Tally: Lucid 90 Proof Vodka

Tally: An Intuitive Life by Mary Clark

PJ_1979

Amazon UK Review by Philippa Rees

I think a reviewer owes a reader some declaration of his or her intersection with a book, why they read it and why review it, so any opinion is given a clear lens.

I bought this book for its title, knowing little about its subject, except that it was bound to be philosophical. I am interested in any reflections on the meaning of our seemingly haphazard existence and any wisdom pulled like threads from a personal tapestry and rewoven.

The discovery that it was about the near heyday of Greenwich Village, and characters living like rats in neglected garrets or churches momentarily vacant and underused, and the noble small presses pushing out chapbooks or poetry readings was a definite plus. This is a world I had heard about, but never directly sampled. The shadow of Alan Ginsberg and his ilk loomed large.

My only connection with this world was through a long and wonderful correspondence with an editor at Alfred Knopf, Sophie Wilkins who had mentored John Updike, George Braziller, Thomas Bernhard, William F. Buckley and many others now renowned, but who also found time for me. I did not deserve the attention she gave me but that was a reflection of the world of letters in that period, and this book, and the character of PJ evoked that distant generosity in which writers and writing were the only things that mattered. So my inclination was to absorb it as it came; sympathetic to the exhilaration of a world open to youth, even jejune youth avid for acceptance. That I did understand.

What makes reviewing it problematical is the autobiographical celebration of the main character PJ (Paul Johnston) who was clearly the seminal influence of the author’s life. His almost total (and vividly recreated – seemingly verbatim) philosophical reflections are almost all interesting, many provocative, never dull. Yet he is in unwinking focus throughout. I seldom abandon a book once I have committed to it, and I was never tempted to abandon this, for its lucid re-creation compelled, and it is cleanly written. That ‘cleanly’ is not meant to be derogatory, on the contrary, it served to keep the tungsten light firmly on the stature of its single character PJ whose shadow deepened increasingly, although his actual daily presence diminished. He was like a thread of elastic, the more stretched the greater his pull.

In a way the influence of PJ was to effect a growth of the author, incrementally strong enough to escape him. Yet the narrator Erin is in such thrall to PJ, so bent upon her tribute to his ideas, and his tragically diminishing physical powers she hardly seems to exist. Her peripheral relationships founder one after another, as perhaps they did, but this self-abnegation extends even to the absence of smell, or colour or atmosphere. It is a work about ideas, mostly the ideas of PJ, and nobody has a greater appetite for ideas than I do – a wonderful section on art being invisible but authoritative when it takes the creative reins – yet the author gave herself little liberty to live outside the mind. Or not on the pages of this seeming memoir.

What seems to happen is the repeated distillation of ideas repeated and refined until they have the clarity of 90 proof vodka, sharp, invigorating but with scant taste. I would love to meet this author and exchange vodka for single malt whisky with peat and autumn and the scent of heather, and woodsmoke and ask her to tell me about why PJ had such power, and whether having delivered her tribute she could now live a little lighter for it?

I urge you to read it nevertheless, if only to enjoy a quarrel with PJ, or to give thought to his uncompromising belief in intuition as the basis of relationship, a better index of love, a more autonomous source of creativity. In this he did master an understanding; and this work does certainly illuminate his originality, recognised by his (over) modest scribe, Erin.

Tally: An Intuitive Life by Mary Clark, published by All Things That Matter Press, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Favorite Books of 2019

Eggshells, by Caitriona Lally

Eggshells

Viv is a special needs person who is functioning in her unique way. As she says, “my life soundtrack is more of a nursery rhyme with three repeated notes.” But what a symphony she composes from these notes. Viv (or VIV or Vivian) is a great character who totally inhabits her skin and we see everything through her eyes. The humor occurs at piquant moments, elevating the narrative into a mythical realm. And she is at home in Dublin. “I like living in a city where I am mostly unknown, and going into small places where I am known.” She writes in a notebook of her daily journeys and makes lists of things she notices or likes. Her tour of Dublin is more than a spoof of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While radically different, it is just as revelatory about humanity and myth-making.

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone

This New York Times Notable Book 2018 and bestseller in Germany takes on one of the most controversial issues of our time. Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a widowed man and retired linguistics professor in Berlin who at first does not notice the refugees in a nearby square, but when he does, he is drawn in to learn about them. Shy and uncertain, he comes to know them and understand how they are caught in the barbed wire of laws and policies designed to reject refugees. Slowly, as Richard is enlightened, he is also emancipated from the falsehoods of politicians and populist rhetoric. You’ll have to read the book to know what he does.

Happiness, by Aminatta Forna

Happiness

Attila, an expert on PTSD, and Jean, a wildlife biologist, meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Through these acts, and their accompanying thoughts and emotions, people find the strength to overcome trauma. A book worth reading.

