Monday, August 16, 2010


Many of us avoid writing because we worry about whether our words represent the truth. We don't feel that we can access The Truth, so we are paralyzed and don't want to write any of our thoughts down lest they be disproved. And yet that is part of the reason why we write them -- to test their true-ness. We write down words to hold on to them for a short time. Then the act of writing allows us to percolate them, to rub them up against other ideas, to transform them by manipulating them and seeing the possibilities.

Our attitude toward writing reflects whatever our attitude toward Truth is. If we believe that somewhere there exists Truth with a capital T and our job is to capture it and kill it and drag it home to feast on it, then committing words to paper is excruciating. We are like perfectionists to the extreme, afraid of commitment, unwilling to go part way until we can go all the way to absolute Truth in our words. As I write this, I am questioning every sentence, every phrase, each word.

If, on the other hand, we believe that truth is a little on the gray, slippery side, that it is not carved from cold marble but rather like a ball of dough that can be poked, that rises, that takes the shape of its container...then we are not so paralyzed about committing our thoughts to paper. We can play with our words a bit, not take ourselves quite so seriously, and in so doing, arrive at much more useful bits of truth. These truths can be discussed with others, and our thinking can be transformed by kneading in what we find out as we try ideas out loud and flavor them with discussion. Human beings were designed to talk about ideas. We came up with symbolic speech and alphabets, paper and ink, computers, internet: we ache to put our thoughts together in a big bowl and stir them.

Some of us, though, were raised and educated to believe, for example, that history books contain history, rather than someone's version of history. Some of us grew up believing that tables and walls are solid, with no space in them. Some of us believe what we hear on the news. It is only through great effort that we have learned to consider, critically, what is put on a platter and labelled, "Truth," to ask who is proposing it and what their interests are and who they would rather leave out. Once we learn to question any bit of truth, we can question all of it and learn to suspend our belief, to throw the beach ball in the air and talk about it, rather than place it on a pedestal and defend it to the death...or not commit it to words at all, keeping it locked away like a dirty secret.

If anything, the summer institute experience made me more willing to put my words on paper and think less about truth and more about moving closer to some truth. My favorite poetry coach told me that a poem should represent everything we know about a topic at the time that we are writing. So early on, then, I heard the message that truth is only truth for a little while, for then we gain more experience which alters that truth. The experience we gain is sometimes discussion of an idea with others. It is sometimes the careful placing of words on a page and the consideration of those words through time. It is sometimes the publication of our words and the response they bring from others after publication. We are wired to use these tools of language and technology. The belief in immutable truth, though, is something we can wrestle free from, at least in order to live more fully in a world that is changing quickly, more quickly each day.

All of this is to reassure myself, and all of us, that it is okay to put our thoughts out there where they can be read and considered. If someone does say, "But last year, you said...," I would have no problem describing the experiences that have changed my mind. Those who will not acknowledge the possibility of changing their minds, though: they frighten me. They are not using the brains we have, the language we use, to develop their thinking.

Are there beliefs I have now that I have held a long time? Yes, but I try not to be married to any belief so much that I cannot consider a new case that defies old standards. Oops, I have mentioned the S word, and that is fodder for another blog entry.

Saturday, August 07, 2010


John and I were talking about it over ice cream on the back porch last night. I was basking in the glow of playing my last Cookie Baker Trio gig, and we were both loving the stars and the very cool air. We both like August and September weather: cooler nights, days not so laden with humidity. Good for starwatching.

It was during the months after my separation and divorce, fifteen years ago, that I started to lie out on the back porch on a lounge chair, often wrapped in a blanket, just looking up at the sky. I did that many lonely nights, long into September and October, wrapped in a blanket, to avoid absolute despair from loneliness.

