Thursday, October 30, 2008

What we're doing: basketball

I realize I've been too quiet lately; I wish I had more time to write here. I wish I had more time, period. But, here's what our family has been up to the past few weeks:

being sick with fever / sore throat / virus / whatever,
work and school,
I spent several days last week in Baton Rouge at a work conference,
work and school,
grocery shopping,
Kyle's school music program is tonight,
getting ready for Halloween,

Yeah, that's most of it. We signed Kyle up for basketball at SportZone and the YMCA, and we signed Ryan up for YMCA - so that's potentially six hours of basketball per week, if you figure one hour for each game and one hour of practice for each team. Ryan had two games last Saturday, plus his team pictures - on their first day of playing! Kyle had a game Friday evening at SportZone, and Saturday morning at the Y (though not physically at the Y, which would make things a little easier - no, his games are at an elementary school that's maybe a ten-minute drive from the Y). To top it off, Jeff had signed up to coach Ryan's team, with Rick as his assistant coach and Jesse on the same team, but at the coaches' meeting, Jeff found out that a coach for Kyle's Y team hadn't been finalized - so yes, Jeff is coaching that team, too. So, to the potential six hours of actual basketball (because the SportZone team hasn't practiced the last couple weeks, other conflicts), add all of Jeff's preparation time for practice and games, and our travel time back and forth, and yeah, we're basically doing basketball almost every day. And, Jeff's city league team will be playing on Wednesdays starting next week. He's been doing that close to 20 years now...hmmm, I gotta ask him when he actually started that, IF he even remembers. ;-) Anyway, not much time to write, hope I can write again by about Thanksgiving, and maybe report on something besides basketball. Maybe.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book 3 of 5: a pleasant change of pace

As with book 1, I was introduced to book 3 at the Attleboro Public Library. I finished my degree at Smith College in December 1995, and moved back to my hometown of Attleboro, Massachusetts, to figure out which route to take next in my life. Probably in March or April of 1996, I was browsing the book stacks and found The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman. It was probably the second edition, published in 1978. (The first edition appeared in 1960.) I own the third edition, from 1988, and the fourth edition, retitled The New Lifetime Reading Plan, and co-authored by John S. Major.

This was the first "book about books" that I remember reading, and I fell in love with it. And, although I'd already earned a Bachelor's in English, one result of my non-traditional educational path was that I hadn't necessarily read all those books that "everyone" reads in school. Fadiman's "mini-essays" about writers and works in The Lifetime Reading Plan made some of those classics more approachable, and made them seem more interesting.

Here are some of Fadiman's comments about authors:

On E. M. Forster's inclusion "in our short, highly debatable list of twentieth-century novelists ... One reason is that he is considered among the finest of them by the most perceptive critics. Finest, not greatest. The latter adjective somehow seems inappropriate to Forster; he would have rejected it himself."

About Jane Austen: "a writer so charming that it seems clumsy to call her a classic."

The opening of Fadiman's remarks on Friedrich Nietzsche: "The rhapsodic singer of the strong, triumphant, joyful superman led a life of failure, loneliness, obscurity, and physical pain." A bit later, he writes, "At times he writes like a genius. At times he writes like a fool, as if he had never been in touch with ordinary realities. (His views on women, for example, are those of a man who simply didn't know any very well.)"

And, some of his comments about specific works:

On Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: "at bottom the origins of this strange book are untraceable. It was spewed up out of a volcanic, untrained, uncritical, but marvelous imagination. It had no true forebears. It has had no true successors."

Of Joyce's Ulysses: "It is one of the most original works of imagination in the language. It broke not one trail, but hundreds."

"Of all the autobiographies ever written, perhaps the most powerful and influential is the Confessions," he writes of Saint Augustine's life story.

Making the case for Crime and Punishment over The Brothers Karamazov, IF you plan to read only one Dostoevsky novel:

Crime and Punishment is a simpler, more unified [book], with a
strong detective-story plot of great interest. It can be read as
a straight thriller. It can be read as a vision. It can be read on
planes in between these two. From its murky, gripping, intolerably
vivid pages you emerge with the feeling that you have lived and
suffered a lifetime. Its action takes nine days.

