Saturday, June 16, 2007

Lord Jim, a Mother Lode and my Mother Tongue

It's amazing how one thing leads to another. A couple of weeks ago, from a box in a closet, looking for something else, I retrieved my high school paperback copy of Lord Jim and started rereading it. The reason this particular book drew me in now is a topic for another time. But something startled me as I thumbed through it. In the margins and on top of many pages, I'd scrawled words I was learning as I read.

In my still-childish hand, on the browning pages are: prescience, torpid, furtive, truculent,alacrity, lugubrious. All words I have loved my whole life. Is it possible Conrad's lushly styled prose is the lode from which I originally mined these words for my vocabulary? The habit of words, the hunger for them, springs from a deep well.

When I left my first husband and moved to Sylvester Manor, a granite pile in downtown Flint filled with a lot of other weepy and disappointed women, one of the first things I did was put a list of my favorite words on the door of the fridge. Along with unearthing Lord Jim, I just found it, tucked in a journal from that time: aileron, catalyst, springerle, baleen, ephemeral, mango, jettison, meander, suffused, inexorably, vituperative, sobriquet. These words comforted me because I loved them -- loved knowing them, loved the way it felt to say them, the way my mouth moved around them, loved their precise complexities. They offered order and continuity when all else was chaos.

And while looking for that list, I came across a third artifact -- a little brown leather ring binder notebook of my mother's, in which she kept lists of words. Like Lord Jim, this was another lode -- a Mother Lode of deeply emotional significance.

It's roughly in alphabetical order, with definitions. I see some of my words are also hers: "catalyst" and "ephemeral" jump out. For some reason, the "e" and "p" pages have been lifted out, so the first thing I see when I open the little book is this: "escargot - snails" and "epicurean - refers to Gr. philosopher who was fond of luxury & sensuous pleasures." Each word and definition adorns the lines in her neatly curved handwriting, as distinct to me as her voice but easier now to enjoy, preserved in many old letters and her prolific notes to herself.

It interests me that it is not so much the words in sentences; my mother collected individual words -- protean, pizzazz, platitude. On the page, they are like bouquets where no two flowers are the same, a cornucopia of words in which each one registers on the mind like an individual gourd, bright and textured -- catatonic, cowl, curmudgeon.

My mother kept her cache secret. I never saw this little notebook until after she died. It was in a drawer in her desk. She didn't write where she found the words or why she liked them, just list after list, in her own hand, crisp and quaint: "dichotomy -- a division into two subordinate parts -- hence a cutting in two," "debacle -- an overthrow, rout or sudden disaster," "drivel - foolish talk."

I think she kept these words simply for herself, for her own pleasure, or like me, for reassurance, like a stash of kruggerands in a vault. Or like dozens of idiosyncratic buttons in a tin, which I also found among her effects. I knew that she loved words -- she used them playfully in conversation, insisting that we pay attention. But I wish we'd talked about all these individual choices; I would have asked her why she liked them. There's also sadness in it -- that she saved these words in solitude, for what? for when? Did she whisper them to herself in a dark night? Did she leaf through the pages for tonic when she was down? Did she review them as she aged to remind herself that, in fact, she had used her sharply observant and cataloguing brain?

Here's the way Lord Jim and my mother juxtapose. As I riffled through the novel, I realized with a start that not all the words at the top were in my hand. Some, I see, are in hers. She must have picked up the book after I left and pulled out her own: rancor, moribund, fecund. We pursued our lexicons out of the same book, but at different times. What was she thinking when she picked up my habit? Why this book? What did she think about Marlowe's story and the fate of the poor Muslim pilgrims aboard the Patna? Of course I'll never know. What I do know, though, is that her hunger for words continued long after her children left home, driving her into the small and tattered libraries we left behind.

Robert Pinsky is fond of saying that the art closest to poetry is dance -- the body is so intimately involved in both -- poems literally come from the poet's breath. Touching my mother's notebook, holding it in my hand, I realize my poetry began even earlier -- from the person who gave me breath. My mother conveyed to me a visceral love of the way words work in the body, in the mind, and in the heart. They come from hunger, sometimes a secret hunger. And they live after we die. So this is to celebrate Joseph Conrad and Carol Worth, beloved progenitors of my mother tongue.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fighting Fanatics with Delight

Maybe one reason Christopher Hitchens' hot new book "God is not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything" grabs me so primally as a preacher's kid is that I know in my gut the suspicion fundamentalists have for what I might call "the good life" -- those dangerous and wily worldly pleasures. It's not just his contention, offered in comments at an interview Ted and I attended at BookExpo in New York last weekend that "religion is the most important fallacious explanation of life and its meanings," but, as he added in his acknowledgement to novelist Ian McEwan, that "the natural is wondrous enough for anyone" without a supernatural overlay.

Fundamentalist religion as I knew it was rooted in repudiation: it deeply mistrusted the body, calling for women (in Ohio versions of the burka) to cover their bodies. It was very uneasy about art or any kind of decoration; wasn't too comfortable with music except of the sacred sort; it rejected dancing, rejected wine, and certainly did not talk of pleasure except as a seducer into sin. As I wrote in Night Blind, "It was sometimes hard to keep straight what we were saying yes to, except homegrown roughage and modest silence."

