Tuesday, January 11, 2011

To Dream the Impossible Dream

My brother Liam is a poet.  I hadn’t actually put this thought into words, but someone else told me this and I realized that it is true.  My sort-of sister-in-law Nellie (she and my brother Rob have been together for at least 37 years – possibly longer) is an accomplished musician.  She has made her living from music most of her life.  She and Rob lived together in Arizona until just a few months ago when her mother passed away and she inherited the mother’s house back here in the City just north of here.  Music has hardly made her wealthy and this was too good a gift to pass up.  Back in Arizona, an all-woman blues group of which she was a member won the state blues title (did you know there was such a thing?) four years running until they decided to stop competing.  That group and her previous group have made a number of recordings, and she has played with a number of blues artists, or rhythm and blues artists, over the years including Bo Diddly. 

Recently, at the Breakfast Club (I think you all know that is what we call the Sunday breakfasts with my mother, don’t you?) a song by my brother Liam came on my iPod speakers (Liam was not present) and the conversation turned to songwriting and so forth.  Nellie said, “I have written some songs, but Liam is a poet.”  And she is exactly right – about him, whether or not she might be underrating herself.  Liam just seems to have a gift for saying things in such a way that you see the picture.  In a song of his that many people like quite a bit, he tells of seeing his son get off the school bus during a snowstorm and watching him come up the driveway with his coat unbuttoned, and it was “like watching a tear sliding down from the night”.  This song, The Loneliness Birds, (the title is from something someone else has written) is about hearing the news that this youngest son, at age sixteen, had been killed. 

My favorite song of all that he has written is a meditation on the story of Hansel and Gretel which reflects on how children ultimately decide their own paths and define who their parents were, no matter how hard those parents worked or how deeply they cared.  This song seems to me to encompass all the cares and worries of watching one’s children become independent: the driver’s license, the possibly dangerous friends, the parties where drink or drugs might be present, the person who will break his or her heart.

I can see the breadcrumbs
That you left to mark your trail,
And I see the loaf you tore
Them from grow grey and stale.

I see you moving on
Unconscious of the trap,
Not knowing of the crows behind you
Eating up your map.

All the warnings you have heard
Of strangers in the wood,
And all the lessons you have done
Don’t do you any good.

And as you hurry on, you drop
Your last small piece of bread
And walk in, without knocking,
To that house of gingerbread.

I go, “Wait a minute; have I mixed up my nursery rhymes?
Have I confused my heroes and my heroines?
Might I be thinking of some different dotted line?
Could it be me who needs the rescuing?”

But it’s you who writes the story
And you who turns the page.
Will I be the wicked witch
Who locks you in a cage?

And as I reach to touch you
Will you turn without a word
And hand me out the tiny bone
Of some small flightless bird?

Or will I be the woodsman
With bright and shining axe
Who searches in the forest
 To find your scattered tracks?

After I have saved the day
And freed you from the jail
Will you find your way home
Or another aimless trail?

I ask you, does anything describe the fragility of your child in your heart better than ’the tiny bone of some small flightless bird’?   Here goes this mere baby into the world, and that is his armor.

Liam called me last night, and we had one of the best conversations we have had in years.  It was good because I ended it (actually one of our phones gave out and thus ended it for us) feeling really good and engaged and a bit enlightened.   I passed on to him Nellie’s remark because I think people should hear all the good stuff about themselves that is said.  This got us onto the subject of poetry and song and writing in general, and we agreed that the really great stuff has a quality where two and two make five or ten.  Great stuff contains the kind of lines where what is said conveys more meaning than the words themselves actually say.  I always think, in this context, of the description of Tom and Daisy Buchanon (which I may remember incorrectly) in Gatsby, “They were the kind of people who broke things.”  These people were not vandals or vindictive, but merely sort of spiritually careless is my reading of this line.  It says so much, and yet that mere sentence in another context could be said about somebody’s ill-behaved children and contain no emotional depth or nuance whatever.

