Wednesday, August 31, 2011

JOSEPH CORNELL'S VISION OF SPIRITUAL ORDER

THE PARABLE OF THE WISE AND FOOLISH VIRGINS, DETAIL, 1838-1842
WILHELM von SCHADOW
Yesterday, I wrote of Charles Simic's wonderful Dime-Store Alchemy, a book about artist Joseph Cornell and his magical assemblage/boxes.

Today I want to quote from another book about Cornell--Lindsay Blair's Joseph Cornell’s Vision of Spiritual Order:

When we turn to Cornell’s public art, there is a great body of works that can be classified as existing somewhere between the dossier and box construction, revealing that not everything reached a single, final, fixed form. His approach meant that it was very difficult to stop things flooding in once the process had been set in motion. Everything was fluent, fluid and contingent—part of the process…The uniquely individual viewpoint captured and frozen as a moment in time was not always possible, given Cornell’s way of working. Certainly, a quality of stillness is apparent in much of his work, even in moving pictures and in his use of stills, but this was only one side of the artist and his method, for there is constant movement, too...

What we cannot but be made aware of is, within the whole associative process, the importance Cornell attached to chance connections. He used these chance connections and built them into his obsession as if they were somehow symbolically meant. Synchronicity is seen as a signal, a guide to be trusted. All manner of unlikely relationships are thus established. Even so, they are not thought of as fate or as coincidence, which are seen as outside agencies, but as quite the opposite—the mind as director, albeit at time the unwitting director of association. Cornell developed strategies to encourage his mind to make connections, to be in a state of readiness, of receptivity. The mind thus enables the artist to escape from seeming fixities and he is free to establish alternative histories through hitherto unseen connections. Thus Bacall becomes associated with Delacroix and Cinderella, with penny arcade machinery and Christian Science through his receptivity to other associations than the ones Hollywood had impressed upon her.

JOSEPH CORNELL'S CELLAR WORKSHOP
photo: Hans Namuth
I find these ideas of connectivity and receptivity captivating. Cornell’s "method” was to collect huge amounts of ephemera—shells, old diaries, album covers, etc. That’s more or less my "method," too, except the stuff I collect is mostly intangible. And there are files of it—quotes, little bits of music, poems, novels, letters, things I’ve seen on my walks, the Gospels of course, and then I make connections, sometimes through decades or centuries.

"Everything was fluent, fluid and contingent—part of the process"…As if to underscore the point, one of the Gospel readings last week was the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. And somehow Joseph Cornell seemed to fit right in...

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.

And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.

But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.

Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.
[Matthew 25:1-13]

The wise for Christ, let’s not forget, are very different than the wise of the world. The wise are often to be found at the edges. The wise are childlike. The wise tend not to fit in. Being fluent and fluid and receptive is the oil with which we, along with the wise virgins, keep our lamps lit. Because then everything becomes lit from within. Then we see that everything is, or can be, a gift: old dolls, decrepit diaries, discarded buttons. Difficult people. Even pain. Everything is a reflection of the underlying spiritual order and the order is love. You don't want anything lost; you shrink at the thought of destroying a single hair on a human head.

The foolish virgins aren’t the ones who forgot to do their shopping. The foolish virgins are the ones who aren't awake to the crazy-ass gift.

THE WISE AND FOOLISH VIRGINS
WILLIAM BLAKE, 1882

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

POETICS OF MINIATURE: JOSEPH CORNELL'S BOXES

UNTITLED (BEBÉ MARIE),
early 1940's
MOZART,
COLLAGE, 1960'S 
GIRL ON A SKATEBOARD
Last week I went to the downtown branch of the L.A. Public Library as I’ve been meaning to do for ages and looked at the Hans Prinzhorn book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill (so-so), and Lena Herzog’s book Lost Souls (haunting), and some books on Joseph Cornell and his boxes and how could I have missed JOSEPH CORNELL? Who lived from 1903-1972 and was eccentric and reclusive and went about NYC and its suburbs collecting little bits and pieces of things and felt there were certain objects that belonged together that had been separated, possibly by decades, and made otherworldly, magical collages and boxes whereby the objects were reunited.

This idea of making connections, of reuniting things that have been lost or separated from each other is dear to my heart. In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus says "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.'  [Luke 15: 4-6].

In fact, however, most people would be glad to let the rogue sheep go. The hell with him if he insists on wandering off. Only someone who has felt him- or herself to be lost, only someone who has suffered the terrible exile of feeling cut off from the herd, would so yearn to find, and bring back home, the one lost sheep.

The following excerpts are from Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, by the great in his own right poet and essayist Charles Simic:

WHERE CHANCE MEETS NECESSITY

Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.

He sets out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he will find. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places.


JOSEPH CORNELL, 1903-1972
with his record collection, "listening" to a book
photo: Hans Namuth
CLÉO DE MÉRODE

Joseph Cornell could not draw, paint, or sculpt and yet he was a great American artist.

He roamed the streets of New York from the late 1920s until his death in 1972, foraging in used bookstores and junk shops. “My work was a natural outcome of my love for the city,” he said. One day in 1931 he saw some compasses in one shop window and some boxes in the next, and it occurred to him to put them together.

Here are some of the things he found and placed in a box called “L’Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode cours élémanetaire d’histoire naturelle,” which he constructed in 1940:

Doll’s forearm, loose red sand, wood ball, German coin, several glass and mirror fragments, 12 corkstopped bottles, cutout sphinx head, yellow filaments, 2 intertwined paper spirals, cut-out of Cléo do Mérode’s head, cutout of camels and men, loose yellow sand, 6 pearl beads, glass tube with residue of dried green liquid, crumpled tulle, rhinestones, pearl beads, sequins, metal chain, metal and glass fragments, threaded needle, red wood disc, bone and frosted glass fragments, blue celluloid, clear glass crystals, rock specimen, 7 balls, plastic rose petals, three miniature tin spoons for a doll house.

