Sunday, October 25, 2009

Saints and Poets

A few weeks ago I watched the movie Titanic on an airplane coming home from New York. Rather incongruous, this gigantic story on a tiny screen 35,000 feet in the air. Never a big fan of the film, but, too tired to read, I opted for the three hour distraction.

The proximity of my seat to the screen brought the epic tragedy into tighter focus. I found myself thinking about the desperation of the poor souls whose lives came to an ironic end that fateful night. I grew up with this story, frequently recounted by my mother, whose distant relative gave up her seat in a lifeboat for her maid in order to remain aboard to die with her husband. But that story was always told in conjunction with the one about the courageous musicians who continued to play until just before the ship sank.

I watched the James Cameron film and thought about this act of bravery and love. What else was there to do? With their own watery grave beneath their feet, these musicians performed a transcendent final act of beauty and mercy, serenading the passengers to their death. One witness reported that their final song was "Nearer my God to Thee."

In the Catholic church, there is the tradition of canonization - the elevation of an ordinary individual to the level of sainthood. Among the criteria for this recognition is proof that the person being considered for sainthood performed a miraculous act. As I watched the depiction in Cameron's film of these musicians aboard the sinking Titanic, I couldn't help but think that what those musicians did was nothing short of miraculous. Generous with their gifts and talents to their hopeless end, they kept playing.

Art and music as a transcendent force in the face of human suffering has always interested me. No story so clearly exemplifies this as the story of Theresenstadt (Terezin) - the town outside of Prague in the Czeck Republic, that was converted by the Nazi's to a Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust. Music and art thrived there in spite of inhumane conditions and near certain death. Children were encouraged by teachers to write poems and draw pictures of their experiences in order that they not be forgotten. They buried the poems and pictures throughout the town only to be discovered by survivors after the liberation. Theresenstadt housed many artists and musicians before their transport to Auschwitz. While hopelessness engulfed the ghetto, music brought a sense of humanity and joy. In the face of death, beauty.

Our capacity as human beings to create in the face of the greatest horror and tragic circumstances is one of our greatest gifts. These two extreme examples should provide us with an important lesson. Artistic expression should be nurtured, encouraged and valued. As the German playwright, Bertolt Brecht said, "In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times."
Or, as Emily in Our Town asks of the Stage Manager, "Do any human beings ever realize life as they live it every, every minute?"
"No. Saints and Poets, maybe. They do some."
The musicians aboard the Titanic. The teachers in Terezin. The writers. The artists.
Saints and Poets all. Their stories live on.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dancing with the Demons

In the Saturday, October 17th edition of the Wall Street Journal, an article by writer Jeanette Winterson entitled "In Praise of the Crack-Up" caught my eye. Next to the text appeared a semi psychedelic graphic imbedded with sketches of writers' faces - the usual suspects - whenever the topic of mental illness and creativity is explored. Silvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemmingway and others - whose artistic brilliance is matched only by their tragic deaths brought on by manic-depression.

I've read a lot on this topic. Among the most notable books on my shelf is Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched with Fire which explores the seemingly indisputable evidence that a touch of madness produces good art. Of course her book goes far deeper than this over simplification in exploring the psychological causes for both depression and mania but the essence of at least part of the message is clearly that artistic expression is often born out of pain.

Jeanette Winterson illuminates the French origin of the word blessing.
"The French verb "blesser" means "to wound." Original etymologies from both Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon bind "bless" with a bloodying of some kind - the daubing of the lintel at Passover, the blood smear on the forehead or thigh of a new warrior..."
Winterson continues,
" Wounding - real or symbolic - is both mark and marker. It is an opening in the self painful but transformative."

This definition resonated deeply with me. One of my favorite quotes of all times is from St. Augustine, "In my deepest wound, I saw your glory, and it dazzled me." Woundedness, blessing, pain, creativity, transformation, healing - this is the vocabulary of my life. The rich composte of my being - from which my artistic self has grown.

My struggle with depression surfaced in the early nineties after a siege of losses that stripped away my very identity - the death of my brother to AIDS, the loss of our forty-nine year-old family business and near total financial collapse.

Jeanette Winterson, in her Wall Street Journal article writes,
"Longing is painful. Every work of art is an attempt to bring into being the object of loss. The pictures, the music, the poems and the performances are an intense engagement with loss. While one is in the act of making, one is not in loss and one has meaning.... "

This has most definitely been true for me. Winterson admits that creativity takes its toll - that it often does leave the artist "ravaged." Though I wonder, is it the act of creating that leaves one ravaged, or is it the circumstances and the response to the circumstances based on one's personality that causes the suffering? Might it be that the creative act is in fact, the salvation rather than the damnation?

Ultimately, my creative passion has been the source of my healing. The act of creating has been transformative. And, now, fifteen years after dancing with the demons that defined and re-defined me, I have emerged with greater self-awareness, compassion for those who suffer from depression and grief, and a belief that it is all a continuum.

The artist is the one who feels it all, expresses it all, and yes, suffers it all. Passion. And this, I believe is true blessing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ode to Pine Street

I like an old neighborhood.
Its long and narrow sidewalks. Its trees and porches.

In an old neighborhood, you walk down a path to pick up the newspaper.
Mailboxes are in the door.

In an old neighborhood, you wave to people who live across the street.
You walk around the block.

An old neighborhood is a good place to live.
Pine Street is one.

On Pine Street, the steeple of St. Boniface casts a shadow.
The Church bells ring at noon.
The sound of the marching band filters through the air from St. Catherine's Military School.
Taps is played at sun down.

Kids play hopskotch, ride big wheels, and skateboards on uneven sidewalks.

The street sweeper is a common enemy. With few driveways, the neighbors on Pine Street become acquainted in robes and curlers as they dash to move the cars out of the way of the city's monster machine with its roaring engine.

On Pine Street, there are people who've lived there a long time
and remember when.

There are young families with new babies. Toddlers who are told not to run in the street.

There are roof lines and people choose the color of their stucco or wood framed houses.

There are front yards with grass and shrubs and Magnolia trees and Lilies of the Nile that bloom once a year.

People come and go.
Wave and walk.
Skip and run.

People grow up, grow old, get sick and die.

I prefer a neighborhood like Pine Street to a planned development or a gated community.
I prefer weeds in the yard to perfectly manicured beds with automatic sprinklers.
I prefer grit .
I prefer a lawn mower pushed by short-clad dads on Saturday morning to a blower wielded by hired hands.

I like the sound of children playing and babies crying.

Pine Street.
A Street to grow up on. I'm glad my kids did.
Pine Street.
A neighborhood to live in. I'm glad we did.
Pine Street.
For twenty years we called it home.

Anaheim Born and Razed

Small town memories stir each daylight savings. When darkness falls at five, I am again, Anaheim's child waiting anxiously for my turn to walk amidst cheering crowds down Center Street on Halloween. The Kiddie Parade! I remember the year I was a gypsy. I remember the year I was chosen to hold one end of the banner proudly displaying my school's name, St. Boniface.
You could taste the holiday spirit in the air. A carnival atmosphere in a city with a down town. Local shopkeeper festively decorated their windows with bright orange pumpkins and spooky goblins. Banks transformed into haunted houses and fully costumed tellers distributed candy to children making the rounds - marching between home grown businesses like Mitchell's Gift Store, Weisser's Sporting Goods, Hurst Jewelers, Jackson Drug's, Leo's Coffee Shop and the SQR Store.

I didn't know it at the time, but my childhood may have been among the last whose memories include the Kiddie Parade, the SQR Store and a down town Anaheim. You see, I'm Anaheim - born and raised. I made my debut on February 10th, 1959 in Anaheim Memorial Hospital at about nine o'clock at night. I grew up right over on Resh Place, beneath the steeple of St. Boniface Church. Harbor Boulevard to the east, Citron Street to the west, Wilhelmina to the north and St. Catherine's Military School boardering the south. I grew up going to Elvis Presley movies at the Fox Anaheim. Stopped at Center Drug first to buy a nickel's worth of candy to eat while sitting in the front row watching "Girl Crazy" and "Speedway."
Mother bought my saddle shoes from George in the shoe department at the SQR.

I'm fifty now and so are my classmates of '73 from St. Boniface School. A school that no longer exists. I left Anaheim to go to college, I got married and moved back home to raise my children in a city with no down town.

My kids never got to march down Center Street in the Kiddie Parade on Halloween. Robbed of that magic in the name of progress, my kids never had the chance to stand fascinated at the counter of the SQR as the sales slip was tucked into a tube and sent through exposed brass pipes up to the mezzanine. They never knew the little old lady with the thin red hair who cranked the elevator up to that mezzanine where she also wrapped the presents.Their memories do not include the pungent odor of shoe polish at Hoffman's nor the deer antlers that hung from its walls over the shoe-shine stands.
No. Those memories went out with the wrecking ball. As daylight savings descends - buried in the rubble - childhood dreams, a small town spirit, the Kiddie Parade and down town Anaheim.