I always think also of Dylan’s line “Just to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.”  (Would that not be the best day of one’s life?)  Or Eliot’s famous over-quoted line, “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” which can read as a flat statement of fact, but which conveys such depths of boredom, such shallow artifice, incomprehension and waste of time.  These are lines that sing in my head even though I have not heard or read some of them in a very long time.  Dylan Thomas was “young and easy under the apple boughs/ About the lilting house/ And happy as the grass was green.”  Isn’t that a wonderful image of childhood before you find out that there are people who don’t love you? 

Anyway, this was among the types of thing we talked about – Liam also brought up the secret language of families with its loaded phrases that seem so innocent to outsiders and which are such deadly shots to the members thereof.  There was no worse insult among us kids than “typical teen”.  My Mom had a habit of wondering why none of us boys dated certain girls and she tended to describe these girls as “full of fun.” (In short, they were the kind of girl that other girls would love to have around).  “Full of fun” became a deadly phrase among us boys, meaning a girl you wouldn’t date on a desert island where she controlled the water supply.  Mom herself had these innocent-sounding zingers – god help the person she described as “sweet as a peach”.  She used this roughly in the sense conveyed by others when they say “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth”.   “And there she stood,” Mom would say, “sweet as a peach…” usually in reference to someone who had instigated a lot of trouble and who acted all innocent and, perhaps, even outraged by the resulting chaos.  Kind of like, “Who, me?”  There was no worse sin in Mom’s catechism than “troublemaking”.

What got me started here before my usual dilatory trip all over the place was something that clicked into place in my head near the end of our conversation.  I have long known a few faults or characteristics or habits of mine, as we all do about ourselves if we are not borderline psychotics.  I wrote an essay or entry or blog (what does one call these things anyway?) some time ago on my defunct Spaces blog about my love of going to out-of-the-way places (my first trip abroad was to Zambia) or of trying things that most people don’t try – or even want to try (hitchhiking across the USA; living in Saudi).  And anyone who has the least degree of perception seems to see, as I most certainly do myself, that I have a big tendency toward depression and inactivity – the sin of sloth is my vice of choice, which is certainly the least attractive of them all, and the least fun, which is even worse.  I have always attributed my tendency to end up sitting around doing nothing to the depression which has dogged me since my teenage years at least, and which once ended me up in a nuthouse for eleven months.  So I have thought about this sloth at times and I have thought about the adventures at other times.  The only way I have ever thought of them in tandem was when I felt lousy; usually I attributed this bad feeling to not being on some kind of adventure.  Mostly though, like other things I think about, I thought of either one or the other, but not both at once.  Suddenly, while I was talking with Liam last night, the two came together with blinding clarity, and when I said this sentence to Liam, he was equally struck by how exactly correct it seemed:

I would rather do nothing than do anything that is ordinary.

