Sunday, January 24, 2010

Laying Bare the Essentials

When I taught Freshman comp (Writing as Critical Thinking, or WACT (Whacked)), I tormented my students with Noam Chomsky. The students hate Chomsky because he argues that the very things they enjoy most (sports, for instance) are sort of designed to breed apathy about what matters most in life. However, what Chomsky has to say cannot be reduced to a sound bite, which makes him unpopular in popular media (haha, the juxtaposition of those words strikes me as very funny).

I argue that most of the essential conversations in life cannot be boiled down easily. And that is the justification I am using for what is going to be, I promise, a monumental blog post. It is in part a continuation of many conversations I have been having with many people lately. What sent me opening my blog post page in a scurry lest I forget what I have not yet thought before I write it was a post I read in my Google Reader (which I just learned how to use).

I found out last week (can you tell it was terrible? It seems it was terrible for... everyone. We have at least that shared human experience) that a friend of mine has a blog. So, I subscribed to it, and was amazed this morning when I read a post that was actually a response to a conversation she and I had had last week, late one night with two other friends who were having an equally awful week, over glasses of leftover wine from my cupboard. I am the friend, as you will see below from her post, who asked whether she can paint when she is depressed, and whether painting gets her out of her head.

This woman is an amazing painter, truly gifted, and I am somewhat annoyed to realize that she is an equally talented writer, which I know she will take as the compliment it is intended. It doesn't help that she is only 21 years old, but I know a LOT of amazing 21 year olds. It happens in a college town.

I am going to paste her entire blog post here (with a link), so you will have the context for it. I'd rather let her words speak than try to boil them down into a soundbite. And then, I will muddle through my own response, which corresponds also to what I have been reading and thinking about lately.

So, go grab a cup of joe or a glass of wine and strap yourself in. This is going to be a tome.

I came across this statement while researching for my thesis paper, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind:
“From a postmodern perspective landscape seems less like a palimpsest whose “real” or “authentic” meanings can somehow be recovered  with the correct techniques, theories or ideologies than a flickering text displayed on a word processor screen whose meaning can be created, extended, altered, elaborated and finally obliterated by the merest touch of a button.” (Olwig, Kenneth R. “Restoring the Substantive Nature of Landscape.”)

Ever since the beginning of the semester when one of my professors spoke casually in class about how a landscape, while beautiful, says nothing about contemporary human life, I’ve been scrambling together a defense of what I do.
The idea of a landscape that is no longer a central organizing component of geographical study because it no longer describes a physical expanse of land but is, instead, a mental and verbal construct is, frankly, terrifying. It takes no great effort to imagine the environmental consequences of thinking of landscape this way, but what concerns me most are its humanistic implications. When even the humanities have turned from reality and fled to the confined room of the mind, this final stronghold of the real, the physical earth, has (if you buy into Baudrillard) evaporated in our wake.
This makes sense.
I’ve been thinking a lot, given recent personal drama, about the causes of our collective depression (easily a national epidemic). A friend asked me recently if I have trouble painting when I’m feeling blue. I explained that it’s the opposite; when I’m feeling blue, I need to paint. Her next question reverberated with me because it brushes against this nagging dissatisfaction I’ve felt with the way that we live: 
“Does it get you out of your head?”
As far as the average American is concerned, the landscape has ceased to exist. We do not live on the land. We hover somewhere above it, keeping it out at all costs. We no longer feel the seasons or experience true darkness. We go to work and school in buildings whose conditions are centrally controlled in cities miles away. We eat food that is no more connected to the natural world than are laboratory rats. When even our communities are virtual, we have no local culture, no sense of place. We send our complaints into the unresponsive darkness of a virtual world which cannot comfort. Physically and spiritually homeless,  we retreat to the solitude of our minds. We are prisoners of a new landscape of our own artifice, which, desperate to shut out what threatened our mortality, has made us not immortal but inhuman.
If a landscape says nothing about contemporary human life, it is because contemporary human life has been rendered inhuman by our own postmodern efforts to set values of rationality, abstraction and progress against culture, nature, poetry and tradition, to construct a new reality devoid of that which cannot be rationally explained. We cannot “get out of our heads” because, like it or not, we live there.
I was won over by my current method of painting after an eight-day excursion to Venice during my study abroad. During my time there, I woke up before dawn every day, shoved my supplies and easel into a canvas knapsack, and hiked out into the city, looking for a place to paint the sunrise. I spent whole days intentionally losing myself inside Venice’s labyrinth, wandering back to the hotel after dusk with three or four paintings and falling, exhausted, into bed. I can remember drinking wine with friends along the Giodecca, waiting for the light to change, and when it did — when the water turned a deep turquoise that, we knew, stays less than half an hour before turning to black — we ran to our easels in such a hurry that I knocked over my palate and shattered a jar of turpentine.
I have always made a hobby of art-making.  In Venice, for the first time, painting didn’t just mean putting a brush to canvas. It meant putting on your pants, brushing your teeth and stepping out the door each morning with an adoration for the exterior world and a mindful receptiveness to the present.
I paint landscapes because I have lived too long in the dark, constricted room of my own mind. I paint the way that I do because, like many, I’m tired of feeling disconnected and undead. Recognizing the arguments against me, I still believe in the substantial nature of a landscape which not only includes but is, in part, defined by  human interaction.
I can’t imagine that the solution to our collective unhappiness could be more of the same, and I advocate a return to the notion of the artist as poet. Art, after all, has the unique ability to achieve what other disciplines cannot:
“It is not the least, and is, perhaps, the peculiar value of art, that it is the medium in which man and landscape, form and world, meet and find one another. In actuality they live beside one another, scarcely knowing aught of one another, and in the picture, the piece of architecture, the symphony, in a word, in art, they seem to come together in a higher prophetic truth, to rely upon one another, and it is as if, by completing one another, they become that perfect unity, which is the very essence of a work of art. From this point of view the theme and purpose of all art would seem to lie in the reconciliation of the Individual and the All.” (Rilke)