Uncertain Light, by Marion Molteno

Uncertain Light

The story begins with the kidnapping and presumed death of a U.N. Refugee worker, Rahul Khan, in the inhospitable yet alluring landscape of Central Asia. Rahul is a seasoned worker in war-torn areas, with refugees and rogue groups, a dangerous job, but his inter-personal ability has seen him through many tense situations. His loss shocks his friends and co-workers. They reflect on their relationships to him and their loved ones and begin to re-assess their lives. Meanwhile, the uncertain situation in the borderlands near Tajikistan continues. Work goes on. Two of Rahul’s co-workers, Hugo and Lance, who became his friends, struggle to continue this work. Another, Tessa, is moved into transforming her life and taking bold action. In time, the different individuals whose only connection is a man whose death has shaken them, are drawn to one another and discover the depths of their bonds. 

An Honest House: A Memoir Continued, by Cynthia Reyes

An Honest House

This sequel to A Good Home continues the intimate journey of its author and her husband as they deal with her illness and major changes in their lives. The home stands strong and almost has an eternal quality as the human beings in it struggle and strive toward health, hope, faith and joy. I admire and enjoy Reyes’ writing and highly recommend her books.

Woodstock Memories 2

Part 2

Woodstock Site 50 Anniversary

The Woodstock Music Festival site today is on the National Register for Historic Sites and part of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

We arrived on Saturday mid-day, August 16, 1969. (See the previous post, Woodstock Memories).

People were moving around, in front of the stage and up the hill, standing and chanting. Country Joe was leading the chant about fixin’ to die in Vietnam.

The hillside was densely packed in front of the stage and on our right, so we decided to try to cross to the other side. First, we took a path in front of the stage, only to have our shoes sink into the mud. Turning back, we followed a clear corridor in the crowd up the hill, and then another path, single file, across to the far side.

We were riding the high of anticipation. We heard people talking, learned the band playing was Santana. The place was rocking. What a great soundtrack for what I was feeling. What I felt others were feeling too. For what the experience was like on many levels.

We reached the other side of the hill, and there, on what was like the arm of an easy chair, we found a good spot. We could see the side of the stage. My brother spread the little blanket and with relief and a feeling of accomplishment we sat down. Not far away another corridor ran to the top of the hill.

People were in small groups, some couples, sitting in their own spaces, sleeping or dozing, talking, or getting up and moving around. When Santana finished their set, I told my brother, “I’m going to look for food. I heard there were food vendors at the top of the hill.”

As I walked uphill I stopped several times to look at the crowd. I got to the top and headed for some wooden structures. They were empty. A couple of people said the food ran out yesterday.

A row of port-o-sans stood nearby with people waiting in line. A woman coming away said, “It’s disgusting.”

Some people, I later heard, were using the woods lining the hillside.

I turned around and walked back downhill. I told my brother the news: there’s no food or water.

A man and woman sitting near us must have heard me.

“Would you like a coke?” the woman asked.

I was embarrassed to answer. I hated to take something they might need.

But we said, yes, and they handed us the coke. That sustained us for hours. My brother and I talked about what bands might have played already, and which were yet to play. We didn’t know. Announcements were being made from the stage. We were ready for a concert, and at the same time, with so much to absorb, with all that was before us, time and space and what was important took on a different quality.

This was more than a music festival. This was something else. 

An army helicopter came over and looped around.

“They’re going to suck us up and take us directly to Vietnam,” someone said.

“I think they’re dropping flowers,” another person said.

Canned Heat played their bluesy rock, and the witty “Going Up The Country, “perfect for the journey we’d just made – and were now making in a different way. 

From time to time I walked about twenty feet toward the center of the hill to where two vans were parked, and looked down at the stage. Creedence Clearwater rocked.

woodstock6

Walking toward a spot where I could see the full stage. Note the people without shoes and socks on. The ground was wet and muddy. We were sitting in a less muddy spot.

I was staring at the hospital tent across the road, white with vertical pink stripes, and a smaller tent not far away. A helicopter lifted off near the tents and flew low over us. The noise shredded the music. I was annoyed, distracted. Another one took off, and then another, and after a while the sound melded into the music, into the murmuring and cheering from the hillside, part of the soundtrack of the experience.

A man staggered toward the fence. I heard people say, “He’s tripping. He needs help.” Two men appeared and helped him, half-carrying him away. Later, a woman came down the hill and freaked out along the fence. Someone following her told us, “She’s freaked out by the crowd. It’s got to her. We’ve been here since yesterday.” He helped her along the fence and down to the road.

I wondered at that. Could it become too much for a person? And taking drugs in such a situation. Things could go awry. This was not helped by the lack of food, water and shelter. I wasn’t into drugs, and no one tried to get me or my brother to take any.

