“Daddy, why doesn’t the sky fall on us?”

Recently I learned about Quora while reading a blog post by a woman whose writing I admire. In no time, I was signing up with the question-and-answer website and soon after was receiving daily digests of sometimes nonsensical but almost always compelling questions that were accompanied by sometimes nonsensical but almost always compelling answers. Here are some examples of the questions you would receive if you signed up:

  • According to the theory of evolution, why do we die?
  • What is the sickest thought you have ever had?
  • What is it like to marry a doctor?
  • How do I become an interesting person in real life?
  • What’s the creepiest thing you have heard a child say?
  • What are some bad experiences of guys who have a very hot wife?
  • How does knowing the Latin origin of a word help me in any way?
  • Why would my teen daughter keep urinating on towels in her room when her bedroom is right next to the bathroom?
  • Is “Please find attached my resume” grammatically correct?
  • How would a dog react if I tried to lick its face?
  • If you smell marijuana being smoked by a neighbor in their backyard, should you notify the police?

And Quora is not the only website of its kind; there are heaps of them: Ask.com, ChaCha, Google Questions, WikiAnswers, and Yahoo! Answers, to name several. What I find more interesting than the actual questions asked and answered on these sites, however, is the fact that such sites exist at all. So, I thought I would do a little thinking out loud about the appeal of reading random questions and answers, the latter of which, I’m sorry to report, are not always based in fact—and are not always grammatical.

Peter Baskerville, who bills himself as “Teacher, Edupreneur, and Father of Three” and who has been “Top Writer” for Quora each year since 2012, maintains that the site (and, by extension, others like it) “fills a massive learning-needs gap that currently exists for the people of the planet.”

As an educator and as a longtime proponent of online teaching and learning, I think I might have a sense of what Baskerville means by a “massive learning-needs gap,” though I am hard-pressed to understand how knowing what it’s like for a man to have a “hot wife” is going to help me become a better-informed global citizen. But that’s just me.

No, I think our interest in reading random questions and answers has more to do with our ever-increasing hunger for bite-sized, distractive information parading as essential information and with our brains’ shrinking capacity to identify what is genuinely important; to think deeply about a topic; or to make creative, thoughtful connections between seemingly disconnected ideas.

We have arrived at this moment in history with the attention spans of four-year-olds on a road trip who, from the back seat, call out absently to their parents in the front: “Mommy, can I still play with my dolls when I go to Heaven?” and “Daddy, why did you marry Mommy?” and “Mommy, will I turn colors after I die?” and “Daddy, what is a fish stick?”

February 14, 2016

follow your heart:

Image

“It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation….Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.”

Letters to a Young Poet (#7) by Ranier Maria Rilke

The designated survivor

 

Image result for baby in wicker basket

Image credit

It is as if you had arrived in a brown basket on a porch near St. Paul, a piece of bonnet poking out the one side and a wintry mix coming down. You couldn’t help but look up, mouth an O, but all you could see were four sets of dark eyes staring back down, blinking. Or more like a great tumbledown from a brilliant sun to a duller one, the fall through space across a frigid crosshatching of having-all-but-given-up-on-yourself and for what: a guest room with a busted lock and a Princess phone?

The personal is political.

Digital painting based on Based on The Last Supper, ca. 1520, Andrea Solari, after Leonardo da Vinci, oil on canvas, in the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Tongerlo Abbey.

Generally, I do not write about politics, but my often deeply personal writing is always deeply political, if by “political” one means rooted in larger forces, both seen and unseen. That is to say I am incapable of separating who I am, what I believe, and what I have lived from the historical, social, economic, and cultural influences that have shaped me.

As a young girl and then as a grown woman, I suffered considerable emotional, sexual, and physical abuse. Even a few doctors had their way. Yet, while it is true that I have been badly wounded by these abuses, my deepest scars come from the violence my soul has had to endure. Those who are violent, even if it is emotional violence, are incapable of seeing the humanity that animates their victims, and they lack the capacity for self-awareness and self-honesty. How else could they justify the pain they inflict?

