My wife Jen and I recently saw a University of Arkansas production of Anne Frank, a dramatization of the diary, which prompted us to pick up a copy of the diary itself.
Somehow I’ve not read it, ever, except for excerpts here and there in anthologies, but reading it now I see how enthralling it can be both for historical and literary reasons. Frank records the Nazi persecution of the Jews as it spreads from Germany to Holland, where the family fled in 1933, and she confides in her diary as to a friend, her BFF, in fact, for her motive in writing, she says, is to discover and describe just such a friend.
Fabulous that she would begin such an enterprise and push it forward by and for herself! The diary was not discovered till after the war, after the Franks were hustled off to concentration camps. Anne Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen camp; her diary was saved, back in Amsterdam, by a family friend and employee.
Frank called her diary “Kitty” and confided in it, as you would to the best friend you didn’t have and might never have. It’s charming to overhear these confidences, starting with the friendly address of the diary. “Dear Kitty,” Frank wrote, again and again, telling of her fears and joys and terrors.
I’m reading the diary now and should like to use it as something of a model for the young students I am tutoring, who are writing journals. Frank, after all, deliberately supersedes the idea of recording only “a series of bald facts … like most people do.” She has more important things on her mind — political, psychological, and yes, erotic, things to consider, as any adolescent would have on her mind but few would commit to paper like this. Frank not only writes down her thoughts, she uses writing as a means to transcend the painful and the lonely here and now.
Had a massage today, down in West Fork. My masseuse lives in the house, an old stone house, with her husband and kid. When I entered, her four-year-old boy greeted me in the office with a rolled up news magazine.
I was thinking, isn’t that great, the tyke can read already, but he assured me, in no uncertain terms, of his real intent. “When my daddy gets home,” he announced, “I’m going to whack him with this magazine!”
“Oh, my!” I replied. “Aren’t magazines for reading?”
“Well,” the kid rejoined, “he hit me first!”
“So you deserved it!” his mom, my masseuse, replied.
At which point, I graciously bowed out of the family feud, went into the masseuse’s room, and disrobed. No sense getting too involved in any one family’s private pathology. If we have to be naked and honest, don’t we have enough of our own?
What kind of Christmas theme is this? The dear dead ones!
But isn’t it precisely this time of year we think of them when we’re gathered around the giving tree and seated at the groaning board?
Oh, we think, just one more chance to see them, hear them, touch them as gifts are exchanged and platters passed around the table. Just to listen, quietly, to what they might say at such a momentous time as this, the time of sharing and forgiving, when past wrongs and slights, real or imagined, are forgotten and forgiven, when the family coheres.
I think of James Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” in which the protagonist, Gabriel, presides over a Christmas gathering of family and friends, proud of his oratorical abilities. He makes a sentimental speech to great applause but, once back home, sees his wife, Greta, whom he desires, despondent and apart. Stirred by a song she heard at the party, she is thinking of a young boy she used to love, who died when he was just seventeen. Gabriel tries to be ironic with his wife, but his egotism is deflated. Then this final glorious paragraph:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
A time now, this holiday season, to be unironic in our relations, to look each other in the eye, listen eagerly to what the others say, and offer a toast to the living and the dead. What would they be saying, the dear dead ones, if they could? What would we say? Na zdrowie! my Polish father might say. To your health, brothers and sisters, and ours, as long as this enterprise shall last.
This last year has offered many lessons, or opportunities for same, on the civic virtues. Or, more basically, the virtues of civilization, if they still exist.
Without getting into the unseemly mess of American politics, and no doubt annoying the conservative brethren among us, I’ll just say that rowing the boat together seems to me not a bad idea, since we’re in it together and it’s leaking. We might try pulling together in the same direction more than we have, and arguing less over who’s working too hard and who hasn’t worked a lick, and who’s to blame and who gets to steer the craft.
Off by ourselves in a reflective corner, we might, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, begin to dwell a bit less on our own misery, real or imagined, and more on that of people who don’t have nearly what we do, or have lost what they had. We might think of Syria, for example, which has seen untold suffering lately, and Iraq, and any number of other places on the globe where our action, or inaction, might have contributed to suffering.
