Entries in Deep Thoughts (45)

Friday
Feb232007

All we are saying...


When I was sixteen, I spent my spare time either looking for the least traditional prom dress possible or trying to prove how smart/cool I was by reading a lot of Hermann Hesse and Ayn Rand. Most teenagers I have known have been similarly preoccupied, differing only in their definition of 'cool' and the group of peers they are trying to impress.

Imagine my delight and wonder yesterday to find a sixteen-year-old not caught up in the trivialities of appearance and acceptance. Ava Lowery is a homeschooled girl from Alabama who spends her spare time working on her informative and heartbreaking blog, www.peacetakescourage.com. There are many anti-war web logs featuring news stories the networks are tired of covering and astute commentary thereon. Mother Jones's website, for example, this month features "Iraq 101," an excellent Cliff's Notes-style article on the particulars of the War in Iraq--highly recommended.
But what sets Ava apart (other than her age) are her homemade videos, featuring tragic photos she has pulled together from all over the web and assembled in professional and affecting fashion. Only 30 seconds of one of her more famous animations, WWJD, was enough to reduce me to a puddle of despair. But I find I don't want to sit and wring my hands any longer. I want to DO something.
Ava Lowery's pieces are not for the faint of heart or for young eyes, in my opinion. But the rest of us would do well to watch a few, then look into our hearts, get together and talk, and discover what we can do to Stop. The. Insanity.

Thursday
Feb082007

Variation and Interpretation


Last Friday night I was driving home from Book Group. It was late and it had been snowing for several hours. I love being alone in a black night with snow; it always reminds me of one of my favorite paragraphs in the world, the last sentences of James Joyce’s The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Karen, Melissa, and I had carpooled to Book Group over at Camilla's house in Golden’s Bridge, chatting the entire time. On the way home, after I dropped off my two friends, I turned on the radio. I had for company someone playing the piano. I half-recognized the piece, but there was something so different about what I was hearing that I didn’t make the connection for a minute or two. Then it hit me with a flash: it was Bach’s Goldberg Variations. And played on the piano, not the harpsichord—but it didn’t sound like Glenn Gould.

I find it particularly appropriate to listen to this piece of music when the rest of the world is asleep. Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations for a Count who struggled with insomnia; the Count had asked Bach to write some clavier exercises to be played in the middle of the night, something to soothe and cheer him through long, sleepless hours. The Variations are named after the Count’s talented young harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg; I imagine the poor young man being roused from slumber on any given night to play for his patron, because the Count apparently never tired of hearing them.

The Variations were published in Bach’s lifetime, but for many years afterward were regarded as dry, rather difficult pieces to be played on the harpsichord. In the middle of the 20th century, however, a brilliant young pianist changed popular opinion of Bach’s piece forever.

I know Gould’s landmark 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations as well as I know any piece of music. I’ve listened to it hundreds, maybe thousands of times. It has been a great friend to me, as the Variations were for the Count who commissioned them. But what I was hearing Friday night was so alien: haunting, personal, almost painful in its execution, where the version I know—lively, technically flawless—evokes a detached, peaceful mood.

Puzzled, I drove on and thought about our meeting earlier. We had had a intelligent and compassionate dicussion of a modern classic: Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. Its main character, Susan Burling Ward, has chronic myopia when it comes to the life she has chosen; throughout her life, she compares her situation unfavorably to that of her best friend, Augusta. She doesn’t realize that she has within her grasp all the ingredients for a wonderful existence. Her interpretation of herself, the reader easily sees, is faulty. She has, in fact, married the better man; her life of ‘exile,’ as she terms it, has defined and refined her work as an artist, not limited it.

One woman in our group raised a question: How do you know when to be content? In other words, when you are in the middle of living one of life’s countless challenges, how do you stop looking over the fence at seemingly greener grass? It’s a good question, and an old one, one that has given philosophers pause for centuries. After a lot of thought on the topic myself, I think the secret lies in our interpretation of what we’ve been given.

Happiness is a choice; for some it’s a harder choice than for others, but it is there all the same. One need look no further than Victor Frankl for proof of this truth. I myself have been given all the components for a perfect life: good health, every temporal comfort, lovely friends and children, meaningful work, and a dear man who loves me.

But if I’m not careful, I can take the route Stegner’s heroine takes. I can focus exclusively on what I see as being wrong: my weight; brain chemistry that defaults to a baseline level of melancholia; the current state of our yard; the child who is misbehaving on any given day: the list could go on for quite a while, if I let it. But that interpretation of my life is a sure path to misery; I believe this is one of the points Stegner is making in his beautiful book.

Once home, I sat in my dark car in the driveway for few minutes so that I could discover the identity of my mystery musician. At the stroke of midnight, after the last few notes of the Aria died away, Bill McGlaughlin came on the air and informed me that it was, indeed, Glenn Gould playing the Variations—but that this was a performance recorded shortly before Gould’s death in 1982.

This was the same music played by the same artist I thought I knew so well. But the interpretation was so different that it changed the piece completely. Older, wiser, at the end of his life, Gould let his life inform his art and transform it; he put himself wholly into his work, and both were changed thereby.


Stop looking over the fence and start doing all you can to green up what you’ve got. Take plenty of time to rejoice in its verdure, and take plenty of time pay respects to the Source of all that is good and green. It is simpler to write than it is to live, but the secret to happiness is in the interpretation.

Wednesday
Feb072007

Let Us Eat Cake



Once in a great while, I laze about in bed on Saturday morning, only getting up when other people in the house start moaning about impending starvation. Last week I got up to discover that there really wasn't anything in the house ready-made to eat. To forestall any fainting spells on the part of my housemates, I sent Patrick to the store for some Entenmann's donuts. These were wolfed down in a heartbeat once they arrived home.
Next morning on the way to church, Christian confessed to wanting more of the donuts. I answered that we could make some homemade donuts in the afternoon; he replied that his craving was specific to the Entenmann's. I reminded him what happened when Edmund ate the White Witch's Turkish Delight, and quoted C.S. Lewis from memory: "Nothing spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food.”
Anyone who knows me knows that I am not anti-sugar. I do believe, though, that homemade treats trump store-bought (i.e., 'bad magic') most days of the week for several reasons. First, they taste better to all but the most process-jaded palates. James asked me the other day why his friends at school like the cafeteria food and he doesn't. I told him it was probably because they didn't get to eat really good food very often. Poor things.
Second, my Puritan roots influence me to believe that we value more highly what we work to create. My children do stop to savor the food I make, probably because they witnessed (and helped) my labors.
Of course, they balk at some things they are served. Hope has taken a dislike to corn off the cob. James can't abide fried eggs. Tess only eats beets because they make the soup a pretty pink color (and because she's not allowed to leave the table until they are gone). With this many people in our household, at least one person per day is eating something that is not his or her favorite. But not eating it simply is not an option.
Third, I subscribe to the Eastern philosophy eloquently articulated by the Maha Chohan:
"If a woman could see the sparks of light going forth from her fingertips when she is cooking and the substance of light that goes into the food she handles, she would be amazed to see how much of herself she charges into the meals she prepares for her family and friends."
Food is more than macro- and micro-nutrients, more than sustenance. It is frequently a catalyst for bonding; a part of sacred ritual; a celebration of life.
Speaking of celebrations, and good magic food--a friend at church is getting married this Saturday. Her mother, who was going to make the cake, has unfortunately gotten sick, so I was asked to step in. I'm so excited! I haven't made a wedding cake since Roselyn's wedding in Manhattan almost ten years ago (photo above).
For cakes, nothing beats The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. I've been using it for years with never-fail, mouthwatering results. I'll be making her three-tier Chocolate Butter Cake (this is the recipe I use for my Chocolate Lace Cake) and using her White Chocolate Mousseline Buttercream for the frosting. For the filling, I'll use the Magnolia Bakery's Caramel Coconut Pecan recipe. Linda wants just the minimum of piping on the cake, since her sister will be decorating it with flowers.
I was so glad to look at my calendar and see that I had nothing scheduled for Friday; the cake will take up the bulk of the day, and I will be able to proceed at a leisurely pace, unhurried by the stress of any other events. A wedding cake is and should be a labor of love, and I intend to enjoy every minute of it.

Monday
Jan012007

The valiant man and free


I love the peculiar mix of melancholy and hope that is Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "Ring Out, Wild Bells." That's exactly how I feel standing on the cusp of the new year. New Year's Resolutions have become a painful irony in today's society; nonetheless, I continue to make them. And not just at the beginning of January--I tend to make them at the end of August as well as I contemplate the start of another school term.
Self-sabotage comes when we don't make our goals simple and reachable; more comes when we lose the vision of why we made them in the first place. I'm taking my cue from Tennyson this year. A little more kindness, a little less greed. Less feeling sorry for myself; more trying to help others. We can all do that, right?

Wednesday
Sep062006

Creating and Consuming: Finding the Balance

If you look up ‘consume’ in the dictionary, you’ll find that most of its definitions are negative ones—besides ‘to eat or ingest’ there is ‘to waste or squander; to absorb or engross; to ravage or totally destroy.’ (The American Heritage Dictionary, third edition) However, we are named ‘consumers’ by the media so often these days that the word no longer holds a negative connotation for us. I find this desensitization to be a dangerous one, because I believe our society has led itself into an unhealthy imbalance as it has increasingly focused on the act of consuming. We are here on the earth to begin to learn how to become creators, not consumers. The survival instinct of consuming requires no further honing or development on our part. Yet we seem to spend more time consuming or finding ways to be able to consume more. It is vital to our mental, emotional, spiritual—and perhaps economic—health that we find a way to balance the act of consuming with the act of creating in our daily lives.
Almost any type of work, from gardening to lawyering, can be a creative activity if we choose to make it so. When we clean the house, we create order. When we read a book, we recreate for ourselves the world the author has already created. When we exercise, we create new muscles and blood vessels. When we take care of children or parents or neighbors, we create bonds of love. For me, creativity is part of the process of living a rich life.
Hugh Nibley wrote, “Who then is to judge what is good, true, and beautiful? You are. Plato says it is...by anamnesis, the act of recalling what we have seen somewhere before...We recognize what is lovely because we have seen it somewhere else, and as we walk through the world, we are constantly on the watch for it with a kind of nostalgia, so that when we see an object or a person that pleases us, it is like recognizing an old friend; it hits us in the solar plexus, and we need no measuring or lecturing to tell us that it is indeed quite perfect. It is something we have long been looking for, something we have seen in another world, a memory of how things should be." (Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion)
Mark Helprin wrote, “One lives for a very short time, and life is incomparably precious. To live has much less to do with the senses or with ambition than with the asking of questions that never have been surely answered. To ask and then to answer these questions as far as one can, one needs above all a priceless and taxing involvement with truth and beauty. These are uncommonly plentiful in music and painting, in nature itself, in the sciences, in history, and in one's life as it unfolds—if one labors and dares to see them.” (Mark Helprin, “The Canon Under Siege”)
Our minds are like muscles, which atrophy and become flabby if not used. Exercise will have holistic benefits, which will flow to other areas of our lives. As we begin to flex our creativity, we will find ourselves more able to deal with challenges which confront us, more adept at critical thinking and problem solving; better equipped to make informed decisions; increasingly able to form our own opinions; more disciplined. We will spend less of our time in idle consumption.

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