Friday, February 26, 2010

On bravery and on Brian

"Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change." -RFK (via Brian Kinsella)

I think that bravery and moral courage are wrapped in all sorts of packages.  It is important to me to make a mental note when I witness or experience acts of bravery that defy our sometimes watered-down use of the word. In a previous post, I made mention of what it is (for me) to be humbled, and I suppose the two go hand in hand. I admit to having a short fuse when it comes to people who are so enamored of their own activities that they don't allow the actions and deeds of others to sit with them a while and push them to reconsider the cost/benefits of their self-absorption.  Maybe this is why I dislike Twitter and why increasingly, I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook.  Are we spending too much time "on the grid" and waxing poetic about those beautiful and poignant moments that delineate our protective bubble?  Could we instead be just doing instead of documenting? Maybe there's a balance.  

Take my friend Brian. Brian is not afraid to burst a bubble, if it means that we have a deeper appreciation for life and for the people whose lives are not as gilded as our own. I met Brian in 2004, when he was an undergraduate student at Hopkins. He was in ROTC; I was a graduate student in the history of art. Brian worked at The Wine Source, an amazing wine-beer-spirits-cheese store in Baltimore where my two graduate school friends Heather and Jen also worked to make extra money.  Our $13,000 annual stipend only went so far, after all.  Side note: Heather and Jen both met their husbands at the Wine Source. I love that.  Social outings included "the guys from the Source"  - a welcome reprieve from grad school socializing which invariably centered around discussions of Panofsky, Donatello, and what Bernini was really up to in his Ecstasy of St. Theresa. As scintillating as these discussions were (and still are), I couldn't help but feel that all of this intellectual banter wasn't really all that illuminating after all, and I often found my inner dialogue wondering just how much I should care about whether the latest Rembrandt attribution was correct.  Why not just love the painting for being what it is - something that none of us participating in the conversation could ever possess the talent or the agency to sign our names to?

Conversations with Brian, on the other hand, consistently pushed me to shed my pretensions and the widely-held belief that intellectual might held great moral merit. His perspective on the world - at the time, an intriguing combination of naivete and wisdom - challenged me to embrace my moral courage and what little bravery I felt I had at such a watershed moment in my life. He also taught me one of my most valuable lessons: do what you are. Don't say what you are and expect the Ganges to rise up to greet you. It has more important souls to tend to.

A New Jersey boy, Brian speaks with a slight New Jersey accent that reminds me so much of so many childhoods spent on the Jersey shore with my family. Brian used more product in his hair than I ever have, and he was always a perfect bronzed tan - even in February. His teeth are white as innocence.  I found this so charming and endearing.  He was a body builder for a time, and he shaved his entire body of all hair.  He once showed me photographs from bodybuilding competitions, and I remember being amazed by what people choose to do with their bodies.  Brian was in a fraternity, SAE, and he was the soul of his fraternity house.  He was a shameless flirt, but rarely dated, because he is particular.   He also had NO time, given the number of jobs he worked: the Wine Source, an internship at the Secret Service, his obligations to ROTC, among other part-time commitments.  I am not a fan of sororities and fraternities, though I respect and understand the appeal they have to some.  In my estimation, spending time in the gym pumping iron couldn't be more boring.  And tanning beds make you smell weird.  But Brian and I got along like a house on fire.  We were instant friends, built from a shared locus of honesty, mutual respect, and the unspoken acknowledgment that we had a whole lot to learn from one another.

Despite his busy schedule, Brian always had time to come by my office in the library.  He frequently left me notes, and I still have one he wrote me that is truly one of the kindest letters I have ever received.  He made me watch The Ring, and I will forever curse him for falling asleep 15 minutes into the film, while I sat perched on the edge of my couch, stiff and trembling with terror.  He challenged me to make fun of myself at a point in my life when I had a very hard time doing so.  He hated compliments, and whenever I would thank him for carrying armfuls of art history books for me, or checking in on me after I had a medical procedure, he would shrug it off, "No, no, no, P.  That's nothin'," he would say.  He was a friend -  a real friend.  I needed this in a member of the opposite sex - even if it was an undergrad with whom, on the surface, I had very little in common. 

Baltimore is a place for hard-knocks lessons, though - even Hopkins undergrads are not immune to its breezy callousness.  The back door to the SAE fraternity house where Brian lived was left open one warm April night in 2004, while Brian slept because he had to be up early for work and his housemates finally dozed off after a typical evening of revelry.  Brian awoke in his first-floor room to the sound of his housemate screaming from the living room, and he ran out to discover his friend pleading "Help me," covered in blood from being stabbed by an intruder.  "So much blood, P," he later told me.