Thankful for our comfort, ease, and affluence, we hold up a holiday candle to the world and send bright thoughts and a bit of money, if we can, to those near and far who suffer privation, want, cold, and hunger. (International Rescue Committee is one good choice. Doctors without Borders is another.) Jennifer gives to Bridge of Peace Syria, a charity headquartered in our home city, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and working even now inside that wartorn, miserable country.
And charity is the greatest of these
And we think of St Paul, could be, who, though no merry old soul like King Cole, was a droll boy in his own right. That line about better marry than burn, for example! Was the gent never married? Did he never marry AND burn? (Jen and I have been married, and burning, 45 years as of this Dec. 19!)
And what about his Paul’s riff on faith, hope, and charity?
For if faith is lacking in this idol-worshipping world (consider Baal and Mammon, to name just two, and throw in Beelzebub for good measure) … and hope is a speck in the farthest starling’s eye … then charity, it could be, is all we have left and what we have, and need most, to give each other.
Is it possible, brothers and sisters, that the charity that begins at home and flies through the world like the truest arrow, will make a luminous mark where it alights? And that it alights on and in us?
In this year of upcoming elections and crazy national politics, we could use a bit of charity, couldn’t we? More light, less heat? More embraces, fewer pointed fingers.
In this season of cheer and plenty, it’s not just about stringing out Christmas lights and planting Santa and reindeer on the lawn.
Or pouring eggnog into our neighbor’s cups, spiked or not.
But looking around and contemplating, for the time being, which is all we have, what our relation is to our fellow man.
God rest ye, merry gentlemen and -women, and nothing you dismay! This is our fondest, most peaceful, and most charitable hope for the New Year.
Exemplars & examples
Every year at this time, I have cause to think of my wife Jennifer’s marvelous generosity, which began in her home and then began to define ours when we married 45 years ago. My own family, like hers, had two parents and seven kids, but Jen’s parents were, frankly, more generous and giving than mine could be, with their background and temperament. I don’t mean merely in material terms, for I think my father Bob the lawyer (RIP) and Mary the housewife (RIP) made more than Jen’s father Max the pastor and Vi the secretary (RIP). It’s just that whatever they had, Max and Vi were willing to share, on every occasion, with the family, and even if family grew to include (if not comprehend) such dubious and unbelieving outsiders like me the charity extended that far and beyond.
Baa baa, black sheep, Max and Vi might say, we too had wool.
And the greatest of these woolly virtues was, and is, charity.
So here’s to Jennifer, and the generous souls in her family and circle of friends! Let’s lift a glass of eggnog (spiked or not) and celebrate the flowing from these welling sources onward and outward into the desert world.
Lindo Mexico, here we come again
Jen and I had the great pleasure of traveling to Mexico this October and November, for 2 1/2 weeks, the first visit in four years. We flew to Guadalajara, the country’s second biggest city, with a metro population of maybe six million, but spent most of our time in the much quieter retreat of Ajijic, a cobblestoned village of about 10,000 on the shores of Mexico’s largest lake, Chapala.
We met a few old friends, both gringo and Mexican, including Randall Lankford, a North Carolinian hippie in Tlaquepaque, an artsy enclave of Guadalajara, and Claudia Nery, a miraculous painter who lives on the lake and whose website I keep. (See www.claudianery.com. I also keep a site for Pepé Orozco, a tour and shopping guide whom we saw, at www.guideworksorozco.com.)
Bitten anew by the Mexico bug, we are returning, in January, this time to Mazatlan, the northernmost commercial port city. Mazatlan is special because it is such a working city (a fleet of about 600 shrimping boats, for example, the largest in North America) and yet a typically charming Mexican city too.
The commerce includes fishing, brewing (Mazatlan is home to the Pacifico brewery), and tourism (largely located in the new hotel strip or Golden Zone). All this business means that Mazatlan is pretty prosperous, and there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, museums, and other sources of fun and reflection for tourists as well as paying jobs for the locals.
Charm? It’s not mostly in the commercial part of Mazatlan. Look rather to the old city, its churches, squares, restaurants, and unfranchised amusements like
The malecon, or ocean walk, which features, as one reviewer says on TripAdvisor, “Great walk, ocean breezes, sunsets, people, bikes, roller blades — it’s all here. Plus you can stop for lunch or a refreshment!”
