Thursday, April 26, 2018

Some Thoughts on George Eliot's Silas Marner

As a young man, Silas Marner was betrayed and ostracized, leaving him with deep psychic wounds. His consciousness of the world narrows to a routine of weaving and lovingly counting a small but growing horde of money. From anything connected to the past,
... his life had shrunk away, like a rivulet that has sunk far down from the grassy fringe of its old breadth into a little shivering thread, that cuts a groove for itself in the barren sand.
The money serves as a beloved object and safe, if very poor, substitute for a connection to other people. Regarding Marner's work as a weaver, Eliot writes:
Every man's work, pursued steadily, tends in this way to become an end in itself, and so to bridge over the loveless chasms of his life.
Without love, you often see obsessive behaviors, addictions, and compulsions take root.

Marner's life and heart expand again after he adopts a child whose mother he has found dead near his home. (The immediate environs of Marner's home are depicted as a place where death is near, especially in the dark, underscoring his vulnerability but also making him reminiscent of a Hades-like figure with his horde of precious metal.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Week in Seven Words #399

We're eating salads outside in the dark by a bike lane and jogging path in the park. From around the bend, we hear a blues song, and it's getting louder, the hoarse, broken, beautiful voice coming our way. A young girl appears, swinging a portable radio.

On the rooftop garden, they've planted marigolds with tomatoes, collard greens, lavender, thyme, cucumbers, dill, Jamaican peppers, and other herbs and vegetables. Bees swoop around (I achieve an uneasy coexistence with them), and white butterflies look like petals sprung to life. A monarch butterfly appears too and lingers.

One of the men in the subway car is moved to tell us about his dog. "Her name is Ginger Rogers," he says. He pauses, as if waiting for the dog to spring up from where she's curled up at his feet and start dancing.

His voice, lofty and sonorous, opens me to my anger and frustration. There are multiple entangled reasons for these emotions at this time.

In the span of a 12-story elevator ride, he shares his business aspirations and lists some of the books he's been reading to push himself into a mindset of success.

It's cozy and delightful to have a movie theater almost entirely to yourself and the person you're with.

Some of the tomatoes are green and heavy. Others are crinkly and emptied out like candy wrappers.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Earth Day walk

It started at Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn, where there's a memorial for WWII.


Then south to Borough Hall, where I joined a walking group. We headed west into Brooklyn Heights to look out over the East River.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Week in Seven Words #398

There's a beach by a quarry, and it's one of the best places I've been to, beautiful and invigorating. It's made up of slabs of rock strewn along the shore. Just picking one to sit on is a pleasure. I rest for a while with the sun on my shoulders. I could have spent days there.

A river wends through red, green, and gold grass. A kayak emerges from under a bridge, and sunlight shimmers in its wake.

Walking to the farthest reach of the jetty, I have a feeling of being embraced by blue. The sky, with some blue-white smears of cloud, the harbor spreading out on all sides, and the water trickling through the clumsy string of rocks - blue all around.

It's an old house, with enormous trees fussing around it and petting it with their branches, and shrubs rearing up to screen it protectively. It keeps silent about the people who lived there and what they saw from its windows. What we have are some facts embellished by imagination.

It's a town of fudge and ice cream and pastels, flowers in window boxes and clapboard churches overlooking the ocean.

In an art museum, I like the portraits best. They're characters expressing stories.

The sound of a blue whale's heartbeat.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

For National Poetry Month: 30 Poem Recommendations

April is National Poetry Month in the US. Take the opportunity to enjoy some good poetry.

1) A Word on Statistics (by Wislawa Szymborska)

2) A Noiseless Patient Spider (by Walt Whitman)

3) The Jabberwocky (by Lewis Carroll)

4) To be of use (by Marge Piercy)

5) From Blossoms (by Li-Young Lee)

6) What Kind of Times Are These (by Adrienne Rich)

7) The Good-Morrow (by John Donne)

8) The Peace of Wild Things (by Wendell Berry)

9) Resumé (by Dorothy Parker)

10) The Writer (by Richard Wilbur)

11) Poetry (by Marianne Moore)

12) First Gestures (by Julia Kasdorf)

13) Translation (by Anne Spencer)

14) To fight aloud is very brave (by Emily Dickinson)

15) Bleezer's Ice Cream (by Jack Prelutsky)

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Week in Seven Words #397

Babies can be so nonchalant. This one has a cold, and without pause, she sneezes straight into her dad's face, then continues peering around and reaching for things.

