Why this?

The occasional poem of my own and a generous helping of work by others that I find inspiring. Site is named for a beloved book by one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, whose fanciful work lights--and delights--my soul.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Unseen Life that Dreams Us

This is amazing. Too much greatness to pull out just a few lines, really, though I'll try. (Post-fact: I basically copied the entire interview! Heh.)

The term a la carte Catholicism has been used to denigrate those who pick and choose from the tradition, selecting only what nourishes, challenges, and heals them. On the other hand, nobody goes into a restaurant and chooses everything on the menu.

--

I do not trust the Catholic Church with Eros. I never did, even when I was a priest. The Church does have a pathological fear of the feminine. It would sooner allow priests to marry than it would allow women to become priests. This awful mistrust of the feminine goes all the way back to Genesis, where Eve is blamed for offering the apple to Adam. And the doctrine that a woman, after giving birth to a child—the most beautiful thing a human being can do—has to go to the Church to be cleansed: this is a demonization of women that I cannot understand.

All extremes create a mirror of themselves. So when you have the demonization of the feminine, you also have the crea­tion of the ideal feminine type: Mary as the perfect woman, on whom no stain of mortality—or complexity—was allowed to fall. None of the awkward, subtle, different, or dark faces of the feminine were allowed near her image. I think it’s a shame, and it has consequences. I think the Church is in danger of losing women. As I’ve said for the last twenty years: if tomorrow all the women in the Catholic Church decided to walk, the Church wouldn’t last three months.

--

... the country seems divided into two extremes. In the absence of a strong middle ground, the political pendulum will always swing too far to either side. By “middle ground” I don’t mean the status quo. I mean a true balance that is autonomous and authentic. That’s why we need responsible media and good conversation and universities that are open-minded and not already loyal to one side or the other. Plato said that to practice philosophy is to follow the question wherever it leads. Loyalty to the voyage of the question will create a wise middle ground and protect us from extremism.

--

Fear is the greatest source of falsification in life. It makes the real seem unreal, and the unreal appear real. In The Courage to Be, the theologian Paul Tillich draws a distinction between fear and anxiety. Anxiety, for him, is this diffuse worry that has no object or point of reference. This is the atmosphere right now in the U.S., the land of the free and the home of the brave. There is a huge anxiety just under the surface.

Fear, as distinct from anxiety, has an object and a point of reference. Tillich says that in order to handle anxiety, you have to translate it into a fear that has a definite object. Then you can engage with it. Part of the intention of growth is to overcome one’s fears.

--

... most things that are true and lasting have a symmetry between inside and out. Your outward relationship toward your beloved, if it is not mirrored internally by a loving relationship with yourself, is reduced and limited. You end up scraping from him or her what you are not giving yourself. But if you are nourished at your own table, you do not need so desperately to be fed by someone else; consequently, you can be free and open with that person.

This is true of our relationship to the world as well. When you approach even the simplest object, the depth that you see in that object will be proportionate to the depth you bring to it. One of the most interesting philosophical movements of the mid-twentieth century was hermeneutics: the science of interpretation. The key question in hermeneutics is always “How do you approach a text?”—and philosophers use the word text broadly. It could be restated as “Through what lenses and apparatus do you look at something?” You should be constantly aware of your own act of approaching anything. When you know what you are putting into it, and what you are taking from it, the text—or object, or person—has a better chance to meet you as itself.

--

Solitude is the sense of space as nourishing. What usually happens with solitude is that people equate it with loneliness, which frightens them. But I don’t know anyone who has a good friendship or love relationship in which there are not long periods of solitude.

--

I think it is more interesting to be with somebody who still has his or her wilderness territory—and by that I don’t mean bleak, burned-out, damaged areas where wounding has occurred; rather, I mean genuine wilderness. Upon seeing that in the other person, you promise yourself: One thing I will never do is try to domesticate her wilderness. Because the authenticity of her difference and the purity of her danger and the depth of her affection are all being secretly nourished by that wilderness, as all of my spirit is being nourished by my own wilderness. There is a great tradition in the U.S., even more so than in other countries, of the solitary person going out into the wild. It’s a shame that this model is not now being revived for the voyage into our inner wilderness.

