2.7.20

Feeling Sentimental About Living in New York for Ten Years: A Journal & Rant (Writer's Diary #3209)

Spilling out of the Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street Station, it feels like I am in Queen's version of Times Square.
IRT Elevate Station Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street
View of the 74th Street Elevated IRT station on Roosevelt Avenue

I Like to Walk Through Diversity Plaza
The elevated IRT line that carries the purple-signed seven train runs above on Roosevelt Avenue. In contrast, a gaggle of lettered trains, M, R, F, and E run under Broadway. The station is not difficult to manage, but the architecture is a series of green-tinted grids and overhangs, steep ramps, and an ugly bus terminal named after Victor Moore. You can Google him if you want. He was a film actor from the silent era and early talkies. Apparently, there was a business arcade where the gangly bus terminal sits. And the arcade was named after Moore, and the name just stuck.

I like to walk through Diversity Plaza. The area used to have bus traffic, but the city turned it into a pedestrian mall. Local shop owners did not like it because they felt only foot traffic would not bring in a lot of business. Jackson Heights is a neighborhood of family-run businesses — a ton of Pakistani, Nepali, Bengali, Indian and other South Asian food shops and clothiers. You can buy a wedding dress on 75th street, order a momo, or eat at Jackson Diner — an all-you-can-eat spot that has delicious Saag Paneer.

I'm More Comfortable With Difference Than With Sameness
I feel comfortable in places filled with diversity. But I grew up in a primarily white-laden suburb of New Orleans. I was just looking through my old yearbooks on a recent trip home. In 1998 in south Louisiana, no one talked about diversity unless it was in biology class. We learned about the diversity of animal life on planet earth. Pick up a glob of mud from the nearby ditch, and you can find variety, my teacher said. Life is everywhere!

I learned about difference in two ways, first — through reading. I had a teacher who said, try to read a non-European and non-American book. I read 'Nectar in a Sieve' by Kamala Markandaya. I was about sixteen years old when I read the novel, and I was struck by the description of poverty, despair. Still, the voice of the protagonist Rukhmani — stayed with me. Second — through my own coming to terms with my gayness. Growing up gay in South Louisiana was a don't ask don't tell society. Everyone knows it, but no one talks about it.

I have learned never to make assumptions about people. People have said to me, "You don't act gay." But how is a gay person supposed to act? So I understand when historically marginalized people, especially people of color, talk about microaggressions. I know what they are speaking about — because it rings true with my own experience.

Six Momos, Please
Greig Roselli Stands and Points to the Entrance of the Jackson Heights Post Office in Queens
I haven't finished my seltzer water!
I order six beef momos and a can of seltzer water for $6 from this place near Diversity Plaza. It's open late, and the dining area is small — I get a spot by the window. One thing I like about living in New York is that I can be anonymous. Or I can feel anonymous. I always felt growing up, someone wanted to know where you were from or what you were doing. Freedom is such a sweet taste in the mouth, but the flavor is so fleeting.

When you reach forty or so, they say that you begin to look for experiences that fill in the gap for things you did not get when you were growing up. So for me — it's enjoying quiet time. I was always looking for a hiding place as a kid to read a book or to be alone with my thoughts. But I was propelled to go outside! Be active. Be extroverted. Be aggressive. Play sports. Don't be such a wuss.
Once I walk beyond Diversity Plaza, Jackson Heights transforms into a dense, yet quiet residential block of six-story buildings and manicured gardens. It's funny to think that only in the early twentieth century Jackson Heights came to be. All of this where I walk was farmland. 

The advent of the IRT line from Manhattan in the 10s and 20s precipitated tremendous growth in western Queens. Queens is unlike Brooklyn — which had been its own city before New York annexed it in the 1890s. Most of what we call history is really recent. We call neighborhoods historic without realizing that time has a much more substantial, outstretched hand. I am never really tethered to a place. I keep my memories and my joys. But I am one to wander. So it's hard to believe that this month I will have lived in New York City for ten years! I moved here from New Orleans in 2010 — to pursue graduate studies at the New School for Social Research. After I finished my coursework, I just stayed. So here I am.

