Category Archives: nature of truth

Poem E

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God’s Time Is the Best Time

(English subtitle of Cantata No. 106, by J. S. Bach)

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

The Rockettes

The Rockettes

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

I don’t like to explicate my own poems — I let my students do that, and then they explain them to me, and then I get them (the poems; not the students) — but I am not as confident of this poem’s integrity as I would like to be… I keep changing and expanding it… although I think it’s finally Done. I just don’t quite get it! My own poem!

This poem, “Life Is Poetry (Now),” is on my website’s home page, and it is the theme of my free online course “How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically.”

Tap Kids

TapKids again, astounding the audience (see short video below)

And I am going to do a bit of superficial explication, because I’m not sure what the poem is trying to tell me. If you approach poetry-writing properly, your poems will outrun your conscious understanding, just as dreams do. And puzzling them out is usually fun and revealing.

Below are some of the messages I think the poem is trying to express. But I still keep missing that train….

Being ‘on’

If you’re always running after your life, you won’t be paying attention and you’ll miss the signals

Fred Astaire and dancers in the 1935 romantic comedy TOP HAT

Fred Astaire and dancers in the 1935 romantic comedy TOP HAT

But if you must live chaotically, do even that with panache; be magnificent, even if you arrive halfway through your big number

Be bold
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. —Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love – Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”

Don’t ever, in anything, go on autopilot. I heard recently that Orthodox Jews have prayers and rituals for every conceivable activity, even those that occur in the… um… powder room

Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

Timing is everything… being in sync with the rhythms that surround you, but also knowing which ones to pay attention to [Ah. I think there’s something here. Not in sync. Unaware of the rhythms]

Brutus, the speaker in the Julius Caesar excerpt above, seems to imply that if you miss the train (“the tide… at the flood”), it’s over, and you might as well just mark time until you croak. I, however, think we have lots of chances, an infinite number. The train keeps coming back… it just doesn’t stay very long in the station… so, travel light; don’t let your baggage weigh you down

BUT THERE’S MORE. I’m still missing something. Look! Except for the fellows below, all the images I chose to illustrate “the poetic life” are big clumps of dancers. I suppose stranger things have happened, but I’m pretty sure that I will never be a Rockette.

The Scottish Pipe and Drum Band, Alexandria, Virginia
The Scottish Pipe and Drum Band, Alexandria, Virginia

LIFE IS POETRY (NOW)

When you find your spot and hit your stride,
regardless of how hard you tried to be
on time and didn’t quite succeed, yet neatly,
gracefully, and perfectly in step,
slipped into your appointed place as if
you were the missing tuba player in
a marching band, but landed with a grin
and saucy bow, finessing now,
extemporaneously starring in
an unpremeditated bit, and everyone
applauded, just assuming it was part
and parcel of the entertainment — then
you’ve made a work of art out of a chance
anomaly, and life is elevated
from the ordinary: It’s a symphony,
a dance, a comedy… perchance, by grace,
beyond felicity, to be accompanied
by ginger tea and love and handmade lace
and wondering at Coleridge and Blake… now
you must get some pixie dust (before
you are allowed a bit of rest and solitude)
to give you extra effervescence and
a bit of magic, and, not merely reading
sonnets of Rossetti, Keats, and Sidney,
be a sonnet, one with careful, offhand
rhyme, magnificent. Be poetry;
its tide is in, its time may not soon be
so sensible again

STUDENTS

  1. Obviously, “be a sonnet” and “be poetry” suggest metaphors. In what ways might a person be, metaphorically, a poem? (I want your wild guesses here; there are no wrong answers)
  2. Why a sonnet, do you think? Why not a rondeau or a cinquain?
  3. The poetic device called sibilance is conspicuous in this poem. What functions might be served by the use of sibilance here?
  4. Life, metaphorically, is a symphony, a dance, a comedy — something orchestrated, choreographed, managed in a way that the poet (who would be me) evidently believes to be a step up from an entropic, path-of-least-resistance lifestyle. How does the poem indicate — explicitly, or by use of rhetoric — that the poet doesn’t want this “managed” life to exclude spontaneity?

Music Heals!

(Suggestion: Listen to the movie and TV themes without watching, and play “guess the movie (or television show).” Really. I mean it. Do you have something better to do with the couple you’re having for dinner?

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Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

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Out of Order

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 33.1
Chapter 11: Living Poetically

What Does It Mean to ‘Live Poetically’?

Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady
Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

We are getting rather close to the end of this course, and I am finding bits and globs of material that should have been included earlier. If it’s a small bit or glob, I just quietly insert it. But if it’s a big fat key to the understanding of a major concept, which is the case here, I feel bound to call your attention to it. The left-out part is What Does It Mean to Live Poetically?” and I have stuck it in its logical place, namely, Chapter 11, “Living Poetically,” which began with Lesson 33. The new segment is Lesson 33.1 and you will find it here. 

A Living Poetically Fortune Cookie

I believe, when all is said and done, all you can do is show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change everything. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

redoute-four-1

Detour

The shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line

In the poetic life, the shortest possible distance between two points is not always a straight line

MAP LEGEND

  1. We plan to go to the Washington Monument (intended route = straight vertical line)
  2. Just as we are leaving, we receive emergency phone call: Grandma has fallen down the steps. We drive as quickly as possible to Grandma’s, dodging kangaroos along the route; Grandma is able to walk (a very good sign) and knows her name, what day it is, who is president of the U.S., etc.
  3. We take her to see Dr. Checkerout, who says that Grandma is hale and hardy and that the very best remedy for the small laceration on her left nostril (splinter on steps) would be to spend the day at the Washington Monument (Is that a coincidence, or WHAT?)
  4. We drive back to Grandma’s so that she can get her hat and camera and put on her walking shoes, and we set out again for the Washington Monument

  5. Oh, no! There is road construction in the vicinity of the Washington Monument; we must detour via Bermuda
  6. Well, since we have to go there anyway, we enjoy the sun and the surf in Bermuda, along with numerous tropical drinks containing rum; Grandma is sloshed, so we check in to a hotel
  7. We resume our trip to the Washington Monument the next morning, arriving without incident and having a wonderful time

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course
Lesson 34
Dealing Poetically with Adversity

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

roadsign_kangaroo2 

The poetic life is nothing if not flexible.

In the above diagram, the shortest distance (as the crow flies) from our house (upper left) and the Washington Monument is represented by a vertical arrow. Once we had learned of Grandma’s accident, however, it was not possible for us to take that route, poetically speaking. The shortest distance had become much longer. If you are going to live poetically, you need to use mystic math.

Mystic Math

(The Truth Is in the Poetry)

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door....

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door....

Is it so foolish to deny that 2
plus 2 must always equal 4? Because

one thinks immediately of Julio

and Jeanne next door, with twins, Celine and

quiet Jim — not counting Thor, the sheltie,

they are four indeed — but one in the

directory, one phone, one family,

one house, one home.

 

How many syllables comprise a poem?

How many deities are in the Trinity?

How many personalities have you, or I

(not in the psychopathic sense, of course,

although one wouldn’t know, would one, if there

were moments unaccounted for — so many

billion galaxies to travel in for

one a bit unraveled)?

 

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

And then there is the Christian marriage

ceremony, wherein 1 plus 1 make 1,

and during which the wedding guests affirm

that all are one in Christ.

 

One day, one night, together, they become —

a day. Once more, the sum of 1 plus 1

is 1, at least within the limits of

the English language — its vocabulary

vast, indeed, although, alas, not infinite.

 

fiddlepm_chair_istockAnd think of all those violins, violas,

cellos, basses, trumpets, clarinets,

trombones, and horns and cymbals, harps

and bells and such — and all the men and

women, dignified in black and white,

with all their individual concerns —

one widowed just a year ago tonight,

another six years clean and sober; to

her left, an oboist whose brother was

indicted yesterday for tax evasion; on

her right, a Pakistani having such

a frightful allergy attack — and the

conductor, who has just received a check

for twenty thousand dollars from the lottery—

but now she raises her baton — and

in that instant of anticipation, in

that sacred, silent metamorphosis, how

many, would you say, have they become?

 

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Four notes — three quick, one slow — are played:

the Fifth (but first, perhaps, in pure

and simple glory) symphony of Beethoven

begins… and in the audience,

a few may fidget, measuring

the minutes and intending to

retreat at intermission. Violinists

count the silent beats of idleness

between their passages, but, I imagine,

seldom ask themselves how many

notes they play in all, and just

as well, it wouldn’t change a thing. Do you

suppose there’s someone who, for fun

or scholarship, attempts to number all

the microbes in the hall, and further,

calculates the ratio of respirations that

occur between the second movement and

the third? For to be sure, it could

be quantified somewhere by some technology

or other. Fortunately, no one cares.

And that’s the point. They came, you see, to hear

the symphony.

 

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

Therefore, you’ll get no argument from me that 2 plus 2 are 4, not 3 or 17
or 20, but in turn you must forgive
the solecism I commit, suggesting there’s
a truer truth than anything that can
be proven by addition — if it were
not so, than why would anybody bother?
What would be the joy of noticing
this pattern or that symmetry? Do we
pursue a proof because the numerals
insist on our attention? I am sure
the stars care nothing of our counting
them or our refraining from it. Finding
order in the universe, or else
imposing it, or otherwise competing
in a race with chaos, really has a single
benefit — it satisfies, however
temporarily, the spirit, and
the truth, you find, is in the poetry,
not in the paper that it’s written on
or in the composition of the particles
that dart about at rates astonishingly
great — as we believe, for so the eye
of science witnesses, and since we give
it credibility, we cannot disagree.
 

...viruses or other microscopic entities....

...viruses and other microscopic entities....

It pleases us to cede authority

to science, even though we never see

the viruses and other microscopic

entities; but science offers remedies

for every manner of disease and warns

that to release a sneeze uncovered will

unleash a tyranny of demons; so

it seems, in our experience, and is

esteemed as fact, no longer theory…

because it matters. That’s the only

reason — saves a life, perhaps, or

fifty million. If the latter, is the

scientific effort fifty million times

more worthy? I don’t know.