Like most things, this means more to me than it will mean to anyone else – but it somehow is a whole new way for me to look at what seems to be my current dilemma.  A sort of corollary to this is that I hate doing anything unless I feel I can (and notice the word is CAN, not WILL) become very good – among the best – at that thing.  I think this explains such things as my sudden complete revulsion toward going to the gym.  I actually didn’t mind going for six months, and I originally went because it seemed to be a healthy thing to do, and I was concerned about an increasing lack of muscle tone and a real lack of stamina.  I really had no goal other than to ameliorate my physical deterioration somewhat.  But six months into it, something happened.  I found I had lost two inches around my waist, I had reached a level of elasticity that allowed me to touch my forehead to my knee, I had gained an inch on my biceps and, most important of all, I noticed one day in the mirror that there was the tiniest hint of an indentation on each side of the place where one’s abs should be. 
“Wow!” I can imagine many people thinking, “What a great reward for what really, after all these years, is not a huge amount of time!”  How can this be a bad thing?  But a this brought  a very subtle change into the whole process; it is exactly the kind of thing that has often stopped me in the midst of other endeavors.  (OMG, I just realized why painting my dining room has never been completed!)  You see, for six months I was visiting a strange land.  I wasn’t “one of them.”  All about me were these serious people who worked out – either younger people who were building truly admirable bodies or seniors who were “keeping fit.”  So long as it seemed like I was some kid wandering in and being tolerated by the ‘real athletes’, it was kind of fun.  But now I was ‘one of them.’  At first I thought I was elated when I saw real progress.  I could have a (smaller) waist again; I bought pants two inches smaller than my old ones and they fit perfectly.  But shortly after this, I couldn’t make myself go any more; I really couldn’t figure out why.  It seemed pointless and unrewarding.  Although everyone there was friendly, no one became a friend.  They weren’t there to make friends –nor was I – but I felt like I might have wanted to go if there was the subtle pressure of expectation by a friend of seeing me there.  But whether or not this is true, that isn’t the real problem, I realize now.  The problem is I was ‘getting fit’; I was becoming one of those seniors who would never, ever again look as good as the younger folks at the gym or the younger me, and this made me feel pathetic.  I don’t want to look "good for my age", I want to look good, period, or else to hell with it.  I was now only doing what a lot of old people do, and over time as I aged I was going to get worse and worse.  It was pointless, because I didn’t feel ‘special’ any more.  I was so ordinary, so predictable, so ‘still active in my golden years’.

There are so many things I can do a little; I am better than average at calligraphy, I used to draw well and I still draw better than average.  I HATE ‘better than average’.  I want ‘great’ or not at all.  I don’t have to BE great, but I have to believe that it is within the realm of possibility to reach that point.  When I was young, I loved to run.  I would run across our pasture lot or across the lawn or through a field with complete joyous abandon.  The joy arose, however, not from the feeling of running itself, or the exercise or anything like that.  The joy was because I truly believed, with every fiber of my being, that I could run faster than anyone else on Earth if I wanted to.  The day that no longer seemed true was the last day I ever ran.  What was the point?  This is why I don’t try learning to dance; I am too old to be the best.  It is not a case of defeating others, but just of being really good.  “By ‘best’ I don’t really mean better than anyone else so much as ‘as good as the very best’. 

There are few processes I enjoy (writing is one of those few, however, so long as I can keep from letting it fall into that area where all things become futile).  I enjoy the results of things.  I don’t want to make curtains, I want to have curtains, really nice, unusual curtains,  that I made.  I enjoy knowing I can do things.  I have a spiffy leaded glass window I made 30 years ago depicting the head of a Watusi warrior I modeled after a picture in a National Geographic.  I kind of love it, and I am quite proud of it.  I never made another.  Because it would have had to be better.  I remember in first grade we were each given a lump of modeling clay and told that whatever we made would be displayed for our parents at a forthcoming PTA session.  Most of the kids began making those coiled baskets where they rolled the clay between their palms into long thin tubes and then wound the tubes into a basket shape; or else making turtles – essentially a big rounded lump of clay with five smaller lumps attached for head and legs.  I, however, decided to make a giraffe.  I couldn’t imagine why the others were going for stuff so simple and dumb and obvious.  I can still see the giraffe as I pictured it then – and from the first I could picture how it should look very clearly.  But my hands couldn’t seem to make it happen; to start with, the neck wouldn’t remain upright.  I couldn’t believe I couldn't do it!  Finally, I realized it was beyond me, so I set out to make something I thought would be easier – either a hippo or an elephant (I think I tried both), something thicker and sturdier.  But my hands just couldn’t seem to make the clay take the desired shape.  I kept wadding the whole thing up and starting anew, and of course, time ran out with all the other kids’ turtles and baskets perfect, as turtles and baskets go, and me with a big lump of nothing.  Nonetheless, my opus was displayed on a piece of colored construction paper with my name on it among all the other offerings.