Cléo de Mérode, by the way, was a famous ballerina and feme tatale of the 1890s.


A FORCE ILLEGIBLE

Did Cornell know what he was doing? Yes, but mostly no. Does anyone fully? He knew what he liked to see and touch. what he liked, no one was interested in. Surrealism provided him with a way of being more than just an eccentric collector of sundry oddities. The ideas of art came later, if they ever did come clearly. And how could they? His is a practice of divination. Dada and surrealism gave him a precedent and a freedom. I have in mind especially their astonishing discovery that lyric poetry can come out of chance operations. Cornell believed in the same magic and he was right! All art is a magic operation, or, if you prefer, a prayer for a new image.

“In murky corners of old cities where everything—horror, too—is magical,” Baudelaire writes. The city is a huge image machine. A slot machine for the solitaries. Coins of reverie, of poetry, secret passion, religious madness, it converts them al. A force illegible.


$1 CARWASH
ANOTHER KIND OF BOX!
SUNSET AND DESCANSO, SILVER LAKE, CALIFORNIA
POETICS OF MINIATURE

Perhaps the ideal way to observe the boxes it to place them on the floor and lie down beside them.

It is not surprising that child faces stare out of the boxes and that they have the dreamy look of children at play. Theirs is the happy solitude of a time without clocks when children are masters of their world. Cornell’s boxes are reliquaries of days when imagination reigned. They are inviting us, of course, to start our childhood reveries all over again.


THE MAGIC STUDY OF HAPPINESS

In the smallest theater in the world the bread crumbs speak. It’s a mystery play on the subject of a lost paradise. Once there was a kitchen table on which a few crumbs were left. Through the window you could see your young mother by the fence talking to a neighbor. She was cold and kept hugging her thin dress tighter and tighter. The clouds in the sky sailed on as she threw her head back to laugh.

Where the words can't go any further—there’s the hard table. The crumbs are watching you as you in turn watch them. The unknown in you and the unknown in them attract each other. The two unknowns are like illicit lovers when they’re exceedingly and unaccountably happy.


UNTITLED (THE HOTEL EDEN), c. 1945
UNTITLED (MEDICI BOY),
1942-52

Sunday, August 28, 2011

THE ABBESS OF ANDALUSIA


I have just re-read The Abbess of Andalusia, by Lorraine V. Murray, about the letters and life of Flannery O'Connor, and have been moved, mystified and inspired all over again. The intro by Joseph Pearce is first-rate: "It is the suffering of God Himself," for example, "that makes sense of all suffering, and it is through Christ's suffering that Christians find meaning and purpose in their own." The selected quotes from Flannery's letters, stories, and essays are uniformly gems. And Lorraine, who's an online friend, gets what many other biographers have not (amazingly, because if you miss this, you miss everything) that Catholicism was the fuse that drove O'Connor's writing and life.

But I think what distinguishes this book from some of the others that have been written about F.O. is love. Love for Flannery, love for her faith, love for her genius,  love for her lack of self-pity, love for her suffering, love for her loneliness: the loneliness of a rural dairy farm, of the Catholic writer in a resolutely secular culture, of success, of the lupus that increasingly disfigured and debilitated her and from which she died at the tender age of 39.

FLANNERY O'CONNOR'S WRITING DESK AND CRUTCHES
There are sections on, among other subjects, Flannery's interior life, her ministry of writing, her conversion of heart, and the action of grace, including "A Reluctant Pilgrim: The Journey to Lourdes," "Genuine Works of the Lord: Andalusia's Birds and Beasts," and "Grace in Suffering: The Cross of Lupus."

On Flannery's writing routine:
She opened her day with prayer, spent a few hours pounding out her fiction on a manual typewriter, and spent the afternoons writing letters and reading. Her letters reveal, however, that there was an extraordinary spiritual life beneath the deceptively ordinary surface. It was anchored in prayer and a solid faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church. p. xxix

On making a living with writing:
“There’s no money in it and little consolation except that it looks good when you have to fill out a form…And a year later you will get a few letters from your friends saying they say your book for 33 cents on a remainder table." She added plaintively: "At least this is what is always happening to me.”

Flannery continued to write her fiction, however, because it was the one thing she felt she could do well, the one talent that she clearly could see coming from God. She also believed that writing fiction was her way to glorify God in return. Following the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas, she held that a good work of fiction doesn’t exist to reform or convert someone, but is rather “a good in and of itself.” A story or novel needn’t have any utilitarian value at all, because “what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God.”

Along this line of thinking, it’s clear that other aspects of her writing, whether it was corresponding with friends or writing for Catholic publications, also proceeded from her belief that she was heeding God’s calling, and that this was a good thing to do, in and of itself. Thus, even when she wrote reviews that the editor failed to publish, gave friends tips on stories that never saw the light of day, or wrote for an audience shoe maturity she suspected to match the level of teen-agers, she persevered, because it was all part of her vocation: the reason God made her.
p. 115

"For her, truly worrisome offenses in fiction
had to do with moral errors, 'when right is held up as wrong,
or wrong as right.' "
On Catholic literature:
[Flannery observed:]"The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it"...Perhaps she had in mind certain Catholic reviewers who had harshly criticized her books because they'd wanted her to champion her faith by promoting explicitly Catholic messages and populating her stories with Catholic characters.

