Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Picked up a beautiful little book the other day: Songs of Kabir, Translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra with a preface by Wendy Doniger.  I bought it for my daughter, who dances and teaches classical Indian Dance but who does not have any real background in Indian Culture. We wound up reading it aloud yesterday.  The brief discussion of nir-guna and guna, which my daughter knows through chance references in dances about various deities and their avatars, was illuminating.

I highly recommend it. Doniger's intro is worth it, alone, but the poems, in this punchy translation, are also wonderful.

Here's one poem, but really they were all great:

O pundit, your hairsplitting's
So much bullshit. I'm surprised
You still get away with it.

If parroting the name
Of Rama brought salvation,
Then saying sugarcane
Should sweeten the mouth,
Saying fire burn the feet,
Saying water slake thirst,
And saying food
Would be as good as a belch.

If saying Money made everyone rich,
There'd be no beggars it he streets.

My back is turned on the world
You hear me singing of Rama and you smile.
One day, Kabir says,
All bundled up,
You'll be delivered to Deathville. (KG179)

Here's another

Except that it robs you of who you are,
What can you say about speech?
Inconceivable to live without
And impossible to live with,
Speech diminishes you.
Speak with a wise man, there'll be
Much to learn; speak with a fool,
All you get is prattle.
Strike a half-empty pot, and it'll make
A loud sound; strike one that is full,
Says Kabir, and hear the silence.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sex and Death

I just found out that someone whose spouse I know died, a few months ago.  I didn't hear of the death and found out about it in a roundabout way.  Looking for a poem to send her I stumbled on this one and was on the verge of writing it out when I realized that it was actually about sex. So I'm not sending it to her, although I think she'd enjoy it on both levels.  Oh, how I love John Donne!

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, No;

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inte -assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin comapasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th'other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must run
Like th'other foot, obliquely run
They firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
--John Donne (1572-1631)

From a lovely collection called Enduring Ties, Poems of Family and Relationships, Edited by Grant Hardy.

Friday, July 31, 2015


 Today while my co-facilitator and I were refereeing about 15 new parents and their babies, all in assorted stages of undress and adorableness--babies and mothers--and stress and wails (babies and mothers), Boobs aflutter (one of the new fathers said, somewhat pompously that "we are having problems with breast feeding" and everyone just cracked up.  But he was very good about sitting there while milk was literally jetting from everyone else so yay him!

Meanwhile, a mother of a toddler who had been in the group two years ago came back to see us.  She walked in with her toddler, pregnant with her next child, and burst into tears.  Her own mother had just died two days ago, she'd come back from that deathbed, and she just didn't know where to turn for comfort.  We took turns just sitting with her and talking about the toddler, the baby, her mother, and her grief.  First me, and then my partner who is more familiar with local therapeutic options.    Our returned mother apologized for coming to us for help, she cried while telling me that she had tried to write us an email to ask for help but that she had been so ashamed she had never sent it, and then became so desperate that she just turned up at the group.  I told her "It would have been an honor to have received that email."  I feel very lucky that she felt she could come to us and I was there to see something truly beautiful--her little toddler, who had had some fairly serious developmental delays when she was coming as a new mother, is walking and talking now. When he saw that she was crying he said "Mamma sad? I give hug" and came over to her and gave her a big hug.  She's such a perfectionist, and she's so upset that she is upset, that she didn't even give herself enough credit for having been the mother her son has needed, all this time, bringing him along to this stage of empathy and generosity.  She's a very determined and skillful parent, who is grieving the loss of  her own parent while trying to be completely perfect with her own child.  Its difficult enough for these new parents to find the time and emotional strength to be the best parent they can be to their own babies. Its even harder when they are wrestling with needing to give themselves compassion and care as well.  We are talking about trying to set up a drop in group for mothers who are also caregiving their own parents, or grieving for their own parents.  At least four women in our current group are simultaneously juggling new babies, work, and dying parents or in-laws.  There's no money, of course, but if we could find a time to do it I think the city would let us use the space and we would just do it for free.

