Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fáilte go dtí Jerry + Larry

Nach beag tri seachtaine ó shin, chuir mé iontas sa bhaile. D'imithe mé ar shiúil le haghaidh ar maidin. Nuair a d'fhill mé, chónaic mé dha piscín thuas staighre.

Mar sin, thuig mé go raibh an beirt nua. Bhí siad dubh agus ban chomh Gary, Mary, agus Malcolm. Ach, bhí níos lú Jerry agus Larry, seacht seachtaine d'aois sin.

Ó shin, bím leo oiread agus is féidir sa bhaile. Is maith liom ag breathnú orthu imirt. Ar ndóigh, is brea leo a codhladh go leor, ar cheile, ar an leaba.

Shíl mé go mbeadh is maith leis ár madra Opie iad. Tá sí ag fás go mall leis seo. Measaim go raibh sí codlaíonn leo ar feadh an h-óiche, fós.

Is cuimhne linn amannaí alannaí leis Gary, Mary agus Malcolm. Anois, tá Jerry agus Larry anseo. Taithneamh a bhaint as a n-chuideachta.

Welcome to Jerry + Larry.

Almost three weeks ago, I found a surprise at home. I had left for the morning. When I returned, I saw two kittens upstairs.

Therefore, I realized that they were a new pair. They were black and white like Gary, Mary, and Malcolm. But, Jerry and Larry were far smaller, seven weeks old then.

Since then, I have been with them as often as possible at home. I like watching them play. Of course, they love to sleep a lot, together, on the bed.

I think that our dog Opie may like them. She is growing slowly at this. I reckon that she is sleeping with them during the night, too.

We remember lovely times with Gary, Mary, and Malcolm. Now, we have Jerry and Larry here. We enjoy their company.

Monday, December 28, 2015

End-2015 Thoughts

Rectangle Magnet

I gather here five snippets from the past few days. They sum up, somehow, this past year's drama and calm. A year of wonder, seeing Mount Rushmore again, seeing Ireland in places I'd never been there as well as ones I returned to visiting friends. One too that took me to Italy, at last, with delight. After a year that found me frenetically working online and onsite, divided between two centers and lots of traffic. Inner challenges as I tried to balance a growing despair in the world's direction and my own need to "chase after what others think of me" as I was counseled. A year that found me facing my idealism about the slim hope of overcoming the doom that appears to loom larger over our planet. Even a left-libertarian, as I found I am best aligned, resents much of the passive-aggressive cant of the left. I witness the smugness of those who turn inward away from injustice, and the annoyance of those in the media who manipulate it to proclaim themselves endless victims of the slightest slight. Part of me has faith in my fellow men and women. Part of me wants to flee the city for a hermitage.

Donald Miller of USC notes: “Fundamentally, the old Christian cosmology – God sending a son to redeem the world; a God who is all-powerful and yet seemingly impotent in the face of mass violence – simply doesn’t work for many educated young adults. The idea of being ‘spiritual but not religious” oversimplifies people’s understanding of spirituality, but it also signals the possibility that the human spirit quests for something deeper than a latest technological gadget.” 
In 1920, Alexander Berkman reflects on his visit to Lenin in The Bolshevik Myth. "What is a fanatic but a man whose faith is impregnable to doubt? It is the faith that moves mountains, the faith that accomplishes. Revolutions are not made by Hamlets. The traditional 'great' man, the 'big personality' of current conception, may give to the world new thoughts, noble vision, inspiration. But the man that 'sees every side' cannot lead, cannot control. He is too conscious of the fallibility of all theories, even of thought itself, to be a fighter in any cause.
Lenin is a fighter --- revolutionary leaders must be such. In this sense Lenin is great --- in his oneness with himself, in his single-mindedness; in his psychic positiveness that is as self-sacrificial as it is ruthless to others, in the full assurance that only his plan can save mankind."
Pankaj Mishra interviews the Dalai Lama. "The 'world picture,' as he saw it, was bleak. People all over the world were killing in the name of their religions. Even Buddhists in Burma were tormenting Rohingya Muslims. This was why he had turned away from organized religion, engaged with quantum physics and started to emphasize the secular values of compassion. It was no longer feasible, he said, to construct an ethical existence on the basis of traditional religion in multicultural societies."

