Monday, December 28, 2015
Back in 2008, I wrote a post about seeing more and more of my mother in myself as I age. It was a happy, loving post, and I was especially pleased with the way it conveyed the complicated bond I feel with my mother. I went back to that old post today, after not revisiting it in quite a while, and I was struck by something in the final paragraph — something I didn't remember was there:
It’s strange to be reminded that characteristics we think of as profoundly our own—even ones as seemingly individual as a facial expression—are built into our DNA; stranger still to think that they can be wired to hide themselves for decades, emerging when the organism hits just the right level of decay. Not that I’m complaining. As genetic time bombs go, a quirky walk beats the hell out of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
That reference to Alzheimer's startled me because my mother is now entering the moderate stage of that disease, or perhaps I should say that she appears to be. There's been no official diagnosis, since she shuns doctors, but her progressive memory loss and other cognitive problems present a textbook picture of someone suffering from Alzheimer's, and her list of risk factors is long.
As sad as it is to think about my mother's fate, there's a lot to be grateful for. Her partner is looking after her, and she still reliably knows all her close family. She's physically well, and best of all, she remains essentially the same happy, sweet person I described in that original post. I brought her some gifts and took her out to lunch on Christmas Eve, and even though I'm not sure she grasped the significance of the holiday, she clearly loved every minute of my visit. Things are likely to change down the road, but right now she takes her characteristic pleasure in living, and every day she hangs onto that will be a gift.
Given the way I blathered on back in 2008 about my potent genetic inheritance, you'd think I'd be pretty freaked out these days over my own prospects. The sentence "I could do a lot worse than to end up like my mother" suggests a whole new set of possibilities now, and some of them are truly terrible. Strangely enough, though, I can't seem to get scared. I'm 54 and life feels too short — death feels too close — to waste time and energy kicking against an unknowable future. It seems foolish even to invest much mental energy preparing for my mother's future, since she, like any of us, might die tomorrow. Still, I do have moments of dreading the day she no longer lights up like a delighted child at the sight of people she loves. I came across these lines from Emily Dickinson last night and couldn't help imagining the sad moment when they might apply to my mother and me:
Now I knew I lost her —
Not that she was gone —
But Remoteness travelled
On her Face and Tongue.
Alien, though adjoining
As a Foreign Race —
Traversed she though pausing
Elements Unaltered —
Universe the same
But Love's transmigration —
Somehow this had come
The complete poem is here.
Photo by BitterGrace
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Blind go the days, but joy will see
Agreements of music; they will wind
The shaking of your dance; no more
Will the ambiguous arm-waves spell
Confusion of the blessing given.
Only and finally declare
Among the purest shapes of grace
The waking of the face of fire,
The body of waking and the skill
To make your body such a shape
That all the eyes of hope shall stare.
~ Muriel Rukeyser, from "Song"
The complete poem is here.
Circe, Robert Auer, 1942
Monday, December 21, 2015
Last week I went book shopping with friends and came upon a copy of W.H. Auden's A Certain World, which is a "commonplace book" — that is, a personal collection of quotations, notes, observations, etc. Auden describes A Certain World as a kind of autobiography, though I can't say I gleaned any sense of him from it that can't be found in his poems. It is a lovely assemblage of stuff, though, and I was especially moved by an excerpt from a Loren Eiseley essay, "The Judgment of the Birds." The essay has been widely circulated, but I'd never encountered it before, and in any case it strikes me as a piece well worth revisiting, especially at this darkest moment of the year.
Here is a portion of the bit Auden quotes, which describes the reaction of songbirds to a raven preying on one of their nestlings:
No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.
And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.
The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.
That little passage is beautiful and stirring, but the complete essay is something deeper. It touches the mysteries of consciousness as gracefully as anything I've ever read. You can download it at the link below:
The Judgment of the Birds by Loren Eiseley
"The Judgment of the Birds" is included in Eiseley's book The Immense Journey.
Photo by BitterGrace
Sunday, October 11, 2015
Yield prompt compliance to the maid’s desires;
A prompt compliance fans the lover’s fires:
Go pleas’d where’er she goes, tho’ long the way,
Tho’ the fierce Dog-star dart his sultry ray;
Tho’ painted Iris gird the bluish sky,
And sure portends, that rattling storms are nigh:
Or, if the fair one pant for sylvan fame,
Gay drag the meshes, and provoke the game:
Nay, should she choose to risk the driving gale;
Or steer, or row, or agile hand the sail:
No toil, tho’ weak, tho’ fearful, thou forbear;
No toils should tire you, and no dangers scare:
Occasion smiles, then snatch an ardent kiss;
The coy may struggle, but will grant the bliss:
The bliss obtain’d, the fictious struggle past,
Unbid, they’ll clasp you in their arms at last.
~ Tibullus, from Elegies
translated by James Grainger
Higuera del Himalaya (Poema de la Tierra), Néstor Martín-Fernández de la Torre, c.1934-1936
Friday, April 3, 2015
The Unknown Bird
Three lovely notes he whistled, too soft to be heard
If others sang; but others never sang
In the great beech-wood all that May and June.
No one saw him: I alone could hear him
Though many listened. Was it but four years
Ago? or five? He never came again.
Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,
Nor could I ever make another hear.
La-la-la! he called, seeming far-off—
As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,
As if the bird or I were in a dream.
Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes
Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still
He sounded. All the proof is—I told men
What I had heard.
I never knew a voice,
Man, beast, or bird, better than this. I told
The naturalists; but neither had they heard
Anything like the notes that did so haunt me,
I had them clear by heart and have them still.
