Tag Archives: fiction

Like One Lost in a Thorny Wood

        The air conditioner’s steady whirring was the only sound in the room. “And why do you think,” my therapist said in the modulated tone she used for this kind of question, “that you have such strong memories of your 6th grade teacher,  Mr. Mason, after all this time?”

            A silver sliver of light had found a path between the drawn curtains and fell across the  carpet.  I started to say something about Mr. Mason being my first male teacher, but no, that seemed too pat.  I let my thoughts go where they might and a memory appeared in my mind, as if on a movie screen. This sometimes happened when I talked with Dr. Monticello, but then I am a  movie fan, so no surprise. The  scene took a minute to come into focus.  My therapist shifted in her  leather chair, waiting for me to proceed.  Her eyes were a little more intent than usual, as she leaned forward slightly.   I noticed she was wearing blue eye shadow.  Maybe a new perfume, also.

“There was an evening back then, “ I began.  “I was sitting in my bedroom with the door half closed, reading.  I heard my father coming down the stairs from his study.  My mother called us for dinner.”

“Excuse me, you were in sixth grade at this time?”

“Yes, I was eleven.”

As my story began to unfold to me—and to my therapist—it drew me back in time,  to my childhood home in the suburb of Naperville, just west of Chicago,   More than 40 years fell away, as if in a dissolve shot in a film, as I vividly recalled one eventful day.

In my memory, the reds and oranges and golds had taken over the woods at the end of our street.  But that fall day, what we used to call Indian summer had stopped by for a brief visit, bringing a reminder of late summer warmth before winter’s chill set in.

I had walked home from school at the usual time and spent the next couple of hours in my room immersed in a biography of Patrick Henry, the orator who had touched the American Revolution with fire.  I had memorized his most famous lines, and would sometimes close the door so I could recite them dramatically without being the target of derision.  “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles 1st his Cromwell, and George 3rd….may profit by their example!”  That afternoon, I could not concentrate on the book, being too keyed up about a television show coming up that evening in which I was to have a starring role—I hoped.

I had spent the previous  weekend  at the library, reading up on the election campaign for Illinois’ governor.  I was developing a keen interest in politics, which made me feel kind of strange because none of my friends was similarly inclined.  A good kind of strange, though.

I admired the young Democratic governor, who was running for re-election. He had a Kennedyesque image.  He, or more likely his ad men, had hit on the idea of a television call-in show where he would field questions from viewers.  It was my plan to phone in a question and my hope to have it read on TV.  It was the closest I could get to talking with a political leader then, but in the future, who knew?

My mother called, “Dinner is now being served…in the main dining hall.”  This was a favorite saying of hers, as if perhaps she were a lady in a Scottish castle.  I heard my father getting up from the desk in his study and then coming downstairs.  When I got to the dinner table, my  little brother was already there.   The family collie had followed her nose to a place across the room.   “Just for tonight, we will have the television on,” my mother said, and smiled at me.  She was setting aside one of her strictest rules—no watching TV at dinner.

My mother had made steak pie, which I knew was one of her favorite recipes.  The tenderloin, pastry, and gravy made a deliciously rich combination, to be washed down with iced tea flavored with lemon and honey.   I noticed  this change from our usual basic fare.  The dinner passed in silence, as usual, with the exception of my mother’s question to each of us about our day in school.  My father focused his attention on the dinner before him, occasionally glancing up at the television set, which emitted a low hum in the corner.

When the program with the Governor came on, I went over and turned up the volume.  He was seated at a table across from the news reporter, his posture being a concession to his having lost a leg in the war—at Guadalcanal, I had read.  The call-in numbers showed at the bottom of the screen.  I jotted them down, went to our phone, and dialed the first number.  A woman’s voice answered and advised I would be placed on hold, but asked me not to hang up.  When she came back on the line, I gave her my name and city, and then read my question to her as distinctly as I could.  She said my question would be placed in a queue.  I thought the British expression odd, but I thanked her and returned to the dinner table.