As an author who showed the effects of grace in her fiction, Flannery would have been well aware of Thomas Aquinas's insights on this topic. St. Thomas delineated two kinds of grace: there is the habitual kind, quietly coming from reception of the sacraments and giving us spiritual strength, and another, more dramatic, form that involves God's intervention in human actions. In her fictional worlds, Flannery often portrays the vivid effects of Aquinas's second type of grace. Divine intervention occurs in a shocking way to illuminate dramatically how one of her characters either accepts or rejects this divine gift.
p. 25

O'Connor has got to be one of the most quotable authors on record, and Lorraine Murray has collated some beauties:

"[A]nything the human being touches, even Christian truth, he deforms slightly to his own image."

"The Church can't be put forward by anybody but God and one is apt to do great damage by trying."

"The creative action of the Christian's life is to prepare his death in Christ."

"Life without [the Blessed Virgin Mary] would be equivalent to me to life without sleep, and as she contained Christ for a time, she seems to contain our sleep for a time, so that we are able to wake up in peace."


I couldn't help thinking of my own favorite lines from a Flannery letter:

"We are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness."

Thanks to Lorraine V. Murray for this wonderful book on one of the patron saints of Catholic, which is to say of all, literature.
"I can never describe my heart as 'burning'
to the Lord (who knows better)
without snickering."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

LENA HERZOG'S LOST SOULS




From an article in the Paris Review


Lena Herzog and the Lost Souls

June 8, 2010 | by The Paris Review
“We do not allow anyone to see it, let alone photograph it,” the director of Vienna’s Federal Museum of Pathology at the Narrenturm told Lena Herzog when she first attempted to visit. Herzog was drawn to the collection of what eighteenth-century monks in her native Russia called “lost souls,” and what nineteenth-century doctors described as “incompatible with life”—unborn fetuses and newborn infants who, by virtue of nature’s mutations, were unable to survive but who were preserved by early modern collectors as objects of scientific inquiry and private wonder. These human and animal specimens were often displayed next to maps of the earth and of the stars—evidence of a desire to define boundaries and map the unknown.

Herzog first encountered a similar collection as a student in St. Petersburg in 1988, and her reaction was swift and clear: “What I saw was extraordinary and subversive. It defied belief . . . The Russian Orthodox church declared the souls of these babies ‘lost’—they had no place in hell, or heaven, or even limbo. They were dead on arrival and had no place to go. Yet what was in the jars shimmered with a strange beauty.” For Herzog, that strange beauty is “something that shocks with a promise of some answer but gives none.”



Thursday, August 25, 2011

THE GLASS FLOWERS AT HARVARD




As a schoolchild in rural New Hampshire, one of the biggest deals of my relatively uneventful little life were the field trips we took to what I remember as the Peabody Museum but was apparently the Harvard Museum of Natural History. A trip to Cambridge was akin in my mind to a trip to Paris, or Istanbul, or the lost city of Atlantis. A trip to Harvard was a foray into unimaginable sophistication. A trip to the Museum of Natural History meant that we got to look at The Glass Flowers.


The flowers were created by the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka "from 1887 through 1936 at their studio in Hosterwitz, Germany, near Dresden. They were commissioned by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, founder of Harvard's Botanical Museum, for the purpose of teaching botany, and financed by Goodale's former student, Mary Lee Ware and her mother, Elizabeth Ware. Over 3000 models, of 847 different plant species, were made." [courtesy widipedia]

But I didn't know any of that then, or wasn't much interested. What interested me were the creaking wood floors, the gleaming glass cases, the dire warnings that the slightest movement could shatter the flowers, or separate a head from a stem, or a petal from a bloom, and my instinctive understanding that that would have been a kind of sacrilege. What interested me was that there were grown-ups who lived in cities and spent their days among books and glass-blowing pipes instead of laying bricks as my father did, or doing dishes, laundry, and scrubbing as my mother did. What interested me was that the way the flowers were made was a secret.

My height at that age would have put me about eye-to-eye with the flowers. They were beautiful, they looked realer than real, I could have marveled over them for hours. Someone had spent a ton of time and effort making them. Someone had been really, really patient. I wondered what happened when the lights were turned off and everyone went home for the night. I wondered whether, cloaked with dust, slumbering amidst their carefully-lettered labels, the flowers slowly came to life...

Now I see that what struck me most about the glass flowers was that they had no apparent use. They were beautiful but they had no apparent use. And so in a way those glass flowers were preparing me for the life of a writer. For my belief that things happen in a realm we can't see. For my conversion--and what and Who I converted to--for as Karl Rahner observed, "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all."

All these years later, I give thanks for another unseen father and son whose life's work continues to delight and inspire. All these years later, those field trips attain their true significance. When so much that was "useful" is long dead and forgotten, all these years later the glass flowers live on.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

THE GOOD FATHERS: THE PRIESTS WHO BLURBED MY BOOK

JAMES STEPHEN BEHRENS, O.C.S.O
HOLY SPIRIT MONASTERY,
CONYERS, GEORGIA
One difference between me and Flannery O'Connor is that she was a genius. Another is this:  her observation that "No priest has ever said turkey dog to me to me about liking anything I wrote."

That many priests have liked what I wrote, or at least marginally liked me, is one of the treasures of my life. When Paraclete started asking me for blurbs for Shirt of Flame, I immediately thought: Oh God, I hate this part. I don't know any famous writers. I don't know anyone who's all that crazy about my work. And suddenly I realized: My priest friends. I'll ask the priests. 