The Plaza Machada, or square, of the old historical section, with cathedral on one side, plus plenty of shops, restaurants, and outdoor seating.
The El Faro lighthouse and the view from the top of the entire harbor and beyond.
The Olas Altas beach (High Waves), which was once the only beach, and act, in town.
The return of the prodigal son et al.
In July, this year, our son Gabe and his family returned to Fayetteville, after an exile of two years in the frozen tundra of Minneapolis–St. Paul.
Gabe is working from home, as a computer programmer, for a New York City firm, and Heidi is once more working as an adolescent psych nurse. Ruby, we’re proud to say, is now eight years old and enjoying second grade at the local Happy Hollow School. It was hard for her at first, as she left behind many friends in St. Paul, where the kids were living, but they all seem to have adapted well once more to the Ozarks. (They moved down here originally in 2010, and are the reason Jen and I retired here the following year.)
Like his mom, Gabe is a good cook, the principal chef in the family. Like his dad, he bought a new bike this year, and has done some biking with him on the wonderful Razorback Greenway, which goes north from Fayetteville almost to the Missouri border, about 40 miles. (I’ve done 60+ miles at a time and am aiming, next year, for 100 miles.)
Moderation in all things (or Facebook anyway)
At the tail-end of the year, I took a break from Facebook for a while, checking into the FAC (Facebook Addiction Clinic), where I stayed for observation and therapy. Most of this, understand, was self-induced, and I could recommend it to you heartily.
You simply lie about and watch yourself, out of the corner of your eye, noting shifty and desperate shifts toward the keyboard and monitor … or extra time peeking at your smartphone or tablet. You observe the desperate longing and the panting, yet somehow they pass, a bit, with each passing day, and you find yourself busy with more important things, it could be, or more outward things.
A novel event
In my case, most of the action, this coming year, may take the form of a novel I’m researching — on gun violence, of all the Yuletide themes. I’m learning fascinating things that psychologists and sociologists, among others, have discovered about mass murderers, of whom we have had way too many recently.
The novelist, of course, is more than the sum of his personal prejudices, but he can turn them to fictional account. He can invent characters inflamed with passions, sadness, violence, benevolence, you name it, and cover the whole panoply of human emotions and ideals. And still, to some degree, stand back, as if from a cosmic and comic distance and watch the human ants build and destroy.
Whether you sling a gun or hash, whether you’re wholly sane or certifiable, we wish you here from the heart of the Ozarks a merry holiday season and, oh yes, hugs, kisses & big bags of charity, which is the greatest of these and, like sugar, sweetens the cookies.
On Facebook it’s easy to “friend” someone, as you know. Apart from the grammatical solecism (what’s wrong with “befriend”?), this process may simply mean you have a six-degree-of-separation friendship. It’s “virtual,” “remote,” “online,” and, typically insubstantial.
In the “real world,” as they say (some of our worlds may be more real than others), friendship comes harder, especially as you age. If you think about how you acquire friends, or how they acquire you, you’ll have to admit a great deal of serendipity is involved. You meet someone accidentally, that is. He or she bumps into you. You go on a hike together, or he tells you to take a hike. She says something funny, charming, odd, or tells you to fuck off, and a bond is made or not.
Sort of like romantic relationships, which start with a sighting (strange new bird there, what species might it be); grow with a joke or two, or a brushing up against a sleeve; and deepen with a meal or drink.
As you age, you acquire friends more slowly and lose them more sadly. You are set in your ways, after all, which may be real or unreal, according to others, and may not accommodate just anyone that comes along with a smile or handshake. You form impressions, or judgments, more readily, which may open up the door to friendship or slam it shut.
Mysterious how the process works, and how, if at all, we can hurry it along. As we age, after all, we have less time for friendship as for everything else. We pick and choose more carefully, and so are picked and chosen. If someone invites us out to coffee, do we go? To a hike? To a bar?
In just the last year or so I formed a good friendship with a guy whom I met on a hike or a bike ride, and who happened to patronize the same gym I do. He would show up regularly at the gym for a workout. I would see him hiking or biking. Like me, he liked to drink (how about that!), liked to laugh (what’s not to like about laughing?), and had a sardonic disposition. Soon we began talking anything and everything, and one of the big reasons I took to him is that he didn’t moralize or criticize. Oh, sure, he thought I was nuts, but that was part of the attraction too. Pretty soon he was partying with Jen and me, at our house, breaking bread, and meat, and veggies for that matter, sharing wine.
