29.7.11

Why I Write Better When I am Homeless

Writing is probably good for you.
Even with a due date.
When homeless I am uprooted. But I have money in my pocket.
Why do I write better? Because it is something to do to fill in the emptiness. When Maslow's needs are met I think we are less prone to be creative. It is the pang of hunger and thirst that spurs us on to aesthetic heights.

The hungry artist is the short-lived artist but his art is intense. I think Arthur Rimbaud was such an artist. He wrote until he exhausted himself. He wrote first then ate later. Even then it was not so much as a need but visceral. A part of creativity. His eating became his aesthetic.

I cannot be an Arthur Rimbaud. I enjoy creature comforts. Take-out. Lunch on a subway bench. A gin and tonic after work.
They do not make me more creative. I could say something pretentious like the life of the middle class intellectual deadens my creative sense. But that sounds wrong. I am a creator because I am a middle class intellectual. And I am not even sure if that label fits me. A lost boy is perhaps a better descriptor. A stranger in a strange land. A man who happens to have a degree who happens to teach Plato, Aristotle, Virginia Woolf and Camus to community college students in Brooklyn, New York.

I am a man who loves the color of apples. But I like stiletto heels as well. I like the religious ritual of going to the movie theater on a Thursday evening after work. I eat lightly buttered popcorn with the same laconic motivation of receiving the holy eucharist on my tongue. The darkened theater and the womb-like cavity of stadium seating  where there is always less people and more space feels like an experience of daily Mass.

Aesthetic Thursday: Max Beckmann, Beginning

"Beginning" Max Beckmann, 1949, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Triptychs
The piece "Beginning" is a triptych which means it is a single work composed of three panels. Triptychs were originally intended for religious art. Since the work is composed of three separate panels, once installed in a church or home, the priest could open or close the panel depending on the day of observance. Beckmann chooses the traditional triptych style, not for religious purposes but to depict pivotal events in a boy's adolescent development.

The Central Panel
The central panel depicts a boy on a white horse, a woman wearing blue stockings lying on a divan (smoking a hookah?), a cat hangs on the ceiling (reminds me of Puss in Boots).

Left Panel
An organ grinder, an angel, a boy with a crown.

Right Panel
Boys with laconic gazes, a teacher disciplines a pupil, a boy displays his pornographic magazine to other students.

24.7.11

Poem: A Monk Reads at Table

image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
at table reading,
our minds most likely a cacophony
of invective, misery, and lower back pain.

There is silence.  
Usually amid the drone of listless
hagiographies,
 put an asparagus spear in your
mouth 

the tables are urchin gray; the reader enjoys
whispering
for
eating in silence is all we can ever do
PDF Copy for Printing

Repost: The Relationship of Truth and Relativism by Marian Larman, O.S.B.

I came across this essay in my personal files. It is written by Marian Larman, a Benedictine priest who taught philosophy. This essay has a personal import for me. Larman wrote it during the last year of his life. He had retired as pastor of a small church in Saint Benedict, Louisiana. Because of declining health, he moved into the infirmary at the monastery where I was a monk. On some mornings I would visit the infirmary. Two parakeets inhabited a birdcage in the solarium, a rectangular room that allowed in plenty of sunlight. Father Marian would sit in the solarium reading a newspaper or a newly acquired book on Saint Thomas Aquinas. While an ardent Thomist, he did not hold to the belief that there we through faith we have access to an overarching truth. There may be an absolute truth but finite beings are limited to what we can know. We would have quiet conversations sometimes. I mainly listened as he told me about his ideas. Father Augustine, who took care of the infirmary allowed Father Marian to write in the infirmary. He acquired a small manual typewriter on which he wrote the following essay. While he equates truth to adequation in the following piece, a position I find difficult to swallow, since I have difficulty with the concept of absolute truth (especially in regards to theology), the following essay is a fine example of a Thomist attempting to square his views with relativism and the charge that all is merely subjective and everyone has their own version of truth (or, the verso, all is objective and all there is absolute truth). I have simply typed his essay as it appeared in the typewritten manuscript.

23.7.11

Who Are Your Reading Mentors?