I grew up in an extended family of arrogant, self-deluded misogynists not unlike Donald Trump; even the women hated women (or, more precisely, they hated themselves). So when I listen to Trump speak hatefully and cruelly about women — and speak grandiosely and with high regard about himself — I have to admit that I feel right at home. Although he is as much a victim of history and culture as my family is and was, he nevertheless is a bankrupt and soulless human being who, if elected president, God forbid, would have me waxing nostalgic about those very dark Reagan and Bush days. And, while I am as left of left as they come, last night I was giddy to learn of Ted Cruz’s victory in Iowa because perhaps it means that Trump will soon be down for the count — though Cruz is only slightly less reprehensible than his rival.

Image

Perdóname

“How’s your Spanish?” Alan Rickman’s Jamie asks Juliet Stevenson’s Nina in Truly, Madly, Deeply. What follows is one of the most poignant scenes ever captured on film, in which Rickman recites a section of the Pablo Neruda poem, “La Muerta.”

When I first saw the movie in 1990, I was alone in the theater (it was a weekday matinée and I was playing hooky from somewhere). It was a good thing I was on my own, though, since I wept so openly and so unashamedly throughout the entire movie that I am sure I would have alarmed anyone sitting nearby. Since then, I have seen the film many times, and each time I have cried until my eyes were nearly swollen shut.

Alan Rickman - Truly Madly Deeply poem

It is the finest film I know about grieving, and, while the screenplay is superb, it is the acting that sets it apart. Stevenson’s work is sublime, but here I wish to say something about Alan Rickman, who died yesterday at 69 of cancer. An extraordinarily gifted actor, he had the capacity to find in himself, and share, a very deep humanity.

In his role as Jamie, he plays a ghost who returns to his beloved so he can somehow lessen her outsized grief. It is no easy task to persuade an audience that you have come back from the dead to comfort your stricken lover, but Rickman manages to infuse his character with such deep feeling that I could not help but believe absolutely that he was as real, as vulnerable, and as flawed as I was.

If only he could return to us one more time with a few words of comfort while we mourn his very great loss.

Image credit

(For a Spanish/English version of Neruda’s “La Muerta,” click here.)

What blogging has taught me etcetera

Blogging

Four years ago, when I started my blog ruminationville, the word “blogger” was often used to disparage someone who either had limited writing skill or who thought more highly of his or her skill, personal magnetism, and importance than others might have done.

While the term still manages to purse some lips (as in “She’s not a writer; she’s just a blah-gger.”), and while a needless blog is born just about every second, I’m not much taunted by the negative connotations the word can conjure.

Starting a blog (and then having to call up enough discipline to maintain it week after week) has given me more moxie than I could have imagined for myself. Whereas before I couldn’t even see myself writing for an online audience of one, now I think along these lines: Come one, come all. Read me or don’t read me. Follow me, don’t follow me, or unfollow me. Like me or don’t like me. Just don’t land on this wobbly little planet of me looking to make a bit of stupid trouble. I’m shy and yielding, yes. That’s my nature. But when it comes to stupid trouble, I can be fierce.

So, what have I learned while I’ve been blogging? These things:

  1. People in this BuzzFeed era have become accustomed to headlines that seduce and alarm (as in “This One Ridiculously Crazy Idea Will Scare the Holy Bejesus Out of You!”), but I won’t write a ridiculously shocking headline unless I have something ridiculously shocking to say, which so far is never.
  2. In this age of online news-bite consumptionism, people have come to adore lists. I have come to adore lists, and I can be drawn to an article that promises I will discover the meaning of life if I follow six simple steps.
  3. Still, I try and stay away from giving easy, empty, unlived advice.
  4. I have absolutely no way of knowing, or predicting, if what I have written will appeal to readers. I can post something I think no one will find interesting, and my “like” stars will light up like tiny, pointy Christmas bulbs. Or, I can post something I am certain everyone will think is pure genius, and the only response I will get is nothing.

Image

Turning four

number four

I’m not good at making resolutions. If they involve a bleak self-denial, such as when I try and say no to a food group, or if they require an inner tamping down, such as when I try and say stop to a pining, something from down deep rises up and digs in—leaving me starved for the very thing I think I should deny myself. Really, I find it’s best to pretend there is no hunger at all and to go about my business as if I were able to manage myself.

Still, it is a new year, and I feel obliged to reflect on the past 12 months. This has always been true of me during January, at least since I have been an adult, but as I get older it is even more crucial to consider who I have been during the previous year and who I will be bringing into the new year—these two seeming so much more important, in fact, than what I might, or might not, have accomplished. Accomplishments, like bones, fall to dust, and in the end who is going to care about what I have written here? I’m not even certain if I care about what I have written here.

