+ Riding the Metro into the city the other day, I saw a woman, probably in her twenties, who (like many people riding the rails) had her iPod on, earbuds plugged in.  Unlike many others, though, she was mouthing the words, and dancing to whatever she was listening to.   She wasn’t like some of our friends and neighbors often seen on the train– slightly nutty or inebriated–she was just, it seemed, happy.  And it occurred to me that you can’t dance if you’re unhappy.  I tried to picture myself wanting to dance when I was stressed or sad or angry or even tired, and I couldn’t.   I knew without a doubt that this girl was having a good day, because she was dancing– by herself, for herself–just because.  It was something I’d never thought about, but made me wonder:  what else is like that, what else do we only do when we’re happy?

+ Girls Gone Child had a lovely post recently about children playing in a playground.  How kids like her son will just walk into a playground, go up to the first child they see, say hello and ask, “Do you want to play?”  And then, friends in an instant, the children will play for as long as they’re there– making up games, playing make-believe, having fun, just being.  The author then notes how different the parents appear– all self-segregated, shy, sizing each other up, insecure.  And it is so true.  The children don’t see different socioeconomic backgrounds, they don’t talk politics, judge appearances, worry about looking like a loser.

     I’ve been thinking lately about how we as people really just want to be around like-minded people; that while we may have friends with whom we disagree, the folks we most enjoy spending time with are the ones who share our basic value and belief systems.  You can see people visibly relax when they realize the person to whom they’re speaking gets them, agrees with them.   While some of us may like to debate or argue with people, at the end of the day I’d bet we also just want to relax with like-minded people.  That’s when we can let our guard down, can trust that we’re not going to have to defend something we feel strongly about against the disagreement or skepticism of another.  I find myself feeling very lonely at times in certain circles of my daily life– like I don’t truly relax until I am back in the company of like-minded people.  I might enjoy spending time with those others, but I never feel at peace, at home.

+ I’ve also been thinking about all the things we don’t say to one another, either out of kindness or to avoid an awkward situation, or because we don’t want to offend or because we feel guilty or feel it’s not our place.  Even among our most intimate relationships, among those people we love and know best in the world, think of all the things we don’t say, for one reason or another.  Not that that’s a bad thing, by any means, it’s just interesting, the spaces that remain between us.

+  I had absolutely no idea, when I became a mother, how difficult the daily struggle would be, between balancing work and mothering.  I don’t mean the day-to-day stresses, but the emotional divide I feel.   Every time I drop AE off at daycare I am sad.  And yet, when I am in the midst of doing what  I love (professionally), I am so happy, so energized.  One day last week AE was in daycare for a full 8.5-hour day, which is rare.  And though I had a great, fulfilling, productive day, when I picked her up and realized that I’d missed an entire day, including the couple of hours we usually spend together in the morning, I felt so wistful, nostalgic.  I think it’s a case of “the grass is always greener,” because I know, when I sit there struggling with an essay and longing to just be with AE, hanging out, that that’s not always how it is, that it’s not always fun and games, that I am not, when it’s happening, enjoying every second of it.  And I know that if I chose to stay at home, I would feel this vague sense of something missing.  So instead I have a vague sense of something missing in both roles.  Which is fine, and normal, and healthy, I know.  But sometimes it’s really, really, emotionally taxing, to constantly feel pulled between two heart’s desires.  I knew that these kinds of feelings would arise from time to time; I just didn’t know it’d be every day.  That every leave-taking, no matter the reason, would be tinged with sadness.  Of course, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but one thing parenthood is teaching me is that almost everything is bittersweet, each moment is so precious and yet it so easily slips by.  In one moment you can feel the utmost joy and the utmost pain.  It’s a strange, new way of life.