FR. VINCENT NAGLE,
CURRENTLY SERVING IN THE HOLY LAND
So I asked Ron Rolheiser and Lorenzo Albacete and Peter Cameron and Vincent Nagle and Robert Barron and James Stephen Behrens and they all patiently read my book and gave me beautiful blurbs and afterward I realized that almost every one of these incredibly overworked men--and this is just from what very little I know of their personal lives--had  also been engaged in some dire physical, emotional, and/or spiritual struggle. These men who had absolutely nothing to gain from me had put aside their own suffering, denied themselves leisure, and read and endorsed my book. (As did fab writer, blogger, Zen student/teacher, mother Bethany Saltman who is a kind of priest in her own right and also came through like a complete champ and check her out).

FR. RON ROLHEISER
Even if priests hadn't liked what I wrote, they would still be treasures. I can hardly think of a more thankless job, a lonelier job, a job with more meager results and built-in suffering. And I definitely can't think of a group of men--of people--who have been more courteous to me, more solicitous, more appropriate, more kind. Fr. Jarlath Cunnane, formerly of St. Thomas the Apostle in L.A. Father Michael Morris, who teaches at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers. Fr. Pat whose parish is in Monterey, California and who checks in every few months to say I'm telling people about your book or to recommend something he's just read himself. Fr. Joseph Adams, U.S. Army chaplain in Afghanistan. Many more who must forgive me for not having the space to mention them by name. Father (actually Monsignor) Terry Richey who has his own chapter in Redeemed and over a recent lunch mused, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, "If you're really lucky, you eventually give up all hope of being happy in any way you ever thought you were going to be happy"...

MSGR. TERRENCE RICHEY
One big cross for priests has got to be putting up with love-lorn, middle-aged, over-emoting Mary Magdelenes such as myself. Last year I spent three months, which included all of Lent, in Taos, New Mexico. There was one Catholic church in town, Our Lady of Guadalupe (two if you count St. Jerome's, which is within the Taos Pueblo), and also one bilingual, hard-working priest, Fr. Larry Brito. Fr. Brito said three back-to-back Masses on Sundays--one at the Pueblo, one in Spanish, one in English--and two Masses a day at OLG: 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. He'd also helped spearhead a homeless shelter in town that an arsonist has destroyed the first time around and that was now poised to open. Almost every day I trudged through the snow--whether morning or evening, in starry darkness--to Mass. After morning Mass we prayed the Rosary and after evening Mass, we prayed the Stations of the Cross. I was saddened to hear, just as I was leaving, that Fr. Brito was being transferred to another parish, and it had been a very deep time for me, so before I did leave, I asked if I could speak to him.

First, however, I PRAYED not to burst into tears and impose myself and my weirdness on the poor, overburdened, in-transition man. So on the afternoon of our appointment I walked into his office and sat down and wrung my hands and choked out, "I just wanted to thank you! I just wanted to say I am so grateful and so full of wonder and joy at the Church! In spite of my terrible ongoing weaknesses...you know, you do your little Mass, and your prayer, and your Office, and nothing seems to be happening, and yet…they…they come to you, the Father and the Son, just as they said! They come! And they make their home in you! And"…waaaaaah

FR. LARRY BRITO
And the good Father just sat there and listened with a little smile of total, total compassion. Like Join the club. Like Oh yeah, it is lonely, and after we'd talked for a bit (this is very typical, btw, of my conversations with  priests and really people in general), I said “5:30 Mass, right?” and he said, “Yes, we have 5:30 Mass,” so I had a nice walk around the streets behind the church and came back for Mass, and I pray for him, and all the priests who have been kind to me, and all priests.

This is what priests show us: If you admire/respect/love them, go out and do like they do. Okay, your heart was moved by some wonderful priest: pray for him, and go out and do your own kind of good, whatever way is given to you. We will all meet in heaven.

FR. PETER JOHN CAMERON, O.P.
As François Mauriac observed:

People say that there is a scarcity of priests. In truth, what an adorable mystery it is that there still are priests. They no longer have any human advantage. Celibacy, solitude, hatred very often, derision and, above all the indifference of a world in which there seems to be no longer room for them—such is the portion they have chosen. They have no apparent power; their task sometimes seems to be centered about material things, identifying them, in the eyes of the masses, with the staffs of town halls and of funeral parlors. A pagan atmosphere prevails all around them. The people would laugh at their virtue if they believed in it, but they do not. They are spied upon. A thousand voices accuse those who fall. As for the others, the great number, no one is surprised to see them toiling without any sort of recognition, without appreciable salary, bending over the bodies of the dying, or ambling about the parish…

FR. ROBERT BARRON
Or as Flannery O'Connor noted in a letter dated December 9, 1958:

"It is easy for any child to pick out the faults of the sermon on his way home from Church every Sunday. It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God's people, however bumblingly he may go about it."

MSGR. LORENZO ALBACETE
Long may they live. Thank you, dear Fathers, from the bottom of my heart...Thanks, too, to Bob Edmonson, for his painstaking copy-editing and the lovely blurb he contributed as well.

And it must be said: Bethany Saltman rocks.


  

Sunday, August 21, 2011

ONLY FOR TODAY: THE DAILY DECALOGUE OF POPE JOHN XXIII

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
Koninck Salomon, 1647-49
One way of looking at violence is that violence of any kind and at any level is a failure of creativity. If it’s the best we can do, it’s the best we can do but we have to at least recognize that ideally, that our eternal hope is that, we could do better.

Here’s one of the most creative solutions I know: Al-Anon.

Now I want to make abundantly clear that I am in no way speaking as a member of Al-Anon, nor am I trying to promote Al-Anon, which is resolutely non-religious, non-denomination, and non-doctrinal, is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution, neither endorses nor opposes any causes, and has absolutely no dues or fees.

I would, however, like to observe that its principles--which friends have told me about, and about which I’ve read voluminous literature--are to me an amazing demonstration of Christ-like love in action.

