Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Simple ABC

When you set about to make a quilt, you usually have some goal in mind – to recycle those old sewing scraps, decorate the house, welcome a newborn baby, celebrate a wedding, an anniversary, or a life-long friendship.  The end is informed by your intention at the start. 

The same can be said of an education.  What you end up with depends on why you started: to make more money, to improve your mind, to master a skill, or more generally, to succeed in life.
Studies show that a college education increases self-confidence and leads to better pay and more prestigious employment, greater job satisfaction, greater social mobility, a longer life span, improved health care, less chance of incarceration or dependence on government assistance, greater appreciation of the arts and sciences, more volunteer service and higher positions of leadership. 
According to the U.S Department of Education, college graduates typically earn 66 percent more than those with only a high school diploma, earning about $1 million more over the course of their lifetime.  However, higher education is no longer a luxury for the privileged few.  At a time when jobs are going overseas, higher education is now necessary for individual economic opportunity and America’s competitiveness in the global economy.  Education is the best investment a young person can make in his or her future. 
People who have knowledge and skills, who are able to think clearly and to express their thoughts in speech and in writing, make better citizens too.  They are better able to understand themselves and the world around them and thus make more informed decisions.  Educated people also have higher voting rates. In fact, the single most important socio-economic factor affecting voter turnout is education.  The more educated a person is the more likely he or she is to vote. 
Education is good for democracy.
The Founding Fathers understood this.  After the American Revolution (1776), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and other American patriots saw public education as the most effective means of protecting against tyranny and preserving the democratic ideals the original 13 colonies had fought so hard for and won.
Not long after United States was founded, there was a call for public financing of education.  The aim was to instill civic virtues as much as learning and the advancement of ideas, and it was important that education be universal, non-sectarian – and free.
The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.   - John Adams, U.S. President, 1785
Indeed, the Founding Fathers saw education as a prerequisite for good citizenship.
Among those who have been denied an education, none have written more powerfully as to the power of the simple ABCs as Frederick Douglass, an American slave. 
In his book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass describes the new life he came to at age seven when he was sold from the plantation where he was born and came to live in Baltimore in 1825: 
Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A,B,C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters.  Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read.  To use his own words, further, he said "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him.  It would forever unfit him to be a slave.  He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain.  I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man.  It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom... Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.
It is to the memory of Mr. Douglass and my deep respect for him and his fixed purpose that I have made this ABC quilt.
What purpose is behind your education?
 
poster available here


Monday, January 16, 2017

Out of Many, One



The Great Seal of the United States adopted by Congress in 1782 features an American bald eagle with a red white and blue shield on its breast holding a bundle of arrows in its left talon and an olive branch, an ancient symbol of peace, in its right.  The eagle, with its great wings outstretched to denote liberty and freedom, has turned its gaze toward peace.  In its beak, is a scroll, inscribed with the motto: “E pluribus unum,” which translated from the Latin means “out of many, one.” 

When it first appeared in a literary magazine in the 1770s, the motto was accompanied by a drawing of a hand holding a bouquet of varied flowers, suggesting that unity and individuality can co-exist – a very different metaphor from a “melting pot” where the individual parts eventually become indistinguishable from one another.   The motto as included on the national seal came to refer to the union between the states and the federal government, but in early drawings of the seal, it evoked as well the six European nations that had settled North America: the rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), an imperial eagle (Germany).   
The motto describes an action: many uniting as one.  Unity is an action, a power of the soul and the spirit.  It requires individuals to stand up as individuals, and the whole to embrace them.  It is a call to action at the foundation of our republic.  It is the cause of our liberty and our freedom and it requires courage, tolerance, care, responsibility, respect and knowledge.  
After the Revolutionary War, women began to sew quilts with patriotic themes.  Pieced or appliqu├ęd quilts (also known as patchwork quilts) featuring the American Flag, the Liberty Bell, and the American eagle became especially popular in times of national emergency or celebration, such as the Civil War or the Bicentennial.  In these patchwork quilts, hundreds of small pieces in varied shapes, sizes, colors and patterns were sewn together to form a large and useful covering, but the beauty of the quilt is the unity created by the composition of the many patches, and the strength is its firm backing, its strong binding and thread.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Light Shines


I grew up in a semi-rural community just outside of Detroit.  My mom worked as a clerk in the building department at city hall and wrote poetry and political satire at night.  My dad drove a truck.  We lived in an old farmhouse on a couple acres of land, just far enough away from the neighbors, she always said, on a mile square tract of fields plowed with rows of corn and soybean and bisected by the old county ditch running through it.  