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Keeping Things Whole

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

~Mark Strand

The story of Caedmon (7th – 8th centuries AD) and his hymn are related in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

In this abbess’s monastery was a certain brother particularly glorified and honoured with a divine gift, in that he fittingly was accustomed to make songs, which pertained to religion and virtue, so that whatever thus he he learned of divine letters from scholars, those things he after a moderate space of time he brought forth, in poetic language adorned with the greatest sweetness and inspiration and well-made in the English language. And by his poem-songs the spirits of many men were kindled to distain of the world and to service of a heavenly life. And likewise, many others after him among the English people endeavoured to compose pious songs, but none however in like manner to him could do so because he had learned not at all from men nor through man that he songcraft learned, but he was divinely aided and through God’s gift received the art of poetry. And he therefore he never could make any sort of lying or idle songs, but just those alone which pertained to piety, and those which were fitting for his pious tongue to sing. The man was established in worldly life until the time when he was of advanced age, and he had never learned any songs. And consequently, often at a drinking gathering, when there was deemed to be occasion of joy, that they all must in turn sing with a harp, when he saw the harp nearing him, he then arose for shame from that feast and went home to his house. Then he did this on a certain occasion, that he left the banquet-hall and he was going out to the animal stables, which herd had been assigned to him that night. When he there at a suitable time set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’ Then he answered and said: ‘I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.’ Again he said, he who was speaking with him: ‘Nevertheless, you must sing.’ Then he said: ‘What must I sing?’ Said he: ‘Sing to me of the first Creation.’ When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard, whose order is this:

Nu we sculon herigean     heofonrices weard,  
Now we must praise     the Protector of the heavenly kingdom,
meotodes meahte     ond his modgeþanc,   the might of the Measurer     and His mind’s purpose,
weorc wuldorfæder,     swa he wundra gehwæs,   the work of the Father of Glory,     as He for each of the wonders,
ece drihten,     or onstealde.   the eternal Lord,      established a beginning.
He ærest sceop      eorðan bearnum   He shaped first    for the sons of the Earth
heofon to hrofe,     halig scyppend;   heaven as a roof,     the Holy Maker;
þa middangeard     moncynnes weard,   then the Middle-World,     mankind’s Guardian,
ece drihten,     æfter teode   the eternal Lord,      made afterwards,
firum foldan,     frea ælmihtig.   solid ground for men,     the almighty Lord.

 

(from:  http://www.heorot.dk/bede-caedmon.html#bede-oe)

Clink on the link below to hear Caedmon’s hymn (the version in the West Saxon dialect) read aloud.  (It’s fun to listen to it being read while looking at the West Saxon transcription!)  It is beautiful (and you can hear where Tolkien, a scholar of Old and Middle English, got his ideas for the languages and names in his books)!

http://ia361301.us.archive.org/10/items/caedmon_librivox/caedmon_ks_64kb.mp3

You can see from this that English as we know it today would not exist, had not Latin and then French invaded.

From the New York Times:

Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally
By NATALIE ANGIER
The theory of relativity showed us that time and space are intertwined. To which our smarty-pants body might well reply: Tell me something I didn’t already know, Einstein.
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time.
As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore. The deviations were not exactly Tower of Pisa leanings, amounting to some two or three millimeters’ shift one way or the other. Nevertheless, the directionality was clear and consistent.
“When we talk about time, we often use spatial metaphors like ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you’ or ‘I’m reflecting back on the past,’ ” said Lynden K. Miles, who conducted the study with his colleagues Louise K. Nind and C. Neil Macrae. “It was pleasing to us that we could take an abstract concept such as time and show that it was manifested in body movements.”
The new study, published in January in the journal Psychological Science, is part of the immensely popular field called embodied cognition, the idea that the brain is not the only part of us with a mind of its own.
“How we process information is related not just to our brains but to our entire body,” said Nils B. Jostmann of the University of Amsterdam. “We use every system available to us to come to a conclusion and make sense of what’s going on.”
Research in embodied cognition has revealed that the body takes language to heart and can be awfully literal-minded.
You say you’re looking forward to the future? Here, Ma, watch me pitch forward!
You say a person is warm and likable, as opposed to cold and standoffish? In one recent study at Yale, researchers divided 41 college students into two groups and casually asked the members of Group A to hold a cup of hot coffee, those in Group B to hold iced coffee. The students were then ushered into a testing room and asked to evaluate the personality of an imaginary individual based on a packet of information.
Students who had recently been cradling the warm beverage were far likelier to judge the fictitious character as warm and friendly than were those who had held the iced coffee.
Or maybe you are feeling the chill wind of social opprobrium. When researchers at the University of Toronto instructed a group of 65 students to remember a time when they had felt either socially accepted or socially snubbed, those who conjured up memories of a rejection judged the temperature of the room to be an average of five degrees colder than those who had been wrapped in warm and fuzzy thoughts of peer approval.
The body embodies abstractions the best way it knows how: physically. What is moral turpitude, an ethical lapse, but a soiling of one’s character? Time for the Lady Macbeth Handi Wipes. One study showed that participants who were asked to dwell on a personal moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth afterward than were those who had been instructed to recall a good deed they had done.
When confronted with a double entendre, a verbal fork in the road, the body heeds Yogi Berra’s advice, and takes it. In a report published last August in Psychological Science, Dr. Jostmann and his colleagues Daniel Lakens and Thomas W. Schubert explored the degree to which the body conflates weight and importance. They learned, for example, that when students were told that a particular book was vital to the curriculum, they judged the book to be physically heavier than those told the book was ancillary to their studies.
The researchers wanted to know whether the sensation of weightiness might influence people’s judgments more broadly.
In a series of experiments, study participants were asked to answer questionnaires that were attached to a metal clipboard with a compartment on the back capable of holding papers. In some cases the compartments were left empty, and so the clipboard weighed only 1.45 pounds. In other cases the compartments were filled, for a total clipboard package of 2.29 pounds.
Participants stood with either a light or heavy clipboard cradled in their arm, filling out surveys. In one, they were asked to estimate the value of six unfamiliar foreign currencies. In another, students indicated how important they thought it was that a university committee take their opinions into account when deciding on the size of foreign study grants. For a third experiment, participants were asked how satisfied they were with (a) the city of Amsterdam and (b) the mayor of Amsterdam.
In every study, the results suggested, the clipboard weight had its roundabout say. Students holding the heavier clipboard judged the currencies to be more valuable than did those with the lightweight boards. Participants with weightier clipboards insisted that students be allowed to weigh in on the university’s financial affairs. Those holding the more formidable board even adopted a more rigorous mind-set, and proved more likely to consider the connection between the livability of Amsterdam and the effectiveness of its leader.
As Dr. Jostmann sees it, the readiness of the body to factor physical cues into its deliberations over seemingly unrelated and highly abstract concerns often makes sense. Our specific clipboard savvy notwithstanding, “the issue of how humans view gravity is evolutionarily useful,” he said.
“Something heavy is something you should take care of,” he continued. “Heavy things are not easily pushed around, but they can easily push us around.” They are weighty affairs in every tine of the word.
The cogitating body prefers a hands-on approach, and gesturing has been shown to help children master math.
Among students who have difficulty with equations like 4 + 5 + 3 = __ + 3, for example, performance improves markedly if they are taught the right gestures: grouping together the unique left-side numbers with a two-fingered V, and then pointing the index finger at the blank space on the right.
To learn how to rotate an object mentally, first try a pantomime. “If you encourage kids to do the rotation movement with their hands, that helps them subsequently do it in their heads,” said Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago, “whereas watching others do it isn’t enough.”
Yesterday is regrettable, tomorrow still hypothetical. But you can always listen to your body, and seize today with both hands.

