Sunday, March 24, 2013

EMPATHY

The discovery in the 1990’s of mirror neurons in the brain and the subsequent research and books about them in the 2000’s gave me a basis to understand a phenomenon that had puzzled me: why do some people give their lives for others. The new theory is that when you see someone in pain, pain neurons in your brain light up, not your actual pain neurons, but mirror neurons that echo the pain. This is, it is posited, one of the reasons we can have empathy. When we see someone enjoying an ice cream cone, our brains light up as if we were enjoying it too. When my children were sick, I would feel their same symptoms, but in a way that I knew was only in my imagination because I wouldn’t vomit or have a temperature. Bill discovered that if we put the sick child in bed with me, they would feel better, their temperature would go down. Bill would stay up late to check on us so I could relax. We explained this phenomenon by thinking that maybe my body temperature would somehow regulate theirs, or that maybe they too would relax and sleep more deeply because they knew they were being cared for. But could it be that my brain knew that I was healthy and this affected their mirror neurons?

My family had many examples of what we came to call “oooeeeoooeee,” chanted in the singsong tone of a creepy movie. When my oldest son has a problem, I feel it viscerally. One night I was reading in bed when I thought of my daughter visiting her new love. My body began to create the same mixture of joy and nervousness she must have been feeling, the joy of being with the man, and nervousness that this romance wasn’t going to work out. It was a strange feeling, one I hadn’t felt for 57 years.  My aunt and I marvel that our letters often cross in the mail. We would discover that they had been written the same day.  Now when I phone her, she will often say, with surprise, that she was going to phone me.

I know that my giving money to the man who had once lived in our neighborhood wasn’t because of my moral superiority. It was a visceral empathy, as if my own home were going to be taken away from me or the home of one of my children. Economist Jeremy Rifkin credits empathy brought about by mirror neurons for people’s rapid charitable response to the earthquake in Haiti.

I wrote an Easter column about mirror neurons in conjunction with the Stabat Mater, a 13th century poem picturing Mary standing at the cross, feeling the pain her son was feeling. The poem has been set to music many times; it obviously resonates.

My calling has not been as a mystic or an eremite. I have been in the midst of family, society and the artistic community. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that being in the world--family, society, community--is where I am meant to be even though I am often tempted to get out of it, having fantasies of selling all my possessions and presenting myself to the Rogersville Cistercian convent.

I’m indeed fortunate to have been surrounded by love my entire life. My father once said, “I have always loved extravagantly.” I have my mother’s passionate love letters to him.  After she died, he said, “She thought I could do anything, and I didn’t want to disappoint her.” Near the end of his life, he would get up at seven and start drinking. Later the doctors told us that this was self-medication to alleviate the effects, mostly anger, of the strokes that no one knew he had been having. On a visit I would sit with him at the kitchen table all day, day after day. He disliked my leaving, even to go upstairs to the bathroom. Bill said that he would have another drink in the interlude, so I tried not to leave too often. After he went into the nursing home, I would stay there with him all day. I couldn’t bear to go home. I am weeping as I write this.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Shortly after Bill died, I wrote in my column about my experiment with a meditation on music. “Next Wednesday, July 7, Gustav Mahler and I will celebrate our birthdays, his 150th, my 76th.  To commemorate the occasion I’m listening to all ten of his symphonies. I sit in the cozy corner of my lovely study, looking out on trees and birds through the large windows, my Crimmins coffee mug at hand, and begin the morning with music. On the table beside me are two articles about the symphonies, with photos of Mahler--who looks very like my father-in-law and a little like Bill.  

I dislike music as background. It disturbs me at parties, in restaurants—makes my poor brain go all jittery. This opportunity to be alone and concentrate completely on the symphonies is unprecedented in my life.

Listening to classical music makes time slow down.  I’m surprised when I see that the second movement of Symphony One took only nine minutes--it contained so much. While I was sitting in the hospital with Bill, time also moved slowly. It didn’t “drag”; it just slowed down. When you watch a movie or read a page-turner novel, time flies by.  The iTunes software suggested two seconds between movements, but that was not long enough, so after I had downloaded two symphonies, I upped the seconds to five, surprised that I could hear the difference of three seconds.

Several commentators write that each of the ten symphonies is a chapter in Mahler’s whole “novel”, a contemplation of nature, life, death and resurrection.  Mariss Jansons writes that each is a stage in a “big journey.” One of the articles is titled “A Mahlerian Odyssey.”