Suddenly I thought, I should take a picture of the crowd. Walking uphill, some people smiled at me, others were sleeping, but most were sitting as if they were in the best place in the world. Not in the mud, on wet grass, in summer heat and humidity, but in a place of the heart and appreciation of living, as if beyond space and time, in a collective imagination.

woodstock8

Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Saturday, August 16, 1969. Photo: Mary Clark

The crowd became part of my mental experience. More than just sensory experience.  Watching the helicopters come in and lift off at the hospital across the road, I was looking at the lake behind it, and for a moment I experienced “seeing” into the future. I saw a world where people related to one another in a new way, not with social pressure or any kind of violent force. It was a completely different atmosphere. 

What was happening here was one of the possibilities for human beings. For how we could live together without an overload of rules, with behaviors decided by those involved in quiet negotiation, respecting one another’s space.

When evening was coming on, people lit the way with flashlights for those walking up and down the path near us.

Night fell and the music played on, punctuated by silences and announcements. For me, the highlight of the evening in terms of music was Janis Joplin’s performance. Her voice was filled with many notes and frequencies besides the dominant one. It came down over us, expansive, resonant, and made an immediate connection. (Later I heard she was stoned and her performance was shrill and fragmented. That’s not what I heard. Maybe it was the difference between being directly in front of the stage and getting the dominant notes versus hearing her through the large amps placed partway up the hill. That technology may have caught all the notes and nuances.)

After Janis, Sly and The Family Stone came on. Many in the crowd rose to their feet, higher and higher. I rose but quickly sat back down. I put on my jacket and zipped it tight, but the damp chill of the ground made its way through. I tried to hold on because I knew my brother wanted to hear The Who. I thought it was about 1 or 2 a.m. and did not want to leave so early. So I lay down and shivered. Finally, I said, “I have to leave.”

He wanted to stay, so I said, “You stay, and I’ll walk back to the car. You can come later.” (Obviously, I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I may have breathed in quite a lot of pot in the time we were there.)

“No, I’ll go with you,” he said.

We made our way to the fence, along it and down a short slope to the road, a way we’d seen others do it during the day. We began walking and must have taken a turn too soon. It was very dark on the road. Only a few people were walking near us.

“I don’t think this is the way we came,” I said. “We might be lost.”

He asked if we should turn back, and I said no, let’s keep going. I think this is the right direction. In truth, I was happy, floating along.

I heard the other people having a similar conversation.

A sound came rolling over the hills. The Who. The unmistakable chords of Pete Townsend.

“You’re hearing The Who,” I said.

“It’s not the same thing,” he groused.

I’ll never forget the sound of The Who rolling over the hills.

We saw a lake through a line of trees, glimmering with lights here and there. A couple or small group of people approached, headed the other way.  We told them we didn’t know where we were and where we wanted to go.

“Just keep going and when you get to the end, turn left, and you’ll find the road you’re looking for.”

They were right. Soon we were walking away from the town of Bethel. Time grooved by and I began to wonder, but with only a slight thrill of panic, whether we would ever get back to our car. 

Dawn came, and a familiar shape appeared in the near distance.

“There it is.”

The little white Corvair. What a welcome sight. 

The sound of the doors opening gave me a sense of comfort. I drank from the thermos. We were on our way home.

(Later I would learn that Janis sang at 2 a.m., and Sly and The Family Stone about 3 a.m. The Who started at 5 a.m. We must have left about 4 a.m. or later.)

I realized a number of things afterward. I realized that I liked people, that I liked being with people. And that they could organize themselves, just coming together to do something because they wanted to do it and make it work and then go away. They could express themselves, whatever they thought and felt was fulfilling. Woodstock was a social and emotional, an intellectual and artistic experience. People made up their own things to do, games to play, an art gallery out in the trees.

For me it was also very personal. I didn’t feel judged as I did in high school and college. The people at the festival were interested in things other than themselves, than in appearances and status.

We wanted to be free and we were saying, we can do it. It was a glimpse of the potential for people, for what we can do if we want to. 

Woodstock was a phenomenon, those performances and the coming together. It won’t happen again for a long time. I hope, someday, such large peaceful gatherings will be commonplace.

The Red and Black Aquatints of Robert Motherwell

Red Sea 1 Robert Motherwell Red Sea 1 (1976)

In the early 1990s I published a monthly community newspaper called the Clinton Chronicle (NYC). This review was written by Claire Machaver, a woman whose joy was manifest along with her generosity. 

Long Fine Art Gallery, March 2 – April 30, 1994, 24 West 57th Street, New York

At the Long Fine Art Gallery, the cumulative effect of the glow of the multiple dense Red and Black Aquatints is striking. Robert Motherwell likened this effect to Plato’s image of art as the shadow cast on the dark cave’s wall by persons passing by the fire. In the Republic, Plato regarded such viewing of shadows as the first step in the path toward viewing the brightest of all things in the material world, the Sun – a metaphor for the vision of the best among realities, wisdom.

