Monthly Archives: May 2010

E/F – The glass of life

God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good (Genesis 1:31).

Life is full of contradiction, and so are attempts to understand where life came from, why we are here, and what will become of us.

An old English proverb proclaims:  There but for the grace of God go I. The proverb sums up the randomness of the universe—the order-out-of-chaos, the utter, unexplained, and unaccounted for contingency of life itself—as a matter of Divine will.

Some have interpreted this idea darkly, as for example the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, whose God is angry and holds sinners over the pit of hell “much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire.”  For Edwards, only God’s “pleasure” or “arbitrary will” stood in the way of eternal suffering, and the sinner “hang[s] by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it …”  Lions and tigers and bears seem meek by comparison—oh my.

For those who dwell on the goodness of the Earth, however, life as a gift of grace is a liberating thought, providing the freedom to leave other-worldly issues alone.  Instead, one’s gaze turns to the things that matter in this world, and in this moment a new kind of human freedom is born.  The world beyond this one is indeed arbitrary and unknowable, but in this world what we do matters.  Here we, not God, are responsible.

This notion of contingency, of the arbitrary nature of causality in the universe, isn’t a terribly God-bound thought.  The grace of God in the proverb can be understood in quite godless terms as the general force of randomness as it functions in the entropy of the universe.  Either way, life is contingent on a lot of things that are completely out of our control, and in that contingency, ironically, good and evil are placed in human hands and human hands alone.

The pitcher and its window sill

A couple months ago, I had a party.  I’d moved into a new apartment and wanted to share the space with some friends.  We prepared for the party all day, cleaning house and eventually going out to buy some good cheese, wine, bread, the makings of spinach salad, and such.  Along the way, my girlfriend bought a dozen yellow roses.

After the party, once the roses had dried, I took the petals from the stems and placed them in a bowl.  I had hoped they would smell like roses and I would crush them to place them in a bowl as potpourri.  Alas, they never smelled so good, but the yellow petals were very pretty and I put them in the pitcher, which sits on the window sill and now adds a dash of yellow to the room.

On this window sill in my living room, I keep a number of things.  There is a ceramic covered bowl that I bought in 1989 the first time I ever went to the Ann Arbor Art Fair.  It was made by Rob Wiedmaier, who worked out of St. Joseph, Missouri.  Next to that is a little wooden toy sailboat that my son made from a kit he received in the gift bag at another boy’s birthday party.  And then there are three photographs of my family.

Buddy-Buddy, Grandpa #1

In the first photograph, we have the Krupas, from about 1941 or so.  The patriach, great-grandpa Krupa, stands in the center.  His three children are there—Joe, Johnny, and Annie.  Joe was my grandfather, who my brother and I called “Buddy-Buddy,” because he that’s what he was, our buddy.  Next to great-grandpa Krupa is my grandmother, Joe’s wife, Mary Niznik.  She’s is holding my mother, Mary, who is about one year old in this photo, looking bright with her Shirley Temple curls.  These were good Slovak people from the hills of the Monongahela Valley in western Pennsylvania.

Buddy-Buddy was a steelworker. After he died in 1969, my grandmother came to live with us, and for the next seven years, she was the most wonderful storyteller, babysitter, friend, and ally my brother and I ever had.  She made stuffed cabbage roles, she ground her own meat, and she made the Easter Bread every year, just like in the old country, which she called “Austria-Hungary.”  I took Joseph as my confirmation name in the memory of my Buddy-Buddy.  My brother named his son Joseph.

Grumpy, Grandpa #2

The next photo over is of my other grandfather, Ernest John Guidry, III.  In the photo he is old, in his mid-70s, sitting in his back yard decked out for Mardi Gras.  My brother and I never called him “grandpa.”  We always called him “Grumpy,” a nickname that my mother gave him because he was always so jolly and full of life.  He had 17 grandchildren, and he called each and every one of us “Peanut.”  When this photo was taken, he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.  He died within a year or two of the diagnosis, thankfully, we all felt.

