Small Demon
May 092010
 

The soundtrack for this post is Dylan’s “Series of Dreams.” Dreams are out of fashion in psychiatry these days, but I’m still a Freudian at heart and I pay attention to my dreams when I remember them. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” writes Yeats, quoting “an old play,” a sentiment then echoed by Delmore Schwartz in what is probably his single most successful piece of writing, unless you figure that he “wrote” Saul Bellow’s Humbolt’s Gift. Talk about intertextuality!

First dream: I’m an adult in my childhood home, having returned to live there with C. We have our usual crew of scruffy, noisy dogs with us and we’ve settled in — been in residence maybe two or three days. The house is a big Victorian affair with a balcony and a turret & a sweeping sun porch, etc. C & I are standing on the porch when an older woman, elegantly dressed, with an upswept gray coif, approaches across the driveway. Picture from last year sent to me by a childhood friend She’s a neighbor & is leading a little schnauzer — as elegant as she is — on a lead. As she comes up to us, our terriers start barking & leaping around. The woman begins to greet us, but is clearly bothered by our unkempt, delinquent dogs. She raises her eyebrows, throws her head back nose-in-the-air style, & says, “Completely lacking in class & breeding.”  Up to this point I’ve just been interested in meeting this neighbor, but at this point in the dream I become enraged & begin shouting at her to “Get off my property, get off my god damned property! ”

Second Dream: I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, except that it is located where Ottawa ought to be; that is, close to where I actually live. I’m with some other people who have never been there before & I am explaining how to get around, where to go. It is the day before I have to leave for home & I am saying to one of the people I’m with, “It always breaks my heart to have to leave this place. I breaks my heart.” Then I’m by myself in a part of town I’m not familiar with and I stop at a food stall to order bun cha (grilled pork & noodles), but either because of my poor Vietnamese or the perversity of stall owner, along with the pork and noodles I receive a grilled songbird and a frog. I decide to eat the pork but not the two more exotic offerings.

I see both these dreams as taking control dreams. One of the main themes of my dream life over the years has been loss of control — lost in big cities, cars that won’t steer correctly or in which the brakes don’t work, elevators that go sideways, buildings that double back on themselves just when you think you’re getting to the exit, etc. In the first dream here, I return to the scene of my childhood anguish and helplessness, move in, and defend my turf against the sort of people my parents desperately wanted to be. I woke from that one feeling proud of myself. In the second dream, set in HCMC, not Hanoi, which is my “home town” in Vietnam, I’m getting along well despite some uncertainty. The business with the food suggests to me that I don’t have to accept every aspect of Vietnamese culture & that I can love the place without having to embrace everything about it. (I actually have been served whole grilled songbirds in HCMC, but never frogs.)

And speaking of dreams & Freud & all that, I love this response by Phillip Levine to his then teacher Robert Lowell, who had complained about Levine’s use of Freud, accusing him of lifting it from Auden. “Mr. Lowell,” Levine said, “I’m Jewish. I steal Freud directly from Freud; he was one of ours.” Well, I’m not Jewish, but I found Freud early and under the influence of my teacher Larry Frank made him my own. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and its Discontents — these have been maps to the world for me over the decades. Freud has been, in Lowell’s own words, one of my “Masters of Joy.”

Apr 272010
 

I like teaching, even after nearly thirty years. I love teaching. But I’m always happy when the end of the spring term rolls around and the students and I can take a break from each other. I’m giving an exam in my Understanding Vietnam course tomorrow, then I’ll have several days of heavy grading, then the wide open spaces. It looks like I won’t be returning to Vietnam until winter, so I have no serious travel plans this summer. I’m hoping to finish a book of poems I’ve been puttering around with for way too long and to revise a couple of short stories I wrote last year and get them out for editors to look at. And there are some areas of our yard that need restoration, so I’ll have the shovel in my hands quite a bit as soon at the weather improves a bit — after several nice days, we woke to snow this morning. Snow. Yesterday, black flies, today snow.

 Posted by at 9:32 am
Apr 112010
 

I better post this before it fades from memory. I would have gotten to it last week, but I have been chairing a search committee in my department and that has required a lot of time and attention (and which, to speak honestly, has been a terrific emotional drain). Anyway, NYC seems like a long time ago now, but I at least want to mention a couple of memorable events from my second day in the city.

I did not range as far afield on Saturday as I did on Friday, but even though I stayed downtown, I still did a lot of walking. I love walking in the city! My main goal for the day was to visit the Rubin Museum of Art, which Carole had told me about. Here’s a chunk of text from their website:

The Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) is home to a comprehensive collection of art from the Himalayas and surrounding regions. The artistic heritage of this vast and culturally varied area of the world remains relatively obscure. Through changing exhibitions and an array of engaging public programs, RMA offers opportunities to explore the artistic legacy of the Himalayan region and to appreciate its place in the context of world cultures. The RMA collection consists of paintings, sculptures, and textiles. Although works of art range in date over two millennia, most reflect major periods and schools of Himalayan art from the 12th century onward.

I wanted in particular to see the Buddhist art in the collection and since there was too much to absorb in one visit, I decided to focus on sculpture. This means that I walked past a great number of fascinating and beautiful objects, but it allowed me to leave the museum after a couple of hours with something like a coherent set of impressions. One of my main impressions, though, was the glorious architecture of the museum itself. The building is nondescript from the outside, looking like a corner office block on W. 17th & 7th Ave. (I took the 1 train up from Tribeca.), the inside has been hollowed out into five mezzanines with an elegant circular opening for a spiral staircase that runs up the center of the building. There are thematically organized exhibition spaces on each level. Here is the official description:

The 70,000-square-foot museum occupies what was formerly a portion of the Barneys department store in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. It was acquired in 1998 and renovated extensively from 2000-2004. [. . .] Many of the most important details within the building have been retained from its previous life, most notably Andree Putman’s steel-and-marble staircase that spirals dramatically through the seven-story gallery tower. In addition to spacious yet intimate galleries for featured exhibitions, the museum includes space for contemporary and historical photography, an art-making studio, a state-of-the-art theater for multimedia events and performances, a cafe, and a gift shop.