The reporter read questions from the stack of cards that had been handed to him, and the governor answered each in turn.  The hands on the clock on our dining room  wall seemed to be moving  too quickly.  I was beginning to think my question would go unanswered.  My mother was just starting to clear the dishes, when the reporter said, “Governor, now we have a question for you from Naperville.”  My heart picked up its pace, and we all turned to the television.

“Jeff Wolinski asks you,” the reporter began, garbling my last name of Wallace.

The garbled name had no sooner left his lips than my father started laughing.  The governor was answering, but I could not hear what he was saying, as my father loudly continued, “Wolinski, what kind of name is that?  Wolinski, does he think we’re Polish, maybe?”

In a flash of anger and desperation, I turned to my father and asked, “Can you please be quiet.  I want to hear what he says.”

My father’s face flushed crimson.   “Don’t you EVER talk to me in that tone.  I am your father and you will not talk to me like that.  Do you read me?”

I looked to my mother, but her eyes were cast down.  Tears welled up in my eyes, tears of anger and humiliation.  I wanted very badly to throw my glass of iced tea in my father’s face and the thought scared me.

“Now, you go to your damn room, mister,” my father said.  “And I mean now!”

I trudged off to my bedroom, my stomach in a knot.  I had not heard a word of my question or the Governor’s answer.  I closed the door behind me softly, but pretended I was slamming it with all my might.  I choked on my tears.

On the nightstand, the biography of Patrick Henry remained open.  Outside, the last streaks of red were fading in the western sky.   I turned on the light, picked up the book, and started reading.  In a moment, I was back in the Virginia Assembly in 1775.

When I finished my story, the memory dissolved and I was back in my therapist’s office.  My stomach was still knotted.  My therapist’s expression showed her concern.  After pushing  the box of Kleenex across the table that separated us, she said, “I’m very impressed that  you were able to tell me that story.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

She unfolded her hands.  “I’m afraid that our time is up now,  Take a couple minutes to collect your thoughts, if you like.  We can go into this more next time.”

When I was leaving, she said, “I’ll see you next week.”  She gave my hand a squeeze, which she had not done before.

 

Copyright 2020 by Tom Schultz.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent from this blog’s author is prohibited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not a Piano Key to be Played, but a Human

For the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key to be played!  And this being so, can one help being tempted to rejoice that it has not yet come off, and that desire still depends on something we don’t know?

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

An 1864 Russian novel I read and discussed in a book club in nearby Ann Arbor yesterday.  The Underground Man asserts a person’s right to be human, with all the “unreasonable” emotions that involves, in the face of reformers’ efforts to conform human behavior to their idea of rationality and “the good.”  Also, a revolution in the novel, with the first anti-hero and the emergence of the unreliable narrator.  Really quite an amazing achievement in the art of writing.  I’m still marveling and will be re-reading after picking up many great insights from the book club members’ discussion.

Warren Dunes state park

Warren Dunes, Michigan

Katniss Everdeen: The Truth in the Myth

 

forebear of Katniss

The goddess Diana, forebear of Katniss

 

In Greek myth, Artemis served as goddess of both the hunt and childbirth. Katniss Everdeen, the young hero of our modern myth, Hunger Games, combines within herself the nurturing for which women have traditionally been known, with the assertiveness and competence that have been the touchstone of women’s evolving identity. She takes care of the inner world of emotions, as she grows proficient in the world of action. Solicitous to those most in need of solace, yet entirely capable of the hunter/warrior’s resolve, Katniss’ character suggests a renewal for our society’s ailing spirit.

(With the finale of the Hunger Games movies, I re-post this musing on the Katniss character)

Drawing on my own family’s story, I took an early liking to Katniss, the coal miner’s daughter. Her father has been stolen from her by an underground explosion amidst primitive conditions; the mine where he dug coal becomes his tomb. Yet, her bond with him endures. Memories of her father return to Katniss in her dreams, often as nightmares of his violent death–but we are sure, also as a well from which she draws her inner strength.