I'm Almost Home and My Feet Are Sore
A couple on a bike
Walking along 37th Avenue, the neighborhood opens up to a warm welcome of families, kids, people crisscrossing each other in soft, somnolence. In New York, we love how we promote unspoken conversations. A wink. A smile. A nod of the head. But a part of me often wants to join in on a conversation. Say hello. Make a new friend.

I arrive at home — it's a thirteen-minute walk from the station. But I feel tired, and my feet are sore. I love to take off my shoes and just throw them willy-nilly. What will happen when I have to share a space with someone I love? I go to sleep, and I have a mixture of dreams — one in which I am consoled and comforted; in another, I am sharing a bath with a lover — in another dream, I am running, running, running. Looking for a bus stop to take me home.

I don't want to wake up. But then I think. Tomorrow is Saturday. I don't have to work. I will stay in, eat Swedish meatballs, and watch re-runs of Dr. Who.

17.6.20

Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" Is As Relevant Today As It Was in 1955 (When It Was First Published)

There are a few short stories I keep coming back to in my life. I first read Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in college. I was hooked. And don't read this blog post if you have not read the story. Here is a copy so you can return here after you've read it. You're welcome.
A black, empty vehicle idles in the driveway.
Photo by Anton Kraev on Unsplash
Reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in College
My professor, Sr. Jeanne d'Arc Kernion, was a senior Catholic Nun with a doctorate in English. She had been the mother superior of her monastery until it had dwindled in numbers. She was one of the few sisters left — her motherhouse was in Atchinson, Kansas — but she stayed in Louisiana until she retired a few years ago. She was one of the best English teachers I ever had because her instruction came with a love of fiction. She was always reading a new novel every week — and I felt like, for her, talking about fiction was as easy as making one's coffee with warm milk in the morning. I took her Contemporary Fiction course — which was a way for her to teach college-age students many of her favorite works of fiction she could cram into a semester.

Coming from the South We All Knew Someone Like the Grandmother (And More Spoilers!)
We read O'Connor in that class — and I think for me, at nineteen or twenty years old, I knew people like the Grandmother. So she wasn't that shocking. In the South, we had grandmothers before anyone ever heard of a "Karen"! I also remember being attuned to O'Connor's insertions of absurd details. For example, a monkey is tied to a Chinaberry tree in the story. Who does that? And the unnamed mother has a face, according to the text, as innocent as a cabbage! Those strange details hooked me to O'Connor's fictional world, which is why I devoured her other stories and two works of fiction with delight.

O'Connor's fictional world is inter-connected — while her stories do not feature repeat characters and there isn't overarching worldbuilding inherent to her storytelling — it is evident that the universe of the Grandmother and the Misfit are the same universe as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Mr. Shiflet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." The universal theme that connects all of O'Connor's fiction is that our lives of dreary banality can often become undone by the macabre to shake us out of our complacency. In "A Good Man" — it's the innocent family vacation that ultimately turns deadly that shakes the reader out of their complacency. But, as you notice, if you've read the story repeatedly, O'Connor has signposted the narrative with heavy-handed hints that something awful is just around the corner.

O'Connor's Foreshadowing Technique is in Retrospect Obvious, But No One Gets it At First
I'm a high school English teacher, and I often teach the short story to Ninth and Tenth graders. I like to read the story out loud, and I have different students read different parts. I tend to read the narration. No one gets the foreshadowing until the end. Most of my students are surprised when I remind them that the Grandmother reads about the Misfit in the newspaper — it's mentioned in the first paragraph! And a quarter of the way in — Red Sammy's wife talks about a murderer attacking her restaurant. And there are other less than obvious hints. The Grandmother complains that she should dress formally for the car ride in case anyone who would find her dead on the roadside would know right away she was a lady!

Spoiler Alert! And Why People Don't See the Misfit Coming
There is also symbolic foreshadowing of the Grandmother pointing out to June Star and John Wesley a cotton field cemetery dotted with five or six grave markings. Oh no. In the end — the body count is six dead. I am assuming you, my reader, have read the short story, or you wouldn't be reading my review — but now I know you will return to the text and find the examples I just pointed out to you. My students are often shocked. And I think it says a lot about O'Connor craft as a writer. She does not write a stray sentence. Every word, every line, is purposeful — even the details, that on first reading, seem redundant, at the end are memorable and shocking. Ironically, the Grandmother would worry about what her corpse looked like — as if people would wonder whether her dress color matched her hat! But it's those details that stick with us, the absurd and zany happenings of the Grandmother's storytelling and the insouciant children, June Starr and John Wesley — that catch our attention, and we are drawn into their world that by the end, we forget there is a Misfit on the loose. We don't see him coming.

