May is Mary's month, and I should post something in honor of the Blessed Mother. How about this lovely 16th century painting by Ambrosius Benson, titled, The Virgin Mary with Child Jesus in a Shirt.
I love the face and the wavy hair that is both mirrored in the two subjects. I love Mary's dress, and the general direction of the movement looking down, which I supposed implies a looking down toward humanity. I wonder at the transparency of the shirt on the Child Jesus. Does it suggest His dual nature of man and God? If so, then does the darkly opaque dress on the Blessed Mother, which is in complete contrast, suggest her humanity? Good questions. Lovely painting.
If you want to know why May is Mary's month, read Kimberly Cook's blog at CatholicMom.
Friday, May 22, 2015
Thursday, May 21, 2015
I found this to be an interesting story. Two sisters who had been given up for adoption as infants and had never met happen to be in the same writing class in college. From the NY Times:
Lizzie Valverde and Katy Olson were strangers when they enrolled at Columbia University a few years ago. Ms. Valverde is from New Jersey, while Ms. Olson had grown up mostly in Florida and Iowa.
Their lives crossed in January 2013, on the first day of a writing class, when they took part in one of those familiar around-the-table introductions that by the end had led them to a stunning realization.
These strangers were sisters.
The two women had come to Columbia to learn the finer points of storytelling and wound up in the middle of a doozy: an intertwined tale of their own that they say they could never have conjured.
Their shared story line — a chance reunion three decades after being born to the same troubled mother in Florida and then raised by adoptive families in different parts of the country — has been knitted together by years of curiosity on both women’s parts about their origins.
And when Ms. Valverde, 35, graduates on Monday with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the university’s School of General Studies, Ms. Olson, 34, who graduated last year with a degree in creative writing and is now pursuing a master’s degree in the same subject at Columbia, will be there to congratulate her.
It’s rather coincidental that both sisters landed at the same university, but both taking up writing? That seemed more than coincidental.
Once [in class], they sat across from each other in a classroom in Kent Hall, where the instructor asked the students go around the table and introduce themselves.
Ms. Valverde, who had registered for the class just minutes before it began, introduced herself and told the class, among other things, that she had been adopted as a child and was raising a young daughter of her own. She also disclosed what she described as her goofy obsession with the Olsen twins.
Ms. Olson was stupefied.
“It looked like she was having a panic attack,” Ms. Valverde said.
Ms. Valverde’s personal information matched closely what Ms. Olson had recently discovered about her own adoption and biological family. She realized that the classmate across the table could be her biological sister.
And later we learn
from an early age, both were relentlessly curious, driven and passionate about writing, though they both also dropped out of high school and did not follow the conventional college-to-career path.
OK, now that’s the human level of the story, and you can go to the article to read more of it, but what was further interesting was that their birth mother, Leslie Parker, had herself always wanted to be a writer.
In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Parker called the reconnection to her daughters an answer to 30 years of prayers, adding, “I felt like the world was coming full-circle.” In the years since putting the girls up for adoption, Ms. Parker raised three sons while continuing to struggle through a meager existence.
She said she always wanted to be writer, but a hard-knock life riddled with poverty, drug abuse and emotional problems had been too much to overcome.
As a teenager, she let the girls go because, she said, “I was not in a position to raise them,” adding, “If I had raised them, they wouldn’t have had the privileges they had,” as adopted children.
“They’re brilliant, beautiful young women,” Ms. Parker said. “In them, I see what I had the potential to be. They’re both living what I always wanted to be.”
So here’s the question. Is the desire to write, especially write creatively, a genetic attribute? I don’t know, but what an unusual story, and I would be willing to bet the two sisters will one day collaborate on a book about it all.
One last thing, and as a side note, what a wonderful thing Leslie Parker did in not aborting the two girls. You constantly hear how it would be better for the unborn child not to be born given certain circumstances. How? And why when so many people want to adopt. Here’s a final quote from Leslie Parker.
“I’m glad I chose to have them and gave them the chance at life,” she said. “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual, but if you don’t believe in a higher power, you would, when you heard their story.”
Now that’s great true life story.
