Maturity vs. Poetry

Having opened Goethe again after 20 years and discovering a new and better reader (me) I decided to take a look at Walt Whitman, another poet who, at a different point in my life, had a big effect on me. I don’t have a collection of his poetry any more so I had to “google. The two poems I had in mind came from a section of Leaves of Grass that Whitman titled “Calamus.”

Back in the day, I never asked “what is calamus?” I don’t know why. I guess at that point (late 20s) I was more enchanted than curious. But after reading the two poems I loved most back in the day, I was curious, because the poems no longer have any resonance for me.

Pretty interesting plant with medicinal properties and oblique Bible references, especially in the Song of Solomon.

Whitman’s poems are not very subtle and as I read them over a couple of times I wondered what that young woman thought she saw in them. I remembered one particular moment involving a champagne laden oral reading in my kitchen the night Reagan was inaugurated. No, we weren’t celebrating that; there was a party at my house of people who’d worked to elect an independent candidate, John Anderson, and they were all in the living room watching Bedtime for Bonzo. My friends and I were in the kitchen being deep and complicated.

Now I wonder why I made my friends listen to this, but I did.

I’m not the one to criticize Whitman (but you are doing just that, Martha!) but the two poems that enchanted me so much? One is obviously about male homosexual yearning and the other is about vita brevis est; ars longas or however that is correctly spelled and how Whitman’s words (leaves of grass) would live long after he had died.

Interestingly, back in my 20s, I ignored the simple grammar in Whitman’s poem, “Scented Herbage of My Breast,” and decided that “you” referred to art/poetry when it clearly refers to death.

…Give me your tone therefore O death, that I may accord with it,
Give me yourself, for I see that you belong to me now above all,
and are folded inseparably together, you love and death are,
Nor will I allow you to balk me any more with what I was calling life,
For now it is convey’d to me that you are the purports essential,
That you hide in these shifting forms of life, for reasons, and that 
they are mainly for you,
That you beyond them come forth to remain, the real reality,
That behind the mask of materials you patiently wait, no matter 
how long,That you will one day perhaps take control of all,
That you will perhaps dissipate this entire show of appearance,
That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very 
long,
But you will last very long.

Naturally a lot has happened in my life since my late 20s, among those “events” was a kind of awakening in my early 40s resulting from the question, “What’s real, anyway?” (Don’t ask that!!!) For a while I was content seeing what I wanted to see and then, a titanic turning point, and afterwards I wanted to see what was really there.

And so, Calamus.

Calamus is a plant. The root (rhizome) is used to make medicine.

Despite safety concerns, calamus is used for gastrointestinal (GI) problems including ulcers, inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis), intestinal gas(flatulence), upset stomach and loss of appetite (anorexia). Calamus is also used as a calming medicine (sedative), to induce sweating, and to treat rheumatoid arthritis and stroke.

Some people chew calamus to remove the smell of tobacco, as a stimulant, to increase their sense of well-being, and as a hallucinogen.

Some people apply calamus directly to the skin to treat certain skin diseases.

In foods, calamus is used as a spice.

https://www.rxlist.com/calamus/supplements.htm


I have NO idea if Whitman knew about the medicinal uses of this grass, but he certainly knew what it looked like. I had to laugh when I saw the photo.

Whitman left the world some “leaves” I will also always be grateful for and to which I turn in my mind. One of them is:

A Noiseless Patient Spider

BY WALT WHITMAN

A noiseless patient spider, 
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 

And you O my soul where you stand, 
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, 
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

De-compressing, continued.

I spent the morning cleaning up half of the front yard before the wind came up. Tomorrow is supposed to be chilly again so Bear and I will be free. While few cranes remain in the Valley, a few flew over me this morning.

As I have been maybe subconsciously involved in decompressing from the past five years, and the last year in particular, I’m sometimes overcome with realizations of what’s happened and the emotions that go with them. Today it was the realization that more than half a million people died in this country from Covid-19. That’s an incomprehensible number. That statistic — like a lot of other things — I pushed down inside because there was nothing I could do about it, no way to change it, no way to understand, no useful way to express my anger at Trump for his cavalier handling of the virus (i.e.“And I said to my people, slow the testing down.” -Donald J Trump, April, 2020), no way to provide knowledge to the people — doctors and nurses — who were struggling to save lives and comprehend a new and unpredictable illness at the same time. How must they have felt when their ignorance led to deaths? And it did, through no fault of the doctors or nurses. When my cousin got sick, it was late enough in the disease’ trajectory that the hospital knew pretty well what to do.