Then "he added that all religious institutions, including the Dalai Lama, developed in feudal circumstances. Corrupted by hierarchical systems, they began to discriminate between men and women; they came to be compromised by such cultural spinoffs as Sharia law and the caste system. But, he said, ‘time change; they have to change. Therefore, Dalai Lama institution, I proudly, voluntarily, ended.'’’ 
Emma Goldman compares Marriage and Love: "Free love? As if love is anything but free! Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love. Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love. High on a throne, with all the splendor and pomp his gold can command, man is yet poor and desolate, if love passes him by. And if it stays, the poorest hovel is radiant with warmth, with life and color. Thus love has the magic power to make of a beggar a king. Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely. All the laws on the statutes, all the courts in the universe, cannot tear it from the soil, once love has taken root.”

John O'Donohue remarks in Eternal Echoes: "As we journey onwards in life, more and more spaces within us fill with absence. We begin to have more and more friends among the dead. Every person suffers the absence of their past. It is utterly astonishing how the force and fiber of each day unravel into the vacant air of yesterday. You look behind you and you see nothing of your days here. Our vanished days increase our experience of absence. Yet our past does not deconstruct as if it never was. Memory is the place where our vanished days secretly gather. Memory rescues experience from total disappearance. The kingdom of memory is full of the ruins of presence. It is astonishing how faithful experience actually is; how it never vanishes completely. Experience leaves deep traces in us. It is surprising that years after something has happened to you the needle of thought can hit some groove in the mind and the music of a long vanished event can rise in your soul as fresh and vital as the evening it happened." [Morrigan (c) 2005 by Emily Carding-Allen; Celtic goddess of the phantom and or the great, ruling over and with battle, strife, sovereignty.]

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Molly Crabapple's "Drawing Blood": Book Review

Over a year ago, Vanity Fair published a report from the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. Its Syrian correspondent, for fear of his life, remained anonymous. He sent photos of his city via cellphone. From these, the New York City native who goes by Molly Crabapple sketched intricate drawings, in her typical style of gracefully delineated shapes and wavering people. Out of digital images, Crabapple evoked illustrations hearkening back to a Victorian era when artists filled the news with detailed, lively depictions. Yet, Crabapple also infuses her increasingly activist art with innovation.

In Drawing Blood, she narrates, in "sentences at taut as garrotes," her first three decades. For an artist not yet thirty, a memoir may appear precocious. However, she infuses much of her coming-of-age story with fresh insights into the century, so far, from the perspective of a scrappy woman who confronts disorienting scenarios with mixed detachment and sensitivity. "It's a strange blend of disassociation, to stare into another's eyes only to make those eyes into shapes on paper." From an early age, she sketched to escape and to enlighten herself. Born to a Puerto Rican Marxist professor and a Jewish illustrator for children's books and products, she inherited her father's combativeness and her mother's talent. The child of their early divorce, Crabapple found solace in a few friends.

Of one, a Russian immigrant teenager, she recalls their brief bond. "We clung to each other, as bookish young people often do, while waiting out the years until our real life could begin." Schooled more by her self-taught reading in anarchism and the fin-de-siècle and her listening to Kurt Cobain, punk, and Trent Reznor, she soon fled abroad. She followed the route of many bohemian wanderers.

At the end of another century, she faced many restless travelers like herself, seeking meaning in a globalizing realm. In Marrakesh, "the henna looked like Cheetos dust on white girls, but on brown ones it resembled rose petals." Her own appearance, in what she defines as a tiny figure resembling Wednesday Addams, attracted men. Fending them off on the road drove her inward, to examine her fluid sexual and cultural identities. Restive with art school, she sought to make her craft matter.

Post-9/11, she got caught up in anti-war protests. "A painting didn't have to hang in a gallery, dead as a pinned butterfly. It could exist in spaces where people cared, as a mural, a stage set, a protest placard." This sparked her transformation into a noted chronicler of first the visual and later the verbal impacts of our unjust world. She disciplined herself to render these scenes by a crow's quill pen, flicking it "till the ink sped like motion and blood." Drawing Blood features her work, women as coiffured as those at the court of Versailles, wide eyes half-moons, or as louche men slouched slyly.

Tired of conventional training, she drops out of art school. She enters the sex-worker industry, as a artist's model and a burlesque performer. She endeavors, as her stint with Suicide Girls goads her, "to burn off her childhood," although that dubious enterprise "dispensed pallets of ego-crack. We were Pavlov's bitches." Molly Crabapple adopts her persona. With it, she pursues Internet promotion and procures a precarious living as a minor celebrity in the NYC demi-monde. Her lover, Fred, supports her. She indulges in freedom to roam among the company of many other women, as varied partners.

All the same, the middle section of her saga sags slightly. Her fame exudes a telling tinge of disappointment. Her loft and income are not enough. After the 2008 crash, the commissions she craves fade. She contemplates the fate of those like herself who cheered the excess on in Manhattan: "we sparklers illuminating the face of the destroyer." Chastened but not cured, she keeps feeding that beast, as her profits rebound and her reputation becomes internationally coveted. Witnessing London's anti-austerity activists at the end of 2010, she finally vows to pivot away from her status.

