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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Turning 25

I turned 25 several months ago, as you might be aware if you read my post The Best Birthday Present Ever. That being said, I just read a passage in this Bonhoeffer book that talks all about it, so it seems only right to share it with you. 25 is such a big one, after all, and as I never did properly celebrate it (it was on Holy Saturday this year; one can't exactly say, "Yes, the Resurrection is important and all, but today is my day!"), I will occasionally draw attention to it until next March 30th in hopes of assuaging some of the petty rancor that it (distinct from myself) has been experiencing.

Bonhoeffer, 26 years old, with some of his confirmands in 1932.

Bonhoeffer had a twin sister, Sabine, with whom he exchanged many letters. As they were about to turn 25, in 1931, he was spending a year studying and traveling in the United States. His impressions of the intellectual tendencies and habits of American philosophy and theology students will come up in the next post, bleakly prophetic and serious as they are. For now, however, content yourselves with this meditation:
It's so unnerving for me that we really are going to be twenty-five now. . . . [I]f I were to imagine I had already been married for over five years, had two children, my own house, well, then I could feel fully justified turning twenty-five. . . . How I shall spend the day I do not quite know yet. Several people have learned of the date and are demanding we have a birthday party, which I would then give at the house of one of the married students. But perhaps I'll also find something nice at the theater. Unfortunately I can't even toast you with a glass of wine at this occassion, since it's forbidden by federal law; how frightfully tedious, this Prohibition in which no one believes. (114)
Many people, especially those older than myself, pshaw my concerns away with a head toss and a hand wave when I say that here, at the age of 25, I begin to feel old. No doubt, if you are much older than I, this seems young. But certainly those my own age, and those younger, can understand the slight (or not so slight) sense of panic that sets in as, at a quarter of a century old, you look back and see if you have anything to show for your life. And they understand how that panic might be compacted if it seems that there is less to be proud of than there might have been, had you studied harder, worked more diligently, been friendlier, been less selfish, more pro-active, etc etc etc. But hey, at least our country wised up enough to put the kibosh on Prohibition so we can go out and have a proper celebration of what we have managed to accomplish. On second thought, let's stay in. Going out sounds like a lot of work.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Self-Expression in Art

This isn't particularly about writing or words, or rather, it isn't limited to writing and words. I was out with a group of friends celebrating one of my roommates' birthdays last weekend when the subject of expressing oneself in art was brought to the table. Here's the thing, people: that simply isn't the point of art. And if any artistic endeavor is purely aimed at self-expression, if that is the driving force and overarching motive, then it isn't very good art.

The purpose of art is communication of truth in a manner that highlights particular aspects of it in revealing ways, that is, in ways that reveal something about it that might otherwise be lost or obscure. Self-expression might and usually will happen; every artist has his style, be he a painter, sculptor, composer or poet, and that style might very well help us to identify the artwork and understand it better, knowing its context. But the self-expression aspect of it is a by-product, a sometimes-happy bonus -- it is by no means the point of any good art.

To claim art primarily as a method for self-expression is to corrupt the praise-worthy humanistic and individualistic goal of the Romantic movement to its worst possible result; surely it is important to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of each individual, which is what many of the Romantics were stressing in their response to the soul-sucking Industrial Revolution. But, contrary to the belief of most of the modern world, it is not all about you. We are the crowing glory of creation, true enough, and that means that it's not all about you. It's all about us -- we.

Am I making any sense? I guess what I'm trying to say is, get over yourself. Look at the bigger picture. If you have something to say, or something to paint or write about yourself, place it in the context of the larger world; connect it to your fellow man, to creation at large. Move beyond yourself, and concern your work with more than your emo screamo self-indulgent melancholic brooding ruminations. Figure out your place in creation, and see what you can make of truth when you don't stop at you.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Families

My mother, that incomparably lovely lady, gave me a book when she came down for a visit a few months back. It's taken me a while to get moving on it, largely because it so, well, large. But when I woke up early last Sunday morning, there was for some reason little hesitation as to what I should do with my extra time. Read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of course. An incredibly talented individual, he decided when he was thirteen that he should be a theologian, despite his family's belief that he should make a career out of his notably remarkable musical abilities. He finished his doctorate when he was 21, and during his short life (about which I've yet to learn many details), did incredible work. He was killed in a concentration camp in 1945 when he was 39 years old, after working against Hitler's regime from the inside out.