This morning, even before I read the post above, I was thinking about what I have been reading lately. Last night, I had a girl date with my friend Melissa. We have been trying to get together for a drink for about six months, and last night, without much prior planning, things came together. We went to Il Spazio and she drank tea and I had decaf (oh, we are not that responsible-- we'll go out for a proper drink one of these days, but children were being transported last night) and shared a plate of portabello mushroom fries, and then ended up at the bookstore. (Do I have to tell anyone in Kirksville which bookstore that is? No? I mean, it's not like there are options. Sad, right?). [In the entire bookstore, we found exactly ONE book by Ursula Le Guin.]

We were talking about books, of course, and I told her that lately, I have been revisiting a group of books by Gary Paulsen. These books are definitely juvenile fiction, which I mention only because I started re-reading them around Thanksgiving after getting Tommy started on them (which coincided with the gift of his first hatchet). And these books are marvelous. I should specify that I have been concentrating specifically on the stories of a young boy named Brian. He survives a plane crash into the Canadian woods after the pilot of his small plane dies of a heart attack mid-flight. Brian finds himself deep in the wilderness with only the clothes on his back and the hatchet his mother has given him. He is 13 years old. 

The book Hatchet tells the story of how Brian learned to live. Not even just to survive in the wilderness alone for 54 days, but how to live mindfully and how to think. And how to be part of the world around him. In order to survive the wilderness, he must become part of it. I have had a particular need to read about survival lately, perhaps in response to feeling that I need tools to survive my own life. But I also share my young friend's desire, described above, to become more fully part of the planet. We tell the kids that we go and stay in remote cabins in the wilderness without running water or electricity each year because we need to remind ourselves how to survive without internet, computers, electricity, and toilets. 

My children spend a lot of time preparing for zombie attacks, and I admit that I encourage this simply because I think it's important to think of what we would do, how we would survive, without the creature comforts upon which we depend daily. I think I have a fear of it all suddenly vanishing and leaving us helpless. And I do not like to be or feel helpless. Not emotionally, not physically. 

I have been talking lately about the fact that maybe I should learn to have some boundaries, because I'm not good at establishing boundaries between me and... anyone. However, it dawned on me this week that I do have a boundary, and it's a pretty damn big one. I tend to take an approach to generosity and giving as almost a pre-emptive strike. I will give to you, and I will distract you so that you are not even really aware that I will never let you give back to me. I will take the role of giver, because if I take, then I have to let you in. I have to become vulnerable to you. And that might mean that I need you or even miss you when you're gone. But since I need to be able to escape at any time to protect myself, it's just easier and better for everyone (haha, or just me) if I am the giver. Then, you might miss me when I am gone, but I will be fine. I will take my sunshine away. 

I mentioned this to the fabulous Kathy Howe this week, and she understood very well because she does the same thing. She wrote to me, " It is a terribly ISOLATING habit.  There are people worthy of that trust from us and there are people that want to be there for us.  We need to allow us to trust those people." 

She also wrote, in another email, "... just remember this: the people you spend time with are an extension of you.  Choose wisely."

Kathy and I both know firsthand what it is like to choose poorly. And I think my neurotic need for independence now stems directly from my experience being very dependent for years in my life, another life. I haven't exactly achieved a balance. I have just swung the pendulum from one extreme to the other. 