Yet something in me does care about the fact that, in a week’s time, ruminationville will turn four, and I cannot help but ask myself what I have to show for these years. Certainly I could count the number of posts, or poems, or photographs, or movie reviews, or comments, or likes, or absences of likes. But there is such emptiness in this kind of exercise, and I have come to the end of my own emptinesses.

What cheers me now is the knowledge that I have all along tried to be genuine with you and that I have allowed you to see who I am, and who I love, if only a small bit. Nothing else much matters.

Image

Crossing over

boats on calm waterJust now I was rereading a beautifully written short essay from one of my more bashful students. In it, he writes of his connection to the Chesapeake Bay—a mighty body of water that ebbs and flows across six states, including Virginia and Maryland—and then goes on to use the image of ebbing and flowing as a way of describing his inner state.

While reading the essay, I saw before me an image of a man I had known only from a photograph. I cannot say why he appeared, since I had not thought about him for many years, and I cannot tell you the reason he was sent. I can say, though, that he had been the handsome amante of my friend Mary and that he had died one night of cirrhosis.

At first, she did not know of his alcoholism because he had been able to stop drinking for a while and because they lived countries apart—he in Mexico and she in the United States. An intellectual who frequented a university where she had gone to study Spanish and Mexican literature, he saw her one day in the school’s cafeteria and, no doubt because of her beauty, made a beeline and struck up a sexy conversation. Soon after, they fell in love and carried on their long-distance romance until his sudden and tragic death.

For reasons I do not understand entirely, her romance with him and with Mexico marked the beginning of my love affair with Mexico, in particular, and with Latin America, in general. My second husband, now an ex-husband, is from Bolivia and, like Mary’s departed lover, is an intellectual (or somewhat so) and an alcoholic—this last a fact I discovered only after we were married. Perhaps somewhere within and down low, though, I knew from the start that he was in trouble.

Alcoholism, or at the least heavy drinking, has flowed through my family for generations: grandfather, mother, father, brother. So embedded in my sense memory is the boozy stink of my lost mother and the liquored-up reek of my lost husband that I, myself, cannot even bear to smell hard liquor, especially scotch, much less drink it. Sometimes, however, I will drink a glass of Pinot Grigio or Prosecco and usually will enjoy it well enough. Also, Mary and I are no longer friends.

Photo

Colder stars

stars on a cold night

Where do we go from here,

when it is nightfall,

when soon the cold stars will spin,

the moon will die again,

and the marsh peeper

will call out to his coy lover,

who may or may not appear?

Must I beg for that last drink of you,

that spilling grace,

or for the touch of

a cool hand?

Longing can become a dark dog

awakening briefly to an emptied bowl.

If I leave here tonight unwhole,

will a smaller god follow me,

whining,

back home?

Photo

Can’t make cents of it

pennies

Yesterday, I met a new acquaintance for a cup of coffee (well, he had chai), but that rendezvous, and what led to it, is another story. Later, I made my way to my car and discovered I had left the keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked, though, oddly—and you will soon see why—the doors usually automatically lock after a short period of time. You can imagine, then, how grateful I was that a) the doors had remained unlocked for several hours, b) no one had stolen the car, and c) I didn’t have to wait interminably for roadside assistance to come find me and break in through a window.

Once inside, I saw something eerie in the change holder that sits in the front under the radio—something that had not been there the last time I remembered looking: 28 grimy pennies. Typically I put only quarters in the holder, which I use for parking and tolls. Occasionally I will put dimes and nickels in it, but I will never put pennies in there because they are useless. Parking meters don’t take pennies, and toll takers don’t much like pennies. Who can blame them?

Recently, I moved temporarily into Northern Virginia, land of tolls, so I have had to become pretty aware of the change I keep in my car. All I can say is that I cannot account for these pennies. Just as, some years back, I could not account for a thick neck scarf that had found its way into the sleeve of my winter coat—which had been hanging on the back of a chair in my living room—and that did not belong to me or to anyone I knew.

What interests me most is how quickly my mind will run towards the paranormal if it cannot easily find a rational answer to a puzzling event. It is the same part of me, I think, that is drawn to mysticism. And God.

Image