The Grandmother's Actions Are the Biggest Red Flag
Yes, people don't see the Misfit coming, and they miss the textual clues that point to a potential dumpster fire. Yet — the sticking point is that it's all the Grandmother's fault! I think many readers see the Grandmother as goofy and a nag — slightly annoying and hypocritical. But there is also something else about the Grandmother that bothers me (besides being an archetypical Southern nag).

She doesn't think about the ramifications of her actions. If you chart it out, the entire story is the Grandmother's series of mistakes that lead to her and her family's death. And she is oblivious to her moral responsibility in this fate until the end — when in the story's climactic moment, she sees the Misfit and reaches out to him and says he is one of her own babies. I think the Grandmother sees that she is about to die, but she also, in a flash, has a revelation about her own broken, human condition.

People sometimes quip that before you die your life flashes before your eyes. But for the Grandmother — I think — she sees everything she did wrong in painstaking detail. She saw how she didn't want to go on the vacation, and when she reluctantly went, she hid the cat in her basket so no one would find out. She never thinks that perhaps her son, in reserving a motel room, would need to know that there was a cat on board. She ironically is worried that in her absence, the cat will accidentally turn on the gas burner and asphyxiate itself. When in truth, her caviler attitude is one step that brings her to her own death. Telling her son and family that she knows the location of a house with a secret door — I won't riddle you with all of the details — she forces everyone to go on a wild goose chase, which eventually leads them off the beaten path and lost. The Grandmother realizes that she has no idea how to find the house — that's it's not in Georgia — but in Tennessee — and in that moment instead coming clean with everyone she jostles the basket with Pitty Sing the cat — who jumps out in a rube-goldberg scenario that causes the Father to lose control of the car and crash it.

You may miss it if you have only read the story once — but there is a moment when the Grandmother is crouched in the fetal position, another foreshadowing of her death? She fantasizes that she is injured, so her son will have pity on her rather than become angry about leading the family astray. Now — it is perhaps easy to whisk away the Grandmother's action as just a senile senior citizen. But if we take the Grandmother to court, it becomes clear that this is a person who would rather be hurt, to be injured, to put her family in danger, rather than act honestly and allow her words to match her actions.

The Grandmother's Racist Microaggressions Should Also Be Considered
Take her behavior earlier in the story when she and Red Sammy, the Bar-b-que restaurant owner, are railing on about the moral degradation of society. But the Grandmother enjoys touting moral platitudes, but easily her actions belie her words. She thinks nothing of taking a photograph of a little black child she sees on the side of the road, not wearing pants (or, as we say in the South, britches). And she thinks nothing of telling her grandchildren a story loaded with racist innuendo about Black people.

O'Connor inserts these insensitivities into the mouth of the Grandmother because it is another way to show that this is a person who does not reflect on the implications of their actions — at all. But the Grandmother is also a person who very easily will point the finger at someone else. So when the Misfit and his henchman find the Grandmother and her family stuck on the side of the road, again, the Grandmother does not hesitate to endanger her family further when she recognizes him and shouts out his name. I should add here that I am not a criminal murderer, but if I were, I certainly would not want a witness to recognize me and shout my name, for all to hear — especially if I am a recently escaped federal prisoner. Now I do not mean to suggest that the Grandmother directly planned and caused her and her family's demise — but I will argue that O'Connor is suggesting that much of society's problems lie in an inability to truly and authentically reflect on our actions.

O'Connor's Story is Radically Relevant in Our Times that Does Not Seem Much Different from 1955
Returning to the racist and demeaning behavior of the Grandmother — she has probably never been put to task for how she talks about and treats people of color. She has become smug in her moral uprightness that she is unable, or unwilling, to see her participation in oppressing those that are not like her. An inability to appreciate difference, to see color, to see racial division is why, O'Connor's short story, is relevant for today — written over fifty years ago, its portrayal of a white person who cannot zoom out and see how she is part of a bigger problem painfully rings true in the recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd.