Her mother has been plunged into depression by the wrenching loss of her husband, and merely walking through life is her daily struggle. She often falters. Despite her trauma, Katniss’ mother retains her gift as a healer for the ill and the injured, practicing natural cures. This, too, blends into Katniss’ identity.

Growing up in want and on the margins of starvation, far from the safe harbor of a middle class life, Katniss’ empathy for the oppressed comes naturally to her. Admirable emotions, though, will not ward off the gaunt wolf of hunger, constantly prowling the coal mining district. In the face of threatened sanctions from authority, she steadily learns the hunter’s craft to provide for her mother and younger sister. At the worst of times, she is the most resourceful.

Given her sympathies and her spirit, we are not surprised when Katniss descends into the vicious combat of the Hunger Games reality show–not through fate, but by choice. The Capitol’s impersonal lottery, designed to intimidate the working class population of the Districts, marks her fragile younger sister, Prim, for a brutal death in the arena. Rather than passively accept the destruction of her sister, Katniss steps forward to take Prim’s place. In the movie, trepidation is etched on her  face–she is not a steely action hero. Knowing the odds against her, she chooses to act as a defender of the defenseless. I was reminded of Martin Luther’s declaration: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Fear is not banished, but conquered through resolution. At this point, the haughty lords of the Capitol have met their match, though they are still blissful in their ignorance.

Katniss preserves her identity, and acts upon it, in the face of the relentlessly dehumanizing Hunger Games. In her search for allies in the arena, she picks the most unlikely of combatants, the slight and vulnerable Rue, who reminds Katniss of her sister. Unable to prevent Rue’s death, she dispatches the executioner with a well-placed arrow. Then, in a touching and understated act of defiance of the Capitol, she covers Rue’s body with flowers. She openly weeps over the loss of her friend, and over what she has forever lost in having to kill another human being. With her floral tribute, she retains as much of her integrity as she can, and still survive the Hunger Games.  Katniss uses beauty  as a protest against her abhorrent situation.

Skeptics might scoff that reading social import into the Hunger Games is a stretch, as it is merely a work of fiction. Myths, however, often crystallize a society’s truths. In seeking to discern the course of underlying social change, we are often as sleuths sifting through clues. The Hunger Games novels and movies have received a tremendous reception. This is a fact which we can grasp, and to which attention should be paid. Could one really believe that the novels and movie would have been embraced in the same manner, particularly by young women, if the hero had been a Justin or a Michael, or a female action figure strutting in a purely macho style? It strikes me as no coincidence that a young woman with Katniss’ character has fulfilled this role in our culture at this time. Her personality, her inclusion of her mother’s nurturing gift with her father’s steady courage and willingness to face a dangerous task, these qualities draw the audience to Katniss in 2014. When the spirit in  politics has ossified, and the political conversation becomes utterly predictable in its myopia, we might better explore the arts as a palette for an alternative, creative vision.

A Flower Wilted and a Grandmother’s Gift

au sable 5 23 15 035

       My Grandmother MacEwen I knew  late in her life,  when she was hobbled by arthritis and worn from  decades as  a coal miner’s wife.  “Son, I’m getting aw’fy gimpy in my old age,” she would  tell me  in her Scottish burr.    She lived three times zones west of us and so her visits were a rare gift.  My uncle drove  across the empty expanse of the Canadian prairie in his British-made car, with my grandmother, as I imagined, a stoic passenger.  Uncle Tam  made the trek across three provinces and five  states  in three days, which was a marvel to me when I became old enough to drive.  “We always make Winnipeg by sundown,” he assured me.   Eight hundred miles separated their  home in the foothills   of the Canadian Rockies  from that urban outpost sprouting in  the Manitoba wheat fields.

