Posts tagged essay
Posts tagged essay
My friend and surreal digital artist A.W. Sprague created this unique piece to thank me for supporting his work. Although we’ve never met in person, he did an amazing job of crawling into my head! This is a lot more fun and just as revealing as occupying a psychiatrist’s couch.
It’s interesting to note that prior to the invention of the printing press, visual symbolism in art was widely understood. But these days, visual symbolism is a language most of us must re-learn.
To that end, A.W. and I have provided a detailed analysis of his symbolism. (My interpretations in regular font, A.W.’s comment in italics).
Please savor this delightful art. Two detailed close-ups are given so the viewer can “read” the fine print.
From Pagan high priestess Shara:
When you see a road-killed animal, make the sign of the five-pointed star (symbolizing earth, air, fire, water, and spirit), then the sign of the Horned One (index and pinkie fingers raised). Repeat this blessing to yourself:
“May the Horned Lord gather his wild creatures to his heart.”
Unitarian minister Peter Tufts Richardson, in his book Four Spiritualities, contends that it is important to pay attention to the works of religious, spiritual, and philosophical teachers in traditions that are different from our native one (See Part I and Part II).
But how can we identify which teachers might be helpful to us? Richardson believes that our inherent personality type (see links at the bottom of the article) helps to determine which teachings are attractive, meaningful, and useful to us.
The following descriptions of four personality-based spiritual paths and their mentors are condensed from Peter Tufts Richardson’s book Four Spiritualities, with some of my own research intermingled. If you have figured out your personality type, please let me know if, and how, any of these differing paths resonate with your own spiritual journey!
Sensing Feelers (SF): The Journey of Devotion (Mentors: St. Francis, Mohammed, St. Mark (apostle))
St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was born into a wealthy Italian family. As a young man, he was injured in war. On the way home, exhausted and in pain, he spied a leper and was overwhelmed by compassion. St. Francis writes that he ”saw the face of the suffering Christ” on the leper. He dismounted, embraced the man, and gave him all of his money.
Later, St. Francis had a vision of his life’s work. He writes that a crucifix came alive, saying ”Go, Francis, and repair my falling house.” Francis took the words literally, and spent years repairing ruined churches. Later, he saw his revelation as a directive to repair the “spiritual house” of Christianity.
St. Francis founded an order of monks (The Franciscans), and in his later years he composed Canticle of Brother Sun, an ode to mother earth and her inhabitants. He is often pictured holding birds, a reference to a tale of him rescuing two doves on their way to slaughter.
The life of St. Francis reveals a Sensing Feeler’s passion for his God, a dedication to serving others in direct and tangible ways, and a gift for finding inspiration in the lives and works of ancestors.
The SF Spiritual Path: Sensing Feelers value personal experience and action through direct service to others. They often feel that God is present here and now, in our bodies and in our lives. Sensing Feelers are inspired by pilgrimages, heroes, and stories.
In their practical approach to spirituality and their appreciation of religious myth, Sensing Feelers bring continuity, integrity, and pragmatism to religious traditions, giving them staying power through generations.
Sensing Thinkers (ST): The Journey of Works (Mentors: Confucius, Moses, St. Thomas (apostle)). (Also my best guest for HH the 14th Dalai Lama).
Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) never achieved his goal of becoming a governmental administrator. As a teacher and scholar, however, he made a lasting impact on philosophy and government.
Confucius reworked the oldest documents of Chinese culture (now known as the Confucian Odes) into a coherent system for the conduct of life that is remarkably practical and democratic. Confucius believed that the well-being and consent of the common people constitute the legitimacy of a government, and societal reform works from the bottom up. His teachings guided Chinese society for nearly 2500 years.
In the words of Confucian translator Arthur Waley:
“In the West, we tend to instill ethical principals into young children until they are internalized: This is right, that is wrong. In traditional China…a young child is taught a number of considerations, none of which is absolute. You have to reason out what is appropriate, operable, and right in any specific situation.”
Confucian principals help us decide what action is practical, skillful, and humane in any given situation, not what is “right” or “wrong.”
The life of Confucius gives clear evidence of a Sensing Thinker’s love for law and order and attention to careful thought, planning, and stewardship.
The ST Spiritual Path: Sensing Thinkers are realistic, practical, and sometimes righteous. They strive to keep to religious organizations running smoothly based on a foundation of law and order. They feel responsible for personal, social, and natural resources.
Sensing Thinkers believe that a clear-cut personal identity is essential for a fulfilling spiritual life. They see work as life’s aim and fulfillment, spiritually as well as practically.
Intuitive Feelers (NF): The Journey of Harmony (Mentors: Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Jesus, Lao-Tzu, St. Luke (apostle), Thich Nhat Hahn, Buddhist Master).
Mother Theresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) ministered to the world’s poor, sick and dying for over 40 years. In 1997 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When asked what the average person can do to promote world peace, she simply said “Go home and love your family.”
As a young woman, Theresa felt a strong call to help the poor while living among them. ”To fail would have been to break the faith” she writes of her spiritual imperative.
Theresa founded an order of nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, in 1940. At first her order was so poor that the sisters had to beg for food and supplies. But Mother Theresa, with her Intuitor’s grasp of the big picture, was a good administrator. At the time of her death in 1997, she had founded 610 missions in 123 countries to care for the poor, sick, and dying. Her order includes over 4,000 sisters and 100,000 lay volunteers.
Mother Theresa honored the religious beliefs of others. In her homes for the dying, ministrations are offered in several religious traditions: Muslims are read the Quran, Hindus receive water from the Ganges, and Catholics are given the last rites.
Mother Theresa continued her spiritual journey throughout her life, aided by her “spiritual advisor,” a priest to whom she was close. Her diaries, published after her death, reveal that for much of her life she struggled with strong doubts about the existence of God.
Mother Theresa’s story reveals an Intuitive Feeler’s quest for self-hood, focus on process as part of a religious path, tolerance of differing spiritual traditions, and love of harmony.
The NF Spiritual Path: Intuitive Feelers are social idealists. Their spiritual journey includes a quest for self-hood and a mystical pursuit of harmony. They project an attitude of expectancy and an openness to their unconscious selves, including their dreams, as a way towards spiritual healing.
Intuitive Feelers focus on process in relationships, whether to family, friends or society. They often enjoy exploring different spiritual traditions, and may combine several in their belief system. They avoid conflict, and are peacemakers and “carriers of the banner of tolerance” among traditions. They are our social visionaries.
Intuitive Thinkers (NT): The Journey of Unity (Mentors: Thomas Merton, The Buddha, Thomas Aquinas, Carl Jung)
Thomas Merton (1915-1968), an important 20th century religious writer, hated church as a child. During college, however, he became interested in Catholicism. After graduating, became a Cistercian monk, maintaining a vow of silence for two years.
In 1948 Merton published his spiritual classic The Seven Storey Mountain, an account of his quest for God. Though eloquent and passionate, this book reveals Merton as narrow-minded (or at least unworldly) and judgmental, dismissing pagan traditions as “evil old religions.”
In the decades that followed, however, Merton matured, and his world view widened. He became a political activist and peacemaker. His interest in other religions, particularly Eastern ones, grew. Merton dialoged with the worlds’ leading Buddhists— the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, and D.T. Suzuki. He died in an electrocution accident in 1968, at the age of 51.
Merton’s life story reveals an Intuitive Thinker’s love of scholarship, search for universal truth and justice, and desire for the spiritual enlightenment of all. In the words of the Buddhist scholar Shantideva:
“May I be a guard for those who are protectorless
A guide for those who journey on the road
For those who wish to go across the water
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge…
When all these actions I have performed
And their virtue I have thus amassed
May the pain of every living being
Be thereby scattered and destroyed.”
