Friday, February 27, 2009
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
The First Despair
It was after the winter
Of my contented resignation;
After the time of white wind rattled sashes
Hoar and blue and brittle;
Of tepid light as level as the drafts
That wafted silence through
My frozen soul, content to sit
In passing winter days, alone and cloistered.
One day as I passed the garden on my errand
I saw that the snow drops had bloomed.
No joy came with them however.
In this quiet and despairing state, this frozen stasis
Springs annual thrill no longer rang in me,
For each passing hour seemed one less
Of a numbered few. The harbinger of Spring
Being also the herald of a passing year.
"How many more?" "not many!"
The joy of coming signed only for the coming doom.
A cold despair drove me from the world.
2007 was a particularly beautiful year, and I had started doing landscape photographs. I was walking, some days long distances, with my camera. I was immersing myself in the beauty of nature. This work was my prayer, my hymn of praise, but still I had no smiles. I felt my smiles had been stolen from me along with my house and my identity; I had survived that horrible year of being imprisoned, both literally and in that mistaken identity and while I came out of it all with some sort of honor, and some sort of health the answer "not many" in those stanzas above were a consolation rather than a threat.
I had started a year of very arduous treatment in December of 2007 and by March of 2008 was completely debilitated. Somehow, somewhere, during February I started to fight. I just had to get back out into the world. The sun was changing and I was desperate to see it, to see the plants breaking the ground. Here I was, in this really awful state and yet managed to decide that since I wasn't dead yet I might as well live. I tried to find my smiles. I tried to give up despair, last year, in the very early spring. For Lent.
Sometime later I added a new despair, to replace the old one. You see, like so many things we don't use for a while I found I had misplaced my despair, and when I tried to find it after Easter I kept finding babies giggling in the playground, and dogs chasing frisbees, and people giving me seats on the subway, and smiling- here in Boston, I'm not kidding. When I found my despair again it was very different. Early last summer I was walking down a street looking at the leaves, and actually started crying, thinking how few more times I'd see them fresh again, thinking how really wonderful our world and our lives are; how hard it will be to leave.
The New Despair
But I still pass the years here,
Much to my surprise, and have
Faced them each since that blue and lonely winter.
Each has had it's spring and summer,
And I have watched the sky at equinox and solstice.
I see it joyfully again, and again I have planted
Zinnias and dahlias as my mother did,
And I sing the hymn of nature's beauty.
And yet, this evening, as the sun was nestling
Gently behind a cloud on it's journey
To the Western horizon, my heart
Yearned for it's beauty as it beaconed me.
Straining with love, as the soft warm air
Wafts around me I think:
"How many more?" "not many!"
A warm despair of yearning for soft light
Drives me to the world.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
I know it is forbidden to destroy ourselves, but I trust it is forbidden in this sort; that we not destroy ourselves despairing of God's mercy. The mercy of God is immeasurable, the cognition of men comprehend it not... Far is it from me to be tempted with Satan, I am only tempted with sorrow, whose sharp teeth devour my heart.
Sir Walter Raleigh
The time following the death of Aramis,"the mad Genius," was a cold desert for me. I was left alone, developing pneumonia, had lost my health insurance and therefore my medications. When I started them again it turned out I had become resistant- I've stated this elsewhere in this blog. I was waiting, lonely, but contented, for the end to come. It seemed not very far off. My allusion to UTZ in the title of this blog is to the land in which Job lived. During the subsequent years everything that I cared for was taken from me. Up to a point I would joke that I had lost everything except the cat, and then the cat died, but like Job I kept peace with my maker. It never occurred to me otherwise.
That is why I started off today with the quote from Raleigh. It is possible to be so resigned to the end of life that one can be even eager for it, to be in despair of the continuance of life without being in despair of, feeling abandoned by God's love.
I speak in retrospect, at the time I did not see myself as being in despair, in fact I wouldn't come to see that until much later, when I started to come out of it.
One may say that I was "depressed." In fact a therapist suggested it "Do you think you may be a little depressed?" I just chuckled, "Doctor, you know what's happened in the last 12 months, what would you think of me if I weren't 'a little depressed?'" he took it gracefully and acknowledged that I was right.