Jam Yesterday and Jam Tomorrow but Never Jam Today

Mission temporarily completed: pitted eight quarts of cherries, made three quarts of cherry jam, two of pickled cherries, and one of a kind of pickled, candied, lemons just to see how that comes out.  The rest of the cherries are frozen for pies.  Now I'm making brioche dough, have set aside some experimental over-yeasted pizza dough to try to make naan out of (why not?), am trying to make some pie crusts and some fresh harissa before I go off to my other job with a new parent/baby group.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Medieval Mind

I'm still slowly plowing my way through Tuchman's A Distant Mirror but I took a brief detour through Charles T. Wood's The Quest for Eternity: Medieval Manners and Morals.  One of Tuchmann's basic points is that the Medieval aesthetic was a juvenile one.  Prone to hysterics, lacking impulse control, tending towards extremes of love or hate, lacking foresight.  Right at the start of Wood's book he offers this vignette, which he sees as being about the failure of Christianity to reach something he calls the "Germanic" nature of the culture.  

"Even as late as the twelth century, traces of the gulf that could separate the ordinary Christian from the high ideals of his faith are to be found in the chansons de geste, whose plots reflect a folk memory of the past, particularly of the reigns of Charlemagne and his immediate descendants.  Nowhere is their testimony more vivid than in Raoul de Cambrai.  Raoul, the hero, has with some justice been called "a paroxysm of ferocity and impiety", for his career encompasses nearly every imaginable form of savagery and brutality.  But despite his shortcomings, Raoul clearly consiers himself a Chrisitian and subject to the dictates of the faith, facts that are somewhat startlingly demonstrated after he has burned down a convent filled with nuns, including the mother of one of his squires.  Fatigued from this exploit, Raoul returns to his tent, summons his seneschal, and is soon engaged in a a difficult exchange of words:

'Prepare me food and thou wilt do me a great service; roasted peacocks and devilled swans, and venison in abundance, that even the humblest may have his fill.  I would not be thought mean by my barons for all the gold of a city.'  When the seneschal heard this he looked at him in amazement and crossed himself thrice for such blasphemy.  'In the name of Our Lady,' said he, 'what are you thinking of?  You are denying holy Christianity and your baptism and the God of majesty.  It is Lent, when every one ought to fast;  It is the holy Friday of the passon on which sinners have always honoured the cross.  And we misterable men who have come here, we have burned the nuns and violated the church and we shall never be reconciled to God unless his pity be greater than our wickedness.'  Raoul looked at him and said: 'Son of a slave, why have you spoken to me like that?  Why did they wrong me? They insulted two of my squires and it is not a matter for wonder that they had to pay for it dearly.  But, it is true, I had forgotten Lent.' 

Raoul, sulking, then attempts to submerge his hunger in a game of chess. Thus are Christ's forty days in the wilderness piously commemorated."

Is it Better To Start Something and Never Finish, or to Finish One Thing But Never Start Another?

I had a visit with two friends yesterday. In the morning I cooked for a homeless teen shelter with a friend of mine who I think of as the tutelary god of women's work.  With one hand she feeds 75 people all weekend at a lab retreat, with the other she organizes women to come to her house and cook monthly for a teen shelter, she organizes monthly breakfasts at her house that brings together everyone working on issues of homelessness, racism, employment, education, tutoring, feminism, and genteel electoral politics, she goes up to New Hampshire or wherever she is called by the Democratic Party to run lawyer strike forces at election time, and she holds parties and fundraisers for progressive causes.  While I was at her house yesterday it turned out that she also makes her own pectin, from her own apples, so she can jam her own cherries from her own cherry tree.  I've known her for years, we used to run the PTA together at our children's school, and I know how she does all this.  1) She never says no.  2) She always asks for help. 3) She never over prepares--she just knows that she will have to do something in three months and starts right in doing it, doing a little every day.  Being with her is like being with a very loving Scherezade--one story is never finished because it branches into ten, a description of the dish we are cooking for the teens becomes a long involved story about some people who might have known someone you know who ate the dish ten years ago when she was first cooking it using some other ingredients and each of the alternate ingredients are then lovingly explored.  My children tease me that all my explanations for things go back to the Sumerians and to politics and racism.  I would say that my friend's explanations are, like mine, Proustian but with the touchstone being friends and acquaintances. Oh and she paints.

 Inspired by her example, and already having 6 quarts of Sour Cherries to pit and jam, I rushed off and bought 8 more so I could also make pickled Cherries and still have enough left over for pie. On the way to the farm stand I went to see another friend of mine--an equally talented and artistic woman--and found her having put herself under a ban: no new projects until some of the old ones were finished.  I resonate with that--I never finish anything, it seems like.  If the children hadn't taken over the task of growing up right from conception I probably wouldn't even have finished my pregnancy, let alone let them leave home. Not for too much mother love but because of too much procrastination.  At any rate seeing this friend and hearing about her new plan to "stop taking on new projects until I finish the old ones" I decided, on reflection, that I prefer the original way of doing things. Just say yes, get started, and figure that it finishes when it has to finish and not a moment before.