So far, this is the sort of book that fills me with the desire to go out and do something big and wild and impressive and wonderful, because that's the sort of life that Dietrich and all of his family seem to have had. Of course, I don't know what, but gosh, it makes me want to do something. I'll get back to you about that. And, in the meantime, the description of his family and childhood home is entrancing in a My Antonia conclusion sort of way:
All of the Bonhoeffer children were born in Breslau, where Karl Bonhoeffer held the chair in psychiatry and neurology at the university, and was director of the hospital for nervous diseases. On New Year's Eve the year Susanne was born, he wrote in his diary, "Despite having eight children -- which seems an enormous number in times like these -- we have the impression that there are not too many of them! The house is big, the children develop normally, we parents are not too old, and so we endeavor not to spoil them, and to make their young years enjoyable."
And that is precisely what my own parents did.
Their house was a gigantic, rambling three-story affair with gabled roofs, numerous chimneys, a screened porch, and a large balcony overlooking the spacious garden where the children played. They dug caves and climbed trees and put up tents. 
Despite his busy schedule, Karl Bonhoeffer took much joy in his children. "In winter," he wrote, "we poured water on an old tennis court with an asphalt surface, so that the two oldest children could try skating for the first time. We had a big outbuilding meant to hold a carriage. We didn't have a carriage or horses, but we did use this outbuilding to keep all kinds of animals." There were animals in the house proper as well. One room in the house became a zoo for the children's pets, which included rabbits, guinea pigs, turtledoves, squirrels, lizards, and snakes, and a natural history museum for their collections of birds' eggs and mounted beetles and butterflies. The two eldest girls had another room set up as a dolls' house, and on the first floor the three eldest boys had a workshop, complete with carpenter's bench.  
Paul's Barn: The domain of my first pet, a cat with his own mind.
Paula Bonhoeffer had memorized an impressive repertoire of poems, hymns, and folk songs, which she taught her children, who remembered them into their old age. The children enjoyed dressing up and performing plays for each other and for the adults. There was also a family puppet theater, and every year on December 30 -- her birthday -- Paula Bonhoeffer put on a performance of "Little Red Riding Hood." This continued into her old age, when she did it for her grandchildren. One of them, Renate Bethge, said, "She was the soul and spirit of the house.
The three elder brothers were dark like their father. Klaus, the youngest of Dietrich's brothers, was five years older than Dietrich. So his three brothers and two older sisters formed a natural quintet, while Dietrich found himself grouped with Sabine and their little sister, Susi, as the "three little ones." In this trio, Dietrich enjoyed his role as the strong and chivalrous protector. "I shall never forget Dietrich's sweetness of character," Sabine later wrote, "which showed when we gathered berries on the hot summer slopes. He would fill my little pitcher with the raspberries on the hot summer slopes. He would fill my little pitcher with the raspberries he had toiled to collect, so that I would not have less than he, or share his drink with me." 
Big brother Philip helps us girls carry the veggies.
His chivalrous bent went beyond his sisters. He adored Fraulein Kathe van Horn, their governess from infancy, and "of his own free will he assumed the role of her good spirit who helped and served her. He told her: 'When I am grown up I shall marry you, then you will always be with us.'"
Sabine also remembered when, at about age six, her brother marveled at the sight of a dragonfly hovering above a stream. Wide-eyed, he whispered to his mother: "Look! There is a creature over the water! But don't be afraid, I will protect you!" (8-11)
Okay, I'll be honest. In case you haven't picked up on this yet, part of me loves this description because it reminds me of my own family. Not that our parents let us have a natural history museum in the living room, but there was a time that we had a snake and a caterpillar living in the laundry room. Needless to say, the snake ate the caterpillar. I think, at long last, I can forgive my older brother for his wicked creature's cruel nature. We put on plays for tolerant parents. We also had a natural division between the older and younger children in our family (also of eight children), a division that included the nomenclature: "The Three Little Boys," for my three younger brothers:

The Three Little Boys, circa Great Depression 

And yes, my little sister declared at one point that she would marry, not a governess (we weren't that sort of family), but my brother Charlie, ten years her senior, and her clear favorite, likely because she was his clear favorite. And, as much as I did grow up in any one place, the house we grew up in was a large, rambling affair with three stories and winding hallways and a great number of old house inconveniences. Dear siblings, I miss you.

Cleaning the kitchen has never been more fun.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Chaim Potok

One of my friends is moving to upstate New York at the end of the month. Sad day. His plan is to move back down in a year, but who knows what will happen? That being said, he's given me a delightful task to complete before he takes off; he wants a list of book recommendations. I've begun the preliminary sketch, something which I'm sure won't be complete until long after he's already left. It's great fun, as it has me thinking back over the last ten years and remembering what my favorite books have been, and why they're so awesome.

One of the first books I ever gave to someone was Chaim Potok's The Chosen. Those of you who know this author love him, I am sure. I've never heard anyone who has read him say anything negative about his work. I don't know anything, really, about his personal history, but based on the subjects of his books (and his name) my guess is that he's an ethnic, if not practicing, Jew with Eastern European roots. If you're looking for thought-provoking summer reading, particularly if you're a guy anywhere between the ages of 13 and 30, you should read The Chosen. It's about two teenage boys in New York, one of whom has been raised as a strictly orthodox Hasidic Jew, and the other as an observant but not nearly so conservative Jew. They meet playing baseball, and become friends after one hits the other in the eye with the ball, landing him in a hospital bed with glass shards in his eye socket. As you might imagine, it's a rocky start to an unlikely friendship, but it's a beautiful book, an easy read, and well worth the time you might put into it. Also, buy it. Don't get it from the library. It's one to own. If you doubt it, you should know that the two literary characters I've ever thought of naming children after come from Crime and Punishment and this book.