Monday, May 18, 2015
Of course this was completely unplanned. Thursday, May 14th (I date it for posterity’s sake) after dinner at about half past six Matthew and I stepped out for Matthew to bike ride to the local school yard. It’s just a couple of blocks away and they have a little track on level ground for him to circle. We turned to go into the backyard and right there on the side of the house was a local stray cat, who was caught by surprise. Seeing the two of us, she darted up the block. But nearby, frozen with surprise was a little kitten. It didn’t know what to do, and when we approached it he sped in a different direction than the big cat, into our back yard, where he hid behind one of the garbage cans.
We chased him and I reached behind and pulled him out. It was the cutest little thing. I didn’t know if I should leave him out, and yet taking him in would be a burden. We had never had cats before. We already have a demanding dog, who is still an overactive pup. We already have a five year old boy who consumes all our time when he’s not in school or asleep. I could have put him down and let his mother—if that was his mother who darted off, though I some doubt because the coloring was completely different, and she, if it were a she, showed no motherly concern for the tike. But he was so darned cute. And I don’t know how many kittens survive into cathood living in the streets. He was so passive in my hands. He wasn’t afraid.
I called my wife over. If she said no, that would have been the end of that. She too warmed to him. She gave me a bunch of questions—legitimate questions on the difficulties. She had suspected she was even allergic to cats. I just shrugged. She didn’t say no. He had the prettiest face I had ever seen on a kitten. Matthew insisted we keep him. So we brought him in.
We didn’t know how to care for a kitten. We couldn’t even tell if he was male or female. My wife emailed a few of her friends who have cats and they recommended replacement milk. We weren’t sure how young he was. I went on the internet and found something that you could gage an age. I estimated four weeks. That was too young to be taken from his mom, so we rushed out to get the replacement milk. We set up a crate from when Rosie was a small pup for him. He drank the milk. He wasn’t scared and he just relaxed in your arms.
We got in to the Vet the very next day. By then I had found a better gage to estimate his age, which I figured now to be five weeks. The Vet agreed. He was healthy, though he’s had diarrhea. We learned about kitty litter and feline bathroom habits. He quickly took to a litter box. He’s so darned cute covering his movements, and pawing the granules. The Vet said he was male. My wife wanted to name him Thor, which I hated, and I wanted to name him Simba, which my wife hated. Matthew named him Tiger, and it has stuck.
When we went to fill out the Vet ID form, it asked for a breed. We had no clue, so we asked the woman at the desk. “Domestic Shorthair,” she said with authority. Then it asked for color, and he has several colors. “What color would you say he is?” I asked. I held him up, she squinted. “Grey Tabby.” So there’s all the pertinent information.
OK, here are some pictures. He’s being kept in Matthew’s room for now.
So far Matthew and Tiger are getting along great, even though Matthew handles him a little roughly. Here they are watching a movie on the video player.
And I think my wife to her surprise has taken to Tiger the most.
And now I have someone in the house who has as grey a head of hair as I do.
Now when they find a stray grey hair on the ground, they can’t say it’s from me.
Sunday, May 17, 2015
I just love the way Eudora Welty writes. There is a delicateness and sensitivity to it that is hard to pin down. I recently read her short story, “The Key,” and while it’s not worth writing up an analysis, I did want to highlight her writing. It’s a simple story; it’s not going to win any awards. But one of the objectives of a short story—objectives as I see them—is to capture the story of our lives, and I think this story does that. It’s the story of a husband and wife, Albert and Ellie Morgan, both deaf mutes, waiting at a train station for a trip up to Niagara Falls. When they talk, they talk in sign language of the deaf. They have saved for a long time to make this trip, a trip that Ellie has waited for a good deal of her adult life. Albert had been told that a deaf person could hear the falls when you stand by it, and so it had been the desire of their lives to experience it. While waiting for the train a red-haired young man drops a key that Albert picks up and becomes the topic of conversation between husband and wife. That conversation makes them miss the train.
I’ll present two sections for appreciation. First from the opening of the story to the first segmented break.
It was quiet in the waiting room of the remote little station, except for the night sounds of insects. You could hear the embroiling movements of the weeds outside, which somehow gave the effect of some tenuous voice in the night, telling a story. Or you could listen to the fat thudding of the light bugs and the hoarse rushing of their big wings against the wooden ceiling. Some of the bugs were clinging heavily to the yellow globe, like idiot bugs to a senseless smell.
Under this prickly light two rows of people sat in silence, their faces stung, their bodies twisted and quietly uncomfortable, expectantly so, in ones and twos, not quite asleep. No one seemed impatient, although the train was late. A little girl lay flung back on her mother’s lap as though sleep had struck her with a blow.