The NT Spiritual Path: Intuitive Thinkers seek organizing principals throughout life and nature. They want universal justice and truths that are global, honest, and clear. Their milestone of spiritual progress is deep and lucid thinking.
A goal of Intuitive Thinkers is social justice, achieved through education. Intuitive Thinkers may be spiritual writers and often attempt interfaith peacemaking. They may practice intellectual mysticism, often in quiet places or in silence.
To determine your personality type, take one of these online tests. You will receive an answer with four letters, but for the purposes of this article we are interested in only the two middle letters:
http://www.humanmetrics.com/ (Take “Jung Typology Test”)
www.similarminds.com (Click on “16-Type Jung Personality Tests”, then take “Jung Tests IESNFTJP”.)
http://www.personalitypathways.com/ (Abbreviated version)
Images: 1. St. Francis of Assisi, courtesy of 1.bp.blogspot.com 2. Confucius, artist unknown 3. Painting of Mother Theresa, courtesy of divinesoul.jp 4. Thomas Merton by Joseph Malham
“In every sizeable community, one finds atheists who think there is not God, polytheists who acknowledge many gods, monotheists who believe there is a single God, and mystics who say there is only God.” (Huston Smith)
The Unitarian minister we met in Part I, Peter Tufts Richardson, feels that it’s important to pay attention to the works of religious, spiritual, and philosophical teachers in traditions other than own. Among other things, this may enlarge our world view and make us more tolerant of differing faiths. But how can we identify which teachers in other faiths might be helpful to us?
Richardson believes that our inherent personality type (see links at bottom) helps to determine which parts of any faith or religion are attractive, meaningful, and/or helpful to us. (For more information, click here to read Part I).
Psychologists believe it’s possible to determine the personality profiles of people who are long dead, provided that we have reliable records of their words and deeds. This has been done for all of the world’s major religious founders. Because we now know the personality profiles of many famous people, it’s a simple matter to figure out which spiritual teachers have personalities similar to our own (more in Part III). And although the writings of like-minded teachers will probably resonate with you, Richardson also advocates reading the works of teachers whose personalities are opposite to yours.
For example, anyone with a strongly intuitive personality like me may be attracted to mystical teachers. I’ve found that the writings of the mystical teachers from different traditions tend to converge, and they all seem to say much the same thing.
Here are quotes from three mystical teachers in different religious traditions. Can you match the quote to the author’s religion? One is Muslim, one is Buddhist, and one is Christian. (Answers at the end of article*)
“I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged…I feel fire and music under my feet.
“In a boat down a fast-running creek, it feels like trees on the bank are rushing by. What seems to be changing around us is rather the speed of our craft leaving this world.”
“Like a dream, whatever I enjoy will become a memory; the past is not revisited.”
Richardson believes that each of the four personality types (see Part I) has a different spiritual journey. Chances are, depending on your personality, your spiritual quest will be different from your neighbor’s, and also different from that of the person who sits next to you at church.
Based on his long years as a minister, Richardson has described the spiritual journey of each of the four personality types (click here for type descriptions). Richardson has also identified a number of ”mentors”— religious teachers and leaders, past and present, of matching personality type— for each journey. Interestingly, each of the four journeys has at least one major religious founder with a matching personality (more in Part III). That’s good news for all of us.
Sadly, Richardson doesn’t fit atheists and agnostics into his scheme, although he clearly feels that some Eastern traditions support these mindsets. Personally, I suspect that most atheists and agnostics are people with a very strong “thinker” bias.
Richardson does not contend that anyone should or must convert to a religion in which the founder’s personality type matches their own. The spirituality in which we were raised is deeply imbedded in our psyche, and it’s better to integrate it into our adult belief system rather than exorcise it.
However, Richardson makes it clear that we should:
1) Pay attention to the teachings of mentors matching our personality type, no matter what their religious affiliation.
2) Use this knowledge as a guide in deciding which parts of any spiritual tradition are useful to us.
As religious scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell has pointed out, all religions are true. All constitute a valid roadmap, providing that we interpret them metaphorically, using the full abilities of our heart and our mind. The tricky part is finding the path (or lack thereof) that works for you.
*First quote from Thomas Merton (Christian/Catholic), second quote from Rumi (Muslim), third quote from Shantideva (Buddhist).
To determine your personality type, take one of these online tests. You will receive an answer with four letters, but for the purposes of this article we are interested in only thetwo middle letters:
http://www.humanmetrics.com/ (Take “Jung Typology Test”)
www.similarminds.com (Click on “16-Type Jung Personality Tests”, then take “Jung Tests IESNFTJP”.)
http://www.personalitypathways.com/ (Abbreviated version)
Images: 1. Detail, God Giving Life to Adam by Michelangelo 2. Courtesy of cornishevangelist at wordpress 3. Stock image from Google 4. What’s The Matter by Nora Sumberg 5. Courtesy of topez.net
Sensing Feelers (SF):
Sensing Feelers are sensitive, friendly, loyal, and caring. They live for social interaction, prefer structured settings, and enjoy sharing, appreciating, helping, and being helped. They are likely to marry and have children, and live responsibly as parents and citizens. They like to serve others in direct, tangible, personal ways. They focus on the task on hand and will see that every detail is accounted for. They prefer things to be intact, traditional, and harmonious. They work within traditional values in practical and cooperative ways. They base their decisions on subjective, people-centered values as well as practicality. Sensing Feelers are generally optimistic and aim for harmony, mutual appreciation, and trust.
Sensing Thinkers (ST):
Sensing thinkers are realists, always in touch with the facts, and are unbiased and accurate, paying attention to all of the details. They look for clear-cut results from their efforts. They are skilled administrators— responsible, objective, consistent, and detached. Once a concept, solution or procedure becomes clear, they will proceed with implementation. Since they are not swayed by subjective feelings, Sensing Thinkers make excellent negotiators. Balance, prudence, duty, and fairness are their hallmarks. Sensing Thinkers commit themselves to the building and maintenance of institutions. They are likely to question tradition only when the outcomes have impractical or unfair consequences.
Intuitive Feelers (NF):
Intuitive feelers are full of visions of possibilities for a humane world, where everyone can lead full, harmonious lives and grow as individuals. They are enthusiastic and insightful, recognizing the needs of others as well as the community and the world. With their strong charisma and are good language skills, Intuitive Feelers often help others achieve their goals, but they dislike conflict. Intuitive Feelers have an ability to draw people into discussion and facilitate consensus-building for social harmony. They live life on a global stage, feeling attuned to the big picture of life in communities, societies, or the world.
Intuitive Thinkers (NT):
Intuitive thinkers are visionaries who thrive on solving problems. They love to exchange ideas, engage other minds, and test their own skills. They focus on the task at hand and value competence. Intuitive thinkers easily see the relationships among the components of a system. Seeking intellectual clarity, they love models and analysis, especially theories that bring unity to disparate elements. Intuitive thinkers are the foremost change agents and strategic planners. They are comfortable with abstract ideas and are rarely satisfied with things the way they are. They are good critics, and can be compulsive in their quest for perfection. They are willing to make tough decisions and stand alone against the crowd.
If you can’t figure out your personality type based on these descriptions, click on one of these links to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (also called the Jung Test):
http://www.humanmetrics.com/ (Take “Jung Typology Test”)
www.similarminds.com (Click on “16-Type Jung Personality Tests”, then take “Jung Tests IESNFTJP”.)
http://www.personalitypathways.com/ (Abbreviated version)
“On the right hand stand the lovers, on the left are those who seek. And we will dance in conversation until our tongues can no longer speak.” (Bruce Roper)
Although I was born into a Catholic family, I never “got” Catholicism. The Catholic Mass is still surreal to me, with its mumbled incantations and dolorous organ music. As a child, I never understood why I couldn’t participate. Later, the budding scientist in me wondered whether the laws of physics were really different when Jesus was alive (a seeming prerequisite for miracles).
