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Mary Oliver's Contributions

March 1, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I never needed a reason to love the world, I simply just always have. With its faults and near-misses, its greed and its hope. I love the way it is patched together like a great quilt of countries and languages, mountains and deserts. Most of all, I love, and am humbled by the fact that somehow I participate in that great, complicated quilt. And so, many years ago, when I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s poetry, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Oliver passed away in January of this year and to speak of her in the past tense grieves me greatly. Fortunately, her words remain so that her light is not altogether lost.

Oliver’s childhood was a brutal one, and yet somehow she turned around and made such beautiful things as the world had never seen. To create beauty from difficult circumstances is the first reason we should admire her. Mary Oliver turned to nature as the first place which gave her comfort. She avoided her family by walking out among rivers, flowers, and trees, but she also came to see struggle as part of the natural world. In fact, hope, in part, arrives as a result of struggle, and Oliver is eternally hopeful.

Her early work finds joy, ecstasy and divinity through nature. Then, in poems like “Rage” and “The River” she begins to address her personal pain and loss of home. She concludes “The River” with: “Home, I said./ In every language there is a word for it./ In the body itself, climbing/ those walls of white thunder, past those green/ temples, there is also/ a word for it. / I said, home.” It is an acceptance that home can be transient, not permanent. Every one of her poems grapple with big questions about love and faith, courage and forgiveness.

Many years later, she would say that she hardly knew herself in those early years. She said she had to go out and find herself, which she did by stumbling over rocky trails and along muddy rivers. That she taught herself the language of nature is the next reason that we should admire her. Countless people have quoted from “Wild Geese” or “Morning Poem” on blogs, mugs, letters, etc. Oliver’s language did not glorify or transcend nature, but put humanity squarely back into it. These poems, among many others, inspired friendship, imagination, and openness. She placed the human world within the most glorious riches of the earth, and then asked for us to witness that glory. The final sentence of “Wild Geese” is: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting - / over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” She reminds us that we are to participate with nature and to imagine that presence as part of one complicated family.

Oliver’s work has always been profound and moving. Yet, near the end of her life, she began to explore spirituality. In Blue Horses, she discusses all types of faiths as she herself battles cancer. Yet, once again, she finds that beauty is itself the answer. In the poem “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” she expresses sorrow about Marc’s career cut short by World War I. She writes, “I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses/ what war is./ … I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc./ Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually./ Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” In this poem, the natural world and the human-constructed world collide with dangerous and negative results, and still, Oliver finds beauty and names it. She responds by attending to both Marc’s life and death in a way that offers him thanks. It is this attention to detail which will make us kinder. Again and again, she asks us to use imagination in order to remind us of our connections.

During her lifetime, Mary Oliver won many awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. In addition to her writing career, however, she also taught at Bennington College. She inspired others to seek answers to big, daunting questions. Therefore, her teaching pursuits offer one more reason to admire her. At the end of her short essay titled “Upstream,” Mary writes:

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She paid attention in a way that few humans find time for anymore. She invited all of us to do the same. Mary Oliver’s works never fail to inspire. And yet, certainly, if she were here today and reading this, she would defer not to her work but to the land itself, to the birds and skies that fly above all of our heads.

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Rankine's Citizen

February 8, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“I feel like one of our American peculiarities which is not serving us is our amnesia around trauma.” - Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine has a long list of accolades: bestselling poet, essayist, playwright, MacArthur Fellow, and the list goes on. Recently, I read Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric (which won the 2015 PEN book award). According to Merriam-Webster, a lyric can be just a song or musical composition, or it can express “direct usually intense personal emotion especially in a manner suggestive of song.” Two things strike me as important: first that lyrics carry intense emotion, and second, that they are musical, but not necessarily music. I think the latter is important to me because of the expressive voice throughout the book. Rankine’s voice has a musical quality of the chorus which repeats the main point again and again and again until we finally get it. This technique left me feeling weary, and because of it, I began to glimpse what it must be like to have experienced oppression. Moreover the lyric aims to fight back at one of the most frustrating aspects of racism: language.

Rankine writes about everyday life in this book. She writes about moments with trusted friends and also moments with complete strangers. Both scenarios often arrive at similar points: that she is seen within a particular frame of reference. Or more clearly, that she is who she is because other people have defined her and see her in a certain way. In this book, she felt the need to address both minor injustices along with blatant injustices. As she says, “Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.” This after a series of frames which demonstrate two soccer players insulting each other. Some insults strike too close to home, or have been lived with for too long. In the clips, the soccer player’s response is physical, because a single hateful phrase cut too close to the quick.

Rankine’s book investigates responses to hatred, but it also expresses anguish in moments of intimacy. Rankine writes, “Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx….Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.” In a recent interview, she claimed that these were the hardest lines to write in the book because they criticized a close friend, but they demonstrate the pervasive nature of difference. Again and again, she depicts moments in which people refuse to speak to someone who is different, who feel fear based solely on visual cues. In these moments, people forget decency, transparency, curiosity, or whatever it is that makes us human beings.