Al-Anon was founded in 1951 by Lois Wilson, the wife of an alcoholic, to help  the families and friends of alcoholics. Now if you have ever had any dealings with an addict or alcoholic—here, I CAN speak from personal experience—you know the intense frustration, rage, bewilderment, hurt, and sorrow that ensue. The more you try to manage and control the alcoholic, the worse he or she seems to get. The alcoholic becomes our organizing principle, as any obsession or resentment or seemingly unsolvable conundrum comes to be our organizing principle. Imperceptibly, without our knowing it, our entire existence can become a reaction to the alcoholic, an effort to best him or her, to head him off at the pass. We hover, monitor, scold, nag, criticize, complain, cover up for, make excuses for, lie about, live in constant fear, constant high alert, and constant and ever-escalating anger.

Imperceptibly, our goal becomes not how to help, but how to correct, and eventually how to punish. Violence in other words: all forms of violence.

What Lois Wilson, and the group she helped to form, discovered was that the solution is to quit thinking about the alcoholic as the problem and start realizing that YOU’RE the problem. You’re invited to see that the more you try to manage and control the alcoholic, the worse you get. You're invited to quit taking the alcoholic’s moral inventory and to start taking your own. This can come as a very startling and unwelcome suggestion, especially to those of us who do fancy ourselves “religious.” I’ve devoted my life to this person, we think. I have “done unto the least of these” and practically killed myself in the process. And now I’m “at fault?” Now I have to do more work?

When you see yourself as a victim, it’s very very difficult to admit that you’ve come to victimize others. When you’re in terrible pain, it’s very difficult to see the ways you’re causing pain to others. This is precisely the kind of willingness and open-mindedness we’re called to by the Gospels, however. This is "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" [Matthew 7:3]; "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone;" and The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in action, and having tried it myself, however haltingly and imperfectly, trust me, it’s an eye-opener.

take the beam out of thine own eye...
What do I get out of being a self-appointed martyr? I’ve had to ask myself. What hideous fear of being “cast out from the herd” makes me say yes when I mean no and no when I mean yes? To do unto the least of these does not mean that I'm called to become a Pharisee, walk around consumed with anger, and destroy myself in the process.

Here’s how my friends tell me their ideas work in action. Say you’re married to an alcoholic. You start having a Plan B. Come time to go to the concert the guy’s drunk again: you call your girlfriend who’s standing by, happy to go if he can’t. He consistently shows up late; you tell him from now on you’ll wait 15 minutes and after that the date’s off. He starts whining; you say, “That must be hard, I know you’ll find your way,” and take off for your ceramics class. He starts arguing: you say “You could be right!” (refraining from adding But you’re not); or “Hunh, I never though of it that way,” (refraining from adding Because that’s the most moronic idea I’ve ever heard) and go outside to water the plants.

You learn you didn’t cause the illness, you didn’t cure the illness, you can’t control the illness. You learn the better part of love is allowing people the dignity of hitting their own bottom, of suffering the consequences of their actions. The boss calls; you no longer lie and say he’s sick; you say, “Hold on” and hand the phone to him. If he gets fired, so be it: one day at a time. Maybe you have to get a job yourself but at least you’re not sitting around all day like a hand grenade waiting to go off. You love him, you respect him, you’re pleasant, but you detach with love. Not from him, but from taking responsibility for him. Maybe you divorce him but you work that out first between you, God, and your spiritual director. Chances are you love the lug anyway: great, you stay and a little more peace reigns. If you have kids, you might have to get them and yourselves out. If not, you sit them down and explain that it’s not their fault and they’re safe but Daddy has a sickness. You regain control not over his life, but over your own life.

You see you inherited the idea that love is rescuing, saving, fixing, and enabling from your parents, if not generations of parents. You see you’ve been practicing some form of this kind of “love” your whole life.
Honesty comes into the equation. You learn to make boundaries and you learn that your anger was not so much at the alcoholic but at yourself because you didn’t know how to and had never been taught and were afraid to make boundaries. You get to love the alcoholic whether or not he quits drinking.

And of course you don’t do any of this alone. You get together with other people in the same boat who share their experience, strength and hope. My friends tell me this counterintuitive, seemingly small, seemingly extremely unlikely and unpromising solution has transformed any number of lives.

photo: Joseph Herrin
One friend gave me this bookmark, put out by the Al-Anon Family Groups:

Just for today I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle all my problems at once. I can do something for twelve hours that would appall me if I felt that I had to keep it up for a lifetime.

Just for today I will be happy. This assumes to be true what Abraham Lincoln said, that 'Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.'

Just for today I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my 'luck' as it comes, and fit myself to it.

Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will study. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.

Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do somebody a good turn, and not get found out; if anybody knkows of it, it will not count. I will do at least two things I don't want to do -- just for exercise. I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.

Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, keep my voice low, be courteous, criticize not one bit. I won't find fault with anything, nor try to improve or regulate anybody but myself.

Just for today I will have a program. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests: hurry and indecision.

Just for today I will have a quiet half hour all by myself and relax. During this half hour, sometime, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.

Just for today I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me.


Pretty simple, pretty brilliant, right? Imagine my surprise to recently stumble across a document called The Decalogue of Pope John XXIII  which is an almost word-for-word mirror:

1) Only for today, I will seek to live the livelong day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.

2) Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behaviour; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.

3) Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.

4) Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.

5) Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.

6) Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.

7) Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.

8) Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.

9) Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.

10) Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for 12 hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.