Black Americans have rallied together and protested the murder of an innocent Black man at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. And cries have been shouted across the nation that we as a people, must come to terms with our conflicted relationship to race in this country. The axial moment of "A Good Man" is that the Grandmother only comes to realize her cooperation at the moment of her death — as I mentioned earlier in this blog post. The Misfit shoots her twice in the heart — which is telling — because the heart is the symbol of emotion and love. And the Misfit shot her in a moment of recoil when the Grandmother, in an almost tender moment of love, reaches out to him and calls him her child.

"'She would have been a good woman,' the Misfit said, 'if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life'"
I think readers miss something relevant to what happens after the Misfit kills the Grandmother. The Misfit is taken back by his violence and is shaken more than he would typically be, wiping his glasses of the blood of the woman he has just shot. His henchman criticizes him, and he retorts, it is no real pleasure in life. And at that moment he says, perhaps, the most quotable line from the story — "'She would have been a good woman,' the Misfit said, 'if it had. been somebody to shoot her every minute of her life.'" I read this to say, that the Misfit recognizes that it was something good, something preternaturally good, about the Grandmother's final action, that causes him to recoil like a snake and kill her.

I think of a person tending to a wounded dog — and the dog, not recognizing the person's kindness, bites him. The Misfit has had a life of criminality, disavowal of goodness, and a childhood deprived of love and care. In the Misfit, we see a man who has indeed been a "miss fit." He does not fit into society's fabric, so he has isolated himself and chosen a life of delinquency. It is hinted that he killed his own family. And that his father physically abused him.

When O'Connor Alludes to Jesus She is Being More than Just Religious
And the Misfit's theological discussion with his Grandmother — that Jesus threw it all off balance is telling. The Misfit cannot accept a person like Jesus because the Misfit's own life has been absent of the kind of love that Jesus represents. In fact, in an almost desiring way, the Misfit wishes he had seen the person of Jesus with his own eyes and witnessed his miracles. He would have to see it to believe it. But isn't that the final irony of this messed up tale? That a racist, empty-headed, middle-class, commodity obsessed, superficial white woman becomes a beacon of love that infiltrates the misfit's hardened heart. Let that sink in.

Now we don't know what happens to the Misfit. Because the story ends. And as a teaching tip — have your students continue the story! And you may be aware that O'Connor herself gave a rendering of what she believed will become of the Misfit. She sees the Grandmother's action as a moment of grace that plants itself in the heart of the misfit that will grow like a mustard seed into a crow-filled tree! That's an interesting visual metaphor, the action of grace. And I get it. Grace (or call it a moment of aesthetic judgment) is this instantaneous moment of undeserved love — or mercy — that humans are capable of — but we often do not consider it — taken in more by reports of humanity's baser nature or propensity for violence and harm.

So how are we to come away with this story? What is the message that it leaves us with, ultimately? I think the message of "A Good Man is Hard to find" is that "the good" is something that does not come out of moral uprightness or outward bearing signs of good behavior. Do you remember who says the title of the story? It's Red Sammy — and he certainly is not the paragon of a good man. Or is he?

Goodness is Not a Polite Profile But an Eruption
In this story, the good cannot be a profile we affix to a person. As when we say, "Oh, he's good because of XYZ." Goodness is an eruption, a sudden moment of grace that can spring up when we least expect it — come in at a moment of otherwise sheer terror to open up the world anew. Perhaps the Misfit is right — Jesus threw the world off balance. Jesus — here — being an analog for that which comes into the world, despite its own gnarly roughness, and can shine forth.

Isn't it absurd that in O'Connor's worldview, that turns out to be a miserly old woman? I guess that is the truth of "A Good Man is Hard to Find". So now. I try to judge people less harshly. I also try to be more aware of my own words and how they match my actions. When I first read the story with Sister Jean d'Arc, I saw myself as a good man. I was in school, and I tried my best to go to Church, to help others. But I feel like this story is about how the usual trappings of goodness often don't reveal our true selves. For example — remember bratty June Starr and John Wesley? In the story, the children, even though they are spoiled brats and do not show respect to their elders, see the adults' hypocrisy. The family in this story do not listen to one another. They regularly talk over one another — and I think O'Connor presents us with this family for a reason. For they are not unlike many families I know — or the family I come from — in which we often bicker and complain, but rarely take a breath, and achieve quiet. And listen.

