The Chinese fortune cookie promised me….

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I recently opened a Chinese fortune cookie and read: “You will succeed someday.”

Everyone at the table chuckled.

“After all, she’s almost 75 years old. If she hasn’t made it by now…”

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“Well, that’s a nebulous promise, isn’t it? When? And at what?”

I kind of liked the message myself. After all, how many Chinese fortune cookies today contain more than vague platitudes?

Besides, there are more and more of us who keep trying to succeed at a very advanced age. What about the 105 year old woman who recently threw out the first pitch at a Marlins baseball game? What about Harry Bernstein, the fellow I mentioned in a recent post who wrote and published four really good books after the age of 96? Or composer Elliott Carter who was still composing and conducting until his death at the age of 103?

Before I go on, I guess I should try to define success. For a writer, it seems obvious that it has to mean at least some positive criticism, some significant impact on some one else who has actually read the book(s). In other words, it is made up at least partly by being known. By fame.

At least in its aspect as fame, success today has become more and more desirable. Ironically, it has also become more and more common. I mean Wikipedia alone must contain hundreds of thousands of entries. People kill for it and die for it. Most often, they reveal all for it. To be famous today is to be one of a mob.

And then, when you consider the universe Neil de Grasse Tyson has been talking about, the Cosmos seen only vaguely by science, and almost not at all by the rest of us, well, does it matter at all?

Still, the Chinese fortune cookie promised me success. And that’s kind of cool.

 

 

The Silence of God

The music soars to a climax, and ends. The audience sits breathless, silent. The silence is entire, beautiful in and of itself, and very, very short–just before the applause begins.

Karen Armstrong, a British author and commentator known for her books on comparative religion, writes in “Louder Than Words,” (Literary Review) about the power of silence from a theological point of view. The article is a review of Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

The silence of God is about the Divine as utterly incomprehensible. There is nothing we can say. All our language about God is meaningless because the Divine is beyond all our language–all our understanding.

But what about that pause when the symphony ends? Does art participate in a holy silence, the silence that is God? Almost certainly, I think, silence is present and central to art, literature, music.

Said William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

In the meantime, most of us must rely on art.

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Paying attention

Like many people, I’ve been caught up over the last week in the Boston marathon explosions and all the emotions they inspire. So many people have written eloquently about what happened, about the marathon and Boston. I have nothing of consequence to add, except perhaps to mention a couple of links that have meant a lot to me: “Messing with the Wrong City” by Dennis Lehane in the New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/17/opinion/messing-with-the-wrong-city.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0, and runner Dan Mungerrun’s post at http://mungerruns.blogspot.com/2013/04/in-praise-of-boston.html.

There is one small yet not at small all thing I’d like to examine briefly. It hasn’t anything directly to do with Boston.

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Watching the interfaith service on television today, I was struck by Yo Yo Ma playing in that intense concentrated way he has. It doesn’t matter whether the music is complex or simple, whether the concert is a celebration or an occasion for grief. He is always there entirely, paying attention. It reminded me of a recent post by painter Deborah Barlow in her wonderful blog, Slow Muse. Her starting place was a quotation from Susan Sontag.

Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.

That’s what Yo Yo Ma always does. I’ve never been a runner, but I suspect it’s what runners do too.

Maybe it has everything to do with Boston. Maybe it’s what Boston is doing.

How old are you?

I have often noticed and sometimes remarked on how, as I age, my self-image is different from what I see in a mirror. I’m not sure if any of us ever manage to coordinate the two. We continue to see ourselves as younger than we really are. There are a plethora of quotations from the famous and not so famous about the problem.

Said E. B. White, “Old age is a special problem for me because I’ve never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself – a lad of about 19.”

Charles Olson declared, “I remember way back when I was young, 10 years ago.”

And from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

My favorite of the more recent remarks I’ve read isn’t so much about old age as just aging generally. It comes from Margaret Atwood. “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.”

The most comforting statement comes from Madeleine L’Engle:  “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

Exactly.

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Memory and plagiarism

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Oliver Sacks writes eloquently about memory and imagination in the February 21 issue of the New York Review of Books, sharing his memory of a war-time event from his childhood and subsequently learning from his brother that he hadn’t lived it but had reconstructed it for himself from the description in a letter. He cites examples of memories enhanced or entirely made by the imagination from everyone from Ronald Reagan to Helen Keller and Samuel Coleridge. False memories are enjoyed with the same vivacity as those with a factual basis. There is no way to tell them apart in our subjective experience of them. Plagiarism is as natural to us as breathing.

Scary stuff, I thought. Reality becomes rocky and insubstantial. All our heralded battles for truth turn into fights that may have already been thrown. Without DNA or a filmed record, we can’t prove a thing.

But Sacks, looks at it from another perspective, and reality becomes more instead of less. I can only quote him:

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge….

Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

The homeless, art and Basquiat’s anger

“Art is the only thing that’s left in the world,” said a homeless mixed media artist in Above Ground, a study of aging artists in New York City. He was 72.

I read somewhere the other day that the life expectancy of the average homeless man is 47; that of the average woman 43.

I was just in New York City, walking down the Broadway on the Upper Westside and fingering change in my jacket pocket, when a man approached me and asked for seventy-five cents and as it turned out that was precisely what I was fiddling with and I gave it to him. Not fiddling, I shook my head “no” to the next two probably homeless fellows who were still approaching the age of mortality. I felt appropriately guilty afterwards. No spontaneous generosity there.

I saw an overwhelming exhibit of the paintings of Basquiat, the graffiti artist who died of an overdose at the age of 27 in New York in 1988. Lots of large anger on public walls…. The art of street people, the art of the homeless. “It’s about 80% anger,” said Jean-Michel Basquiat of his work.

Untitled acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

Untitled acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984