These everyday examples: the housekeeper, or dinner conversation, the bus seats and sports games add up. Repeated lashings give the reader a sense of what it must feel like to walk around wearing a visible stereotyped identity. However, the title of the book is what hits home the most to me. Discussions that I run often end up on topics such as what it means to be a citizen, a member of any community, what does it mean to have a home and how do you identify it. After reading these perfectly banal moments with the grainy subtext of oppression (or at the very least, disinterest), I have been continually pondering the idea of citizen. What does it mean to belong. How many people belong? Who is in my community? Do I know my community and if so, how do I recognize them?

Rankine began this project after September 11th, when she witnessed the elevation of a very real fear. She noticed fear and hate creeping into rhetoric. I suppose this book was always in the making, but perhaps that event spurred her onward. Near the end of Citizen, she writes:

“I they he she we you were too concluded yesterday to know whatever was done could also be done, was also done, was never done –

The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much

to you--”

I would benefit from a discussion of this work as I am sure there are many subtleties that I have yet to see. I suggest pairing Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric with her short films titled “Situations” found on her website. http://claudiarankine.com/

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From King to Rankine

January 18, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I enjoy rereading some of Dr. King’s remarkable works. As a culture, we are still coming to terms with his life, his death, and his very beautiful words. Personally, his words resonate with me in any number of ways. Foremost, perhaps, is the fact that he calls for honest (and perhaps painful) dialogue. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” for example, is a rational response to eight clergymen who called King’s activities “unwise and untimely.” In this letter, King writes that he cannot respond to all criticism, but he wants to address their particular concerns because he feels that they “are men of genuine good will” and that their “criticisms are sincerely set forth.” This, then, is a necessary prerequisite to any actual dialogue: the open-minded ability to weigh another person’s argument.

This same element of discussion is being embraced throughout America in a number of ways. I recently listened to an OnBeing podcast of a discussion between Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute, and Krista Tippett. My favorite moment of this discussion is perhaps also one of the more uncomfortable moments in which Krista Tippett takes for granted the idea that in the ‘70s or ‘80s American society had moved past race. Claudia Rankine interrupts her and says, “Don’t say ‘surely we were past this.’” She means to say that the more nuanced elements of racism linger in ways that outsiders can hardly imagine and so while some people saw progress, others were still seeing perpetuated injustices like disproportionate incarceration rates. The moment is slightly uncomfortable, but the result is a shared understanding, which to me is the greatest achievement of dialogue. Not all moments will be successful or transcendent, but these small moments work toward a greater good. The transcript of this section reads:

Ms. Tippett: Well, right. But I think there are reasons to feel that, to be nervous. And it’s interesting, because there aren’t that many people, even just given this conversation - there aren’t that many people like Eula [Biss], saying, let’s talk about whiteness. Let’s talk about whiteness. There was actually a moment in that conversation with her where - two white people talking about whiteness, and we both agreed that it was mortifying and embarrassing and messy. Part of it is, you feel like, surely, we were past this. We shouldn’t be having to have this conversation at this advanced age. She talked about how —

Ms. Rankine: Krista, don’t say that. Don’t say, “Surely we were past this.”

Ms. Tippett: I think that’s one reason people feel awkward, because we’re still getting over from this cathartic five years —

Ms. Rankine: No, but you know: mass incarceration — you know what’s happening.

Ms. Tippett: I know.

Ms. Rankine: So not “surely” — I mean, those things were always happening.

Ms. Tippett: They were, but I think people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s were born into a world in which they were told that yes, sure, it wasn’t perfect yet, but we were inexorably moving past it. That’s an instinct. And now we’re having to unlearn and say, actually, we weren’t anywhere. We just made baby steps. That’s what I mean.

Ms. Rankine: OK, OK.

I appreciate Claudia Rankine’s persistence and care with speech, and also her patience to understand Krista Tippett’s response. I also appreciate Krista Tippett’s ability to explain what she meant and how she meant it. Subjects such as racism are personal and offensive and often instill hateful rhetoric. To me, this conversation demonstrates necessary elements of reason, patience, and open minds.

It is important, perhaps vital, to note the moments when people disagree. As a leader of conversations, I try to take advantage of those awkward moments, which is not always easy (or successful). The conversation between Rankine and Tippett reminded me, once more, of Dr. King’s words. More than anything, he is frustrated by the “appalling silence of good people.” He writes that “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

This conversation deals specifically with elements of race, but dialogue is a necessary aspect of all human relations. I find that the more we practice open-minded listening, the better we will become as a society.

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Mrs. Maisel's Emotions

October 5, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Spoiler alert: if you are midway through The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, maybe you should bookmark this post because I am going to talk about her character development throughout the first season. If you are not yet familiar with this show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about a young Jewish woman whose husband leaves her for his secretary. From a wealthy family, she is well-educated, witty, beautiful and well-dressed. After separating from her husband, she moves back in with her parents. Due to the unexpected shame and frustration of her situation, Miriam Maisel (“Midge,” played by Rachel Brosnahan) stumbles into performing an improv act in which she questions who she is and what to do with her new situation. Standing in the front of a room of strangers and disparaging yourself seems like an odd way to deal with her emotions, and yet it is what she does. Why does Midge resort to comedy? Was it a rational decision, or an emotional one? Must it be one or the other? Is a comedic representation of painful events some sort of emotional release?

