Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Certain Sign of Spring

Magnolias.  A fleeting flower here in the north.  Often as not killed entirely by a late freeze... never mind frost, one isn't safe from a freeze or a snow really, till June.
But we've made it, finally, it seems for the year.  A few wilted petals, a spoilt early crop or two... finally May is round the bend, and tolerably seasonable weather has appeared. 
I though it safe to say "spring" by last Saturday.  When the sun came out on high and the temps soared to a dizzying seventy Fahrenheit, that made it pretty certain.  And yard sales which are heavily attended-that was another sign.  But a fabulous afternoon barbeque picnic in the park by the river, with games to play, sealed the deal.  Not because of the picnic itself, mind.  We had a picnic two Sundays earlier... the Lenten roses and the bluebells of the Poet's Garden.  But that wasn't what said spring.  The fact is, nothing says spring as surely as the day that the young women en masse, as instinctively as the return of the robins, shave to respectability and don their light dresses and shorts.  I don't know how they know.

Personally, I am always clinging, a little reticent and shivery, to my sweater on the first few balmy seventy-or-so days.  I like nearly eighties to put on a sundress or skirt comfortably.  And I am neutral on the matter of shorts, pretty well all summer.  Moreover, going one more day without sitting in the sun, counting the little hairs on my knees that I missed (which is an eternal aggravation to me) is well worth one more day snugly sheathed in jeans.

Then there is the bother of dragging the tubs of summer clothes out of the basement, putting away the winter clothes, hoping devoutly you will not need them again the very next day, sorting through the family clothes, seeing what fits who and what needs permanently stored or donated...

This, I am sure, is why they invented the maxi-dress.  For me.  For women getting too old or too busy or too lazy or too many children or too whatever to heed the imperious call of the spring sun with all it entails.  We can salute spring quietly in our own backyards, sip our mint tea, enjoy the wind in our skirts and shave solely our ankles!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Which People are People? Fundamental Questions

In the state of New York, 1 out of every three pregnancies ends in abortion annually.  For African Americans, this statistic is even higher: 1 in 2.

This isn't adequate, though; in this state of New York, a bill put forward by the present Governor, Governor Cuomo, called the Reproductive Health Act, postulates removing the few controls on abortion which exist in New York: abortion available throughout the term, legalization of abortion providers that are not licensed medical personnel, and the stripping of the state penal code of any judicial and legal recourse a woman might have if she experiences either malpractice during an abortion procedure or even the death of her unborn child due to domestic violence (she would still have recourse to sue for personal injury, but no harm to the child could be prosecuted).  

Over time, people have defined human life based on how they feel about it.  Even the scientists in my life, and they are many (as my husband is a graduate student in experimental physics), do not claim to be able to define life scientifically or coherently.  A person is a person based on what?  How the majority of society feel about them?  

In the Constitution of the United States, African American men are defined as three fifths human.  This was not changed for nearly a century.  Based on what?  --How many people felt that being racially white makes you a full or real person.  In Nazi Germany, a Jew or a Pole was not defined as a person.  (Those of African descent were also considered sub-human in the evolutionary process.)

Are these definitions wrong because we feel differently about them now, or were they wrong even when they were the status quo?  

I do not like politicizing; this blog will not become that kind of forum.  But this question of the definition of a human being, I find, is being answered in all sorts of ways by all sorts of people, solely based on their feelings... and this is an important question for all individuals everywhere to answer.  Who is a human being? What constitutes a person?  Is the definition of a person whatever the state or society endorse at any given period?  If so, why does history condemn this practice?

Speak for life; speak for those who have no voice.  Remember the past: let it inform your present.  Let's stop repeating this terrible mistake of human history.

Friday, April 12, 2013

"I May Love Him": the World of Phantastes

illus. by Arthur Hughes, 1905. via Art of Narrative blog
"My mind was just reviving a little from it's extreme terror, when, suddenly, a flash of lightning, or rather a cataract of successive flashes, behind me, seemed to throw on the ground in front of me, but far more faintly than before, from the extent of the source of the light, the shadow of the same horrible hand.  I sprang forward, stung to yet wilder speed, but had not run many steps before my foot slipped, and, vainly attempting to recover myself, I fell at the foot of one of the large trees.  Half-stunned, I yet raised myself, and almost involuntarily looked back.  All I saw was the hand within three feet of my face.  But, at the same moment, I felt two large soft arms thrown around me from behind; and a voice like a woman's said:
'Do not fear the goblin; he dares not hurt you now.'
With that, the hand was suddenly withdrawn as from a fire, and disappeared in the darkness and the rain.  Overcome with the mingling of terror and joy, I lay for some time almost insensible.  The first thing I remember is the sound of a voice above me, full and low, and strangely reminding me of the sound of a gentle wind amidst the leaves of a great tree. ..."
illus. by John Bell, 1894. via
"... I know nothing more that passed till I found myself lying under a superb beech-tree, in the clear light of the morning, just before sunrise.  ...I rose, and put my arms as far as they would reach around the beech-tree, and kissed it, and said goodbye.  A trembling went through the leaves; a few of the last drops of the night's rain fell from off them at my feet; and as I walked slowly away, I seemed to hear in a whisper once more the words, : 'I may love him, I may love him; for he is a man, and I am only a beech-tree.' "

-George Macdonald, excerpt from Phantastes

-Welcome to the world of Phantastes.  Delightful.  Deceptive.  Dangerous.  Everything you knew about Faerie... and maybe some things you don't.  This journey into the realm of Faerie is also one thing many are not-deeply, intensely moral.  As Madeleine L'Engle put it, "Surely, George Macdonald is the grandfather of us all-all who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy."

This is one of my all-time, deeply personal favorites.  At the end of the book, Anados (our hero and first-person narrator) returns to the world of men from the world of Faerie, but not without having been changed by the lessons he has gained in Faerie, with the fear that if he forgets, he will follow the same course again in the world of men, living twice his mistakes and follies, and ultimately, regrets. 

He ponders the chances that his adventures in Faerieland might have been merely dreams; but then, he sometimes hears whispers from the other side; the song of the beech tree still whispers to him in dreams

For my part, I remember the song of the beech when I hear the rain through the leaves of the trees in summer, and often in personal moments of love, I repeat them to myself as a sort of benediction.

But the beech-tree and her connection with Anodos, however appealing to my poetic and mythopoeic senses, is not what makes Phantastes ultimately so meaningful to me.  The deepest lesson I gleaned from Macdonald in this romance is the clearest view of Humility I have ever gained.

I have had recurring thoughts on doing an introspective post like this for a while.  It is my belief that writers, especially young and early writers (but by no means exclusively young writers) have a nearly universal propensity to arrogance... well, I suppose the observation applies to artists in general, but it is more vivid in writers because one hears the arrogance in their creative voices, while with visual and other nonverbal arts it is less distinguishable. 

Now I am the first to be annoyed by "that tone" in another writer; but my husband is the first to notice it in my writing, to which I am often blind.  You see, it is a Shadow: you try to look at it squarely and you can't catch hold of it.  It's a peripheral edge; a tone, an aura.  But that arrogance is the single difference between those authors that are merely good writers and those who have changed my life and the way I see the world in some intrinsic way.  Almost universally, I can point to my favorite authors, and what I enjoy most about their writings is their frankness and personal understanding of the frailties of humanity.  They deal with their own dignity with humor; they do not take themselves too seriously- they deal with the failings of others like a comrade-at-arms.

By contrast, those of us who seek to write or create at a younger age or stage often fall into our arrogance unintentionally... it is natural, if you use the unique view and voice you call your own to produce any work of art, your tendency will be to heed that voice and ignore the hum of critique.  One grows used to being the door-opener, the light-revealer, the perspective-giver: the prophetic "voice of one crying in the wilderness."  But this strength of seeing the world differently, of walking to the beat of a different drum, becomes a weakness on the other side of Janus.

I had to do several exercises just to see it in myself... and now though I have caught the Shadow in my sights, it still gives me trouble.  One exercise is to evaluate one's writing for eloquence- am I most poetic when describing myself?  How much in turn do I describe my faults eloquently and candidly?  Am I always portraying myself as this wonderful visionary person on the inside?  And how much do I worship and adore my own works? (They also count when analyzing verbosity concerning the self.)  What evidence does my work give about my passion? Is it really about itself, or is it about me and my glory?

Another: how many of my avid followers and readers and so forth are "younger" than myself?  Put another way, do I surround myself with acolytes, with unmixed praise-givers?  Do true and honest critics feel welcome in my little world?  If they are not, it will indeed be a very little world.  My best critic is my husband... he sees the world differently, so we have vastly varying views.  I used to be very wounded when he did not value a poem I had written, or even necessarily understand it.  But having someone with an opposite mental pole is truly important to the writing process.

The most difficult exercise I set myself (yes, I am using myself, but trying to do it introspectively, not handing down the laws of God, as it were, but offering personal observation from within) came after a successful writing professor in college first mentioned in a class that the weakness of young poets is self-absorption.  He told us, "If you want to sound like mature writers, avoid the vertical pronoun." (That took me a while, a fellow classmate informed me that he meant 'I').  So I took the challenge, to find how difficult it might be.  I set myself to write a series of poems on other people with absolutely no references to myself.  This was so challenging that I realized how little I try to write through the eyes of others than myself... how can I hope to reach people, to impact their lives, if I do not understand them?
There They Are,  illus. by John Bell, 1894. via Art of Narrative.
In Phantastes, George Macdonald draws a stunning picture of humility. It was the most beautiful, freeing picture I have ever seen.  Humility is not pretending that you don't know you are a good writer when you are.  But it shouldn't matter.  It shouldn't require repetition.  No great author had to particularly sit singing his own praises (well, I suppose there was Thoreau!).  We are called to a greater glory and purpose than our own... we sense this, but we turn around and pride ourselves on sensing it, thus going right back to the beginning, seeking our own vanity. 

We laugh when we read Jane Austen's comic interpretations of people's foibles; the middle-aged baronet whose excessive personal vanity leads him to have full-length mirrors everywhere and wish not to be seen with any man whose hair is not "done" properly; the petty vicar's wife covered head to toe in ribbons and lace, who declares she has "a horror of being over-trimmed."  We laugh; but is our personal artistic vanity on another level, or would someone with Austen's wit and talent find the humor at the heart of it?  How often a blogger makes the claim "I hope I do not take myself too seriously!"  But I've met very few who don't, starting at myself.

I believe this post is all the more worthwhile because online I have encountered a world of entrepreneurial writers in the form of bloggers, bypassing the traditional publishing route by self-publishing on blogs, through Amazon, and in other venues.  And for a long while, (as I am demanding in the capacity of critic), I encountered nothing special.  But I have over time run into a small number of bloggers who truly write well-some admittedly better than myself, even in my own genres.  And I believe the capacity for great writing is not dead... but the impediment which artistic arrogance creates is stunting our growth, and by avoiding the editorial process of common publishing, we have less reason than ever before to face and overcome that Shadow.

These are as much questions for me personally to revisit as any reader; and I will close with a final quote from the end of Phantastes; what is for me the pith of the whole thing:

illus. by John Bell, 1894. via
illus. John Bell, 1984.
"My mind soon grew calm; and I began the duties of my new position, somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land.  Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life?  This was the question.  Or must I live it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land.  These questions I cannot answer yet.  But I fear. ...

May the world be brighter for me, at least in those portions of it, where my darkness falls not.

Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow."

I hope all of us who set out to find an ideal of beauty and wonder in art, eventually come to a similar epiphany.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Spring Flew By

American Robin 4, by William H. Majoros, 2010. from Wikimedia Commons
"Spring flew by on a robin’s wings.
From snow to snow,
She made it go…
Ephemeral her flight."

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Most Welcome Season

April Love, by Arthur Hughes, c. 1855

Windswept, by JW Waterhouse.
Honeybee on Chionodoxa I, by Marek Haruza, 2012.

Kincraig House, by MJ Richardson, 2007.
Chansons de Printemps, by William-Adolphe Bougereau.
Princess Olga von Wurttemberg, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1856.
Woman in a purple dress, by Pal Szinyei Merse, 1878.
Calypso Bulbosa, by Jerry Friedman, 2009.
Chionodoxa, by Marek Haruza, 2012.
Bumblebee and Crocuses, illus. by Grace Robert, 2013.
Bluebell Woods at Coton Manor, by Jonathan Buckley.