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Monday, December 31, 2007

Thoughts on Things: The New Year

New year. New moon. New life.

Everything old is new again.

High newn.

Johnny, we hardly knew ye.

New baby.

New hope.

No hope. No, for now let's stick with new hope.


I'm reminded of those Palmer Method penmanship exercises we did in grade school. You started with a circle, then made another circle just a fraction to the right of it, then another, another. And at the end of the row you had a tube of circles, like an optical illusion. Your two-dimensional Slinky ran in a long row across the page. It was usually decorated with smudges and bumps, enlivened with not-always-O-shaped circles. I remember that you were supposed to move the whole arm as you did this, not just your fingers or your hand. Did anyone ever do that? Did anyone, even our teachers, know how to relax the shoulder, let the forearm rest only lightly on the paper, and move the entire arm as they wrote? If anyone ever succeeded in doing this, please let me know.


That exercise reminds me of the way the Universe keeps swinging us back again and again to meet our hot spot, our wound, our challenge. You think you've dealt with the issue and, indeed, you have. On one plane. And then the circle turns again and again and you meet it over and over, in different guises. You nibble away at it. You solve this part or that part. The next time it comes around you ignore it, hoping it will go away. Then another time you tackle it head-on. And back and back it comes. And you keep learning.


At the end, a series of stop-motion photographs of our life and work might look like the Palmer Method exercise. Round and round and round again. Nothing new under the sun. We keep on until that circling loses its smudges and glitches and we've made it as smooth and whole as the full moon.


But for right now, the moon is new. The year is new. Our hopes are new. And the Light is returning. Already we can see a difference in the morning. In another month it will feel like Spring. Except for the temperature, of course.


New times. New goals. New ways of seeing.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Thoughts on Things: Treasure Chest

I want to write diamonds. I want molten gold to flow from my pen like lava. I want rubies to drop onto the page as if from my own less-than-ruby lips. I want pearls (containers of wisdom, if you believe what you hear)--I want pearls to drop from my mouth like lustrous round teeth. I want my writing to be a Klimt painting filled with gold and jewels. But I write stories instead.


If I knew how, my writing would be a pirate's treasure chest. I would condense my thoughts so intensely that they would become diamond-words under the pressure of my eons of patient living. My experiences would no longer be mere stories but a presence on the page, a heap of golden links like a pile of leaves, begging readers to jump into them. Leaping in and entangling themselves in those golden links, readers would emerge with emeralds in their locks and pearls in their mouths. Readers would rush to jump in and would emerge richissimo for having done so.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Thoughts on Things: The Tune the Bones Play

We are who our bones tell us to be. We dance to the tune they play. It takes years, sometimes, for us to hear the tune, so drowned out is it by the ambient noise of our families, schools, friends. The well-meaning people around us often seem determined to keep us from hearing that tune. They don't want us to dance to a tune that they didn't dictate.


So we muddle through for most of our lives, trying to dance to those loud tunes that come from others, because we simply can't hear the tune that our own bones play.


Until one day we do hear it, and suddenly everything makes sense. It's like a combination lock when you dial the right numbers and all the notches line up. Finally everything is aligned.


I wrote once about improvising on the piano—and how I've never been able to do it.  Writing it out let me see what my mind has been doing to me all my life. One compartment of my mind holds the term "improvise" and associates it exclusively with the piano. I play the piano. I am unable to improvise on the piano as I want to. Therefore, I cannot improvise.


That's one compartment.


In another compartment, however, is the knowledge that my strong suit is "making do." With no trouble I can prepare a three-course meal from the contents of my refrigerator. In fact, I used to imagine starting a personal-catering business in which I would create meals from the contents of my clients' refrigerators. I gave up this little dreamlet when I realized that most refrigerators contain a dried-up slice of commercial pizza, two cans of tonic water, one egg past its best-by date, and 17 jars of various store-bought salad dressings, each holding two tablespoons.


But the idea is still valid: I truly can make a meal from nothing.


When I sew, I don't mind making mistakes (which is a good thing, because I'm increasingly inattentive when I sew). Making what seems to be an irrevocable mistake simply means I have to find a creative way out of the mess. How can I cover it up? Disguise it? Make lemonade from it?


If you show me a blank room and ask me to decorate it, I'll not have any ideas at all. But show me a room with two or three mismatched items, one wall painted kelly green, and a pair of curtains that have seen better days, and then ask me to decorate it. I'm a whiz. I'm a whiz at making do. I'll recover this chair, make cushions from an old carpet, create patchwork curtains of lace and tatters, turn the kelly green wall into a meadow-mural.