Brian knows how to save lives.  This is what he was trained to do and this is what he does now.  He held the wound together with both hands, and yelled for his housemates to help him. No one heard. One girl, who stayed over at the fraternity that night, heard the screams and was too afraid to do anything. Brian doesn't blame her, because his heart is just that big and forgiving.  His friend died the next day from multiple stab wounds.  Brian spoke at the memorial service, and I listened to his voice cracking and quivering as he mourned the loss of a brother - someone he couldn't save.

I worried for a time that Brian's understandable anger and sense of helplessness might wipe away that amber warmth that he shared with such consistent altruism and sincerity.  I worried that he would become jaded, and that his heart, which is so very open to the world, would close.  I worried that he would find the nearest corner, and reside THERE, with his back against the wall.  But Brian doesn't have time for such things. He also doesn't have it in his make-up to be an Atlas to his own heartache, when he has bigger loads to carry:

Brian in Haiti, 2010

After graduating from Hopkins, Brian started active duty, first in Europe.  "P!" he wrote, "I finally understand what the big deal about Renaissance art is!!!" Brian was stationed in Italy and in Germany, before spending over a year in the thick of our current war with Iraq.  When I heard he was being stationed there, it was from a simple post on facebook, and then a short letter. No fanfare. No "pray for me."  My heart sort of sat in stunned panic for a good day after I learned he was going, because part of me didn't know that Brian would survive (despite the fact that of anyone I know, Brian could survive almost anything). He doesn't believe in "think before you leap" when it comes to helping people, and my overactive imagination had scenarios of Brian taking bullets for others on rerun.  He could very well have medals of honor galore, and I wouldn't know about it. He doesn't boast of his meteoric rise in the military, of the many things he has done to, in small but significant ways, make our world a little bit better. He just does it.  He does not agree with this war, but he went. That takes moral courage, bravery, and a strong stomach to boot. 

Brian is now in Haiti for the next few months.  Having only recently joined us stateside after his time in Iraq, he left immediately after the earthquake. While everyone posted on facebook about where to donate (which is very important), Brian posted simply, "Off to Haiti."  This kind of makes one think twice before boasting about something that doesn't involve saving a life, unloading 50 lb bags of rice, or organizing housing for the so many millions of displaced souls.  We don't have time for our own hubris. We don't have time to give ourselves daily "shout-outs" anymore than our time is wasted if we don't spend a bit of our day leaning into discomfort to help someone who lacks the wherewithal to help themselves. Brian understands this.  He understands that we can write and post and paste links and bemoan all of the ways that the world hemorrhages, and that to truly honor these souls in crisis, one has to help them.  

And I wish I was more like him. 

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sayonara Sylvia Plath - repost from February 11

Yesterday marked the day that Sylvia Plath died.  Of course she wrote The Bell Jar, which I read in eighth grade and loved.  She wrote "Daddy" and "Ariel" and "The Stones"; the latter is a beautiful poem that I could read again and again and again.  And she wrote "Lady Lazarus".  Mercy.  Edgar Allen Poe has nothing on this poem, which is as much about redemption as it is about the darker bits that further shatter Plath's edges -  "the autobiography of fever," she once described it. 

Nothing is more terrifying than listening to Plath read her own poem, which thanks to YouTube, you can do:

Sylvia Plath reads Lady Lazarus

The first time I encountered this piece, I thought of Lady Lazarus as a phoenix, a mental image I have been unable to shake in subsequent revisits.   Perhaps this is why I hear redemption on repeat, especially in the second half of the poem:

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.
It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

'A miracle!'
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart--
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash--
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there--

A cake of soap, 
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

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

This from someone who gently placed her head on a soft towel in a gas oven, and neatly died in her London flat.  

And yesterday, found dead in his home in London, the brilliant, volatile, and bewitching Alexander McQueen, whose designs included marvels such as this:

I've never closely followed the fashion world.  But Alexander McQueen lived on the margins of it, and kind of created his own world in the process, leaning into discomfort to challenge our notions of beauty and really, if you think about it, human nature. I value his ideas about creation and how we fit into it, especially as he explained it to the musician-artist-performer, Bjork:  

"I've done loads of collections based on man and machine and man and nature, but ultimately my work is always in some way directed by nature. It needs to connect with the earth. Things that are processed and reprocessed lose their substance.... I support what you're saying about this connection between man and nature, but it's like you're talking to a brick wall when it comes to the rest of the world. Everyone wants an easier life. I don't think nature fits into most people's concepts of an easier life."  