I mention these things because I think my delving into books in which someone is alone with only the wilderness to survive against represents what I'd like to do. I am running away in my mind, if not in actuality. As my friend said in her post above
If a landscape says nothing about contemporary human life, it is because contemporary human life has been rendered inhuman by our own postmodern efforts to set values of rationality, abstraction and progress against culture, nature, poetry and tradition, to construct a new reality devoid of that which cannot be rationally explained. We cannot “get out of our heads” because, like it or not, we live there.
Wow. Yes. It is ironic that a way out of my head might involve greater physical isolation than I currently enjoy. And I would really like to get out of my head and start living in the world. I want to learn how to do this. What she did not mention about our conversation was that I suggested that I should begin painting landscapes and she agreed with me-- and I don't think that either of us knew in that moment about the other that neither one of us was kidding. 

I recognize my needs to escape when I go running, and I am literally running away. Of course, I run in a wide, sweeping loop, so I never get anywhere at all. I am always back where I started. To some extent, though, that's okay. It's the journey, not the destination and all that. But I have recognized for about a solid year and a half (since Karl died) a need deep inside myself to take a month and go to an isolated cabin and be ALONE. That is a tall order when you have a husband, three kids, and a job. So, I think I am always kind of frantically looking for a substitute. I retreat further into my head because it's the only way to be alone, when what I really need to be doing is being physically alone and getting OUT of my head. 

My friend and I haven't really spoken about the fact that this year we have both been on the same journey to return to the basics: We now buy our meat exclusively from local producers who bring it directly to hour house. We do the same with eggs, and feel bad about not doing so with milk, but we cannot afford to spend $6 a gallon at the rate we drink milk in this house. We concentrate on buying locally grown and produced fruits and vegetables when possible, and we have really moved from buying processed foods that have multiple ingredients to foods that have 7 or less. We make a lot of things from scratch. I never thought I would ever graduate from Ragu, but now I wouldn't touch it. I am not yet canning my own tomatoes, but you won't find white flour at my house, and you will often find homemade bread or sweet potato biscuits or red beans and rice or jambalaya or organic salads with brown rice on it. Another friend recently asked how I was doing in my desire to change our family's eating habits, and I said, "I don't even think about it anymore. We just do it."

We aren't perfect. We do have processed snacks for Christian-- but children with diabetes need a LOT of carbohydrates in very specific quantities, and frankly, if I did all of the baking to meet his needs, it would go bad before he could eat it all, but most importantly (I mean, we do have a deep freeze), I would never be able to do anything but bake. As I sit here writing this, I know that I am lying. I could take Sunday afternoons and bake for several hours and then freeze things in one-or-two carb servings. Now that I know that I am lying, I will probably have to start moving in that direction. But I realize that lasting change probably comes from small, slow changes than abrupt ones. The only things my children have available to drink are water, milk, and orange juice. We buy whole milk because it is less processed; we buy orange juice whose only ingredient is... oranges. 

However, even though our eating habits are healthier and more mindful, we plan meals well in advance and build in time for baking, I haven't yet found a way to be more spiritually or emotionally or mentally healthy, though I recognize that I strive for it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Strive isn't even the right word. I yearn for it. 

In my desire for physical isolation (be careful what you wish for, and I would not want this to come at the cost of any of my loved ones), I am not saying that I never want to be around people or society or community. Oh no. I love my people. However, I do think that I would be more whole and more healthy and more able to exist peacefully in human relationships without feeling so drained if I could just tend to myself exclusively for awhile. This seems wildly selfish to me. And that, my friends, is the point. I wholeheartedly reject Ayn Rand's philosophies of selfishness, but I do believe that "a healthy and happy mommy is the best mommy."

A happy and healthy Jen is the best kind of Jen and more fully able to be engaged in the world. There have been moments of vitriol and bitterness this week when I have felt that I was genuinely not fit for human companionship (one of those times was the night four women sat in my studio and talked about how broken we are; I may not have been fit for it, but my broken pieces needed to fit into their broken pieces for a little bit just so we could all feel more human, perhaps), and yet, I exist in the human world anyway. Sometimes, you just have to do it anyway. Most of the time. 

