“Skillful pilots gain their reputation
from storms and tempest.”
“Skillful pilots gain their reputation
from storms and tempest.”
American architect Bertram Goodhue was born on this day in 1869. I went Church Hopping to the Church of the Intercession in Washington Heights and St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Midtown, two churches he co-designed in New York.
Extra! Extra! Read all about it! In 1896, Goodhue designed a typeface for Cheltenham Press. Called Cheltenham, the typeface is the one used for the headline for The New York Times.
So here’s a fun fact I just read this week, via Yahoo: Ted Leonsis was the very first person to ever sent an AOL instant message.
If you don’t know who Ted Leonsis is here’s a quick run-down of just some of his achievements:
Successful people are often thought of as ruthless and privileged, but Ted Leonsis is a self-made millionaire who follows his heart. This is the promotional copy for The Business of Happiness:
When the plane he was on prepared for a crash landing, Ted Leonsis asked himself the crucial question, If today is my last day on earth—will I die happy?. . . and realized the answer was no. Despite having achieved massive business success—he was a self-made multi-millionaire at the age of twenty-seven—he realized he would die unfulfilled. He told God that if he survived, he would turn his life around, give back more than he took, and pursue happiness. After walking off that plane, he got to work.
And while I mentioned Nanking above, I should also point out that his other documentaries are equally about social justice. Kicking It is a documentary narrated by Colin Farrell about the issue of homelessness, and A Fighting Chance tells the motivational story of Kyle Maynard, a wrestler who was born without arms and legs.
Ted Leonsis and the stories he helps get to the public are examples that no matter what our circumstances we are all capable of achievement.
I had a really fun time putting together an article for Burnside about poets who are also visual artists. From the time I was a little child, I have been drawn to both the literary and visual arts worlds. Even in undergrad these two loves of mine co-mingled, as I majored in English and minored in studio art. My undergrad thesis looked at the relationship between writers and artists in New York in the ’40s and ’50s. It didn’t end there. While obtaining my MFA in creative writing, I took a poetry class on the collaborations of the poets and artists of the New York School. My article touches on some of the poets I’ve studied over the years, with of course a focus on the people commonly associated with the Beat Generation, but I pushed myself to find other examples as well.
Our cannons are so steeped in “dead white males” that it was important to me in stretching my knowledge to seek out poet-artists who did not play into that categorization. I was delighted to discover that Elizabeth Bishop painted. Two years ago it was the hundred-year anniversary of the former Poet Laureate of the United States’ birth, so there were many readings and events to honor her work. Somehow, though, I missed the fact that she was a painter. Maybe it’s because she herself did not take it all that seriously, as I point out in my article. I happen to think they’re delightful, though.
A contemporary poet-painter I am quite interested in researching more about is Babi Badalov. As my article touches on, he mixes languages in his works, a result of having moved a lot between cultures to avoid persecution for his controversial visual poetry. As a writer, language is something I hold dear. My vocabulary is a key to who I am: the words I’ve picked up come from my mother’s midwestern phrasing and my father’s Greek tongue as well as the vernacular of northern New Jersey and the jargon of the institutes of higher learning I attended. I’ve found the preservation of endangered languages so critical because language is about identity. The idea that a poet has no language and has many languages intrigues me. When does Badalov express himself in his native Azerbaijani language and when in Russian? Is his use of English a political act?
In my exploration of the Beats as visual artists, I could have easily waxed on and on. In fact, I did not go into any detail about Jack Kerouac’s artwork, even though he has been the subject of much of my studies. If this is something you’re interested in, leave a note in the comment section below, and I’ll write something up on this. What I did try to do for the Burnside article, though, was show that the Beats were following a rich tradition that came long before them. I point to William Blake and the Chinese and Japanese calligraphers as forerunners and influencers on the work of Allen Ginsberg and Phillip Whalen, for example.
My article was limited to just a few examples, a small taste of the artwork of poets. I’d love to hear who you think should be added to the list. Maybe I’ll make a part II!
