A while back, the above meme was on Facebook. I feel that when any major holiday rolls around. Yesterday I boiled eggs. OK, only 2, and one went into a salad and the other is for the dogs, but I boiled eggs. I could color that remaining egg, but it’s pretty as it is. Out in the Big Empty the geese are beginning to sit on their nests. We deferred to a gander who was protecting his woman last time we were out there. He stood on the road and Bella, the dogs and I just waited until he either crossed or turned around before we went forward. It’s his world; not mine
Goethe’s Faust begins on Easter Saturday. Faust has forgotten it’s Easter, but is reminded by his pal, Wagner (no not that Wagner that guy appeared a couple generations later). Faust is old, disillusioned, has studied everything possible, and wonders “Is that all there is?” And, “How come I still don’t get it?”
As a character, I don’t “like” Faust much. I think he’s mostly a vehicle for Goethe to make his point and explore his ideas, but I have no way to know that for sure. Here’s Faust indulging his dismay at the reality that no matter what we do, we cannot ever really know what’s going on. Faust, however, is about to drag out a big, dusty, tome and begin practicing magic. But, just as it is with everything we humans do, nothing he does will work as he expected it would.
I HAVE, alas! Philosophy, Medicine, Jurisprudence too, And to my cost Theology, With ardent labour, studied through. And here I stand, with all my lore, Poor fool, no wiser than before. Magister, doctor styled, indeed, Already these ten years I lead, Up, down, across, and to and fro, My pupils by the nose,—and learn, That we in truth can nothing know!
One of life’s biggest enigmas — for me anyway — is when to rely on reason and when to follow my heart (not that they are mutually exclusive). Sometimes our minds betray us. Sometimes our intuition is completely insane. As a kid, I learned not to trust myself, but who knows us better than we know ourselves? Each life is its own pathway to the self. The one consistency in our lifetime is that we are there for the whole show.
When I was trying to figure out what to do in 2014 after my job had been “given away,” and I was 62, old enough to retire, my neighbor (one of the sanest people I’ve ever known) Andy Lopez said, “Follow your heart, Martita.” I listened to Andy, and I did what he told me to do. I listened to my heart. Anyone who could talk to a horse the way he talked to Brownie, or raise kids as brave, smart and free as his, was worth listening to. Still my mind was involved saying, “You won’t have enough income to sustain your life here, Martha.” That was the push and it didn’t take Andy or my intuition to see that.
As I type, I have two photos in front of me. One is of a restaurant in Zürich that’s decorated for Christmas and has a painting of Goethe on the front with the words that Goethe had stayed there with the Duke of Weimar in 1779. It was once the home of Caspar Lavater who was a famous phrenologist in the 18th century. He was also the pastor of the church that shares a square with the restaurant, St. Peters. The photo is important to me because it was this painting that awakened me to Europe. I hadn’t read anything by Goethe when I first saw this building, but it was enough that I could realize — suddenly — how many feet had walked on those streets and for how many centuries. That is NOT America.
As far as I’ve been able to understand, phrenology was an attempt to understand the human mind by evaluating the shape of a person’s head. It is now called a pseudo science, but back in the 18th century, when modern science was just beginning, it was not pseudo. While it sounds absurd to us today, it was a start. Still, it is pretty absurd to think that the outside of the head can be an indication of moral values, intelligence. He didn’t invent this. The theory that the shape of the head indicated all kinds of metaphysical attributes had been around thousands of years already. Lavater systematized it and traveled to various cities talking about it. He and Goethe were friends. I guess he had good things to say about the shape of Goethe’s head…
I have a kind of dent in the top of my head. I know exactly what it signifies. It is symbolic of the time my brother hit me in the head with a hammer. He watched too many cartoons.
The other photo in front of me? 27 years ago. One of the greatest days of my life, and I — thankfully — knew it at the time. In the photo, the day is just beginning. The sun is rising over the desert. The sky is cloudless, early-morning blue. The people in the photo are smiling, excited to be setting out. The photo says nothing about the turmoil behind the smiling faces, the silent battles between head and heart.