Bleakness hung in the air. There was a perpetual cloud over the house, not quite darkness nor yet cloudburst that might flush away the blue-collar gloom, but instead a paradox of inchoate form and overfullness that never gave birth hanging heavy with the smell of boiling cabbage, gravel and ash, axle grease and dirt.

Wintertime was my favorite season.  The bare trees standing in the oblique light expressed something inside me that I could not.  I was the immigrant’s daughter, my father from a land across an ocean, whose grandmothers had stood upon a black earth “sown with bones and watered with blood” in the catastrophe that had befallen Europe between Stalin and Hitler.

It was impossible to turn a blind eye to suffering and to the dark world of the human heart.  One could see it sometime in the people, those who sought money and power and held a hand over the bent heads of others.  My father would point it out, commenting in his oblique way, “the hand goes to the mouth.”  And I felt the shame of being human, trying to recall the better parts of myself, knowing darkness was there in all of us. 

What is wisdom?  What is noble?

St. Augustine said that God gave man memory so that he might find the light inside him through the act of remembering.
If we remember that we have forgotten something, we have not forgotten it entirely.  But if we have forgotten altogether, we shall not be in a position to search for it."
Remembering leads back to a beginning, to the truth, as we recall the steps we took that got us where we are.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

In Life, Each Must Sew Her Own


She stands in her magnificent robe and takes up half the sky.  She is the Protectress, still and silent.  Loving.  Her arms spread like sturdy boughs enjoin you to come and shelter there under her mantle of shade and solace. 

You do not want to stand apart.

You seek her stillness, her silence, her strength.  Still, you try to give life to something inside of you, but you stare at your own brindled, late-blooming form and feel inadequate.  How am I to make the thing called me?  How am I to see who I am and clothe myself with grace and elan?

In his writings on faith, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says that the secret to life is that everyone must sew it for himself, the costume that one must wear in life. The coat in that old fairytale, the thread of which is spun with tears and bleached by tears, is sewn in tears, but the garment gives better protection than iron and steel.  The catch is, you have to sew it for yourself.

You were given the material: a life, which is your fabric, or perhaps you wove that cloth yourself from the many threads that were handed you, be they cotton, silk, poly or wool.  Not all fabrics are the same and what you start with is always reflected in the end, but it is up to you to work it.  Some fabrics are strong and suitable for making coats and work clothes, some for shells that are warm yet lightweight and travel well, some are best used for sportswear or tailored suits for business or for loose tops or crisp blouses or small underthings.  Some can hold a pleat while others find form more elegantly in soft, billowing gathers.  Some come to life in full skirts and party dresses.  Others are fit for a queen’s mantle, or the cloak of a protectress.

You can, of course, go against the grain.  However you work it, ultimately, it is up to you.  You decide how to make your own protection, your own comfort, your own confidence.  And then you work it, whether for yourself or to provide for others around you. 

Every seamstress knows that a good result does not always come to the one who labors for it.  In life, in the physical world, there are no guarantees a garment will turn out.  Making one might not even be possible.  But inside of you, the part you clothe with inner work, anything is possible.  Here, effort is always commensurate with result.  You simply need to make the movement toward it.  For that is faith, that movement, a practice of human power. 

You can create the Protectress inside of you.  You can find the mother and the father inside you and shape them into a coat that keeps you safe and warm and strong.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Power to Stand Apart