I have been napping a little bit more this week than I like, and I recognize that I am not even really sleeping during these times as hiding in a little cave of covers with my cat and trying to regenerate enough to finish my day. But even as I speak and think often of needing alone time, spiritual healing, every night when Dereck climbs in bed next to me, I cling to him like the baby monkeys cling to their cloth mommies. I crave touch, and I let that touch feed and give back to me in some kind of primal way that I don't fully understand but that I recognize I need. I hug my children and carry my puppy around the house. There is something about touch that I am using daily and constantly to keep me grounded and centered. I don't know what it has to do with endorphins or nerve endings-- I just recognize that I need it. I hug my friends when I see them, and I worry about the friends I have who don't (in my opinion) have enough touch. I make them hats like little hugs they can wear around all day, out of the softest, pure alpaca yarns. 

Touch is so primal, so tactile, so basic and primitive that I know I am using it because otherwise, I am in too much danger of being locked in my head, or locked into my computer, this keyboard, the never ending parade of words with which I am surrounded and trapped. 

Even though studying Modernism in graduate school very nearly led (or perhaps did) to a nervous breakdown, I still think that it is the school of thought with which I most closely identify. I was talking with Sam on Friday briefly (always in the car) about the platonic ideal of table, versus the table that exists in the physical world that we can only detect with our imperfect senses. He is reaching definitions of platonic and meta on his own-- I just try to fill in a few gaps and add some vocabulary. There is no such thing as a penultimate table. There is the platonic ideal, and its physical imitations. However, at the end of the day, we are left with our imaginations. Sam has been playing a lot lately with a lot of really cool ideas-- we were talking about the idea of a character, who is in a coma in one of the Brian books, telling the story from HIS point of view, in the coma-- and I said, "This, Sam, is meta. We are talking about the point of view and story of a fictional character-- we are having an idea about an idea about an idea."

I love meta. It is one of my very favorite things. 

My friend also advocates, in her post, for art and poetry. I read an article in The Denver Post this past week about poetry and a high school teacher's endeavors to teach it to his students (a friend sent it along to me). A lot of the commenters wrote that poetry is dead, or that they don't really like poetry, so they don't see the value of reading or studying it. 

Poetry is dead, but not because of the high school students or MTV. Poetry is dead because the poets sequester themselves in graduate programs at Iowa State, and rarely accept anything that does not fit their archetypical notions that bolster only each other. English teachers need to stop trying to convince students that Wordsworth, Longfellow, or even Ginsberg speak to them and their generation. Let them discover Li Young Lee, e e cummings, or WC Williams, or pretty much anyone that doesn't have their shorts in a twist around their egos. It isn't that poetry isn't applicable to the present, it's that the poets that are routinely taught as masters are more in love with their own cleverness and rhyming than they are with purpose. Stop teaching history and start teaching English.

As for the "art" of recitation, Socrates called those who recite the works of others cheats.
Poetry simply isn't to everyone's taste.

I don't mind hearing poetry, but I don't enjoy reading it because I struggle too much trying to make it rhyme or trying to "hear" the meter.

As a poet, and as liberal hippy commie scum, I of course felt that I had to throw my $.02 into the mix.

Given the number of poetry slams that occur across the country, I think it's safe to say that poetry is in no more danger of dying now than it ever has been. It's changing and evolving.

As long as people are writing and reading and singing, poetry will be healthy and hale.

There are particular problems with how poetry is taught at every stage. It's important, yes, to read and explore all kinds of poetry from all eras. Maybe poetry isn't to everyone's taste. I personally don't love algebra, but I see the value in learning it. Even if I will never use it.

That's one of the problems I see with how people view poetry or education in general: There is a distinct lack of respect for useless knowledge, or knowledge that has no practical application in our lives.

Eating cheesecake, playing the guitar, painting, listening to an opera-- none of these things have any practical application or purpose except that they give us joy. And so does poetry.
I agree with my young friend that we need more art, more poetry, more music, and more joy. These things can feed us too. 

I will finish by saying that the other themes I have detected (not detected-- actively sought) in my reading lately is the thriller. As I explained to Melissa last night (she does not like mysteries), "Oh, these are even worse. In these books, you know who committed the crime, and you know who the bad guy is. And you have to spend the rest of the book trying not to get killed by him."

Talk about reading about how to survive.

Now, why on earth would I be reading books about that? ;)


  1. The strides you are taking in this past month are phenomenal, Jen. Maybe this past year, a time when you've said you felt stalled out and stagnent, was really a time of laying fallow, so you could blossom in your spring. (Eep. Is that lyrical or just cheesy? I'm thinking cheesy, and cringing a bit, but I think the metaphor is apt, nonetheless.) Amazing stuff.

    (And that prof who said landscape is irrelevant? Is a dork who needs to get out of his car and walk somewhere once in a while...)

  2. Interesting.

    I feel what you're saying and agree with it. I know exactly what you're talking about with respect to wanting to run away in order to experience yourself.