“Oh wow! It’s been 20 years since 2001! Where were you at 9/11?”
That’s where we are today. 10 years, 20 years, 1 year. These markers mean a lot to humans. Why do these anniversaries matter? Though, I have to admit it was amazing to learn that my cousin was in NYC in a cab when it happened.
Last year was my 50th high school reunion — not celebrated, of course, it’s going on now.I wanted to talk to my high school classmates about their lives over the past 50 years, but not enough to actually drive 150 miles with a less-than-perfect shoulder. I went to high school with some amazing people (probably we all did) and I wanted to find out about them. Couldn’t we do that any time? But we don’t.
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. (this section originally posted in 2015)
9/11 opened the door to much of what we’ve seen in the past year (four years? five years?) A 20 year war? The acceptance of untruths and dishonesty in the name of patriotism (not new: the normal way of accepting the unacceptable). A lot of stuff started on that day that had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. GWB saying, “You’re either for us or against us,” resounds through the country today.
I dunno. I don’t understand us at all. Humanity is a confusing kaleidoscope and I’m as confusing as any of it.
Featured photo — the first Scarlet Emperor Bean seeds of 2021.
On this day ini 1749 one of my best friends was born. I try to find a way to celebrate this event every year but this year? I have no idea. Maybe just this post.
I think anyone who reads has a favorite author and they are favorites for probably infinite reasons. I met Goethe at exactly the right moment in my little trajectory around the sun. It was accidental. It was 1998 and I had taken a class to the library for a scavenger hunt at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA. I had been invited to visit a friend in Italy (another story) that Christmas, but I didn’t know much about Italy. I was wandering around the stacks for a useful book about Italy while my students worked. I found a big surprise, Goethe (whose work I had never read) had written about Italy. The book was Italian Journey. I went to the desk and learned I couldn’t check it out without an ID card. I didn’t then have one. One of the librarians, seeing what I wanted, checked it out for me.
I went home, read Italian Journey over the weekend, and fell in love on every page. Who WAS this man?
I took Goethe with me everywhere I went after that, either in the form of some book or other or in my mind.
Once on a plane from Salt Lake City (a plane change point from Billings, MT) to San Diego, I sat by a little boy. He was playing a video game. When I sat down and got settled, he asked if I had a pen he could borrow so he could keep score. I did so I handed it to him. I was traveling (as I did for a long time) with Conversations with Goethe (Gespräche mit Goethe) which is the book compiled by Goethe’s end-of-life secretary, Johann Peter Eckermann. I opened my book as the plane took off and started to read. In a little while the kid — who later told me he was 7 years old — touched my arm and said, “Do you want to have a conversation?”
Of course I did. Talking to kids is great. It was a wide ranging talk that involved learning that this kid was fascinated by WW II and thought German engineers had designed cool planes because of the rotary engine. I learned he’d been staying at his grandparents (a-HA) but then I learned why. His brother had been killed in a car accident only a few months before and his mom was devastated. The family was on its way to Mexico for the New Year and maybe to help his mom recover. I said I was very sorry. “Me too,” the little boy said. Then, “Have you been to Germany?”
“Only barely,” I said. “I have friends in Switzerland and we went to a couple towns on the border.”
“Can you speak German?” he asked me.
“I want to learn German.”
“It’s a great language,” I said. “My favorite writer was from Germany.” I showed him my book.
Then I thought about this kid’s mom and how smart this kid was. “German’s a lot like English,” I said. “I bet if I wrote something for you, you could guess some of the words.”
We had a huge supply of cocktail napkins on which I’d been drawing WW II airplanes and he’d been identifying them. I took a new one and wrote:
Alles geben die Götter, die unendlichen, Ihren Lieblingen ganz, Alle Freuden, die unendlichen, Alle Schmerzen, die unendlichen, ganz.
The kid was incredibly brave compared to a lot of people and fearlessly went at it. “I see ‘all’ and ‘end’.”
“Wow,” I said. “What if I tell you sometimes ‘t’ is ‘d’ in English?”
“Is that god?”
“It IS like English. What does it mean?”
