to stay up to midnight on the 31stto celebrate. Kim and I didn’t. Everymoment is pivotal, or it can be. Pause and celebrate. If you celebrate a few days late – so, what?

            We woke up on January 1 to discover six inches of new snow.  Our world had changed again.