         My grandmother’s appearance spoke of a life far removed from that of  my more prosperous relatives  in Detroit.  Lizzie, as my uncle called her, wore her iron gray hair pulled back in a bun, although a few disobedient strands escaped the control of her hair pins.  Her face was deeply wrinkled, with her upper lip pulled up as if she had  a stroke years ago.  Usually, a rumpled, charcoal  gray dress hung loosely about her, and varicose veins showed plainly beneath her nylons.  Her slippers were a  concession to the bunions on her feet.

Grandma MacEwen could be  abrasive:   critical, even spiteful toward my uncle and my mother. But,  to her grandson she was the most honestly emotional person in the family.  While our home was so often silent  and bleak, in her rare stays  Grandma  brought with her recognition and  affection  for me.  I often puzzled, as I grew older, over  these two sides  to her character.

Revealing  a slice of  family history one day, my mother told me of Grandma MacEwen’s youth, growing up in the Scottish town of  Dunfermline at the turn of the 20th century.  Her father was a miner, taking the tram car down into the  coal dungeons,  working hunched over  from can’t see to can’t see.   At the local  grade school, bright-eyed young  Lizzie  was a top student, held in high regard by her teachers.  “Aye, the wee lass shows  promise.”

To my grandmother’s  misfortune, childhood was not a luxury that a coal miner’s family could afford. The day Lizzie  finished sixth grade, her father told her that  school was a waste of time for  girls.  My grandmother, then 11  years-old, would start her job  in the textile factory near  Pittencrief.

Now, as I think  about that long ago conversation with my mother,  I picture diminutive  Lizzie dwarfed by  the  power looms.  The gauzy lint hangs  in the air.  Her lunch has to be gobbled while she is standing.  Her  fingers are sore, always.  Perhaps she is not  nimble enough, and the straw boss whacks her with his  switch.  “You’ll no be loafin’  around this job like a store dug!”

Tending her machines, she often thinks of her days in school, being called on, writing on the blackboard, then basking in  her teacher’s  praise.  She recalls  her father’s blunt  words that took her schooldays  away–the back of his hard hand across her face when she protested.  She brushes the floating  lint from her face.   The resentment, the cold impotent rage, she buries deep inside.

As a teenager, she graduates from the factory to marry a coal miner.  Young Mike  is an adventurous lad, and they try their luck across the water  in Canada.  They settle in  a  coal mining town on the banks of the Saskatchewan River, surrounded by  the   wilderness.  He works hard in the mine, earning a promotion to pit boss; she bears three children and two survive.  There is enough money for groceries, but sometimes not enough coal to heat the cramped wooden house, so the eggs  freeze in the cupboard.  Christmas gifts for the children are out of the question, except for  a few oranges in their stockings.  She watches her son stricken with a mysterious spinal ailment, which leaves him partly crippled because there is no money for fancy, big-city doctors.  She wonders if her husband will come home safely from the mines.  He always does, but two of her cousins  are not so lucky.

This childhood, this life, this fate, might wear many people out.  It did grind down many people into despair.  My grandmother, however, kept a spark alive.  She was the one who picked up her family from western Canada during the Depression and moved them to Scotland so her husband could find work.  Later, she brought them back to Canada when the coal industry revived, though on the return voyage she kept a wary lookout for Nazi U-boats lurking in the  north Atlantic.

And in her old age, amidst the bitterness that infected her, but did not consume her, she found within herself a well of affection to bequeath to a grandson.  In return, she especially appreciated hearing how well he was doing in school.

The Poetry of Chance and Loss

Newburgh Lake, Michigan

The windows of the student union looked out through the overhanging branches of  stately elms.  Through a gap in the trees, Lake Mendota appeared, sparkling in the sunshine.  The breeze had kicked up some whitecaps on the blue-green water and a sprinkling of sailboats coasted with the wind.

At first, I thought it was just my imagination, but a familiar tune floated above the hubbub of the crowd.  This song, the poetry of chance and loss, sung to the chords of an acoustic guitar, had been one of our favorites in the dorm a few years back.  Catching the lyrics of the last verse, I smiled and said to myself, “Yep, back in Madison.”

The dark wood paneling of the room absorbed the light coming in, so faces were vague until my eyes adjusted.  When I scanned the room again, I noticed her sitting alone, apparently engrossed in a book.  She was wearing jeans split to create bell-bottoms and a black blouse, open with a v-neck, a choice I had always appreciated, as it set off her violet-blue eyes.  She wore her dark brown hair longer than I remembered, not loose but tucked beneath a silk lavender scarf.   On the wooden table, a coffee cup sat off to one side, next to an open notebook.  A leather purse, decorated with jade jewelry, apparently of some American Indian design, hung from her chair.

A long minute’s hesitation, then I found myself walking in the direction of her table, turning over in my mind whether to say hello—pretending to myself that I had a choice.  After closing the book, she put down her glasses and rubbed her eyes.  She untied the scarf and then ran her fingers through her hair.  Slipping the scarf inside the purse, she started to get up.

I blurted out, “Hi, Natalie.” The beer on my tray chose that moment to slide and I had to manage a neat balancing act to avoid dousing a girl at the next table.

Natalie Mariposa looked in my direction.  After a moment, she smiled as if she had been expecting me.  “Well?”  She gestured to the empty spot next to her and eased back into her chair.

Natalie had made up my mind for me, as it seemed she always had.  As at our first meeting, she still reminded me of a young Elizabeth Taylor.  Since nothing profound or even the least bit cool came to mind, I said, “This is quite a coincidence.”

“Howdy, stranger.  I saved a seat for you.” Again the smile. “For three years.”

Close Encounters: Spiritual Aura Shines

The hope symbolized by light from the heavens is that renewal awaits us, if only we remain open to the mystery and take the opportunity to appreciate the wisdom abiding in the spiritual.”

Earth's aura and crescent moon (NASA photo)

Earth’s aura and crescent moon
(NASA photo)

[Repost]

  The arts offered a space where we could pause for reflection, and perhaps glimpse a faint glow from over the horizon, amidst the malaise weighing on 1970s America. That most innovative of film makers, Steven Spielberg, slipped the bonds of science fiction’s conventions in a visionary movie. He portrayed an alien spaceship with a spiritual aura, like those Renaissance religious paintings where the radiance from above promises a hopeful future and a chance of renewal.

“Children Opening Doors to Beautiful Sources of Light”

When the 1977 film Close Encounters opens, a luminous space ship dazzles airline pilots by its unearthly maneuvers, while air traffic controllers in the American heartland try to make sense of what they see on their screens. Unable to reconcile what they are witnessing with their familiar experience, they dismiss the extraordinary, rather than seeking its meaning. As the story unfolds, an aged Mexican villager with a beatific smile tells scientists that the sun came out at night and sang to him, as a Madonna might to her child. When the scene shifts back to Indiana, the specter reappears, and Spielberg sends a curious, not fearful, child chasing an elusive orange vapor into the prairie night. What is hidden from the wise and learned is sometimes revealed to children. As Spielberg later explained, “Close Encounters is all about children opening doors to beautiful sources of light.” It is difficult to imagine a more numinous response to the angst then afflicting America.

In Close Encounters, the viewer is from the opening drawn into a world of light, music, and wonder, which captivates the senses more than the intellect. Instead of intrepid explorers, we meet ordinary people, tentative in their search for the strangers. They are warm and approachable, unlike the steely glint of heroism. The viewer can identify with their uncertainty in the face of the astonishing. Close Encounters shares Hamlet’s response to the dreams and phantoms of other worlds: as strangers, give them welcome.