A friend I was talking to earlier said, “Remember Anderson Cooper when the number hit 200,000? His face was red, he was so angry and so sad.”

I do remember that, though, like a lot of things over this past year, it was pushed away in the bin of “SEP” — the “somebody else’s problem” forcefield from the Hitchhiker’s Guide, a forcefield that renders things invisible. It’s a useful tool when there really is NOTHING you can do to ameliorate a situation or solve a problem and it’s really NOT your problem, but I’ve had to use it too much in the past 12 months. Along with the “problem” I hid my feelings from myself.

Yesterday morning, I went looking for my copy of Goethe’s Faust. My thought was to write about Easter as depicted in the opening act of the play. It’s beautiful and Eastery, but as soon as I started reading, I knew I wasn’t going to post about that on Easter, and I didn’t.

I haven’t read Faust in many years. As I plunged into it yesterday, I felt a real sense of calm. This is good work written by a man with serious questions struggling with fiction/drama using an ancient “hero” (Faust) to confront a lot of big questions. One of the questions early in the play is the limits of human knowledge. Faust’s father was a doctor (as is Faust) and when the public thanks him and his father (posthumously) for the good work they did in saving people from the plague, Faust backs away from their gratitude, telling his student, Wagner, that he is sure his father and he killed more people than they saved, not out of malice but out of their ignorance.

“The medicine was there, and though the patient died,
Nobody questioned: who got well?
In these same mountains, in this valley,
With hellish juice worse than the pest.
Though thousands died from poison that I myself would give
Yes, though they perished, I must live,
To hear the shameless killers blessed.”

It made me sad to read that.

If you know the story of Faust, he ended up selling his soul to the Devil to finally find out the ultimate truth behind the phenomena of nature. Christopher Marlowe’s Faust hasn’t stayed with me except as a good story well-told and entertaining. Goethe’s is, I think, more complex. Faust struggles with the fact that the Devil turns out to be a pretty superficial little shit who leads him into temptation without helping him understand anything or get closer to the answers he seeks.

Goethe’s love of nature shines in everything I’ve read, and so, here is this beautiful, resonant thing that is the truth about humans and why, maybe, we thank the doctor for having done the best he/she could and we move on, letting the dark pain emerge when and as it will. Anyway, it speaks for me as did the small group of late cranes calling out as they flew over me this morning, above the low clouds, where I could not see them.

“Our body grows no wings and cannot fly,
Yet it is innate in our race
That our feelings surge in us and long
When over us, lost in the azure space
The lark trills out her glorious song;
When over crags where fir trees quake
In icy winds, the eagle soars,
And over plains and over lakes,
The crane returns to homeward shores.”

Goethe, Faust Part I


Painting and Painting

When Goethe FINALLY found the resolve to run away from Weimar and go to Italy, he discovered so many things he had only dimly felt but hadn’t seen and couldn’t know, the vast number of talented artists whose names were unknown to the world. He was also aghast at the incredible quantity of religious paintings. For Goethe art was self-expression and he threw his bias over the world of Italian painting and concluded that artists would like to have painted something else, but were forbidden to.

When Goethe fled Weimar he was disenchanted with himself as a writer and wondered if he were not really meant to be a visual artist and he went to Italy in search of salvation as a creative being, his heart crushed by unrequited love, his mind clouded by what he feared was an inability to write. He’d had one rock-star success with Sorrows of Young Werther many years earlier and since?

I’ve mulled that over several times in the years since I read Italian Journey. I’ve wandered around parts of Italy myself looking at art, and I’ve seen some of what Goethe saw. Rather than fleeing unrequited love, I went to Italy to embrace it. Ha ha. Art was my redeemer during that strange trip, my rope out of an abyss of anger and disappointment. I had days and days to collect images and see time through that miraculous mirrored time tunnel of a really great art museum — the Pinacoteca in the Sforza Castle in Milan.

I was there before 9/11 and the entire art museum was open to the public including rooms of racks of paintings, the racks on wheels. You could pull out the racks and look at dozens of paintings.

Most were religious paintings. Some were exercises and commissions; others were much more.

