Sunday, August 24, 2014

August beach walks

Nature enfolds us, sky -- clear or cloudy, changing colors constantly, showing sun, moon, stars -- the ocean -- calm or atoss, lapping, ebbing, sparkling -- the earth -- rocky, sandy, marshy, grassy, tree covered, dessert, much, much more. We cannot resist playing with it, not only as children digging a hole or sifting the sand, as adults, moving the rocks around, even here on the beach, building circles (with a rock that shows quartz white in contrast to all the browns, cairns (this year's more sloppy than in past years) and tiny markers along the edge of the sea (new this year).  I speak really only of a small, small area seen here at the end of Long Beach on which I walk as much as I can in the summer, and often in other seasons as well. Every summer the rocks at the  knobby end of the beach, which is really a spit between sea harbor and an inflowing creek, a nature reserve, not a public beach with lifeguards and such, the rocks are differently arranged -- Greek letters for fraternities, hearts with initials, various runes.  A long-lasting circle of stones about six feet across filled with white stones.  I am not a folklorist but I feel the achetypical impulses that have made people arrange these stones.

The current header photo of a circle of horseshoe crab shells (they molt and the tide brings them in) with an arrangement of seashells inside was done by sunbathers/swimmers who came here this week.  It has the simple elegance of the circle, a symbol, of course, of wholeness, of the world itself, here we can read that within the ancientness of the horseshoe crabs, younger shellfish have their place, having taken many graceful shapes.

I was walking along the beach today interfering with nature myself: I was picking up horseshoe crab shells at the water's edge and  laying them on the sand further up. I don't really know why I do this, but I have been doing it for several years now.  It seems to inspire others to do the same, for I find lines and clusters of shells, each day.  I arranged a few together and a couple, who I had not seen walking behind me, paused and the woman to said, "I like you art.  You put them in families." I just said "thank you" because I do think of the biggest shells (the dinner plate size ones) as belonging to a grandfather and the salad plate size ones as being mother and father and the saucer size ones as the children.  I'm sure humans have always manipulated nature, probably ever since they sheltered in caves and rearranged the rocks for comfort and safety, found grottoes further in where they painted the wonderful animals that they preyed on and which preyed on them.  Now we call it art; we think they called it magic. But then isn't that what all art tries to be?  Magic.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen

Woody Allen's latest is another nostalgic return to the '20s. Woody's old but not THAT old, a magic time for his parents, maybe. But certainly not on the Riviera in grand homes.  The story of   a magician (Colin Firth) who debunks psychics, and a sweet faced psychic for Kalamazoo (Emma Stone) is predictable until the twist near the end that I admit I didn't see coming.  Then there are two more predictable plot turns just to tie the ending up with a bow.  Colin Firth was very elegant, Emma Stone the kind of pretty girl from the Midwest who's bound to be much smarter than she looks.  The delight of the movie was Eileen Atkins, an actress I see to infrequently,  who plays Colin's aunt. They are given a dialog near the end that must have been fun to write and maybe to act, but which is so expected it's hard to enjoy -- a bit too much icing on the cake.

I'm interested in how  prolific creative people mature. For a while I thought Woody was never going to mature but, staying out of this film, just writing and directing,  it's a kind of dessert,  not deep but elegantly done, a good afternoon's entertainment, not much more. The scene that supplied the title seemed  superfluous to me, the title doesn't do much for me anyway. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Tales of Wonder, Houston Smith

Tales of Wonder is Huston Smith's autobiography, a short one.  I've known his name and read about him and read his writing for decades.  He is now in his 90s and, if Wikipedia can be trusted, still among us. He could be called Mr. Religion. He has written about the many world religions for decades and I probably used his first comprehensive book back in college.  That book omitted the Native American and Aboriginal and other "primative" religions, as he mentions in this book.  But he has rectified that omission the way he learned about all the other religions -- by deeply immersing himself in them.  He was born in China to Methodist missionary parents.  Religion is in his blood, maybe in his genes, although his parents were strictly Methodist he has immersed himself in all the other religions, living them for up to ten years -- but always remaining a Christian too. 