As an adult, I avoided religion. However, after encountering Buddhist writings, I realized that I was a Buddhist. I retain some of my Catholic roots, but, nevertheless, I have always been a Buddhist.
The Buddha’s teachings resonate with me because he thought the way I think, and believed what I believe. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Shouldn’t I have become a Buddhist first, then started thinking like one?
Different Spiritual Types
Later, I married into a fundamental Christian family. My teenage nephews, Mathew and Mark, want to be preachers. To them, a Buddhist is an Object of Interest, something to be examined, turned upside-down and shaken, debated with and, possibly, soul-saved.
Debating my nephews is fun, but our endless arguments boil down to the same thing: Mathew and Mark feel the presence of God in their lives. I don’t feel the presence of God, and I think I must divest myself of all pre-ordained ideas about God. Mathew and Mark make spiritual decisions with their hearts; I make spiritual decisions with my head. (I am not implying that either way is better— see below)
I’ve noticed the same thing in my debates with other theist friends. Although this is a broad generalization, it seems that those who lead with their hearts (the believers) tend to end up on one side, and those who lead with their minds (the doubters) tend to be on the other.
Are We Destined for a Certain Spiritual Path?
A number of brilliant thinkers throughout history have said yes.
Plato classified four inborn personality types (Artisans, Guardians, Idealists, and Rationals). Psychologist Carl Jung adopted Plato’s terminology, and agreed that personality types are inherent (mostly genetic).
Isabel Myers and Katherine Briggs later created a test (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, MBTI) to identify personality type and tell test-takers which occupations suit their personality. This test has been widely and successfully used in the business world, in a manner more broad than was originally intended. If you know how your co-workers view and interact with the world, you can work more effectively with them.
Unitarian minister Peter Tufts Richardson takes this argument one step further in his book Four Spiritualities. Richardson re-defines the four personality types in spiritual terms, and makes a case that our inborn personality has a profound effect on our religious or spiritual path.
Although he does not advocate conversion, Richardson strongly encourages us to read the work of like-minded teachers in other religious traditions. I suspect that if we did this, there would be a lot less bickering (and eventually less warring) over religious and spiritual paths.
The Four Temperaments: Which Are You?
If you can answer two questions, you can probably deduce your spiritual personality type (not the full MBTI profile, but enough for the purposes of this article). The two crucial questions are:
1. Are you a Sensor (S) or an INtuitor (N)? Are you part of the 75% of us who are practical and grounded in the details of the physical world (S)? Or are you among the 25% who are dreamers, sometimes impractical, but always looking for the “big picture” (N)?
2. Are you a Feeler (F) or a Thinker (T)? When you make a decision, do you prefer to follow your heart or your head? (About half of us are Feelers, the other half are Thinkers).
If you aren’t sure, you can click here to read the type descriptions and decide in which category you best fit. Or, use one of the links at the bottom of the article to take the MBTI test.
I don’t mean to imply that “Feelers” aren’t smart or “Thinkers” are heartless. One personality trait isn’t better than another; they are just different ways of relating to the world, different ways of processing information. A healthy society needs all types. But most people, by default, rely on one process more than the other when they make decisions. (A few people don’t have inherent preferences, and this article may not be useful to them).
Readers: Let’s Test Peter Richardson’s Theory!
Psychologists have deduced the personality types of the world’s major religious founders (including Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, and the Buddha) by analyzing records of their words and actions. Part II and Part III of this series will focus on this.
In the meantime, where do you stand? How has your personality type affected your spiritual path?
I hope you will participate in this group experiment:
1. Figure out your personality type. Your answer will consist of two letters: either SF, ST, NF, or NT. Read the descriptions here and decide into which category you best fit. Or take the MBTI test (see links below. Estimated time is 5 minutes for the abbreviated version, 20 minutes for the full version).
2. Then, answer the following questions (please cut and paste the questions into your comment box along with your answers):
a. What is your personality type? (If you take the online MBTI test, you will end up with four letters, but we are only interested in the two middle letters)
b. What is your spiritual/religious affiliation in real life?
c. Are you affiliated with this religion or spirituality solely because you were born into it? Or did you find and accept it on your own? Or are both of the above true?
d. Is your spirituality or religion a helpful “road map” for you? (Give a few details if you want).
e. Are you interested in the teachings of spiritual masters from religions other than your own?
http://www.humanmetrics.com/ (Take “Jung Typology Test”)
www.similarminds.com (Click on “16-Type Jung Personality Tests”, then take “Jung Tests IESNFTJP”.)
http://www.personalitypathways.com/ (Abbreviated version; click on “What is my Myers-Briggs personality type?”)
Image Credits: 1. holyname.co.uk 2. Photo by Barry Easton 3. Photo by David Sanger 4. Mask of Agamemnon from Wikipedia Commons 4. Cover of Peter Tufts Richardson’s book Four Spiritualities.
I joined an online writing site four years ago with almost no knowledge of literature, and I made some inane comments on creative writing during my first year.
However, with the coaching of online writers, my skills have slowly improved. I’m writing this article to share what I have learned with anyone interested in commenting on literature. It seems to me that Tumblr’s creative writers deserve more that just a few (or a few hundred) presses of the “like” button. I think it’s time we started giving them some real feedback as to what their words make us think and feel.
According to Wikipedia, An essay is “often written from an author’s personal point of view. Essays can consist of a number of elements, including… political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.”
The key here is that the author is talking about real events and offering his or her opinions and reflections. When I think about essays, I think about the work of Mike Firesmith,* John Philipp, and Greg Schiller, among others. (I also consider myself an essay writer).
Essays are easy to comment on. Because the author has expressed his or her opinion on one or more topics, you can agree or disagree with their opinions and give your reasons for doing so.
Or, if you prefer, you can simply state that the author has argued their thesis well, and tell them why you find their statements convincing. For instance, although Mike Firesmith and I disagree on many issues, his essays are so compelling that I often find myself nearly persuaded to his point of view as I read. This is the sign of a good essay-writer.
In addition, humor is often a large part of essays, so picking up on a strand of humor and continuing the joking (check out John Philipp’s or Greg Schiller’s comment threads) is a great way to give feedback.
2. FICTIONAL PROSE
Fictional prose (short stories, novel chapters, or writing exercises) can be complex, made of elements such as plot, character development, settings, theme, and underlying message. This makes commenting difficult, so I find it best to remark on what strikes me most about the writing. For instance:
a. Does the piece have a strong sense of mood? How is this created? By a detailed description of the setting or the internal state of the characters? Any author that sets a strong opening mood is off to a good start, and this is worth commenting on. One online author who does this very well is A. F. Stewart.
b. Is the plot brisk and easy to follow, even in the case of an installment piece? Instead of spending a lot of time describing characters and settings, many authors rely on a compelling plot to keep their readers’ interest. If the plot drew you in and was, above all, unpredictable, this is a good thing to comment on. One of my favorite online plot writers is Magi, who is able to maintain a brisk and entertaining plot in long stories that include many installments and complex characters.
c. How real are the characters? Some authors focus mainly on the people. For them, the creation of “real” characters and depiction of their inner growth is paramount. This is accomplished by describing their mental states and/or actions in detail.
When I of someone who creates excellent characters, the writing of Sandy Knauer comes to mind. Any character Sandy writes is likely to be so realistic that they jump off the page.
Poetry is probably the hardest form of literature to comment on, but I find it to be the most fun. And there’s a secret to commenting on poetry: You need not understand the entire poem and all its nuances in order to write a good comment. (More on this in a minute).