Motherwell’s graduate work in philosophy and psychology at Harvard and later studies in art history with Meyer Schapiro provided him with the impetus to address problems of visual communication. With this background, he could draw upon such masters as Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso.

For nearly a decade Motherwell addressed a continual problem of uniting disparate elements in his work.

“It used to cross my mind from time to time that it would be much more intelligent to go the other way – To begin with unity and then, within unity, create (through dividing) disparate elements.”

Motherwell became the heir to Mondrian’s rectilinear geometry and Matisse’s reduction and simplification of his own prior paintings.

Resolving the issue of inside/outside in his Open series of paintings, Motherwell employed a window motif that remains on the picture plane rather than functioning as an illusion of space. These windows do not describe a view. Instead they distill the geometry of all windows and act as symbols. Motherwell’s spare, elegant black lines suggestive of open windows in number 9, Red Open With White Line (1979), and in numbers 4 and 5 in the exhibit, Untitled (1972-73) recall the windows in Matisse’s 1914 painting, French Window at Collioure, a simplification of his 1905 painting, The Open Window (Collioure), and his 1914, View of Notre Dame, a simplification of an earlier View of Notre Dame painted the same year.

The A la Pintura aquatints are illuminations for Rafael Alberti’s poem, A la Pintura (Homage to Painting), first published in 1948. There are three major works in the exhibition: Red 1 – 3 from A la Pintura (1991); Red 4 – 7  from A la Pintura (1969); and Red 8 – 11 from A la Pintura (1971). These aquatints are subtle variations of square and rectangular black imagery on a red ground, with the Spanish text printed in red and the English translation printed in black.

r_motherwell Red 8-11

It was Picasso who first indicated in his writings as director of the Prado museum and in Guernica, with its symbolic and mythological references, how a painter might bring together images that would be universally recognized as archetypal symbols, with the expression of the social consciousness of the artist.

Motherwell wrote, “Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head.” The abstract imagery he developed was derived from dialogues with political events, other art, literature and psychoanalysis. Red Sea 1 (1976) is one of the first prints to fully employ automatic “gestural” drawing. Referring to the gesture, Motherwell said, “the true way to imitate nature is to employ its own processes.”

Motherwell explained the intensity of the Red and Black Aquatints. “What aquatint can do . . . better than any other means of a painter, is to saturate certain mould-made papers with an intensity of hue that cannot be equaled (except perhaps in stained glass light).” Aquatint is a specialized technique which uses a metal plate coated with a porous resin to create a granulated effect. This beautiful show provided a lasting impression of a master’s graphic oeuvre and his remarkable ability to use the gestural image in abstract art.

Happiness: A Review

Happiness

In a series of stories linked by characters and themes, Happiness by Aminatta Forna describes two lives on the front lines of human cruelty and resilience. Attila, an expert on PTSD, works in war zones and disaster areas. The other main character, Jean, a wildlife biologist, has seen the cruelty of humans toward wild animals firsthand. They meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. Attila loves music and dance, and Jean plants gardens in the most improbable places. One is self-care with the hope of sharing, the other combines self-care with caring for the environment and wildlife. They refuse to be alienated, they continue to relate to people they’ve known a long time and to strangers who need help or offer to help them in their ventures.

The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, ‘That which does not kill you makes you stronger.’ Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. However, in my view, Nietzsche’s statement is a generalization. Human beings are more complex. Some people will be damaged by trauma, some will be resilient, and some will be both.

Both Jean and Attila see the real illness, the worst loss, and it’s not the damage done by traumatic events. It’s our capacity for denial, of death, and of life in all its messiness. We try then to eliminate things we cannot control. The coyote and fox, both species Jean has studied in the field, are beyond our control. Some people welcome their presence as reminders of the wild and free in themselves, while others are threatened because these animals cannot be managed and thrive independently of humans.  

The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Surmounting our difficulties to take this kind of action is pure rebellion against the damage done. There’s joy in this, and helping another person or animal affirms our humanity. It can be the simple act of giving a bit of food to a hungry fox on your lunch break at the back of the hotel you work in. It can be the more complex interaction with an old friend who now has dementia. A brief time of meditation or contemplation, a silent reverie by a river, or in a field making eye contact with a coyote, renews our connection with life. Through these acts, and the thoughts and emotions which give them a basket of flesh and blood, people find the strength to overcome trauma. 

The passages meant to convey this joy often fall flat, at times detailed to death, other times described more as an ordeal or willful event that is fraught with the character’s anxiety. While there’s truth in these last two situations, the subduing of happiness seems to serve the author’s goal of setting aside happiness for hope. My other flushed grouse, to use a wildlife allusion, is the gratuitous first chapter. To equate the thrill of the hunt by a professional hunter or sports hunter with the hunt of a conservationist disregards the difference in intent, beliefs, and consequences, and emphasize the heightened senses of the hunt, and the similarity of human and animal behavior. Forna does better when she shows the difference between blood lust and its opposite: the strength that caring requires, the effort of advocating, saving and letting live.