This was before the death of my brother, and the destruction of my house. It almost embarrasses me to relate all these dramatic events. I keep a notebook in which I record my readings. After reading "the Mysteries of Udolpho" last year I started a very arch comment about melodrama and then stopped mid sentence because my recent history was no less melodramatic. All the while I was expecting the last ride into the sunset so all these bad goings on seemed like temporary annoyances; irritants to be endured until my time to join Aramis and my brother. Sometimes when the sun would lower to the western horizon I could imagine them up there having a good old time- very likely stoned and not the least bit worried about the one they left behind. I would pray that God, in his immeasurable mercy would stop the sharp teeth of grief from tearing at my heart and take me.
I mentioned the sun in the western horizon, but should have said "when I went out to see it." At first illness and my medications kept me indoors. Every cloud they say...., The resolution to medication resistance was a new "cocktail" which reduced the extreme light sensitivity that had been keeping me indoors, but still, nature and the passing seasons seemed irrelevant to me, and the passing of time was only a reminder of how quickly I would be gone. Dr Choi, my infectious disease Doctor kept insisting that she would keep me alive to enjoy old age. Very sweet, I thought, and I appreciated her care, and happily I still do. I thought she was very wrong at that time but now think she may be right!
The worst thing about this is that I have always reveled in the beauty of nature, and when I look back at that time- yes it is different now, and that is really what this series of posts is about- when I look back I see that I was in despair. That despair is what I gave up for lent last year.
Monday, February 23, 2009
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Monday, February 16, 2009
THE BIRTH MARK
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Comments by Michael Scanlon
Valentines Day, 2009
I beg your indulgence for my strong reaction to Hawthorne's story. It comes from very unhappy experience that forces me to view this as a cautionary tale of great importance. I see it as having nothing to do with science in the sense that we discuss it in regard to faith, but a great deal to do with the way we view the ones we love, and the tendency, once a relationship is cemented, to shift focus from the completeness of our partners beauty as a whole person to a small aspect which we suppose very arrogantly ought to be better. I have been told that Paul Tillich once said in a sermon that original sin is treating people as objects. There is a whole world of morality in that statement, and rather than science, morality is what this story is about.
I would like to suggest to you that it fits very neatly into a tradition quite different from the scientific, but to understand this we must remember that prior to the enlightenment "Science" had a different meaning than we give it today. I quote the O.E.D. Note that the following is the first meaning of "Science."
1. a. The state or fact of knowing; knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied; also, with wider reference, knowledge (more or less extensive) as a personal attribute. Now only Theol. in the rendering of scholastic terms (see quot. 1728), and occas. Philos. in the sense of ‘knowledge’ as opposed to ‘belief’ or ‘opinion’.
This body of knowledge, this field of contemplation, included the pursuit of Alchemy. Alchemy was ground in which the modern science of chemistry took root, but it was considered a philosophical discipline and the essential difference between it and it's descendant "chemistry" was that alchemy was based on an exploration of the philosophical writings of the "Ancients" rather than empirical observation. I quote from the text:
"He gave a history of the long dynasty of the alchemists, who spent so many ages in quest of the universal solvent by which the golden principle might be elicited from all things vile and base. Aylmer appeared to believe that, by the plainest scientific logic, it was altogether within the limits of possibility to discover this long sought medium..."
At the time "Scientific Knowledge" would have been the works of past philosophers. Modern science is based differently. Here the O.E.D. again, defining "Empirical," which is the basis of modern science:
1. Med. a. Of a physician: That bases his methods of practice on the results of observation and experiment, not on scientific theory. b. Of a remedy, a rule of treatment, etc.: That is adopted because found (or believed) to have been successful in practice, the reason of its efficacy being unknown. Also as quasi-n. in pl. = ‘empirical remedies’.
2. That practises physic or surgery without scientific knowledge; that is guilty of quackery. Also of medicines: That is of the nature of a quack nostrum. Cf. EMPIRIC B. 2.