Bonnie Bess Wood and Frank Levy, Innovators in Reading
I take it for granted that I am a life-long reader. Yet I must stop and consider the people who inspired me to be a reader for life. Yes, the public library played its part, but also individual persons as well. One was indeed a librarian, but the other was her husband. Here is my story about Frank and Bonnie: 

       I met Bonnie and Frank the Summer I was thirteen years old. Bonnie was the interim library director at the local branch public library near my home. I would spend afternoons at the library as a volunteer page. Bonnie noticed me reading in between the stacks and instead of chastising me for not shelving books, began a relationship of reading with me that has lasted into my adult years. She chose for me to read Chronicles of Narnia, Dante's InfernoCount of Monte Cristo, and John Steinbeck's Acts of King Arthur when I was reading only Stephen King novels. "If you like bologna, it is good, but it's still bologna," Bonnie told me. "You're only on this earth for a finite amount of time, so you can choose to eat either bologna sandwiches or filet mignon. The choice is yours." I kept on reading Stephen King and John Grishman, but I would also read from the list of Pulitzer Prize novels or National Book Award winners that Bonnie introduced me to as a librarian. Bonnie's rationale reflected a commitment to literature that privileged quality over fluff, but also gave the reader the freedom of choice.
    At the time I met Bonnie and Frank, they were building their nascent Children's Summer Theater company, Stories in Motion and were experimenting with various methods of presenting literature and film as a living narrative. Frank had been hired by the public library as a professional storyteller and lecturer. In one story, Flutterby the Butterfly, Bonnie performed the part of Flutterby, dancing through the audience dressed in a costume she herself had designed and created, while Frank told the story with physical expression and inclusion of the child audience. I played the lepidopterist who is unable to catch Flutterby in his net. Bonnie created costumes and masks which Frank used to bring to life living "stories in motion."
    Reading was promoted for its own sake in the novel presentation of the narrative as a performance for the love of the story. The simple idea was to perform and involve young people in the telling of a story as a way to encourage interest in literature. After a performance of Flutterby, children would approach the librarian for books on butterflies. Or, after a performance at a public school where Frank performed the role of the pianist Chopin in full costume and in character, librarians and teachers could more easily encourage their students to read about Chopin or about classical music. Stories in Motion encouraged reading by performing literature in public places to elicit from the audience a response to read in turn, as a pleasurable aesthetic, and not merely for the satisfaction of a mark or an obligation.
    I think the success of Stories in Motion lies in the collaborative efforts of its creators. As a librarian, Bonnie brings to the project years of experience working in school and university libraries. Also, she is a researcher. She researches possible stories, mines their literary history, and works with Frank to create the story from an existing database of World Literature, whether it be a story about Purim, or background information on Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Frank takes Bonnie's raw research and finds in a story the essential plot points and presents the story theatrically and totally committed to the essence of the literature in its purest form. Like Odysseus telling the story of his ten-year journey home from Troy, Frank marks the importance of literature in its ability to be told.
    Stories in Motion stories are told from the rich treasure trove of out-of-copyright literature, namely the classics, which belong to the common trust. This means, for example, they do not produce the Disney version of Little Mermaid, but Hans Christian Andersen's original. Ariel, not obedient to the rules of the spell that has transformed her into a human, loses her prince and turns into sea foam at the story's fatal end. Children are indoctrinated by Disney's version which casts Ariel as a comic character who wins her prince and lives happily ever after. Stories in Motion takes a risk by telling the original tale; a risk that involves convincing parents and children that Little Mermaid is a tragic tale where all is not resolved nicely in the end. The risk is losing the interest of the children who prefer the Disneyfication of the tale, and may not be willing, at least at first, to be exposed to the original telling. At the end of the day, the risk of upsetting a child who wishes to play the part of Ariel, so she can wed a fictional prince, is overcome by giving this same child access to a piece of literature that is true to its literary history. The child in a Stories in Motion production learns organically that a story can either be tragic or comic, that a story has a narrative history of its own as well as constitutive of a cultural literacy that the child would otherwise be bereft of if she had only been fed the commercialization of literature that privileges what is marketable over a commitment to literature itself, for its own sake.
    The vision of Stories in Motion is creative and opposed to the mainstream commodification of storytelling. The plays are scaled down to the bare essentials of theater aesthetics. A Stories in Motion stage is bare. No unnecessary props or elaborate eye-candy adorn the proscenium, save for a simple background suggestive of the theme. Also, when Frank adapts a classic piece of literature for performance by a group of young people, he scales down the script to preserve the muscle of the story. By re-imaging classic stories, such as Wizard of Oz, the Arthurian legend, Pinocchio, or Wind in the Willows, to name a few recent productions, Stories in Motion remains a completely kid-driven production. A child controls lights, sound, and works backstage. Young people work with choreographers and assist in directing. The cast is composed of 100-150 children. Every actor in the cast has at least one speaking role and very seldom is only one child the star of the show. The muscle of the show is in the purity of the narrative but also the individual actors and stage workers who learn collaborative learning skills in putting a play together in one to three weeks for public performance. The vision of Stories in Motion includes both the preservation of literature and the instilling in young people the necessary life skill of teamwork.
    I had the privilege as a high school drama teacher to produce a Stories in Motion adaptation for myself. With my group of thirty high school students, we produced Sword in the Stone, an adaptation from Sir Thomas Mallory's book Le Morte D'Arthur. Directing a Stories in Motion play gave me the opportunity to produce a novel way to present literature. The metaphor of generativity is not lost on me. Having bestowed on me as a child a love of literature for its own sake, and a commitment to literature in general, it was with pathos that I directed the Stories of Motion adaptation of the Arthurian legend. I took what was given to me as a child by Bonnie and Frank and was able in turn to present it to my own students. By doing Sword in the Stone, I wanted to introduce my students to the Arthurian legend in a way that was theatrical but at the same time expose them to an important cultural and literary tale. At first, my students were not interested in Arthur as a play to perform, but once we read through the Stories in Motion script, I could see that my students saw the play as an opportunity for self-expression. They learned the legend of Arthur intuitively and theatrically, asking me questions about Uther Pendragon and the Mist People, the May Party, Morgan La Fay, and the importance of the sword in the stone as a metaphor for coming-of-age. In the end, through a unique presentation of literature, my students found themselves not only as drama students but purveyors of literature, without recourse to the traditional methods of teaching literature in American high schools.
    It is with this exposition that I recommend Ms. Bonnie Bess Wood and Mr. Frank Levy, co-creators of Stories in Motion, as verifiable innovators in reading. 