Some accomplished poets write very straightforward, easy-to-understand poetry (John Beck and Stephen Berwaldt, for instance), while others pack their work with metaphor and point-of-view changes, making a puzzle to be deciphered (See the work of Atticus or Smaragdus) .
If the poet is writing about their personal life, with themself as the narrator, they are writing confessional poetry. However, you should never assume that poetry is confessional unless the author explicitly says so. Poets write in many different voices, and it is customary to refer simply to the “narrator” of a poem without assuming this to be identical to the author.
So— what’s the best way to comment on a challenging poem? Below are some options I find helpful:
1. Copy and paste your favorite lines into the comment box (be sure to put them in quotes or italics), and explain why you like them.
For instance, do you like with the message they present? Did the mood strike you in a certain way? Do you admire the wording, or did you learn a new word?
2. Many poets paint pictures with words. Comment on the “pictures.”
Any poet who works hard on the imagery in their poems will appreciate you describing in your own words the mental pictures they conjure up, or what they remind you of. They have no other way of knowing the exact effects of their words on the minds of their readers.
3. Did the poem resonate with you in an emotional way?
Many (perhaps most) poets seek to tug the heartstrings of their readers, and will be interested in hearing your emotional reaction to their work.
For instance, did something in the poem trigger an emotional memory for you? If so, the poet will probably be interested in hearing about this (briefly). Or do you sense a predominate emotion to the poem? If so, you may be close to understanding the entire poem, so write about your reaction!
4. Comment on the Pace of the Poem
There’s no need to understand rhyme and meter to discern when a poem slows down or speeds up. Reading it aloud should prove sufficient. Does the pacing of the poem fit with its content, its highs and lows? If so, comment on this.
As an example, consider Craig Lawson’s gorgeous poem Skiing Alone. If you read it aloud, you’ll hear that Craig has written in forced pauses at a few spots in an otherwise smoothly-flowing poem. (For instance, the beginnings of lines 6 and 11, if I am reading correctly). These may represent changes in the direction of the skier’s path.
5. If you read the poet’s work on a regular basis, compare it to their other work.
Poets appreciate it if you remember their work. For instance, if you are reading one of your favorite of their works, say so, and explain why. If it reminds you of another of their poems, point out the similarities, or compare and contrast the two.
For more information on the elements of poetry, click here.
SYMBOLS IN LITERATURE
Most literature includes symbolism, that is, word(s) which have a meaning beyond what they literally represent. It is not necessary to fully understand the symbolism to comment on a piece of literature.
However, the study of symbolism is fascinating, and the symbols in literature are more universal than you might think. If you are interested in literary symbolism, I have included some references below.
Try To Make Your Comments Unique
If you are going to comment on Tumblr, you should make your comments unique. The problem with standardized comments (such as “nice” or “I love this”) is not that the author doesn’t appreciate the fact that you have commented. The problem lies in the fact that they can’t tell whether you have read their work. And ask any serious author on the site— they are here to be heard!
What have I omitted?
PLEASE JOIN ME BY OFFERING YOUR COMMENTING TIPS IN THE DISQUS CONVERSATION STREAM BELOW!
* (Note that the authors I mention are members of the online site Gather.com)
Copyright 2012 by Ann Marcaida
Poor Mother Theresa. By rights she should be a saint by now, but sainthood requires the candidate to have performed two “miracles” (acts defying “the laws of nature”) that can be verified by The Catholic Church. The Church has confirmed only one such miracle for Mother Theresa, so she’s officially entered heaven but is not yet a saint.
This state of affairs inspired me to start my own sainthood program. My credibility must be at least as good as that of the Catholic Church. I’m not attracted to children, I support the distribution of condoms to prevent AIDS, and I think women are just as likely as men to be able to manage a congregation and talk to God.
This article marks the official beginning my sainthood program. Of course, like the Catholic Church, I’m open to objections to my nominees. Please feel free to play devil’s advocate.
For me, a saint is someone who discards self-preservation instincts and gives their resources freely and lovingly to others, often to the point of injuring themselves. My new nominee for sainthood is someone you’ve probably never heard of— the late writer and professor Deborah Digges.
Her memoir The Stardust Lounge speaks of her struggles to raise her gifted but disturbed adolescent son Stephen. By the time he was 13, Stephen was well entrenched in the world of crime, gangs, and drugs. He was destructive and violent at home. His standard phone greeting to his mother was “Fuck you.”
When “tough love” failed and Stephen had driven away Deborah’s second husband (not his biological father), Deborah decided to apply unconditional love instead of tough love. She attempted to enter Stephen’s world instead of trying to force him to conform to hers.
Deborah began shadowing Stephen on his late-night forays and inviting his gang members and their families to her house. She found an unconventional therapist, Eduardo Bustamante, who provided a male role model and helped Stephen to understand boundaries. She also initiated her own version of pet therapy, filling the family home with a variety of abandoned pets.
During this period Deborah was afraid to allow her friends in to her home. She wrote to Frank Loew, dean of a veterinary school (who later became her husband):
“I’m glad you’ll be coming to dinner…you should be forewarned… this is a wild household…”
The house interior was wrecked due to Stephen’s violent outbursts. Cats leapt in and out of windows (the screens having been removed for this purpose) and moths covered the walls. There were frequent calls from the police. To top it all off, the easy pet access had allowed a skunk to makes its way into the kitchen, and the scent lingered for months.
In reading Stardust Lounge, it struck me that the there were two turning points in Stephen’s recovery, both involving situations in which he decided to place others’ needs above his own.
The first was when he begged his mother to adopt an epileptic dog. She agreed on the condition that he manage the difficult medication regimen,which he did with devotion. The second was when he asked his mother to allow his friend Trevor, who was one step away from jail, to move in to the family home. Although this caused some rough times, Trevor eventually became sober, then got his GED and a job. He remained a devoted “brother” to Stephen.
Gradually, as he gained empathy for others and a degree of self-control, Stephen Digges’ brilliance and his talent for writing and photography emerged. Today he is a noted photojournalist, and many revealing examples of his work grace The Stardust Lounge. Without his mother’s selfless love Stephen would likely have failed to overcome his violence and addiction.
On April 10, 2009, having successfully ushered Stephen into adulthood and outlived her third husband (Frank Loew died of cancer in 2003), Deborah Digges committed suicide at age 59 by jumping off a stadium bleacher at The University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Does this disqualify her for sainthood? I think not. There’s little written about her mental health, but she probably suffered from depression. My sense is by that day in April 2009, Deborah was simply empty, having given everything to those she loved and having (fortunately) shared her life’s journey with us through her acclaimed writing.
So, what are your thoughts on sainthood?
1. Does Deborah Digges qualify?
2. Do you think miracles are required in order to entitle sainthood?
3. Would suicide disqualify a candidate?
It’s said that one of the most important events of this century will be the merging of Eastern and Western philosophy. Nowhere is the contrast between Eastern and Western thinking more obvious than in Myanmar (Burma). The tale of this Buddhist country’s quest for independence is a curious tale of yang and yin: war and revolution intermingled with religion and peaceful resistance that verges on passivity.
General Aung San, the revolutionary who engineered Myanmar’s independence from British rule, is considered the the father of modern Myanmar. Although he was a non-violent political protestor during his college years, he took up arms at the age of 26 when his peaceful efforts failed. Although Aung San was assassinated in 1947, his country enjoyed a brief period of democracy due to his efforts (1947—1962) until takeover by a military junta.
Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi (considered the “mother” of the true Myanmar) entered politics in 1988. Unlike her father (and perhaps due to the manner of his death), Aung San Suu Kyi is a strictly non-violent activist, influenced by Buddhist principles and Gandhi’s teachings. Below she gives an explanation of her philosophy:
Experiencing the Revolution
Although thousands of peaceful protesters were killed, the military crackdown in Myanmar was barely covered by the world press. This moved filmmaker John Boorman to dramatize the events as seen through the eyes of Laura Bowman, an American doctor caught in Burma during the uprising. His 1995 movie Beyond Rangoon, though fictionalized, may represent one of the best glimpses we have into this tumultuous period in Myanmar’s history.
Beyond Rangoon is a stunning thriller that not only takes my breath away but somehow also conveys the basic tenets of Buddhism, something I would have thought impossible in an action-adventure film. Beyond Rangoon can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube (and is also available on DVD). As I discuss the plot below, I’ve included links to movie excerpts illustrating each section.
Laura Bowman is a young American whose husband and child are murdered, causing her to develop an aversion to blood and abandon her medical practice. Laura travels to Rangoon, Myanmar in hopes of being distracted from her grief, but the vacation is in vain. But as she views a carved statue of the Buddha she muses “I was like a stone.”
By chance Laura meets an English-speaking tour guide, Ko, a former professor who introduces her to his revolutionary friends. When Laura’s passport is stolen she is trapped in the middle of the uprising, although Ko does his best to guide her to safety.
Along the way, Laura sees Aung San Suu Kyi speak, makes peace with the loss of her husband and child, and regains compassion and her ability to practice medicine. She gives her heart and soul to the Myanmar people and their cause. (To see the film’s ending, click here).
One of Aung San Suu Kyi’s most famous speeches is the “Freedom From Fear” speech, which begins:
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Indeed, fear is a major theme in Beyond Rangoon. There’s Laura Bowman’s fear of violence and loss, the Junta’s fear of losing power, the desperate fear of the protesters and, most strikingly, the fear in the hearts of the Junta soldiers, many of whom are barely more than children.
In the stunning movie clip below below Laura Bowman (played by Patricia Arquette) watches Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Adelle Lutz) conquer her fear of death. Notice the repeated use of the palm-up Buddhist mudra (hand signal) “No Fear” (above):
The story of Myanmar’s quest for independence brings questions to mind. General Aung San tried a yin (non-violent) approach which failed to bring results. When he took up arms, he catalyzed a revolution which brought about his death but also bought 14 years of democracy for Myanmar.
His daughter, on the other hand, adamently rejects all violence. Aung San Suu Kyi won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 but was clearly feared by the ruling Junta and was kept under house arrest from July 1989 until November 13, 2010.
During the later part of the time Aung San Suu Kyi was housebound, the world experienced massive political upheavals, including the 2009 Iranian Green Protests and the beginning of the Arab Spring. These changes were not lost on the ruling Junta, which released Aung San Suu Kyi in late 2010, (along with other political prisoners) and relaxed media restrictions. On November 18 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi was asked by the Junta to re-enter politics. Said President Obama “These are the most important steps toward reform in Burma that we’ve seen in years.”
At last, it appears that Aung San Suu Kyi’s nonviolent yin approach to revolution will bear fruit. But I suspect she knew that all along.
Copyright 2011 by Ann Marcaida.
Last image courtesy of Magnum Photos. All others stock images from Google Image.
Corinna Parr, Imagist
This young author’s work is akin to that of the Imagists, a 19th-century group of writers containing many women. Like the Imagist’s work, Corinna’s writing features clear visuals, precise language, and mythological themes.
As her charming essay Memory of Magic reveals, Corinna is a born poet. At the age of five, while playing with other kids in a sprinkler, she saw spontaneous circles of children shift into a variety of geometric shapes. Corinna was carried away by the beauty of the impromptu dance: ”I’ve remembered it, and in remembering have caught glimpses of the pattern of magic elsewhere.”
This childhood experience seems to inform the poetry Corinna writes today. You can see it in her magic-laden prose-poem Maiden Mother Crone in which a daughter of Epona (a horse-goddess) emerges from the earth and has only three days in which to live a full woman’s life. The story’s climax is a three-circled dance ceremony.
What this young poet celebrates most, however, is sex and the complementarity of men and women. She often writes of a frustrated yearning to merge with her lover, to feel and understand his maleness. From Ode to Happy Man:
…Oh, if I could
into myself and
drink the masculinity
of you, become one
with it and
truly know what it is
to be a happy man,
For me, it is only ever
the imperfect joining,
the spill of fluids
and your ragged breath
caught in the cup of my
Corinna walks the fine edge of erotica, writing sensual poems that stop just short of being explicit. But sometimes she delves deeper, exploring the ways in which submission flows naturally from her femininity. Corinna is not afraid to cross lines, and the short story Captivity (written in collaboration with James Ciriaco), set in colonial America, is both terrifyingly violent and psychologically astute. For BDSM fans, this is the most natural, least forced piece of that genre I have read.
Corinna’s muse embraces motherhood as enthusiastically as she embraces sex. The Butterfly Shirt speaks of a three year-old who’s precociously gallant, and Corinna beautifully unveils the tensions between mother and son. The short sentences of this poem hold the reader in a tight mother’s squeeze until gravity takes over at the end:
If you knew,
what you do
to my heart
when you tell
me to wear
the butterfly shirt
because it makes
you would then
why I cry
and hug you
until you complain,
“Mama, put me down!”
Corinna is not shy about pondering her own mortality. In The Universe is Bloodless she expands her poetic reach, reflecting on the fact that it’s not flesh and blood but star-stuff that composes the universe, and this is a form to which our bodies will one day return:
Stroke your arm and think:
The universe is bloodless,
Not I; this body
of flesh, veins, soft pulsing heart,
made to spill, to break;
Life, to the beat of mad drums,
or hands on my skin.
The universe is bloodless;
Not I, this body of flesh.
The narrator draws a sharp contrast between her youthful zeal and the cold indifference of inert matter. Though she makes life seem exceedingly fragile, faith shines through her words. In asserting that she is not her body, Corinna also asserts that some part of her will survive death. Her writing will stand the test of time because Corinna Parr’s passion for life is infectious. As her profile says:
“Breathe, cry out, sing, or don’t write at all.”
Barbary Chaapel Weds Water and Land
Barbary Chaapel excels at capturing sensory impressions and weaving them into universal themes. Her beautiful Quartet of Seasons takes us through a symbolic year of life in her Appalachian home, seamlessly mixing rhythms of nature, people, and ghosts. Here is Spring:
Alive, the mountains,
The rills and runs,
Light spilling over new green.
Look beyond the tulip tree buds:
Wood smoke, elixir
From a chimney in the clearing,
Where every April, my flower bed
Gives up a marble, a shooter -
Imagine marble-clicking sounds -
Lost to the earth by long-ago farm children…
Although she was born in rural West Virginia and grew up in the Great Lakes region, Barbary spent seven years sailing the Caribbean with her husband. This voyage yielded her first two books, The Journey of The Snow Goose (prose)and No Name Harbor (poetry).
In he recent poetry collection Estuary, Barbary contemplates the opposing forces of her life, symbolically joining her earthly roots with her seafaring adventures:
“The estuary inside me, a confluence, words of earth and fire from mountain to sea.”
But Barbary’s work isn’t predictable. She blew me away with her unconventional poem Simulation, in which she once again touches on a journey from water to land.
In it Barbary writes of an abnormal pregnancy (fetus in fetu) in which a smaller, partially-developed fetus grows on a normal one. The larger fetus, soon to give up her watery life for one on land, narrates the poem with loving acceptance of her little stow-away:
We turn in on each other
In those first months of sacred knowing.
I am sweet fruit. She swims naked in
The red-black juice of a pomegranate…
I signal baby kisses
To my little aril other,
Her tiny foot and leg tilt in my round pan
Of a brain. I become the boat,
She, the norish voyageur,
Fetus in fetu.