illustration by Ivan Bilibin
A merchant and his wife had a daughter named Vassilisa. When the girl was eight years old, the mother fell gravely ill.  On her deathbed, the mother gave the girl a blessing and a wooden doll. “Care for it and keep it with you always, and whenever you are in trouble it will help you,” she told the child and then she died.  After a time, the girl’s father remarried and with the help of the doll Vassilisa was able to perform the endless tasks imposed on her by her cruel stepmother and two lazy stepsisters.  One day, when the father had gone on a long journey, the stepmother put out all the lights in the house and ordered Vassilisa to fetch the fire from Baba Yaga’s hut deep within the forest, knowing that whomsoever should enter the lair of Baba Yaga would be eaten by the witch.  The girl consulted the doll who advised her to go. “Never fear,” said the doll to Vassilisa. “Keep me always beside you, and you will be all right.” So Vassilisa slipped the doll in her apron pocket and went into the forest.  At nightfall, Vassilisa found the hut of Baba Yaga.  “It is I, grandmother,” she called out.  The skulls on the old witch’s fence began to glow. “What do you want?” Baba Yaga growled from inside the hut.  “My stepmother sent me to ask you for fire to light our house,” Vassilisa replied, bowing low. “Very well,” said Baba Yaga emerging from the hut and she invited the girl to come inside.  That night, with the help of the doll, Vassilisa performed all of the tasks the witch had set for her on pain of death so that, marveling, the old crone wondered the next day how the girl had survived.  ”By my mother’s blessing,” the girl replied. “Is that so!” Baba Yaga shrieked and, pushing Vassilisa out the door,  grabbed a skull lantern with glowing eyes from the fencepost and thrust it at her.  “Here is the fire you came for.”  When Vassilisa returned home, the eyes from the lantern fixed themselves onto her stepmother and stepsisters and burnt them all to ashes.  Vassilisa buried the lantern and went to live with an old woman she knew.  One day, wishing to do something to pass the time, Vassilisa asked the doll to fashion her a loom.  By the end of that winter Vassilisa had made so much fine cloth that she went to sell it in the capital where her work was admired by the Tsar and he married her.  

In this Russian version of the Cinderella fairytale, the doll is the symbol of the young self as it separates from the mother and learns to stand on its own.  

Women are more relationship-oriented than men and have more difficulty distinguishing themselves from others of their sex, especially from their mothers. They are more prone to losing themselves in relationship.  So in the story, when the mother dies, the daughter is suddenly confronted with the task of finding her own identity, which is the great problem in feminine psychology, according to Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz.  

In her book, The Feminine in Fairy Tales, von Franz notes how girls go about in pairs, copying each other’s hairstyles, dress and even their way of talking.  The fact that girls have trouble sorting out who is who accounts, she says, for certain catty or spiteful behavior:
Because they are so apt to identify, they malign each other behind their backs.  Being unconscious of their own unique personality, they indulge in all such tricks in order to make a separation.
The cruelty exhibited by the stepmother is an example of this.  The stepmother’s value of herself is mixed up with the stepdaughter.  The older woman does not appreciate her own worth and tries to do away with the girl so that her ego can survive.  The stepmother has no desire for insight into the problem either, as symbolized by her putting out all the lights in the house and sending the girl away.  

Vassilisa, on the other hand, chooses another path.  Strengthened by her mother’s positive blessing (symbolized by the doll), the girl bravely accepts the difficult course of individuation.

The daughter’s task of finding “her own femininity in her own form” – as von Franz puts the problem – is presented at the mother’s death, when the girl is eight years old, a time when a child is just beginning to experience a sense of self.  Instead of seeing herself through her own eyes, or through the eyes of her mother (with whom until now she was one), the child begins to realize that there are “others” who are separate and apart from her.  Indeed, it is as if her consciousness has split in two and she now experiences herself as she imagines others see her.  This is the birth of self-consciousness.  But Vassilisa goes even further.  When confronted at this tender moment with the malignant force personified by the stepfamily, the doll instructs the girl to go deep into the forest – to face the witch.

This is no coincidence. According to von Franz “that first intuitive realization of the Self”—much more profound than mere self-consciousness – is always accompanied by the appearance of the powers of darkness and desolation. “Where the pearl is,” she says, “There is also the dragon, and vice versa.  They are never separate.”

Put another way, there can be no birth of the Self without an encounter with and insight into the shadow. Vassilisa instinctively knows that in order to be released from the dark forces that surround her, she must face them. The girl’s discussion with the doll as to whether to enter the forest is an example of the conscious decision to do so.

Baba Yaga is not an entirely evil figure, however.  In fact, Vassilisa calls her grandmother.  Her power, exemplified by the staring eyes of the skull, symbolize what Sylvia Brinton Perera in her book Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women calls “the cold yin of Erishkigal’s vision,” Erishkigal being the Sumerian goddess who survives alone, Queen of the Underworld, cold, brutal and uncaring, completely detached from others, stuck in childbirth, groaning in pain and deepest despair.  Here, in these cold chambers, there is a complete standstill “where all is miasmic and inhuman and inchoate.”  There is no hope of “effective, yang answer” as Brinton puts it, “no way out by work or will.”  And yet, as the story shows, the encounter with and indeed acceptance of the cold, dark goddess, exemplified in Vassilisa’s story by her willingness to confront Baba Yaga leads to illumination and rebirth.    