I didn't identify stars, learn constellation names or any of that logical, focused behavior. I just stared into the deep night sky, to realize that my loneliness was the natural state of humanity, that I was not a freak and it would not kill me to be so alone. My sons were sometimes sleeping inside the house. I had a life, a busy career in the classroom, a side gig as a musician. At night, though, I needed the stars for company sometimes. My screen names on the computer were carolstar or starwatcher. It got conversations started when I was chatting with strangers scattered here and there across New York State or northern Pennsylvania...or sometimes farther away than that.

As I lay on the lounge chair on the porch, staring up until the darkness swam around, I was distracted from my self-centered musings by the sheer beauty that surrounded me. I was numbed by the quantity of stars, the depth of view, the cold air. I could return to my bed alone but sleepy and not give up hope, having that beauty in mind as I drifted off to sleep, rather than my woes.

Not consciously, I began to pursue beauty as a therapy. On my daily walks, I enjoyed the variety of greens in the leaves of the forest where my path led me. In the winter, I enjoyed the sound of the crunching snow, the pattern of dark and light in the tree trunks exposed by loss of foliage. In the fall I reveled (don't we all, here in the deciduous belt?) in the changing colors, the subtle shadings, of various trees, depending on the chemistry of their leaves and the change in sunlight exposure each day. In the spring I watched for that day when the leaves were just a twinkle in the eye of the forest, a mist of tiny green pointillisms placed by nature, the great impressionist.

On some of my solitary days and nights, especially when my sons were not with me, I pursued the sound of beauty: the jazz group that played for Sunday brunch, the wrenching blues guitar of newly discovered (though well known to others) artists, the notes my singing partner and I would blend in a new arrangement of an old folk song. I surrounded myself with splashes of color in my house, and mixed textures of cloth and decor. I became a worshipper of beauty. I found I was not alone; many of us humankind like to obsess this way. Not a bad way to live one's life, pursuing beauty. I could do worse, collect child pornography, or guns, or kill small animals for sport.

Of course, all this was related to my love of beauty in words. In my new life alone, I rediscovered poetry, which I had loved in high school, and studied until my love for it was nearly killed in college. I started writing along with my students, and that was a good thing for me to do. I collected beautiful phrases I composed, imagery that reminded me of all I found to love on my walks or in my skyward meditations or window gazing. Yes, you could say I am obsessed with beauty in nature, and that is a topic for poets. I am a poet, though I've only published two poems, and those only in a web 'zine so obscure I have to provide people with the link or no one would find it. This latest manifestation of my love for beauty and my expression of it in words is in the haiku I try to post on Facebook as soon as I return from the daily walk. I have quite a collection now, after starting last fall.

The hiatus, during spring semester, is directly traceable to the pressure of a heavy reading schedule for policy and quantitative research classes and my replacement obsession with homework. That is past, though, and I can't imagine that curriculum and learning theory classes can match the intensity of the focus I had during my first semester back as a student. I will try not to let it distract me from this more important obsession with beauty and its expression in words.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Words flow out of me like a pipe has burst in the middle of a cold winter, like a downpour has filled a creek to overflowing.

Words trail behind me like clothing I've taken off, like crumbs from a snack surrounding me on the sofa in front of the television.

Words enter in a flood from this information glut, this black hole of content, and I drink them in and let them flow over my skin and down onto papers and into coded impulses stored in invisible files.

Ideas hover over me, as before creation, seep into my sleep, as if to drug me, and drag at my ankles when I walk in the morning.

I try to train them, but I'm not the most disciplined person myself. Instead, they overwhelm me and I resort, revive, rescind, retreat into music -- with no lyrics.

I think I might be getting the hang of this, now, after almost 50 years of practice and work that has sometimes been mistaken for skill and perception.

I sympathize with James Joyce, empathize with Stephen King, but really I am clueless still.

Help me rein in this rude flood, both before I take it in and as I let it out.

If I am not helped soon, I may drown, giving up at the last moment, and reverting to pre-verbal states. I may be seen waving from beyond the surf, while stray thoughts still slide onto the sand with each marching band of surf. Then I will be seen no more.