September 30, 2011

An elegy to my father: The footnote, opera and love

I wrote this piece as a newspaper feature column; to read the original and my newest entry go to The Communites at The Washington Times, where I write lyrical essays on love.

The Foonote and Love

When did you first meet the footnote? Did it lead to love? I’m not betting on love between you and the footnote.

As to when, I’m betting it was in high school or college when some good teacher handed you A Manual for Writers by Kate L. Turabian, sent you off to write your first term paper and you learned to hate the footnote. Write that thesis statement, support it, get quotes, footnote it. Learn et. al., ibid and idem. Be logical, think rationally. All good things—except idem, maybe?

At the thought of ever having to write another footnote, or worse, read one! some of you may want to scream “the horror! the horror!” and have that be the end of it. I don’t blame you.

But I have a different story to tell you (Please note: asterisks * refer to footnotes.):

I love the footnote, not because I’m so good at writing one, but because the not-so-important tag at the bottom of the page, the back of the chapter, the end of the book has always been a beginning for me.

I first encountered the footnote at my father’s side in synagogue. While he davened, the Hebrew word for prayed, I read footnotes. He wasn’t big on prayer. He was reciting Hebrew prayers he knew by heart, could read but not translate: the way he was taught. I was about eight years old and would be reading the big blue book I’d pulled from the book slot in front of me: The Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The rabbi’s comments are in the footnotes. This is where I learned what to take literally, what to read differently. The rabbi’s questions after questions about passages  discussed endlessly and read all year long and then started over once again the following year landed in the footnote. I read about skins and feathers in Leviticus, about Miriam, my Hebrew name, in Exodus and Rabbi Rashi’s view that she was a prophet before Moses’s birth. My parents named me after someone that important? I got scared. My father consoled.

He admired that I found that info in a footnote and my love of the footnote got hooked to my love for him. He’s the shadow behind the man I love—and this has nothing to do with logic—or does it?

My father loved a rational exchange, that answer-a-question-with-a-question stuff. He died more than a decade ago and I miss him. I think about what he’s done for me and found the answer in a footnote.

I was reading Auden’s essays Forewards and Afterwords and got stopped in my tracks by a footnote. In a footnote, Auden asserts that there’s a parallel between the Socratic answer-a question-with-a-question method to educate the intellect and the role of free association in psychoanalysis to educate the emotions. He believes that key to both is the process of inquiry. And that we have to live it to learn it: true for both mind and heart. He says we gotta as in Nike’s logo Just do it! ourselves.

And there I was on the metaphorical couch, recalling my father. His questions. Here’s one he asked me when I was ten: So, Mary, you’re ten. Would it be enough if Moses wrote the famous ten himself? If that was the miracle atop the mountain top, wouldn’t that be enough?

He was asking me to think and I was learning about love: the love a parent gives a child, the love that lays the foundation for each of us to love another.

Oh let’s digress back to Moses. I’m still thinking about my father’s question after all these years. Here’s my answer: Moses did have to go up that mountain twice. He smashed the tablets the first time he came down. Did he really go back up and say, Hey, big guy, could you do it again for me?

But the answer is not as important as the conversation. By asking me such an intellectual and controversial question when I was ten, my father made me feel worthy. The love of a parent, his respect, helps the child grow strong. Love affirms our worth.

Opera this month brought my father back to me. I saw Puccini’s Tosca at the Kennedy Center.* When Tenor Frank Poretta sang the famous aria E lucevan le stele** in the last act, I heard the footnote of my father’s music rise up from our basement stairs.

I grew up in a narrow row house in Baltimore where my father listened to opera on 78 RPMs in the basement. He never saw an opera live when he was young and vigorous. When he was old and I could afford good seats, I took him to Madam Butterfly.

My father’s love for me was like music. Leonard Bernstein said about music, “It doesn’t have to pass through the censor of the brain before it can reach the heart … An F-sharp doesn’t have to be considered in the mind; it is a direct hit.”

The love of my life was at my side at the opera. I met him writing footnotes for what we termed “The Red Book.” Not Carl Jung’s tome that I do own, but a treatise on energy from a think tank where I once worked. The man I love was in charge of “The Red Book.” I was the editor assigned to write the footnotes, all 164 of them. He made me feel worthy while I did a task that was anything but central. I was the footnote who mattered to him.