But I think this is more than a poem about a stowaway, a parasite, or a haunting. This is about the growing realization that one carries something that has been there all along and requires nurturing: a soul. For even the “monster-born” are children of God.
Like Corinna Parr, Barbary Chaapel has written a poem (Maiden, Mother, Crone) about the three stages of a woman’s life. Although Corinna looks at a woman’s life from a broad mythological perspective, Barbary ties her reflections to a specific place and time:
On tiptoe at lamplighted cottage window,
She peers into the corners of her kitchen life
Iron skillet, greenglass juicer, apron strings:
Her life as a woman,
New moon, full moon, nearly dark moon.
Notice how carefully Barbary has placed objects in the kitchen of her life— a skillet (masculine imagery), a juicer for extracting essence, and apron strings for children to cling to. What more could a woman want?
Barbary’s current project is a charming book of poems called A Child’s Calender of Verse. Here’s a sneak preview for you: When the 11th Month Comes:
The fishes sleep
their long winter sleep.
They doze under a skim of November ice.
A slow-motion video swims behind their round
fishy eyes…worms, wriggling provocatively.
Reading the work of these two gifted women makes me wish I were a poet. But not being one seems less important knowing that I have Corinna Parr and Barbary Chaapel to speak for me.
Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida.
All images are stocks from Google Image
In grade school, I fell in love with English Romantic poetry. Who wouldn’t swoon over a phrase like ”willows whiten, aspens quiver, little breezes dusk and shiver”? The gorgeous visual imagery and rhythm of the English Romantics defined my notion of good poetry for years.
A lot has changed since the days of the English Romantics. Modern poetry began as a rebellion against the precise forms and speech of Victorian poetry, much as modern painters rebelled against more traditional forms of painting.
Modern poetry is full of fractured phrases, unconventional words, free verse, and shifting points of view. Rhymes are few. Modern poetry isn’t designed to confuse readers (although it does that uncannily well), but rather to persuade readers to examine their own thoughts and mental constructs as they read a poem.
As a visual analogy, compare the 1888 John Williams Waterhouse painting The Lady of Shalott (top of article) to Picasso’s groundbreaking 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (above).
While Waterhouse’s painting looks fairly natural, Picasso’s painting is anything but natural. You can see the principles of modern art, including modern poetry, at work here. Forms are fractured, point of view is inconsistent, and there’s little structure. Although the Waterhouse painting is easier to look at, it’s the Picasso image that makes you think, because it challenges your ideas about painting.
The same is true of modern poetry. If you can get used to its unpredictable structure and shifting points of view, reading it can be an enlightening experience.
I have no academic background in literature, nor do I write poetry. This makes me uniquely qualified to tell you about my favorite poets. If I can read and appreciate them, so can you!
Susan Budig: Tugging Your Heartstrings
Susan Budig is a wonderfully versatile, mature poet who works in both traditional and modern styles. She writes free verse as well any poet, but she also loves traditional forms and tight rhyme schemes.
Susan’s poetry is unequivocally feminine, speaking clearly and wisely about emotional issues such as love, sensuality, nurturing, and loss. In The Bike Man, Susan transforms mundane bicycle repair into a sly, humorous poem full of sexual innuendo:
“Who knew a man named Wade
would know all about the intricate
details of my derailleur,
by only spinning my two wheels.
Who knew a man named Wade
would fix my purple vélo
with nothing more than
a thin gloss of lubricant
stretched between his two fingers
firmly pressed on my clotted chain,
easing deeply into my bearings
until the kink came out.”
Susan writes frequently about the loss of loved ones. In The Last Fugue, the narrator ponders the death of her sister, while a friend plays the violin. This poem is written in a difficult and intricate form (a “pantoum”), which requires that lines be repeated, but their meanings change within each stanza. Susan makes pantoum-writing seem as natural as breathing.
The tight structure and repetition of this poem gives the rhythmic feel of a violin being bowed. Susan’s visual imagery is full of grief and loss. Jet-streams (contrails) hang in the sky, suspended like the narrator’s heavy heart. Realizing that a part of her died along with her sibling, the narrator wants a two-headed coin buried in her sister’s grave:
“The contrails in the sky
Hang like my heart in stasis
When you say her name, I wonder why
I give you my last quarter with two faces
Hang like my heart in stasis
Until it bursts into a fistful of coins
I give you my last quarter with two faces
Throw it in her grave, I enjoin”
John Kimball II: Urban Alienation
While Susan Budig writes both traditional and modern poetry (see her award-winning modern poem Flying), John Kimball is a modern poet to the core. This young writer’s stark verse depicts human alienation in a technology-filled world that’s devoid of love and divine presence.
Kimball excels at depicting altered mental states. Listen to his dead-on evocation of depression from Deaf Dumb Done (Blessed are the Poor in Spirit):
“I know how to disappear completely
It’s not that hard-
all you have to do is look at the sidewalk
eyes trained down constantly
and it will absorb you
in its muted gray shade.”
Notice that there’s not a single word describing emotion in this excerpt. Instead, Kimball uses a ruthless metaphor to depict his narrator’s depression— the disappearance of color from the world.
Kimball’s protagonist, fearing eye contact with others, seems less than human and about to melt into his monochrome urban surroundings. When I read this poem, my heart sinks along with the narrator’s.
For a self-proclaimed atheist, Kimball talks about religion a lot. He has three poetry sets: The God Series (in which he personifies God and does all but spit in his face); The Beatitudes (based on the Biblical verses), and a new series about Lucifer’s duel with God.
In Kimball’s poem God Sweats, an arrogant, nihilistic God looks down on his human creations, considering whether to let them live. If you read this poem aloud, you’ll feel the driving rhythm characteristic of this poet’s work. (Or check out his creative multimedia presentation of his poem here).
Notice how Kimball forces us to examine our place in the universe by writing from a God’s-eye view:
“if I take away their music
they will lose their will to crawl
I will take way their music
they will spin
they will fall”
But Kimball’s poetry doesn’t always strike a somber note. In Confession, new love makes the narrator acutely aware of life’s sudden moments of grace and illumination in a decaying urban environment:
“But now, every so often there is a moment of clarity
when the sun jumps from the sky and splashes all over the streets
leaving some brilliant stain all over me
and if I stand still enough, long enough, I can almost see
that I’m made from the same fragile mechanical pulse
that makes everything and everyone dance.”
I hope you’ll read more of John Kimball’s and Susan Budig’s work. They are the yang and yin of poets— Kimball with his fierce confrontation of God the Father in all His manifestations, and Budig with her feminine emphasis on nurture and emotion. The work of these two literary artists runs deep.
Susan Budig’s Poetry Blog: http://susanbudigs-poetry.blogspot.com
Photos courtesy of Google Images. Portraits are courtesy of the poets.
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As a child, Azzam Alwash loved to visit Iraq’s Southern Marshes with his father, a hydraulic engineer under Saddam Hussein. This huge, diverse ecosystem, larger than the Florida Everglades, is believed by Biblical and Qu’ran scholars to be the site of The Garden of Eden. Alwash describes the marshes of his childhood as “a peaceful, peaceful place.”
As a young man, Alwash fled Saddam’s regime to study in America. He remained in the U.S. for nearly a quarter century, becoming a hydraulic engineer like his father. He applied for citizenship, married an American and had two daughters.
Although he was away from his native Iraq for almost 25 years, Alwash was haunted by his childhood memories of the marshes. He swore that one day he would show his wife and his daughters the Garden of Eden he had known.