As the story begins, a utility company repairman, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), heads out in his truck when the spaceship’s over flight turns out the lights and plunges Muncie, Indiana into an eerie darkness. He gets lost in the outer burbs, but the aliens seem to find him, and he looks up to a dazzling white glare before the ship glides off into the night sky. Although rattled, Neary listens to the cacophony of voices on his CB radio so he can track the ship’s path, and pursue it. Throughout the movie, this Everyman follows his inner voice, strange and compulsive though it may be, to search for the unknowable. Does obsession lurk in the shadows of the deepest religious experience? Implicit in the movie is this ambivalence.

Enlightened guide and a counter-vision

Although the events in the film unfold as seen by the Everyman character, we have to focus elsewhere to approach the essence of the film. A marvelous work of art, or an idyllic scene in nature, when truly taken in by the viewer, can inspire a sense of awe, but a more profound appreciation flows from knowledge. Similarly, a childlike wonder may inspire a quest for the mysterious light, and Neary’s obsession may pursue it, but only an enlightened guide can enrich the numinous experience.

In Close Encounters, the awareness is provided by a scientist, Claude Lacombe–although what variety of scientist remains nebulous. The actor is an icon of French New Wave cinema, Francois Truffaut, who had expanded the frontiers of film creativity in the 1960s. As the refrain in the movie goes, this means something.

Lacombe’s point of view gives permission to the viewer to reflect on the mystical light. “The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” Through Lacombe’s perspective, we are invited to wonder and perhaps to begin to understand; what the radiance might represent is left to us. Given the increasingly materialist and secular outlook that was emerging in the 1970s, and since then has become increasingly dominant, this signifies a counter vision.

Consider that Lacombe is not an American pragmatist, but a French intellectual with a philosophical hue. He is drawn to the mystery, and his métier is the illuminating question. Yet, he is neither conducting an investigation nor solving a problem–that is the province of the technician. Lacombe might well agree with Einstein that scientific thinking involves a free play with concepts. He has the brilliant intuition to use several musical tones as the language to reach out to the aliens, relying on child’s play in the most fateful of communications. Recall the Mexican villager’s description of the ship: the sun that sang. Where a film involving space travel might well focus on the technology, the crucial tool in Close Encounters is simple music, and the goal is communication with strangers.

Quest and possibility

The scientist has set out on a quest—as have the child, Neary’s everyman, and, through identifying with the film’s characters, the audience. Each has taken a risk, even if it is only the hazard of unsettling their comfortable thinking, in hope of being renewed.

Lacombe’s philosophy accepts the possibility that there are things in heaven and earth that dwell beyond the realm of facts. He is like Einstein, who once said that he developed his relativity theory because he was still able to ask childlike questions about space and time. Lacombe has retained the child’s sense of wonder, yet he has cultivated the detachment necessary for insight into the shining enigma. William Blake wrote that the child’s toys and the old man’s reasons are but the fruits of the two seasons. Close Encounters’ script mirrors this: Lacombe is the adult companion to the Indiana boy who opens the door to the beautiful light. Not by force of logical argument, but through being open to creativity and inspiration, he calmly persuades his colleagues of the potential inherent in reaching out to the visitors. Lacombe is a prophet without self-righteousness.

No longer through a glass, darkly

With the majestic arrival of the mother ship at Devil’s Tower, a light from above shining in the darkness, time seems to be suspended, and the spiritual quest of Close Encounters reaches its apotheosis. We are by now alerted to the interplay of light and music that bounces back and forth between the ship and human technology. Emerging at last, the aliens appear, bathed in a diffuse white light. Neary and other explorers ascend into the ship, but the viewer does not follow them into the inner sanctum. What waits beyond the pale is left to the imagination, as each individual’s spiritual vision is her own. We no longer look through a glass darkly, but we are not yet seeing face to face. In Close Encounters, there is enlightenment, but no revelation—no definitive answers, only intimations. The hope symbolized by the light from the heavens is that renewal awaits us, if only we remain open to the mystery and take the opportunity to appreciate the wisdom abiding in the spiritual.

© Tom Schultz, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent from this blog’s author is prohibited.