Friday, June 29, 2012

Ow! My Eye, My Eye! I'm In Love.


Ancient civilizations believed that the eyes are the windows to the soul; thus, Cupid, when he sent his arrow, aimed for the eyes so that it might reach its target and inflict a case of love. Yes, the eyes have it has ruled the lovelorn for centuries, transforming them from lonely and lost into found and fulfilled.

Through time, in the realms of nobility and privilege, the eyes determined who might become the  beloved. In fact, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a feminist and writer from the seventeenth century, realizing that her granddaughter was plain, advised her daughter to teach the child to love reading. With only a modest annual income to bring to a marriage and worse, a plain face, the grandchild would most likely never marry. She needed something to occupy her time because as a lady from a family of Lords and Ladies, she would have little else to do besides a bit of needlework, some time spent drawing or playing the piano, and walking in the park. Reading would allow her to occupy hours of her long, leisurely days.

Miss Jane Bennett, the loveliest of five daughters in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice can expect a good match in spite her parents’ spendthrift past. Expecting, with every pregnancy, a boy, the Bennett parents never feared becoming homeless, but they had only girls and a will that delivered the home and surrounding property into the hands of the closest male relative, leaving the Bennett girls homeless and nearly penniless unless they marry a solid man with a good annual income.

Bingley, a very rich man, falls for Jane before he knows anything about her character or her opinion of him. He falls in love at first sight because the lady is lovely beyond all measure. Lizzie, less lovely than Jane, but lovely nevertheless, draws the eye of Darcy, the richest man in Lizzie and Jane’s section of the English countryside. He likes her spunk as much as he likes her looks.

You may recall that love finds a way once all the mistaken notions and manipulative relatives have been conquered. Then Bingley professes his deep, abiding love for Jane and she reciprocates. Darcy, for the second time, confesses his love for Lizzie, and she welcomes him as her future husband. But if you haven’t read the book, you may not realize that these protestations of love are based upon the slightest acquaintance. Looks and money were the principal considerations when upperclass men and women selected life partners in England, well through the nineteenth centuries. In other words, the eyes and pocketbooks ruled the day.

Although hard to believe, falling in love at first sight, provided the lady or gent had the proper financials, has been the preferred match-making method for much longer than soul mates, eHarmony, or long engagements, and growing in love was more common than falling in love. Jane Austen echoes many other wise and witty writers when she advises that “it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life” (Pride and Prejudice).

Others offering similar advice recommend not looking too closely before marriage so as not to notice blemishes of any kind--annoying habits, unattractive features, or deficits in characters. Then, Joseph Addison in particular, declares that after marriage, the lover should labor to transform any of those blemishes into endearments and treasures, a beautiful way of saying that even those entering into marriage by arrangement and contract may expect deep and abiding happiness if they define their purpose as learning to love the stranger who has become the beloved, a transformation that often begins in getting acquainted, and learning to like the person, letting go of judgments and seeing clearly the best qualities the person has to offer; in other words, it begins in friendship. This then matures into a deep, abiding love, one that approaches the divine in its selflessless.

Many authors beside Austen have celebrated love at first sight as a good beginning for a lifetime of happiness if the couple will bring their best selves to the marriage and seek the best in each other. Look for this pattern in literature.

Reading Challenge:

Read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, paying particular attention to the transformation in Olivia from vain and detached to humble and passionate as love takes hold of her.

HBO produced a fine film version of Twelfth Night that I defy anyone not to enjoy. Another romantic film that takes the lover from adoration at first sight to agape is the animated film, Wall-E. Watch it with a tissue in hand.

Writing Challenge:

Write three marriage proposals, the first from a person afflicted at first sight, the second from a friend who has grown to love the other romantically, and the third from a selfless lover with a touch of the divine (see post from June 22, 2012).

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

In the post above, I wrote out the century number; e.g., nineteenth century or twenty-first century. I prefer the look of the word in formal, analytical essays, but writing 19th century or 21st century is also correct.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Touched by the Divine



I live in Tornado Alley where blaring sirens are a familiar sound. We who live in cloudy regions grow so familiar with these storms that many of us do not go immediately underground as the sirens would have us do. Instead, we go outside to study the clouds.