The autobiography touches on all those periods of learning but does not go into any of them deeply -- he doesn't need to because he wrote about them "from the inside out" and not with the condescending tone that most people write about religions other than their own.

I was especially moved toward the end of his book when he spoke of chosing to go into an assisted living facility because of crippling osteoporosis. His loving and deeply beloved wife Kendra understood his decision. He writes that his mother, in her 90s, was in such a home and, although nearly blind, went from room to room going in to talk to and cheer the other residents. Now he does the same in a similar situation. The concern for others that he learned as a child from his parents was so deep-seated that even their own handicaps doesn't stop them for being concerned about others -- to me that is a deeply Christian trait. I supposed it's part of other religions but the "do unto others..." as a  way of life is exemplified by both. 

Houston Smith has written:  Religion is the call to confront reality, to master the self.  He is speaking broadly and he has been living that life whether whirling with dervishes, taking LSD with Timothy Leary, meditating in a Japanese monastery, sweating in a lodge with Native Americans, walking the song lines with the Australian aborigines.  He has lead a life of seeking but never lost touch with his earliest childhood lessons.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Die-Off of Horseshoe Crabs

I've been fond of horseshoe crabs since I discovered them here on Cape Cod; I never saw them before. They are "fossil" creatures, not really crabs. One shell decorates my wall -- painted by Rachel with an oriental face. en she and Patrick first came to the Cape they used all their artistic skills to earn a bit here and there. Rachel came upon the idea of painting these faces on the shells of molted horseshoe crabs, and sold quite a few for a couple of years. 

That was then (25 years ago). Now I am here and walk on Long Beach and each August observe the many sizes and colorations of the molted shells I find lying on the beach.  Some are quite small, some are huge and encrusted with other crustations, occasionally one is black with age (or polluted seabed ).  Sometimes there have been enough that I and other people gather them into "conventions" like the picture here.

Last week, after the very high tide that came with the very huge summer moon, I walked on the beach early in the morning and saw, in the sea wrack at high tide line, literally hundreds of shells (and not all empty, many with dead crabs in them).  They were nearly all the same size, about as big as my hand, all the same young shade of beige. There were no big ones among them and certainly no ancient ones. They seemed to be the same age. I'm no expert at all but I guess about three years old.  The strewn shells at tide level stretched for a good half mile.  I did not attempt to count them, it was more than hundreds. 

Again I saw Stehanie as I was returning toward the parking lot. She was aghast as was I. Who could answer the question: why? We didn't know. She felt the Cape Cod Times would be unwilling to print anything about  an obvious die-off which would hint that something might be wrong with the water, at high tourist season. I don't read the paper so I don't know if they have written anything. I called the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute because they surely have someone knowledgeable about these creatures that were here before the dinosaurs. But it's summer; the operator didn't know to whom to direct me and the Information Center was manned by a young woman who was "filling in." She said she would leave a message to whomever.  I got a call the next day suggesting I call the town enrvironmental director since this person thought it might be the water also. I met other locals on the beach who were concerned and had said they would call "somebody". I was remiss and did not make more calls. (I admit to a nearly neurotic aversion to making phone calls -- imagine that in this day and age of everyone on their smart phones. Well, not me, I don't have one and don't want one.)

So it's a mystery and perhaps an answer will turn up -- after the tourists are gone.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Stephanie and the black backed gull family

I walk on a beach owned by the Audubon Society where endangered plovers are a major concern.  But many birds are in danger.  This summer there is only one family of black backed gulls.  They used to be the major species here but then were overpowered by a more common white backed species.  Many mornings when I walk the mile-long beach, I meet Stephanie who has been coming here longer than I have.  This summer she had become friendly with the only black backed gulls who frequent the beach, a pair and their very large juvenile offspring (whose back is still a mottled gray).  Stephanie knows a woman from the Audubon society who tells her how communicative this species is.  They are indeed.  They watch for Stephanie's arrival, one will eat out of her hand.  This beach does not have many gulls. It is not a well known beach and is not for swimmers, so often in the mornings at 8:00 or so I may walk it's length and meet no more than one or two people-- thus it was that Stephanie who comes early too, and I stopped to talk.  Found we were two writers and shared concerns about the birds and the beach.