I read that there is a “twittering of birds” in Symphony One. When I heard birdsong, I thought, Oh there it is. But then I realized it was a white-throated sparrow singing in the dying poplar.

A German chorus entered near the end of number two, the “Resurrection Symphony.” I was completely absorbed. The words that came into my head were “Forgive me, forgive me.”  I then said the words out loud to Bill. I wept: an authentic catharsis. I did know what they were singing at the very end because a commentator translated it: “Rise again.”

The third symphony is the longest one ever created.  Mahler wrote, “…a symphony must be like the world—it must embrace everything.”  He did indeed cram:  funeral marches, sprightly walking, a posthorn solo, a night bird cry, folksong-like choruses, mournful mezzo soprano solos. He composed it while imagining himself in his coffin. The last movement is tender, excruciatingly painful and sorrowful. I read that this movement would change at the end from the lugubrious D Minor to the more hopeful D Major. Even I could tell when the change occurred. The symphony does end triumphantly with trumpets and incredible tympani wallops.

Mahler regarded the fourth symphony as the closing work of a quartet. It’s a much quieter piece, only four movements, a smaller orchestra. The second movement is about death. David Zinman writes, “…Death fiddling very wildly on an out-of-tune violin.” How does a violinist tune his instrument so it’s correctly out-of-tune? The third movement is breathtakingly lovely. Mahler wrote in the score, “Heaven Opens.”

On the hot evening of July 7th, I sat on the front porch, catching a breeze. The roar of motorcycles off in the distance would occasionally break into my consciousness but that seemed fitting for such bleak music. The whole tenth symphony feels like a cry from the heart, nothing comforting about it, no hopeful resolution. Daniel Harding wrote that a “famous dissonant orchestral scream” punctuates the first movement and that the scherzo is “full of screaming and real angst.” The third movement is titled, “Purgatorio.” The finale has “desolate, isolated music--a last person alive on the earth kind of feeling.” At the end of  the manuscript; Mahler wrote, “leb wol/ leb wol/ leb wol”—farewell. When I turned off my CD player, up flashed “Goodbye”; kind of spooky, a heck of a way to start my new year and my new life.



Wednesday, February 13, 2013

7. EXPERIENCING ART

The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations. Leo Tolstoy, letter

In the summer of 1968 Bill told his colleague Kent Thompson that I had been writing. Kent invited me to come along to his writers’ group. In the fall the group settled down in UNB’s McCord Hall, a restored icehouse, meeting every Tuesday night. Bill began to write so that he too could legitimately attend. In that venue for the next 15 years, I experienced fiction and poetry hot off the fire, still burning in the writer’s imagination. I was right in the midst of the creative process. I could witness the writers struggling with the forms, could appreciate their dilemmas.  I became part of their struggle and not an unimportant part either. Being involved in the effort to create was exhilarating; it is not an exaggeration to say that it was a spiritual experience.  I was educated on how to read the other writers’ work. On several occasions I was completely immersed in what was being read: “the union of teller and told.”

One of these times was when a young David Adams Richards began to read The Coming of Winter, in his priest-like chanting voice.

In 1980, my friend and former McCord Hall member, Joe Sherman, asked me to write for the magazine ArtsAtlantic. He had newly taken over the editorship of the magazine and couldn’t find anyone in New Brunswick to write about the arts. I had no credentials for such journalism but decided to give it a shot. It was a great decision, one of my best. Because I was writing about the subject with few qualifications, no degree in the visual arts, I had to pay attention, study the technical aspects, interview the artist several times. All this was perhaps over-kill, but my experiences of the artist’s work became much deeper, more meaningful.

[This essay] proposes that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence. I will put forward the argument that the experience of aesthetic meaning in particular, that of literature, of the arts, of musical form, infers the necessary possibility of this ‘real presence’… To ask ‘what is music?’ may well be one way of asking ‘what is man?’…. “As I see it,” writes Ben Nicholson in reference to the works of George de La Tour… “painting and religious experiences are the same things, and what we are all searching for is the understanding and realization of infinity.” …. Yeats writes, “No man can create as did Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles, who does not believe with all his blood and nerve, that man’s soul is immortal.”
George Steiner, Real Presences,

Pinned on the wall above my desk is a reproduction of K├Ąthe Kollwitz’s crayon lithograph, Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground, the title a line from Goethe. A mother shelters her three children under her arms. The face of the mother shows fierce determination combined with fear, an exceptionally complex depiction of an emotion. One of the children has an expression of awe, another child an enigmatic smile. The anatomy of the mother’s arms is impossible but for that reason creates tremendous power. It’s one of my favorite works of art. Kollwitz created it in 1942, shortly after her grandson was killed in the war. It was her last print, done when she was 75 in defiance of the Nazis. Such a work could not be made without the hope that a belief in transcendence engenders.