I was thinking about that the other day, why the large painting of the crane and the woman, dog and tree are so different to me and people who’ve seen them. The experience of painting them was different, too. I like to paint things that a little risky (for me) and from which I’m going to learn something, and that something is usually about painting. Recently Facebook showed me posts showing the series of steps that led to this painting of an adobe potato cellar. It’s painted over a sunset I tried a few years ago. It was a challenging painting, but the challenge was mostly technical and improved my skills as a painter.

Two other paintings, the Tree and the Crane, are “religious” paintings. There’s no San Sebastian or John the Baptist’s severed head or Mary holding the infant Jesus, but entering each one was an act of faith for me. They were both MORE than most of my paintings had been, more than “Can I do this well?” They both challenged my ability as a painter, but they also demanded a certain journey into a psychological and spiritual unknown, each in a completely different way.

The crane painting is obviously a painting of a crane, and there was the challenge of the large canvas (4 feet x 3 feet), but it’s more than that. I wanted to paint the silence of the big empty under the silvery pre-snow sky. The moment I saw this in real life, the world was silent except for the sounds of cranes. I don’t have words to explain it, but I have long wanted to say to Goethe that the really great paintings are ALL religious paintings and the metaphors people had with which to paint their inner spiritual reality have always come from their world. A world in which the Christian allegory is as potent as hunger will render its spiritual self in those images. It’s more than painting well. There is a mystery behind it.

Matthias Grünewald

Goethe never went to those places with his visual art. He DID go there with Faust and attempted an even more profound journey with Faust, Part II. I’m not sure that the person looking art or reading something is aware of the journey the artist takes in the process.

A finished work is an almost sterile coda to the experience of attempting to show, attempting to say. It’s one experience for the artist, another for the consumer of art. But some works of art allow the consumer inside, if only for a moment. I experienced this with Leonardo’s Last Supper which, in all its ruin and restoration is still way beyond a painting. As Goethe noted, it is a force.

Featured photo: On the Tiber above Rome, opposite the Villa Madama Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2021/02/16/rdp-tuesday-art/

One Who Loves

Yesterday I posted the written instructions I have given my two adult art students for “How to Draw.” Then I got the idea of making videos for art lessons.

If I were a great artist, a successful artist, I guess I’d be living somewhere other than in the back of beyond, but who knows? I’m not a great artist and certainly not a successful artist but a long time ago I realized how absurd a dream that is. Does doing good work lead automatically to success in ANY field? No. And art? Life is hard. Work is hard. Some things in our lives just SHOULDN’T be.

For a long time I didn’t draw and I didn’t paint. Well, I drew in my journals, “The Examined Life”. It wasn’t until 2012 when my stepson and his wife gave me brushes and a canvas that I thought of trying oil painting again. I hadn’t painted in oils since high school when I did a large oil painting and my art teacher told me I had no talent and more or less said he wasn’t going to teach me any more. I’m not sure he ever taught me which might be a salient point but WHATEV’.

It was late fall and rainy in San Diego County when I resolved to give it a shot. I had some oil paints that had belonged to friends. I took a photo of the cattle across the street and decided to try something I’d never done before.

Many Renaissance painters painted from dark to light, from dark, dark, dark brown or black, to light. My brother always said my paintings had no “depth” so I decided to start by painting my little canvas (11 x 14) with black Gesso. It was an incredible experience pulling a painting out of the darkness and I LOVED the painting even though, initially, one of the cows only had three legs (my bad). After that, I went for it. I bought paints and surfaces on which to paint.

I gave the three legged cow a fourth leg in the meantime

I painted small paintings — 5 x 7 — because, in my mind, I was in school. I joined the local art guild and showed my work twice a year. I kept painting. It got me through some awful times, always a source of joy, discovery, distraction. The more I painted, the more I learned about painting, paints and colors.

It meant so much to me because in my “real” (ha ha) life I was teaching EVERYONE. I could go into my shed, paint and the whole stupid idiot expensive difficult outside world disappeared. And then, as it happened, in 2013, I got two paintings in juried shows. The one below was in a juried show put on by the San Diego Art Museum Artists Guild.

The World is Out There

How did it come into being? Well, I’d been asked by my step-daughter-in-law to paint a scene of New York. In that scene the word “Stop” was painted on the street. I went to work and realized that the scene wanted to be a water color, not an oil. I put this panel away and did a water color that worked pretty well. Then I got a flyer from a fellow artist advertising her work in a gallery in Kansas. In that flyer was a photo of this sofa. I have always been amazed by how the old masters painted fabrics and wondered if I could paint velvet so I pulled out that “ruined” panel and painted the sofa. I let the sofa dry and put the panel away, but the whole panel was starting to intrigue me… I painted a lot of things on this panel that I cleared off with solvent before I painted this. I liked this panel a lot because it was interesting and mysterious.