You do the math.

 

by Sister Alma Rose

February 2006

“Galaxies,”  “tulips,” and “stars” images © Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

 tulips_magentas

The Ashley Incident

My son Jack and daughter-in-law Ashley live next door with their children, one of whom is Little Jack, who is almost a year old.

Computerized tomography (CT) scanner
Computerized tomography (CT) scanner

Last Sunday, I got a 7 a.m. phone call from Ashley. She was obviously in huge pain. I told her to go immediately to the hospital, where the emergency-room personnel discovered via numerous expensive high-tech methodologies that she was hemorrhaging, which I could have told them without the machines and the expense. After about six hours spent groaning in agony, Ashley was rushed to the operating room for exploratory surgery, anesthetized, split open like a salmon, and relieved of a couple of pints of blood and a ruptured ovarian cyst.

i-40_map
Red line = I-40

They sent her home on Tuesday, less than 48 hours after the surgery, with an incision the length of Interstate 40 and instructions not to lift the baby or any other heavy object for two weeks. This was one of those unfunded mandates doctors and hospitals are so fond of issuing, because of course they did not send Mary Poppins or Mr. T  home with Ashley.

“How,” I asked myself, “would a Person Living Poetically respond to Ashley’s dilemma?” This was not an idle question, because I tend to feel that I am to blame for everything, including World Hunger, and that everything is therefore my responsibility. I am a pathological People-Pleaser, and my default definition of myself (CONtentwise) is “one who ties up all the loose ends in the universe.”

As it happens, I had a lot to do this week, and Ashley’s plight arose at a very inconvenient time for me. I had deadlines to meet and telephone interviews to conduct and no clean underwear.

...telephone interviews to conduct...
…telephone interviews to conduct…

Theoretically, it would have been possible for me to keep to my schedule, just as it would have been possible for the Washington Monument–bound family to call 9-1-1 for Granny and go on its merry way. But if one has decided to live poetically, such choices are no longer simple. Another possibility would have been to help Ashley and grouse about it continually, moaning and groaning every time I had to carry little Jack from one room to another or, worse yet, up a flight of stairs, which I did, several times, moaning and groaning shamelessly because, after all, I didn’t drop him, so I attained the victory only slightly tarnished.

Aleutian Islands (triangles = active volcanoes)
Aleutian Islands (triangles = active volcanoes)

Fortunately, I had done the decluttering exercise in Lesson 5.1 and I had finished the personal inventory assigned in Lesson 13, so I wasn’t being a knee-jerk do-gooder when I decided to devote as much time as was needed to Ashley for as long as she needed it. Using the Golden Rule, it turns out, is a pretty good way of making decisions much of the time, and what I would want Others to Do unto Me, if I had just lost 25 percent or so of my blood supply and had major abdominal surgery and if I were lurching around due to the pain of an incision that looked like the Aleutian Islands, is, I would want Others to cater to my every whim and relieve me of all responsibility for babies, diapers, six-year-olds, meals, and the like.

Finnish macaroni casserole (photo by Suvi Korhonen)
Finnish macaroni casserole (photo by Suvi Korhonen)

So that is what I have been doing instead of attending to my blogs and my deadlines and my laundry. That, and accepting with gratitude the various casseroles and salads and desserts supplied by the Church Ladies, because that is what Church Ladies DO, just as helping one’s grown children when they are in need through no fault of their own (as opposed to being in need because they have screwed up Big Time) is what I do, when I am living poetically. 

Assignment 34.1

  1. Identify as many poetic devices as you can in “Mystic Math,” above.
  2. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  3. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.  

* * *

 

To the Core

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 20

Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
Part 1: Cleaning the Oven

 Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

   

Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Authentic art is not done for an audience. It is the Self communicating with the self (although, to be truly “finished,” art must be shared — not necessarily with the hoi polloi, but with somebody).

Does that mean that commissioned visual art, poetry, or music isn’t authentic? Is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel something less than genuine art?

I believe that most true artists, when they accept commissions, find a way to separate their art from — or to integrate it with — the expectations of their patrons. In some cases, commissioned works are rejected or, if accepted, despised. Usually, however, those who commission statues or symphonies are familiar with the artists’ previous work, and so they are not caught off guard when the sculptor they’ve engaged, who has produced dozens of mammoth sculptures that resemble the claws of vultures, gives them a clawlike monument for their money.

Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker
Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker

The Self communicating with the self

 

Author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, talking with host Krista Tippett on National Public Radio’s weekly program Speaking of Faith (August 14, 2008), said,    

I was in the depth of depression and I lived in anxiety about my life and my problems and my future. And one night I woke up in the middle of the night again feeling this sense of dread, and a phrase came into my head, which said, “I can’t live with myself any longer. I can’t live with myself any longer.” And that phrase went around in my head a few times and suddenly, I was able to stand back and look at that phrase: “I can’t live with myself any longer.” And I thought, “Oh, that is strange. I cannot live with myself. Who am I and who is the self that I cannot live with? Because there must be two of me here, if that phrase is correct.”

Most of us suffer, at one time or another, from “imposter syndrome.” We are afraid to let too much of ourselves show. We have public selves who are smiling and agreeable, and we have private selves who kick puppies — or who are afraid we might. When people seem to like us, we think, “Oh, if they knew what I really am deep down….”

Poets can be a broody lot…

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

…who in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table,
  resting briefly in catatonia,
returning years later truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and
  fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns
  of the East,
Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls, bickering with the
  echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnight solitude-bench
  dolmen-realms of love, dream of life a nightmare, bodies turned to
  stone as heavy as the moon….
 Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” Part I

Hot springs 

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

If writing poetry helps you peel away the superficial layers of the self toward a deeper consciousness, you might find some darkness before you reach the inner light — just as, if you could drill a hole through the earth, you would (depending on where you started) encounter a lot of muck and mire and stubborn stone before you came to the fiery magma. Some people begin their digging where the crust is thick, and they encounter dirt and rock and more rock until they give up, concluding that cold, hard rock is all that’s there.

But we are going to be intelligent and commence where the crust is thin and the magma is nearer the surface — someplace where there are geysers or hot springs, for example. If our goal is to penetrate to the core, why not do so where there is evidence that the core is, indeed, warm and bright.

It will not do to carry this metaphor too far. Our planet’s very center is actually extremely hot solid iron. It is in the outer core and surrounding mantle where magma is found; and where magma comes close to the earth’s surface, it makes its presence known through volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and other phenomena. 

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

So let’s abandon our earth-crust metaphor and use a very different simile instead: Reaching the shining inner self is a bit like cleaning an oven. You can scrape and scrub and bang your head several times on the oven’s rim; or you can — more easily and perhaps more poetically — pour a half-cup or so of household ammonia into a bowl, leave the ammonia-filled bowl in the closed oven overnight, let the ammonia fumes loosen the grime, and in the morning sponge away the mess with comparative ease.  

(I don’t have to tell you not to mix the ammonia with other cleaners or chemicals, right?) 

However you go about it, if you really want your oven to be clean, you persist, because you know that the baked-on grease is not the oven. It is simply among the contents of the oven. Eckhart Tolle writes, in The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,

You may not want to know yourself because you are afraid of what you may find out. Many people have a secret fear that they are bad. But nothing you can find out about yourself is you.

Nothing you can know about you is you.

Most people define themselves through the content of their lives…. When you think or say, “my life,” you are not referring to the life that you are but the life that you have, or seem to have. You are referring to content — your age, health, relationships, finances, work and living situation, as well as your mental-emotional state. The inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future, all belong to the realm of content — as do events, that is to say, anything that happens.

What is there other than content? That which enables the content to be — the inner space of consciousness.

Whenever I write a poem that arises from a dark place, I begin where my emotions are closest to the surface and I persist until the light appears. Here are three examples from my book Unfamiliar Territory:

THE OTHER SIDE

"The Other Side"Over on the other side, there is a quiet
cottage on a grassy slope, where trees
protect and decorate and cast their pleasing
shadows on the water; and where children,
hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing
in the breeze. Inside, bread rises in the
oven, herbs depend from oaken beams, and
last night’s chicken in its steaming broth becomes
this evening’s stew, tomorrow’s casserole. An
old man and a young man and a boy are sharing
rituals and mending fences, while a woman,
unaccountably serene, sips coffee, shuts her
eyes, and says a prayer of thanks for all that
providence provides.

But on this side are broken shutters, dusty
shelves, unanswered letters, leaves in piles, and
moldy flower beds; and seams half-sewn on
half-done dresses; half-forgotten words in
half-read books; and pressing obligations
half-remembered, half despaired of. Morning
struggles through the cloudy panes of windows —
gray and half-neglected or, perhaps, defied. A
pallid beam succeeds at last and penetrates the
barrier. It comes to rest upon the drooping
pothos, which persists in barely living, never
mind the diffidence its garden is.

The ray of sullen light turns motes of dust to
fireflies. At first they float at random; then they
glide; then, whimsical, they dance as if to
challenge gravity or chance; as if they
will their time aloft, to have an audience, to
shine like stars.
 

They catch the sun and flicker. They have won a
moment’s glory. Soon it ends, but they have shone.
 

On the other side are peace and order; on this
side is eagerness to cross the wide,
intimidating border, to be purposeful and
more, to yet achieve, to meet and to exceed an
expectation, even one—to finish what’s begun;
half-perfection wishing to be whole, to be
forgiven for attaining less than paradise. But for
all that, this side is painted with the brush that,
dipped in heaven’s glory, must in time adorn
the swale with yellow clover and, today, in dust
makes manifest the morning stars.
 

THE SUMMER OF GOING BAREFOOT  

"The Summer of Going Barefoot"When I was very small,
and I was very small indeed, and light on tiny
feet, I found some great, thick, heavy leather
boots, with soles like Frisbees, and I put them
on. I often had to carry heavy things, you
see, or so they seemed to me. I didn’t like to
feel that I was sinking down into the ground,
or wet sand at the waterside, or sliding on the
ice or falling through the snow.
  