Kollwitz had been warned many times by the authorities about her activities but was never imprisoned. One son had been killed in the First World War. Beside the lithograph I have pinned a newspaper photo of an Iraqi woman wearing a black abaya, crouched in a ditch in a similar pose, sheltering her two children under her outstretched arms. Her expression and those of her children are eerily similar to those in Kollwitz’s lithograph.

Jesus did use the metaphor of father to describe God—love, strength, protection--because mothers and their children are helpless in the face of war, rape, home invaders.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

WRITING AS PRAYER

The logos…links the human mind to the mind of God. (commentary on the passage in the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.)

I began writing in earnest in March of 1968. With few friends, three young kids, in a new place, I needed something to occupy my mind beyond family and housekeeping.  One evening I put a card table and folding chair in the cellar and went down there after the kids were in bed, armed with a mug of coffee and a chocolate bar to wake me up. I wrote a few poems—“What is it that keeps you sane in March?”—and then started a novel. I’d been having a recurrent dream of a woman walking on a different route every night-- along the Great Wall of China, down a dusty North Carolina road, on the Maine Turnpike. I wondered who she was and why she was walking. Although I had done some writing before, this was the first time I had the magical, heady experience of following an unfolding tale, getting to know a character entirely of my own making. 

The following March I received a phone call from my brother. My mother was in the hospital in a coma. A colleague of my husband happened to be visiting us when the call came and offered to drive me to Massachusetts. We drove through the night, arriving early in the morning. My brother was waiting for me and took me immediately to the hospital. My mother died three days later, never having awakened. Several weeks after I got home, I went down to my card table and took up the novel of the walking woman. I read what I had last written: “Her mother died when she was sixteen.” 

Several times in the next few years I had this chilling experience of writing about something important and then having it happen. Once I wrote about a boy in the emergency room with the parents sitting in the quiet room, and a few months later my son was in the emergency room and Bill and I were sitting in the quiet room. These somewhat spooky experiences gave me a different feeling for my writing. It was not just a hobby, a pleasant pastime to while away an evening. It was, indeed, about life and death.

I conceived the idea of using various books of the Bible as structures for the novels and so wound up studying them for this peculiar purpose, getting a different slant on the books.  Flora, Write This Down was based on Revelations, especially as discussed in Austin Farrer’s The Rebirth of Images. Writing novels became for me a form of meditation, of contemplation.

Wise-Ears used Proverbs as its structure; Opening Eye the first part of the Book of Acts; Samara the Wholehearted the second part.  I attended a Rod Sykes’ seminar on the Reign of God as imagined in the New Testament, and for The Irrational Doorways of Mr. Gerard, I attempted to understand this reign.

All the novels began with characters who were vital, in settings sometimes unfamiliar but that seemed alive, real, and palpable. My first two published novels are about creating a family and a home in the usual sense of the words. The next three are about creating different kinds of families and homes.

When I am writing, I do feel both inside and outside myself. The words that emerge are from a puzzling place inside me, but they also seem somehow to be connected to some “other.”  I use experiences from my life and details I have observed, but also I am  discovering the existence of previously unknown individuals and events, and in creating a whole from these two, known and previously unknown, am making order out of the chaos in my head and the chaos of my life.

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I do feel the Presence while I am writing. I’m not the amanuensis of this Presence. It is not giving me the words but is putting me in the right frame of mind, allowing me a deeper concentration. When I read the description of mystics about the quiet joy they feel in the mystic state, I understand, because I have had a similar contentment at my desk.

The difference between having to scratch for every page, my usual method, and having the words pour out of me is immense.  I wrote a short story, “Prologue”, in such a state; the words emerged from some mysterious place that didn’t even seem like my brain. The story came out whole. It impressed my writers’ group and won a CBC prize. The incident was unlike anything I’d had before or since. I would long for the experience to come again, I suppose as an addict would long for the drugged state, except that the years have taught me the danger of such longing.