Nothing I painted during this time was 100% successful (to me) but every one of those paintings (and those I do now) was 100% satisfying as an experience. I realized through this that the most important thing about art — for me — is its power to inspire me to keep doing it.

Lots of people stop because they’re not satisfied with their work. For me that’s a reason to keep doing the work. My great hero, Goethe, went to Italy in 1786. He was suffering a broken heart, inner turmoil, a personal crisis. One of the things he was looking for in Italy was inspiration.

In those days without cameras people had to draw their own souvenirs or hire a professional artist to do that for them. Goethe had a lot of talent as a visual artist and was torn about maybe, by writing, he’d gone in the wrong direction. He drew everything along his way as he had whenever he traveled. I have a little book of many of the ink and wash drawings he did on his journeys.

Somewhere on his Italian journey he decided he wasn’t good enough and he hired an artist to travel around with him. It seems that was the end of creating visual art for Goethe. If I could talk to him, I’d ask him about that. Like me, one of Goethe’s reasons for going to Italy was to look at paintings. Maybe he got daunted and, as Hemingway wrote, one should never get daunted. The featured photo is of one of Goethe’s ink wash sketches of a scene in Italy.

In imitation of Goethe, in 2004, in Giardino Giusti in Verona (which Goethe also drew) I drew this. It’s not that easy to keep a good record of what you see by drawing it.

My goal with my “students” is simply to inspire them to try without worrying about failing. Our world is so concerned with perfection and success that failure is undervalued. In the process of learning to paint or draw, there’s a lot of failure, but those failures are more useful than the things we “get right.”

There is a painting (sold long ago) that started out a thing of real beauty. I destroyed it (IMO) by forcing my idea of what it should be onto it. Funny thing, I have no photos of it once it was “finished,” but I have photos of it while it was still in the process of being painted, before I wrecked it. It was important to me to retain THAT moment, not the failed moment. Why? Because this painting taught me that it’s not all up to me. Creating the painting or drawing I WANT sometimes means stepping back and seeing what the painting or drawing itself wants to be. Anyone who tries is 100% sure to fail. The point is it doesn’t matter. Failure is — in art — the best teacher.

Descanso Valley, CA

To help my students, I made a couple of very rough videos yesterday. I’ve put the drawing video at the bottom of this post. It seems to have worked with one of them, so that’s cool. It’s purpose is not to give any technical instruction, just maybe to inspire enthusiasm to try. Inspiration in instruction is often underrated because it cannot be measured or controlled, but I think, in art, it’s important. Not all inspiration leads to great masterpieces, but it always provides the energy to try.

For me, painting is like skiing. I was never — and will never be — a great skier but no one has more fun. The word “amateur” means, “One who loves.” I’m proud to be one.

Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

Back in 2004 I went to Verona to study Italian for a month. One of the biggest things I learned there is that the Italian I spoke at the time was full of mistakes. My Italian sounded great but wasn’t. It sounded great because I’d spent a lot of time with a family of native speakers in Zürich and I’d been in Italy several times. I’d studied on my own as well, using a great CD rom that was actually interesting.

The problem with my Italian was Spanish. They are very similar, and I’d spoken Spanish most of my life. In fact, when my soon-to-be teachers read my written test, they didn’t know if I was a native English speaker or native Spanish speaker.

I was placed in the lowest class for grammar and stuff. I got to hang out with the smart kids in the afternoon for an art history seminar. BUT, outside of school, my schoolmates shunned me. My schoolmate from Austria even said in plain Italian on a field trip to Padova that she didn’t want to talk to me because she’d only learn bad Italian from me. I don’t think she imagined I understood almost everything people said in Italian. Maybe she didn’t realize I understood her.

And that was that, except for a British woman from Manchester with whom I made friends.

After about three weeks into the month, we had a field trip to Giardino Giusti, where I’d already been. I hadn’t gone to Verona to hang out with classmates and practice grammar, anyway. I was following Goethe and seeing the city, especially the paintings in the churches. Italians I met on my peregrinations didn’t care that my Italian wasn’t perfect, so I practiced a lot. I was obviously a foreigner it wasn’t a great time to be an American, Iraq war and so on… Italy had allied with the US and many Italians didn’t like this, evidenced by the rainbow colored “Pace” — peace — flags hanging from balconies.