I’m sure there’s some very interesting backstory here, but that's not the point. The point is that spiritual truth is universal. The point is that here is a solution that is creative, that is inexhaustibly transformational, that is interesting, that leads to compassion and love, that breaks open our hearts, that gives us hope. The point is fill in the blank for "alcoholic": any scandal, any stumbling block, anything that threatens us, anything or anyone we can’t manage and control. Because this same feeling of frustration, of being disentitled and disenfranchised, of feeling powerless in the face of the behavior of the people we love, or would like to love, must surely be the root cause of war.

We die to our idea of ourselves as people who MUST bend people, places and things to our will. We step out of the way and ask a power greater than ourselves to step in. We become humble enough to realize that we really don’t know what’s best for others.

The Crucifixion was the über creative solution to violence. The Resurrection—and I can hardly think of bigger resurrection than for peace to reign in an alcoholic home—was the proof that it works.

Christ and the Adulterous Woman
("Let him who is without sin"...)
Anonymous from Venice (formerly attributed to El Greco)
Second half of the 16th century

Saturday, August 20, 2011

THE ARTISTIC CREDO OF LUDWIG VON BEETHOVEN

Ludwig van Beethoven -
The "Heiligenstädt Testament"



[Courtesy wikisource):
A letter written by Beethoven to his brothers Carl and Johann on 6 October 1802 concerning his increasing deafness. An addendum is dated 10 October 1802. It was discovered among his papers after his death and published (in German) in October 1827.

For my brothers Carl and [Johann] Beethoven.

Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you. From childhood on, my heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of goodwill, and I was even inclined to accomplish great things. But, think that for six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible). Though born with a fiery, active temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to isolate myself, to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing. Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, "Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf." Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed. - Oh I cannot do it; therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would have gladly mingled with you. My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed. Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country. By ordering me to spare my hearing as much as possible, my intelligent doctor almost fell in with my own present frame of mind, though sometimes I ran counter to it by yielding to my desire for companionship. But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended me life - it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me. So I endured this wretched existence - truly wretched for so susceptible a body, which can be thrown by a sudden change from the best condition to the very worst. - Patience, they say, is what I must now choose for my guide, and I have done so - I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it pleases the inexorable Parcae to break the thread. Perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not; I am ready. - Forced to become a philosopher already in my twenty-eighth year, - oh it is not easy, and for the artist much more difficult than for anyone else. - Divine One, thou seest my inmost soul thou knowest that therein dwells the love of mankind and the desire to do good. - Oh fellow men, when at some point you read this, consider then that you have done me an injustice; someone who has had misfortune man console himself to find a similar case to his, who despite all the limitations of Nature nevertheless did everything within his powers to become accepted among worthy artists and men. - You, my brothers Carl and [Johann], as soon as I am dead, if Dr. Schmid is still alive, ask him in my name to describe my malady, and attach this written documentation to his account of my illness so that so far as it possible at least the world may become reconciled to me after my death. - At the same time, I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune (if so it can be called); divide it fairly; bear with and help each other. What injury you have done me you know was long ago forgiven. To you, brother Carl, I give special thanks for the attachment you have shown me of late. It is my wish that you may have a better and freer life than I have had. Recommend virtue to your children; it alone, not money, can make them happy. I speak from experience; this was what upheld me in time of misery. Thanks to it and to my art, I did not end my life by suicide - Farewell and love each other - I thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky and Professor Schmid - I would like the instruments from Prince L. to be preserved by one of you, but not to be the cause of strife between you, and as soon as they can serve you a better purpose, then sell them. How happy I shall be if can still be helpful to you in my grave - so be it. - With joy I hasten towards death. - If it comes before I have had the chance to develop all my artistic capacities, it will still be coming too soon despite my harsh fate, and I should probably wish it later - yet even so I should be happy, for would it not free me from a state of endless suffering? - Come when thou wilt, I shall meet thee bravely. - Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead; I deserve this from you, for during my lifetime I was thinking of you often and of ways to make you happy - be so -

Heiligenstädt
October 6,1802 Ludwig van Beethoven
For my brothers Carl and Johann
to be read and executed after my death.

ADDENDUM
Heiligenstädt
October 10, 1802

Thus do I take my farewell of thee - and indeed sadly - yes that beloved hope - which I brought with me when I came here to be cured at least in a degree - I must wholly abandon, as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered so hope has been blighted, almost as I came - I go away - even the high courage - which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer - has disappeared - O Providence - grant me at least but one day of pure joy - it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart - O when - O when, O Divine One - shall I find it again in the temple of nature and of men - Never? no - O that would be too hard...
From one of Beethoven's six "late string quartets," comprising his last major, completed works, and widely considered to be among the greatest musical compositions of all time. After hearing Opus 131, Schubert is said to have remarked, "After this, what is there for us to write?"

Thursday, August 18, 2011

OUTSIDE LIES MAGIC

these, according to my research, are objects known as trees
the weird skinny little lines above have been identified by cultural anthropologists as "telephone wires"
I'm a huge fan of walking. By “walk,” I don’t mean the fetishistic activity that involves arm and leg weights, a water bottle carrier, backpack, odometer, satellite system, and ipod. I’m talking about throwing on your sneakers, walking out the door of wherever you happen to be, keeping your eyes peeled, and taking an hour, two-hour stroll for the sheer, exuberant wonder of the enterprise. One thing I discovered driving cross-country is that you can be staying in some craphole Super 8 on a God-forsaken strip and walk a half-mile in any direction and be in paradise, a phenonemon I've experienced, among many other places, in Quartzsite, Arizona, Fremont, Ohio, Kearney, Nebraska, Memphis, Tennessee, and Colorado Springs.