…narrative, like the other basic needs of the species, supports the literal survival of man by providing him with numerous forms of nurture—the simple companionship of the narrative transaction, the union of teller and told; the narrator’s opportunity for exercise of personal skill in telling and its ensuing rewards; the audience’s exercise of attention, imagination, powers of deduction; the spiritual support which both parties receive from stories affirming our importance and protection in a perilous world…; and perhaps most importantly, the chance that in the very attempt at narrative transaction something new will surface or be revealed, some sudden floater from the dark unconscious, some message from a god which can only arrive or be told as a tale.  Reynolds Price, A Palpable God 

When I am under stress, I know how to cure myself. I come to my study as soon as I get up, around 6 AM, and write. Writing is as calming as prayer. Maybe it is prayer.  For the last seven years I have had an added incentive. I’ve been writing a weekly column on the arts, with a deadline, Monday, and a specific number of words, 800. It was my refuge from the sadness of Bill’s illnesses and my frustration with his mental state, and after his death, a refuge from grief. Little by little I have developed a modus operandi. Because I am not an expert on any art, I confine myself to my response to the various arts rather than attempting pure criticism.

I get an idea—from my reading or an event I attend or someone’s suggestion—write a few sentences, a related memory comes to mind, a new thought. I examine what I’ve written; sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, the 800 words slowly emerge. I am learning about my response to art—concerts, exhibits, books, theatre. These experiences remind me of my reaction to my religious experiences.



Saturday, December 29, 2012

When I read the section of my memoir “Sanctuary” to my writer friends, they began the discussion by saying things like “I could never be as good as you are.” I of course hadn’t been bragging about what a saint I was. I had after all been writing to myself, and I know to my sorrow how unsaint-like I am. My empathy for homeless people had been instilled in me by my mother and father. Although the Presence, whether inner or outer, has helped me to make the most of my three score years and ten, I don’t know if it has helped me to cure my faults. I know what the faults are, but just as I know I should exercise and eat right but don’t, I am not able to tame them. Perhaps without the Presence, I would be even worse. I am bossy, but in my marriage I was able to put that aside, partly because Bill was a strong character, and partly because I came to realize how good his judgment was. He and I made decisions together, we shared responsibilities, and we regarded our money as joint family income.  I talk too much, and try to be conscious of that in any gathering. When I am weakened, as when my mother died or Bill began to have his strokes, I do go on about my troubles. When my mother died, I would say to Bill every time we went out to visit, “Don’t let me talk about my mother.” And then I would hear myself going on about her. Sometimes when I am talking too much, the realization of it flashes into my mind. Is that the work of the Presence? I love to gossip. Part of this, I know, is that I do love people and their interactions. But one terrible fault is saying something bad about others. I try to hold my tongue and feel awful remorse when I don’t. I do know I am more eager to tell good things about someone; I trumpet the triumphs of my family, friends and acquaintances. Although I was faithful in looking after Bill, I did let my anger spoil my faithfulness. I couldn’t hold my tongue when he had his irrational rages. I would pray earnestly to whatever is out there to let it pass, but more often than not, whatever was out there would not intervene. I am quick to forgive, in fact I don’t hold grudges long, don’t remember slights, but I am critical of others and not inclined to overlook their faults. I do realize that when I myself am in a good mood, I do overlook others’ faults more easily. Regrets: that I didn’t make more of Bill’s successes to him when he was alive; didn’t read his poetry to him, didn’t make more of his art work, didn’t remind him often enough of how successful he had been as a human being. Regrets: that I meddled too much in my children’s lives; that I wasn’t more understanding of Mrs. Bauer when she was going through her troubles; that unlike my college roommate, I haven’t been as faithful a friend as I should have been.  These are moral failures, and that the Presence doesn’t intervene suggests to me that it isn’t concerned with them.




Monday, December 10, 2012

In the spring of 1971 Bill’s colleague went looking for two lake-shore properties, one for him, one for his parents. He scouted all the lakes in the area and found three desirable lots on what he deemed the best lake. He settled on the two side by side lots, and told us about the third. We drove out to see it.  The lot is on the northern end of East Grand Lake, a huge body of water, 26 miles long, 2 miles wide, on the New Brunswick/Maine border.