I wrote my simple translation on the back of the napkin and handed it to him. He read it thoughtfully with great respect. Then I showed him how the words of Goethe’s poem in German corresponded with the words in English so he could see the relationships.
“Can I give this to my mother?” he asked. “She needs it.”
“It’s yours,” I said.
We all got off the plane in San Diego. I knew I’d been deeply privileged that day.
More or less: All is given by the eternal gods to those they love, whole. All joy, unending. All sorrow (suffering), unending, whole.
I’m not a German scholar so this isn’t a very artistic translation. People argue about the meaning of words (schmerzen, freuden, unendlichen, Götter) but I don’t want to. I know I’m not the king of this stuff. I also know that words have connotations in their own languages that are often untranslatable. BUT I think the whole meaning — Ganz! — of this poem is clear in every language, even in a primitive translation like mine.
I taught a summer literature class one year. On the first day one of the students said, “I hate poetry. Are you going to make us read it?”
I laughed and said, “It’s a literature class. What do you think?”
Of course I talked of Goethe during that class. A couple of years later she showed up and said, “Did you get my present?”
“Well there’s a bag in the department office for you. I can’t believe they didn’t give it to you.” We went together and she handed it to me. “I found it at a yard sale.”
It is the most amazing book. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1871 compilation of poetry by European writers starting with the Anglo/Saxons. Inside is a scattering of maple leaves. There are thousands of poems and poets in that book, from the Middle Ages to Longfellow’s own historical moment, but of them all the frontispiece is…
One of my favorite authors when I was younger was Nikos Kazantzakis. He’d probably be a favorite writer now that I’m NOT younger, but I read everything. Yeah, right? It began when I saw Zorba the Greek sometime in 1974 when I’d recently gotten my BA and was (I felt) trapped in a terrible, violent marriage that kept getting smaller and smaller. The lines from the movie (that are also in the book) “You don’t want any trouble? What then DO you want. Life is trouble. To live life, you must undo your belt and look for trouble,” resonated, and informed me. The marriage ended a few years later and I continued reading Kazantzakis. The next line from one of his books comes from The Odyssey, a Modern Sequel. The line (as I remember it but I could be wrong) is, “This is the earth. The bloody arena of men’s souls.”
And so it is.
Recently Amazon told me that there is a film — Kazantzakis — that was recently made. I began watching it last night and it’s brilliant, beautiful, and brought all those books back into the front of my consciousness. The film is a biopic and necessarily rushed to fit into just under 2 hours as Kazantzakis lived through most of the 20th century’s major upheavals and was a literary and political force himself. I like that it focuses on his writing and doesn’t dwell on psychological motivations or things that many biopics of our time seem to, about things no one can even know. Kazantzakis recorded his own life, anyway, so it doesn’t really need to be second-guessed, and these film makers don’t. The film is in Greek with subtitles.
But at one point, after the Nazi occupation of Greece is over, the Kazantzakis character makes a comment about Goethe as having been a hero of the Nazis.
I wanted to know more about that so I spent a little time this morning looking into it. It only makes sense that he would have been, not because of Goethe’s OWN philosophy and ideas, but because it was an aspect of German nationalism at that time to claim to the Nazis every good thing that ever happened in Germany was evidence of a master race.
I didn’t find a whole lot to shed light on this for me, but I found a beautiful essay from 1999 (the year of Goethe’s 250th birthday, which I celebrated!) I want to share with anyone who might be interested. I “met” Goethe in 1998 and he evolved into the best of many “dead” friends I’ve had in my life.
The article says most of what I have to say in response to that question. I don’t think transient politics were a focus of Goethe’s thinking or life. He lived through an invasion of Weimar by the Prussians and the Napoleonic wars. I am not sure what he would have done in Nazi Germany, but I do know that he wasn’t there. I’m going to keep looking into this question, but I agree with the author: “…everyone is aware of the canonical status Goethe’s work enjoyed during the Nazi period. This tells us more about cultural manipulation than it does about him…”
I thought it was cool that two of my very favorite writers at least met in this casual way in this lovely film.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.