Sirens are not our only warning. Local weather stations provide weather alerts by television, computer and cell phones. Local weathermen override national programming to bring us up-to-the-minute, up-close-and-personal accounts from storm chasers and helicopter pilots hired by the stations. We know the grainy nature of cell phone video showing a twister in the distance. We also know the dreadful odds against us when the storms come at night.

I have witnessed the rubble left by the infamous F-5, mile-wide tornado that decimated communities from Bridge Creek through Moore and on to Del City on May 3, 1999. Seeing entire homes reduced to toothpicks and gravel taught us that buildings and monuments are impermanent. We learned about fear and frailty from those most affected. We also know something about heroes.

On May 4, 1999, survivors scrambled to find safe havens. Relatives took in family; churches and schools became shelters; and every apartment nearby was suddenly and profitably inhabited. But a few remained blissfully unaware and insensitive. One teacher in our district suffered criticism from colleagues who spoke to him about his casual dress. Worse, they claimed, was the fact that he wore the same shirts and denim jeans in a single work week. He had to explain to them that he had a much smaller wardrobe after F-5 winds sucked his clothes into oblivion.

What impressed me above all else during the aftermath was one couple featured on the nightly news. They stood behind long tables, serving soups, sandwiches, and casseroles to those who’d lost everything, especially electricity and gas for appliances and light; water in which bathe; and a roof over their heads. Someone must have alerted the reporter to the fact that this couple could easily have stood in line with their hands out for food, blankets, and hand-me-down clothing. They too had lost everything: treasured photographs of their children as infants, keepsakes from their own childhoods, and comfortable pillows for their weary heads.

“I’ve learned that you two lost everything,” the reporter announced.

“Yes, our home and its contents were destroyed.”

“But you’re working to help people who’ve lost everything . . . no one would criticize you if you just sat back and let others do the work.”

“We still have each other, and that’s enough. It’s more than some people have now. How could we look the other way?”

I had tears in my eyes then as I did earlier on April 19, 1995 and September 11, 2001. I would cry again when Hurricane Katrina sufferers helped each other, when Japanese citizens went about their lives under a cloud of radiation, and when compassionate teams traveled to Haiti, or any number of other places of devastation. What moved me then and moves me now is the selflessness of all those people. They have a touch of the divine, the most mature type of love, the love that is godlike.

Sister Helen Prejean is such a person. She set her fears and confusion aside to stand by a killer while he made his torturous way to honesty and death. She held the hands of his victims’ parents, guiding them toward forgiveness and health.

Mrs. Leymah Gwobee is another person in touch with the divine. She led the Market Women of Liberia in bringing about peace and the fall of Charles Taylor through civil disobedience. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a similar mission: to bring down segregation and restore hope to millions. He sacrificed for his mission and forgave his oppressors.

All three of these familiar heroes summoned courage in the face of evil. They stood before those with weapons raised to destroy them even though odds were heavily against them. They are real-life figures, typical of literary figures created to celebrate man’s greatest triumph: rising above his own self-interests in favor of the greater good.

These three are real-world heroes, but they have mirror images in fiction, all in possession of a divine, selfless love for others. So when searching literature for divinity, consider that Oklahoma couple, Sister Helen Prejean, Mrs. Leymah Gwobee, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or all of the stories listed below:

•    Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account Of The Death Penalty In The United States by Helen Prejean
•    Dead Man Walking, a 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, directed by Tim Robbins
•    Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a 2008 documentary directed by Gini Reticker and recounting the story of the Market Women of Liberia
•    Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee
•    A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington
•    An HBO documentary entitled The Witness, a film that uses the recollections of the Reverend Samuel (Billy) Kyles to tell the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis in the spring of 1968
•    The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, noting the characters of Anatole and Leah
•    Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, noting the character of Sonia.