My Mom, never one to pay in false coin, made a funny little story out of it when she told me about the PTA meeting.  “All the other mothers,” quoth she, “were saying to me, ‘Look!  My Ginny made this nice turtle!’ or ‘See the nice basket Bobby made!  What did your Davy make?’  And there I was pointing to this lump of clay, saying, ‘Well…’”  Mom wasn’t being mean, and she actually made me laugh and feel better by telling this story in the way she did.  I was never one of those kids that could draw a picture and respond happily to something like, “Oh is that a doggie?” when the speaker was pointing to my depiction of one of my brothers.  I know when I have failed and I do not gain anything from anyone else’s pretending otherwise; it only makes it worse, as if I am pathetic and beyond saving.  If you have to ask, it isn’t right. 

It is all very well to say that I shouldn’t feel this way – the ‘nothing or the best ’ way.  Actually, ‘best’ is only one way that would be acceptably uncommon; even ‘worst’ would be better than ordinary.  But I didn’t know I DID feel this way exactly.  I saw bits of it, and perhaps I am only seeing a bit more of it now, rather than all of it.  This whole linking of the ‘ordinary’ with doing nothing is somehow a new slant for me.  Fear of failure?  Maybe.  My favorite film of all time, hands down, is Lawrence of Arabia.  I suspect that the film assumed mythic proportions to me when, in response to the pleading of Prince Ali who cared deeply for Lawrence and was trying to persuade him to take a more reasonable, less risky and debilitating course than the one he was on, Lawrence asks, "Do you think I am just anybody, Ali?"  Oh. My. God.  Yes!  Yes!  Yes! That is a truly great person!  As early as junior high or early high school, a time when I was deeply Catholic, a girl I liked said to me (after a friendly argument - she always liked to present herself as anti-Irish and anti-Catholic) "You will either wind up as Pope or Anti-Christ."  Can you see why I liked her?    

So this is why I feel so free, I think, in Third World countries.  I will never be ‘just one of them’.  I will always be different.  I don’t have to DO anything except be undemanding and interested (because demanding and superior are ordinary ways to travel there.)  I can relax and have fun.  One of the greatest compliments I ever received was after I left Saudi when a Bangladeshi I used to chat with told Papa I ‘”wasn’t like the rest of them.” 

It is hard to change how one thinks or behaves if one doesn’t know why one does so.  It is impossible to change if one doesn’t even KNOW one does something.  It is something to think about – and it is certainly a useful piece of information to have when I am thinking, “What next?”  Maybe I’ll forget it all tomorrow, but maybe I won’t; I hope not.  It seems kind of commonplace, so perhaps only I know how right and powerful this exact linkage between doing nothing, and doing something extraordinary is for me.  So why should anyone even care? 

Well the thing is: I went to all the trouble of writing this down; I might as well do something with it.  


  1. I hate it when I am doing nothing, because when I am doing nothing it is because I am not feeling my best. I love to workout and before I moved last year I worked out at the gym 5 days a week. I enjoyed it.
    You remind me so much of my son. He is always striving to be perfect too, and, I don't believe God intended for any of us to be perfect, just to do the best we can. I care about you and my fellow man even if you are not extraordinary in your accomplishments.

  2. I love how you wander all over the universe, and somehow end up right where you were going! And you make me enjoy the ride!lol Usually I just get impatient with people that do that. I think I have a little of that, too. I've always liked "fitting in" to unusual places or countries. I think your whole family must have the Irish silver tongue!!

  3. I so enjoyed reading this. I think there is a little of that not wanting to be ordinary in all of us. Not finishing something because you can see it's not going to the best you can do. I know I've done it (there is a shirt I started to make for my husband 2 1/2 years ago) and it just hangs there waiting to be finished.

    Yours and Liams description of things give a wonderfully visual to us. What an amazing ability you have.

  4. I swear you MUST be my bruthah from anothuh mothah.

  5. "I would rather do nothing than do anything that is ordinary."