The tenor In Tosca sings of love in that final stirring aria in Act III. But it is not the words that move, it’s the melody that strikes the heart, brought me to tears and reminded me that love and logic and worth intertwined in my youth—and reminded of this: My father’s love was a direct hit.***

*This column ran to alert readers that they could see Tosca for free at Nationals Stadium where it was generously simulcast at 7:30 pm September 22.  Plácido Domingo conducted.
**Hear Plácido Domingo sing the aria E lucevan le stele in the video below.

**Ibid in a footnote means the same source. I love my husband: Ibid to my father.

September 16, 2011

The Poet Speaks: Helen Mallon on "The Delight of Sheer Language"

I have the great pleasure today to introduce you to poet and guest blogger Helen Mallon. We met first through this blog when I was writing my memoir "live." She followed, read, commented, encouraged and lived the journey with me. I didn't know where she lived but I knew her. Then I was invited to Rosemont College as the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. On the last day of my visit, I gave a public talk, closed with the last, ever so brief story in The Woman Who Never Cooked. Outside the theater, I signed books and there was the angelic, lithe Helen. And here she is today. At the end of her piece, you can read my review of her book of poems Bone China and click to buy it. Her brief bio, she is ever so humble, appears after her essay so that you may click also on a new, eStory she's written.

The Delight of Sheer Language
My first experience of delight in sheer language came from my mother’s yearly reading of the doggerel about Saint Nicholas: “’Twas the night before Christmas…” Now these lines feel stale, but to a 5-year-old, they conjured a world pregnant with meaning. “As leaves before the wild hurricane fly…” made me quiver. I saw something that our ordinary moonlit nights promised, yet never quite revealed: “The moon on the breast of the newfallen of snow/Gave the luster of midday to objects below.” For me, ignorant of cliché, the reference to the snow’s “breast” transformed winter hillsides into something living.  The new word “luster,” half-understood, tinged the landscape with silver foil.

For me, well-chosen language is a union of sensuality and meaning. The effect is most striking in poetry, but in the fiction I love most, sentences also have a physical quality that makes them say more than can be put into words. As Eudora Welty wrote of herself as a child in One Writer’s Beginnings: “The word ‘moon’ came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon.”

I began my writing life as a poet, and although I have migrated to fiction, I respond in prose to the kind of economical writing found in poetry, in which every word hefts (say) three times its own sensual weight. The fiction writers I most respond to have a love affair with language itself that is sheer poetry in its effect.

The writing of novelist-poet Michael Ondaatje is so beautiful it’s actually distracting. When I begin one of his novels, it takes a while to extricate myself from the seductive currents of his prose and, shaking off water, become immersed in the story. Otherwise, I might spend an hour on a single page.
Spare language, of course, can be no less “poetic.” Part of the ache in Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong comes from his use of toned-down language to convey intensity. Here he describes breakfast in a household in which the mother has retreated to her bedroom in a depressive fog:

Kent Haruf
Ike picked at something in his eggs and put it at the rim of his plate.  He looked up again. But Dad, he said.
Isn’t Mother coming down today either?
I don’t know, Guthrie said. I can’t say what she’ll do. But you shouldn’t worry. Try not to. It’ll be all right. It doesn’t have anything to do with you.
He looked at them closely. They had stopped eating and were staring out the window toward the barn and corral where the two horses altogether were.

In the spare logic of Haruf’s voice, each phrase lends grave dignity to the family’s sadness. The situation is grim, but each simple action—Ike places something precisely on the rim of his plate, both boys stare out the window in mute defiance of their father’s insistence that “they shouldn’t worry”—is a distillation of emotional unease through concrete images. Through Haruf’s clean imagery, our identity with the boys is almost physical.

Because language is often reduced to a tool which we humans use in our drive to get through life, it’s easy to forget that the “how” of language controls the “what.” The music of words in a story, whether measured and few, or torrential and rushing, gives us a sense—if just for a moment—that messy, jagged life itself can be poetry.

Memoir offers a close take on this notion. Presumably the writer didn’t have to labor to find the story, so how it’s told becomes primary. Here Mary Tabor’s dreamlike prose comes to mind.  Her recent memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story was first incarnated as the spontaneous expression of an online journal, recorded as it happened. A fearless spontaneity is apparent in her readiness to layer literary and pop culture references into her own story of love lost (and found). These disparate references reflect the sometimes tentative, sometimes bold quality of the journey she began when her husband announced that he wanted to be alone. The associative leaps she employs, common in poetry, are not verbal decorations.