Writing Challenge:

Invent or record the story of a person with a touch of the divine, someone who sacrifices, displays courage, and forgives enemies and oppressors.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

The topic of today’s post is divinity in humans so the question of capitalizing words such as god, godlike, and godly may occur to you. It’s really an easy question to answer.

If you invoke the name of the one, true god according to a religion, then yes, you capitalize the word just as you would capitalize any proper noun, but adjectives and adverbs related to divinity are not capitalized.

•    I will ask John for help.
•    I will ask God for help.
•    I will ask the gods of weather to give us sun tomorrow.
•    Early Greeks often made sacrifices to their gods.
•    Humans have godlike potential.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Greatest Love of All



            Once upon a time, a girl noticed a fine young man busy observing her. She blushed and so did he. When he finally summoned his courage, he invited her to join him at the annual Valentine’s Day dance. She accepted.

            He brought a pretty carnation corsage for her to wear on her wrist; she handed him a carnation boutonniere. Being young, they couldn’t look at each other long without blushing so each looked away while attending to their flower accessory. Each said “thank you” and then found no other words for the moment. Finally, he said, “Well, my dad’s in the car so we can go.” She nodded.

            Over time and several Valentine’s Days together, they discovered how much they had in common. They liked basketball; he played for the high school. He learned to spot an “off-sides” call in soccer while attending her games. They both excelled as learners and made plans to attend the same college where they advanced beyond holding hands and kissing. They became intimate, and those were giddy days indeed.

            While apart, they daydreamed of their time together. While together, they thought of nothing and no one else besides each other. He grew more generous, remembering special days with a rose or two; she noticed what he liked and left the right kind of protein bar on his desk when he had to study. She edited his essays, and he hers.

            By the time they were seniors in college, she wore a diamond on her left hand, and they sent out “Save the Date” cards for a June wedding. She looked more beautiful than ever before as she walked toward him, a veil softening her face, in her hands a bouquet that included the same carnation he’d given her on their first date. In the buttonhole of his tux was the same carnation he’d worn for that first dance.

            Their honeymoon was a cross-country trek to a job he’d landed. She soon had one, too, and they began to build their futures. They learned to give and take with their wants and needs. She needed a new car; he needed a set of golf clubs. She sacrificed new clothes until they could buy clubs for him. He carried sack lunches in order to make the car payment. They became a team, partners, and lovers, a family of two--two people in love, but friends, too.

            He shared his challenges at work, and she listened. When she received an unbeatable job offer, he left his behind even though he was on an upward trajectory, but when she became pregnant, he found an even better offer for himself so that she could stay home if that’s what she wanted and they decided to do.

They shared the work load of home, yard and children, but sometimes she rose early on Saturdays, letting him sleep while she did one of his chores and her own. He often returned the favor.

            Through those early years when they saved and shaped their futures, those middle years as they raised a family, and those later years when they were the only two in that big, fine home, they were best friends and romantic partners. But something else occurred. Their love approached the divine.

            Without even discussing it, they agreed not to look too closely at Time’s stamp upon their bodies. She learned not to complain about the clutter he left in his wake, and he never mentioned the noise she made chewing ice. When he had a brush with a serious illness, she scaled back her outside activities and cared for him until he was strong once more. When he flirted shamelessly with the check-out gal at the grocery store even though his beloved wife stood next to him, she forgave him and never mentioned it again. He never flirted again either.

            Most important of all, in their quiet moments, they remembered to be grateful. He wasn’t perfect; she didn’t pretend to be. Still, they were blessed. They had been cherished and loved all their days in spite of imperfections. They had been given deep affection and understanding. They knew that few receive such a perfect gift.

My story serves to illustrate familial love, discussed on June 1; erotic or romantic love, explained on June 8; and divine love, illustrated today. Divine or selfless or godlike love is the third major category of love and a literary motif; it is a love that forgives, that is given freely, and that conquers obstacles in its path. Friends may give and receive divine love. Lovers may also.

Reading Challenge:

Re-read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. It’s available at www.youtube.com under the heading, “Sonnet 116 William Shakespeare *with text.” As you read and listen, consider the imagery that describes divine love.