“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”
~ John Muir
It was conservationist John Muir‘s birthday over the weekend and yesterday was Earth Day. A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of editing a reissue (not the one pictured above) of his My First Summer in the Sierra and writing the flap copy, and I quickly became absorbed in the poetic language he used to described the beauty of the earth. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might have caught on that even though I absolutely love the glittering sidewalks and Art Deco skyscrapers of New York City, I am just as comfortable out in nature. (It’s the suburbs I can’t stand!)
Muir was an early advocate of nature preservation and founded the Sierra Club. He used to hang out with Teddy Roosevelt, whom I’ve also written about, and they’d go off exploring Yosemite. Can you imagine any of our recent presidents going off into the woods with someone we’d today probably label a hippie? It was this very friendship between Roosevelt and Muir that led to America’s natural beauty being preserved. Interestingly enough, Muir and Roosevelt were both rather talented writers, and their works are travelogues through nature.
Jack Kerouac referenced John Muir in The Dharma Bums, a novel that makes you want to drop everything and go sit in the woods for a great long while. He also wrote about Muir in an essay entitled “The Vanishing American Hobo“:
John Muir was a hobo who went off into the mountains with a pocketful of dried bread, which he soaked in creeks.
Kerouac was incredibly well read and would often read history books about America before or during his road trips. As “The Vanishing American Hobo” indicates, Kerouac saw the landscape and economy of America changing before his eyes as he traveled. The era he lived in was the beginning of the great highway system, and he saw why Muir’s conservation efforts were so important.
We tend to associate road tripper Jack Kerouac with cars and bars, but he actually loved nature. On the Road is essentially a glowing account of America’s landscape, the melon patches, the sun-drenched sky, the ragged mountains. In Big Sur, we see him sit out and just stare at the ocean, absorbed in nature. His obsession with animals gives us a poignant insight into his psyche.
We often put labels on people, and to see literature through critics’ lenses. What if we read John Muir’s work as literature instead of viewing it as nature writing? What if we read Jack Kerouac’s work as nature writing instead of counter-cultural novel?
What if we saw a story in a blade of grass? What if we listened really hard to the call of a bird?
You might also be interested in this article I wrote a few years about John Muir for Burnside Writers Collective:
And in this clip of me reading from Burning Furiously Beautiful about Jack Kerouac’s empathy toward animals.
“The most difficult thing in life
is to know yourself.”
Brennan Manning was laid to rest yesterday. I was in my early twenties when I read Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel. It had been highly praised, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I don’t recall particularly enjoying it, but I do remember that I was on a plane, perhaps an important detail because I don’t read very well on planes. I rush my reading when I’m on a plane, as if trying to match its V-speed, and Manning’s prose was slow-paced, contemplative, meditative. Despite how I felt about the book at the time, I was enthralled with the title and the central message of the book. This is from the description provided for the book:
Yet God gives us His grace, willingly, no matter what we’ve done. We come to Him as ragamuffins—dirty, bedraggled, and beat-up. And when we sit at His feet, He smiles upon us, the chosen objects of His “furious love.”
The Ragamuffin Gospel contains such provokingly entitled chapters as “Tilted Halos” and “The Victorious Limp,” and suggests Christians aren’t perfect specimens who have risen above other so-called sinners. Those with a holier-than-thou attitude have their halos on too tight. It’s unpopular to admit, but we’ve all experienced brokenness and inflicted pain on others.
Manning too. Manning was an alcoholic. A priest. A prisoner. A hermit. A public speaker. A force of contradictions.
It’s the type of contradictions that Jack Kerouac spoke to in his novels and in his reference of the Beatitudes in describing his generation, the Beat Generation.
It’s the type of contradictions we often don’t like. We like to have people fall into neat little categories of “good” and “evil.” We like to hold people up on pedestals. We like to demonize others. We like our reality stars to be trainwrecks. We like our leaders to be heroes. We like our heroes to be faultless. We like our Christians to be Jesus.
Life is messy. We are messy.
We need to extend more grace, and we need to accept more grace.