I love that McQueen is thinking about the locomotion of creating in terms not that far removed from Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."  Anyone who has any interest in modernity and how it bisects with what it means to authentically create something should read this work, which embraces the fact that crises can and do occur when new forms of art are born. The "aura" of a work of art is compromised by our demands to have it, to own it, to claim it as our own. "I am your opus," challenged Plath. What a curse and a blessing. 

Benjamin's essay, certainly read widely in Plath's day (if not as often in our own) is part of the scaffolding for the dialogue that artists such as Plath and McQueen entered.  They did so with an uneasy volatility that is so wretchedly beautiful and ugly all at once.  In many ways, it puts an essential and declarative point on their pain.  You can hear it in Plath's voice, and you can read it in her lines.  You can follow McQueen's twitter and arrive at a silence as still and arresting as stones.  As Plath herself said, “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”

I think Plath would have appreciated McQueen's comments as much as she likely would have dug his butterfly head piece, a nest so strange and beautiful - a miracle, really. I also believe that sometimes there are those who walk on this earth to create and create until there is nothing left that they want - their theatrical comeback refuses to rise again.

In these voices, there is yet redemption.  An easier life, no.  But one worth interrogating these strange angels who trouble us as much as they inspire, yes.  

And lest we forget Descartes, who also died on February 11:  “I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things which I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery.”

Amen to that.  

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"And I walked the sawdust trail..."

I really like it when, spiritually speaking, one simple hour can kind of throw you under a bus in the best possible way. I experience this on a semi-frequent basis when I listen to Nina Simone, who imperiously demands that you walk on coals with her, sway until you're seasick, fall prostrate at her feet. I can almost taste the asphalt when I listen to this song:

Nina Simone, Baltimore (live)

I think I'm alright with being uncomfortable, with that prickling blush that floods your face when you watch a film, an interview, or read an article, a poem, or a short story, and you are humbled. Today, my dear friend Eliza and I were discussing the meaning of what it is to be "humbled," and we were in concert in believing that it means to be in awe, inspired by, somehow made more human and more flawed by the beauty and the magnificence of someone else. We agreed that to be humbled DOES NOT mean that you graciously accept praise, murmuring, "I am so humbled by your words," though certainly many people use it in such a context. 

I am humbled by the many cracks and fissures that widen my perspective on the world. I think as a teacher, it sort of comes with the territory.  Students are the measuring stick equivalents of your own personal humble-meter. Hubris doesn't fly at an all-girls school.  

Love certainly does.

Today, in a special assembly at our school, we watched the legendary 1964 interview with James Emory Bond, a man who cried, wiped his own tears, laughed at his own jokes and praised humility in the face of unconscionable discrimination. Such was Baltimore then. Such is Baltimore now, to a lesser extent. Today his children and his grandchildren sat among uniformed schoolgirls in a darkened theater, watching him work his love-magic on a huge screen.  On this same day, February 4, 2010.  Exactly forty-six years later. 

Mr. Bond walked the three miles to Television Hill after watching a program that aired on WBAL-TV the prior evening. He came from his home in Baltimore city (West Baltimore - now a place where florists charge extra to deliver flowers). The program focused on the rising crime rate in Baltimore, and included a panel of judges and experts decrying the violence that marked such an august town.  Viewers were welcome to phone in with their comments.  Instead, Mr. Bond opted to walk to the television station from his home in West Baltimore to share his beliefs. He was seventy-five. 

And he spoke.  And they listened.  In an act of singularly inspired vision, the station decided to tape a short segment -  "two or three minutes," Sydney King, who interviewed him, shared with us today.  And he spoke for over an hour.

His message?  Love. Love what you are taught to hate.  Embrace what you are conditioned to fear. Create your own orbit.  Trade ideologies with H.L. Mencken. Find your way to Jerusalem, while Kennedy's Camelot crumbles and race is still a four letter word. Smile widely, cry openly, laugh at this folly. Show gratitude for being heard.  And change the way a nation considers its own stance on race, humanity, humility. 

James Emory Bond did this.  He talked to a disembodied voice (that of King's) for over an hour at lunch time. It is difficult to truly come to terms with how very unorthodox this whole thing was. His missive, one as old as Golgotha, aired at 9:00 pm that same day. Unheard of.  And then it aired again.  And a third time.  In Chicago. In New York. In Los Angeles. In towns and cities across the country, James Emory Bond walked into a space, filled it, and reshaped that space.  And then he said to us, "Come with me. Stay a while. Let's talk."  