In short, Fadiman speaks to the reader as a friend, and the reader can't help trusting his opinions, and wanting to get to know these books and authors better - sort of like, "Clifton says this book is cool, I gotta check it out for myself." Or at least that's how it's been for me, and that's half the reason I own so many books I haven't read...yet. ;-)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Book 2 of my most influential five

When I was a teenager - often depressed, no self-esteem, thinking of death and hurting myself - I bought a used paperback anthology of poetry by women. I had heard of Sylvia Plath, and might already have read The Bell Jar, but hadn't yet been exposed to her poetry. The book's introduction quoted these lines from one of her most famous poems, "Lady Lazarus":

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

From the time I read those lines, and then purchased my first copy of Ariel, no poet has affected me as much as Sylvia Plath, and Ariel is her masterwork. The despair, the anger, the frantic energy, the power and bravado, the isolation, and the way the speakers in the poems say things we don't often let ourselves say - it is a remarkable, screaming achievement. She ends "Lady Lazarus" this way:

Herr God, Herr Lucifer,

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

I don't memorize many poems, but there are lines from some of Plath's poems - primarily from Ariel - that I've ingested, that come to my mind unbidden. "I didn't want any flowers, I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty," she writes in "Tulips." "These are the isolate, slow faults / That kill, that kill, that kill," the closing of the poem "Elm." These are the last lines of "Edge," the last poem Plath wrote:

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

From another famous poem - or perhaps infamous is a better word - called "Daddy":

I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.

And then, "The Moon and the Yew Tree," which began as a writing exercise, but took on a life of its own. My favorite lines: "This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue." "The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right, / White as a knuckle and terribly upset." "The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary. / Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls." "The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild. / And the message of the yew tree is blackness -- blackness and silence."

Sylvia Plath's poems, and especially those in Ariel, have influenced my thoughts, my own writing, my judgment of other writers' work, and even my very life, as the initial reason I applied to Smith College is because she attended Smith. Her influence upon me is nearly incalculable.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Five books that have influenced me the most: Book 1

A couple months ago, a friend from my book discussion group suggested that members choose the five books that have most influenced / impacted them - not one's "favorite books" nor necessarily what one considers the "best books" read so far, but books which had some significant, lasting impact on the member's thinking, ideas, or way of life - with an explanation of WHY it impacted the reader. Other members agreed it was a good idea that would lead to some very interesting discussion, though a couple people were hesitant to participate - and all felt limiting to five would be very difficult.

I have a decent list of titles in mind, may need to cut down to five, but there are two or three that must be included. The first of these is I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, edited by Ellen Bass and Louise Thornton. It was published in 1983, and I found it at Attleboro Public Library, probably in the fall of 1985, when I was 14 and a freshman in high school. The content and styles of the pieces vary widely, and some of them "stayed with me" more than others, but it was the lengthy introduction by Ellen Bass that really hit home for me.

I don't know much at all about repressed memories, or about "false memories," so I won't address those topics beyond my own limited experience. What I do know is, while the knowledge of what happened to me was never repressed, buried, forgotten, there were details, and certain aspects of the incidents, that had slipped to the back of my mind. Reading the introduction to this book, I remembered that I had tried to say no - not at first, and not every time, but more often as time went on - and at least a couple times, I was able to resist.

Finding and reading this book when I was 14, when I was beginning to feel the enormity of what had happened to me - this was quite some time after the abuse had ended - brought home the realization that it was abuse, because I had tried to say no, and more often than not, saying no was not enough, and it happened anyway. I wasn't to blame, I wasn't just bad and dirty - I had tried to "be good," to stop it from happening again, to protect myself. Like the girls in the book, the girls that Ellen Bass wrote about in that powerful essay, I wasn't to blame, it wasn't my fault.

The shame, the guilt, the self-blame - for me, it is all still there, several layers below my grown-up self. I try to "manage" it, to keep it down, and for the most part, I can. But once in a while, and often with little warning, I erupt, and it pours from me. I believe that people can change, that we aren't necessarily "trapped" into being the same as we were last month, last year, five years ago, and we might be quite different next year, or five years from now. But part of what makes me "me" - and what makes you "you" - is the things that happened in my life (and in your life, in all our lives) last month, last year, five years ago, back as far as I (we) can remember. We can change, and we do change, but the deeper it lies, the harder it is to touch. I can change my clothes, change my hair, but can I change my heart? I don't know.

