Archive for Readings

Madeleine L’Engle: I Am Still Every Age That I Have Been . . .

“I am still every age that I have been.
Because I was once a child, I am always a child.”

 

“Because I was once a searching adolescent,

given to moods and ecstasies,

these are still part of me, and always will be…

This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in

any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult,

but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide…

Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things

means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel

and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old

or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old

means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids,

feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up,

then I don’t ever want to be one.

Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy,

and be fifty-one,

then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.”

-Madeleine L’Engle

The Blessed Unrest: On Teaching, Writing, Ted Williams, and Martha Graham’s Splendid Advice to Agnes de Mille

I’ve tried something new recently. I’m teaching an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books: Level 1.”

I’m enjoying the experience, mostly because of the students. I find myself thinking about them a lot, how to structure a lesson, how best to respond to a wide variety of writing and ambitions. I suspect that if I calculated the pay per hour, I’d be making below minimum wage. But payment isn’t just about money, as we know. I’m getting things out of it, too. Inspiration, engagement, clarity, connection.

But how best to respond to student writing? I mean, sure, say something positive, say something constructive, be encouraging. That’s all pretty obvious & within my nature. My friend, a far more experienced teacher, told me that every writing student wants to get published. That’s the dream, the aspiration. Maybe I’ll write a book one day. Lots of people have that thought, and certainly most anyone taking a writing class. I don’t know why, but the notion surprised me. Could it be true? Probably yes, I guess. 

In life, we receive when our antenna is up; we absorb when we make ourselves spongey, receptive. When I came across an amazing quote by Martha Graham, I was ready to hear it. Her words clarified so much for me. The excerpt comes from Agnes de Mille’s 1991 biography, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. At the time, de Mille was experiencing great uncertainty and dissatisfaction with her work, both in her own sense of it and how it was received by others. 

 

I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and (will) be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours. Clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself and your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open . . .  No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

 

Beautiful, right? 

And in so many different ways. 

I’ve decided, for my class, that there are essentially two paths open for me when responding to someone’s work. The first might be to address it from a publishing point of view. Discuss the marketplace, the types of things that are published, the “proper” length & format, things that are typically frowned upon by editors today, etc. All to help them realize the great & noble dream of publication. And I have pretty much zero interest in that type of instruction. I mean, there’s a whole cottage industry out there making promises to unpublished authors, “The 7 keys to becoming a bestselling author,” etc. I can’t help but suspect there’s a degree of flimflam to all that, snake oil salespersons preying on the innocent. Maybe that’s unfair. It’s surely good information to have at some point along the journey. But I’m not that guy.

As for the second path, yes, I can align myself with that. If I can encourage someone to express themselves, to tap that vein of creativity and authentic feeling, it seems worthwhile. One true thing. Help them in some small way to become better artists and writers. Because if you can do that, the “author” part just might follow. Eventually.

When the class started, I mentioned baseball legend Ted Williams. When asked about his goals for the upcoming season — Did he hope to bat for a .350 average? Mash 40 homers? — Williams replied, simply, that his goal was to put a good swing on the ball. Process over result.  

Here’s to putting a good swing the ball, folks. The rest will be what it will be. But somehow in the process you’ll express something of yourselves, get in touch with some meaningful memories, awaken the sleeping spirits that reside deep within, experience Martha Graham’s “blessed unrest” and possibly become a little more alive as you move through the days.

Oh, one line that I especially love in that whole thing?

It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda.

I admire the simplicity and directness of that sentence. In a passage full of spoken words and abstractions, that simple line grounds us in the reality of the scene. Two women talking in as ordinary setting as one could imagine. It is not easy for writers to leave a sentence like that alone: It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. It seems too artless, too plain: the clever writer all too invisible. Of course, that’s the point. De Mille gets out of the way. She disappears. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. It’s all the reader needs.

So that’s the last thought bubbling up the straw. Companionship. Connection. Conversation. Two women, two artists, sitting together and supporting each other. Just talking. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson of all. Be there for each other.

Maybe it’s time to give that friend a call.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homer Simpson’s Hands

There is a key character named Homer Simpson in Nathanael West’s 1939 Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust.

Yes, d’oh, a name familiar to most.

 

Did Matt Groening name his Homer after West’s original? The information is somewhat contradictory, though Groening did state in interviews that he lifted the name from West’s novel. However, Groening’s father was also named Homer (Matt’s younger sisters were named Lisa and Maggie, not coincidentally), and he has stated in other interviews that the name was derived from his dear old dad. 

My guess is that both reports are true — influences and inspirations often arrive in layers, filtering in from a variety of sources. 

I recall reading Nathanael West as a very young man: A Cool Million, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust. He made a strong impression at the time, an original mind with an absurdist’s sense of satire. He was wickedly funny and intensely dark about the human condition. That appealed to me, too. 

I recently went back and reread those books, some 40 years later. My feeling is that if you read a book at a much earlier time in your life, it’s like you’ve never read it at all. That is, the reader’s perspective has been so transformed that it’s like encountering a brand new book (even though, of course, the book hasn’t changed a bit). The relationship between text-and-reader is made anew. 