In my opinion, the value of various schools of theory and philosophy, especially those of the 19th and 20th centuries (such as Marxism and psychoanalysis) is their aim to demystify the workings of daily life, of desire, of government and money, and ways of thinking.  Whether or not one agrees with them, at their best, works of theory and philosophy make one stop and think, to step outside and to observe, how people live.  This is the effect of good poetry and literature, too:  to jar one’s thoughts or command one’s attention, revealing or portraying things in a different light, with unfamiliar words, so that one leaves that reading with a new appreciation of or attention to something that one formerly took for granted.

In the class I’m auditing this semester, we’re reading some work by a Marxist critic named Henri LeFebvre, particularly his work on “the production of space.”  While I am not a Marxist,  I do see the value of excavating our systems of value, of finding the often-unnoticed assumptions or faults in such major systems as our modern economy in order to, it is hoped, rectify those.  LeFebvre’s point was that “space” (the spaces in which we live and move and work) are not just empty, innocent milieus or environments but, rather, that they are constructed (usually by an unseen power or corporation) to have certain effects on the people who move about or inhabit them.   One of LeFebvre’s big issues was, as he argued, the ways that space is divided up into parcels by the Powers That Be in order that they might be sold and arranged for profit.  One example is a suburban development, the worst being those that destroy natural habitats (of course) but also those that provide various “model homes” which give consumers a (false) sense of freedom of choice, when really they’re being corralled like cattle into certain (unsociable) living conditions, gleefully trading their money for a plot of land and a preconstructed, conventional home and making Big Development all the richer.

What I like about LeFebvre’s work (though I disagree with much of his method and focus) is the way in which it does make me stop and think about the way my life is structured and organized and directed in ways that I never notice and in ways that sometimes are the opposite of life-giving.  His work reminded me of an exercise I’ve had my students perform before, in which they select a human-made space (a public park, a building or room) and step back a bit, in order to observe and describe both its components and arrangement AND the way they feel IN that space:  for example, how does one feel (or how is one supposed to feel) walking into a giant cathedral? a library?  a doctor’s office?  a coffee shop?  the Lincoln Memorial?  a classroom?  Why does it matter how people are encouraged to position themselves in a space, where their attention is directed, how they are meant to behave or speak or feel?  (It’s a lot like generic conventions in writing– one wouldn’t use the same diction, tone, and vocabulary in a thank-you not to one’s grandmother that one would in, say, an email to a friend about a wild Saturday night or in a formal academic essay.)  It’s interesting to think about what the makers of a space wanted to do with that space, how they influence the feelings and perspective of their visitors.

Julia Reinhard Lupton is a really cool scholar of Renaissance literature who also blogs, with her twin sister, about contemporary design.  She and her sister co-wrote a book called Design Your Life:  The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things which is described thus:

Design Your Life is a series of irreverent and realistic snapshots about objects and how we interact with them. By leading design thinker Ellen Lupton and her twin sister Julia Lupton, it shows how design is about much more than what’s bought at high-end stores or the modern look at IKEA. Design is critical thinking: a way to look at the world and wonder why things work, and why they don’t.

The authors train their critical focus on various household objects, spaces, and items of clothing in a lighthearted attempt to demystify the ways that objects and spaces influence and even control us.  One chapter looks at a blender, discussing the ways that the various buttons, with their descriptors (puree, chop, liquefy) both help us to understand how something works and serve to confuse us, to be less than intuitive.

Both of these studies, on space and on things, really fascinate me and have really made me step back and think about what I otherwise take for granted.  It also helps me to laugh at our human institutions, at the ways spaces and things make us feel accomplished, safe, smart as well as confused, dumb, and needy.

HOLY SONNETS.