Giardino Giusti is an old formal garden, so old, that Goethe had been there. He had loved it and had cut branches from the cypress trees to take back to his hotel/apartment. This act of German instinct was met with condolences as he walked home. The Veronese thought someone Goethe cared for had died or why else would he have branches from cypress trees?

Language isn’t just words.

In Giardino Giusti, beside a cypress tree, is a little plaque (one of several I saw on that trip) attesting to the fact that Goethe had been there. Clearly I was not history’s only Goethe pilgrim.

That afternoon, I wandered around the garden with my school mates. The Austrian woman assiduously avoided me. As is the case with many formal gardens of the times, there was a labyrinth. We decided to “do” the labyrinth and as we strolled through it I said, in German, “Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf.” This is from Faust, the prologue. The poet/playwrite bewails the wrong turns he’s taken in his life but comments that they are good fodder for drama. It says, according to my translation, “Life’s labyrinthine course of error.”

That phrase had become a kind of mantra for me, an explanation of my own labyrinthine existence that made no sense whatsoever.

“That’s not right,” said the Austrian woman in English. “Why are you trying to quote Goethe? What could you know of Goethe?”

I shrugged. It was right, and I knew it. I also knew that Goethe is a kind of demi-god in German speaking countries, and I wasn’t in a position to prove anything.

“I brought Faust with me. I will look it up when I get back to my apartment. I’ll show you tomorrow,” she continued.

I’d already decided she was just kind of a linguistic Nazi. And she was wrong.

The next morning, she came to school and brought Faust. Instead of showing me that I had been wrong, she showed me that I had been right. I thought that was pretty cool of her. I also liked how the little interchange illustrated Goethe’s assessment of life. After that, she and I began a friendship that lasted a couple of years.

One of the things I learned on that journey was the low esteem in which Americans are held in Europe. Most of my schoolmates (and teachers), at first, didn’t understand why I was there. Few Americans had ever attended that school. Then, they assumed I was a war-mongering, imperialistic, arrogant American. My Austrian friend confided to me later that she never imagined an American who had read Goethe. The list of their assumptions about Americans was pretty long. When they learned I’d already attended the opera (which is held in the Arena and is absolutely amazing), they wanted to go, too, so we all went to see Madame Butterfly. They weren’t totally wrong about Americans, but not totally right either except maybe the learning languages part. In any case, that summer I found it easier to let strangers think I was a German tourist.

A blog post about Goethe’s Faust that I wrote a while ago

RagTag Daily Prompt, maze

Goethe’s 250th Birthday

August 28, 1999, the end of my first week teaching writing at San Diego State, my teaching dream come true, I was going meet my good friend, Denis Joseph Francis Callahan, at Pacific Beach. Our plan was to eat sausages at a German restaurant. We were celebrating — well, Denis was helping me celebrate — Goethe’s 250th birthday.

Before dinner, we took an end-of-the-day walk on the beach. There in the near distance was an immense beautiful sand castle with candles burning in the windows. Dusk had arrived and the light from the candles reflected on the water left behind when the shallow waves retreated. It was marvelous.

“Goethe’s birthday cake,” I said to Denis.

On our walk back, Denis said, “Would you mind pie instead?” in his Staten Island accent. In Denis language “pie” = pizza. I thought, “Why not? Goethe loved Italy.”

Caveat: I didn’t take the featured photo.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/30/rdp-thursday-sand-castle/

Grand design?

“Don’t join anything, Greg. You don’t know who’s collecting those lists.”

My cousin Greg was along with us on his way to his freshman year at the University of Chicago. We lived in Nebraska, part way there from Greg’s home in Billings, Montana. From Omaha, Greg would go on to Chicago. The plan was that he would help my dad, who was not getting around that well and tired easily because his MS had decided to get real. Greg could drive.

We’d just had a long, and for my dad tiring, vacation that included visiting family in Billings and Denver, a week in Yellowstone and the Tetons, a short visit to the Black Hills and Devil’s Tower on the way from Nebraska to Billings. I didn’t know it then, but it was my dad’s Beautiful Spots in Nature Swan Song.

“You never know what the government is going to do with those lists. You might think you’re joining a club and your name lands on some list in DC and you end up in jail.” My dad was very serious.