I credit Ellen Bass, Louise Thornton, and all the brave women whose writing appears in the book I Never Told Anyone, for reminding me that I tried to resist, encouraging me to find my own voice, and helping me to feel I might be someone worthwhile after all.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Voices in my head, these days

It has been two weeks since Gerald passed away. We are meeting with his doctor later this afternoon to hear more about the results of blood tests taken in the emergency room, and any other information from the hospital records that might help us understand how he became so sick so very fast.

The first days after his death, a few old poems started cycling through my mind. As reading and writing have sustained me through many difficult times in my life, it makes sense that familiar poems will approach me when I, and those closest to me, are troubled and sad. Reading poems or books, or keeping a journal, might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I'm sure they've brought some comfort to many other people in distress. So, I wanted to share some of the voices I've had in my head these two long weeks.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
---by e. e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

The Bustle in a House
---by Emily Dickinson

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth —

The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity.

Heart! We will forget him!
---by Emily Dickinson

Heart! We will forget him!
You and I - tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave -
I will forget the light!

When you have done, pray tell me
That I may straight begin!
Haste! lest while you're lagging
I remember him!

Nothing Gold Can Stay
---by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Finally, this is one of my favorite quotes, and has been since I found it in an old edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations when I was twelve years old. It's attributed to George William Childs.
Do not keep the alabaster boxes of your love
and tenderness sealed up until your friends are
dead. Fill their lives with sweetness. Speak
approving, cheering words while their ears
can hear them, and while their hearts can
be thrilled and made happier by them.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

How long do you hope for a miracle?

That was a question I asked Jeff in the Intensive Care family waiting room on Friday, September 19, 2008. My father-in-law's condition was not improving. He was on a ventilator, and hadn't taken a breath on his own since about 6am that day, when he'd collapsed at home. His kidney had stopped working, his lungs had failed, his blood pressure wasn't going up even with the maximum amounts of three different BP medications streaming into his veins. His pupils were fixed and dilated, and he'd remained unresponsive. Even in the morning hours, the ER doctor had warned us that no one could be sure how long Gerald had gone without oxygen, that even if he were revived, there might be brain damage.

But that was earlier in the day, when we had hope. They told us that he wouldn't wake up until the following day, at least - maybe in two days. Somewhere around lunch time (not that anyone ate a lot), the cardiologist told us that Gerald's heart muscles were actually quite strong, but if his blood pressure didn't come up soon, the medications to increase his BP would begin to damage his heart. Still, he said, think positive, be strong, have hope.

Late in the afternoon, Jeff's sister Stacy came back to the waiting room in tears, but angry. Gerald had been seen by a cardiologist and a pulmonary specialist, but the nurses had been waiting for the kidney specialist. Now, Stacy said, the staff seemed less concerned about the kidney specialist coming by. Then, the nurses and the pulmonary specialist began asking Sue, as tactfully as they could, what should be done if Gerald's heart stops again? The scenario was something like this: they could do CPR again, but if it was successful, there was essentially no chance at that point of him surviving without being hooked up to machines. It was around this time that I wondered, Should we just hope now that his heart keeps beating? Because once it stops, it's all over. Or were we beyond hope by then?

I remember Rick, Stacy's husband, coming back from Gerald's bedside, and saying, "He was fighting all day, he couldn't fight any more." Oh God. It can't be real, this can't be. What will happen to us all now, without him? Kyle said, "Everything will be different now, nothing will be the same as it was." He sobbed. When he was angry at me and Jeff, he called Papa. When he had news to share, he called Papa. Kyle and Papa were running a team in Jeff's online fantasy football league; whenever Kyle saw they'd been offered a trade, he called Papa to talk about whether they should take it. Kyle knew my in-laws' phone number before he learned his own! Papa loved all six of his grandsons, but Kyle was the first, and until he was 2 1/2 and Ryan was born, he was the only grandchild. Kyle and Papa had always been buddies, and I couldn't imagine Kyle losing Papa at only eight years old, still young enough to climb on Papa's big, comfortable lap. Kyle, my little son.

I remember hugging Sue tightly and saying, "I feel terrible for you, I feel terrible for you." They'd celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this past April. They didn't have many separate interests; they did nearly everything together. It is hard to think of one without the other, but suddenly, inexplicably, only one is left. Surely Gerald is in heaven - he was a good, kind, responsible man - but I can't help thinking he'd still rather be down here with Sue, and with his children, watching his grandsons grow up.