XIV.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
~John Donne

Here’s what I am working with in the chapter I’m writing right now.  First, Richard Crashaw’s (17th-century English metaphysical poet, contemporary of John Donne’s) weird poem to St Teresa of Avila (16th-century Spanish mystic); second, the famous sculpture of her by Bernini in Rome; third, an excerpt from St Teresa’s writings on which Bernini’s sculpture and Crashaw’s poem are based.  All very weird stuff– the long tradition of mystics describing their experiences of divine rapture in erotic terms, and the metaphysicals playing off this tradition.  I’m of course looking at the veil in Crashaw’s poem, but it’s just so bizarre!  Imagine if someone wrote this kind of thing today…

The Flaming Heart

Vpon the book and Picture of the seraphicall saint Teresa, (as she is vsvally expressed with a Seraphim biside her)

WELL meaning readers! you that come as freinds

 
And catch the pretious name this peice pretends;  
Make not too much hast to’ admire  
That fair-cheek’t fallacy of fire.  
That is a Seraphim, they say         5
And this the great Teresia.  
Readers, be rul’d by me; and make  
Here a well-plac’t and wise mistake.  
You must transpose the picture quite,  
And spell it wrong to read it right;        10
Read Him for her, and her for him;  
And call the Saint the Seraphim.  
  Painter, what didst thou understand  
To put her dart into his hand!  
See, even the yeares and size of him        15
Showes this the mother Seraphim.  
This is the mistresse flame; and duteous he  
Her happy fire-works, here, comes down to see.  
O most poor-spirited of men!  
Had thy cold Pencil kist her Pen        20
Thou couldst not so unkindly err  
To show us This faint shade for Her.  
Why man, this speakes pure mortall frame;  
And mockes with female Frost love’s manly flame.  
One would suspect thou meant’st to print        25
Some weak, inferiour, woman saint.  
But had thy pale-fac’t purple took  
Fire from the burning cheeks of that bright Booke  
Thou wouldst on her have heap’t up all  
That could be found Seraphicall;        30
What e’re this youth of fire weares fair,  
Rosy fingers, radiant hair,  
Glowing cheek, and glistering wings,  
All those fair and flagrant things,  
But before all, that fiery Dart        35
Had fill’d the Hand of this great Heart.  
  Doe then as equall right requires,  
Since His the blushes be, and her’s the fires,  
Resume and rectify thy rude design;  
Undresse thy Seraphim into Mine.        40
Redeem this injury of thy art;  
Give Him the vail, give her the dart.  
  Give Him the vail; that he may cover  
The Red cheeks of a rivall’d lover.  
Asham’d that our world, now, can show        45
Nests of new Seraphims here below.  
  Give her the Dart for it is she  
(Fair youth) shootes both thy shaft and Thee  
Say, all ye wise and well-peirc’t hearts  
That live and dy amidst her darts,        50
What is’t your tastfull spirits doe prove  
In that rare life of Her, and love?  
Say and bear wittnes. Sends she not  
A Seraphim at every shott?  
What magazins of immortall Armes there shine!        55
Heavn’s great artillery in each love-spun line.  
Give then the dart to her who gives the flame;  
Give him the veil, who gives the shame.  
  But if it be the frequent fate  
Of worst faults to be fortunate;        60
If all’s præscription; and proud wrong  
Hearkens not to an humble song;  
For all the gallantry of him,  
Give me the suffring Seraphim.  
His be the bravery of all those Bright things.        65
The glowing cheekes, the glistering wings;  
The Rosy hand, the radiant Dart;  
Leave Her alone The Flaming Heart.  
  Leave her that; and thou shalt leave her  
Not one loose shaft but love’s whole quiver.        70
For in love’s feild was never found  
A nobler weapon then a Wound.  
Love’s passives are his activ’st part.  
The wounded is the wounding heart.  
O Heart! the æquall poise of love’s both parts        75
Bigge alike with wound and darts.  
Live in these conquering leaves; live all the same;  
And walk through all tongues one triumphant Flame.  
Live here, great Heart; and love and dy and kill;  
And bleed and wound; and yeild and conquer still.        80
Let this immortall life wherere it comes  
Walk in a crowd of loves and Martyrdomes  
Let mystick Deaths wait on’t; and wise soules be  
The love-slain wittnesses of this life of thee.  
O sweet incendiary! shew here thy art,        85
Upon this carcasse of a hard, cold, hart,  
Let all thy scatter’d shafts of light, that play  
Among the leaves of thy larg Books of day,  
Combin’d against this Brest at once break in  
And take away from me my self and sin,        90
This gratious Robbery shall thy bounty be;  
And my best fortunes such fair spoiles of me.  
O thou undanted daughter of desires!  
By all thy dowr of Lights and Fires;  
By all the eagle in thee, all the dove;        95
By all thy lives and deaths of love;  
By thy larg draughts of intellectuall day,  
And by thy thirsts of love more large then they;  
By all thy brim-fill’d Bowles of feirce desire  
By thy last Morning’s draught of liquid fire;       100
By the full kingdome of that finall kisse  
That seiz’d thy parting Soul, and seal’d thee his;  
By all the heav’ns thou hast in him  
(Fair sister of the Seraphim!)  
By all of Him we have in Thee;       105
Leave nothing of my Self in me.  
Let me so read thy life, that I  
Unto all life of mine may dy.  