Advertisement for a TpT Short Discussion Guide: A Good Man is Hard to Find Made by Stones of Erasmus © 2020

12.6.20

Journal & Rant: Quotation On Owning Property (And How This Aphorism Unnerves Me)

He who has the property in the soil has the same up to the sky.
Arrow Magazine Advert 1950s
Property Rights Are Not Something to Argue About With Americans
     I found the above aphorism in a quote book from England published in 1856. It would not be hard to convince a mogul in the real estate business that the above aphorism is a truth worth considering. In the United States, property ownership is next to godliness. Don't mess with someone's land. Ever since Europeans set their toe on the Americas, men were imbued with insane logic that what they claimed from the crown and God was rightfully their property. The Native Americans? Puh-shah — we came, we saw, we converted them to Christianity. Freedom, baby! Manifest destiny! But why is this concept of land ownership so ingrained in American culture? And why is it a dangerous thought? And should we reconsider it?
But What Do I Own, Really?
     As a teenager, I was suspicious of most things (as is usual for a teen). I remember telling my aunt who had come over for dinner that "I'd never own a house." She laughed. And then spent the remainder of our mirliton stuffed with hamburger meat as to why I should reconsider my statement. And now at forty years old, I still don't own property. I have no land deeds to my name. Nah dah
     My landlessness is probably due to the fact that I live in New York City where no one in my income bracket owns a piece of property unless they inherited it — or live three states out from the city center. And I am comfortable with renting. And I don't own a car, either, because I live in a neighborhood close to a commuter train, subway station, and bus lines. But I also choose to live in New York — yet it is not where I was born — that would be the South  and certainly in South Louisiana to be middle class, to be white, to be American — is to own a house. 
     In fact, right after Hurricane Katrina, property values were ridiculously low. The government was literally giving land away in a program called "The Road Home"  to anyone who would grab it (taken from folks who had lost their mortgage because of displacement or who did not have the capital to rebuild). I never bought one of those post-Katrina properties but I know a few folks who did and they act like they got a great deal. But what if you lost your property, do you still have the sky? There is a Massasoit saying that goes something like how can we claim we own land when it belongs to Mother Nature — "How can one man say it belongs only to him?". I am amazed by how in radical ways, changing the perspective we have on private land ownership can change how we live together in a community. 
      For example, changing a busy avenue to a pedestrian mall during this recent Cornavirus epidemic has transformed my neighborhood. Where you would normally see cars buzzing down a busy thoroughfare a broad avenue turns into a long park for people to safely social distance and get fresh air! But I also live in a neighborhood bereft of public green space despite the fact that many of the apartments in my neighborhood are historic "garden apartments" — boasting gorgeous park spaces within the confines of private, closed-off buildings. Take a moment and think about how your city or neighborhood would drastically change if even a half percent of private land was open to the public. If you are pessimistic about this prospect then you are missing the opportunity to create connections between others that are desperately needed in this country.  
And How Land Ownership Ties Into Racial Ideology in America
     The same aunt who rattled off arguments to me as to why I should own a house finally bought a house. She had rented for years — but I think she resented this fact (and now, oddly, she sends me Facebook messages of black people who apparently are against the Black Lives Movement. As if she has found a treasure worth saving. "See," she thinks. "Greig will abandon his liberal ways once he sees a black person agrees with me!" She bought her house in a mixed neighborhood; she exclaims to me uncomfortably how much she loves her "black neighbors" — as if she is surprised by the comfort and safety she feels. 
      My aunt sees herself as an underdog — like a lot of white people who have a not-so-thinly-veiled disgust for any movement that touts racial equality. See. She just bought that house and has come to peace with living in close proximity to people who do not look like her. It doesn't matter that she is over sixty and will have the house paid off in forty years! She has a house. 
      But a mortgage scares the heck out of me. If I lose my job or if my income suddenly plummets it sucks that I would have to move and find cheaper housing but if I had a mortgage what would I do? I honestly believe homeownership, despite its risks, makes a certain group of American white people satisfied — they've achieved the American dream. And those Facebook messages? They're rants about how George Floyd was a criminal and no one wants to admit it and that it's hypocritical to have a funeral for him with such grand public attendance because we are in the middle of a pandemic. I can't make this stuff up.
Racism Is Bad — Until It Affects Me Personally
     I feel like people, a lot of people, do not understand racism and its ugly tentacles and how racism stretches out and chokes, black people, and white people — and brown people. As James Baldwin mentions in a documentary, I Am Not Your Negroe, made a few years ago that garnered Academy Award accolades — Baldwin's words are the voiceover of the documentary overlayed with archival material of our country's racial history, tied to recent events — there are no white people. Ever. White is just a metaphor for power and it is Chase Manhattan Bank. The same people you probably owe your mortgage to.
     So. How do I feel about the aphorism, now? Do I own the same property up to the sky? I am going to replace the quote with a different one and make it a mantra: "Leave the earth as you found it". If leaving my mark on the world means the suffering of someone else, then I want no part in it. I say that knowing full well, I am caught up in a system that is totally against this notion — but I want to believe it and as long as I am still alive I refuse to stop fighting for this belief. 
Source: Macdonnel, David Evans. A manual of quotations, by E.H. Michelsen. United Kingdom, n.p, 1856.