--

Frequently the most fecund time in a relationship is when you run into the “otherness” of your beloved, an otherness that you cannot calm or accommodate by means of your affection, love, or understanding. This otherness is actually set against you. But when you exercise patience and develop a hospitality toward this otherness, something deeper gradually emerges between you.

The challenge is similar in the writing life. I believe that a writer has to develop skill and craft first, then go to the biggest barrel of darkness or silence he or she can find and wait for something to come up. You must have craft so the quality of your writing will be proportionate to the importance of what will arrive on your table. But craft alone isn’t enough. You can develop a great ability as a writer, but if you write about insignificant matters, your work will interest nobody.

Sadly, many people view darkness as the enemy rather than the threshold, the invitation to become something more. In Beauty I write about sculpting a block of stone being akin to shaping yourself: your calling in the world is to keep refining yourself until you find the secret form inside you. We should consider life primarily as an invitation to become who we are. Most of the time, when we think of becoming something, we have a plan to better ourselves: “I want to lose this sense of inferi ority” or “I want to make my life easier” or “I want to call off my inner Dobermans, who are chewing up my insides.” We all have these problems we want to get over, but that is so bloody limited. So what if your childhood has its quota of damage? Wouldn’t it be healthier to say, “OK, my wounds deserve to be recognized and healed, but they also need to be placed in a more dignified context”? We should ask for the strength to push forward into deeper graciousness and sophistication. One way to do that is to recognize respectfully the places where your negativity appears. They are great clues to the location of the treasure troves in the deep inner caves.

In the creative world, true brightness is seldom found. Sometimes you get a perfect poem that comes all at once and you do not have to work on it, but such visitations are incredibly rare, a form of grace. Brightness in a poem or a painting or a piece of music usually has to sweat its way to the top through caverns of darkness. And when it comes to the surface, you can still see in it the beautiful shadow of the dark journey it has made.

The imagination is not interested in two-dimensional reductionism or naively pitting one side against another, dark against light. It is interested in the place where the two sides meet, and what they give birth to when they cross-fertilize each other. That is the heart of creativity: it is not fantasy, not invention. Creativity is listening in on the places where the opposites are dancing with each other.

--

Creativity is about opening up to your own originality and allowing it to come forward. As the French poet Rimbaud said, “I have no ancestors.” You will never write a poem that someone else has already written. We are all such strange worlds. We are more than human. Each individual is an opening where the eternal is breaking through, a portal where things go out and come in.

--

... every one of us dreams, and a dream is a most sophisticated artistic vision. It is said that when the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky slept, he hung a notice on his door that read, “Poet at work.” You people your dreams with characters, settings, images, plot, and you present it to yourself. You are both the creator and the audience for it. As the Talmud says, “A dream that has not been interpreted is like a letter that has not been opened.” So if you can dream, I believe you can create.

Second, we were all children once, and when you were a child, you lived in an imaginative world. That childlike side of us never dies. It is always there.

Third, the nature of creation is that it is constantly growing and becoming and emerging. And we are the stuff of creation. So, in a sense, it is in our nature to be creative.

Fourth, the act of knowing is a function of the imagination. All knowing has an imaginative element in it. We don’t see the world as it is at all. Our consciousness always co-creates everything we see. So what you are seeing is not just out there, on its own. You are always seeing it through the lens of your own thinking. Therefore, you are co-creating the world, whether you like it or not.