 

 

St Teresa:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. . . He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire:  they must be those whom we call Cherubim. . .  I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire.  He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.  The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.  The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.  The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one.  It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

This semester, I’m sitting in on a class on the senses in early modern Europe– sight, taste, touch, smell, sound.  Science now recognizes more than 5 senses, having added such senses as balance, kinesthetics, temperature, and more senses of touch than just one.   In the early modern period it can be (and has been) argued that sight and hearing were not the privileged senses they are in our contemporary culture.  Smell, taste, and touch enjoyed a higher standing amongst sensory perceptions.

But that got me thinking again about the privileging of sight and sound in our present society, especially in popular culture.  As I watch AE play with toys and watch movies, I notice how integral sight and, secondarily, sound are.  Baby toys are a bit more egalitarian– they are more tactile at least, if not more tasty (though a drooling teething baby might disagree).  But think about how important it is to us to be able to see  in order to enjoy or to understand.  How such cultural sites as museums and monuments depend on sight:  what’s the point of the Washington Monument or of the Lincoln Memorial, if not to be gazed on in awe?  I think most people would say that sight would be the last sense they’d choose to lose, if they had to.  But think how important smell is to taste– indeed, how each sense overlaps and enriches the other.  How would our ability to taste be compromised if we could not smell?  As one classmember pointed out, hearing is not some disembodied sense, but it relies on the material vibrations of the eardrums to function.

When one is thinking about the senses and sensory perception in the past, and the experiences of the past in general, we find that it is really difficult to reproduce such transitory experiences such as smell and taste.  In period films they often do a great job of recreating the visuals and sounds of a past culture (I’m thinking of Shakespeare in Love, in particular, or in more recent history the recreations of D-Day in films like Saving Private Ryan, which many vets described as uncannily accurate, missing only the stench).  What if movie theaters, in addition to providing surround-sound, provided scents to go along with the film?  How would the stench of blood in war films disturb our senses?  What if musems let you taste and touch the past, or at least our recreations of the past?  One guy in this class I’m auditing spoke of visiting a Viking museum in York, England, which featured sample rooms or marketplaces from Viking times, with things to touch (rope, pelts, wood) and smell (fire, meat, apples).  The professor, who works on smell in particular, spoke of a dinosaur exhibit that employed the expertise of a team of scientists in order to simulate the smell of dinosaur-breath (a mixture of grasses and leaves, rotting meat, dirt) that so frightened and disgusted visitors that it was changed to a mild scent of fresh grass, effectively turning a carnivorous dinosaur into a vegetarian.

What is the one sense you couldn’t live without?