My Top Five Book Picks for 2018

These books range from non-fiction to memoir to fiction. Each one had revelations for me, which were communicated in language far beyond my own abilities.

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and The Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Milkweed Editions 2013

Kimmerer is a research biologist and an active member of the Citizen Potawatomi nation. She lives near, but not on, the Onondaga reservation in upstate New York, near Syracuse. She gives us “woven essays,” often in the form of stories about people she’s met, lived with, engaged with, and places she’s lived and visited. When I read this book, I came to understand the Native American view of the world (although I had previously thought I did); and more than understand, experience it. In the first chapter she says of sweetgrass: “Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.” From the meaning of sweetgrass, to the consideration of actions taken to the seventh generation, the practices of gratitude and thanksgiving, the operation of a gift economy, to the hope presented by the coming of the People of the Seventh Fire, this book held me in thrall. She tells the story of the Peacemaker who came to the Haudosaunee (Iroquois), and of the dispersal to reservations of her ancestors. Her grandfather was taken from his family to the infamous Carlisle school for re-education. He was forbidden to speak his own language. She writes of the loss of indigenous language, and her efforts to relearn Potawatomi. Throughout all she shows the resilience of Native Americans. Now they are beginning to reclaim their heritage. Her contribution is this book, which opens a new way of looking at the world to non-Native Americans. And she considers how long the immigrants from Europe have to live in a place before they become native, and what being native to a place entails. The writing in this book is among the best I’ve read in years. One of the most beautiful stories is of the salmon “coming home” in the Pacific Northwest. In all the role of the land, the trees and plants, is interwoven. I thoroughly recommend this book.

The Color of Water

The Color of Water: a Black man’s tribute to his white mother, by James McBride, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 1996, 2006

McBride starts with: “As a boy I never knew where my mother was from – where she was born, who her parents were.” The most interesting part of this story is his discovery that his mother is Jewish by birth and upbringing, and that her family were immigrants who lived in a small southern town. The radical contrast of cultures is surreal, but the family dynamics are all too common. His mother left the family and converted to Christianity, which resulted in her being estranged from them. Alone after her husband’s death with multiple children to raise, she managed with fierce dedication, and occasional violence, as she’s only human and flawed, to see them all through to healthy and successful lives. As with his book of stories, Five-Carat Soul, which I’d read before this book, McBride’s language is edgy and poetic, and so is his social commentary. His writing has a pace and rhythm that comes from his other profession as a jazz musician. Most of all, this is a penetrating look at race and religion, and family and community, in America. A very memorable read.

Loving Day

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson, Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2015

A biracial man returns from a decade in England to his old neighborhood in Germantown, Philadelphia. His father was white and his mother black, but he looks like a Celtic warrior. He is exposed to and has to deal with racial attitudes and behaviors every day of his life. The story begins with: “In the ghetto there is a mansion, and it is my father’s house.” The ghetto inhabitants see him as white, but he knows he’s black. “I will not be rejected. I want to run, but not to be run off.” Soon afterward, a wizened elderly Jewish man and a striking teenaged girl visit him. The elderly man tells him he is the girl’s grandfather. He learns that the girl is his daughter, the result of a short fling with a young woman years ago. For reasons I’ll leave out now, his new-found daughter comes to live with him in the ramshackle mansion. The scenes are often funny, and some are funny and sad at the same time. A biracial “Adam and Eve” couple’s ghosts, or reality, haunt the place. How he and his daughter, among the other biracial, transgender, and marginalized people, cope with the persistent prejudices, and how they convert their experiences into strong human bonds, is well worth reading. There are flaws in this book, involving some confusing paranormal scenes which seem out of place, but the disclosure of being human in the midst of the absurdity of racism, is unforgettable. I’m glad I read this book.

A God In Ruins

A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson, Little, Brown & Co., 2015

This poignant and provocative story of England in World War II is told in a jumble of scenes, mixing together past, present and future in ways that confuse, or challenge the reader, but ultimately in this paradoxical way illuminate the characters’ lives and the book’s themes. Toward the end of the story, you learn why this mish-mash of time does not matter, and why it does matter. The author has worked hard to expose the waste and brutality of war, and leaves us with a vision of what was, what might have been, and what might be.

Without The Veil Between

Without The Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit, by Diane M. Denton, All Things That Matter Press, 2018

Now we’re in England, there’s Diane Denton’s luminous account of Anne Brontë’s short but productive life. The sisters’ books are populated with people who live large lives, with secret loves, deception, greed, passion, and loyalty. In this setting, quiet Anne makes her own way, exploring human relationships with a keen sense of morality and ethics. In a prescient way, she was ahead of her time in her thinking about the role of women, about freedom and equality. 