The juvenile gull has become a matter of concern. He is, in fact, larger than his parents, but they are still feeding him.  So is Stephanie, who, in fact, has brought high protein kitty chow for the whole family.  Obviously the parents can survive well without her handouts, but Junior seems to be unable to seek his own food. Stephanie was throwing raw peanuts to him the other day. She is intelligent and thoughtful enough to worry that her interference is changing the natural dynamic of this small family.

We have a proprietary feeling about this beach and it's well being. We are concerned about the red sea weed which is an invasive species from Japan (probably brought by fishing ships) that is choking the natural green sea weed on which the many varieties of shell fish depend.  This in turn means fewer shell fish for the gulls and is probably one reason the beach has a small gull population (plus the nearby public beaches are good sources of snacks for gulls.

We humans cannot let nature take its course.  She and I worry about erosion from the several hurricanes that have lightly touched down here. We watch the horseshoe crabs which this year  have been only very small young ones that molted and their shells washed ashore-- in the past we have seen many older, larger ones. Where have they gone?  Have they died?  They are a "fosil" species, they were ancient when the dinosaurs were beginning to take over the earth.

And we bemoan the tourists who have found "our" beach, who bring their dogs -- off leash -- ignoring the signs, disturbing the nesting birds. I am happy to have become a "local" who can feel proprietary about this tiny stretch of our precious Cape Cod.  It is  very, very beautiful, especially early in the morning, seeing no other  human figures on the whole mile-long arc of sand, I feel that it is "my" beach.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

You never know until you get there

When I was small I happily opened my toys at Christmas and thought how dreadful to be an adult and have to look happy to get a new sweather ot a toaster. Then I grewup and began to understand that we change and our preconceived ideas are almost always wrong.

 I read a lot of articles and novels and totally agreed with Susan this afternoon when she did a small rant on writers who think everyone over 50 has gray hair, bad health, and nothing interesting going on in their lives. 

Our poetry class from ALL meets once each month of the summer at someone's home.  This was our third "rump" session, at a lovely home on a sizable lake, sitting in what might have once  been called the sun room.  There were fourteen of us. We don't look like these four people n the stock photo  and yet we do. We are all over 55, mostly over 65.  We have come to know each other as only people can who write down their feelings and life events and share them with others can know each other.  It's not something on the internet (like the pictured people) that we have to talk about, it's important parts of our lives, feelings, philosophies, and events. 

When I read of the stereotypical "old" people in articles there's often an assumption that all is dark and painful. No one writes of the light way we all understood and handled our hostess's forgetting the name of a grandchild whose picture she was passing around. A sad lapse? No, a blank moment that we've all had but it doesn't mean impending doom. We listened with great interest as one explained how a new doctor prescribed a very old (now generic) antidepressant for her husband the day before he was going to go into a nursing home because he was so needy she couldn't cope.  A pill that (as co-pay) cost 81 cents for a hundred. Within six hours his depression lifted, the nursing home was cancelled, some of his Parkinsonian symptoms abated. A miracle that a young doctor would try something no longer fashionable and inexpensive; a miracle that it worked wonderfully and did not cause side effects.  This is somewhat more the conversation seniors might be expected to have  but the tone was entirely different than I have ever read. 

The sterotypes need to be destroyed, people who write about older people must not think all are lonely couch potatoes, dear old things that play bridge once a week, denizens of the doctor's waiting rooms,  those slowly pushing their carts around the grocery story and having trouble with using their debit cards.  I would not have guessed five years ago I'd spend an afternoon like this, reading a new poem to a group, taking part in joking, commiseration, admiring baby photos with people I know mostly through the poetry they write.