So as I pondered these ramifications of my compartmentalized brain, I finally made the connection that I'm sure you made paragraphs ago: it's all a question of semantics! Joining, as I always have, the terms "improvise" and "piano," I had forgotten to look at the big picture.


My whole life is an improvisation! Everything I do involves improvising. If it doesn't intrinsically require improvising, then I throw in some improv any which way, because without improvisation I am bored stiff. I've got to play with things, in any area of my life, or I lose interest.


Looking back over my life, I can see how true this is. And yet, constrained by my narrow definition of "improvising," I was never able to acknowledge my gifts.


So who cares if I can't improvise at the piano? Not I. In a life as improvisational as mine, I obviously need one area where I just follow the written script. It gives me the grounding I need to counterbalance the trapeze act that is the rest of my life.


Improvisation is the tune my bones play.


Copyright 2007  Ann Tudor

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thoughts on Things: Ms. Joy and Mr. Payne Eat from Eath Other's Plate

I'll have a bit more of that polenta, if you don't mind, Mr. Payne.


No problem, Ms. Joy. It's quite delicious. The menu described it as "Apache polenta," quite a mingling of cultures. You'll notice, as you take a bite, that to the polenta the cook has added both grilled onion and grilled poblanos, giving it a southwestern flavor. And, of course, polenta itself is Italian.


You do go on, Mr. Payne. Sometimes for longer than one wants to hear.


Just a bit longer, my dear, for I wanted to point out that the corn used for polenta is actually itself a New World product, thus this form of polenta is not really traditionally Italian. The original Italian polenta was made from chestnut flour or buckwheat flour. There. Now I've finished my lecture. You help yourself to a bite of this interesting dish, which seems to be cross-cultural but is actually, as I have shown, mono-cultural—that is, completely New World. 


Ms. Joy takes a bite of the Apache Polenta from Mr. Payne's plate.


Um-m-m. Oh yes, it's quite good. I do like the poblano flavor here. But, Mr. Payne, must you always always elucidate? Do you feel you need to enlighten me with every single bite?


When you eat from my plate, Ms. Joy, you partake of more than just my food. By asking to dine with me and to share what I eat, you are in effect asking that I share with you a part of myself. So that's what I've been doing.


And I thank you for it, truly I do. It's just that sometimes (not always, of course) I find your explanations and enlightenings just a tiny bit long-winded. Appropriate for the classroom, perhaps, but hardly what I want to listen to as I eat.


And may I ask, Ms. Joy, what it is that you would like to listen to as you eat? But before we talk about that, what is it that you like to eat? What is that mixture on your plate, for example?


Ah. You've forgotten what I ordered, have you? I don't know whether it would be to your taste. But it suits me so well. It's a mixture of tropical fruits, and I ordered it because it felt just right for this hot day. Would you like to try a bite from my plate?


Thank you, my dear. I don't mind if I do. M-mm. Interesting. I never have much liked that silly star-fruit, myself. It makes up in appearance what it lacks in flavor, so I find it makes a better objet d'art than a food item. But here's a piece of mango. Oh yes indeed, that suits you. Ms. Joy. Mango is indeed a joyous taste. Of course, you know that in this country we see only two or three varieties of mango, while there are actually scores of varieties grown around the world. While this particular mango is quite good, one can't help but wonder whether another type of mango might actually be better suited to your tropical salad.


You know, Mr. Payne, I'm beginning to see just how well your name suits you. You do tend to be—well, yes, a pain. May I suggest that we enjoy our meal and not analyze it to death? Do you parse all of your life in such detail?


Indeed I do, Ms. Joy. Parsing life gives me great pleasure, if Mr. Payne can be said to enjoy pleasure. The more I can divide life up into tiny little compartments, minuscule shades of meaning, then the more likely it is that I will find the almost-hidden, nearly-forgotten shards of pain. It is important to reveal their pain to people so they can wallow in it. Without me, they might be able to overlook it.


And that's a most disgusting sentiment, Mr. Payne. As "Joy" incarnate, I feel it is my duty to expand experience for people. The more sensation they can bring to an experience, the more likely it is that they will be able to transcend or to forget their pain. I find this a loftier goal than yours.


Each to his own taste, Ms. Joy. You do your thing and I'll do mine. Whose approach will be more popular? I'm quite sure mine will be. No one is actually looking for "joy," no matter what they say. People want to feel their pain, dwell on it, hold it, bring it out and fondle it. Your happy-happy attitude is counter to what I have seen of human desire.


People change, Mr. Payne. Whole societies change. People need joy. And, whether or not you admit it, joy can obliterate pain. In fact, I'm sorely tempted to do that right now. But no, instead of obliterating you, I'll just have another bite of your Apache Polenta.


No hard feelings, m'dear, I hope. Help yourself. And if you don't mind, I'll try a bit more of your rather disappointing but still interesting tropical fruit salad.