A summer breeze would blow and tousle
leaves on maple trees, then make its way to
me, not stopping to say “By your leave,” but arcing
almost imperceptibly to lift and sweep away the
heavy things. Then I’d sit down, right where I was,
unlace the heavy boots, take off my socks, and
chase the wind. The load was my responsibility, you
see, or so it seemed to me. But who can catch the
wind? Not I. There was no cause for worry, I soon
realized, and I stopped hurrying and felt how
free I was and loved the feeling of the sand, like gentle
hands massaging me. I lay down in a grassy place and
felt the ground resist and then embrace me, or, maybe,
the other way around.

I could have stayed for hours and
watched as clouds like giant puffballs skidded through
the sky and seabirds rose and watched, then dove into
the ocean. Slowly, steadily, the gentle sun caressed
me on its progress to the far side of the earth. I might
have slept awhile, for all too soon the sun was
low, the grass was cold.

The years flew by. I hadn’t worn my boots or even
thought about them till the day I felt the weight again. It
only ached a bit at first, but It grew heavy with alarming
speed. I needed boots without delay, so I gave everything
I had away to buy a pair and slip them on. The load became
so big I couldn’t see where it began or ended. Winters chilled
my bones without relief, and summer heat bore down, and I
was sure it was the earth itself that I was carrying. My soles
were almost bare by now, and I had lost myself.
 

One summer day a little bright-eyed bird was perched upon
the sand, and she, and she alone, seemed sympathetic, so
together we trudged on a bit, until I almost tripped upon a
man; he sat so still, and he was so serene, it seemed to me
that he might give me some advice, so tired was I and so
dispirited. He smiled and stretched his hands to me; I
thought that he would take the weight away, but he just tipped
it till it fell and rolled into the bay and out to sea and disappeared.

“Now give your boots to me,” he said, but they’d become a part of
me—so I believed. “Just try,” he said, and I untied them easily and
peeled them off my feet. “Now fly,” he said. My little bird and I ran
barefoot down the beach, and laughed to feel the sand and
see the daylight once again. We turned and waved to
him, and then we flew away.
 

ANNA SIGHS   

All-engorging, thick with vile effluvium, and
restive, Night still heaves against the pane and
probes the porous mortar, thus to gain a
continent, and breathe again, but holding breath
within, as if release would leave it spent of form and
substance, vanished in a photon storm.
 

No, to find fragility and penetrate, just as the hungry
sea assaults the levee where it groans, and swallows up the
shore—except that Night can but devour and look for
more, can ebb but not abate, for it is powerless to
moderate its gluttony, nor would it,
if it could.

Anna tosses in her sleep, and if she feels the indolent
oppression, swollen with its kill, she feels it
inwardly, and moans, the speech of wan resistance,
drained of will, a feeble protestation, habit murmuring,
“I am.” Something in her knows the enemy and would
arrest it, summoning a name, essaying ownership.
It rises out of bounds before the net is thrown.
 

Bereft of thought and consciousness, it senses
nonetheless that I alone am here to watch and to
resist — to fill the lamp until the fuel is gone.
 

One forgets at midnight that this too will pass; not even
Night outlasts the unremitting circle. But at midnight one
unreasoning expends what has been grown and gathered
season after season, sacrifices every treasure, throws
into the flame a hundred fragile artifacts, to gain a moment’s
clarity. At midnight, friends have settled in and locked their
doors, oblivious to ghastly appetite, now thickened by the
certainty that Anna will comply and abdicate her shape, to be a
pool, a fog, and then evaporate.
 

Perhaps she dreams that Night will hide her face and nobody
will notice that the Anna space, once occupied by negligible
molecules, is vacant now. But Night and I were taken by
surprise; we had forgotten that the planet turns. At sunrise,
the tenacious lamp still burns, and
Anna sighs.

 

In “The Other Side,” I began in frustration, approaching despair, over the orderliness of my sister’s and my daughter’s lives compared to my own chaotic existence. In “The Summer of Going Barefoot,” I work through a spell of depression by recalling the liberation from my first, and most debilitating, depression episode. When I wrote “Anna Sighs,” I was struggling with a demanding, draining, and unsatisfying employment experience, one in which I felt irrelevant and invisible.

When I began writing these poems, I didn’t know how they would end, except in light. I wasn’t sure how the light would appear — only that I was reaching toward it.

Assignment 20.1

Write a poem about one source of emotional turmoil in your life. Your poem should

  • work toward enlightment about, not necessarily resolution of, the tumultuous situation, your feelings about it, and your responsibility for it

  • identify the emotion or the situation metaphorically (For example, if you are stressed beyond endurance by an incorrigible son or daughter, you might be “a blade of grass in the jaws of a wildebeest.”)

  • contain a first-person perspective (that is, there must be an “I” narrator)

  • have a regular, rhythmic meter

  • consist of thirty lines or fewer

  • contain rhyme, though the rhyming need not be at the ends of the lines

Please e-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return it to you with comments.

* * *

 

 

 

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Metaphorical You

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 19
Chapter 7 (continued): Metaphorically Speaking

All the Animals You Are

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Blake was a painter as well as a poet. Here is Blake's *The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun* (1805)

Blake was a painter as well as a poet. Here is Blake's *The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun* (1805)

Sharpen your intellectual claws. We are going to attack (metaphorically) one of the most famous and admired poems in English literature, “The Tiger” (or “The Tyger”), by William Blake (1757–1827). First, though, you’ll read another of Blake’s poems, “The Lamb,” which is often studied as a contrast to “The Tiger.”

THE LAMB

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

THE TIGER

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Jargon to impress your friends

William Blake's Title Plate for *Songs of Experience*

William Blake's title plate for *Songs of Experience*

Here’s a bit of vocabulary that you can use to sound really smart when discussing the mechanics of these poems:

Quatrain — Four-line stanza, usually containing a rhyme scheme. “The Tiger” consists of six quatrains.

Rhyme scheme — Pattern of rhymes in verse. A different letter represents each rhyming sound. In “The Lamb,” the rhyme scheme of the first eight lines is AABBCCDD. In “The Tiger,” the rhyme scheme of each quatrain is AABB, if you allow eye and symmetry to rhyme. Blake might have been indulging in “near rhyme” (half rhyme, slant rhyme) there. It’s also possible that the words were pronounced differently in the late 1700s, when Blake wrote the poem. Or there might be intentional irony in the nonrhyming couplet, which is, in a sense, not symmetrical. (Other common quatrain rhyme schemes are ABAB, ABBA, and ABCB.)

Couplet — Pair of consecutive rhyming lines. In “The Tiger,” each quatrain has two couplets.

Foot — A group of 2 or 3 syllables — one stressed, one or two unstressed — forming a “metrical unit,” the basic unit of poetic rhythm (TI-ger is a foot in “The Tiger.” Compare with “ARE you // GO-ing to // SCAR-bor-ough // FAIR,” which combines two-syllable and three-syllable feet.)

Trochaic foot (trochee) — A two-syllable foot, in poetry, in which the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed, as in the four trochees “PE-ter, // PE-ter, // PUMP-kin // EAT-er” (as well as in “TI-ger, // TI-ger, // BURN-ing // BRIGHT.” The absence of a final unstressed syllable [which would be present if Blake had written “TI-ger, TI-ger, BURN-ing BRIGHT-ly”] is called catalexis).

Iambic foot (iamb) — A two-syllable foot, in poetry, in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed (Christopher Marlowe‘s famous line “Come LIVE // with ME // and BE // my LOVE” consists of four iambs.)

Tetrameter — A line of poetry in which there are four metrical feet (All the examples above are either in trochaic tetrameter or, as in the Marlowe line, in iambic tetrameter.)

Trimeter — A line of poetry in which there are three metrical feet (In “The Lamb,” the first two lines are in trochaic trimeter; the following six lines are in troachic tetrameter with catalexis.)

Frontispiece, by William Blake, for *Songs of Innocence and of Experience*

Frontispiece, by William Blake, for *Songs of Innocence and of Experience*

Observe how Blake uses, in addition to metaphor, the following rhetorical devices in the two poems:

Anaphora — Repetition of words or phrases at the beginnings of lines

Alliteration — Repetition of the same beginning letter or sound for words in a series or in close proximity

Cacophony — Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose; note that harshness comes from hard consonant sounds (K, T, and CH, for example) as well as word meanings (The cacophony in “Tiger” contrasts markedly with the euphony in “Lamb.”)

Euphony — The opposite of cacophony — pleasant-sounding, perhaps mellifluous; note that pleasing sounds come from soft consonants (such as L, R, and V) as well as word meanings

A poem you can sink your teeth into

“The Tyger” seems to provide unending food for thought, which is one of the things that make it a truly great poem. Here is one analysis:

Of course, there can be no gainsaying [denying] that the tiger symbolizes evil, or the incarnation of evil, and that the lamb (Line 20) represents goodness, or Christ. Blake’s inquiry is a variation on an old philosophical and theological question: Why does evil exist in a universe created and ruled by a benevolent God?  Blake provides no answer. His mission is to reflect reality in arresting images. A poet’s first purpose, after all, is to present the world and its denizens in language that stimulates the aesthetic sense; he is not to exhort or moralize. Nevertheless, the poem does stir the reader to deep thought. Here is the tiger, fierce and brutal in its quest for sustenance; there is the lamb, meek and gentle in its quest for survival. Is it possible that the same God who made the lamb also made the tiger? Or was the tiger the devil’s work? —Cummings Study Guides, accessed November 4, 2008

This commentator sees the tiger as a symbol of evil and the lamb as a symbol of Christ. I respectfully gainsay his or her view. A symbol can be but is not always a metaphor. A handshake might symbolize friendship or agreement, but it is not a metaphor for friendship or agreement, just as the U.S. flag is not, in itself, a metaphor for our country.

William Blake, in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips

William Blake, in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips

The writer fails to consider “The Tiger,” which appeared in Blake’s book Songs of Experience, in relationship to “The Lamb,” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence. (Blake considered the two books a unit and published them together, as Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.) Another shortcoming of the reviewer’s analysis, in my opinion, is that it assumes a conventional attitude toward religion, Christianity, God, and Christ that Blake did not possess.

He did not hold with the doctrine of God as Lord, an entity separate from and superior to mankind; this is shown clearly in his words about Jesus Christ: “He is the only God … and so am I, and so are you.” —Wikipedia, accessed November 4, 2008

Finally, it’s not at all clear that Blake saw his metaphorical tiger as pure evil — the lamb and the tiger are not necessarily opposites — but rather as beautiful and terrifying.

Because scholars have for over two hundred years continued to debate the complex message of “The Tiger” without reaching consensus, I shall boldly contribute my own theory: The lamb (both in the poem “The Lamb” and in the allusion to the lamb in “The Tiger”) are metaphors for facets of the human personality, including Blake’s own inner angels and demons, and the “contrary states” of human life.

When one is young and innocent — untested — one is “tender,” “meek,” “mild.” (Need I mention that Blake and his wife and lifelong companion, Catherine Boucher Blake, had no children?) With adulthood comes experience and power, to be used for good or ill. One does not stop altogether being a “lamb” when one gains the “fearful symmetry” of a “tiger.”

The following analysis of “The Tiger” presents a more refined understanding, I think, of the poem and its intricacy:

The reference to the lamb in the penultimate [second-from-the-last] stanza reminds the reader that a tiger and a lamb have been created by the same God, and raises questions about the implications of this. It also invites a contrast between the perspectives of “experience” and “innocence” represented here and in the poem “The Lamb.” “The Tyger” consists entirely of unanswered questions, and the poet leaves us [in]… awe at the complexity of creation, the sheer magnitude of God’s power, and the inscrutability of divine will. The perspective of experience in this poem involves a sophisticated acknowledgment of what is unexplainable in the universe, presenting evil as the prime example of something that cannot be denied, but will not withstand facile explanation, either. The open awe of “The Tyger” contrasts with the easy confidence, in “The Lamb,” of a child’s innocent faith in a benevolent universe.Sparknotes.com, accessed November 4, 2008

Assignment 19.1

What animal are you?

Regardless of Blake’s intention — and who’s to say that it was static and fully formed even as he wrote the poems? — I believe it’s fair to say that we are all, metaphorically, at different times and in different situations, an entire menagerie. Throughout history and literature, people have been compared to and represented as lions, puppies, rats, mice, panthers, fawns, even elephants.

I wrote “The Kitten” (below) strictly to illustrate this lesson — as a metaphor for my own vulnerability — not to win any poetry prizes. I live alone now, but I was once pampered and protected. I can be sturdy and resilient — like, say, a Saint Bernard. I can be an “eager beaver.” Sometimes I like to hibernate, like a bear. But occasionally — when, for example, I have to carry a bag of groceries home from the store, or when the plumbing gets stopped up, or when I’m weary or just plain lonely — I’d enjoy being treasured and taken care of.

THE KITTEN

I am a kitten, wishing to lie
in a soft, sunny spot with my lover nearby,
to be fed when I’m hungry and stroked when I sigh
and held all through the night when the wind rises high.

Your assignment is to write something similar — it needn’t be in the form of a rhyming poem; a few lines of graceful prose will do as well — about yourself. Begin with the words “I am a,” then name the animal you are, and describe a few of that animal’s features that are like your own characteristics.

Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return it to you with comments.

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Sidebar: Face of America?

Vitriol in Print

Senator John McCain

Senator John McCain

I searched the Internet for metaphorical characterizations of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama and got my eyes scorched (metaphorically, of course). What ever happened to, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? That was Every Mother’s chastisement, at least back in the 1950s. My own dear mom, were she alive, would primly disapprove of the (metaphorical) vitriol being (metaphorically) hurled at these two remarkable public servants.

I Googled “John McCain is a” and “Barack Obama is a” to see how the candidates are being represented metaphorically. Of course, I had to wade through a lot of nonsense and nonmetaphorical predicate nominatives: John McCain is a socialist, Barack Obama is a socialist, Barack Obama is an elitist, Barack Obama is a Muslim, John McCain is an old fart, John McCain is a coward, and so forth.

Hardly anyone had anything nice to say.

But when we go to our polling places next Tuesday, we will not be voting for a metaphor. We will be voting for a flesh-and-blood human being who might (metaphorically) be the face of America for the next four years. (Three different precincts vote in the church in which I live. Do you think any of these precincts is my precinct? No-o-o-o-o! I have to walk six blocks to Dewey Park!)

Senator Barack Obama

Senator Barack Obama

The literal meaning of maverick, by the way, is “an unbranded range animal (especially a stray calf).” The term originated in 1867, referring to a “‘calf or yearling found without an owner’s brand,’ in allusion to Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), Texas cattle owner who was negligent in branding his calves. Sense of ‘individualist, unconventional person’ is first recorded 1886, via notion of ‘masterless.'” —Online Etymology Dictionary

Here’s a sample of my search results (If many of these metaphors were on the mark, I would write in the name of my son-in-law, Paul, as I usually do when there’s no one on the ballot who deserves my vote, as was the case in 2004):

  • John McCain is a maverick
  • John McCain is a corporation’s worst nightmare
  • John McCain is a pirate
  • John McCain is a monster
  • John McCain is a superman
  • John McCain is a Walking Senior Moment
  • John McCain is America
  • Barack Obama is a Mac (and Hillary Clinton is a PC)
  • Barack Obama is a flake
  • Barack Obama is a terrorist’s best friend
  • Barack Obama is a blessing to the USA
  • Barack Obama is a popular Mii
  • Barack Obama is a work of art
  • Barack Obama is a disaster

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Everybody Wants to Be Happy

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 18
Chapter 7 (continued): Metaphorically Speaking

Someone Is Seething

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It’s a good thing to let people know how much you like them. It’s strange but true that people usually forget to do that, but then when you see how the littlest compliment can make a person sit up lively you say to yourself, oh yeah. —Elizabeth Berg, Joy School

Objects

 

I asserted in Chapter 1 of this course that “reality is essentially nonphysical — love and truth and desire and ideas are ‘more real’ and certainly more powerful than tables and chairs….” Our choices and actions are motivated by concepts, or abstractions — wanting, needing, wondering, questioning, grieving, imagining — not by objects.

Chapter 2 began with the observation that “everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants Good Feelings. We are spiritual beings whose natural attributes are joy and peace. Our native habitat is the Here and Now, and life is ‘a parade of odd and wonderful events.'”

If objects brought happiness, then the person with the most objects — the greatest number of possessions — would be the happiest. This is manifestly not the case.

  • Research has shown that the poorest people and the richest people are about equal on the happiness scale, which is to say that they are equally unhappy. It’s the folks in the middle – those who have enough, who enjoy what they have, and who enjoy sharing it – who are the happiest.
  • “Close relationships, more than personal satisfaction or one’s view of the world as a whole, are the most meaningful factors in happiness. If you feel close to other people, you are four times as likely to feel good about yourself than if you do not feel close to anyone. -Magen, Birenbaum, and Pery 1996” (1)
19th-century cottages in Crafton, Buckinghamshire

19th-century cottages in Crafton, Buckinghamshire

A family scrimps and saves to buy a house. They find the cottage of their dreams, they agonize over whether to paint the parlor Eggshell or Winter White, they spend hours examining carpet samples that (to the untrained eye) look exactly alike. They put up tasteful wallpaper. They purchase “window treatments.” They reupholster Grandmother’s priceless Eastlake-style furniture. They decorate little Marianna’s bedroom to resemble a princess’s chamber, compete with four-poster bed and organza canopy.

One evening Dad has to work late, and when he finally turns his car into their cozy cul-de-sac, he sees that the cottage of their dreams is engulfed in flames. Is he worried about Grandmother’s furniture or the trendy window treatments? No; he has to be restrained by firefighters from charging into the burning building to rescue Mom and little Marianna. Nothing else matters. The objects aren’t important. He can’t breathe, he can’t think – until one of the firefighters guides him to a neighbor’s yard, where Mom and Marianna are sitting, shaken but otherwise unharmed, sipping hot chocolate. His world comes back into focus. All is well.

It is one’s abstract, intangible relationship to objects — not the objects themselves — that define one’s reality. Years ago I had to sell my father’s Morris chair, which I inherited when he died, in order to pay the rent. I loved that chair. It was comfortable. It was beautiful. It bore the indelible imprint of my dad’s bony butt. Years later, I bought another chair, a prettier, more comfortable chair, a “better” chair, as objects go. But I still miss the Morris chair.

Fantastic Security System

Fantastic Security System

It’s the intangibles that matter. Physical objects function as metaphors for feelings and ideas – which is not to say that food and shelter are unimportant but rather that they are important only in the context of our need and desire for them.

Do you sleep more peacefully at night because of your security system or the locks on your doors? You could feel just as safe with a pair of dragons guarding the house, or with the knowledge that all the bad guys had finally been incarcerated. Your goal is the intangible sense of safety, by whatever means it is achieved. Security systems, locks, dragons are nothing to you except as metaphors for safety.

Below is an excerpt from Guy Deutcher’s marvelous book The Unfolding of Language. It demonstrates how our language, and how all languages, for that matter, are strings of metaphors – not used in poetry or in poetic prose but in practical, everyday speech and writing.

Metaphors are everywhere, not only in language, but also in our mind…. Metaphor is an indispensable element in the thought-processes of every one of us… because metaphor is the chief mechanism through which we can describe and even grasp abstraction….

Metaphors which have become commonplace… are dismissed asdead metaphors…. They have come to be used so often in their metaphorical abstract sense that all semblance of their former vitality has been lost and they have firmly established themselves as the stock-in-trade of ordinary language….

People speaking of troubles brewing, anger simmering, resentment boiling, fanaticism fermenting, employees seething (literally: “boiling”) with discontent. People chew over new suggestions and digest new information…. We can have sweet dreams, bitter hatreds, sour relations, or half-baked ideas….