3.6.20

Philosophy in the Classroom (Or, the Living Room): Five Resources to Get Young People Thinking About Ethics and Moral Decision Making


As we gear up for Summertime and Summer Reading, I am thinking about FIVE ethically-minded resources to share with young people.


A Young Man in the Stacks
Photo by Aw Creative on Unsplash
1. The Ones Who Walk Away from OmelasUrsula K. LeGuin's short(ish) story is about a nearly perfect society. But the inhabitants of this supposed utopia have a dark, hidden secret. The story becomes a thought experiment on moral values and what we sacrifice to live better lives for ourselves (at the expense of others).
Detail of the infamous "Ring of Gyges" that magically grants invisibility to its wearer2. Caught You! The Ring of Gyges from Plato's Republic - Do you only do what is right when others are looking? What if you could do whatever you wanted — would you still be motivated to do the right thing? Get kids thinking about these moral questions with a free "Philosophy in the Classroom" lesson plan I made on fairness and justice. 
Painterly image of Plato's Cave (from the point of view of the prisoner climbing out of the cave and seeing the sun for the first time)
3. Plato's Allegory of the Cave in Plain Language - In this classic story from Plato, the Ancient Greek Philosopher imagines a shadow world where one prisoner longs to be free. Find out what the prisoner finds and the consequences of his discovery when he shares it with his friends. 
Till We Have Faces by C.S. LewisThe Four Loves
4. Two Books by C.S. Lewis - This English author is a creative writer who instills imaginative and ethical thinking in children! I loved the Narnia books growing up — but you may not know Lewis wrote a prolific amount of books that do not include Mr. Tumnuis and the Pevensie children. It may be a little advanced for very young kiddos, but he wrote a beautiful book called The Four Loves. It is an extended essay on the different kinds of love. He also wrote a book based on the Greek Myth of Cupid and Psyche entitled Till We Have Faces — an incredible retelling of a classic tale.

Charlotte's Web
5. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White — Don't be fooled by its children's book reputation. E.B. White has crafted a delicate book about growing up, friendship, and love. The first chapter, alone, is a lesson in moral decision-making skills that any kid will relate to and want to discuss in detail.
Sources:

Le, Guin U. K. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Mankato (Minnesota: Creative Education, 1993. Print.
Lewis, C S. The Four Loves. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1991. Print.
Lewis, C S. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. 2017, 1956. Print.

Plato, , and Andrea Tschemplik. The Republic: The Comprehensive Student Edition. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. Print.
White, E B, and Garth Williams. Charlotte's Web. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 1952. Print.
Stones of Erasmus has a Teachers Pay Teacher Store that sells products for middle and high school teachers

27.5.20

Quotation: A Proverb on Taking a Hint (And How One Word is Enough)

In this quote post, I lay into a pithy proverb coined by a Roman dramatist about taking a hint (and when to take it).

A word to the wise is sufficient.”

— Attributed to Terence, Roman Playwright (born in Carthage, North Africa c. 195 B.C.E, and died c. 159 B.C.E.)