On a tiny spit of land seven gnarled stunted cedar trees wrap themselves around a granite boulder. While Bill and the kids explored, I climbed over the roots and sat in the cocoon of cedars, looking out onto the lake.  It was the most inspiring spot I’d ever been in, “a spot that’s known to God alone.” The Presence didn’t appear to me there, but what did envelope me was absolute natural beauty, a centre of contentment.

Bill taught summer school and we bought the lot for $1000. Soon after we first went there, I started a novel about a woman named Grace Snow, who, sitting in that cocoon of cedars, decided to go on a pilgrimage of the holy sites of New Brunswick. Later, in Flora Write This Down, the central character goes on a retreat there. I imagined this so vividly that many people asked me how long I had been on the retreat. Actually I have never spent a minute there alone. As I am writing this, I am here at the camp, Slow Loris we call it, looking out the window of the haven my son John has just built me, watching the sun come up. A bee lights on a butter-and-eggs blossom. I am looking at two tall mullein stalks, primroses, goldenrod, St. John’s-wort past its prime, jewel weed, five granite boulders, a cedar leaning into the wind. A male cricket serenaded two females—a cricket and me--until past midnight. My son and daughter are asleep in the main cabin; later on my daughter-in-law and grandson will be arriving.





Friday, November 30, 2012

Finding a home has been an important part of my own novels but hasn’t constituted the central plot. In 1990 when my mother-in-law died, Bill and I began to spend time with his aunt.  She invited us to stay with her in the apartment she had lived in her whole life. I became intrigued by the interaction of the inhabitants of the other 19 apartments. I had written several novellas and decided to combine them into one massive novel about an apartment building, Temple House. There the inhabitants find peace.

The narrator of the novel writes, “What sold me on the apartment was its view of the Saint John River and across it to the hills beyond. I tried to ignore the dirty walls, the grimy bathtub, and the carpet smelling of cat urine…. I prospered in this sanctuary.” For 16 years I rented a study in such a building, the turret on the third floor, with 12 clerestory windows overlooking the river.

A poplar tree in our back woods is dying. It barely had the energy this spring to put out small, yellowish leaves. It is not dead but has to be cut down for fear that a winter storm might blow it onto the house. The presences of the trees around me are palpable. They have their stories, some of which I know, some I don’t. The spruce out in front was three feet tall when the whole family went on an outing with our neighbors to dig up trees from an abandoned farm. It is now 40 feet tall. Our plowman cuts branches from the bottom when they threaten to scratch his truck. Beside it is a maple my father dug up and planted when he and my mother came for their first visit. Some day I might have to have them cut down if they too threaten the house.


…if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace…Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories, and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others stimulating one another. In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul.  Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
                                                
In the first ten years of my life we moved nine times. After my mother died, I asked Aunt Tempie why. She seemed surprised that I didn’t know. My mother, she said, would paint and paper, Tempie helping her, and make the rented place so attractive that it would be sold. When finally we could buy a house, the joy in our family was great. My father stopped creating watercolors so that he could spend his spare time fixing up the house. One of my obsessions is that members of my family and even my friends have a safe, pleasant home.  “Homeless” is a heartbreaking word. Every month I send money to an elderly friend because otherwise she would have to move from her cozy apartment to unattractive senior housing. She and her husband think I’m an angel, but my action is completely selfish. My mother often confessed her worry to me, even when I was as young as ten, that this friend would “end up in the poor farm” because of her extravagant ways. My mother had a cousin, Willy, who would walk to our house from the poor farm, a distance of perhaps 15 miles. Willie had been horribly mistreated by his stepmother and was such a woebegone creature that my mother’s heart went out to him.

A boy who had lived here in our neighborhood had also had a sad childhood. When he was about 25, he unaccountably was able to buy a piece of land and a wretched used mobile home way out in the country. He soon learned how to tap our hearts—needing money for essential upkeep or taxes--the list was long.  Tears in his eyes, he would say, “It’s my home, and I’m going to lose it.” People assured us that we were being foolish, pouring money down a rat hole. But it was a cozy rat hole, and as he often reminded us, the only real home he had ever had. He died at 40 and was able to keep his house until the end.   

The well-being I feel, seated in front of my fire, while bad weather rages out-of-doors, is entirely animal. A rat in its hole, a rabbit in its burrow, cows in the stable, must all feel the same contentment that I feel. Maurice de Vlaminck, letter