The post “A Time to Weep” seems more appropriate this week, after the Boston Marathon explosions, but yesterday my pre-scheduled post “A Time to Laugh” went up on Burnside. It’s just two works of art and a verse, like most of the blog posts in this “A Time to…” series. Sometimes, though, short is effective. If you need a little levity, silly renditions of the Mona Lisa might be just what you need.
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled
but a fire to be kindled.”
When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher gave our class a list of topics we could do our research papers on. We had never studied Saul Bellow before, but his name was on the list, and I chose to write about his absurd heroes. As Wikipedia states:
In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any.
When you’re an angsty teenager, life is Absurd. Writing out Spanish vocabulary words three times each in a row for homework was absurd. Learning square dancing in gym class while living in northern New Jersey was absurd. Having to do math long-hand when calculators existed was absurd. Parents were absurd. The routine of waking up, eating cold cuts for lunch, doing homework until bedtime was all absurd. Surely, there had to be more to life than this humdrum suburban life?
When I became an adult, working in a cubicle, my personal email address had the following quote from Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man:
It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as ‘the day I asked for a second cup of coffee,’ or ‘the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast,’ and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps, eager for consequences.
It turned out, even when you’re an adult, life is Absurd. I was supposed to be over that the melodramatic apathy of a teenager, but I couldn’t shake that feeling that there had to be more to life. And I don’t think I was living a life more boring than most people. I was working in New York City. I had an enviable job. I had my own one-bedroom apartment. I had a boyfriend. I had a great group of friends. I was happy. But the routine of the day-in, day-out felt so mundane and ordinary … and meaningless. Being happy and successful wasn’t enough.
This is what Saul Bellow’s books capture so wonderfully. At the end of Henderson the Rain King–it came out in 1959; deal with the spoiler–the main character realizes that instead of searching to fulfill his own desires, he should have been helping others get what they want. It’s a long book, and it takes Henderson a long time to get there. Isn’t that just like life? He goes on a road trip of sorts to Africa. He sort of bumbles his way through adventures and has a lot of philosophical mad talk.
It’s because I first read and studied Saul Bellow that I was primed to understand Jack Kerouac. Even though I read it first, Henderson the Rain King actually came out two years after Kerouac’s On the Road, in which bumbling characters frenetically philosophized while road tripping across America. Both Bellow’s and Kerouac’s characters, sensing the alienation and Absurdism of life, have a longing that can best be described as spiritual. The dates of these books’ publications are important to note: Both Bellow and Kerouac had been in the merchant marine during World War II, and these are postwar novels dealing with the philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life.
Tonight, Joseph O’Niell is reading at the Saul Bellow Slam II at Housing Works. O’Niell is the author of Netherland. This beautiful novel isn’t written in the aftermath of World War II, like Bellow’s and Kerouac’s works, but of September 11. James Wood, however, wrote in the New Yorker, that it has been “consistently misread as a 9/11 novel, which stints what is most remarkable about it: that it is a postcolonial re-writing of The Great Gatsby.” Astute as that revelation is, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a post-World-War-I novel, whose narrator is war veteran swept up in Gatsby’s boozy parties that allow people to escape the mundaneness of their lives through social interaction. Netherlands, likewise, deals with the human need for connection.
We live in an Absurd world. We live in a sanitized, consumer, over-educated-and-underemployed culture. There are mass shootings and stabbings and an ongoing war. It is tempting to disengage, to “turn on, boot up, jack in,” as Timothy Leary said. Oftentimes, those who do choose to engage fashion themselves as critics and don a coat of irony. They comment on life from afar instead of risking to bumble through it.
I struggle with letting my walls down, with opening up. I don’t like the idea that people might think the most memorable thing about my day is that I had two cups of coffee or ate burnt toast. It’s hard to admit I long for something more, that I’m not satisfied. I keep turning to this literature, though, and I sense that this dissatisfaction or angst is a good thing. This world will never satisfy, and if I am too comfortable or too fulfilled or too put-together then I am probably deluding myself.