     I had scribbled this quote in my journal. I keep all of the journals I've written since I was eleven or twelve years old. I've slowly been digitizing them, which is why I came across this quote I had written down when I was a sophomore in high school. Taking an English class with a highly creative teacher, I learned to keep quotes that I liked so later I could think about them and write about them. As a teacher, I often have students think about quotes, and I encourage them to collect their favorites. Gone are the days of marble composition books — but kids today use Quizlet or Anki to collect what they like and find online. Or, quotes are made into memes (I have a Pinterest page devoted to quotes-turned-into-memes). But I never wrote about "a word to the wise" until now.

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.
Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

     If you were to classify the quote, it's technically a proverb. In Latin, it's "Verbum sapienti sat[is] est." While it's attributed to Terence, the saying has taken on a life of its own. It's often written only as "a word to the wise" or "a word to the wise is enough." But what does it mean? When I first read the proverb, I misinterpreted it. I thought it meant, wise people (i.e., smart people) don't need you to talk to them too much. Just say a simple word to them, and that's enough. As if really smart people are incredibly tight-lipped. But that's not what the proverb is meant to convey. A word to the wise is more about the wise person. A sage doesn't need a lot of information to sum up what's going on in any given complicated situation. If you turn to a wise person, all they need is a hint of what you're going through, and they can infer a solution.
Wise Teachers Need Just a Word And That's Enough
     Teachers need this skill. In a school setting, millions of things are going on at once, and kids tend to expect their teachers to guide them — right? A wise teacher can infer correctly what's going on. I guess a modern version of "word to the wise" is the ability to "read the room." All it takes is a whiff of something, a word, an action, and a wise teacher can sum up a situation and intuitively enact a plan.
     In some ways, I am good at taking a hint and understanding the bigger picture. A lot is often unsaid. When people say "read between the lines," what they mean is pick up on the clues of what's not being said. Having exceptional emotional intelligence is a prerequisite for the wise person. Don't go to extremes in one's thinking. Trust one's gut. Act with purpose. Don't second guess. Avoid excessive speculation. Another quote comes to mind — the most simple answer is most likely the best one. That's from William of Occam, a fourteenth-century monk, and philosopher — 
 "The simplest explanation is probably the best. Don't complicate matters if you don't have to"
     And Occam is right. A reasonable explanation is often the correct answer rather than a many-stepped answer. Listen to people try to argue that NASA didn't send humans to the moon. It takes more steps to say that the moon landing was a setup than to simply accept the most reasonable (albeit spectacular) answer that we sent men to the moon.
Some Folks Need More Than Just a Word (And That's the Problem)
     Thinking of the converse of "word to the wise" is helpful. Have you ever tried to explain a situation to someone, but the person just couldn't seem "to get it"? At a dinner party, I had a friend tell another friend's wife, "Oh. Your mother is so pretty tonight." Even though I tried to save my friend from her faux pas she didn't get the hint. She ran right into the situation completely unaware that she didn't size up the situation properly. Some people are incredibly literal — they need everything spelled out for them. Usually, they are more rule-based individuals. Intuitive people can come up with solutions faster because they skip a few steps. And they accept when they are wrong. And they know when to avoid rules and when to follow them.
A Word to the Wise! Hear ye!
     Have you noticed examples of "a word to the wise" in your own life? Maybe you know someone who exemplifies the proverb. Or you have a co-worker or a boss who is exceptional at picking up on clues to solve a problem. Either way — let me know your stories. Leave a comment.
Sources: The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 2015. / Ammer, Christine. The Dictionary of Clichés: A Word Lover's Guide to 4,000 Overused Phrases and Almost-Pleasing Platitudes. United States, Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.

13.5.20

Quotation: On the Self in Relation to the Other in Psalm 139 of the Hebrew Bible

In this post, I talk about a passage from the Hebrew Book of Psalms that extols the self with respect to the Other.
Photo by Les Triconautes on Unsplash
You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know.
Psalms (139:13-14)
The Ancient Songbook of the Hebrews
     The Hebrew Book of Psalms is an ancient songbook — but its music has been lost. No one quite knows how the psalms were set to music. All we have today are the words. Perhaps the words were sung a capella, or they were meant to be recited in a rhythmic pattern. There is a general suggestion that a lyre harp was the main instrument of choice. Attributed to the ancient King David, the psalms of the Bible number one-hundred-fifty. Each Psalm is a plaintiff voice to God, a prayer, but when read, the Psalms closely spell out a philosophy of the self.
     The "I" in Psalm 139 is an "I" closely tied to the experience of an Other. The first words of the Psalm are "Lord, you have probed me, you know me" (139:1). The Psalm sets the experience of the self in relationship to all-knowing God, a being who "knit me in my mother's womb" (139:1b). The experience of the self is one of relationship to a being greater than the self, a series of steps that brought the self from nothingness to being. Read in this way, the self is not an isolated molecule, a desiccated thing, a piece of something. The self is intricately bound up with the Other in such a way that the self is the other.