When he returned this summer from a family reunion, however, he was changed. Something was working in him, like a worm in the craw. Not that he was unfriendly, just less available, and suddenly he announced that after almost 20 years in Arkansas he was moving back East. In fact, he put his house on the market, sold it in a day, packed up and was gone within three months.
He said he was going back to his family, who live in Pennsylvania, his sisters and nonagenarian dad. But I strongly suspect the driving force was a woman with whom he was set up by a sister. My friend had been married twice; neither marriage took. But here was another chance, wasn’t it? At true love and understanding, not to mention sex? When I first heard about her, I asked, thinking she might be attracted here, Didn’t you tell her about the wonders of the Ozarks? I showed her the wonders of the Ozarks, my pal replied.
Sadness then, as he’s up and gone. I know he doesn’t write. I know that I don’t call. I helped him pack and he left me with all sorts of stuff he didn’t want to take with — buckets, bike stand and carrier, tools. Things that I’ll associate with him as I use them. But to lose him is not something I can appreciate.
We get over losses, don’t we, though less resiliently as we get older? We form new friendships, don’t we, just as we might find new romantic partners? And we certainly, at last, have to work at friendship and can’t afford to simply let it find us out.
Today is my birthday, which comes up like yours, willy nilly, every year.
This particular year, I have to admit to 68 years, which admission is a pleasure and privilege as I haven’t yet appeared in the obits in the morning newspaper. And am still more or less capable of hiking, biking, gardening, reading, writing, and being a good husband, occasionally, to Jennifer Jean, my good wife of all these amazing years.
Nevertheless, I am struck, as you are, by the passing of time, the impermanence of our time here on the green planet Earth. By the loss of our loved ones, the tenuousness of relations and connections.
I ran across this photo the other day taken in 2005, near Cherokee Village, Arkansas, where my mom and dad were retired for many years. Mom died in 1991, but here, in the big chair in front of the King Catfish restaurant, are (left to right) Gerry, my older brother; Dad, the goateed mini-god; and Greg, the younger, less wrinkled version of me.
Since 2005, Gerry has gotten divorced (from his wife of 40+ years); Dad has died (February 2008); and I have wrinkled and crinkled, acquired a hearing aid but no new wife, thank the gods; a prostatectomy; a recurring case of bursitis; a number of delightfully smart and lively young Indian-American students (whom I tutor); and a Trek Madone carbon bike that I’ve ridden more than 60 miles at a time.
Next year, the gods willing, I will ride up to 75, then 100 miles at a time; continue to love my wife Jennifer truly, and my son Gabriel, his wife Heidi, and their daughter Ruby Mae, who have returned to Northwest Arkansas, to be with us and give us joy, this last summer; write the Great American Novel; cultivate my garden, in the Voltairean manner; and put off, for the time being anyway, my ascension into heaven.
How about you, friends? Where are you going? Are you seizing the day?
Funeral February 21 in frozen Minnesota of my first cousin, Jeannine, who grew up in Minnesota, married in Colorado, and died in California, at age 51, of a sudden aneurysm. Didn’t know this first cousin, once removed by time and again removed by place and then by death. Had met her just once or twice, last at the funeral five years earlier, in Minnesota, of her niece Rachel, who died at 21. Jeannine’s visitation and mass were at St. Raphael’s, in Crystal, Minnesota, a large Catholic church, with rich wood, stained glass, brick and stone. A registered ICU nurse, Jeannine had been well loved and admired by peers as well as patients — kind, concerned, empathic, and moved by faith and love.
Father Marty, a family friend, who had married Jeannine and her husband Tom some years ago, presided at the mass. He gave a good homily about faith and mystery, not the usual spiel of a minister who hadn’t known or cared about the deceased. He talked about life’s journey and its mysteries, how agonies like death may open new vistas and opportunities, even for those who suffer great loss. Faith is tested, he suggested, and strengthened by loss.