While I enjoyed reading West again, and still consider myself very much a fan, there were passages that haven’t aged well. This is true of a depressing number of books, as we know. Time is not always kind. Values change. We’ve learned some things along the way. There’s an unsettling streak of misogyny here and there. Perhaps a function of the time, a flaw in West himself, or just part of his eviscerating, take-no-prisoners satire. He’s tough on everybody. Rape comes up: the word, the desire, the act. As a social satirist, West doesn’t judge, just presents. Those are not comfortable sections to read. Am I being too sensitive? Well, to be honest, that’s not a complaint, too sensitive, I often receive. In any event, West seems neglected today. 

Let’s call his work problematic and leave it at that for now. Others can sort out where West fits in the canon. (The Modern Library ranks Locust at  #73 in its list of the 100 Best Novels.)

Mostly, I want to highlight Homer Simpson’s amazing hands.

Here’s a snippet from possibly my favorite passage in all of West’s work. He provides us with some genius descriptions of this awkward, ill-at-ease, deeply repressed character who seems almost detached from his own hands:

“He lay stretched out on the bed, collecting his senses and testing the different parts of his body. Every part was awake but his hands. They still slept. He was not surprised. They demanded special attention, had always demanded it. When he had been a child, he used to stick pins into them and once had even thrust them into a fire. Now he used only cold water.

He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel.”

I can still remember encountering that section decades ago, that bizarre disconnection from his own body — a powerful metaphor for a character’s discomfort in his own skin, his own vibrating self.

He carried his hands into the bathroom.

God, that’s brilliant.

Nathanael West.

I confess that I’m pretty sure I tried to rip that off somewhere along the line, the idea of carrying one’s hands into the next room, etc., but I can’t for the life of me remember where it might appear. A Jigsaw Jones mystery for 2nd-grade readers? I don’t exactly recall. If I did borrow it, or quietly paid tribute to it — and I certainly hope I did — I had forgotten the source material at the time. It was just that remarkable idea lodged in my skull from a nearly-forgotten book.

Hands as strange aquatic animals.

The first time I read The Day of the Locusts, the animated Homer Simpson did not yet exist. It wasn’t until I came back to it that I realized, Oh, wow, Homer Simpson! I guess that’s where Groening got it.

“The Day of the Locust” was also a 1975 film starring Donald Sutherland (as Homer), Karen Black, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith, and other fine actors. I’m going to rent it on Amazon Prime sometime soon. Sadly, Nathanael West’s promising career was cut short at the age of 37, when he died in a car crash just one short year after the publication of Locust

A tragedy that his work prepared us for.

 

 

 

Triggered

I had my first true “triggered” experience the other day. Where I was reading something and it took me right back to a painful memory.

The book was Stoner by John Williams. At the end of the book, he describes in detail the quiet moments of a dying character. It’s a brilliant passage, the last four pages of the book: a profound, moving description of the dying of the light.

I thought of my mother, who died on July 31st at age 95. I felt her last hours, imagined anew that experience, and tears filled my eyes.

And you know what?

I was grateful for that book. For that trigger that came without warning.

The beauty of a novel, just one of the beauties, is that you can stop reading. You can close the book, think your thoughts, manage those emotions on your own terms.

If we have deep feelings about events in our lives, those memories are going to be triggered somewhere, somehow. A cardinal alights on a branch and it reminds you of someone. The smell from a teacup. An empty park bench. There’s no hiding from the triggers, no way to avoid remembering.

John Williams in Stoner wrote an achingly beautiful scene in which the main character passes from the living. Inch by inch, moment by moment. For me, while it brought tears, it also gave solace.

I am heartened and enriched that books can stir us so deeply.

 

 

Poem: “Written at Four A.M.”

I don’t usually post my poems on this blog, but wrote this one last night, as the title suggests, and felt I might as well put it out there. I am quite sure that not everyone understands, or even considers, the terrible stress and anxiety that our healthcare workers are under. There are heroes among us, and they don’t wear capes.

 

 

Written at Four A.M.

– for Lisa, 3/29/20

 

My wife cannot sleep these nights.

She lies blanketed in worry,

rueing her sleeplessness and tasks

undone, so much still to be done,

and afraid of what’s to come:

hospital beds in cluttered corridors,

patients sharing ventilators, alone

and clawing for air and surcease;

the fear in everyone’s eyes; the nurse’s

front desk, so often a font of crude

jokes and late-night laughter, now

red-rimmed and fraught. Awakened,

I rouse and speak: it only annoys her,

so I rub Lisa’s back in night’s full dark,

resort to an old trick, and pick up

a bedside book of poems, Philip Larkin’s

The Less Deceived, to read aloud.

It never fails. My good wife listens and

only half-hears, the words washing over

her in waves, undulant images, a mind

open like a drawer of knives, a hometown

recalled, a horse troubled by flies. Finally

I reach the last poem, read it twice

as I often do. Lay down the book,

the reading glasses, fumble with

the light. It rains outside our window,

a soft pattering urgency, dawn’s chorus

still two hours from us, if it comes

at all. But listen: at last she sleeps. I yawn,

thinking of poems and hospital beds,

and cough.

 

 

My wife, Lisa, is a midwife at Albany Obstetrics & Gynecology. Her work often finds her in the maternity ward of St. Peter’s Hospital. She’s also recently created a Facebook page, Reproductive Health at Home, which you can follow in these days when access to healthcare is challenging. These are hard times, and very scary for many. I write children’s books, a far less perilous venture. In support of teachers and parents as they scramble to provide online learning for young readers, I’ve created a variety of free videos for ages 3-14. You may access them at my Youtube channel. Just stomp on this link and it’ll bring you there.

Be smart, stay home, protect the vulnerable.