--

The ego is hard to handle, because it is elastic. If you enter into straight combat with it, it will bend every which way. When I hear people talking about overcoming the ego, I’m inclined to smile and say, “Best of luck to you with that particular battle."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lost Keys

Holding a black wire coat hanger in his hand,
bending a loop in the tip with a pair of pliers,
my neighbor Mr. Alvarado is walking down his drive

without a shirt, pale winter fat hanging over his belt,
blue rings around his eyes.
He has come out like this on a February morning

to try to break into the car
his son has locked the keys inside
as the boy hovers in the background,

arms crossed over his chest, carefully watching
while pretending to be bored.
They are trying hard

not to make a scene
in the thin light of Sunday morning
while the next-door neighbors snore—

and they could call up the garage,
but Mr. Alvarado doesn’t want
to bring the experts in;

he wants to teach his son a thing
or two a man should know.
He is like the Eskimo dad

teaching his boy to fish:
threading the line of reindeer gut
through a needle eye in the antler bone,

standing silent over their personal
hole in the ice. Love

is the thing you
press your face against,
trying to figure out how

to get inside without breaking it.
Look, they are the proof:
working the tip of the wire

under the rubber seal of the window frame;
carefully sliding the loop
over and down

to snag the silver latch and open it.

--Tony Hoagland

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Notable, Quotable

"In my experience, there is only one motivation, and that is desire. No reasons or principles contain it or stand against it." --Jane Smiley

"One regret, dear world, that I am determined not to have when I am lying on my deathbed is that I did not kiss you enough." --Hafiz

"What we call 'human nature' in actuality is human habit." --Jewel Kilcher

"The past is really almost as much a work of the imagination as the future." --Jessamyn West

"You know of the disease called 'sleeping sickness.' There also exists a sleeping sickness of the soul. Its most dangerous aspect is that one is unaware of its coming. That is why you have to be careful. As soon as you notice the slightest sign of indifference, the moment you become aware of the loss of a certain seriousness, of longing, of enthusiasm and zest, take it as a warning. Your soul suffers if you live superficially." --Albert Schweitzer

"In the Baemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, about all the good things the person has done in his lifetime. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. The tribal ceremony often lasts several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe." --Alice Walker

"Story by Jung of a conversation with a chief of the Pueblo Indians: Jung asked the chief's opinion of the white man and was told that it was not a high one. White people, said Ochwiay Biano, seem always upset, always restlessly looking for something, with the result that their faces are covered with wrinkles. He added that white men must be crazy because they think with their heads, and it is well-known that only crazy people do that. Jung asked in surprise how the Indian thought, to which Ochwiay Biano replied that naturally he thought with his heart." --Laurens van der Post

Gerald Stern! Two from Save the Last Dance

HE AGAIN

Sometimes he is mustard and sometimes blue,
sometimes it is slicing and cutting and sometimes
it's only rain that brings him to the surface
and he does it to keep the robin company,
and there is a heavy smell for those who live too
close to the earth and if there is no brain
or if it is dispersed and thence divided
he is only eaten the more and isn't it
a joy that there is no light and he has to look
elsewhere for his doom and his nostalgia.


COOPER UNION

He had more than one white shirt
and two pairs of pants instead of one,
and once in New York he crawled inside a taxi
for diabetes was making him weak,
and when he reached the corner of Eighth and Bowery
he slid into a corner for his friends
were everywhere, and though he hated the meter
he also hated the conversation in Urdu
the driver was having with his wife or daughter,
for he wanted some silence, or maybe he wanted
a little attention for all that money and not
to be ignored this way; and when the cab
stopped to let him off he suffered the new
trick of evening it off to the highest dollar
and felt halfway justified in stiffing him
but gave him two thin bills though the rigid
security wall made it impossible
to leave with grace, and this is how he entered
the open space beside the School of the Arts
and struggled for understanding in front of the pillars
downstairs Abe Lincoln himself had once ignited.

Mammogram

"They're benign," the radiologist says,
pointing to specks on the x ray
that look like dust motes
stopped cold in their dance.
His words take my spine like flame.
I suddenly love
the radiologist, the nurse, my paper gown,
the vapid print on the dressing room wall.
I pull on my radiant clothes.
I step out into the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal,
the Niagara Falls of the parking lot.