In addition, consider some of your favorite characters in love. Can you identify divine love in their actions and relationships?

Writing Challenge:

“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person” (Mignon McLoughlin).

Reflect upon Ms. McLoughlin’s declaration, then write your thoughts.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

A huge wreath of carnations surrounded the base of the wedding cake. After the wedding reception, friends and family wreathed the happy couple and wished them well as they made their way to the limousine.

A wreath (noun) is a circular display of flowers or vines, often hung over a fireplace mantle or on the front entry door whereas wreathe (verb) means to surround or encircle.

For example, low-growing shrubbery may surround or wreathe an outdoor fountain. Or, well-wishers and family members may wreathe or surround a sick person lying in a hospital bed.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Sound Bite for Narcissists: You're So Vain (Carly Simon)


A narcissist may not feel familial or romantic love except as it reflects upon his or her own self-image. If others love him, then his worth increases accordingly, but he will not return the love given. Narcissists are self-centered, self-absorbed, vain, smug, and egotistical. They love no one and nothing better than they love themselves.

Their speech includes numerous uses of the pronouns I, me, and mine, and they judge everything by its effects upon their needs, desires, and ambitions. If something fails to enhance their beauty, it’s worthless. If someone fails to complement the narcissist’s self-image, he's discarded. If anyone dares to challenge or critique the narcissist’s dreams and schemes, he’s dismissed.

Pity the poor narcissist, however, at least in one version of his mythological origin, one told by Ovid:

From birth to young adulthood, everyone judged Narcissus to be beautiful. Nymphs threw themselves at him, and in an earlier version not included in Ovid’s work, a young man kills himself because Narcissus spurns him. Indeed, Narcissus spurns all advances, especially physical ones. He remains apart, a being entire unto itself until he sees himself reflected in a perfectly clear, placid pond. Only then does he know desire. He longs to hold or kiss the reflection, but of course, when he reaches into the water, he disturbs the image and resigns himself to sit still, admiring and loving from afar. His devotion to himself leads directly to his death because he does not fulfill any other basic biological need. He does not eat, seek shelter, or long to belong. He simply looks at himself until he withers and dies.

The ancient Greeks, as the story suggests, believed narcissism deleterious to a full, rich life. After all, Narcissus lives and dies alone. His legacy is vanity and self-absorption, a man lacking in empathy for anyone other than himself.

Contemporary world residents hold narcissism in low regard, too. Indeed, narcissism is one of several personality disorders recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Its indicators include self-aggrandizement and an almost pathological avoidance of intimacy, and these are the traits that authors often employ when creating narcissistic characters.

Villains, for example, may be narcissists, especially in the work of Ian Fleming and all those others who have re-invented the James Bond brand. How many of 007’s antagonists have exclusive, loving relationships with just one other person besides a Persian cat? Villainy also requires secrets and lies, the sort of misinformation that will keep intimate understanding and long-lasting bonds at bay.

One of the most amoral narcissists, in my opinion, is Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and Denmark’s queen. King Hamlet cherished her, even shielding her from the harsh “winds of heaven.” She acted as if she were devoted to her husband, the king, yet she dallied with Claudius, her husband’s brother, and even married him after King Hamlet’s death, never once contemplating how sordid such a union appeared to all of Denmark, never considering how much pain her son might feel after his father’s sudden death and her inexplicable haste to marry again to a man whom Prince Hamlet deemed unworthy, a “satyr” next to his father’s godlike stature.

In a sorry show of insensitivity and selfishness, Gertrude consoles her son by reminding him that all things die. She also stands by while the new king, Hamlet’s uncle, mocks her son, suggesting that Prince Hamlet’s grief is not manly.

As any narcissist might, Gertrude absorbs her new husband’s attention as if it is due her, and she ignores any pain or shame her actions bring to Elsinore, Denmark and her reputation. Disgusted and enraged, Hamlet lists her negligence in loving herself more than Denmark, in caring about her own pleasure more than her son, and in forsaking a man, her first husband, who cherished her. Then, she glimpses her reflection through her son’s eyes, and the “sight is dismal.”