Still, he lost me, a humanist, inevitably, along the way, as my mind wandered into peripheral pastures, where I thought of life’s journey and mystery. Of the marvelous technological age where most of us live cosseted by technology but ignorant of how it achieves its ends, and so we exist in willing and unproductive mystery. (See March’s National Geographic, “The War on Science,” about the layman’s resistance to scientific evidence.)
If the aim of science and technology is to know, to banish uncertainty, then mystery is where most laymen dwell, whether stubbornly and stupidly or, somehow, productively. For mystery can be productive too, I think, and lead to creativity. I thought of the poet John Keats’ idea of “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
We all need creativity in life, whether we think much about it or not. Need to enter into mystery, yes, and question authority — whether priest, president, scientist, parent — if authority asserts certainty and omniscience. Plunge into that kind of uncertainty where creativity can pool and spread. And admit that death too is part of the creative pool, in both a larger biological sense, where one generation makes way for the next (Jeannine and Tom had three children), and a personal sense, in which we mull our own place in existence.
Perhaps we don’t mull so much as muddle our way through life, most of us, or are muddled, like mint in a mojito. We are pounded and stirred (shades of the priest-poets G.M. Hopkins and John Donne!), and come to some sort of resolution if not clarity, and that’s that, without irritable reaching after fact, logic, certainty.
Were the half-pints in church questioning authority, also, when they wandered into play? The two year old girl with a pacifier in her mouth, the four year old reading a jungle story with her mom, the five year old bending over backward in the pew and making monkey shine? I had to chuckle, seeing how lively these kids were, how unformed and unimpressed by ritual and ceremony, how the quality of their inattention differed from that of the adults, many of whom were looking idly around, or holding hands, or staring down at their feet, going through the dull adult motions.
Yes, play is a form of questioning. Just as after the service, at my first cousin’s house and his wife’s, Jeannine’s father, Dan, and mother, Mary Ann, a little boy was playing with a plastic rosary, swinging it around, and his father reprimanded him, saying, You have to show respect for the rosary. For plastic Jesus? Why? To squelch all play? And why make the Jesus plastic? Why make it in the form of beads or balls, which invite our fingers to fumble, our thoughts to stray? For, adult or child, we use a rosary as an abacus, don’t we — counting beads, praying beads that we fumble in order to forget time’s surge and abrasion?
We fumble afterwards, after death, after ritual, with our memories of she who is now gone and can be recovered only via memory. Take out the photo albums. Delve into joke and story. Tell ourselves she’s now in a better place, for this is a line we’ve heard many times and find easy to remember. No negative capability there.
I’ve been dipping once more into RD Laing’s book of essays The Politics of the Family. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist (1927-1989), is known for his views that it’s not just the patient who presents symptoms, when he or she comes to a shrink, but the whole family.
Maybe you have dwelt, as I have, on the roles that children are assigned in the family. In my large Catholic family — seven kids, spanning some 20 years — my parents expressed a desire, from early in their marriage, for many children. When they came along — 1, 2, 3 … then, after eight years, 4, 5, 6, and 7 — however, they were not so sure what to do with them.
I’ve always thought that the fate of the two black sheep in the family — my younger brother, who died of alcoholism almost 20 years ago, and a younger sister, who has lived with two adult sons, like a “three-headed monster,” a friend suggests, for many years — was a kind of emotional abandonment. Vis-a-vis me and my youngest sister, the black sheep were simply abandoned on the mountain top of parental neglect.
But Laing has a subtler, and more powerful, view. When a patient “presents,” Laing suggests, he presents not only himself and his symptoms but the whole neurotic / psychotic ball of wax that the family is. He puts the dilemma of the child singled out for treatment in terms of hypnosis. “How much of who we are,” he asks, “is who we have been hypnotized to be?”
It’s not that our parents say, Do this or do that! Laing contends. Rather, they say, be this or be that! Or, more powerfully still, you are who we suggest you are!
You are a bad boy, or a sluttish girl! There’s no escaping your fate! After all, they might say, if they had but the insight to realize it, we too, in our turn, were hypnotized by our parents to do what we have done and be who we are — martinet parents, dour fatalists, familial fascists.
So, if I hypnotize you, I do not say, ‘I order you to feel cold’. I indicate it is cold. You immediately feel cold. I think many children begin in a state like this.
We indicate to them how it is: they take up their positions in the space defined. …