Therefore, "instead of taking refuge in a curlicued past," she puts her rococo pen to use. Frustrated by "painting pigs in Nero's nightclub," Crabapple leaves her insular, smug denizens in clubland behind. The radical upheaval of what she enters as the Occupy Movement intrigues her, but typically, she resists easy enchantment. Her characteristic caution, honed during her travels alone in far places, keeps her grounded. She watches how for some, a night in jail or spent in Zuccotti Park leads to book deals. Having scored her own soon after, she resolves that she will listen to those who truly suffer.

At Guantanamo Bay, she undergoes a revelation as she records the fate of a prisoner. She alternates her creation of nine immense canvases satirizing or commemorating the battle over Capital, Shell Game, with reporting for Vice, The Paris Review, and The Guardian. She squirms over her come-hither portrayal in a New York Times profile, and she cross-examines her own complicity in how she markets herself, determined to survive on her own terms in a cruel, competitive art world.

I found the earlier and later chapters of her account the most rewarding. A comfortable career tames her too much. When Molly Crabapple stares down danger and corruption, whether left to her own savvy in a remote setting, or today as she investigates the long reach of terror and greed, she succeeds best. As she sums up, she is driven "to do violence to her own clichés." She learns "to find joy where once I could only see ash." Drawing Blood illuminates the flames and the fire which warms her now.
(Amazon US 12-1-5 and PopMatters 12-18-15)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Michael Mott's "The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton": Book Review

After a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani, I wanted to find out more about where Merton had spent half of his life, and how the famous depiction of his first half, in 1948's The Seven Storey Mountain, differed from or confirmed what Michael Mott learned in his diligent research for this 1984 biography. Mott's documentation makes this the authorized biography, for he had access to primary sources and archives which previous scholars and biographers did not, and as he had the cooperation of the Order to enhance the interviews and correspondence he incorporates into a comprehensive representation. Luckily for all involved, this is no hagiography. It fairly analyzes what Merton wrote and what we know, apart his many writings in print or not, as judged in the context of his friends and his lifetime.

Highlights for me began with Mott's eloquent parallel of Merton's troubled year at Caius College, Cambridge, reading Dante with Professor [Edward] Bullough. But Mott does not give the professor's first name, presumably relying only on Merton's unpublished notes, and such small details, despite the meticulous attention the author devotes to his subject, sometimes disappoint slightly. For instance, while this is meant as a biography rather than a critical work, one finds many of the three-dozen-plus titles and countless essays or reviews Merton published in his lifetime mentioned as if in passing. A few gain from Mott's insightful excerpts or summaries, but more context on the rest of them, even if minor by comparison, would have enhanced the value of this book. Admittedly it's already long, but it's not dull or rambling. Snippets on Buddhism, for instance, late in the narrative could have also benefited from elaboration, as Mott compresses complex and disparate intellectual and spiritual contexts which Merton expanded. The shift of Merton towards the East is not an easy one to reduce to a few pages. The focus on main events is understandable, but again, the endnotes could have extended discussion.

He was full of contradictions. Gregarious, he chose a cloister. Restless, he wanted to be a hermit. Affable, he withdrew from a wide circle of friends. Proud, he resented his monastic discipline. Mott handles the tensions calmly, illustrating how Merton's early infatuation with his Trappist community gave way, as he matured, to conflicts with his fellow monks. However, when by the mid-1960s his dream of a hermitage on the property came true, Merton kept appealing for chances to travel, and opportunities to chat with visitors. He swung back and forth, longing for solitude but wandering back to the world, with dangerous results as have been revealed concerning his affair with a student nurse in Louisville when he was around fifty years old. I kept noting how Merton, vowed to poverty, somehow accumulated his beloved LPs by Dylan and Joan Baez and Mozart, so many books he needed a big set of shelves, and beer and brandy (the latter might have been sneaked in by visitors).

Certainly, he felt after a quarter-century of service as novice master, and as a productive if sometimes too prolific author, he generated attention and income indirectly or directly (how did royalties work out? Another area I puzzled over, as I figured the Order garnered the sales but somehow Merton had money to spend inside and outside the monastery during his later years at least there as a hermit...). So, he figured he had earned his keep. But I understood how his fellow monks may have rankled at his barbed wit and quick tongue, and also how Merton tried to make right some of the wrongs he inflicted on his confreres and his friends, given the pressures of living so long in such close quarters.