Living Consciously Alive

TALLYFRONTCan a person live an un-repressed life, a life of all possibilities, or is the price always madness, because the terror of reality, the fear of life and of death, as Ernest Becker said, are too much to bear without defense?

Some, like R. D. Laing, say therefore prefer madness; at least, respect the mad for their courage.

I wonder if that release into all possibilities has to be a leap into insanity?

If I develop my attributes – intellect, emotions, sexuality, “soul” – and have no center other than a fire of gases like the sun, can I live fully, freely, courageously? I feel in myself the strong desire, stronger than the fear of breaking down, death and pain, to go into the world in all of its alarming chaos and be transfixed by it, to experience it all with courage as well as fear.

Ernest Becker (Denial of Death) would say I have fabricated my own “symbolic transcendence” over “the darkness and the dread of the human condition.”

But isn’t there equally glory in the human condition, in nature, in oneself? And just as hard to take, for most people, because of the guilt of being happy, successful (at whose cost) and the fear of being betrayed by happiness into forgetting horror – then it suddenly happens. Still, the beauty is equal to the ugliness. I don’t believe people create, always or necessarily, to “mediate natural terror” and triumph over it.

What I mean is not transcendence, but instead as fully experiencing life as I can. These experiences may shatter me, they may improve me; surely they will transform me.

Is it possible to experience the world purely without being completely destroyed?

Reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception, I kept thinking: but I don’t take these drugs and I have these experiences. When I walked in New York, I was sometimes mesmerized by the blue sky above the city streets,. I walked for blocks looking up until I came to see the faded lemon-blue near the western horizon. In Riverside Park, I watched flotillas of ducks, saw how they converged with the river’s currents, bobbing into one another’s area, the rhythm or actually the lack of rhythm, a kind of staccato randomness, changing formations and no clear purpose, but the purpose was clear. Dove blue lights went on the George Washington Bridge and upriver the crusty castle of Riverside Church towered in failing light.

How easy it is for me to visualize, hear and remember the feel of things, how sensory oriented I have always been, the importance of color and how I find it hard to look away from the angles and line in architecture, street after street. I always look and listen, drinking in, as I pass Lincoln Center, walking or in a bus, those colorful “pastiches” of Klee’s, the fountain, the whole.

In art and in life, in our perpetual consciousness, there are layers of perception. Cezanne’s paintings show this gestalt visual memory. There is a synthesis of objects, events and people seen from different points of view, in different lights, from different angles, at different times.

Huxley was looking for a bio-chemical-neurological similarity between “schizos” and artists. Too much stimulation can frighten and overwhelm, or it can fascinate and enrich. The ability to have faith in one’s experience is important, as Laing said, to not care what others judge it to be, to ascertain its value yourself.

“Crazy” people and artists are not the same from my experience. The crazy people I knew were often people of limited or a false empathy. Some are emotionally crippled: the ideologue; the man who screams all night on the church steps.

Anyone who was still alive and battling was not crazy. They had courage and imagination, but were in trouble. They were people who needed to be re-stabilized. I knew that, because I was one of them.

I am leading a peculiar life outside the mainstream, not a crazy life but one arrived at through choosing to live, fully, to be what I am.

Huxley wrote of artists that they are “congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful. A little of the knowledge belonging to Mind at Large oozes past the reducing valve of brain and ego, into his consciousness.”

This ability is inherent, however, in every person. Some choose to develop it, others to evade the reality of their own experience.

In my book Tally: An Intuitive Life, PJ said, “People find, if they ever do, that it ever so easy—and so difficult—to tap into one’s stream of consciousness. That’s what I mean by living consciously alive.”

In Search of Immortality, Book Review

In-Search-of-Immortality-by-Jaidev-DasguptaJaidev Dasgupta’s book on Indic thinking is an incredible work of scholarship and more, it shows a mind deeply engaged with the search for understanding. He has sorted out, arranged, and presented the ideas, original beliefs and speculations of the Rig Veda, the early and later Upanishads, and other works (including Buddhist and materialist) in a clear, insightful way. These ideas and world-views evolve from early absolutist pictures of creation and the meaning of existence, to more subtle and complex conceptions. The history of the people of the region, the past and current contexts of ideas and beliefs, and various interpretations of meanings, are juxtaposed in a way that gives them all due respect and range.

In each of the phases that took place in Indic views there are contradictory ideas, and in each of the changes in those views, transmutation, or refutation and rejection of previous ideas and ideals. Human thinking is continually forming new belief systems, world-views, and narratives. A “major shift,” he writes, “took place in later stages in how the creation was viewed. While the Vedas speak of the origin of the world, the late Upanishads also talk about the dissolution of the world.” Another change was the emergence of the law of Karma, which was probably driven by human desire to escape the absolutes of heaven and hell.