Still, Gertrude does not fall to her knees and pray for forgiveness or even for strength to endure the “nasty sty” she has made for her bed. She plays the role of Queen, devoted wife and supportive mother who cheers for her son during the final fencing match. She remains self-absorbed to the end.

Women such as Gertrude and men who wear the costumes of Love and Devotion often do so to serve themselves. They are called gold-diggers, players, Lotharios, mean girls, Gordon Gecko, and Ron Burgundy. All things, including human beings who can be broken and maimed, exist to flatter and sate them, and if they ever experience remorse, the moment passes quickly.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy or watch episodes of Mad Men. Look for narcissism in the men who populate those fictional eras. They believe they are entitled, and women exist to serve their needs, desires, and ambitions.

Writing Challenge:

Choose a celebrity or prominent figure from the world of entertainment and news. Write a character sketch for that celebrity, selecting those traits that are narcissistic.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Commonly Confused Words Stationary and Stationery

Stationary means an item or person fixed in a place, someone or something that does not move.

Stationery means writing materials, including envelopes, note cards, paper, and even printer paper.

One way to remember the difference between the two words and their correct spellings is to think of the envelope that covers the letter paper or card. Envelope begins and ends with an e; there’s even one more e in the second syllable. So stationery has an e in the last syllable to match the e’s in its cover companion, an envelope.

Narcissus remained stationary (not moving) as he admired his own reflection, so stationary that he withered and died. If only he’d gone in search of stationery (writing materials) to send a letter to himself, then he might have picked up a bit of food or water on his way and survived.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Eros, Venus, Cupid, Psyche: All 'Bout Love


Eros is the mythical Greek goddess of love; you may know her Roman counterpart as Venus, a god who sometimes drives us to despair, denies our most soulful needs, or restores us through love. Indeed, the story of Venus, her son Cupid, and his beloved Psyche reveals all the nuances and degrees of erotic love, so-called because of the original Greek goddess of love.

As it happens in mythology, the gods often compete with mortals and mortals dare the gods above by desiring what the gods possess. The story of love includes these mythical strains:

Eros or Venus envies the beauty of Psyche, so delicate and lovely that mortals begin to worship her as if she were a goddess herself. That is, of course, intolerable so Venus resolves to take care of Psyche, her competition for devotion. She sends her son, Cupid, not the plump, winged creature of Valentine cards, but the divine and divinely gorgeous god, muscled and masculine, to shoot an arrow into Psyche and thus, dispose of her by matching her to a hideous, earthly creature.

Cupid cannot ruin Psyche, however. Instead he manipulates the mortals, first by informing Psyche’s parents through an oracle to take Psyche to a remote mountain, dressed in funereal garb, and leave her. They mourn, of course, and alone, bereft of family, Psyche’s heart races with fear until soft, warm winds caress and carry her to a sweet meadow whereupon she lies down to sleep. Waking, she sees an exquisite castle. Upon approaching it to enter, she hears whispered words that assure her she has found her own home.

There, at night, Psyche’s mate comes to her, but she never sees him. She only hears soft words of love that persuade her she has not been matched with something monstrous, but someone wonderful. Still, as young brides often do, especially in Greek tales, Psyche longs for the company of her sisters, a notion that her husband, whispering on the breeze, advises against, but Psyche persists and Cupid relents.

The sisters, however, are more like Venus herself. Their hearts bend toward envy, especially when they see that Psyche’s home is far better than their own. They seed doubt in Psyche, suggesting that she must be matched to something monstrous if Psyche cannot recount what her husband looks like. Vulnerable, Psyche yields to their suggestion and betrays her husband’s trust by sneaking into his chambers once he is asleep and raising a candle to spy upon him.

He wakes, hot wax having fallen upon his shoulder, and flees, both physically and spiritually wounded. Psyche now has real cause to appear in mourning clothes for her beautiful husband has returned to his mother, and Venus vows to make Psyche pay for harming her son.