The Point-of-View of a Self Looking Backward 
     I have seen Psalm 139 used as an argument against abortion. The reasoning goes that since God has formed us in our "mother's womb" — the act of terminating a pregnancy is the annihilation of a future self. I imagine that suits pro-lifers well; and, I do begrudge them for their argument. But I see the verse of Psalm 139 tells a different story. The language of the Psalm is from the perspective of looking at oneself in awe. It is an epiphany that comes with awareness, with a self-consciousness that only comes from a sense of becoming. "I am a self!" — is a type of understanding a developed being has — that type of awareness that "I am a self — and this 'knowledge is too wonderful for me'" (139:6).
     The self of Psalm 139 is the self that has achieved the highest level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I come into this world kicking and screaming. No one asked my permission to exist. But here I am. I eat. I feed off my mother's milk. I kick. I squirm. I am dependent, and I barely recognize my own image; the world is me, and I am the world. But I break into self as a kind of divided self. I acknowledge that I am a "me," and it is traumatic for I feel at once the break from the other. It is a seismic break (but one that I do not remember distinctly). But I came out of it and entered childhood, with its ravages and glories, into adolescence and then into adulthood — where I now stand. I imagine David, the eternal lyricist, wrote this Psalm in middle-age — not as a mewling boy, not as the teenager who slew Goliath, but as the King who one day woke up to an understanding of his own being.

Positive and Negative Aspects of the Self in Relationship to the Other
     I do think there are positive and negative aspects of a self in relationship to the other. In Psalm 139, this relationship is seen as positive, as one that pervades one's being with an empowering message — that you are wonderfully made. It is the voice of a parent, for example, that has buttressed you with confidence, and you have internalized this encouragement. An inner voice that carries you through the toughest of times. But there is also a negative aspect of a self in relationship to the other — it is the demanding other. I see this demanding other when I cede over my power to another that seeks to punish. When I am not right in the world. When my being feels as if "foes ... conspire a plot" against me those "enemies I count as my own" (Psalm 139:20; 22b).
     I call the positive self concerning the other the creator. It is the feeling of being right with the world — perhaps that feeling one gets as a child when your teacher places a gold-bright sticker on your classwork, and you carry it home beaming. I call the negative self for the other the destroyer. It is the feeling of not being right with the world. Crushed by the other, we succumb to self-loathing and self-sabotage. The other of Psalm 139 saw us unformed — "my days were shaped before one came to be" (Psalm 139:16). The self stands between this tension of positive and negative forces. The "I" of the self entangled with an other.

What is a Self Free of this Entanglement?
    Zeus conspired to chain the old gods in a locked chamber in the underworld. Sons grow up to overthrow their parents. A self "knit together" in the womb grows up to be independent — at least, isn't that the purpose of adulthood? Freedom for the self is real. But true freedom is terrifying. I think of the choices I make in my life — most of them are habitual. Born out of necessity. Out of duty, even. But in that space of habitual service, can there be something like freedom? It is not every day one makes life-changing decisions — but I feel like there are axial moments in the life of a person that has set the pathway. Maybe there is more than one path. I do not know. 
    An axial moment in dance is when the dancer fixes their body in one place, using the spine as a focal point, so as to find optimal movement for all the joints. It requires determination, strength, and a nimble body — one that I do not have! — but I like the metaphor. I was knit together in my mother's womb but now I find myself standing on two feet. What is next? What step do I take? That choice is what defines me. And do I make it my own? Yes. That is what I hope.
What was your axial moment? Let me know in the comments.   

Source:
NABRE: New American Bible Revised Edition. United States, Saint Benedict Press, LLC, 2011.