Thursday, February 28, 2013

"...a doorstop to despair."

Colum McCann said: "I think a good novel can be a doorstop to despair. I also think the real bravery comes with those who prepared to go through that door and look at the world in all its grime and torment, and still find something of value, no matter how small." Quoted in today's edition of The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor

"...a doorstop to despair." Whatever does that mean? 
1. Despair is the door in a frame, and a good novel holds open the hard barrier of despair itself?
2. Despair is the room beyond, and a good novel holds open the door to "...grime and torment..."?
3. A good novel takes us through the stoppered, hard door from our own ordinary, daily hard despair into a room where we get to minutely examine a whole world full of little else but despair?
4. ....?

Doesn't real life already demand all the bravery I can muster? I must be brave to read a "good novel" too? Bah!

There is a song in the Unitarian Universalist hymn book that has the phrase, "...ours is no caravan of despair..." and I go there pretty often for the encouraging words. It's entirely too easy for me to slide into irony and cynicism and then to my very own version of despair. If McCann is right, then I really must turn to the study of mathematics, astronomy, astrophysics and the like, or I will die. 

Mary Oliver, though, a poet who has won multiple prizes including the Pulitzer, writes lines of this whole, real word. A clearly, carefully observed real world. Her poems create an unsentimental, flawless, transparent space where I go to be calmed and encouraged to simply see "something of value, no matter how small." Each distilled element of minutiae found in the lines of Oliver's poems builds this reader's experience of value on a grand scale.

Wendell Berry writes poems and novels of similar grand value.

"You are what you eat" became a cliche because it is so true, and it applies not only to corporeal food but intellectual, emotional and spiritual food as well. What will I become, reading "good novels" that fit McCann's definition?

I prefer―and for sustaining my life I need―to experience words, sentences, even novels that draw a large picture with hope already woven in. I want to see bravery and grit, kindness, compassion and generosity of heart. I want to see these non-despairing elements illustrated and reaping their own reward. I want characters to walk with, to contemplate these life balancing things so that I, too, may walk with and contemplate them.

 Despair is already too evident and plentiful.

Now, March 2, I wish to add that both the comments posted here, and also the ones sent directly to me, are true. First, "finding a steady source of words (and sentences) that tease, reveal and sustain us takes time, diligence and a good measure of luck." Yes. For every writer, so true.

Second, it is absolutely true that I do not know any context for the particular lines I riffed from. I would add I have not even read any of Mr. McCann's work. (I will certainly look for his books, and notice more, now.) I have no cause to imagine I know what he really meant here. 

Anyone could easily take a sentence or two of my own out of context and twist it to say things not intended at all. In fact, it happens to all of us often, just not necessarily in a very public way.

Third, indeed, a doorstop holds a door closed or half-ajar as well as fully open. Perhaps McCann intends to say that a good novel provides a barrier to despair rather than a wide-propped invitation to step into the house of despair. Or perhaps his work really takes ugliness and threads it with beauty.

My experience of the physical as well as metaphorical is that the brighter the light, the more clearly shadows are cast. In brightest light, even shadowed places are not dark and can be quite beautiful. Only places extremely distant or completely closed off from light are completely dark. And there, too, there may be great beautythink cavernsthat is simply beyond human perception. 

And sometimes too much light can be destructive.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Compassion has enemies, and those enemies are things like pity, moral outrage, fear." Joan Halifax

Saturday, February 23, 2013

"Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?" Mary Oliver

Games have a goal; life doesn't. Life has no objective. This is what the existentialists call the "anxiety of freedom."... This is why games are such a popular form of procrastination. And this is why, on reaching one's goals, the risk is that the reentry of existential anxiety hits you even before the thrill of victory―that you're thrown immediately back on the uncomfortable question of what to do with your life. Brian Christian, The Most Human Human: What Talking With Computers Teaches Us About What it Means to Be Alive Doubleday, 2011. 141.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The middle of nowhere

Those lovely, quiet, natural-world places, without other-human intrusion. 

Some people say that even now I live in the middle of nowhere. I look out my window at half a dozen in-view dwellings and many more in my local mind-map. Middle-of-nowherethe moon? outside the communications satellite ring? the space between earth and the satellite ring, where a meteor recently traveled?

Nowhere. What a strange concept. A known place, some place, defined as nowhere. On this big, little marble of a planet we share, how odd and limiting that we consider some places nowhere.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Smells like Spring

Yesterday and again today the morning air smelled like Spring. Daffodils are already pushing up their green tips. Keeping my surroundings tidy (that is, as I define tidy) is up to me. The change of seasons will happen without my participation. I find that wholly comforting.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Myth: the ineffable or unspeakable

Our “myth” is the symbol system out of which we think and operate. It is largely unconscious and pre-rational, which is probably why the word “myth” (ineffable or unspeakable) is used, even if commonly misunderstood. Everyone has a myth, even those who fear the word. We have to have our myth because it creates a sometimes-livable world and it provides the frame of reference necessary for sanity—or insanity if we have a destructive one. Myths create a habitable and meaningful world for us. Richard Rohr

Thus, my poetry reflects the symbol system out of which I think and operate. My sisters all recognized our common heritage in my poems collected in Inherited Estate: A Song Cycle. I suspect that means we share the same myth. Ours in common, but not widely common. 

Thus, our wordsall of them, I think, including the writings most math-science-research basedare always merely the finger pointing to the moon.

Monday, February 4, 2013


On a day when I have no sugar, I simply place my lemons in my cobalt blue bowl and set them in bright light. I take one, stroke its nubbly skin, inhale it's fresh-scented zest when it's bruised by a small dig. Whole but not round, I push the small, graceful nipple at the flower end into the center of my palm, its firm, pointed pressure. Thumb the pithy nub at the stem end. Contemplate the juicy, tart sections encased within. Lemonade is not the only potential value of lemons.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Here in northern Harford County, Maryland, any groundhog intrepid enough to step outside today at dawn saw its shadow. Six more weeks of winter. We hope.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Rainbows in a sunny day

Various prisms hang in the windows around this house, my home. On a sunny winter day rainbows dance with me around the rooms and through the hours.

Today the sky is brilliant. Snow showers early then clearing, temperatures in the 20s, winds gusting to 45 mph. I walked on the treadmill, not willing to face the winds. The treadmill stands in a large room which is usually kept at about 60 in the winter, and it is in the south-east corner with windows on both south and east. 

I walked in an hour of sunshine. I hope that in such light my aura, too, spreads rainbows around my space and on through the day.