My mother, a person of great sensual appreciations, never trusted the "holiness" movement for just that reason. Her natural instinct was to welcome, not to repudiate, the world. I've often criticized my father for falling into the tight-lipped fanatic school, asserting it was my mother's essential joi de vivre that saved me from fanaticism. But then I remember the raredos.

It's a story many of my friends have heard and reheard -- about how my father tried to make a wooden screen, what he called a raredos, for one of his churches -- artfully decorated, painstakingly hand-carved with a symbol he found particularly moving -- tumbling bunches of grapes, signifiers of fruitfulness and ripe harvest. The church members mutinied over this intrusion of art into their bleak chancel and made him take it down. In a twist of wonderful irony, it became the headboard behind my parents' bed. (the photo above is of an antique raredos in the UK).

Driving home from school the other night, I caught a snippet of something on NPR that struck me so powerfully that I determined to remember it -- only a few words stayed in my brain, and then when I got home I forgot to pursue it. But tonight I finally found it -- an interview with the Egyptian writer Ali Salem interviewed by Dick Gordon on "The Story." In describing what he thought might be the road to peace, Salem said the extremists had to get jobs -- something to be proud of so that they would not be "miserable." He said, "what characterizes the fanatics is that they don't find on earth anything delightful."

And according to Hitchens, for related reasons, growing bands of religious fanatics are craving the Apocalypse, consumed by a massive and communal death wish. "They want it to be over," he said in New York.

Could this be the answer to the world's chaos -- to protect and stand up for and restore delight?

I suggest we start with jobs for artists and robust funding for the arts -- before the fanatics' misery overtakes us all.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Is it possible they awakened, or arrived, or whatever they do, over just one night?

The first surprising glow in the corner of the eye (did I just see that?) then another by the bird bath, then another back in the corner by the floppy hosta, and then a whole yard full, the green, just-mowed, fragrant yard oscillating and aglow, silent, pulsing and unexpected. Not last night, but tonight.

Last night a dream of shattered glass, wandering the house in that bellicose dark of 3 a.m., my telltale body goosebumped with fear. No sleep and the BBC up loud to scare away trouble.

Then tonight, first fireflies, dusk a velvet plush, and just like that it's summer.

(image above, Empire of Lights, Rene Magritte)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Doctor in the Family

This is for Lauren Carol Worth, M.D., my niece and goddaughter. Today family and friends, a tribal gathering of two distinguished ancestries (A wonderful mix -- second generation Lebanese and Syrian restauranteurs, WASPy teachers and engineers, spawn of British whalers and Quakers, Dutch Calvinists, farmers and preachers) celebrated our daughter and granddaughter as she graduates from the Wayne State medical school. She's flying out tomorrow with her mom, Gail, her father (my brother Wes) and her brother Michael to return to California, where she's starting her residency in San Diego. We are immensely proud of this smart and beautiful young woman.

It was one of those days, sitting in the shade of her maternal grandparents' congenial yard on Grosse Isle, when the years both melted away and presented themselves as something formidable. We note the absences -- especially Lauren's paternal grandmother, my mother Carol Love Worth, who would have been so moved by Lauren's accomplishments that she would have melted with pleasure. My generation -- Lauren's parents and aunts and uncles -- are becoming the elders, though the grandparent Daranys -- Joe and Elaine and Chuck and Frieda, for instance -- show inspiring fortitude and longevity. These are good people, people who've struggled and survived and continue to deliver love and support in giant portions.

And these young kids coming up -- a tableful of new doctors, a doctoral student in environmental science, a self-declared "policy wonk," a kid about to join the Peace Corps, a women's basketball star from Wayne State, and maybe most important to our communal safety, an apprentice electrician -- blow me away. They sat there eating their earth-friendly fruit and vegetables and fretting about the state of the world and pledging to do what they can to make a difference. I believe they will. Driving back north on I-75 in deepening evening sunlight, I took in the Detroit skyline and its Ambassador Bridge with renewed appreciation. The vista looked beautiful this time -- the architecture of a place that's somehow nurtured these fine children. It's time tonight to indulge in a moment of gratitude and hope.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A Caveat About the Cosmopolitan

Dear Reader,
Ted appropriately wishes me to clarify something about his exceptional foray into the world of cocktails. He notes that the amount of alcohol he consumed that day in NYC represents about 20 percent of the total amount of alcohol he's swallowed in his entire life. He's not a teetotaler because he's in recovery, but because -- perhaps luckily for him -- he has never liked the taste of the stuff. This matters to him, and to me, because he does not want his decision to take that drink to be a sign that he was a jerk, numbing himself out in my moment of need. Also, he doesn't want a reader to think I enabled a dangerous experiment and a consequent fall from grace. On the contrary, he wanted to share the moment with me using my ritual of choice: one stiff drink. Since by nurture or DNA neither of us is particularly addictive, one round was more than enough to fulfill the liturgy. And our later, blissful ride with Rickshaw Harry provided the benediction.