Ellie and Albert Morgan were sitting on a bench like the others waiting for the train and had nothing to say to each other. Their names were ever so neatly and rather largely printed on a big reddish-tan suitcase strapped crookedly shut, because of a missing buckle, so that it hung apart finally like a stupid pair of lips. “Albert Morgan, Ellie Morgan, Yellow Leaf, Mississippi.” They must have been driven into town in a wagon, for they and the suitcase were all touched here and there with a fine yellow dust, like finger marks.
Ellie Morgan was a large woman with a face as pink and crowded as an old fashion rose. She must have been about forty years old. One of those black satchel purses hung over her straight, strong wrist. It must have been her savings which were making possible this trip. And to what place? you wondered, for she sat there as tense and solid as a cube, as if to endure some nameless apprehension rising and overflowing within her at the thought of travel. Her face worked ad broke into strained, hardening lines, as if there had been a death—that too-explicit evidence of agony in the desire to communicate.
Albert made a slower and softer impression. He sat motionless beside Ellie, holding his hand in his lap with both hands—a hat you were sure he had never worn. He looked home-made, as though his wife had self-consciously knitted or somehow contrived a husband when she sat alone at night. He had a shock of very fine sunburned yellow hair. He was too shy for this world, you could see. His hands were like cardboard, he held his hat so still; and yet how softly his eyes fell upon its crown, moving dreamily and yet with dread over its brown surface. He was smaller than his wife. His suit was brown, too, and he wore it neatly and carefully, as though he were murmuring, “Don’t look—no need to look—I am effaced.” But you have seen that expression too in silent children, who will tell you what they dreamed the night before in sudden, almost hilarious, bursts of confidence.
Every now and then, as though he perceived some minute thing, a sudden alert, tantalized look would creep over the little man’s face, and he would gaze slowly around him, quite slyly. Then he would bow his head again; the expression would vanish; some inner refreshment had been denied him. Behind his head was a wall poster, dirty with time, showing an old fashion locomotive about to crash into an open touring car filled with women in veils. No one in the station was frightened by the familiar poster, any more than they were aroused by the little man whose rising and drooping head it framed. Yet for a moment he might seem to you to be sitting there quite filled with hope.
Among the others in the station was a strong-looking young man, alone, hatless, red haired, who was standing by the wall while the rest sat on benches. He had a small key in his hand and was turning it over and over in his fingers, nervously passing it from one hand to the other, tossing it gently into the air and catching it again.
He stood and stared in distraction at the other people; so intent and so wide was his gaze that anyone who glanced after him seemed rocked like a small boat in the wake of a large one. There was an excess of energy about him that separated him from everyone else, but in the motion of his hands there was, instead of the craving for communication, something of reticence, even of secrecy, as the key rose and fell. You guessed that he was a stranger in town; he might have been a criminal or a gambler, but his eyes were widened with gentleness. His look, which traveled without stopping for long anywhere, was a hurried focusing of a very tender and explicit regard.
The color of his hair seemed to jump and move, like the flicker of a match struck in the wind. The ceiling lights were not steady but seemed to pulsate like a living transient force, and made the young man in his preoccupation appear to tremble in the midst of his size and strength, and to fail to impress his exact outline upon the yellow walls. He was like a salamander in the fire. “Take care,” you wanted to say to him, and yet also, “Come here.” Nervously, and quite apart in his distraction, he continued to stand tossing the key back and forth from one hand to the other. Suddenly it became a gesture of abandonment: one hand stayed passive in the air, then seized too late: the key fell to the floor.
All those beautiful similes make that scene so vivid, And then there is this touching scene.
And Albert, with his face so capable of amazement, made you suspect the funny thing about talking to Ellie. Until you do, declared his round brown eyes, you can be peaceful and content that everything takes care of itself. As long as you can let it alone everything goes peaceful, like an uneventful day at the farm—chores attended to, women working in the house, you in the field, crop growing as well as can be expected, the cow giving, and the sky like a coverlet over it all—so that you’re as full of yourself as a colt, in need of nothing, and nothing needing you. But when you pick up your hands and start to talk, if you don’t watch carefully, this security will run away and leave you. You say something, make an observation, just to answer your wife’s worryings, and everything is jolted, disturbed, laid open like a ground behind a plow, with you running along after it.