--Jo McDougall

In Praise of a Teacher

The reason Miss Delaney was my favorite teacher, not just my
favorite English teacher, is that she would let me read any book I
wanted and would allow me to report on it. I had the pleasure of
reading The Scapegoat as well as We the Living as well as Silver
Spoon (which was about a whole bunch of rich folk who were
unhappy), and Defender of the Damned, which was about
Clarence Darrow, which led me into Native Son because the real
case was defended by Darrow though in Native Son he got the
chair despite the fact that Darrow never lost a client to the chair
including Leopold and Loeb who killed Bobby Frank. Native Son
led me to Eight Men and all the rest of Richard Wright but I
preferred Langston Hughes at that time and Gwendolyn Brooks
and I did reports on both of them. I always loved English because
whatever human beings are, we are storytellers. It is our stories
that give a light to the future. When I went to college I became a
history major because history is such a wonderful story of who we
think we are; English is much more a story of who we really are.
It was, after all, Miss Delaney who introduced the class to My
candle burns at both ends; /It will not last the night; /But, ah, my
foes, and, oh, my friends— /It gives a lovely light. And I thought
YES. Poetry is the main line. English is the train.

--Nikki Giovanni

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

More from This I Believe

Scientists are happy, of course, when they find answers to questions. But scientists are also happy when they become stuck, when they discover interesting questions that they can't answer. Because that is when their imaginations and creativity are set on fire. That is when the greatest progress occurs.

One of the Holy Grails in physics is to find the so-called Theory of Everything, the final theory that will encompass all the fundamental laws of nature. I, for one, hope that we never find that final theory. I hope that there are always things that we don't know--about the physical world as well as about ourselves. I believe in the creative power of the unknown. I believe in the exhilaration of standing at the boundary between the known and the unknown. I believe in the unanswered questions of children.
--Alan Lightman

A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of seventy-three, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression, and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication--as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis--is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.
--John Updike

Kindred Spirits

Ms. French’s fourth-grade classroom.
Formica desktop at chest level,
Anne of Green Gables
Julie of the Wolves
Island of the Blue Dolphins
pinned open with front cover
conspicuously toward teacher.
How I coveted her occasional remark—
“that’s a lovely one, isn’t it Kristen?”—
testament to a high mind.

Twenty-four years later
I plow through a peak-hour crowd
to reach my target: guy spied
stuffing A Confederacy of Dunces
into his pack. “That’s an amazing book
you’re reading, huh?”
“Oh, man, really is. So good.”

These words and the nod
that comes after give such lift!
Two evening commuters in lockstep
over the famously outrageous Ignatius;
sense of something bound,
even as we go our separate ways,
unlikely to cross paths again.

It was about so much more
than approval, two decades back,
Ms. French with her smart
silver hair and stern countenance
softening just long enough
to seed connection; let through
sparkling salute to a red-headed orphan girl,
she of kindred spirit, richest imagination.

--me

Initiation

"You know you're a writer if the poetry book on your kitchen table was a pile of napkins last week." --Brian Trent

I used to be suspicious
of those can't-wait writers,
the ones bunched up
in backseats, curled over
neglected breakfast plates
as they scribble flash genius
in the margins of x book,
on last night's ratty dinner receipt,
across their own pale skin.
Please. If it’s worth remembering,
it'll still be there in an hour
,
I'd think, rolling my eyes,
secretly a touch envious of
"what he's having."

So then, last Tuesday,
as I squeezed my way
onto a crowded train,
who would've guessed
I was less than a minute myself
from a similar possession,
overtaken in a moment's time
by the screaming need
to WRITE IT DOWN.

Whipping open
whatever battered magazine,
I did.

--me

Friday, February 4, 2011

From This I Believe (book)

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious--the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty. I cannot imagine a god who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with the awareness of--and glimpse into--the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. --Albert Einstein

We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes, or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspiration side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people. --Leonard Bernstein