How does Vassilisa do it? 

She holds on to her self (care for it and keep it with you always).  

Too often women lose themselves in relationship, giving in to the urge to merge with another in love, or denying parts of themselves, especially that cold impersonal potency symbolized by the staring skull lantern, frightened no doubt by its powerful effect.

Letting go of sentimental forms of loving and the sense of well being she may have once gotten from being merely agreeable or loyal or good, Vassilisa claims her right to fire and survives the night in Baba Yaga’s hut.  It is her birthright and she owns it, proclaiming that she has come through the night "by my mother's blessing," whereupon she is immediately released from possession by the witch - and from the bondage of her cruel stepmother.  

The story teaches us that to become a graceful, whole and self-loving person, capable of taking action in the world (weaving our fine cloth), a woman must care for herself and hold on to all of her parts, acknowledging the dark powers of the goddess rather than attempting to destroy or escape them. 

Is there some part of you that you have lost and need to reclaim?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Why Are We So Polarized?


Once upon a time the world was a perfect union between two gods named Nut and Geb who were locked in eternal embrace but Shu, the god of emptiness, got between them and pushed them apart, creating an opening for the world to exist.

The story of the separation of heaven and earth is how an ancient people explained how the world came to be.  A division had to occur before people could exist.  Why is that?  What does that say about human nature and what light does it shed on what is happening right now in American politics where public opinion has divided and gone to the extremes?


Our tendency as humans to view things in terms of opposites seems natural enough.  In fact, discovery of the opposites – good and bad, odd and even, light and dark – was a major development in Western philosophy and is a necessary step in the creation of consciousness in a person.  When a child is born it makes no distinction between itself and its mother.  As it grows, it begins to realize that the mother is something separate.  The notion of an other is formed.  The encounter with the other “confronting one in enmity or attracting one in love” is the first and what psychologist C.G. Jung would arguably claim the ultimate experience of the soul.


In a surprisingly accessible book entitled The Mystery of The Coniunctio: Alchemical Image of Individuation, Jungian analyst Edward Edinger calls the opposites the “dynamo” of the human psyche or soul:
“The flow of libido, or psychic energy, is generated by the polarization of opposites in the same way as electricity flows between the positive and negative poles of an electrical circuit.  So, whenever we are attracted toward a desired object, or react against a hated object, we’re caught up in the drama of the opposites.”
In short, the constellation of opposites is what animates us.

Edinger observes that what occurs within an individual’s psyche is a process also going on between two people as well as a process taking place within the whole community.  If that is true, then Edinger’s description of how a person’s ego forms and asserts itself may shed some light on why politics in America has become so polarized:
“The young ego is obliged to establish itself as something definite and therefore it must say, ‘I am this and I am not that.’ No-saying is a crucial feature of initial ego development.  But the result of this early operation is that a shadow is created.  All that I announce I am not then goes into the shadow.”
In Jungian psychology, the “ego” is the conscious part of the mind, the one that says, “I am” and “I am not.”  The “shadow” is the unconscious part, which the ego does not recognize in itself.  It consists of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings and instincts.  The “psyche” is the totality of the mind, the conscious and unconscious parts.

When the emerging ego identifies itself with one of a pair of opposites – whether conceived as good and bad, black and white, rich and poor, left and right, male and female, gay and straight – it necessarily rejects the other of the pair as a possibility for itself.  The reason for this is that the immature ego is not yet strong enough to carry the weight of both possibilities within itself at the same time, the negative aspect being much harder to bear than the positive one.  (However, positive aspects may also be hidden in one’s shadow, especially in people with low self-esteem.) 


The same situation can be observed in our communities.  Groups have identified themselves with one of a pair of opposites and cannot bear the weight of insight into their shadows.  As a result, within the community there is very little perceived common ground – that open space in the middle where the virtues of tolerance, mutuality, sympathy and support thrive.  Consequently, these virtues are quickly disappearing from our cultural and political landscape.  