The good fight

In the final photo, half hidden behind the rest on the window sill, are my mother and father.  They were photographed in the den/living room of their house in River Ridge, Louisiana, the house where I grew up.  I remember the first time I saw the place.  It was in 1973, late summer. Mom took my brother and I there—we were all of 8 and 9—and there wasn’t much of a house.  Just a slab of concrete on a sand lot with lots of trees all around.  There were only four houses on the street.  A couple months later, there was a house on our slab, and we moved.  Such it was in the 70s.  My father still lives there.

The photo is from the better days, before the multiple sclerosis put mom in a wheelchair and changed her body and all of our lives in ways that are all but impossible to describe.  She passed away on June 27, 2007, and for her funeral mass, she had the following read from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, which I forever think of when I think of her—

I for my part am already being poured out like a libation.  The time of my dissolution is near.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. —2 Timothy 4:6-7

Consider the lilies

Such is life, with no reason to be and no reason to end, but every reason for the living to live.  Do not ask, but live.  Run the race you are given.  Be simple and don’t strive.  Be like the flowers of the field.

lilies

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. —Luke 12:27

Notes and Credits (Grandpa #3)

The photographs of the pitcher, the window sill, and the lily were taken by author.  The window sill was photographed as it appears in my living room.  Behind it, through the window, is the Bowling Green of the Prospect Park Parade Grounds in Brooklyn, which has been the photographic subject of a few postings so far.

The lily grows in my apartment building’s garden next to the sidewalk.  The garden isn’t kept or tended very well.  It mainly just grows there, though I do see Bart’s mother, the landlord, sweeping and cleaning and watering from time to time.  I saw the flower when returning home from a run in the park with my son.

Of all the people in the photographs, only one is still alive, my father.  He is 70 years-old now, in quite robust health, and determined to reach 100.  His odds are better than average.  His father, who was pictured as described, died at 77, quite young for our family.  My father’s mother died at 91.  His grandmother, EJ’s mother, died at 101 or 102.  The rest of our aunts and uncles are in their 80s and 90s.  My odds, on the other hand, are something of a split decision, for my mother’s side of the family—the Krupas and Nizniks—mainly seem to die in their 50s and 60s.  Mom was 67 when she died, like her mother, who made the cabbage rolls and the Easter Bread.  Buddy-Buddy was about 58 when he passed on.  There but for the grace of God go any one of us, on any given day, at any given age.

For the record, my son and his cousins call my father “Grandpa,” because that’s what he is.

The Family Krupa, c. 1941

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Filed under ageing, body, entropy, existentialism, freedom, life, philosophy, truth

E/F – The glass of writing

“… let no mournful yesterdays
disturb thy peaceful heart.”

Ellen M. Huntington Gates, “Sleep Sweet”

“Of the making of many books there is no end,
and in much study there is weariness for the flesh.”

Ecclesiastes 12:12

When the glass is empty the writer searches, at times desperately, for some truth or experience to put on the page.  The writer writes to make life real.  It is an alchemy that turns nothing into something.  Without writing, the writer is hollow, small, almost nothing.

When the glass is full the writer becomes like a god, though not so much a god of creation as one who reorders worlds that already exist.  The writer recreates what he or she has known in order to say something about it.  At the end of the day, it is a gratifying act.

Reverie

In 1967, Gloria Steinem interviewed Truman Capote for an article that was published in McCall’s.  It was a candid interview.  She asked him how he would like to be described as a writer and as a person—adding “without false modesty,” just in case.  Capote replied with grace and clarity.

“As a writer, that I’m a good artist, a serious craftsman; that my writing gives pleasure in itself, regardless of what I’m writing about.  I spend a great deal of time with that object in mind.  Because to me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

Early in his career, Capote was praised for the beauty of his sentences.  His prose was impeccable and his writing almost alone brought him into social circumstances the likes of which he never could have dreamed as the model for Dill in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a lonely child of divorce in a small Alabama town.

But Capote flew too close to sun.  In a terrific irony—the exception that proves the rule, it seems—Capote’s downfall came when he tried to write what he (thought he) knew.  The serialized chapters of his long-awaited novel, Answered Prayers, hewed too closely to the real lives of his New York socialite crowd.  Scandalized, Capote’s supposed friends abandoned him and he learned how far, indeed, Monroeville, Alabama, was from New York’s Upper East Side.

Capote had abandoned the “inner music” of his words for a cloying attempt that was less writing what he knew than writing what he both coveted and hated.  Such is vanity.

Vanity

To write is to be like a god, one of those fundamental acts of hubris that always results in a fall, whether in the Garden of Eden or Greek mythology.  The “inner music” of Capotean reverie was to Franz Kafka a siren call to vanity and self-worship through the admiration of others.  To his close friend and ally, Max Brod, Kafka wrote in 1922—

“Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but a reward for what?  Last night it was as clear to me as the catechism learned in childhood that it is a reward for devil worship. This descent to the powers of darkness, the dubious embraces, and all the other things that doubtless occur down below and which we know nothing about up here when we write our stories in the sunshine.  Perhaps there are other kinds of writing, this is only one I know…”

The writer was oblivious to this affliction, mindlessly scribbling away beneath a penumbra of vanity that surrounded the sun itself.  Like sex, writing was at once a sensual and gratifying pact with the devil that was utterly essential to living experience—and at the same time, an act that obscured and defamed the very essence of love itself.

“It is the vanity and the hedonism, which flutter around and around either one’s own or another’s form in a ceaseless search for pleasure until in the end, by this constant repetition, a whole planetary system of vanity is created.”

Kafka’s life was filled with deep and vital relationships, with both women and men.  His Madonna-whore complex notwithstanding, he knew how to connect with others, recoiling only from those women he thought of marrying.  Writing was Kafka’s only salvation, the only thing that made him seem real to himself.

As a writer, however, Kafka was a failure in his own estimation.  His work remains for us mainly because his close friend and literary executor, Max Brod, famously chose to ignore to Kafka’s request to destroy all the remaining manuscripts, which included his novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.

Prayer, a writerly cup

The photo of the cup of tea at the beginning of this post was given to me by a friend, Maghan Lusk.  She is from South Carolina.  In 2008-09, she wrote a blog called “[a creative writer’s] life, uncensored.”  On the blog, she wrote about writing, managing seamlessly to intersperse her own experiences with topical matter.  Her writing and point of view suggested a very thoughtful person who took the time to understand why people were doing what they did, rather than judging them and tossing off opinions.

In 2009, she shut down her blog to work on her first novel, which she has now completed.  Of her desk and cup she wrote—

“When I sit down to write, I make a pot of Ceylon orange pekoe (2 tbsp of loose tea, 1 tbsp of lemon curd, 1 tbsp of honey).  And I warm the pot before I add the boiling water – it’s a highly methodical process.  I like the color, so I always drink from a glass tea cup.  The pot in the back belonged to my mom before she married my dad (27 years ago).”

Before Maghan turned the pot to the support of her writer’s craft, her mother used it to warm the water she soaked her feet with.  Behind the pot, on the edge of the chest-of-drawers, is a framed poem, “Sleep Sweet,” by Ellen M. Huntington Gates.

The desk itself is piled high with the artifacts of Maghan’s life and work.  In the stack of books are admired pieces, atop which sits Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the much-celebrated novel set in Iowa, in which the Rev. John Ames writes out a family history for his young son.  The Reverend’s wife calculated that all the sermons he had written across his life of preaching would come to 67,500 pages of prose, or 225 books by the Rev.’s own calculation, “which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.”  In Robinson’s prose, Rev. Ames takes us to a place in writing so much finer and wonderful than Kafka’s, less self-involved than Capote’s, more human and more in touch with the real reasons we write—to reach out to someone else.

“For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough.  You feel that you are with someone.  I feel that I am with you now, whatever that can mean …”

Feeding the Wolves

There is a famous Cherokee fable that goes like this.

An elder Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.  One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.  The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”

The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Capote fed both wolves, with his life and with his words.  He was as destroyed by writing as he was acclaimed for it.  The same thing happened to Hemingway.  Kafka—and possibly Faulkner—fed the wolves with words alone, leaving their lives to become shambles of unrequited desire.

Sylvia Plath fed both wolves.  She fed them with her words and her flesh.  She married a man, Ted Hughes, who believed that a writer had the duty to live beyond all morality, to use his or her own life to build the experiences that would come to life in words.

To be an artist is a dangerous thing.  It is a special role, a special calling that cannot be resisted.  From the beginning of time—Lascaux to the Bible to Pynchon and Picasso and Joe Strummer—artists have helped us know who we are and how we live.  Some of them handle the role better than others.

Notes and Credits

I owe thanks to Maghan Lusk for sharing her photos and story for this posting, as well as for insightful correspondence over issues of writing, spirituality, and living in the Deep South over the last year or so.

Capote’s interview was by Gloria Steinem, “‘Go Right Ahead and Ask Me Anything.’  (And So She Did) An Interview with Truman Capote.”  McCall’s 95 (November 1967), 76-77, 148-52, 154.

Kafka from: Letter to Max Brod, July 5, 1922, in Franz Kafka, I Am a Memory Come Alive:  Autobiographical Writings, ed. N Glatzer (New York:  Schocken, 1974), p. 223.  An interesting source for Kafka information (though not the only one I used, of course) and condominiums in Miami can be found here.

Gilead quotation:  p. 19 of the Picador, 2004, edition.

The Cherokee fable of the two wolves is widely known.  The version posted here was taken from a website called “First People, The Legends.”  The story is the much the same in its various posting around the Web.

The photographs of books were taken by the author, on his own desk.  Disclosure:  I have not read Gilead, but I will do so shortly.  I have not read In Cold Blood, but I saw the movie with Robert Blake a long time ago on late-night tv.  I have not seen the movies of Capote’s life, neither Toby Jones’s nor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s.  The copy of In Cold Blood in the photograph was found on the sidewalk in Park Slope one day.  I have read much of Kafka’s writing—novels, stories, and letters, and I saw the movie.

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The truth and spring-time

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

These, I, singing in spring, collect for lovers
Collecting, I traverse the garden, the world—but soon I pass the gates,
Now along the pond-side—now wading in a little, fearing not the wet …

Everything here is yellow and green
the ground, that winter nightmare,
has cured its sores and burst
with green birds and vitamins

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

I took a broken root to fling
Where the proud, wayward squirrel went,
Taking delight that he could spring

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above

Notes and Credits

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ll. 1-4

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, #38, These, I, Singing in Spring, ll. 1, 4-5

Anne Sexton, It is a Spring Afternoon, ll. 1, 30-32

Sylvia Plath, Wintering, l. 50

W. B. Yeats, An Appointment, ll. 2-4

Robert Frost, A Prayer in Spring, ll. 1, 13-14

All the photos were taken by the writer in Prospect Park, Brooklyn – except for the white roses, which bloom every year in Tom and Laura’s backyard in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  The squirrel is the most recent, taken as he chopped up and dropped leaves and twigs and flowers on all of us baseball parents while our children were at practice last week.

For the W. B. Yeats poem, I credit Jim Tolstrup, who posted on this poem and squirrels and anarchy a couple months ago.

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The truth and every purpose

February 10 , 2010

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.

April 21, 2010

A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

October 31, 2009

A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.

A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.

December 21, 2009

A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.

A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

April 29, 2010

Notes and Credits

The photos of the tree at the beginning of this post were taken by the author from my dining room window on Caton Avenue in Brooklyn, 11218.  The tree is in the Bowling Green of the Prospect Park Parade Grounds.

The photos of the trees forming an arch over the sidewalk were taken by the author at the Prospect Park Parade Grounds, Caton Avenue sidewalk, 11218.

The story:  Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

And a time to sing whilst riding on horses …

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