The museum’s ambient lighting is somewhat darker than one at first expects, but this has the result of putting each work in a pool of light that encourages contemplation. On the day I was there, the space was busy but not crowded, with a couple of groups of well-behaved school children moving about and whispering to each other. One little girl in particular struck me as the perfect museum-goer: She must have been ten or eleven years old, skinny as a stick, with a big shock of brown hair that kept falling in her face so that she had to hold it back to read the information cards beside the objects she was looking at. And she was reading the cards, unlike most of her cohort, who were flitting happily from one pretty or macabre object to another. She would lean forward slightly, reading the description, then stand back purposefully and look at the object, sometimes returning to the text for more information. Our paths crossed several times during my couple of hours in the museum and this child was always absorbed in steadily looking at the object in front of her. I wanted to be inside her brain — to see what it would be like to see these things without all my years of education and experience — to see them “ignorantly” and eagerly, as it were. I left the RMA in a buoyant state of mind and walked south through the Village, where I bought myself a straw fedora from a sidewalk vendor, trying to imagine what these streets looked like forty years ago when they were the haunt of Bob Dylan, Dave von Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, and all the rest of the folkies I listened to in high school and college. Hell, I still listen to them.

On the way back to my hotel, I sat and rested my legs in a little park, then strolled (like any good flaneur in his fedora) south, taking everything in, balancing my rural existence with this intake of the urban air, both literal and metaphorical.

Went back to the hotel and had a nap, read for a bit, then began thinking about dinner. When I’m alone in the city — NY or Hanoi, etc — I don’t like to go to fancy restaurants by myself — such experiences are best when shared, but I did want to have one snazzy meal while I was in the city. Fortunately, the hotel’s own cafe fit the bill perfectly. I had a bar-made soda, a panini and French onion soup, then pie and ice cream for desert, followed by strong coffee. Cash only, but with tip under $30. The next morning I took a cab to LaGuardia and was home in the early evening, even with the long boring drive from Burlington to South Colton.

 Posted by at 2:10 pm
Mar 222010
 

Left the hotel early on Friday morning and walked slowly uptown, got a coffee at one of the two million Starbucks along Broadway, and went to sit in Union Square for awhile watching dogs and people, mostly dogs. Bright, cool morning & everyone — canine & human — looked frisky. Went to the Strand and looked around, but didn’t buy anything because I didn’t want to carry a bag of books with me all day. As I was scouting the poetry section, I asked one of the store employees who was busy with her cart putting books on shelves if she ever got tired of books. “Nope, never,” she said, an answer I found lovely & heartening. “Me neither,” I said. Continue reading »

Mar 102010
 

I don’t think I’ve gone this long without posting something since I started blogging almost nine years ago. It’s been a busy semester — I’ve been serving on a search committee and a planning committee, both of which have had to navigate certain controversial issues. And I’m teaching a survey course — American Lit I — I’ve never taught before and that has meant reading some texts I haven’t looked at seriously in a couple of decades. I’ve also been trying to arrange translation and editing work with a couple of Vietnamese colleagues and do some writing of my own as well. Fact is, I haven’t been working on poems with any serious application for several months. But I’ve also been suffering from fairly severe anxiety for several months, for which I’m now taking medication. It started after I cam back from Vietnam last spring, around the time of my birthday. Beyond noting the fact here, this is not something I’m going to write much about here in a public space, but it’s not something I want to hide either. (I am fortunate to be in a position in which making such an admission will have little or no effect on my ability to make a living, friendships, etc. Not everyone is so lucky.) Such an experience — especially coming out the other side of it and regaining some equanimity — leads one to some fairly intense considerations and reconsiderations of one’s personal history, one’s “self,” if you will. Especially at my age, when I have a fairly long vista to contemplate in the direction of the past and a somewhat shorter vista looking ahead. Or is it all chemicals binding and unbinding to receptors in the brain? More than that, clearly, though I’m not sorry about introducing the chemicals to my brain cells — they seem to be getting along quite well in recent days.

I’ve been doing a couple of things to work out for myself the nature of my recent experience (which is actually a recurrence of a very similar episode a decade ago, also after returning from Vietnam, though I think that is mostly a coincidence, except perhaps for the influence of spending a lot of time by myself in a strange, though loved, place.) I’ve begun gathering thoughts and materials for a course that I want to teach with a medical historian colleague called The Literature of Madness. I’m also in the early stages of drafting an essay with the working title, “The Wilderness of American Mind,” which will be an attempt, along with the class, to investigate the literary implications of certain abnormal states of mind, not limited to, but including my own. I am particularly interested, for the purely personal reasons noted above, in anxiety and the ratcheting and ricocheting state of mind it produces.

I have been circling Buddhism for at least a decade, probably longer, but I was so burned by Christianity as a kid that I have distrusted all forms of religion that I remained suspicious of even a non-theistic religion like Buddhism — of which there are, also, some heavily theistic forms. I survived my early adulthood by becoming a non-believer, though I’ve always had a strange attraction to ritual; mostly, I discovered that I got a lot more comfort and happiness from sentences than from beliefs, though, so I went to work as a writer. And then over the last decade I came to believe less and less in that, or in the kind of writer I had become. There seemed to be no need for such a thing as I was. That has been driving me crazy, figuratively and perhaps literally. But for the last six months or so I have been sitting zazen, reading sutras, trying find a way forward. It seems to be working.