“Was there a new idea that led to the change in story between the Rig Veda and the late Upanishads? Before reaching the possible answer, let us see the difference between the two creation models. According to the Rig Veda, the universe once created could continue forever without dissolving, but in the Upanishads the world went through cycles of birth and death. In the first case with no dissolution of the world, time moved forward linearly, but in the second scenario, time moved in cycles, assuming that in both cases time started with the beginning of the creation.”

Among the many fascinating parts were those that dealt with creation stories, the codification of behavior in order to support the world, the change from ritualistic to other ways to achieve “right living” and union with the ultimate reality, being and non-being, immanence and transcendence, and the combination of two polarities in one state or being.

Another interesting passage is this: “There are good reasons for assuming an imperishable, unmanifested Being as the background for the world phenomena. First, it avoids the problems of explaining how the world came into existence from nothing. Indic thinkers believe that there has to be a prior causal base for the world to appear as an effect. It cannot just leap out of nowhere. Second, because of the inherent dynamism of the ground, the world can arise without any divine intervention. Otherwise, the existence of a god prior to creation has to be assumed. Third, Indic thinkers are skeptical about the reality of the world. Right from the Upanishads we find seers and sages troubled with its evanescence and vagaries. They need respite from its transitory nature. And Brahman is the perfect refuge for such troubled souls. Immortality is in demand.”

Dasgupta establishes connections between Indic and non-Indic world views and science, especially in the areas of time, causality, polarities and unity, moral behavior, and similarities in the way the human mind works. These connections are enhanced by the knowledge and experience the reader can also bring to it, which can form the kind of relationships among philosophies that make it invaluable as communication expands across the globe. I know I will be re-reading parts of this book as I go along through life.

In Search of Immortality, paperback, Amazon

Creating Community

photo of person holding sparkler

Photo by Malte Lu on Pexels.com

I live in a community where I have not experienced a strong sense of community. Having come here in later life, after living in other states, Southwest Virginia has not been all that welcoming or hospitable to me. I find the Confederate flag at the United States’ Independence Day parade to be a reminder of the worst division this nation has ever known, one that almost killed us off as nation, and not a symbol of any proud heritage, for instance.

In the face of these divisions, my friend Maggie who was born here, although her mother is from New England, and identifies herself with this town, invited people she knew to come hear her read at a local café on the evening of July 4th. I was the only one who showed up. When I arrived, at the open mic night, a band was playing, too loud for me to stay inside the café. Others came in and quickly left as well. The place was almost empty. I though that someone should tell the band to modulate their amplification to fit the space, because they had great energy, but the sound was overwhelming what they were playing. Maggie and I talked outside and I said I would walk up and down the street until she came on. At the same time, on the street, people were gathering for the city’s fireworks. 

About a half hour later, the band of young men, who appeared to be in their twenties, stopped playing. I went back inside, to find I was to be her audience, along with potentially three new customers getting drinks at the bar. Maggie asked the band to stay to listen to her. They went backstage. Now, Maggie is a large, young woman who it turns out has a “schoolteacher’s voice” I didn’t know about. She said she’d wait. One of the band members came back out and she asked if the others were coming. He said no, he didn’t think so. I felt for her at this point, but thought, hey, just go ahead.

As she began to read, the other band members came out and sat at the table right in front of her. They were talking, quietly, among themselves, but as she continued speaking, they began to listen. She read and spoke from memory and improvisation about a locust tree in her backyard that was full of vines, and the vines were killing it. She cut the vines to give it a chance to live. At some point she sensed she heard the tree thank her. She saw the leaves of the vines yellowing, in time. Then she talked about July 4th and freedom, and how we as Americans are free, and when we see someone else in shackles, we have to emancipate them; it’s our civic responsibility to cut their shackles. 

The band members applauded when she was done and one young man came over to her and talked to her a while. A young woman who had been sitting with the band eagerly reached out to her. They spoke as well, and then she and I walked toward the door. I said, “You knocked their socks off.” I was proud of her, and what literature, poetry, and thinking, can do, and most of all, having the freedom – and the courage – to express what you are feeling and thinking.

I drove home as the city’s fireworks lit up the sky. So maybe community is when we have the courage to create it, no matter the odds against us.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: Review

memoirs of a dutiful daughter

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

Philosophy’s gravitational wave is coming, and will move across her life . . . 

Beauvoir’s mother was a fundamentalist Catholic and required subservience to that worldview. She did her best to inculcate her daughter with its tenets and practices, emphasizing the safety it provided, to women in particular. That safety and stability, supporting the structure of family life, also required an abstinence from thinking, curiosity, and freedom (though all were subverted in various, subconscious, ways).