So I am going back, refreshed, to my own chaotic way of doing things.  I'm pitting cherries and pickling and jamming them today, starting bread, continuing to read politics and cultural history, planning my daughter's complex schedule, phoning to arrange things, working on my cookbook, heading out to help run my new mother's group, starting to plan to take a course or two in the fall--one in social work and one in drawing--und so weiter.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bills, Boards, and Banners--The Written City.

My personal motto is "learn something new every day."  Its not much, and I didn't realize it for a long time, but there it is.  I've been keeping up this practice even while I have not been posting, but I miss putting things out there for discussion so here is a little clip from a book that I'm reading "City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York" by David M. Henkin.

"A lithographic advertisement from 1862 depicts a wall plastered completely with overlapping bills promoting everything from esteemed ministers to Tammany politicians to popular actresses (see fig. 4.1).  Read "downwards," as the original caption to "the Bill-Poster's Dream" instructs, the notices form such amusing messages as $100 BOUNTY WANTED A JEWESS FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY, THE AMERICAN BIBLE SOCIETY WIL MEET AT THE GAIETIES CONCERT SALOON, GREAT SPARRING EXHIBITION BY THE SIAMESE TWINS AT BARNUM'S MUSEUM, and RESTORATIVE FOR THE HAIR USE SPAULDING'S PREPARED GLUE.  The humor in this drawing lies, of course, in the characteristically urban juxtaposition of unlikely combinations of people and events, in which physical proximity forces the promiscuous intermingling of a community's disparate elements.  More specifically, the cartoon calls attention to several central features of New York's commercial sign discourse as it emerged inthe antebellum period.  First, "the Bill Poster's Dream" seems to make the pont that as signs became too numerous, their individual purposes were to a certain extent undermined as the notices bured one another in an avalanche of competing messages.  At the same time the signs blended smoothly into a shared language of publicity in which everything from politics to entertainent to religion became homogenized--it is because of their superficial graphic and discursive resemblances as well as their spatial contiguity that these overlapping words lend themselves to humerous misreadings. In addition,the effectiveness of the collage depends on what was the crucially public element in the emerging urban sign system: once a sign was placed inthe public domain it was radically severed form its oauthor's control and intentions and acquired a life of its own.  Finally, the framing of the plastered wall by a small sign reading POST NO BILLS! in the upper left corner and the sleeping bill poster (whose fantasy of an exhaustively papered wall seems like more than just a dream of a day's work completed) in the lower left dramatizes the clash between a barely conspicuous and patently ineffective public authority and a burgeoning commercial culture intent on leaving no vertical space unmarked.

Still, these bills diverged in significant ways from the fixed signs that came to dominate much of the Manhattan cityscape during the second third of the nineteenth century.  Light and flimsy, handbills and posters were mobile and had a radically different relation to urban space.   Whereas fixed signs mapped and labeled the surfaces on which they appeared and claimed the authority associated with those surfaces (speaking, in some sense, for buildings, streets, and parks), the signs featured in "The Bill Poster's Dream" have no such connection with teh wall they cover.  Rather, the bills are subsversive of the orderly relationship between private property and public writing asserted int he city's monumental commercial signage; these posted notices draw parasitically upon the visibility of the building in direct defiance of the only sign authorized to speak for it. Moreover, the posted notices are by nature temporary and refer in most cases to current events, so that they reverse the spatially specific and temporally more abstact pattern of the fixed signs...

...A vast array of ephemeral texts could be seen in the public spaces of the city, including cards passed from hand to hand, advertisements suspended over the shoulders of human beings, and banners draped across buildings during moments of civic celebration...The posters, broadsides, sandwich boards, and banners that contributed to both the hubbub and the pageantry of daily life were in many ways less like monuments and more like speech acts.  Calling them speech acts, however, obscures several crucial developments in the expanding world of mobile texts: their potentially subversive anonymity, their reliance on the impersonal authority of public space, their dramatic detachment from the control of their authors, and the ir role in the process by which writing was replacing speech as the dominant mode of public interaction."