Our "teacher" (who is really a faciliator) has edited an anthology called Silent No More, because most of the people in this and another poetry group, were not "writers" until they decided to try to write poetry. I have found the same feeling of opening doors, discovering interesting rooms, vistas, when people take my writing skills class.  A group esprit comes about as people look at others trying, week after week to put some of their thoughts  and lives into a poem or a short essay. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Always a good prompt

"Be a figure in a famous painting": always a good prompt for a subject to write about.  It was our prompt for the new writing group yesterday.  What a wonderful cast of characters we heard from -- heavily French.  This is a group that, so far, writes simply for fun and no critiques happen-- that bothers one member who would like criticism.  But we are feeling our way and I have some doubts that the group can continue after August.

i wrote as Madame X, painted by John Singer Sargent, an American in a dress that was then scandalous and now seems the epitome of elegance  We heard from a Degas prostitute, a Cassett young lovely, the female part of  Grant Woods' American Gothic, a Renoir dancer, a darling child in a three-child photo, the haggard woman in a Burke-White photo, a modern day woman whose self-portrait the writer actually has in her home. And so it went. Very delightful to be among a group of women willing to do a little research and use  a lot of imagination, create a voice very different from their own.

I've just read in an Oliver Sacks book (he's a neurologist) that occasionally an older person experiences a sudden burst of creativity as if some long time repressions have dissolved.  Some of the members of this group still exhibit the inhibitions but others may be freeing themselves.  I hope I can encourage some of that in the writing classes I teach.  Once in a while I think is actually might be happening.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Music and the Brain

Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and apparently compulsive communicator, has written a number of books about the oddities of the human brain.  He's also written about his hobby as a fern fanatic.  I've read a good many of his books because he is one of the most compassionate doctors I've ever read, he writes for the lay person but doesn't talk down and I'm endlessly fascinated by the pecularities of the human brain and, obviously, he's even more fascinated and offers a ton of examples when he writes.

Music, says Dr. Sacks, is a special function of the human being, it is separate from rationality and from reading and from physical movement. He doesn't say it's magical (he'd never write that way) but it IS magical.  Parkinsonian patients who can't stop trembling, who can't walk normally, can dance gracefully. People who have suffered strokes and can't speak a coherent sentence can sing songs with words. People who were not particularly musical before a neurological disaster may become able to sing or whistle or even compose music.  I cannot even begin to list the amazing roles music can play in a human life.  The book is worth reading for the discovery of what a wonderful organ the human brain is and what a wonder music -- many kinds of music, from basic drumming rhythms to complex Bach fugues to jazz and so on and on and on -- can enrich the lives of all of us normally and bring us joy even when we suffer brain damage, strokes, Alzheimers and other diseases. If I'm ever unlucky enough to suffer a brain disaster, I hope someone will be compassionate enough to  put a radio near me set to a classical music station. Classical music has been among the beautiful things I've ever experienced and it's a little comforting  as I move in older age, to know that  unless my hearing goes entirely, I will still be able to enjoy music no matter what happens to my brain.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Rethinking Reading

A personal rule has been, for years and years,  finish the book. If it was interesting enough to start, give the writer a chance and finish it. This applied specificially to novels, of coruse. 

Lately I've started a few novels and decided not to finish. One became too slow, too repetitious; another seemed to me the work of an author who incompletely imagined the character's situation.  I wasn't sure where her idea of story came from, wasn't sure quite what the time frame was but some scenes rang so untrue it seemed a young writer was copying situations of which she had absolutely no understanding. Those are the two I've most recenty stopped reading.

Last night I turned to a book by Paul Auster, Sunset Park. He is a writer I know I can trust. His characters will be true, they may surprise me in the best imaginative way.  In the case of the two I stopped reading, they were by non-American authors; I had chosen their books from a library book sale on the basis of the cover information, both were first books.  Sometimes these are wonderful.  But I've given myself permission to move on when I find myself resisting the book. 

The cliche is true: there are so many books and I have so little time ... how much I don't know, of course, but being mid-70s, it's an ever shortening time.  The world is full of wonderful books so I need not put my time into ones that I cannot feel excited about. Just now I am finishing Oliver Sack's Musicaphilia.  Although he is repetitious, I am learning a great deal as I always do from his books, and his many case studies fascinate me.  Sacks and Auster are both writers, nonfiction and fiction, that I've enjoyed before and continue to enjoy.