But happiness, Albert knew, is something that appears to you suddenly, that is meant for you, a thing which you reach for and pick and hide in your breast, a shiny thing that reminds you of something alive and leaping.
Ellie sat there quiet as a mouse. She had unclasped her purse and taken out a little card with a picture of Niagara Falls.
“Do you see the little rail?” Albert began in tenderness. And Ellie loved to watch him tell her about it; she clasped her hands and began to smile and show her crooked tooth; she looked young; it was the way she had looked as a child.
“That is what the teacher pointed to with her wand on the magic lantern slide—the little rail. You stand right here. You lean up hard against the rail. Then you can hear Niagara Falls.”
“How do you hear it?” begged Ellie, nodding.
“You hear it with your whole self. You listen with your arms and your legs and your whole body. You’ll never forget what hearing is, after that.”
He must have told her hundreds of times in his obedience, yet she smile with gratitude, and stared deep, deep into the tinted picture of the waterfall.
It’s lovely the way Welty goes in and out of character’s minds and just happens on a particular thought in that mind to reach a core part of that person, like in this sentence from Albert’s mind which I’ll repeat to highlight from above: “As long as you can let it alone everything goes peaceful, like an uneventful day at the farm—chores attended to, women working in the house, you in the field, crop growing as well as can be expected, the cow giving, and the sky like a coverlet over it all—so that you’re as full of yourself as a colt, in need of nothing, and nothing needing you.”
There is an actual dramatization of “The Key” into a short film, “performed exclusively in American Sign Language and created by a collaborative team of deaf and hearing artists.” I would love to see it, but I guess it would need subtitles since I don’t know sign language. I could not find it on YouTube, but I did find this clip of Welty’s home which has now been made into a museum. If I ever get down to Jackson, Mississippi I would love to visit it. The garden looks gorgeous.
Thursday, May 14, 2015
This year’s poetry read is Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems, which I now realize is just too broad a collection. It’s an astonishing just under 1000 pages worth of poetry, and then a couple of hundred pages of introduction, afterward, notes, and index. There is no way I’m going to cover this, so I’ll just try to find his most well known poems and then randomly peruse some others.
Robert Lowell might just be the most important post WWII American poet in the canon. He is arguably the first poet to write in what is called “Confessional Poetry.” As you can read in the Wikipedia entry, confessional poetry was a movement from the post war through the 1960s where the subject matter were elements of a the author’s life. Now of course poetry had used biographical details before, but what I think made confessional poetry different is the minutia of detail that poet dwells upon. It’s not just a mjaor event that frames a lyric, but a developed composition around an obscure detail that many times the poet doesn’t let the reader in on. It presents a challenge to the reader. There’s a dislocation; you can’t fully grasp what the poet is referring to, and yet the poem is aesthetically whole.
In addition, the lines in confessional poetry are usually matter-of-fact casual, in free verse, and use very little poetical sound effects. It tries to capture a conversational tone, as if a friend is speaking to another, all with the lingo and slang and inside knowledge that is particular to them. When confessional poetry succeeds, it really seems to capture a moment in time like no other poetic form. However, I will say that in my opinion it fails more often than not, mainly because one ultimately says, so what, and given the lack of poetic device, it becomes a “so what” that lacks craft. I will also say that I regard Lowell as the best of the confessional poets. I’ll have more on confessional poetry in subsequent posts, but let’s take a look at a Lowell poem.
But before we do so, I do need to post some biographical information, otherwise one will be completely lost. Let me say up front, I am hardly an expert on Lowell’s biography. I am tempted to pick up a bio on his life (Paul Mariani’s Lost Puritan: Life of Robert Lowell seems like a good one) to help me with his work but I don’t know if I’ll really read it. Here are some of the pertinent facts of his life that infiltrate his poems. He came from a Massachusetts family that traced their roots to the Mayflower on his father’s side and a signer of the Declaration of Independence on his mother’s. He had quite a few distinguished family members (as listed in his Wikipedia entry) in American history. This historical link to his past would be an important element to his poetry, as would the rebellion he would exhibit to his family and to his family’s religion. He came from a Puritanical Calvinism of which he rejected and for a good eight years was a Roman Catholic convert. It’s not clear to me why he left the Catholic Church but it could be related to his several divorces. Still he took his Christianity seriously but he never did accept his parent’s Calvinism. During World War II he was a conscientious objector and was imprisoned, even though his father was naval Commander. He also was a prominent protestor of the Vietnam War. The other important element to his life was that he suffered from mental illness and was frequently institutionalized. So if I were to sum up the elements of his biography that frequent his work, it would be the historicism of his family, his rebellion toward it, American history, his Christianity, especially as an outsider, his objection to war, and his mental health issues.