Thank you, Bonnie and Frank.

Thomas J. Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another quiet place to read and study in Manhattan
Interior, The Watson Library, image: the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Probably not as obvious an option for quiet study space as the Rose Main Reading room at the New York Public Library, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts the Watson Library, a quiet space hidden amidst the buzzing interior of the Met on fifth avenue adjacent to Central Park. Access to this space is available to anyone with a research interest in Art History. (Hint: just say you are interested in researching art history and you're in. They won't grill you for proof of serious research intent).

While the mission of the library privileges use by museum researchers, the library is not foreclosed to seekers of quiet reading and study space in New York City. To obtain access to the library one has to state an area of research interest and present a photo ID, and fill out a registration form. Once supplied with a proper library card, one does not need to pay admission to the museum to use the library. Simply present yourself at the information desk to gain access. All bags must be checked-in prior to entrance. 

The library is a closed stacks library so if a book is needed from the library’s collection, the call number must be recorded and a patron can page the book at the circulation desk. For simple quiet space, a place to read or to study, the Watson library is superb. The setting is heavily academic and very quiet, so do not expect comfy overstuffed chairs or vibrant colors. This is a no-frills place to read and to catch up on one’s knowledge of Mondrian or Picasso.
Further Information:
Where: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10028, First Floor
Public Hours: Weekdays: Monday–Friday 10 am–5:15 pm; book retrieval until 3:30 pm. 
Directions: Subway: 4,5,6 to 86th St.; A,B,C to 86th street (and walk across the park)
Contact: Watson Library Contact Form  
Telephone: 212-650-2312