Of course paradise means different things to different people. Coming back to L.A. from New Mexico just a few weeks ago, I wheeled into a Motel 6 in Flagstaff, took off for a walk, passed a long strip of other chain hotels, gas stations, cloverleafs, underpasses, exit and on ramps, and a half-mile on, happened upon a dirt forest road, completely deserted, where I picked a bunch of wildflowers, communed with several trees and watched the sunset before tramping back--enjoying the underpasses, cloverleafs, and gas stations as well--to my humble room.

I like walking in the desert, along the seashore, through the hills of Appalachia, but I also like back alleys, warehouse districts, railroad tracks, soulless commercial strips, rickety bridges, access roads, and general rural and urban blight. The edges are always where things get interesting, where you have space to dream, where people will say hi. Or not. Sometimes "the edge" means walking early in the morning or one of my favorite times, around dusk when most people are driving home from work or eating dinner.

this is called a post office, or to certain snappy types, a "PO."
astute observers have spotted such buildings in many metropolitan
and even rural areas
So a couple of weeks ago, when my friend Judy recommended a book called Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, I went right to the downtown library and checked it out. The author is John R. Stilgoe and imagine my surprise to discover that while I thought I was just engaging in an under-the-radar, poor-person's activity this guy teaches classes at Harvard! Sure! Who knew you needed to take, or could make money teaching, a class to learn that telephone wires, freeways, and strip malls are worthy of notice? Though I'm not so sure a class wouldn't wreck my own little meanderings. I don't think of my own forays as some kind of special activity. I have enough pressure in my life as it is.

Anyway, Stilgoe is absolutely on to something. Here's how his book (which came out in 1998) begins:

Get out now. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run...

Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now, and seek out the resting place of a technology almost forgotten. Go outside and walk a bit, long enough to forget programming, long enough to take in and record new surroundings.

Flex the mind a little at first, then a lot. Savor something special. Enjoy the best-kept secret around--the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer with magic.

The whole concatenation of wild and artificial things, the natural ecosystem as modified by people over the centuries, the built environment layered over layers, the eerie mix of sounds and smells and glimpses neither natural nor crafted--all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in. Take it, take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theater that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces and above all expands any mind focused on it. Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies programmed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity. Outside lies magic. 


Stilgoe notices the "secret corridor that snakes behind the backs of the commercial buildings." He observes, "So the exploring walker or bicyclist understands the relationship of hills and muscles, and knows that even now businesses cluster at the base or top of hills, rarely midway along the grades." We learn that "Everywhere in the [interstate freeway business] cluster [of chain motels, fast-food restaurants, parking lots etc.], designers create open views, long vistas that not only encourage motorists to look ahead, but provide no places where a moving automobile might be shielded by plants from an oncoming motorist. But far more important is the determined effort to remove--or, to speak more accurately, to never plant--any vegetation that will screen a criminal."

His other books include Lifeboat: A History of Courage, Cravenness, and Survival at Sea; Landscape and Images; and Train Time: Railroads and Imminent Landscape Change.

Me, I'm thinking of calling my next project Sitting on the Threadbare Green Velvet Chair and Eating Tortilla Chips. Cause sometimes it's nice to stay indoors, too. I'll bet folks would line up to take a class on that!

rare photo of a "gas station"
things called "cars" often acquire fuel here

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

THE KING: MY VISIT TO GRACELAND


This week marks the 34th anniversary of Elvis's death.

Four years ago, on a cross-country road trip, my brother Joe kept telling me (in my frequent calls to him) that I should really visit Elvis's former home. So I broke my usual avoid-crowds-like-the-plague rule, stopped in Memphis, and visited Graceland, which turned out to be sandwiched in between strip malls, mom-and-pop stores, and body shops on the graceless commercial thoroughfare known as Elvis Presley Boulevard.

In the lobby, I bought my ticket, watched some of the videos playing on monitors all around the room, and realized at once that I had either insufficiently remembered or in my alcohol-induced oblivion from approximately 1966 to 1986 never noticed Elvis’s almost unbelievable, superhuman charisma. I became a groupie on the spot, mad to see the home where he had lived, breathed, sang, had sex with Priscilla, eaten grilled peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, and died on the toilet.

The rest of an Elvis-addled throng and I were bused across the street, proceeded  through a sweeping front lawn, and pulled up before a two-story limestone mansion (smaller than I’d expected) with green shutters and white Corinthian pillars. Here, we herded ourselves through the living room (15-foot long white sofa, gold drapes, peacock stained glass windows); the kitchen (vintage Waring blender; fake fruit in a tiered wire basket), the Jungle Room (walls covered in green shag rug, actual waterfall), and the basement media room (hepped-up yellow and black with a mirrored ceiling) where The King sometimes watched three TVs at once. The off-limits second floor supposedly hadn’t been touched since the day Elvis died, but in one room were displayed some of his “personal belongings”: ostrich pillows, a tiger statue, and a big round white fur bed—long fur, like on a polar bear—with a radio built into the canopy.

In the Trophy Room, its walls lined with silver and gold records, I learned that even Elvis, making his ’68 comeback in Vegas, had been worried about how the audience would react. Even Elvis, maybe especially Elvis, was afraid of not being loved.

The Racquetball Building housed the piano that, while hanging out with a few friends, Elvis had played on the last morning of his life. Like the hundreds of thousands who’d come before me, and the hundreds of thousands who would come after, I stopped and gazed with reverence upon this relic, imbued like the Shroud of Turin with immortal life. “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain,” the legend went, was the last song he’d sung, and the whole crowd fell silent, as if straining to hear a voice that had sung its last note thirty years before.

I checked out the fountain, the colored floodlights, the kidney-shaped swimming pool, the gravestones beneath which Gladys and Elvis were all buried, then, thoroughly Elvised out, staggered past the commemorative wreaths that lined the fence and back to the waiting bus.