Someone Is Seething

Someone Is Seething

* * *

Sarah was thrilled to discover that the assessment board had decided to make her barmy rival redundant, after she suggested that he had made sarcastic insinuations about his employers….

Almost every word in [the sentence above]… was once a thriving image. If one puts the flesh back on these dry bones, and restores them to their original vitality, the result will be something like this:

Sarah was pierced to un-cover that the sitting-by plank had cut off to make her full-of-froth person-from-the-river overflowing, after she carried-under that he had made flesh-tearing twistings about those who fold him.

  • The word “thrill”… goes back to an Old English verb thyrlian, which originally meant “pierce” (and, incidentally, is related to the word nos-thryl, “nostril,” or “nose-hole”)….
  • “Rival” comes from Latin rivalis, meaning someone who shares the same river….
  • “Suggest” comes from Latin sub-gerere, “carry under”….
  • “Employ” comes ultimately from Latin plicare, “to fold”….

One could pick hundreds of other examples of abstract concepts, and the result would always be the same. They can’t help but go back to some terms from the physical world. Quite simply, then, metaphors flow from the concrete to the abstract because we need them to….

Suppose for a moment that there was no word around to describe “having” something. How would you go about expressing the notion? …Many languages today (most, in fact) don’t have a verb that corresponds to the English “have,” and so they use other ways of expressing possession…:

Russian
U menja kniga
at me book
“the book (is) at me” (= I have a book) ….

So or Soo (a Kuliak language, spoken in Uganda)
mek Auca eo-a kusin
aren’t Auca home-in clothes
“Clothes aren’t in Auca’s home” (= Auca has no clothes)….

Scratch a bit deeper… and you will find hundreds of metaphors that are no longer even identifiable remains, but merely dried-up skeletons whose original literal meanings have long been lost….

  • But comes from Old English be-utan, “by the outside.”
  • Except comes from Latin ex-cipere, “out-shut.”

[The author goes on to point out that “common intuition” understood the connection between space and time thousands of years before Einstein.] In language – any language – no two domains are more intimately linked than space and time…. We invariably speak of time in terms of space… [because] we think of time in terms of space. Consider some of the simplest words we use to describe spatial relations: prepositions such as in, at, by, from, to, behind, with, through. The examples below… show that all these spatial terms function just as well in the domain of …[time relationships]: 

Spatial relations already entail some degree of abstraction, since they are not things of substance that can directly be observed. (You cannot point at a “through,” for instance, any more than you can directly observe an “in.”) So might words for spatial terms in fact develop from something even simpler and more solid?

…There is hardly any part of the body which has not been enlisted as a metaphor for spatial and more abstract concepts, as the following examples illustrate.

“belly” →  “middle,” Albanian
në bark të javës
in belly-the week (= the middle of the week) ….

“mouth” → “in front of,” Mursi (spoken in Ethiopia)
dori tutuo
house mouth.of
“mouth of the house” (= in front of the house)

 (1) The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It, by David Niven, Ph.D

Next: Metaphorical You

Person, Place, or Thing

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 17
Chapter 7: Metaphorically Speaking
Part 1: Things That Don’t Go Bump in the Night

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Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)

[A National Public Radio reporter] said that for some people “Medicare was literally their lifeline.” That is a shocking misuse of literal…. The correct thing to say would be, “Medicare is their virtual lifeline.” [A literal lifeline is]… a rope or a cord on a boat to which sailors can cling to prevent them from falling into the water. [The reporter meant that] Medicare is like a lifeline; it is a figurative lifeline. —From a listener’s letter to NPR.org, published March 29, 2005

Baby boomers’ almost comic fear of aging reminds me of that silent movie scene in which Harold Lloyd hangs precariously from the hand of a giant clock, literally pulling time from its moorings [emphasis added by the editor].  —New York Timessyndicated columnist Maureen Dowd, “Recline Yourself, Resign Yourself, You’re Through,” April 13, 2005

Let us focus for a moment on the difference between literal expressions and nonliteral expressions. By so doing, we will begin to understand how the truth of poetry is genuine and necessary, and we will perhaps not embarrass ourselves by having our grammatical lapses called to the attention of the entire English-speaking public.

The untidiness of nouns

How well I remember sitting in Miss McCluskey’s cozy classroom at Dundee Elementary School, wrapped in the schoolroom scents of floor polish, eraser dust, books and paper and Miss McCluskey’s talcum powder, and mesmerized by her passion for parsing sentences. How wonderful to have such power over words, assigning the parts of speech to their proper places in sentences such as “Jane gave the ball to Jim” and “Jane gave Jim the ball.”

Jane Is Generous

Figure 1: Jane Is Generous

It was all so easy then, learning that a noun is “a person, place, or thing,” and the things were always stuff you could handle or eat or touch or see or at least wrap your mind around, like marshmallow, cow, apple, Cincinnati, and Mother.

Just when you thought you’d mastered the concept, you got promoted to the next grade and they threw stuff at you like this:

Jane was gripped by excruciating fear.

Some of my fellow pupils in Miss Rubelman’s class, the future social scientists, actually spared a thought or two for poor Jane and her terror. Why was she so afraid? Was she in an airplane plummeting toward a shark-infested sea? Had her boyfriend, Ned, found out that she was really at the amusement park with Victor when she’d told Ned she was visiting Monique at the hospital? Or was it existential angst wrought by the uncertainties of contemporary society?

A majority of the class cared nothing about Jane and her problems or about the meaning of excruciating. It was almost time for recess.

But a few of us had already diagrammed the sentence, as follows: 

Jane Is Afraid

Figure 2: Jane Is Afraid

Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

It was as easy to identify the noun — the object of the preposition by (In this case, fear) — as it would have been if Jane had been gripped by a gorilla. Even so, a noun such as fear — not a person, not a place, not exactly a thing — didn’t fit neatly into the little noun-world we had learned about. Suddenly nouns weren’t so tidy. In fact, the whole noun business got out of hand in a hurry. Nouns could be collective, concrete, countable, uncountable, animate, inanimate, mass, proper, and any number of other things — gerunds, infinitives, and on and on and on.

This, I believe, is where the entire population of the world separates itself into two groups: (1) people who care about nouns, in any form, as well as verbs and conjunctions and subordinate clauses, and (2) people who realize that it’s just going to get more complicated from here on out and it’s probably time to become interested in the opposite sex. I, alas, was One who Cared.

The people who want to know more about the subjunctive mood, and why “if he were at the party” is different from “if he was at the party”; the people to whom it matters whether to use which or that, as in “It was the pollen that made my eyes water, not the mold, which makes me sneeze” — these people study Latin because verb conjugations aren’t enough for them, they want noun declensions too. These people are doomed to forever probe the Nature of Things, if for no other reason than to line them up in sentence diagrams.

These people eventually become English majors. You read about them in the newspapers, running their cars off the road while proofreading billboards: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette shou—!” And as the EMTs carry the crash victim’s mangled body to the ambulance, he or she moans, “As a cigarette should. Not like a cigarette should….”

But this would come later. In elementary school, the future English majors/car-crash survivors were reveling in our discoveries about nouns. A noun could actually be not just a single word —

      Jane found a cat

— but a whole bunch of words: clauses, clauses within clauses, entire sentences containing three or four prepositional phrases

Jane found a haunted house in which lived a family of lizards that could speak in Cantonese

Better yet, nouns could be things that weren’t items but were instead ideas, feelings, concepts, and other intangibles — “things” that can’t be touched, seen, smelled, tasted, or heard. Instead of thinking about her cat, Jane might be thinking about…

…the dichotomy of good and evil
…a method of separating egg whites and yolks
…her future as a thoracic surgeon
…her desire to throttle her little brother

The nouns dichotomy, good, evil, separating (here, a gerund), method, future, and desire describe “things” — real, actual, important things — that cannot be discerned by the five physical senses.

The five senses: their usefulness and their limitations

We depend so keenly on the five physical senses that the absence of any one of them is tragic. We pity the blind and the deaf, and those whose sense of touch is lost through paralysis.

The senses of taste and smell are less important; we don’t depend on them for survival, as our primitive ancestors might have. Most of us buy our mushrooms at the grocery store and get our drinking water out of a tap or a bottle. We trust that the grocery-store people don’t stock poisonous mushrooms and that Evian water is pure and clean. Most of the time, our assumptions are justified.

There are people in this world who have virtually lost the use of all five senses and have yet managed to convey the rich, internal, spiritual life they are experiencing. Such people are rare, and few of us would voluntarily surrender any of our five senses as a path to spiritual purification. Certain individuals do, however, practice sensory deprivation — on purpose — by spending days or weeks in caves. Sometimes the reason for this isolation is to develop what the practitioners consider “spiritual senses” — ways of perceiving that are independent of the five physical senses.

I hope that you’ll be able to grasp this concept in the comfort of your home. Cave-dwelling isn’t for everyone. There are inconveniences, such as, for example, the proximity of bats.

My apartment is in an active ninety-year-old church, which is clean and well kept, with modern offices and classrooms and a magnificent sanctuary. But all of us here deal with the occasional bat. People will be chatting in hallways or gathering in their classes when — inexplicably to the clueless observer — everyone screams and runs in some random direction, inevitably smashing into each other in their panic. Bats can be very startling.

This is especially true if a couple of them fly out from behind your shower while you are showering in it. It’s even worse if the bathroom door is closed and they keep flying around in that erratic sonar-guided way they have, so that you have no idea where they’ll end up or which way to dodge. I speak from experience. One minute I was showering, the next I was naked in the living room, having gotten there without traversing the distance in between, making me the only human being who has ever, literally, made a quantum leap.

As useful and necessary as the physical senses may be for informing you of the presence of bats, they (the senses, and no doubt the bats as well) are incapable of perceiving abstractions — intangible things — ideas, beliefs, and emotions such as fear, love, happiness, and disgust, as illustrated in Table 1.

Yuck

Table 1: Yuck

Sometimes people make the mistake of classifying tangible things as real and intangibles as unreal. A parent will comfort a child who wakes up in the night, frightened by a dream or an unexplained noise, by saying, “It’s all right. It was only a dream,” or, “It was only your imagination.” Yet it is these intangibles — imagination, dreams, and others, such as love and vengeance — that propel us through life.