To make matters worse, those who seek to hoard the public good, dominating by power and wealth, exploit our weaknesses and blind spots using the oldest trick in the book: divide and conquer.


As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, convincing people that they have nothing in common with each other and should just take care of themselves is a good way to keep folks isolated, afraid and in the dark.


So how do we change as a nation and grow?   


Jung believed that the purpose of human existence is “to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”


Sooner or later, if we are to grow, that split off shadow must be encountered again as an inner reality.  Nevertheless, how can we embrace something we are truly unconscious of?
Edinger suggests we look at the opposites:
“You find them scrutinizing whatever you love and hate.  That’s easy to say but exceedingly difficult to do.  The reason it’s so difficult is that whenever feelings of love and hate come upon us, they are not accompanied by inclinations to scrutiny.”
Ask yourself:

“Who do I hate?”


“What do I fight against?”

Whatever your answer is, know that it is a part of you. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Making Strange

"As the musicians started to play the bass horn and counter-bass, a large number of people in black mantles poured onto the stage from right and left. The people, with something like daggers in their hands, started to wave their arms. Then still more people came running out and began to drag away a maiden who had been wearing a white dress but who now wore one of sky blue. They did not drag her off immediately, but sang with her for a long time before dragging her away. Three times they struck on something metallic behind the scenes, and everyone got down on his knees and began to chant a prayer. Several times all of this activity was interrupted by enthusiastic shouts from the spectators."


This passage from Tolstoy's War and Peace is an example of what the Russian Formalists (a literary movement that flourished at the time of the Russian Revolution) called defamiliarization or "making strange," the artistic technique of taking a familiar object or situation and presenting it in a strange way so as to produce the strongest possible impression (the sense that one is experiencing something for the first time).

Tolstoy's description of what happens in the second act of an opera as if he's never seen one before (or Tyutchev's comparing summer lightning to deaf and dumb demons or Gogol's postulating a man who's lost his nose and has to track it down as it parades through the streets of St. Petersburg) are all ways of "making strange."  The purpose is to free art (and life) from what one of the leading figures of the movement, Victor Shklovsky, called the "automatism of perception," the tendency to overlook familiar things. 
"After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it -- hence, we cannot say anything significant about it."
In his article "Art and Device," Shklovsky offers an excerpt from Tolstoy's diary to illustrate:
"I was cleaning a room and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn't remember whether or not I had dusted it.  Since these movements are habitual and unconscious, I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember -- so that if I had dusted it and forgot -- that is, had acted unconsciously -- then it was the same as if I had not. If no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex of lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been."
The purpose of art, then, is to make us feel alive -- or, as Shklovsky puts it, "to make the stone stony."  The way to achieve this is through certain artistic "devices" that when employed impede perception through their strangeness so that the object can be experienced in all its wonder (deaf and dumb demons) before the everyday word that we assign to it (lightning) is recognized. 

One device is to avoid the familiar word.  In the passage from War and Peace, the word "opera" is not mentioned once.  Nor is "actor" or "singer."  Instead, Tolstoy refers to "a maiden" and "the people." Another device is to use bold imagery and metaphor (Gogol compared the sky to the garment of God) or foreign words (Tolstoy wrote whole passages of War and Peace in French) or words out of context (in one story, a commentary about the institution of private property, Tolstoy tells the entire story from the horse's point of view).

The theater of Bertolt Brecht in which the audience was kept from losing itself passively in the characters so that it could reflect consciously on what was happening was grounded in the Russian Formalist notion of defamiliarization, but "making strange" was then certainly nothing new.  Long before, Aristotle himself had written in his Poetics that "impressive diction, one that escapes the ordinary, results from the use of strange words."  The other arts as well, such as medicine, have long employed the technique.  The shaman among certain Inuit tribes use circumlocution when conversing with the spirits, employing certain substitutes for ordinary words, such as "the one with the drum" for "shaman" or "that with tusks" for "walrus."  I speculate that the purpose here of "making strange" is to take the extraordinary proceedings of healing someone's soul out from the "ordinary" world into the realm where spirits reside.  We even see the device of "making strange" in children's fairy tales, where the hard task of turning away from familiar things and embarking on the marvelous journey is rewarded by the discovery of the self.

What then is in front of you, that familiar thing, which you constantly overlook that would come to life if only you knew how to make it strange?