The Piano
Having shelled out a few extra bucks for the Platinum Tour, however, meant that, though now on the verge of utter collapse, I was further pledged to view Elvis’s two custom airplanes, the Automobile Museum, the Sincerely Elvis Museum, and the Elvis After Dark Museum. It wasn't the 1955 pink Cadillac, the gold lame jumpsuits, and the Lisa Marie Convair 880 that caught my eye, though.

Almost lost among the jumble of other geegaws in a glass case; dwarfed by more prominently displayed artifacts--the TV with a bullet hole in the screen that Elvis had shot out one whimsical evening, the blue and yellow dashboard lights with which Elvis sometimes played cop, the photo of Elvis in a red leather trenchcoat the time he pulled over near Graceland to see if he could lend a hand with a traffic accident--what caught my eye instead was the foot-high Jesus statue that, I was touched to discover, Elvis had apparently kept in his bedroom.

There He modestly stood, pointing to the sacred heart, surrounded by golden rays, that pulsed in His noble plaster chest. I could only pray that--one King to another--He’d been watching over the man who’d given so many beautiful songs to the world every day of his life, the night Elvis died, and ever since. I snapped a pic on my phone and promptly set it as my wallpaper where it remains to this day (and of course it later also came to grace the masthead of my blog).


Sing it, Elvis. And may you rest in peace.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

FATHER JOE: A U.S. ARMY CHAPLAIN RESPONDS

OUR OWN DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
On the 66th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I ran an interview with Fr. George Zabelka, a U.S. Army chaplain who later came to deeply repent of his complicity in the dropping of the atomic bomb, and to believe that any participation in war was contrary to the teachings of Christ.

I hesitated before I ran the interview, not only because pacifism now, as then, is not a popular position (as the comments amply bore out) but also because one reader whose support I've come to treasure is another U.S. Army chaplain: Fr. Joseph Adams.  

Last week I received this e-mail from him:

Dear Heather,

On 06 AUG I was in a Spanish NATO camp in western Afghanistan, waiting for a helicopter flight and watching a news broadcast in Spanish covering the memorial services at Hiroshima. Couldn't understand what the commentators were saying but the images were pretty moving. They were also showing video of the helicopter crash in which we and the Afghans lost about 30 soldiers. And then the title of your blog for 06 AUG caught my eye.

Believe me, I know I have a lot to repent for, and working for any type of bureaucracy can be dangerous to your soul, but I just can't seem to get out of here. I'm a Benedictine monk, who loves his abbey, enjoyed living there, praying there, working there (I'm an electrician by trade) but I believe God has called me to the military chaplaincy. I sometimes feel like Paul when the Macedonian soldier appears to him in the dream, and I have to answer that call. Every time I make plans to go back to the monastery, I'm reminded of the soldiers out here that are sincerely trying to do the right thing and rely on their friendship with Christ for guidance and balance. So, I remain and pray with them for wisdom and courage and for an end to war.

On the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross,

Fr. Joe

P.S. Looking forward to your book, although I have to admit I have a Kindle, it's hard carrying a library around with you over here.

EDITH STEIN
AKA ST. TERESA BENEDICTA OF THE CROSS
DIED AT AUSCHWITZ
I mean does that not tie the whole issue of non-violence together? Is Fr. Joe not THE most peaceful one of all of us, or I should say have way more of a handle on peace than me? Is this not the greatest possible example of how Dostoevsky was right when he said, "Humble charity is the greatest force in the world?" This is the beauty of Christ. Just in case I ever start thinking I have a corner on any particular view, along comes someone to remind me that none of us have a corner, that we all have a little part of the picture but nobody has the whole picture, that "Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," as St. Thérèse of Lisieux observed.

Thanks as well to another (now apparently former) reader who wrote privately to remind me that Christ is in police cars, and army platoons, and lawyer's offices, and emergency rooms and he is exactly right--just as Christ was very much in Fr. George Zabelka--and again, Fr. Joe brings it all together. We bring Christ wherever we are and do the best that we can do, knowing we're going to fall short, knowing we all need to repent, but bringing Christ. .

"So, I remain and pray with them for wisdom and courage and for an end to war." Thank God Fr. Joe is there. Thank God for his peaceful heart. Thank God he came to my blog, and stayed.

ARCHBISHOP ÓSCAR ROMERO,
(1917-1980)
EL SALVADOR,
ASSASSINATED WHILE CELEBRATING MASS

THIS MEASURELESS THEATER: WISŁAWA SZYMBORSKA





Nobel Lecture December 7, 1996
Wisława Szymborska

The world - whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we've just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don't know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing.

But "astonishing" is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We're astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we've grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn't based on comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like "the ordinary world," "ordinary life," "the ordinary course of events" ... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world.

It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.

(Translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)


‘Writing a Résumé’ – Wisława Szymborska

What needs to be done?
Fill out the application
and enclose a résumé.

Regardless of the length of life
a résumé is best kept short.

Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.
Landscapes are replaced by addresses,
shaky memories give way to unshakable dates.

Of all your loves mention only the marriage,
of all your children only those who were born.

Who knows you counts more than who you know.
Trips only if taken abroad.
Memberships in what but without why.
Honors, but not how they were earned.

Write as if you’d never talked to yourself
and always kept yourself at arm’s length.

Pass over in silence your dogs, cats, birds,
dusty keepsakes, friends, and dreams.

Price, not worth,
and title, not what’s inside.
His shoe size, not where he’s off to,
that one you pass yourself off as.

In addition, a photograph with one ear showing.
What matters is its shape, not what it hears.
What is there to hear, anyway?
The clatter of paper shredders.

(Trans. By StanisławBarańczakand ClareCavanagh)