The Promise is the sequel to The Chosen. I wasn't as impressed with it as I was with the first one, but as you'll love the characters already, it's worth reading just to know what happens with them next.

Finally, another of his books that I've read and re-read is Davita's Harp. The heroine of this story is a young girl of Jewish descent living with her parents in New York during the days before World War II. It's a much darker book than The Promise and The Chosen, and thus harder to read, but all the more strikingly tender because of that. Certain passages from it are indelible marks in my mind, and just seeing the outside cover of the book makes me achy in a good way. Some bits and pieces of the first chapter to get you started:
My mother came from a small town in Poland, my father from a small town in Maine. My mother was a nonbelieving Jew, my father a nonbelieving Christian. They met in New York while my father was doing a story for a leftist newspaper on living conditions in a row of vile tenements on Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where my mother worked. This was in the late 1920s. They fell in love, had a brief affair, and were married.
My fathers family -- except for his uncle and his sister -- did not attend his wedding because he had left home against the will of his parents to go to New York to become a journalist, and because he was marrying a Jewish girl.
My mother had made the journey to New York from Europe soon after the end of the First World War. During the war she had attended a prestigious school in Vienna, where she had concentrated in English literature and modern European philosophy. She was about nineteen when she arrived in America. Her aunt, who had inherited some money from her late husband, the owner of a small garment-district sweatshop, saw her through college and certification as a social worker, and then suddenly died.
My parents' wedding was attended only by their friends, an odd assortment of leftist writers, editors, poets, theater people, journalists -- and that one New England uncle and my father's sister. It was, my mother told me years later, a very noisy wedding. Angry neighbors called the police. My father's uncle, who was responsible for much of the noise, invited them in for a drink. He was from Maine and had little knowledge of the humorlessness of New York Police.
Seven months later, I was born.
The novel details the frequent moves of Davita's family, her father's time as a journalist in Spain during the violence of their 1930s Civil War, and the after-effects of the pogroms that Davita's mother experienced in Europe before she came to America. As you might imagine, these events and their results are no small happenings. Like The Chosen, the writing style is straightforward and easy, but the material is a little heavier, and certainly not for younger audiences or the faint of heart. All the same, you should read it at some point.

Now, as far as getting my friend his list of books is concerned (oh the honor! oh the responsibility!), what do you think I should add?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Blogging and Ballads

Well, that was a good break. While I didn't exactly work on the particular writing I had in mind, I did finish a song, do some work on what I hope will one day be a respectable ballad, and, much to my surprise, pull out something I started eight years ago with all kinds of ideas spinning around. We'll see if anything materializes from that. Last night was one of those nights where, if I were still in college and didn't have to get up for work in the wee hours, I would have stayed up past the wee hours writing. I hate having to pass up those moments. Why are the hours of 10:30 to 3:30 so conducive to elusive spurts of creativity?

Ballads. The thing about ballads is that they are so rich in history. Most of them have been passed around for centuries across oceans and traditions, and have lots of different versions in multiple languages and styles. Also, the stories are so good. For instance, one that I've been memorizing (not the one I've been writing) is the Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard. It goes under many names, so you might know it as something like Mattie Groves or Munsgrove. The story goes like this: Lots of pretty women are coming down the church steps, and one in particular looks down to Mattie Groves, who is pleased by the attention. One thing leads to another, and she takes him off to her bower. But, the thing is, she's married. One of the servants of her lord's court sees what is about to happen as she takes off, so he runs home to let his master know. Lord Barnard quickly gathers together a troupe of men, rides in haste and quiet to the bower, and comes upon the couple. In anger, he tells Mattie Groves to get up and put some clothes on, as he refuses to kill a naked man. He gives him a sword, they duel, and Lord Barnard quickly kills him. Then he turns to his lady: "How d'ye like his cheeks? he said, And how d'ye like his chin? And how d'ye like his fair body, now there's no life left within?" "It's well I like his cheeks, she said, And well I like his chin, and more I like his dead body than all of your kith and kin." Not surprisingly, Lord Barnard is less than thrilled with her answer, and, in more anger, kills her with the same sword he had killed her lover. In the more intense versions, he doesn't just kill her: "He cut her pappes from off her brest; Great pitye it was to see the drops of this fair ladyes bloode run trickling downe her knee." source. Not surprisingly, this is not a verse I'm including in the version I'm trying to learn. And yes, in historical ballad tradition, I am picking and choosing the bits and pieces of various versions I've found to make my own compilation. Of course, my favorite version is one that one of my college classmates used to sing at Friday Nights. However, this recording of it is also pretty good, not only because of the music itself, but the singer's explanation of it, and the exchange between the musicians, is lots of fun. He does make kind of funny faces while he's singing, so if you want to just listen and not actually watch him, that works. Enjoy.

Anyway, it's good to be back to blogging. One of the writers on altcatholicah approached me a few weeks ago asking if I could do some guest posting, and it made me realize I really need to keep this up. Is the blogging community the 21st century equivalent of the Inklings? Oh dear. I hope not.