All language is, of course, metaphor. A word is only a symbol of the thing or action it represents. And, as we shall discover, virtually every word in every language — even conjunctions and prepositions — originates in metaphor.

Lesson 17.1 Assignment

Find at least ten examples of metaphors in this lesson. E-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.

 

Witches and Metaphors

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 15
Chapter 5: The Creaky Old House

 

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An Introduction to Poetic Devices

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado — A far cry from Smelly Creek

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado — A far cry from Smelly Creek

I grew up in a big, old house that creaked. It was especially creaky just when I was trying to fall asleep at night. The creaking was sinister, my brother, Johnny, told me. Actually, he probably didn’t say “sinister”; it would have come out “thinithter.” I think the word he used was “demonic.”

Ours was a fine, solid, gabled, Tudor-style house set about halfway down a long hill, which terminated at Smelly Creek. If we were playing ball in the front yard, and the ball got loose, it usually rolled into the storm drain. We would run or bicycle as fast as we could down the hill, trying to beat the ball to the creek. The ball always won.

The youngest, weakest kid on the scene – usually me – got bullied into retrieving the ball. It was only a matter of removing your shoes and socks, rolling up your pant legs, and wading into the sludge a couple of feet. This was not the Oneonta Gorge.

The problem was that eventually we would have to go inside and face our parents, who had a preternatural sensitivity to Smelly Creek fumes. Even if you’d washed the mud off your legs and feet with the hose, they Knew. The odor of Smelly Creek gets into your lymph nodes or something.

Evil in the attic

I hated bedtime and the sinister creaking of the house a lot worse than I hated getting in trouble about Smelly Creek.

Where did the creaking come from? It depended on whom you asked. Both my brother and my dad were very good at explaining things. Dad’s explanations were gentle and reassuring. Johnny’s explanations were creative and lurid.

Dad’s explanation. “Houses – especially old houses – creak because of changes in heat and humidity.

“Heat and humidity make things expand, the way our front door and the frame around it expand in summertime. (They expand toward each other until they are actually touching, which makes them ‘sticky’ and hard to open.)

“When things get cooler or drier, or both, they contract – that is, they get smaller. That’s why our front door opens much more easily and smoothly in the winter.

“When the air gets cooler at night, the change in temperature makes things in our house, including the floorboards, contract. If it is wintertime and our furnace goes on and off throughout the night, the floorboards will warm and cool, warm and cool, as the furnace changes the air temperature.

A Resident of Our Attic

A Resident of Our Attic

“The creaking sound is the expansion and contraction of the floorboards and other parts of the house.”

Johnny’s explanation. “Witches and monsters live in our attic. Dozens of them. The witches are green and warty, and the monsters are slimy, hairy, warty giants, with worms slithering out of the warts. At night they come out of their hiding places and they plot their wickedness. They are probably hungry. I wonder what they like to eat?”

(On two sides of our attic, near the angle of the roof’s steep slope and the floor, my parents had built long, narrow closets. From the doorway, which was on one end, you couldn’t see the wall of the far end, even with a flashlight. For all I knew, those closets stretched to Argentina. Certainly they were roomy enough for a few dozen warty witches and slimy monsters and maybe a couple of smallish dragons.)

Quiz: Which explanation was correct?

(a) Dad’s, the scientific, rational one

(b) Johnny’s, the “make-believe,” sadistic one

(c) Neither

(d) Both

  • The correct answer is (d) Both.

The witches and monsters were real enough, but they didn’t live in the attic. They lived in my mind – as metaphors for fears I couldn’t name. By personifying my nighttime terrors, my brother gave me a method of escape: I could sleep at a friend’s house or I could crawl in bed with my parents (which, now that I think about it, might very well be why I am the youngest child).

A few times, as a last resort, I slept in the bathtub, with all the lights on. Somehow I just couldn’t envision witches and monsters in our cheerful bathroom with shiny yellow tile. I stopped taking refuge in the bathroom when Johnny told me about the flesh-eating cockroaches.

The monsters in my mind

Pink-cheeked child by day, quivering puddle of protoplasm by night, I heard every creak as a monster’s stealthy progress toward his supper. But if it hadn’t been for the haunted attic, I would have had to find something else to be afraid of.

Radio City Music Hall

Radio City Music Hall

Scary times

Right around the time I was born, a lot of bad things happened to our family: deaths of close relatives, polio, pneumonia, and other troubles, one right after the other, like a bunch of homicidal Rockettes parading onstage at Radio City Music Hall.

While my mom was pregnant with me, she had surgery on an ovarian tumor – just a few inches from where I was curled up, sucking my thumb and reading The Return of the Native, to get it over with. Surgery to remove an ovarian tumor during pregnancy isn’t exactly a walk in the park even today, with the availability of Modern Medical Advances such as

(a)   Sharpie Permanent Markers, which have made the old Random Amputation and Hit-or-Miss Mastectomy systems obsolete;

(b)   miraculous new antibiotics; and

(c)   even more miraculous new bacteria that go “Nyah, nyah, nyah” to the new antibiotics and zoom off to overrun entire subcontinents while the new antibiotics are still in basic training, learning to salute.

So imagine how terrifying this surgery must have been to my mother in 1947 – long before hospitals had acquired advanced lifesaving technology – when the practice of medicine was so primitive that your invoice was written in pencil on one of those pads of newsprint-type paper with blue carbon-paper backing that made a mess all over your hands. But the fees were much lower then (Item: Bullet to bite on ……… 8 cents).

Babies feel the sadness and fear that surround them. When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

That sadness and fear stuck to me for years, especially at night. Daytime was a different story. I was a happy child when the sun was shining and there were books to look at and friends to play with… brave souls with whom I even ventured into the attic, a cozy retreat on a winter afternoon.

But at night, alone in my bed, I was beset by (literally) nameless fears — until Johnny named them: Gruntilda, Aradia, Sasquatch, Bozaloshtsh, the Blob, Hecate, Medea, the Giant Frog Creature, Professor McGonagall, and, of course, (1) Aundulim, Baurobalinirng, Calroth, Falul, Gbargot, Ingoglor, Mamorgur, Orirchaur, Thau, Thaug. Knowing your adversary’s name might be cold comfort, but it’s better than no comfort.

Draw me a picture

Fears are intangible. You can’t draw a picture of “a fear.” The cause — a rhinoceros charging toward you in Sumatra — and the effects of your fear might be tangible, especially if your heart is pounding and there is sweat pouring down your face. But emotions, such as fear, love, happiness, sadness, disgust, dread, and anger, are intangible.

A Rhinoceros Is Tangible

A Rhinoceros Is Tangible

Intangible things are not experienced through the five senses, through which your body tells your brain what’s physically happening around you (and inside you, if you are feeling the pain of, say, Acid Indigestion because, for example, you have just eaten, with a spoon, the entire can of Betty Crocker Sour Cream Frosting that you bought to ice the cupcakes you made for your son to take to school on his ninth birthday, after you had given up on Never Allowing Your Children to Ingest Food Containing Processed Sugar).

Which has more power: the tangible or the intangible? Ideas or objects? Emotions or facts? Fantasy or physical actuality?

All art, even that which is solid and realistic, depicts the intangible. Writing poetry is like painting feelings and ideas. When a poem is honest and courageous, the poet can sometimes see herself in it — maybe for the first time in her life.

Key Vocabulary — Figures of Speech

A figure of speech, sometimes termed a rhetoric, or locution, is a word or phrase that departs from straightforward, literal language. Wikipedia

Here are some examples:

PERSONIFICATION: A description of something nonhuman — often a feeling or an idea — in human terms, giving it human attributes.

  • Adolph Hitler personifies evil.
  • Santa Claus is a personification of generosity and love for the innocents.
  • In her wicked stepmother, Cinderella saw the personification of cold, cruel vanity.

This sentence — “Breaking the grip of the vicious wind, the sun’s warm fingers stroked my face” — personifies the wind and the sun, giving them “hands” with which to grip and stroke.

OTHER NAMES for assigning human traits or feelings to nature or inanimate objects are pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism. Examples from above are the wind’s grip and the sun’s fingers.

Other relevant definitions

TANGIBLE: Able to be experienced with the five senses.

INTANGIBLE: The opposite of tangible. Similar in meaning to…

ABSTRACT: Existing in the mind but having no physical reality.

LITERAL: Physically actual. LITERALLY: In a literal sense.

Dangling from the helicopter, Marcia was literally high as a kite.

VIRTUALLY: Almost completely; for all practical purposes.

In the storm, without a phone and miles from any neighbor, Lobelia was virtually cut off from civilization.

FIGURATIVELY: In a manner of speaking; metaphorically.

Mom was boiling mad (figuratively speaking, of course).

NOTE: Contrast virtually and figuratively with literally.

 

Assignment 15.1

Henry VIII, 1491-1547, King of England 1509-1547

Henry VIII, 1491-1547, King of England 1509-1547

The story of King Henry VIII of England, below, illustrates the power of intangible ideas, emotions, and beliefs to produce tangible results. Using the Henry VIII story as model, create a similar illustration for one of the suggested topics, or choose your own — listing the relevant intangible ideas, emotions, or beliefs, and their tangible results.

Suggested topics

1. Adolph Hitler was a charismatic orator. During his rise to power, he spoke to mass audiences, exhorting them to cast off “the yoke of Jews and Communists” and build a new empire.

2. Football commentator and former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden is famous for his fear of flying. He reportedly refuses to do commentary for the annual Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Several of Madden’s friends – members of the Cal Poly football team – were killed in a 1960 plane crash. This tragedy may help explain Madden’s phobia, though he continued to fly until he experienced a panic attack on a 1979 flight out of Tampa. Madden claims he’s not afraid of planes or heights but of being encased and unable to get out. He travels between assignments on a luxury bus, the Maddencruiser.

3. One of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s greatest works is The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The Ballets Russes staged the performance, which was unlike anything the audience had ever seen or heard. Many were shocked by the intense rhythm, the pagan theme (featuring fertility rites), and the violent dancing. Before intermission, the work’s supporters and detractors began a noisy dispute, which quickly degenerated into a riot persisting throughout the performance, even after police intervened.

4. Annie Sullivan (Anne Sullivan Macy) was born in Massachusetts in 1866. Her parents were illiterate Irish immigrants – her mother suffering from tuberculosis, her father an alcoholic. By the age of ten, Annie had lost her mother, her father had abandoned the family, her younger brother had died, and she had been sent to the state almshouse at Tewksbury. After four years there, Annie approached a visiting state inspector and asked permission to enroll in the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.

Helen Keller in 1905

Helen Keller in 1905

Though several operations at Tewksbury had failed to improve her vision, surgery in Boston was more successful. Extremely intelligent, she quickly learned to read, write, and use the manual alphabet.

In 1886, an Alabama woman, Kate Keller, read Charles Dickens’s American Notes, which contained an account of the education of a child like her own Helen, who had been blind, deaf, and mute since she was nineteen months old. Mrs. Keller began a search for help for six-year-old Helen that led her to Perkins and Anne Sullivan.

Annie spent most of the remainder of her life with Helen. Under Anne Sullivan’s determined but patient tutelage, the little girl’s education progressed astonishingly. At twenty-four, she graduated from Radcliffe College magna cum laude.

Keller’s life is legendary for its achievements in literature, social reform, and other areas. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, four years before her death at eighty-eight.

King Henry VIII of England: A Story of Pride, Fear, and Love

When King Henry VIII of England married Catherine of Aragon, Roman Catholicism was virtually the only form of Christianity practiced in the realm. Though royals and nobles usually married for political reasons in the sixteenth century, Henry and Catherine apparently shared love and respect.

But Henry wanted – believed he needed – a legitimate son to inherit England’s throne. Catherine bore him only one child, a girl. When Catherine’s childbearing years had all but ended, Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn. She was young, beautiful, and passionate – and likely, Henry believed, to bear him a male heir. After almost twenty years of marriage to Catherine, Henry determined to divorce her and marry Anne.

Edward VI was King of England from 1547 until 1553, when he died at the age of 15

Edward VI was King of England from 1547 until 1553, when he died at the age of 15

When the Pope refused to annul the marriage of Henry and Catherine, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England with himself as its head. 2 By the time Henry married Anne, she was despised by almost everyone else. Numerous pregnancies produced but a single daughter, Elizabeth. Henry was easily persuaded that his wife was a witch, and he ordered her execution. He would marry four more times, but only one of his wives, Jane Seymour, gave him the male heir he desperately wanted, and Edward was a sickly child.

What intangible ideas, emotions, and beliefs motivated Henry’s actions?

Among Henry’s motives were

  • hubris (the pride that seemed to require a male heir; the arrogance that often comes with power)
  • love (of England and, for a time, of Anne Boleyn)
  • passion
  • fear (of dying and leaving England without a strong ruler)

What were the physical, tangible consequences of Henry’s actions?

Separation from the Catholic Church, and Henry’s penchant for having people beheaded, would lead to thousands of deaths in the ensuing decades. Monarchs were quick to execute “enemies of the throne.” Their armies died defending their sovereign’s right to the throne. And of course it was necessary to destroy “heretics,” Catholics or non-Catholics, depending on who was ruling at the time. Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon, was a devout Roman Catholic whose unpopularity as queen made her desperate. Suspected heretics were tried, declared guilty, and either burned or hanged. London became a virtual forest of gallows, and the city reeked of rotting bodies.

The reign of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth I, was much more enlightened and tolerant, but persecution resumed after Elizabeth’s death, when her Stuart cousins succeeded her. Religious intolerance at home stimulated English settlement along America’s east coast.

Please send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.

__________ 

1 Courtesy of the Seventh Sanctum Evil-Sounding-Name Generator, seventhsanctum.com

2 This is a gross oversimplification of a complex set of maneuvers involving years of “negotiations” with the Pope and other representatives of the Church. In the process, Henry had several people executed, including former allies and close friends. One was Sir Thomas More, Henry’s onetime adviser and secretary. The 1966 Academy Award-winning film A Man for All Seasons beautifully depicts this historic transformation of friendship into treachery.

Next: Lesson 16, “Figuratively Speaking”

 

Sprinkling Happiness Dust

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 14

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 5: Beyond Self-Knowledge

Red Lady

Red Lady

 Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

We’ve established—or at least I have and you’ve followed along—that it’s possible for me to see parts of myself, integrate these with direct and indirect feedback from people I respect, and come up with a rough idea of “who I am” at any given moment, which is my “self-concept.” (It’s important to remember, as Eckhart Tolle points out, that one’s self-concept is largely content, not essence.)

My self-concept might be positive (I’m a beautiful spirit sprinkling happiness dust everywhere I go), negative (I’m a slimy warthog), or somewhere in between.

Liking myself is not precisely happiness, but it’s close. Again, despite the fact that my knowledge of myself is limited, despite the fact that I can’t simultaneously “see” myself and “be seen by” myself  — as much as possible, I need to live in harmony with myself.

How I Learned to Live in Harmony with My Nose

When the angels were putting me together on the Great Heavenly Assembly Line, somebody got some of the parts mixed up and I got the wrong nose. I have a very small face and a largish nose. Not only was it unsightly, it made kissing awkward and inconvenient. For a long time I didn’t like myself, nosewise.

It is not conducive to happiness to be filled with loathing and disgust every time you look in the mirror. My choices, as I saw them, were to (a) stop noticing my nose, (b) have my nose made surgically smaller or the rest of my face made larger, or (c) do things with makeup and face putty and other artificial means to achieve better balance among my facial features.

A Child's Nose (Not Mine)

A Child's Nose (Not Mine)

My sister solved the problem by commenting one day that our noses (hers and mine are similar) are Scottish. Having a Scottish nose appealed to me. It was part of my distinguished heritage.

I dealt with the kissing dilemma by developing a deft nasal-dodge technique and by choosing, as kissing partners, men whose noses are as prominent as mine.

♥ 

Summing up: I want to be happy. I am happiest when I am experiencing harmony within myself and in my environment – inside and outside, in other words. The choices I make have a lot to with the harmony I experience. To make wise choices, I need to know myself as well as possible.

The Unselfish Automobile and the Good Christian

When I was a child in Presbyterian Sunday school, I was taught that being a good Christian means being unselfish. Somehow I interpreted this to mean that my wants and needs were unimportant… that I had been put on earth exclusively to Serve Others.

This was a troubling concept, but it didn’t cause much of a problem until I was out of my teens. During one’s adolescence, it’s almost impossible not to be self-centered and self-aware. I think it’s a hormonal thing.

By the time I was twenty, I was married with an infant. Total self-abnegation is a poor basis for marriage and motherhood. I was a slave to my husband and my baby. I was unhappy – but wasn’t that okay, since God wanted me to Serve Others and to be Unselfish?

At that time I owned a 1960 Mercury Comet. Like me, my Mercury had been created to serve. It was unselfish. But in order to serve, its basic needs had to be met. It needed fuel. It had a hydraulic clutch (or something) that needed to be filled from time to time. It needed regular oil changes. It required maintenance and occasional repairs.

Eventually I learned that I too required maintenance and occasional repairs. Without receiving, I became unable to give.

Over the years, I have learned that giving and receiving are inseparable. Think of a lake that has an outlet – a stream flowing out of it – but no source of fresh water. Soon the lake will dry up. It will no longer be able to sustain fish or waterfowl. It will have no beauty to be enjoyed. It will be unable to cool and entertain swimmers on hot summer days.

When I discovered that I, like the Mercury Comet and the lake, had needs that could not be ignored, I learned a great deal about myself and about how the world works. Knowing myself better, I took better care of myself. I made wiser choices. I was happier, and so were the people around me.

I now believe that people – women and men alike – should always treat themselves as if they are pregnant. Caring for oneself beautifully and wisely during pregnancy is, as it happens, the best way to care for one’s developing fetus. And I believe that there is a sense in which we are all, always, “pregnant” with our future selves. We carry inside us the seeds of what we will become.

You are who you pretend to be

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. —Mohandas Gandhi

Through self-knowledge we can achieve temporary equilibrium. Sometimes equilibrium is enough. Constant challenges become struggles. We need rest between stretches. This is why God created day and night, summer and winter, cycles of all kinds.

Ultimately, however, as living things we must grow or die. And we have some—though not absolute—freedom to choose what direction our growth will take.

The antihero of Mother Night, one of the late Kurt Vonnegut’s lesser-known novels, is Howard W. Campbell, an American expatriate living in Germany before World War II. An ultra-deep-cover American agent recruits Campbell to spy for the Allies and, posing as a Nazi propagandist, to encode his discoveries in his radio broadcasts. When Campbell agrees, he is warned never to contact the agent.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

Campbell, it develops, is a very good spy and transmits a great deal of valuable information to the Allies. He is also a very good propagandist.

After the war, Campbell returns to the U.S. with a new identity but a lingering angst. Many years pass before he is “outed” and prosecuted as the notorious traitor and brilliant Nazi propagandist. Desperate, Campbell seeks out the agent who recruited him—the man who alone can vindicate him.

The agent agrees to corroborate Campbell’s story—that he was acting as a patriot, transmitting Nazi secrets for the benefit of the Allies. Campbell is off the hook, but as they part for the last time, the recruiter makes this cryptic comment: “You are who you pretend to be.”

About six months ago I began to notice that my two-year-old granddaughter repeated everything I said, posing it as a question, trying the words and the phrasing of them on for size. We were at her bedroom window, and I was holding her up so she could see her mom outside, helping load a pile of dirt into a pickup truck.

Ava: What’s Mommy doing?

Me: She’s helping those people load that dirt into their truck.

Ava: Helping dose people load dat dirt into dehr truck?

Me: Yes. It’s nice, clean dirt, good for gardens.

Ava: Nice, clean dirt, good for gardens?

I also noticed that Ava would dog her dad’s footsteps, trying to imitate his stride. And I saw her smile with one side of her mouth, the way her mother does sometimes.

I wrote the following poem for my sons as a Christmas present, framing it along with photos of their two-year-olds (one, Ava, obviously is a girl; the other, Ryder, is a boy; I changed the gender as appropriate in the versions of the poem I used for each son):

He Will Be Like You

Ryder and Dad Eli

Ryder and Dad Eli

He watches every move you make—how else
to learn but imitate?—the way you speak and
move through life, your head held high to find
your polestar in the sky and take no notice
of the grime beneath your feet. Thus will he learn
serenity and find his place above the petty and the
mean. Then from you will he learn to soar, and
know that there is more than senses can perceive,
and all is as it needs to be this moment in the
universe. He watches you embrace adversity and
knows that life is hard, but necessarily, to
grow, to shine, to gain the victory. So you pursue
your course on higher ground, and not for him
alone, but to regain your innocence; spurn guilt,
have no regret; for Jesus said: We learn and then
move on, for God accepts the consequences in
our stead—repentance, then forgiveness, then the
grace that takes away the blemish. That is, after
all, the Gospel, and its promise is: All things are
possible; all souls have
wings. 

 

To a great extent, children become who they are by imitating, which is a form of pretending. Adults do too, though not usually as dramatically. My friend Janet moved from Texas to Nebraska many years ago. Her once-thick Texas accent is faint now, except when she’s tired or excited. Another friend, Carol, is a New Hampshire native who has lived most of her adult life in Arizona, yet she sounds as if she has just arrived from New England.

I confess that, in difficult situations, I often pretend to be someone whom I admire and who I know would handle the problem skillfully. When tact and maturity are called for, I am Jessica Fletcher of the television series Murder, She Wrote. When insouciance and utter self-confidence are necessary, I am Miss Piggy. When a situation requires merciless and quick decisiveness (rather than my innate tendency to examine a problem from every possible aspect), I am Doctor Laura.

Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy

This isn’t hypocrisy, nor is it sham. Whatever it is in me that admires Miss Piggy is like her. I can practice being insouciant and sassy just as I can practice sitting up straight instead of slouching.

“Knowing our limitations” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep testing them if there is an advantage to doing so—especially when what were once our strengths no longer work for us. When I was young and cute and smart and a bit brash, I had instant credibility on the job. It came as a huge shock when, in my bejowled mid-fifties — and smarter than ever — I took a new job and found that I had to prove myself from scratch.

This is why we have to keep learning, growing, and adapting—doing what we do well to remain confident, but also stretching, “reinventing” ourselves if need be, to adjust to changes in ourselves and our environments.

Assignment 14.1: An exercise in allegory—You in a box

Imagine that you have always lived alone in a box that has no windows or doors. The box is flimsy — you could easily kick a hole in any wall — but breaking out of your box would never occur to you. As far as you know, the inside of the box is all there is.

Everyone on your planet lives in a box pretty much like yours. There are light and air in these boxes, but each of you can see, smell, touch, and taste only the objects inside your box. The only stimulus that reaches you from outside is noise. You can hear the voices of your neighbors, though of course they have little meaning for you.

So that’s the scenario. How does it feel? Fun? Boring? Restful? Safe? Scary?

Pretty dismal, I’d imagine, for those of us who don’t live exclusively in boxes (as far as we know) — but perfectly natural to the hypothetical you, the You in the Box, because it’s all you’ve ever known. You have a comfortable bed, plenty to eat, and room to move around.(1) You have several ways to occupy your time: suddoku, maybe, or houseplant gardening, crocheting, shooting baskets….

Your Box and Your Neighbor's

Your Box and Your Neighbor's

The contents of every box are similar but not identical.(2) For one thing, all the stuff in your neighbor’s box, including your neighbor, is mauve, whereas you and your possessions are sky blue. But the color of your neighbor’s environment is irrelevant: You don’t even know you have a neighbor, nor could you understand the concept of color. In your world, there’s no such thing as “not–sky blue” or “not–color.”(3) There is no context for your perception of color.

Quickie exercise: Try defining or describing something without giving it context; that is, without comparing or contrasting it to something else. (Hint: Can’t be done. The unknown can be imagined only as it relates to the known.)

What Is a ‘Julia Roberts’?

Chris and Adam

Chris and Adam

My niece’s wonderful husband, Adam, is tall. He has many other fine attributes, but tallness might be the one you’d notice first, especially if my wonderful niece Chris were beside him; there’s a difference of eighteen inches, give or take, in their height.

Now, when I say “Adam is tall,” there is no need for me to add “…compared to other people but not compared to cypress trees.” The context of Adam’s tallness (people, as opposed to giraffes) is understood.

But if Adam were several stories tall, imagine the employment possibilities! More to the point—the words “Adam is tall” would be inadequate for even the most basic physical description. To give you an idea of Adam’s appearance, I would have to provide context. Even saying “Adam is the tallest man in the world” wouldn’t suffice. You’d be thinking, maybe, nine feet, tops. I’d have to say, for example, “Adam is taller than twelve average-size men standing on each other’s shoulders” for you to even begin to get the picture.

My daughter, Marian (left); Julia Roberts (right)

My daughter, Marian (left); Julia Roberts (right)

Likewise, if I tell you that my daughter looks like Julia Roberts, and you have no idea what Julia Roberts looks like, then I have to find another way to describe her appearance, comparing her to people or things you’re familiar with.

 

 

 

You’re drinking lemonade and I’m thirsty, but I’m leery of lemonade, never having tasted it. “You’ll like it,” you say. “It’s sweet.” But “sweet,” in my limited experience, describes my Aunt Persis’s homemade fudge, of which you, more’s the pity, have never known the bliss. I happen to have a piece of that fudge and I’m willing to share it with you. You say, “Ugh! It looks like mud.” I reply, “Well, your lemonade looks like pee.”

For you to know the joy of Aunt Persis’s homemade fudge, and for me to quench my thirst, we have to find ways to describe “lemonade” and “fudge” in terms we both understand. Most likely, we’ll use similes:(4) Lemonade is tart, like a persimmon. Fudge is chewy, like the meat of a ripe walnut.

The point here is that nothing is inherently manifest to the rational mind. In the realm of logic, nothing reveals itself or discloses its identity absolutely: not people, not inanimate objects, not concepts such as sweetness. We can conceive of them only in terms of their similarities to other things—in effect, as metaphors.(5)

None of us has an absolute identity that exists in a vacuum. It might be said that in all of existence God is the only nonmetaphor. Only God is simply “I am.”

You in a box (continued): Let your imagination run wild

Having spent your entire life inside this sky-blue box, your perceptions of yourself and the universe are likely to be very different from those of a person who has lived as you and I have lived — walking into and out of each other’s houses, freely conversing face to face, being aware of a great variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and phenomena. Take a minute to think about how the You of the Sky-Blue Box might be different from the “actual” you. For example,

  • If you hear voices from the mauve box next door, you might not perceive of those voices as coming from “somewhere else.” You would have no concept of “outside the box.” The box would be your entire universe.
  • You probably wouldn’t perceive the voices as coming from other beings like you. You might take the voices for granted and not wonder about them at all.
  • You might not even perceive a difference between your “self” — your identity, as distinct from your physical body — and the objects in your box.
  • As communication with other people in other boxes evolves and you develop a language, agreeing upon words for things like “bed” and “kneecap,” you discover that the voices are relating experiences different from yours. For the first time, perhaps, you have a sense of yourself as one among others.
  • Or perhaps, given what we know or suspect about collective consciousness, might you not somehow be aware of the nearness of others like yourself?

Exercise: You of the Sky-Blue Box (choose one of the following)

  • Write a scenario, similar to those in the bullet points above, that might describe how the You of the Sky-Blue Box would be different from the “actual” you.
  • Describe what it might it be like if you woke up one day and your refrigerator were yellow instead of sky blue.
  • Describe how your reaction to the change in color might be different if it were gradual rather than sudden.
  • Describe how you might feel…
    if an opening to the outside appeared one morning, and there were nothing outside but light — not unlike the light in your box — but you were able to walk around your box and see it from the outside
    and
    if the next day other windowless, doorless boxes appeared
    and
    if the day after that you saw that trees and flowers had grown among the boxes. (Do you think they would look beautiful to you? Or would they frighten you? Having led such a sheltered existence, would you want to explore them, or perhaps try to hide from them instead?)

  • Think of other possible changes in your Sky-Blue Box universe and imagine different ways in which you might react to them.
    Describe one such variation.
    How would your answer to the question “Who am I?” change?
    How would your perception of the universe change?
    What would you do differently in response to your new perceptions of yourself and the universe?

Assignment 14.2: Defining figures of speech

Define, in your own words, allegory, metaphor, and simile. Draw your definitions from at least two sources. Summarize the differences among allegories, metaphors, and similes.

Separating and reuniting

The little story “You in a box” is a very rough allegory for human personality development. When a fetus enters the world as an infant, the physical separation from the mother is the beginning of a series of physical and psychological separations.

These separations are exhilarating because they lead to freedom. They are terrifying because they lead to isolation.

I believe that

  • without God, to be completely free is to be completely alone, whereas
  • with God, freedom leads inevitably to relationships based on love rather than need and fear.

(1)      Your source of food, fresh air, and other necessities is outside the scope of this allegory. Sorry.

(2)      I know this because I am the Omniscient Narrator.

(3)      If you ever want to give yourself a really bad headache, try to invent a new color. It’s impossible. All you can do is imagine different combinations of red, yellow, and blue, plus black and white. Yet surely, somewhere “out there” in the vast unknown, there are other colors, obeying laws of physics yet to be encountered.

(4)       simile (noun): a comparison of one thing with another using the word like or as. [A particular type of software] is as ugly as a sack full of penguin guts. —Bruce Sterling

(5)      metaphor (noun): a figure of speech in which two things are compared by saying one thing is another. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very Heaven! —William Wordsworth, The Prelude

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