3. In matters of art or practice: That is guided by mere experience, without scientific knowledge; also of methods, expedients, etc. Often in opprobrious sense transf. from 2: Ignorantly presumptuous, resembling, or characteristic of, a charlatan.
Looking at the story in a literary context I would like to suggest that if we trace a line from Ann Radcliffe's "Mysteries of Udolpho" to Poe's "The Raven," taking the route that passes through Mary Shelley"s "Frankenstien" we will find "The Birth Mark" to be a very comfortable last stop on the way. There is, of course the route through "Northanger Abbey" which for purposes of perspective and humour would be preferable, and more likely to get us to science as we know it, but Austen being rather ahead of the rest of the nineteenth century, that route would leap frog over this story we are discussing.
It is interesting that "Barnaby Rudge," the birthplace of Poe's Raven seems not to be on the road we are traveling, perhaps because Dicken's intentions were actually very "Modern" rather than being romantically "Gothic." If you don't know Barnaby's raven "Grip" you are missing one of Dicken's great characters. "The Count of Monte Christo," despite the superficial similarities in the preoccupation with alchemy also seems not to partake of the "Gothic" in the romantic way that began in "Udolpho." You may challenge me on this, I'm not quite confidant about this placement of the Dumas.
Having placed this story in the romantic "gothic" context I think it is easier to see Hawthorne's subject. It is a very uncomfortable, and as is the habit with Hawthorne, a very moral one.
"Georgiana," said he, "has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?"
"No, indeed," said she, smiling; but perceiving the seriousness of his manner, she blushed deeply. "To tell you the truth it has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so."
"Ah, upon another face perhaps it might," replied her husband; "but never on yours. No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection."
"Shocks you, my husband!" cried Georgiana, deeply hurt; at first reddening with momentary anger, but then bursting into tears. "Then why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks you!"
Abusive relationships are not new by any means, and I am afraid, indeed I know that they are not things of the past, and they are also things that it is very easy for seemingly good people to fall into. Why indeed did he take her from her mother's side. He has taken is vow-
"To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part."
and is now breaking that vow in his heart and mind, and will shortly break it in his actions. He has made his bargain and has become dissatisfied, and has entered into an insidious campaign to convince his lovely wife that he is right and is entitled to "correct" her "imperfection." we have here another road that will take us to "The Diary of a Mad Housewife." This is a dangerous road for the good hearted to travel on, for those who love truly will place the needs, desires, and demands of their loved one before their own well being, precisely because they see their own well being as resting on the loved one's happiness.
Our cultural tendency to focus on a claimed imperfection and turn a blind eye to the transgression of vow breaking comes more and more to perplex me. What is "perfect" and what "imperfect?" The O.E.D. again:
1. a. spec. Of, marked, or characterized by supreme moral or spiritual excellence or virtue; righteous, holy; immaculate; spiritually pure or blameless.
b. gen. In a state of complete excellence; free from any imperfection or defect of quality; that cannot be improved upon; flawless, faultless. Also occas.: nearly approaching such a state.
"Free from any imperfection or defect of quality." It is our tendency to consider such as word as "perfect" to be very clearly defined. In fact I find them very slippery, and "perfect" is a "perfect" example of how slippery words of judgement can be. The definition, even from such an authority, leaves the meaning of this word completely dependent on our individual or cultural assumptions of what constitutes a flaw. One approach to defining a flaw is to assume that the surface of an object should be absolutely smooth and of absolutely even color. A Japanese potter removing such a production from his kiln would break it as a monstrosity. He would see it as boring, and unnatural, out of harmony with creation. Even the world of cosmetics and the study of female beauty at the time encouraged the introduction of irregularities of color, so how define "flaw" in any absolute way? Georgiana had often been told her birthmark was a charm, and this is perfectly consistent with what we know of fashion, and it is even implied that Aylmer thought so himself before the marriage. The birthmark was not considered a flaw, and therefore Georgiana was not imperfect.
After the marriage she became a possession, an object, and Aylmer started to apply to her standards of his own devising, and worse, invoked the first meaning of "Perfect" which has a moral force, manipulate her into understanding that his recently developed preference should be responded to because of it's moral implications.