Mott delves into such difficulties well. "It was a voice breaking the silence to praise silence." (251) As acclaim for Merton made him a celebrity after his autobiography appeared, he sought the attention but also retreated from it, if it was not from those closest to him, perhaps. Some of the liveliest passages here are about the monastic hubbub that ensued when unwanted callers tried to crash in, or apply as postulants, drawn by Merton's fame. For a while, the abbey had to house monks under a circus tent, so great were the numbers. But that passed, and Vatican II itself, with the renewal Merton helped progress, led to the diminution of much that made religious life in the Cistercians so austere.

Social changes drew Merton into the conversation in the rest of the world beyond the walls, as the late-1950s agitation filtered into his reading and correspondence. Marco Pallis and Merton wondered in letters if the atrocities attributed to WWI sparked WWII propaganda, and Mott shows how Merton evolved from a Cold War proponent to a more balanced observer and challenger to capitalist cant. Opposing the Vietnam War, in 1965 he wrote "The Answer of Minerva." If the question is "Why must this pointless war go on?", then the goddess' response is: "You must fight on, for if now you make peace with the enemy, you will offend the dead." (qtd. 416) A perennial, if unfortunate, exchange. 

The reforms that changed Catholicism, I always figured, would have been supported without delay by Merton. But Mott shows more ambiguity in Merton as the 1960s revealed immaturity among clergy freed from restraint, and as a rush to improve liturgy and architecture and ritual threw out some of what made the Church so cherished by many. A letter in 1968 finds him at odds with both extremes. "Paralyzing incomprehension--what does one do when he realizes he is part of an organization whose members systematically try to 'make a fool of God'? I suppose I begin by recognizing that I have done it as much as the best of them." A characteristic note, for Merton in his private journals strives to meet the nuanced note, less combative or preening than some of his public proclamations betrayed.

He took a long time to get over the priggish or self-righteous attitude. After all, he was an intellectual probably more than the playboy his youthful memoir made him out (despite censorship from within or outside himself) to be. He talked his way around and in the monastery, where a promise of stability and discretion overruled his natural ebullience, if not his concomitant despair and self-loathing, the balance between good conduct and righteous morality never lasted long. He lived in tumultuous times, and he continued in one of those years, 1968: "But then a 'God is dead' Church is no better, or are the 'God is dead' Christians are an improvement over the others. Just the same established flippancy and triviality. And even more successful." He ends with "They make a good living out of God's death." (527)  A fitting sample of Merton's ability to turn a phrase, to cut through pretense. 

I liked the hints of how Merton related to his friend, the artist Victor Hammer (whose drawing of Merton graces the back of the dust jacket) as an "unbelieving believer." I would have liked more about this, as to how friends of Merton managed to align their own beliefs or lack of such with his. (Some material here, as in his affair, was redacted or limited, as at the time Mott prepared this, it was less than the quarter-century moratorium that Merton requested for release of his private documents. Since Mott's book, some of the journals and letters have been published, for better or worse, maybe.)

An "existentialist contemplative," Mott avers on the next page, beckoned as ideal. Not only for the hermit-despite-himself, as he prepared to depart for the West Coast and then a tour of the Southeast Asian landscape and monasteries who increasingly loomed as his final set of mountains to argue with, in Mott's construct (playing off of Merton's title and that Dantean depiction of Mt. Purgatory). Merton wanted not only to write about life, but to live it. He wanted to demonstrate his contemplative commitment and to withdraw (at least some of the time, him being Merton), from all the attention. 

In his Asian journal, his last set of writings, he muses over what he has learned after living with himself, itching to travel but insisting he was called to a vocation apart from even his fellow monks. "Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to this action. . ." (qtd. 543)  He was open to this spiritual evolution, and he struggled to progress. 

Mott can lighten the mood. As to the journal Monks Pond in its last year of the monk's life, "Merton made the mistake as editor of including the work both of poets who were friends and of friends who claimed to be poets." (503)  While his last recorded words in public have been taped in Bangkok, that day nearly twenty-seven years exactly from the time he entered the monastic life at twenty-seven, many cite the eerie premonition of the first clause. The second one also shows Merton, in his everyday side, that made him so much a figure of devotion or imitation or even excoriation by many.

"So I will disappear from view and we can all have a Coke or something." Then, a "Thank you very much" concludes his final address, preceding his electrocution by a faulty fan's wiring in his hotel bathroom. (564) That "you may know the Christ of the burnt men" in premonitory fashion also serves as the last phrase of his autobiography, another circle rippling across many decades and mountains. (Amazon US 12-17-14)