In the Syntopicon, Emotion is listed as one of the great ideas of Western Civilization. The discussion of it is always extremely rational. Looking at emotion through the lens of reason may be the best way to understand it. However, to me, it seems like this idea would really benefit from a more broadened world view. After reading the discussion of Emotion, I have many lingering questions. Is it an activity that requires thought, or is devoid of thought? Also, why did Kant introduce the idea of emotion in the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, but wait another hundred pages to actually discuss it? As another example, Spinoza generated a long list of emotions (all of which stem from either desire, joy or sorrow). His list includes things like over-estimation, audacity and drunkenness. (Maybe Midge’s drunken state is to blame for her first stand-up routine?) While I don’t believe that Spinoza defined drunkenness as inebriation, there is a real lack of understanding about what emotion encompasses. Being emotional is often portrayed as messy, loud, aggressive, or overwrought, but it can also be none of those things. To that point, Spinoza’s list also includes benevolence, despondency and confidence. I am struggling to understand emotion as a state of being, versus emotion as an action, versus emotion as reaction, versus emotion as a form of knowledge.

In the show, Midge is not really messy or overwrought. Instead, she’s funny. Therefore, I wonder if comedy might complement the path of reason as a means towards understanding emotion. Midge’s first two on-stage experiences were successful. (Do note that she was tipsy for both, however.) When she realized that people reacted favorably to her rambles, she decided to go on stage in earnest. Midge prepared for this experience with notes and contemplation of things she found humorous. Only, this time, she was not funny. This third performance was a rational choice, whereas the previous two seemed to be accidental. Did reason interfere with comedy? Does comedy require a level of emotional ownership, a personal connection to the humor? Why are Midge’s self-deprecating stand-up routines funny, but not the bits of human inanity? After bombing on-stage, Midge’s manager Susie (played by Alex Borstein), explained that improv works until it doesn’t work, and then you have to work at understanding what makes a thing funny. So, Midge began to prepare her shows until she worked up to a successful 10 minute stand-up routine. Sometimes, comedy seems to be an instinctual art. The ability to gauge when something is funny or not seems instinctual, but really, it requires a great deal of emotional education. Many of the jokes throughout this series stem from painful events. She mines these experiences to find humorous nuggets in them, but she is also painfully aware of the double meaning hidden under each joke. A comedian must find this very specific balance between boring or tired details and overly abstract narration.

In the Syntopicon, Adler states, “Like desire, emotion is neither knowledge nor action, but something intermediate between the one and the other” (328B). I wonder, however, can we definitively state that emotion is not knowledge? In seeking out comedy, Midge is not choosing bad behavior, but rather solving an emotional dilemma. Perhaps these comedy acts demonstrate a level of irrationality. Is this a demonstration of the Aristotelean idea that when emotions rule, we lack reason? Adler summarizes this point: “That a man may act either emotionally or rationally, Aristotle thinks, explains how, under strong emotional influences, a man can do the very opposite of what his reason would tell him is right or good. The point is that, while the emotions dominate his mind and action, he does not listen to reason” (331B). In the case of Midge, I argue against that notion, however, because while her improv does carry emotional content, they are not unstructured. Construction requires logic.

Maybe Midge has encountered a version of Heidegger’s idea of Dread, and it is this powerful fear which actually draws her on stage. Or is comedy a path that analyzes the gap between something like Freud’s id and ego? Adler summarizes Freud’s belief in saying that he “sometimes goes to the extreme of insisting that all apparently rational processes – both of thought and decision – are themselves emotionally determined; and that most, or all, reasoning is nothing but the rationalization of emotionally fixed prejudices and beliefs” (332B). This idea might help explain Midge’s attraction to improv. She explicates the obvious in a funny and universal way that connects to a broader audience. Near the end of the first season, Susie invites some bigwigs and reporters to see Midge’s solid routine. Only, when Midge arrives on stage, she impulsively decides not to make fun of her family for once. Instead, she pokes fun at a local icon whose hypocrisy bothers Midge. Though the routine was funny, innovative and personal, Midge is ostracized. What behavior explains this irrationality? Is it emotional response? Or is Midge asking questions through humor that would sound absurd through reason?

In the final episode of Season One, Midge discovers her true self on stage. Throughout this series, she has struggled to create a name or find an identity. But at the end of her final set (which the audience assumes was largely improv built upon the past 24 hours of her life), she defines herself as Mrs. Maisel. She charts her own path through personal experience which she then turns into universal experience. Her confidence stems from her comedic abilities.

As a final thought, it is important to mention that only three female voices find their way into Adler’s history of Emotion: George Eliot, Jane Austen and Willa Cather. I feel very strongly that we could broaden this category by looking into other resources. The Syntopicon includes Freud, but what about the poet H.D. who was Freud’s longtime patient? Or why not include Arjuna’s struggles on the battlefield of the Bhagavad-Gita? Translation studies may also assist by helping us to understand how different languages categorize emotions. To me, it seems clear that more work must be done on the category of Emotion.

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