I was there for these conversations, but I didn’t understand them completely. I was 12 or so. Now I know my dad was referring to Joe McCarthy’s blacklists. My dad was afraid Greg’s whole life would be blown away because of a club he naively joined his freshman year in college.

My dad had grown to real adulthood during the Red Scare. While he truly hated Totalitarian Communism, even more than that he hated “the thought police” and believed fervently in individual rights. My dad was absurdly intelligent, definitely not a mainstream guy. “They” in my dad’s mind, were the “conformists,” who would try to make everyone the same. He loved Ayn Rand’s novels and I think he would have found the political party that has grown around them to be oxymoronic. My dad’s biggest fear for Greg was that he would end up on a list and lose his personal freedom.

Greg had never really been out of Billings, Montana. I imagine my dad also thought Greg might need extra preparation for the big city. Greg majored in theater which was part of my dad’s concern. So many Hollywood actors, directors, etc. had been persecuted during the McCarthy Witch Trials.

That November, when Greg came to us for Thanksgiving, he walked with me to junior high. We walked through the forest. When I came home the same way, I found Greg at the opening to the forest. He wanted to walk me home through the golden and red deciduous woods. It was 1964 and Greg told me that he was attracted to men. He asked me not to tell anyone. I told him I might tell my dad. As I remember it, Greg shrugged. Maybe he understood that I didn’t fully understand what he’d told me. Maybe he trusted my dad. All my dad said when I told him was, “I’m sorry to hear that. That’s going to make Greg’s life a lot more difficult.”

We got back to my house. Greg sat down at the piano and played — and sang — “I am a Pirate King” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance in which he’d been cast. It was great.

Greg ended up dropping out of the University of Chicago and going back to Montana and finishing university at the University of Montana in Missoula where he majored in literature. He lived for a while in San Francisco, and ended up back in Missoula.

I didn’t see Greg again until he was in his fifties! We were at his mom’s house. The aunts were arguing about what they’d do if they had a million dollars. Greg showed me a book that had belonged to my grandfather, the essays of Thomas Carlyle. We talked about everything, then, to escape the noise, went outside into the snowy pasture. I took him to the back of the pasture where a local vet had built an immense “cage” to rehab raptors that had been injured one way or another. He died when he was 56.

I have thought often in recent months about what Goethe said, something to the effect that our lives depend on luck, specifically where, when and to whom we are born and at what point in the stream of history. That was Goethe’s response to the idea that our lives are motivated by a divine design. In OUR moment we have a lot of advantages that people born even, well, when I was born didn’t have. I got the measles and the mumps because there were no vaccines for them back in the 50s. My dad’s moment had (among other things) the McCarthy trials and the specter of the mind police looming over it. My cousin Greg’s moment considered his sexual impulse a crime.


https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/26/rdp-sunday-design/

A Look at “The Examined Life”

I finally found a journal — one of the infinite stream of tedium series in my studio called The Examined Life, that’s been worth looking into. It’s from 1999/2000 — 20 years ago. That was the time I began reading Goethe. Goethe is all through that journal, a kind of thought conversation with this amazing man, writer as I discovered things in my reading.

At the beginning, I was in the middle of reading Faust and had not yet delved far into Goethe’s words about his life. But it’s clear from this journal that his work had shown me how to think about my own life with more clarity. I wrote:

Who can say…the passage of time, the chronicle of the stray thought, repeated over the years, the one truth we know and the question for which we find no answer strike the rhythm of our blind dance, the ache of our despair. The glorious morning when we remember — once again — who we are. Over and over and over again, we fight for ourselves with ourselves against ourselves. Life is only part crucible. We are perfected on an anvil with the hammer of our hope. (My words to me at age 48)

Now I think my anvil was hope and the hammer disappointment

2000 was a strange year for me. Among other strange things, in the pursuit of love that had been offered, I went to Italy only to find the man in question wouldn’t even talk to me, but left me in the hands of his family. It was an internal nightmare from which I attempted to awaken by walking the streets of Milan and looking at paintings. It was a fairly successful stragedy and not one everyone has access to. But I was angry and lovesick.

Love has always been problematic for me. I understand why now much more clearly than I did 20 years ago, but it’s always implied the loss of autonomy and a kind of surrender. It is something I wanted desperately (for a long while) and something that terrified me. As witnessed in the infinite volumes of The Examined Life have always searched for it while simultaneously dreading it. In this installment of The Examined Life I record the turning point.