Of his embrace of Christianity, his guiding principle, he remarked simply "And I walked the sawdust trail."  And here I am, some hours later, still under that bus,utterly undone by a single man wearing mirth and suspenders, a gentleman who dabbed at his tears with a pressed hankie, who had a handshake that sent shockwaves all the way to your toes. And our shared city that on this day, almost half a century later, has fifteen homicides on record so far this year, which is ten fewer than last year - it breathes still in the space he helped to create. And we keep walking...

"But, brother, I'm looking at the rose, and I'm handling the rose, and I'm inhaling the sweet aroma that the rose throws out and just avoiding the thorns carefully." 
                                                                                                    -James Emory Bond

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dog person

This is Moxa:


Moxa and I met four years ago on President's Day weekend. I wanted a dog desperately, so much so that I could taste it, so much so that I developed an unfortunate habit of staring intently at other peoples' dogs, imagining what it must be like to walk them. It made people uncomfortable, I think. To me, a wagging tail is as beautiful as a Titian. I could watch a dog wag its tail for hours and find beauty in it. 

Moxa wagged his tail at me. At the SPCA, he was called Alexander (funnily, the name of my husband).  I loved him wholly at first sight. I loved him so much that my heart hurt. It actually HURT, and when I visited him after the adoption papers and the neutering, and I saw him whimpering from the pain but still crawling towards me because he knew love when he saw it, my heart grew tenfold. All in one moment.

I named him Moxa for an herb (also known as Mugwort) used in acupuncture to promote warmth and healing. One day during a session, rendered completely useless, I said dreamily to my acupuncturist, "I will have a dog one day and I will name him Moxa."  And then a few weeks later, it happened.  And he does promote warmth and healing.  Moxa is the heartbeat that follows me from room to room, stuffed toy in his mouth, always with an expression of complete and utter devotion.  Moxa curls up close when I am sick, with his trademark furrowed brow and a wet nose.  He knows when my feet are cold and he huddles closer. He knows when I have a fever and sits vigil, staring at me with his big bovine eyes. He murmurs contentment when I scratch his belly, and he cries when I leave. Whenever I am searching for a true definition of love, there he is. 

This is Mia:


Mia was a birthday present for Alex.  Mia is la principessa - the lady of the house, a status that Moxa seems to accept with equal parts patience and love, except when it comes to his stuffed toys. She will lick you senseless if you let her, and she pounces and prances about, nipping at Moxa's ankles, dancing in the snow, burrowing under covers, settling in your lap. She stands outside the bathroom while you shower, ready to lick your legs when you emerge. Mia loves a good fireplace. She worships Moxa, and follows him everywhere. She loves the cat.  She loves YOU with all of the overt affection of a giggling schoolgirl. I fall in love with Mia again and again. It's easy. Alex (her very favorite person) is her raison d'etre. She whimpers when he leaves, and sits staring at the door, waiting for him to return.  She loves with abandon.

I was always a cat person. I loved my cats, and adore my current cat, Squatter (I am convinced she is part owl). I love a cat's purr and I love the way a cat can look into you, as enigmatic as a sudden storm.  Cats have a way of putting you in your place. Their indifference and their affection remind one that control isn't something we should be seeking. Because it just won't happen.  Cats leave. They come back.  They purr and then they swipe at you if you make too many intimations in their direction. Few follow you through the house, but if you happen to be in the same room, they'll chill with you for a time.  I like the ebb and flow of a cat, and I always have. 

But dogs - all of a sudden I find myself a "dog person".  I live for the moment that I walk through the door in the evening, and there's this wild, honest, unabashed exchange of love. I am permitted to let loose, squeal with excitement, and jump around with a pair of wagging tails, and IT FEELS GOOD. Whereas cats have taught me the value of irreverence and the fleeting nature of emotions both good and bad, dogs have reminded me of the patent HONESTY of love. This is truth here now - to be bookended by two beating hearts nestled on either side of me, who offer love with no rules, expectations, or conditions. It is both effortless and difficult to love someone who has perfected this art. 

My dogs have. I have not.

This is Piper:

A heart can never stop growing.  Piper joins us next week -  a puppy deserving of a home where there will be no shortage of love. She loves children, she loves to snuggle, she loves other dogs. She loves. There is always more room here for another soul. There is always enough love to go around.  

We didn't learn this on our own.