We both understand what's at stake for our friends and loved ones who are, in fact, in recovery, and we want to be sure our experience in New York, and my telling of it, doesn't make light of their often monumental and awesome struggles.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

48 Rings

Possibly the best tonic for disappointment and weariness after New York is walking around my familiar old neighborhood, back home. On Franklin a medium-sized Norway maple had been chopped down since I left, and big hunks of trunk were piled at the street awaiting pickup. I paused to look and counted the rings: 48. That makes me think the much bigger trees on my own street must be at least 70 years old. Without putting too fine a point on it, I noticed the rings got wider with age. Open to the hopeful possibility that things grow bigger and better with years, I took a grateful deep breath and walked on.

Mallard couple in Gilkey Creek, muddy and full after recent rains -- a sign, perhaps, of the improving health of the watershed.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ted's Cosmo and a Rickshaw Ride in Central Park


If I were a rickshaw driver like Harry in New York, I'd have that famous mantra handy, too. We met him outside the Roosevelt Hotel, at the corner of Madison Avenue and 45th Street, Friday night after an exhausting and not very happy day. As I had expected, I didn't place higher than my finalist berth in the ForeWord contest, and in the sweltering Jacob Javits Convention Center at BookExpo America, as the winners were impersonally announced on a PowerPoint screen, my roiling mammalian brain let my conscious mind know for the first time that I did, in fact, really care. Disheartened and coated with clammy sweat, I proceeded to my appointment in a steamy little BEA booth to record a podcast about Night Blind, during which my passionately prepared answers to five prepared questions seemed vapid and rote. "To hell with corporate economics," I found myself exhorting to the weary interviewer and two unflappable underage techies. "I'm tired of not having control over what happens to my writing. Writers are always at the bottom of the food chain. But now I have this beautiful book, and I made it happen." They smiled faintly and fussed with various knobs.

Outside the cavernous hall, waiting for the hotel shuttle, my brave ferocity evaporated, along with a couple of infuriating tears. "What's the point," I muttered to Ted. "Maybe I could take this if I was 37, but I'm 57, and I think I've about had it." He rested a reassuring arm lightly on my shoulder. His touch, unconfining and eloquent, was a gesture vastly better than words, which for the moment were the enemy.

We decided to eat in the mostly deserted Roosevelt Grille. I ordered a kamikaze, my favorite cocktail lately and also a metaphorically sound choice for the occasion. "I think I want to drink in sympathy," my teetotaller husband said. I've never seen him drink; I should have said no but I said yes and the waiter and I decided he should have a Cosmo. When it came, Ted bent over slowly like a large animal, sniffed it, and sipped it without lifting it up. It touched me -- how he sacrificed his abstinence like a ritual to exorcise disappointment, and how he seemed to taste the drink with his whole body. Then he sipped it again and again and then he picked up the martini glass in both hands like it was a coffee mug and drained the rosy dregs.

"I feel zingy," he said.

A baby grand piano in a corner played some indistinguishable tune, mechanically programmed, without a person. The vestigial bench, pulled out as if to make room for, say, Art Tatum, looked undusted.

"That's depressing," I said. "It's New York City, for godssake. Couldn't they find some actual hungry kid to actually play piano?"

"Labor unions," Ted speculated, wiping a drop of cranberry and Triple Sec from the corner of his mouth.

"That sucks," I said. I couldn't see the point of being witty, even though we were sitting so close to the Algonquin Hotel you could get there in the time it takes to say "Razors pain you, rivers are damp."

After dinner we went outside for fresh air. That's where we met Harry. "Want a ride around the park?" We paid him $60 and clambered into the little buggy and, with an innocent tingle of the bike bell, Harry pulled away into the early evening traffic -- black Lincolns, UPS trucks, yellow cabs. For a half hour our carbon footprint was nil.

He said he was 50 and drives the pedicab four hours a day, after going to school to be an air conditioning repair person. His wife is a Colombian dance choreographer; they don't always get along. Beads of sweat sluffed off him effortlessly, and he talked and pulled our 350 pounds and breathed in miraculous congruence.

At the south end of Central Park, he took us to the "literary walk," its quadruple rows of elms shimmering in the evening sun. Robert Burns, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott silently peered over strollers. At the Reservoir, he said he always tells passengers that's where Holden Caulfield saw the ducks -- and, when we let out with appreciative "ohs" and "ahs," he said Ted and I must be educated.

"A lot of people don't know what I'm talking about when I mention Catcher in the Rye these days," Harry said. A little boy with big eyes stared out of a horse-drawn carriage, and I smiled at him. He looked a little afraid, as if it was all too much, to be at the mercy of the big clumping horse, smelling the unavoidable pungent dung. I reached for Ted's hand and it was there, welcoming and warm.

Back at the hotel Harry gave us his card: Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, it said.

And I found myself calming down, murmuring the rest of Dotty Parker's New York rosary, also my own: "Guns aren't lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live."