“…That is why I prefer the study of nature which does not allow such sickness to arise. For there we have to do with infinite and eternal truth that immediately rejects anyone who does to proceed neatly and honestly in observing and handling his subject…” Goethe

Goethe had suffered the same love sickness I had. He ultimately gave up on GREAT LOVE, and found someone to spend his life with, but I think it’s different for men than it is for women.

2000 was also the year that I finished the original version of Martin of Gfenn, a 97 page first-person novella. I was pitching it and found an agent for it. Ultimately it didn’t work out — publishers turned it down because it assumed too much knowledge of medieval Zürich on the part of the reader. That was fair. That led me to study, opening a whole world to me.

There is a rejection note of a type we don’t see any more.

This installment of The Examined Life is the first interesting volume so far.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/02/04/rdp-tuesday-eggplant/

Is it Worth Reading?

Here it is, September 11, again. People are posting here and everywhere (I imagine) about remembering the events of this date in 2001.

Why? It certainly did not wake us up and make us better people or more aware of our place as a nation in the WORLD. Following on the fall of the twin towers, we had a president who committed war crimes and can barely even leave the US, he’s so wanted by other nations for the evil he sanctioned during what I can only call his “reign.”

I still don’t think anyone really knows HOW it happened or really WHO did it.

Ultimately, it all seemed to have been pre-visioned by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy (of four books…). It all seems to me like the Krikkit Wars and the US is Krikkit.

Krikkit is am immensely xenophobic planet. The people of Krikkit are just a bunch of really sweet guys who just happen to want to kill everybody.

The first Krikkit attack on the Galaxy had been stunning. Thousands and thousands of huge Krikkit warships had leaped suddenly out of hyperspace and simultaneously attacked thousands and thousands of major worlds, first seizing vital material supplies or building the next wave, and then calmly zapping those worlds out of existence.

The planet of Krikkit was sentenced by the Galactic Court to be encased for perpetuity in an envelope of Slo-Time, inside which life would continue almost infinitely slowly. All light would be deflected around the envelope so that it would remain invisible and impenetrable. Escape from the envelope would be utterly impossible unless it was unlocked from the outside.

That morning I was driving to school and listening to the classical music station that broadcast out of Tijuana. I didn’t even know about the events until I arrived and everyone was going around “Did you hear? My God! Isn’t it horrible?”

Yes, it was.

Class was held as usual but students were so distracted it was difficult to teach. Smart phones didn’t exist, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the US had been attacked.

After class, I went to my job at the school’s writing tutorial center. Everyone was talking about the attack (of course) and debating whether to turn on the TV. We were also waiting for the President of the college to announce that school was closed. Meanwhile, I worked thinking about how all my life the US has prepared for war. I grew up 2 miles from a large bevy of B-52s. “Peace is Our Profession” said the Strategic Air Command signs at every entrance to the base where my dad worked. I mostly just wanted everyone to shut up. The damage was done. Life goes on. I held my peace about that, though. I could already tell that Xenophobia would become the order of the day (week, year, culture). I’d lived in the People’s Republic of China soon after the Great Proletariat Culture Revolution, and I KNEW what could happen if “most” people got the “wrong” idea about a single dissenting individual.

I knew that real freedom was on the way out.

Just at the darkest moment of this dark day, one of my former students came in. He’d been 17 years old when he was in my first class, an intro to literature class. He’d never read poetry or studied literature before. His dad was from Germany. His mom was Mexican. He loved the class and it inspired him to read literature and write poetry. He also learned to love Goethe because of the class and to be interested in learning German and maybe going to visit his grandfather in Germany. So, in he walks, “Hey Martha! Is this any good?” He holds up Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

And I thought at that moment, “Yeah, the twin towers have been attacked, and the Pentagon, but the world holds to its eternal thread of beauty and here’s Schorsch to remind me of that which really matters.”

Meanwhile almost everyone else was watching the Twin Towers fall again and again and again and again; hypnotic, rage inducing.

The following days I was stunned by the kindness and gentleness of strangers in the grocery store, on the street, everywhere. I loved the silent hills over which the planes had stopped flying. Messages of condolence came in from all over the world expressing sorrow over the act of terrorism and (worse) the loss of innocent lives. The pace of life slowed and then, just as suddenly, there was Christmas music in the stores causing people to salivate heavily and buy things, the planes were back, people were taping a newspaper insert American flag to their front windows and wearing American flag lapel pins and (horribly) “REAL” Americans started attacking our local Chaldean businessmen in fits of stupid, fucking, ignorant fear and rage. A government agency was set up — a new cabinet position — “Homeland Security” and the “Patriot” act was passed making many of our Cold War nightmares come true. White powder in envelopes was feared to be anthrax and on and on and on… A new normal for us Krikkits.