"Why do you come hither? Have you no trust in your husband?" cried he, impetuously. "Would you throw the blight of that fatal birthmark over my labors? It is not well done. Go, prying woman, go!"
This is, in my opinion, the dangerous trap that we set when we judge others by details of their being rather than accepting their totality, which is the responsibility we enter into in deciding to relate to them at all, much less enter into vows with them. It is both ironic and usually the case that those who become preoccupied with the flaws of others are the ones who are irked by their knowledge of their own flaws:
Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach.
Our restless minds are always speculating on the future, and evaluating the decisions we have made. This is not a bad thing until it causes us to forget that certain interactions are morally and ethically binding. Love is only real when it's moral implications are fully accepted. I won't repeat the poem I posted on my blog this morning, but is a part of this comment I am making and it's conclusion is that our ability to love other's is dependent on our ability to love ourselves- I do not call selfish motivations "love" here. There is no intimacy without a joining of flaws and disabilities and shortcomings. The whole point of the marriage vow is a recognition that in joining with another we accept that other not for their strengths and benefits but for their true, complex and flawed selves. It is done in church in the hope that they two together can find their way to the perfection of soul that only the creator can judge; and to help one another on that very confused search.
Two are better than one; Because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; But woe to him that is alone when he falls for he has not another to help him up. And if two lie together then they have warmth, but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him,Two shall withstand him.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Strange indeed it seems to me that this tongue
So rich in subtle and specific words
Should have so few for the ways we love;
Allowing us to claim that most noble motive
When in fact it’s only appetite that moves us.
What then is it that we feel when love’s
Focus is the other not ourself; what truth is known
By those who love so purely that they have no need,
Not even the loved one’s returning gaze?
To care so strongly for the loved one’s self
That his happy life is all that’s asked,
Except perhaps that he die at peace and full,
Love itself being it’s own reward?
To love one’s self that much and truly that loving
Others brings no need, and only joy that the other’s there to love
Friday, February 13, 2009
Some find love is like the violet's scent
Which, with it's fragrant, rich, delight
Overcomes and kills the nose's sense
As quick as darkness robs our eyes of sight.
I, while searching for a constant strength
In one who would stay married to my hopes,
Worry that my fickle fancy may at length
Chafe against love's most welcomed ropes.
This brings as much pain, I have to say,
To new love starting as does facing that
Past love with passing time did fade away
And leave my hopes divorced from fact.
It matters not with which blame might lay
My fear is pain for both if either lacks.
So I here fret amongst these rhyming lines
In both dread and hope for Valentines.
This is from 1993, I wrote "Violets" in 1975 and "Roses" in it's original form in 1984; in 2005 I rewrote it in sonnet form. I have a love of the sonnet form, although I don't always stick to 14 lines, as in "Valentines Day." There is precedent for this 16 line form although you have to dig deep in the literature to find it. Whatever the form, I've always been rather happy about this one!
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
I am yours, and you are mine
Into each other’s limbs we twine
As saplings in loves coppice might
Be merged as one in softened light.
One water drinking from the ground;
Unified in sight and unison in sound;
And sleep as peaceful as the setting sun
Contented when each day is done.
But what is this I feel that grows t’ween trunk and bough?
The sweet rose thorn stem; and as it starts to climb it does chafe,
And weaving through us now it’s barbs draw blood in our embrace!
It promising most beauteous blooms,
But never telling how quick they fade.
Monday, February 9, 2009
Saturday, February 7, 2009
On this day I’m all alone
The object of my heart has flown
To distant southern climes
Leaving me with art and rhymes
To host the ghosts and the daemons
Which these days attend your season.
I have given honor, written sonnets
Offered love, no conditions on it
True in body heart and mind
All things men claim they want to find
But can not see, or will not trade
For selfish hollow lives they’ve made
Full of words but lacking deeds
Bereft of trust and full of needs
How many of your days must I endure
‘Till love, or death perhaps, becomes secure.
In my introduction to this blog I promised poetry- what better time of year to start! I promise something more cheerful for the day itself!