Four years, or five, have made no difference. Then
As now that La-la-la! was bodiless sweet:
Sad more than joyful it was, if I must say
That it was one or other, but if sad
'Twas sad only with joy too, too far off
For me to taste it. But I cannot tell
If truly never anything but fair
The days were when he sang, as now they seem.
This surely I know, that I who listened then,
Happy sometimes, sometimes suffering
A heavy body and a heavy heart,
Now straightway, if I think of it, become
Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore.
~ Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
Seated Nude, Vojtěch Hynais (1854 – 1925)
Image found at La Conchiglia di Venere
Thursday, April 2, 2015
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Talented writer friend Emily Choate, who is also a Chapter 16 colleague, invited me to take part in a short survey about my writing process. For the record, I'm not certain I have anything you could reasonably call a writing process. I write the way mushrooms grow—in sudden, unpredictable surges under gloomy conditions. Still, I am honored to be asked to this party, and it did me good to give these questions some thought. Thanks, Emily! I'll be tagging some other friends shortly, and I'll add the links here when their posts are up. [UPDATE: Nashville writer Claire Gibson shares thoughts about her novel-in-progress here.]
What am I working on?
The main project occupying me at the moment is a novel, one I've been working on sporadically for a long time. I finally finished a draft of it last year, and I have sworn to complete a revision before this year is out. We'll see. In spite of its long gestation, it's a slender thing, a story about a young woman's grief. There are several absent and/or unsatisfactory mothers in it, and considerable drinking.
I've begun a second novel, which calls to me when the first one has tried my patience too much. It's set in 1910 and concerns a lynching. Don't wanna say more—I'm superstitious. I've also been working on a couple of short stories, and I've got a little memoir piece that I hope to spin into something longer.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I don't know. Why should it? I mean, I don't have a hook, a theory, or an aesthetic ax to grind. My work is character driven, and if I do my job right my characters are peculiarly and unmistakably themselves. I hope you'd never confuse them with any of your other fictional acquaintances. I'm in sympathy with Frank O'Connor, who said, "I can’t imagine anything better in the world than people. A novel is about people, it’s written for people, and the moment it starts getting so intellectual that it gets beyond the range of people and reduces them to academic formulae, I’m not interested in it any longer."
Why do I write what I do?
First of all, see above. People interest me, so I write about them. I suppose what interests me most about people is the perennial conflict between the individual and the tribe. We all belong to tribes of one kind or another, and most of us have a very complicated relationship with our tribes. Just about everything I've ever written or considered writing has had that relationship as a central concern.
As to why tribes are my obsession, I suspect it has everything to do with growing up in a small Tennessee town and knowing from an early age that it could never really be my home, even though I loved it. I was exiled from my tribe at the moment I realized I had one. Some of that is just down to temperament—all writers feel exiled—but it also had to do with some truly awful things about my particular tribe.
How does my writing process work?
I wish I could give a nice, straightforward answer to this question, but my writing process is haphazard and mostly left to the mercy of mood and circumstance. No doubt that's why it takes me so damn long to get anything done. I usually do the initial work on my fiction late at night, often when I'm half asleep. Then I try to make sense of it when I'm awake. I tend to work in binges, despite my good intentions to be disciplined and daily about it.
The stories that seem to pan out for me are the ones that arrive in reverse. I envision the end, or something close to the end, and I write my way to it. In other words, I know where I'm going, but I don't know why, and I have only a vague idea of how to get there. I like to think all the answers are encoded in that first/last image, but sometimes it winds up being a very difficult code to break.
The more sensible course of beginning at the beginning hardly ever works for me. I have had to say goodbye to more promising first pages than I care to remember.
Enfant écrivant (A Girl Writing), Henriette Browne, c.1860-1880
Sunday, July 27, 2014
I had love once in the palm of my hand.
See the lines there.
How we played
its game, are playing now
in the bounds of white and heartless fields.
Fall down on my head, love,
drench my flesh in the streams
of fine sprays. Like
so that I light up as
and I am showered by the scent
of the finished line.
~ From "A Poem for Painters" by John Wieners
Untitled, Ismael Nery (1900-1934)
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
You ask, how many kisses of yours, Lesbia, may be enough and to spare for me. As the countless Libyan sands which strew asafoetida-bearing Cyrene between the oracle of sweltering Jove and the sacred tomb of ancient Battus, or as the many stars, when night is silent, look upon the furtive loves of mortals; to kiss you with kisses of so great a number is enough and to spare for passion-driven Catullus: so many that prying eyes may not avail to number, nor ill tongues to bewitch.
Poem 7 from The Carmina of Gaius Valerius Catullus, translation by Leonard C. Smithers, 1894.
Drawing by Mihály Zichy (1827–1906)
Thursday, July 17, 2014
So, here we have hard evidence that I don't always get the shot I want. The truth is that I almost never get the shot I want. I get shots I like pretty often, but they're hardly ever exactly what I had in mind. Sometimes, as in this case, they are not remotely what I had in mind, but I like them all the more for that. I love this one. It strikes me as symbolic of the creative process generally: You get an idea, you try to realize it, and then you watch as it goes irretrievably wrong. Once you get through mourning, you salvage what you can and present it as your "work."If you're lucky, you get praise and maybe even some cash. What a racket.
Here are a few famous quotes about photography that I've always liked. All of them seem to be contradicted in some degree by the photograph above:
"To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power." ~ Susan Sontag
"In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible." ~ Edward Steichen
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know” ~ Diane Arbus
Photo ©2014 Maria Browning