    Is an supremely harsh code to live up to.

    I envy your brother's talent. The ability to write good poetry requires higher left and right brain functioning and is pretty rare.

  6. @Beth – I, too, hate doing nothing. I emphasize that this was not a conscious decision – I only now realized that was what is going on inside my head. And yes, I am not feeling at my best when I do nothing. It is not a question of perfect, it is a question of ‘remarkable’ – they are very different things. I am sorry for your son. How I wish that, like you, I loved to work out. Loving that baffles me completely – a total yuck for me. I care not at all if others are perfect – or even good; I like whom I like. I am surprised this is my internal motto about doing things, and I am happy that I finally realize what is going on.

    @jeankfl (I always think of you as “Kiffle”) – Thanks – I love the wandering. When it drives me crazy is when people go on about “was it Tuesday? No, that was school – it must be Wednesday. No that was the day we watched Matlock. Maybe Sunday…,” – what I think of as the normal method of married couples telling me anything. And I don’t always get there – my next post was going to be about love, and I ended up in the jungle! The trick is to end the wandering with what looks like an “…and so that was how it was.” (But often it wasn’t.)

    @Terry – You DO get it. May I suggest you throw out the shirt? Sure finishing would feel best, but any resolution would feel better. Thanks for the compliment (and Liam would thank you too, if he knew).

    @MizAngie – I suspected that – except for the football!

    @Laoch – You are so very right. I wish it were not so, but it is a great relief to at least have a clear view of what was going on inside, all unconsciously. Long ago I suddenly became clear on another incredibly harsh inner directive I was acting under and I get rid of it – I hope, now that I know what this one is, I can similarly dump it – or at least use it more wisely to help me decide a course of action. Games are so much easier to play when you know the rules. Liam is a song-writer - he is really unaware that it is often poetry.

  7. Riding that horse has to be a tough trip. I think maybe standing at the end of the trail and looking back might give a different perspective. Suppose at the end of the trail, you look back to see your own tombstone. Would you rather it said, "He did nothing" or would you rather it said, "He was an enhancement to our world/neighborhood/friendship/office/school/family. He wasn't famous or infamous but he was everything to us."

  8. What Miz Angie said! I got to that same point of physical fitness that you did--saw the hint of results. Unfortunately it was approximately 15 years after I started doing it. And then I got pissed about having to work so hard to feel good (I did it to fight depression). Just started again--all I want to accomplish now is that my middle should not be wider than my boobs and hips. And I do other stuff (house work/repairs, and yard work), because my long-time, just in the nick of time sometimes, motto is "when you're feeling crazy, do something normal." So I'm not just like you in any way, I guess, except when you write these things, I recognize my own thinking patterns. Except funnier, and more clearly than I could ever state them or even think them.

  9. @JennyD - Understand that I did not realize I had this in my mind, so it was not a question of which was better. If I asked you if you have decided whether you prefer wearing a djellaba or a thobe, I might be asking you a similar question - my bet is you never have asked yourself that question. This is what I am saying, now that I know I think this, I can ASK that question. At this point, I think the 'nothing' choice would be mine, because you have to admit that seeing that would be something you'd point out to a friend on a graveyard stroll, whereas the 'made something better' would be pretty much what all the other stones were saying. My favorite line on a tombstone in our local cemetery is "A man who liked a cold beer'. THAT made me think about the guy. And so would the 'nothing' choice - hey man, what was this dude LIKE??? I know you mean tombstone metaphorically, but I am not talking about which is better, I am talking about how it is inside here.

    @flooz - So if you were to win the lottery, you would be pissed off that you didn't win it when it first began and would say, "To Hell with it!' and leave the prize unclaimed? Actually, this comment is SO like the woman I enjoy reading. I don't think you get yourself at all; you are way better than you think at probably everything. Did the exercise fight the depression, by the way? And thanks for the fulsome praise, I intend to believe every word - you COULD be right...