First, Venus deprives Psyche of any certainty about Cupid. Worse, Psyche, like Cain, is homeless and friendless on earth because mortals fear Venus’ wrath so much that they will not help Psyche much less continue to admire and worship her.

So Psyche herself prays to Venus, asking her for her beloved’s return. Furious and unrelenting, Venus assigns Psyche one impossible task after another, but Psyche succeeds because Nature inclines toward Psyche. First, ants come to Psyche’s aid when she must separate tiny seeds (Remember a similar story thread in the fairy tale, “Queen Bee?”). Then briars snag golden fleece from hostile sheep so that Psyche can collect it without any harm coming to her. Next an eagle flies for her, retrieving water from the River Styx, then Persephone, goddess of the Underworld and daughter of Demeter, the nurturer, helps Psyche collect beauty.

After this task, Psyche once again succumbs to doubt and curiosity. She peeks inside the box where Persephone’s beauty rests, only to fall under the spell of a deep sleep. But Cupid, healed and no longer his mother’s prisoner, like Prince Charming, visits Psyche and wipes the slumber from her. This he places into the box that had held beauty and directs Psyche to offer it to his mother.

Cupid, however, hedges his bets by calling upon Jupiter, also known as the Greeks’ Zeus, to insure Venus’s response. Jupiter gathers all the gods and goddesses to witness his latest edict: the marriage of Cupid and Psyche. Then Jupiter offers Psyche the food of the gods, ambrosia, and thus transforms Psyche into a goddess herself. With that climax, the love between Cupid and Psyche rises to the level of the divine, heart and soul entwined in happiness.

As promised, this myth delivers the nuances and degrees of erotic love:

·      First, pheromones, beauty, or appearance work to draw one to another for upon seeing Psyche, Cupid can do her no harm; he loves her.
·      Second, such superficial love cannot endure unless it yields to something deeper, often after trials and complications, including jealousy, doubt, and heartache.
·      Third, deep and true love overcomes those deficiencies, transforming the lovers into selfless, trusting individuals who become one, the mind and body unite, the heart and soul woven into a single, sturdy thread, the physical and spiritual domains undivided.

Indeed, erotic love--the love of attraction--must embrace familial impulses and agape as it matures in order to endure. And that is the love we seek, the one that knits up all our cares and woes, that overcomes all obstacles in its path, that triumphs over the pettiness and wickedness that we humans struggle to suppress.

Reading Challenge:

Read a poetic definition of erotic love, one serious and the other satirical. You may read the text and hear the poem, Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare, on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-vU2SwEUws&feature=fvwrel. It, like traditional marriage vows, is serious and clearly describes a love that rises to the level of the divine. You may also listen and read Shakespeare’s satirical Sonnet 130 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjMFoURNnU4. Though lighter in tone, it makes a serious point about loving well and selflessly.

Writing Challenge:

Imitate Shakespeare’s sonnet form (or Petrarch’s if you wish) and create your personal, poetic definition of erotic love.

To imitate Shakespeare, you will create three quatrains followed by a couplet for a total of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter (five stressed syllables per line) with a rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Each one of Shakespeare’s quatrains develops an image for his subject, and the closing couplet pronounces the theme or point of those images.

Petrarch, on the other hand, organized his fourteen-line sonnet according to an eight (two quatrains)/six (two tercets) pattern; i.e., the first eight lines develop the idea with images and the final six apply those images to a theme, usually using contrast. Also written in iambic pentameter, Petrarchan sonnets employ a different rhyme scheme, one that underscores the eight/six pattern: abba, abba, cdc, cdc.

GUM (Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics): Dynamic Language

Once upon a time, erotic, from the Greek goddess Eros and the Greek word, erōtikós, meaning of love and given to love, was more divorced from sexuality although it did refer to intimacy. Now erotic has evolved over time into a word that definitely denotes sexual love and connotes sexual intimacy with or without love as a motivator. Word meanings shift over time with today’s erotic having more to do with the bestseller, 50 Shades of Gray, than the union of heart and soul.