"This time, it's going to be different," he says, "I'm going to write fiction that has characters. I mean, they're going to be like people this time."

The number of people at the table makes it so that there isn't any pressure on me to speak; at the same time, I'll have someone to talk to (and something to talk about) when I choose.

He senses the pressure placed on him to read the words, to make the effort exactly to the adult's specifications, and he ducks behind his phone.

She holds her troll doll in the air to watch the wind comb through its hair.

The first night is rough, because my throat is raw and painful. The next day passes on wobbly legs. Then the second night comes, and with it, thankfully, a deep, healing sleep that helps so much.

We walk on a sandy path by the river. It runs like a thread through needly pale green shrubs.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Week in Seven Words #396

There are several groups meeting in the atrium. One is for learning Spanish, another for figuring out how to make your home more neat. Although the neater home group is the one I should be signing up for, I've joined a discussion on streamlining business processes. It takes a while to get started. The host shows up late; most of the people who RSVP'ed don't turn up at all. (The conversation is interesting anyway.)

A mariachi band steps into the subway car with the suddenness of a channel change. Everything's bright and lively and loud for a couple of minutes. Later on in the ride, as the train stalls on a bridge, breakdancers appear, a hair's breadth away from head injury as they swing wildly from the poles and do backflips.

A young boy and his mom sit in the mouth of a blue tent that's backlit by the sun. They take turns blowing bubbles.

The different parts of Prospect Park feel only loosely connected. We explore a forest where a stream slips through tumbled rocks. We come to a dog beach where people wade ankle deep and throw toys for their dogs to splash after. A picnic area floats past us at one point, in a mist of smoke. We follow the tail of a larger body of water; it's serpentine and keeps changing shape. Clearings open up, criss-crossed with shadow, and large meadows suddenly spring into view, bared to the sun. These places don't feel like parts of the same park, only that they settled next to each other by chance the day we visited, so we could walk from one to the other.

In these narrow streets, a theme emerges of brick submerged in leaves. Trees screen polished windows, and plants spill out of window boxes.

A passionate sermon in a woman's voice resounds through a barred door. It's a storefront church that contains a cauldron of apocalyptic feeling.

The lower level of the museum is home to vintage train cars, one of them displaying an ad for cocoa with eerie children. The upper level shows a history of city transportation and its challenges, from overcrowding to extensive flooding.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Five Short Stories About Terribly Dysfunctional Marriages

This is a fruitful topic for short fiction.

Title: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
Author: Helen Nielsen
Where I Read It: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

The main character thinks she's past the point of making terrible mistakes with men, that her life is stable now, but she's wrong. Her husband makes her feel that she needs to be on a pedestal - and then ultimately prove that she's like all other women by falling off it. It's that sort of relationship pattern. In any case, she starts getting calls from someone in her past. She assumes she's being blackmailed or stalked. She's smart and careful in general, but not about the people close to her. This story has murder and betrayal.

Title: Her Three Days
Author: Sembène Ousmane
Translator: Len Ortzen
Where I Read It: The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories

The story is set in a culture with polygamous marriages, and the main character is one of four wives. She's awaiting the three days her husband is meant to spend with her and recognizes that she's falling out of favor with him. I remember her observation about the pretenses in her marriage, the lies she needs to tell to make the marriage seem worthwhile. She has to pretend that her husband is a good man, because her identity is bound to his stature and character. If she has submitted to a man who isn't worthy of respect, what does this say about the meaning of her life and its worth?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Week in Seven Words #395

The wetlands we walk through are deceptive. They aren't the original wetlands, which were destroyed. They're a restoration. But the restoration is failing, because even though the obvious ingredients seem to be there, there are missing elements or imbalanced interactions that are turning the area into a woodland.

The dog is boarding at a veterinary hospital, and I'm not allowed to take her outdoors. After she jumps at me and races around the small room and sticks her head in my tote bag, she sits on my lap for a while to stare out the window. Later, when I shoulder my bag, she realizes I'm about to leave. She presses her paws against my thighs. Her soft whining makes me feel even worse for her.

Her interest in the city's water systems and resources is inspiring. She's found an issue she's committed to and acts on it, giving talks, leading hikes, and volunteering to measure water contents. There's a purity to her focus.

A man yells, "Grow, grow!" at a plant box outside of his apartment building.

A thick tree has fallen across the trail. Part of the trunk has been cut away to let people walk through it, as if it's a wall now with a doorway.