Twenty years ago Iraq’s Southern Marshes were an aquatic wonderland in the middle of a desert. The wetlands extended across the southern end of Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers divide. Mesopotamians settled this area (known as the “fertile crescent”) in the fifth century B.C.E. Their culture went on to invent writing, literature, mathematics, metallurgy, and ceramics.
Wetlands are the most productive ecosystems in the world, and Iraq’s Southern Marshes were no exception. They were formerly home to water snakes, otter, wild boar, hyenas, foxes and lions. They were a spawning ground for many fish species as well as a stopover for millions of migratory birds. They are still home to the threatened Marbled Teal, the endangered Basra Reed-warbler and the Sacred Ibis, commonly depicted in Egyptian art.
The Iraq Marshes are inhabited by the Ma’dan, or Shi’a “Marsh Arabs” who have a unique water- and boat-based culture. It’s no secret that Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Muslim who brutally repressed his fellow Shi’ites. After a 1991 Shi’a uprising Saddam Hussein attempted to destroy the Ma’dan people and their home.
Thousands of Marsh Arabs were murdered, their livestock killed and their homes burned. Pesticides were broadcast to kill wild plants and animals. Canals and dikes were built to rob the marshes of water, and remaining wells were poisoned. By the end the crusade, up to half a million people had been displaced and the Southern Marshes had shrunk to less than 10% of their original size. A place that was once home to abundant wildlife and a unique human culture had been reduced to poisoned salt flats full of land mines.
The destruction of Iraq’s Southern Marshes was not only a cruel ethnic cleansing but also one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters. As is so often the case in war, the million of animals and plants whose lives were lost after the marsh destruction were considered only “collateral damage.”
But Azzam Alwash is a man who doesn’t let politics, religion, geography, or war get in his way. In June 2003, only three months after the American invasion, Alwash flew to Iraq. In the company of bodyguards he visited his beloved marshes. Alwash describes his horror at the condition of the marshland: “I remembered water and green vegetation as far as the eye could see… what I saw was nothing but desert, dust and the ruins of settlements.”
Alwash did see one small glimmer of hope. After the 2003 US invasion, the local Ma’dan had made holes in Saddam’s dikes, and a small amount of water was once again flowing into the marshes. These areas were, against the predictions of ecologists, showing signs of recovery. (Bio-geeks can read the 2005 technical paper here).
Alwash gave up his lucrative engineering practice in California and devoted himself full-time to the restoration of Iraq’s Southern Marshes. He formed a nonprofit foundation, Nature Iraq, the country’s only environmental organization.
Alwash lined up support from the new Iraq government, the United Nations, Turkey, Italy, and U.S. agencies. His hydraulic engineering (which involved creating large openings at strategic areas in the dikes), together with record precipitation, brought about a large-scale restoration of the marshes. Over 50% of the original area was reflooded by 2010, and thousands of Ma’dan returned to their home.
It’s Alwash’s hope that by 2013 the marshes will be sufficiently restored to become an eco-tourism attraction. Unfortunately, his plans depend on securing a large amount of water in a drought-stricken region with an increasing number of upstream dams.
You can watch the stunning 50-minute PBS/Nature documentary on Alwash and his restoration work here. As Alwash says “Some people think we are silly, working on the marshes in the middle of civil insurrection, gangs, kidnapping… but life cannot stop, waiting for the civil war to be finished. There’s work to be done and a new generation to educate.”
Below is a 3-minute excerpt in which Alwash describes his return to the devastated marshes:
I believe that no matter how evil an act, some good will eventually come of it. The restoration of Iraq’s marshes is one of the best things to come out of the second Gulf War.
Azzam Alwash is an extraordinary human being. Rather than becoming involved in the sectarian hostilities in Iraq, Alwash transcends divisions of sect, religion, culture, and geography. He cares for all beings, human and non-human. As he puts it “I… do not practice any form of devotion, save for protecting the creation of God.”
Alwash sacrificed his steady income and secure home and left his family. He lives in daily danger as he oversees the largest ecological restoration in history and attempts to undo some of the mind-boggling damage wrought by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Azzam Alwash embodies my definition of a modern-day saint.
Article Copyright 2011 by Ann Marcaida. Images courtesy of PBS Nature and Nature Iraq.
We at The Surreal Circus are excited by the high quality of the entries to our surreal flash fiction contest. Thank you to all participants!
As one judge said: “I was impressed by the range of the stories, from parodic homage to the old style Surrealist tale to Kafkean parable to … near-future fiction to retelling of creation myth.”
Judging this contest was both a treat and a learning experience. Reading surreal fiction should make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a parallel universe— a bit disoriented, a bit ”out of this world.” And a number of the entries did just that.
After much debate, here are our prizewinners: two wildly creative yet solidly-constructed parallel universes, as well as five runners-up that were strong contenders. We hope you enjoy these stories as much as we did!
Back in 2006 when I first wrote about her work, portrait artist Patrisha McLean was tired of her Flower Girls series, ready to abandon the project for a new one. At the time, I didn’t think her portraits could get any better, and she may have agreed. But she persevered with the series, proving us both wrong.
Instead, McLean explored new territory, and the results are breathtaking. Like the masterful artist she is, McLean has plumbed the depths of the Flower Girls concept, and in doing so explored the deepest parts of our collective psyche.
Hers is a remarkable photographic journey that begins in photo realism (the language of journalism) and ends in Symbolism, the language of dreams. Symbolist painters, such as Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Odilon Redon, and Edvard Munch used mythological and dream imagery. Often, like McLean, they created a timeless atmosphere of utter stillness and silence.
Though she began her career as a journalist, McLean’s editorial photography revolves around The Maiden’s Voyage, the mythical coming-of-age of young women. McLean’s portraits ask “Will the Flower Girl survive her passage to adulthood, with its impending ‘de-flowering?’” Parents have worried about this since the dawn of mankind, so The Maiden’s Voyage is a common story.
McLean’s 2008 portrait Lydia with Antique Mirror (above) sums up The Maiden’s Voyage (or perhaps The Heroine’s Journey) in one lovely stroke. Lydia explores an unknown forest, surrounded by vegetation that seems about to consume her. But unlike Clara with Rhododendrons (2006), Lydia doesn’t look to the viewer for help. Reaching the center of the forest, Lydia has stumbled upon herself. She’s traversed her own labyrinth, a one-way path to the center of her psyche.
In historical myths, a maiden was often seduced by a god in disguise (i.e. Leda and the Swan) at her coming-of-age. In modern versions, the seduction is watered-down, and the maiden simply loses consciousness at her transition, as in Sleeping Beauty or The Wizard of Oz. The growing importance of the unconscious dream-state in McLean’s work becomes clear when it’s viewed in serial fashion:
Above (Nora with Old Roses, 2006), an alert young girl is compared to roses. The message is simple. Nora is a rose. This is realism.
In Riley With Old Roses, Dreaming (2006), McLean tentatively approaches Symbolism. She depicts Riley’s dream, but we
aren’t in the dream. We must guess at the dream’s contents, represented by the multi-toned roses swirling around Riley’s head.
In Becca with Summer Flowers (2008), McLean has taken the plunge. She’s immersed in her subject’s dream, and so are we. Becca has taken control, raising her arms and summoning flying flowers to do her bidding, as one might summon the elements. This is Symbolism. McLean’s portrait seems to take place in aboriginal dream time, an atmosphere of timelessness, utter stillness and silence.
Although McLean’s work retains elements of her photo-journalism (who’d expect the gaunt Flower Girl above, with her world-weary stare and her choker of roses?), she now works largely in the realm of the Symbolic.
Never shy about exploring the dark side, McLean has created a stunning dualistic illustration of the Sleeping Beauty myth. A daytime Sleeping Beauty is paired with her haunting doppelganger, a vampirish nocturnal beauty. Together, these portraits make me wonder whether Sleeping Beauty will survive her journey to adulthood, awakening in the light as a woman. Or will she remain as adults would have her, forever a little girl, in stasis and in the dark?