Americans need to get out more both to SEE the world and BE SEEN.

On the big stage, Tony Blair and Dubbya and Chainy cooked up a fake case against Saddam (based largely on a dodgy doctoral dissertation Tony Blair had plagiarized). I stopped class the following March so we could watch, on TV, the first attack on Iraq.

So…I don’t know how to view 9/11. I’m very sorry for all the people who lost loved ones. I also think of all the people all over the world losing loved ones to terrorism here and there. Having lived in a neighborhood which was a haven for refugees (lots of Section 8 housing) I saw waves of disturbed, distressed and disheartened people from all over the world who were not in the US because it was their dream, but because it was their only hope of safety.

In 2004 I went to Italy where, after a young Swiss woman berated me angrily for the war in Iraq, I learned it would be wise of me to let people think I was German. It was an effective disguise, except, of course, in Germany itself.

Reposted from September 11, 2015

Happy Goethe’s Birthday!!!

Twenty years ago on this day I taught my first university writing class at San Diego State University. It was truly one of the happiest days of my life. I had dreamed of teaching writing at SDSU from the moment I learned my ex and I would be moving to San Diego in 1984. I started my San Diego teaching career at SDSU, but teaching ESL in a department of extended studies, not the REAL university.

I did not know that the way teachers were hired was changing, not really in a good way, but in a way that led me to two classes in the department of Rhetoric and Writing. Both were sophomore level classes. I loved my bosses and I loved the campus. Leaving it behind was one of the few difficult things about moving back to Colorado.

I thought it was auspicious that I began my teaching life at SDSU on August 28, 1999, Goethe’s 250th birthday.

I first got to know Goethe in 1998 in the library at a community college where I taught. My students were doing a scavenger hunt for the OED in which, when they found it, they would look up “dork.” I scavenged for a book about Italy because I was in luv’ and going to Italy (maybe) that December to see the man. I found Goethe’s Italian Journey. I’d actually met Goethe superficially a couple of times before on a Zürich street near St. Peter’s Church, but that’s another blog post. I didn’t have my ID card so one of the guys working in the library checked it out for me.

It was the most amazing book I’d read. In it I found the person I most wanted to talk to, the person I most needed to meet.

Wanderer’s Night Song, I (1776)

Der du von dem Himmel bist,
Alles Leid und Schmerzen stillest,
Den, der doppelt elend ist,
Doppelt mit Erquickung füllest;
Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Süßer Friede,
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!
Thou that from the heavens art,
Every pain and sorrow stillest,
And the doubly wretched heart
Doubly with refreshment fillest,
I am weary with contending!
Why this rapture and unrest?
Peace descending
Come ah, come into my breast!

Wanderer’s Night Song, II (1782)

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
O’er all the hilltops 
Is quiet now, 
In all the treetops 
Hearest thou 
Hardly a breath; 
The birds are asleep in the trees: 
Wait, soon like these 
Thou too shalt rest. (Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

This was no caprice. It has remained a strong and informative — though one-way — relationship.

A year or so later, I taught a couple of little poems by Goethe to my students in a summer literature class. Many of my students said they hated poetry, but you know, you gotta’ do what you gotta’ do. I didn’t realize how much of a dent the little Goethe poems I wrote on the blackboard made until one sunny autumn day one of my students from that class showed up and said, “Did you get my present?”

I looked at her. “No,” I said, feeling a little embarrassed.

She was an African/American woman in her late 30’s who’d come to summer school at a community college where I taught. She brought her son to class every day. The very first day she said, “Don’t teach poetry. I hate it. It doesn’t make sense.” Her goal was a business degree from SDSU. She was working on getting her transfer credits. She succeeded.

I said, “I have to teach poetry. It’s a literature class.” She shrugged.

“Those ladies in the office said they’d give it to you. I guess they forgot. It’s probably in the office somewhere.” We took off for the office and there was a shopping bag tucked away in a corner of the place where faculty mailboxes were. “Here,” she said. “I saw this at a yard sale and I knew I had to give it to you.” She opened it and there was….

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/08/28/rdp-wednesday-caprice/