“Pops” and I just finished watching Julie and Julia, the blog-turned-book-turned movie about Julie Powell’s yearlong journey through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Last summer I read Child’s memoirs, My Life in France, in which she recounts moving to France with her husband Paul in the 1940s, speaking not a word of French and having no idea what she’d do with herself while her husband was at work.  As everyone now knows, she ended up falling in love with everything French, especially French food, and learned how to cook, then brought French cooking into everyday American kitchens.  Her cookbook took several forms and involved various cooks, writers, photographers and editors over more than 8 years, but finally it was published.  Julie Powell’s blog chronicled her attempts at every recipe in the book over a period of 365 days at a point in her life where she felt lost, directionless, and doomed to failure.

The movie had its faults, but what “Pops” walked away with was this:  Julie Powell’s mother, whom we know in the movie merely as a voice on the telephone, is portrayed as this negative, pessimistic, nagging parent.  Most of Julie’s friends are portrayed as materialistic, shallow, self-centered, joyless even in their wealth and professional success.  Even Julie’s husband in the movie was, I thought, a bit of a bump on a log.  So, as Pops noticed, for Julie to “find” Julia and to get to know her (or her idea of Julia) through her experience of cooking and writing, meant that Julie found someone whose way of living and being granted her new life in a very real sense.  From Julia, Julie learned to master not only the art of French cooking but the art of living. 

In Julia Child’s memoirs, one gets the sense that even as she moved from place to place (for her husband’s government service appointments), Julia bloomed where she was planted.  And even though she and her husband were never able to have children, her works (her cookbook, her memoirs, her television cooking lessons) had such a far-reaching impact.  In this movie, Julia Child “mothers” Julie Powell, even though they never meet, in a way that Julie’s never did.

What a great thing to remember:  that our works, whether they be our children or our passions or our jobs, or even our actions in daily life, have such an impact.  They may inspire people to do great things or even just to do something different.  I’d like my friends and family to help me remember to live in such a way that I can be confident that my impact, however small, is a positive one.  Since I do have a child, I ask my loved ones to remind me, when I get down deep in day-to-day annoyances or my own moods or stresses, to pay attention to how I am living– to think about the sort of impact I am making on my daughter.  I hope that her childhood memories of me are that I was a joyful person attuned to and grateful for all the richness that life offers.  That I bloomed where I was planted.  That I pursued my passions with singleminded dedication and perseverance but without forgetting the daily joys of family and friends.  I hope that when AE is a young woman making her way in the world, that she can think of her mother, as I do my own mother, as an example she wants to emulate.  My parents bring so much joy to those around them, make people feel so loved and unique and supported; they take joy in the pleasures of life such as good food, beautiful art, fellowship.   As I continue to make my way in the world, and support my children in their own journeys, I want to say “thank you”– thank you for showing me what it means to have a “good appetite” for life.

Whenever I get down on humanity, on those days where everyone seems impatient, selfish, rude, thoughtless — and I include myself there — and my faith in people begins to wane, I think of a time when I saw people at their best; even if it seems these people and these moments are too few, that isn’t the case in reality.  I think, for example, of our parish priest, bringing communion in the hospital to a young mother just diagnosed with leukemia, of the community of faith and support that surged up around her and her family.  That kind of tenderness takes my breath away.  Those little things that kind, loving people do without a moment’s hesitation or a single thought of self-congratulation.  We all know people who just thrive in moments of crisis– who always know what to say and, more importantly, what to do to keep things moving, to take care of what needs to get done.

Stumbling across this quote from Fred Rogers today (Mister Rogers was himself a Presbyterian minister, on top of being one of the most dear, kind, and gentle symbols of childhood innocence and curiosity to generations of children), reminded me that even in the face of major disasters like the one that occurred in Haiti this week, even when the world looks unjust and bleak, if we change our focus, if we look for the signs of good, they are all around:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.'”

Way to go, Fred’s mama.  You are so right.  People of Haiti, and people all over the world who are hurting and suffering, we pray and trust that help is on the way.