I step off the curb, then quickly back on it, as a delivery guy on a motorized bike blows a red light and zooms past. The bike swerves as if he's losing control of it. Another delivery guy, waiting at the light, screams for him to stop. It takes the length of a block for him to slow down.

After each deep thumping noise, the fountain sprays a mist of water as if it's the blowhole on a whale.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Week in Seven Words #394

We lean on each other as the train sways. Our feet adjust to accommodate the extra weight of the other person, and I smile to think we're like a four-legged, two-headed creature.

He's best to be with when he's feeling soft-hearted and full of fun. The years drop from him, and he wants a laugh and good company.

Etta James is calling for a Sunday kind of love through the speakers of his laptop.

She looks fragile in the driver's seat of the SUV and in the pale wash of its interior light. The courage in her comes out in a tired smile.

It's the sort of day where the highlight is hearing "Bohemian Rhapsody" at the supermarket. Not a lackluster cover band performing it, but Queen itself.

The lake looks like it's covered in brown oilcloth and dribbles of spilled pea soup.

"Money doesn't change you," he says, "it just shows you who you already are." So if someone turns mean and stingy (or kind and generous) when they acquire money, did they have those tendencies all along?

Monday, April 2, 2018

Two old movies with false preachers

Title: The Miracle Woman (1931)
Director: Frank Capra
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

It's Barbara Stanwyck's performance and screen presence that make this movie worth watching. She convincingly plays all shades of emotion, from righteous fury to tenderness to despair. She subtly expresses conflicted feelings and moments of doubt.

Her character, Florence Fallon, is the daughter of a minister. At the start of the movie, she delivers a tirade from the pulpit of her late father's church, because the congregation had treated him callously. After the congregants leave her to her anger and grief, a con artist (played by Sam Hardy) takes advantage of her in her vulnerable state and persuades her to enact a revenge against all the falsely pious people out there. He launches her into stardom as a fake faith healer, and she travels around giving fiery speeches and tricking people into giving up their money.

Even though Florence has become a false preacher, her words still have power in a way that sometimes does good. John Carson (David Manners), who lives alone and is blind, is convinced not to kill himself when he hears her over the radio. Although he's skeptical about faith healing and the spectacle surrounding her preaching, he's still moved by her and attends one of her shows to find out more. Florence herself is starting to get tired of her false preaching, and meeting John gives her a further push towards an honest life.

There are things the movie could have done without, namely the over-use of a ventriloquist dummy. But I liked how it shows faith and love struggling to find a way out and take root, in spite of everything that tries to cloak, choke, or impede them.

Title: The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

The Night of the Hunter has the landscape of a dark folk tale. A river at night where young children escape by boat from a frenzied murderer. The murderer standing over the children's mother in a cramped and shadowed bedroom. The silhouette of an old woman with a gun held across her lap as she defends a house full of children from the murderer. During that scene, the old woman, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) sings a hymn, and the murderer, a false preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), joins in from where he sits outside in the dark. The words he uses are a little different from hers.

Powell is able to pass as a preacher not only thanks to his charisma but because he taps into some twisted beliefs that already resonate in the communities he cons. He exploits existing unhealthy ideas about female sexuality and marriage. He's good at finding the places where love and compassion are lacking. Like other predators, he also hones in on vulnerable people: lonely widows, girls raised without love, children who lack the protection of reliable adults.

These are some of the psychological insights that emerge in this riveting and disturbing movie. The movie is also sensitive to the behavior of children who have been hurt, abused, or betrayed. For instance, John (Billy Chapin), the young boy who flees the murderer with his sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), receives a great gift from Rachel Cooper when she believes him that Powell is a dangerous man. John wasn't expecting to be believed when it was his word against the word of an adult. In another scene, he winds up beating Powell with a doll, and it's really a moment when he's raging against his birth dad, who stole the money that led Powell to appear and win over the children's mother, Willa (Shelley Winters). In another scene, Ruby (Gloria Castillo), one of the vulnerable children in Rachel Cooper's house, admits to sneaking out at night. Rachel responds by holding her and talking to her about the difference between real love and the kind of superficial (and potentially dangerous) attention Ruby gets from boys and men, which she has mistakenly confused for love.

The movie is richer for all of these moments. But it's also worth watching just for Mitchum's performance as a superficially charming terror, a real nightmare figure who can smooth talk in one scene and hunt children like a beast in another.