Having realized that they will never come to agreement, Mr. Payne and Ms. Joy continue to eat from each other's plate.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Friday, December 7, 2007

Thoughts on Things: Frayed at the Edges

When linen frays at the edges, it frays with all its heart. In fact, if you don't clean-finish the seams of the linen shirt you're making, the seams will begin to unravel with the first washing. Run it through the washer a few more times, and you'll soon have not a shirt but a froth of linen threads.


Fraying at the edge is what happens as you get older. As life tosses us around and around in its washer and dryer, our edges get more and more frayed. Distinctions are less sharp. Precision eludes us. Clear and well-defined thoughts become foggy and vague. Things we once knew like the back of our hand are now black holes in the mind. Our very brains are frayed around the edges.


Our bodies are the same. Bits and pieces of us begin complaining. The left knee creaks. Calcium deposits build up on this finger joint or that one. It's Arthritis While-U-Wait. The hair thins. Old tooth fillings begin to crumble. And let's not even talk about eyesight and  hearing!


So here's the question: Fraying around the edge: good or bad? To a young person, the answer is clearly "bad." What could be worse than losing your sharpness, your cutting-edge mind, your clear sense of purpose in life? Clarity is who you are. Fraying is for others.


Yet, if you continue to live, you will fray at the edges. Your faculties will dim. Blurring may occur.


Imagine a piece of linen of a color you love to look at. Now imagine washing and tumble-drying it a dozen or more times. See that stiff linen melt into incredible softness. It becomes an entirely different fabric. Feel how soft it is, with a "hand" that dissolves gently into your own strong hand. Yes, the edges have loosened and have turned into that froth of threads mentioned above. Both the warp and the weft are floating now, finding their own new way, taking a path the weaver didn't anticipate. Anything can happen. Let it fray, let it fray, let it fray.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Monday, December 3, 2007

Thoughts on Things: Oh, Those Deadly Sins

There are seven of them, but we won't discuss all of them today. They are best assimilated if taken in small doses.


Sloth. When I was little my mother called me "Queenie" because she saw me as a slacker. It is true that I took every opportunity to hide myself away with a book. I much preferred reading to housework. In fact, I still do. One of my sisters told me years ago that when she was little she decided that she would never sit and read while someone else was working. She had seen me in action (in inaction, more precisely) and vowed to be different. Apparently it never bothered me to have other people vacuuming around my feet as long as I could still remain immersed in a book. My family certainly considered me lazy.


Was I? I suppose so. Who wants to work? But I think part of me (I can think this now; I couldn't think it then) simply had to get away from that noisy family. There was no place in the house where I could be alone. The only way I could justify slipping away into my private self was by reading, feeding my imagination with story after story. I wasn't so much looking to escape "work" as I was looking to escape. 


Gluttony. Oh yeah, I can do this one. It isn't that I overeat, really, though I've been known to do that. More precisely, my life revolves around food.


St. Thomas Aquinas would have something to say about me. He maintained that there are five ways to commit gluttony: by eating too much ('nuff said). By eating too soon (lunch at 11:10, anyone?). By eating too expensively. By eating too eagerly (mea culpa). And by eating too fastidiously (I'm sorry, I eat only organically grown foods. Oh, I'm not eating wheat these days. Are these organically grown bananas? Does that custard have milk in it?).


Can you have a life of the spirit if you're concerned mainly with the stomach? Would I rather eat than pray? Probably. So I try to do as the Buddhists do: when I eat, I eat. When I pray, I pray. That way, eating itself becomes a form of attention that verges on (is?) prayer. Attend to what you do.


Of course, I don't really do that, either. My favorite thing is to read while I eat. I keep trying to wean myself from it, but I love it so much. If I'm eating alone I always read. If I'm eating with my husband, we have a rule that we can't read at dinner, but we can read at breakfast and lunch.  Maybe I can assert that what I love is reading-while-eating, and I can attend to THAT: to reading-while-eating. I do that sometimes, taking my mind off the book and thinking how much I'm enjoying eating and reading at the same time.


My mother's "little friend" Irma was the 5-foot-tall dynamo who mothered the Crosby clan. Their five children matched our own five (until our beautiful Mary Eileen came along a little later, making us six). At our annual joint Christmas-Eve get-togethers, the Johnsons (us) and the Crosbys always feasted, though meatlessly, as required by Church rules. And at the end of the meal, Irma would always say, "I have committed the sin of gluttony."


There are five other deadly sins. Are they Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, Bashful, and Doc? No, nothing so benign. They're more like Anger, Avarice, and Lust—sins you can really get your teeth into. Like gluttony, in fact.   


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor