February 24, 2011 § 16 Comments
My mama said:
“Never say Damn, or take the lord’s name in vain. Never say fart or butt or shut up.”
My mother was both a lady and an ardent believer in the force of words. It may seem she was forbidding two separate behaviors: being profane and being vulgar, but both edicts were calls to civility. First, be polite to God. The lord you worship on Sunday should not become the curse you use the rest of the week. Second, be polite to those around you. Vulgarity cheapens the whole enterprise of being alive. If you don’t think that’s true take a look at the vulgarity piped into your home by the media. Elevating, right?
My mother’s banned four letter words were mild in comparison to the part of the list she never mentioned, or perhaps never knew (from her I got the impression that the word “shit” was the crass word for “urine”), and she came up with some ridiculous replacements for the forbidden words—in our family a fart was called “a noise in the peaches.” But the idea the words we use demonstrate our respect for language and for those we talk to still appeals to me.
Among the things you couldn’t say, the one which got us in the most trouble when we did was “shut up.” The greatest vulgarity of all was being unkind.
The nuns of my childhood were black and white in all their habits from the ones they wore to their habits of mind (if they had doubts they never shared them with my catechism class).
In many ways it was comforting to know that by drawing strictly from the “thou shalt” side of their list and assiduously avoiding the “thou shalt not” side we could guarantee God’s continued affection. Actually, they said his affection was constant, but that he was capable of a sorrowful disappointment our parents couldn’t hope to match. None of us wanted to disappoint God, so clear rules were helpful.
Unless you were the kid wearing Jesus around your neck. And I was. Although my red glass rosary beads were beautiful, that was not why I’d hung them around my neck. The nuns didn’t understand that wearing Jesus was the only way to ensure that I wouldn’t misplace him. I could lose anything not attached to my body.
Hauled out of the pew and made to stand ashamed in the church aisle I wanted to yell, “Yes, but…” I’ve discovered that most black and white rules work better if they can be amended with a, “Yes, but…”
“Never go barefoot. If you do you may step on a needle. It will go into your foot and enter the blood stream, and when it reaches your heart…you’ll die!” Nonno
My grandfather lived in fear. He knew dire outcomes were real and that they lurked everywhere. His conviction that life was precarious was borne out by experience. He was sent away to a harsh boarding school very early. He lost a favorite younger brother in the trenches of WWI. He lost a daughter at age three to appendicitis.
I could never understand the advantage of expecting the worst–although my grandfather did enjoy being right when the worst happened. And maybe expecting the worst turned a second-to-worst outcome into a pleasant surprise.
“Never squeeze a pimple. It will get infected, the infection will spread, and then…you’ll die!” Nonno
“Hesitate rather than err.” Piano teacher, Mr. Deihlen
My piano teacher believed anything you do incorrectly, even once, can become habit. So the trick is to never make the mistake in the first place. And so he encouraged the painfully slow playing of a piece until the habit of playing the correct notes could take. Slow and anxious playing also hid the fervor of the music. I quit playing piano under his watch.
When doing something expressive like writing a story or making music my method is to run down the hill as fast as I can with my arms wide open and err without apology. Perfection can come later.
“Passionate!” William Trego
Mr. Trego was the choir director at Princeton High School from 1964-1992. I was one of many, many young singers who climbed up on the creaky choir risers and watched this chunky man lift up on his toes in anticipation.
My first year in girl’s chorus we were all nervous and timid, especially when we had to perform. With his back to the audience he would mouth one word, “Passionate!” The word ignited us, traveling like a flame up our legs–and we sang.
Although I gave up the piano I still sing. Passionately!
“Abstract!” Mrs. Melansen
As a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design I spent half a day every week in each of the warring “Nature Drawing” classes. Edna Lawrence, the grand dame of the nature lab, seated us at tiny desks with colored pencils and specimens from her many glass-fronted cabinets. One class we might work on crystals, another beetles. Drawing small, precise renderings we immersed ourselves in the complexities of objects that sometimes required a magnifying glass to fully appreciate
The other half of the day was spent in a large, barren room in which huge sheets of paper were taped to the walls and drawing was done with the entire body. The natural object was just a stepping off point for an abstraction reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe.
Mrs. Lawrence made each of us into a faithful observer and admirer of nature. Mrs. Melansen empowered us to adapt what we saw to suit our own artistic desires. I strove to be bold and original for Mrs. Melansen, but felt more at home in the less grand role of nature observer, and there I have remained.
Aspirations are good, but so is being honest about the scope and size of your talent. Few of us turn out to be Georgia O’Keefe, but all of us can be admiring observers.
“It’s just a walk in the dark.” Barbara Tracy Workman
Barbara was my partner in “Soft Shell Designs” an art gallery and hand-painted clothing store we had in The Keys. I could have a hundred quotes from Barbara. Although she was not well educated—I remember her saying that she had never read a book she had enjoyed–she had an honest way of looking at things and then expressing them in words that were direct and pithy. “Have we gone out of business only nobody’s told us?” was the remark that finally got us to close our doors.
“It’s just a walk in the dark,” was one she made after we’d gone our separate ways. Barbara had become a flight attendant, I had left the Keys for Tallahassee. One day she called to tell me she had a brain aneurism. The possible outcomes of the surgery she was facing ranged from excellent to death. I got on a Greyhound bus.
I spent the night with her in the hospital before the surgery. In the morning I walked beside the gurney to the operating room. Before she went through the swinging door she squeezed my hand. “It’s just a walk in the dark,” she said.
It was not as blithe as “a walk in the park,” but more truthful. Sometimes we have no choice but to walk in the dark, and my grandfather was right. In the end…you die. Even while we are alive we go in and out of the darkness. Some of us, like my grandfather, brood on the dark times. Me, I concentrate on the feeling of sun on my face, turning toward whatever light there is, no matter how weak.
Note: If you’ve given me some great free advice and don’t see it in this post, there will be more such wisdom in future posts. If you’ve kept that free advice to yourself, let fly. I’m listening.