Religion pervaded Simone’s existence as she faithfully went through an education at a Catholic school, believed in the efficacy of confession, and the power of prayer. But, slowly, the pervasiveness began to recede, as she observed and questioned ideas and ideals, and learned of other worldviews through her own efforts. Autocracy, with its companion hypocrisy, became apparent at the school. She read books that were banned by her mother, finding them in a relative’s home. A young boy named Jacques gave her books to read, which she gladly accepted. The loosening hold of religion was caused as well by her recognition of its superficiality in those who professed the greatest belief. One who had been her confessor betrayed her confidence. And then, in her personal life, she discovered prayer failed her.

Ultimately, religion was not imbued within her, but was mostly an external accretion. She took some time to grow and break the accretion with a conscious choice. The accretion had been porous, partly due to her inquiring mind, and possibly, partly to her father who was not a believer. He was a person who wrapped himself in fantasy. Their financial, social, and inter-family circumstances, revealed the inadequacy of such a life. Her mother’s tolerance of her father’s non-belief raised questions. Was her mother only with her father because she had no choice, as a woman, in that time and place, to survive and bring up children with a modicum of stability? And so he was simply an accommodation, an appurtenance, with no further value than the earthly usefulness he provided? On the other hand, and I think Beauvoir sensed this, he was her mother’s outlet, her portal to moments of freedom. In him she could release her rebellion. 

Once she had broken with religion, creating a separation from her mother, Beauvoir felt free and ready to start a new life. Her struggles were not over, though; they had just begun in earnest. Simone was still living at home while pursuing higher education, trapped in an atmosphere of denial and obedience. Restlessly, she walked the city streets, which she had been told were off-limits, looking for new ways to be, for places and people to try out her new-found freedom. She never thought, she said, to go into the cafés. Instead, she went further, into clubs where she and her friends Zaza and Stepha indulged in sexual licentiousness and vulgarity, and met people who lived on the margins.

Her relationship with her childhood friend Jacques had changed over the years. She began to consider him as a potential husband. He was elusive, though, and her misgivings about him grew. He would not be her intellectual equal, even though he had helped her on her way at crucial times in the past. She knew she was supposed to seek the stability of marriage, but after much confusion, she realized her hopes were a mistake. Marriage was not for her, she concluded.

Beauvoir had some character flaws that come to light here. She idealized Zaza and Jacques, and obsessed about them, only to learn later they had not thought about her much at all. During these experiences, however, she was working through social questions. These people aided her as well in her philosophical education. But her idealization was over the top, which she acknowledged in the case of the teachers who had once inspired her. She also thought of herself as superior to the unwashed masses. Her revels in the clubs as a teenager and young adult are not unusual. Her crush on her childhood friend wasn’t either. She was different in the talent she had for abstract thinking.

She was honest about her idealizations and her snobbery. At one point, she noted she “loved to be loved,” and was surprised to find herself not being lauded outside her family, but instead, banished from society. She wrote with irony about her “insane optimism” in response to ideas and causes, and how this only added to her solitude. Her philosophical conversations and social analysis with other girls and women made me think: thank you! We read, think, and are concerned with the great mysteries, including questions of rebellion and living a worthwhile life, with authenticity and freedom.

Her greatest mission was to pursue an education, first compromising to study for a teaching job, but finally, to study philosophy. At the same time, she was engaged in community efforts to bring education to working class and poor people. The inspiration for this came from a leftist teacher and speaker. With refreshing humor, she related how, eventually, she lied to her mother about going to this volunteer job, only to really go to a film, ballet, or one of the clubs.

All the while she experienced extreme loneliness, the sense she didn’t fit in, as she roamed the streets, studied alone in the library, and attended class at the Sorbonne. When and how did she meet Sartre? If you don’t want to know until you’ve read the book, then don’t read the rest of this review!

She longed for intellectual dialogue, for someone who could challenge her, for someone who was her superior. One after another, intellectual companions came along, and fell away. Slowly, the dim-witted men of great intelligence realized they had met their match. One was a member of Sartre’s “group.” He referred her to the group, telling her Sartre had found her interesting. She threw all her arguments at him, and he refuted them. Well, this was what she had been looking for. But as we know, and so did he to his credit, she had something to contribute, which he could not, and this kept an interest and tension between them that fueled continuous thinking and dialogue.

Her relationships with a parade of men and women who were questioning the old ways were fascinating. Each one brought a different point of view and beliefs. The story often comes back to her relationship with Zaza, who also had a restrictive mother. She tried to be a good friend, although Zaza’s mother disapproved of her. At the end of the book, Zaza died of a sudden illness, after some years of failing health. She said of Zaza’s death, “We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.” This sounds eerily similar to the Jesus-Hercules stories of sacrifice for the betterment of the people. Or was it survivor’s guilt? In any case, Beauvoir had managed to free herself and create her own life. 

And so the wave of human questioning and knowledge goes on.