So let’s look at this poem, “Waking in the Blue” which has its own Wikipedia entry. It’s about waking up on a particular morning while staying at a mental health hospital.
Waking in the Blue
By Robert Lowell
The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare's-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the "mentally ill.")
What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbert and ginger ale--
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean's;
the hooded night lights bring out "Bobbie,"
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig--
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.
These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.
In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)
After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.
Let’s look at that first stanza. Notice the conversational tone. “B. U.” stands for Boston University, and the night attendant fell asleep on a book titled The Meaning of Meaning, a complicated philosophic book of epistemology, which I think in the context of a “house for the ‘mentally ill’” is meant to be ironic. I’m not exactly sure if the window is actually tinted blue and creates a blue hue from the outside light or Lowell is suggesting the morning light entering the room has a blue hue, but the blueness is critical to the poem. It creates a tone suggesting a Picasso painting from his “blue” period.
The poem has the feel of a Picasso painting in that everyone—everyone except perhaps the young night attendant who is the only one in the poem not mentally ill—is askew, a delineation of fragmented faces. There are three specific mentally ill characters in the poem: Stanley, the “once all-American fullback” taking a bath, Bobbie who is swashbuckling naked, and the narrator, who is clearly Lowell. There are also the “Roman Catholic attendants”—it must be a Catholic hospital and the “pinched, indigenous faces” of the other patients. Both Stanley and Bobbie are much older, and poem’s climax is when Lowell standing in front of the mirror shaving sees his “shaky future grow familiar” in the lives of the other mentally ill. The theme of the poem can be seen in the isolated line, “These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.” Age plays an important role in this poem. The poem starts with a young man, who is rather nimble (he “catwalks” down the hall), then transitions to two “ossified” old men and concludes with a middle age man who looks into his future. Weight and eating play an important role as well. Stanley is obsessed with his once perfect physique, Bobbie is “roly-poly” fat, and Lowell is getting fat. Sharp objects are also a motif; the metaphoric harpoon that was threatening Lowell’s heart in the first stanza, the imaginary sword of the swashbuckling Bobbie, and the shaving razor on which the poem concludes.
That last sentence is rather pregnant with meaning: “We are all old-timers,/each of us holds a locked razor.” Is Lowell referring to a sort of dueling razor fight with that last sentence? If so, that would seem to come out of nowhere. Or is he suggesting a sort of suicidal cutting of the wrists? Or something else? I don’t really know, but it does provide the poem with a sort of closing coda. I consider this is a really fine poem that stretches the emotional range from melancholy to humor (“There are no Mayflower/screwballs in the Catholic Church” – a dig at his parents) to contemplative despondency.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Here is a very interesting article from the Washington Post: “The World’s Languages,in 7 Maps and Charts.” The article provides a really fascinating breakdown of what the world speaks. Here are a few highlights.
1. There are 7,102 living languages in the world, and Asia and Africa by far have the most by continent. Europe has the least.
2. Of the 7.2 billion people of the world, two-thirds have these twelve languages as their native tongue: Chinese, Hindu-Urdu, English, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Bengali, Portuguese, German, Japanese, French, and Italian.
3. The number of countries that speak English is 101, the largest number. Arabic is a distant second.
4. English is the actual official language in 35 countries, of which the United States is not one of them. The US does not have an official language.
5. English is by far the most commonly learned language in countries that have other languages as their native.
There are lots of other interesting facts and worth going over to read it.
Monday, May 11, 2015
Two quick takes.
Matthew is getting into the habit of a one word reply when he doesn’t prefer something.
“Matthew, you’re having cereal and milk for breakfast.”
Matthew, it’s chicken fingers for lunch.”
“Matthew, clean up your room.”
"We're going to read a bedtime story."
"We're going to read a bedtime story."
Is everything other than a rockem-sockem superhero fight boring to a five year old boy?
Matthew was told to write a Happy Mother’s Day card for his grandmother.
“How do you spell it?”
“Sound it out.”
He did. He spelled it: “Hap Mothers Dey.”
So I asked my wife how does “Hap” sound out to “Happy?”