I must find the way through all the screens on the stage that slide one in front of the other. I want to shout, “Fire.” Like the clown in the theatre who called out to the laughing crowd while the coulisses burned, while the crowd applauded, disbelieving. I slide the scenery panels of my life through the backstage grooves while they burn and no one sees the fire.

These juxtapositions bring deep cultural resonance to the personal events portrayed. Here prose ranges over life in the service of a poet’s heart.

As in my naive childhood vision of winter transformed by the sensuality of language, prose writers who embrace the devices of poetry create new meanings out of events both ordinary and tragic.

Connect with Helen Mallon: Helen W. Mallon is the author of Bone China, poems. Her eStory, “Did You Put the Cat to Bed?” is available from Books to Go Now.  Helen lives in Philadelphia.

Here is my review of Bone China: I discovered Helen Mallon when she discovered the memoir I was writing "live" as a blog and she wrote me—a gift I treasure for who Mallon is. I bought her beautifully bound book of poems and was deeply moved: "Trustee" and "Inheritance," touched me with razor sharp precision before I visited one my grown children. The poems in their brevity range across the exigencies of existence—an accomplishment that startles. Mallon's poems cut to the heart of the matter like "light shot off smashed glass." This is a voice worth hearing. Buy Bone China on Amazon.

September 09, 2011

Cameraphobia and memory

I had the rare and lovely opportunity last week to post a blog entry by Martin King (scroll down to see it) and to write a piece for his blog. I've been working on a novel that explores memory: I believe in what comes through me, in what I’ve been told and what I guess. Yet I have doubts about the truth, about my belief in the power of flawed memory and of what we carry from the past, passed on by parent to child without words, with actions like my father’s pacing at the water’s edge.

And so my father, who closes that sentence, his memory, haunts me. I moved away from the novel—ever so briefly, am obsessed with it—and back smack into memoir to write this slice of my childhood and where I am now:
Mary, my father and mother


I’m afraid of cameras.
Laughing, my father, who died a decade ago, would say “camera-phobia” when he tried to take moving pictures of me as a child. I think he made that word up, wry jokester that he was. I’ve seen these eight millimeter terrors: a two year-old crying on the wooden floor of a covered porch while my father stands behind the camera. My sister would later say, “Silly girl, you were just afraid because you couldn’t see him. The camera in front of his face scared you. You have no phobia.” But I’m not sure—even though many photos of me now exist.
My father’s absence in a photograph began the morning-mares, the terror that occurs right before waking so that I’m sure to recall it. They strike me like a memory that hasn’t happened yet.
Here’s what happened. My father had a cousin named Cecelia who died this fall. I went to the funeral and then the shiva. My cousin, her son Howard, showed me the family photograph. It is the only family photo of my father’s parents and his six brothers and sisters and stands as proof of who they were—and he’s not in it. I don’t have a picture of my father when he was a child—not a single picture. 
The only photos that mark my father’s existence begin with his marriage to my mother. He came to her with one shopping bag with everything he owned, that included one small framed photo of his mother Hannah that sits now on one of my book-lined shelves in the condo where I write. She died before I was born.
So did Mary, my mother’s mother. I carry her name. Her wedding picture to my grandfather I found like a revelation when I reframed a painting of my mother when she was young. This painting was done by her girlhood friend Gertie. The frame was broken. So I took it to be redone and behind the paper backing, like a secret, was the photo of my grandparents. There she was, young, as I had never seen her. I have one other photo of her when she was old: a small photo that everyone in the family on my mother’s side owns. I’ve seen it in all their tiny flats where they retired from larger homes and modest careers and where most of them died.
I am confounded by my father’s absence in the single photo from his childhood and by the fact that my grandmother’s wedding photo was behind the painting of my mother, the painting that she or my grandmother had framed, the photo that one of them had hidden.
The morning-mares: In all the dreams, I am missing. A blank spot is left where my photo should be as if I’ve done something to deserve to be forgotten, not recorded in rotogravure and camera-phobia re-defined.
My sister is in the piece but not the photo: haunting because she died young though not when that photo was taken. I posted that to remind myself of what the photo leaves out and how that's worth writing about.
I close today with thanks to Martin King whose prompt: a good one was "childhood memory". Write from that prompt and visit Martin King's blog with my thanks! His #100BlogFest is over but what a helluva good time he had, meeting writers and bloggers all over the world—and connecting us all!