McLean’s most surprising new portrait may be Harper with Old Roses (2008). There’s something unexpected in this image. With her sensuous face, claw-like nails, and explosion of roses, this is a rapturous Flower Girl who’s come of age, innocent no longer.
I think Eliza with Peonies and Pearls best sums up McLean’s new work. The Flower Girls are at the end of their dangerous journey, no longer lost in a forbidding forest. Some look directly and knowingly at the viewer.
While the leash of the world still tugs at them (every girl wears a choker or necklace) the young women are now masters of their universe. Individuation is complete. The Flower Girls have found themselves, become whole, and blossomed.
Patrisha McLean’s daughter entered college in 2008, and I think her maternal relief, as well as her pride in a job well done, are evident in the Flower Girls series. There’s a touch of Botticelli’s Venus in the latest Flower Girl images, a sense of joy in presenting the world with a lovely, newly-formed young woman. By chronicling The Maiden’s Voyage as her daughter grew, McLean has given voice to parents everywhere.
All photographs copyright 2011 by Patrisha McLean, reproduced with her permission. Image resolution has been lowered for online publication. To contact McLean or see more of her work, click here: PatrishaMcLean.com
Article copyright 2011 by Ann Marcaida.
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This is a story about suicide, but it’s not a sad story. It’s the tale of how a remarkable woman named Annie Chase, diagnosed with a terminal illness, determined to live her final days in mindfulness and die a considerate death, both for herself and those around her. Says Jerry Dincin:
“Though Annie was an atheist, her finding a positive beauty in the preparation for her death and genuine peace as she neared the end provides meaning and hope for all of us, believers and non-believers alike.”
Annie Chase died by her own hand on March 8, 2010, no doubt one of the happiest and sanest people to commit suicide. Biographical details about her are scarce, as The Final Exit Network and other organizations have endeavored to protect the privacy of her family.
We do know that in 2006, when she was probably in her early 60s, Annie began experiencing odd and alarming neurological symptoms— debilitating fatigue, joint pain, multiple tumors and loss of vision. She was diagnosed with Wegener’s Granulomatosis, a terminal disease similar to lupus. She researched her condition and did her best to manage it through medical treatment and lifestyle changes, but to little effect.
Realizing that she had only a few years left to live, and having been traumatized by watching a close friend die slowly and painfully of cancer, Annie decided that her death would be different. Annie wanted a painless ending at a time of her choosing that also minimized the suffering of those around her.
FACING THE WALL, MOSTLY ALONE
Our society enforces a ban on talking about suicide, and Annie found great difficulty in discussing plans for her own ending.
“I encountered that profound loneliness surrounding the act of dying… Even most nonreligious people had trouble talking about the topic… I ended up, ironically, feeling that I needed to comfort them, that I had made them sad and ruined their day.”
Annie faced several obstacles in discussing her decision to end her life:
1. A belief, even among non-religious people, that her death should be left in the hands of fate or some “greater power.”
2. A knowledge that she must “err on the side of too soon.” Because physician-assisted suicide was illegal in her state, Annie had to end her life while she was still physically capable of doing it without help. If she were in Oregon, she said “My timing would have been different.”
3. A common belief in the redemptive value of suffering and a conviction that one must suffer in order to “earn” the right to die.
With the help of Final Exit, Annie made her last arrangements. She spent time with her son and grandson to be sure they understood her decision. Interestingly, her 13-year old grandson, with his beginner’s mind, accepted her impending suicide more readily than her son (an atheist), especially when Annie explained that she had no desire to suffer the way their sick cat had. “Well, good, Grandma!” was his reply upon hearing the news.
Upon her death, all that would be needed were two phone calls— one to the cremation society to pick up her body, the other to Goodwill to pick up her remaining personal possessions
Shortly after her diagnosis Annie realized that she was unable to
manage upkeep of her house. As she prepared to sell her home, she took great pleasure in donating her unused possessions to places where they would be used and appreciated— a school, a senior center, and a youth recreation center.
She was heartsick at the thought of giving up her garden, but was comforted by the happiness on the faces of friends and neighbors to whom she donated her gardening tools. Her final donation was her beloved harpsichord, which she was no longer able to play due to vision loss. She gave it to a local university so they no longer had to borrow one for their concerts.
Annie then moved into a small apartment with woods nearby and hummingbirds outside.
I’ve told you the first half of her story, but I’ll let Annie tell you the rest in her own words. The italicized quotes that follow are excerpts from Annie Chase’s memoir My Purpose-Driven Death. You can read a condensed version here (the full version is not yet published).
I only hope my own death will be as peaceful and well-planned as Annie Chase’s.
The Joy of Donation
My property and investments turned magically into a clump of cash so I could quantify and calculate how much I needed to live on [for my remaining time]. Wow! I was rich!
However, I didn’t have enough to manage a debilitating illness, nor to hire a personal attendant and a driving service when I went blind. What I had enough for were projects that would help people I cared about and wanted to support… Young people need our resources.
People have said it’s immoral to discuss the financial costs of health care, but I disagree. Pouring money into the black hole of my decline seemed like a poor use of resources. I knew too many people who needed it for living for me to spend it on dying.
Besides, helping others turned out to be a hoot! What freedom! To be able to say to a friend, “Hey, I noticed your car has bald tires. I hate to see the risk you’re taking and the risk you’re putting other people in. Let’s get you some tires!
The Last Trip Around the Sun
Each step I took to simplify and unburden myself of possessions and responsibilities brought me a little closer to that place where I would come down, very peacefully, to nothing. My declining eyesight would be the ultimate clue for my timing. So in May of 2009, when I was clearly losing my sight, I decided it was time to give myself a last trip-around-the-sun ticket.
I went to concerts and plays and dance performances and Cirque du Soleil and wonderful restaurants. Of course I needed companions for those events, so I took friends to see things and have experiences they also wouldn’t normally have had access to. Playing fairy godmother turned out to be delightful for me.
I noticed all the seasonal joys I was experiencing for the last time: the last time I would ride one of the best roller coasters at Valley Fair. The last time I would see the fall leaves change color. The last time I would eat a Colorado peach. It was a wonderful time of becoming very mindful, of living extremely in the moment.
Atheists Have Their Mystical Side, Too
I felt a connection with everything that had ever lived on Earth. Birth and death were the things I shared with every being that had ever come into existence, flourished, decayed, and had gone out of existence in that magical interchange of our energies, of things coming alive and going quiet again. What a thrill to know that I was sharing a deep, transcendent, timeless experience with every plant or creature that had ever known life!
I saved the roller coaster for last. The biggest thrill! Its wheels in front are just about to go over the ominous little bump at the very top of the hill. As it starts its downward plunge and gathers speed, I will surrender to it, to the free fall.
At the end of that fall will be-nothing. Nothing. David Byrne’s song about heaven says, “Heaven is a place where nothing happens.” I’m not scared. I know that nothing really is not something.
Love to you all,
After her sight failed, Annie recorded two 25 minute videos in which she discusses her philosophy and her preparations for death. I highly recommend these videos, especially the second one. Annie Chase’s joy and peace in the face of death is astonishing. (Part 1 here, Part 2 here. These files will download to your computer.).
*The Final Exit network is a group of mostly-elderly volunteers who distribute information about peaceful and painless suicide methods in the face of incurable illness. You can find out more about them here.
Note: This is a segment of my Living Saints and Bodhisattvas series, first published on Gather.com. You can find links to the other segments here.
Copyright 2011 by Ann Marcaida. Stock images from Google Image.
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