Sunday, May 25, 2014

Death Be Not Proud


Way back at Westwood School in Mrs. Dorsey’s 6th grade Language Arts class, we read John Gunther’s poignant book about his son Johnny’s illness and death at age 17. I still remember the effect that Death Be Not Proud had on me. It must have been a curious thing to teach about death to 12-year olds. But I remember that it was not a morbid or scary experience, rather, we talked in class about how suffering is a part of life, and all too often wonderful people are taken long before “their time.”

A week ago on Friday, via Facebook, I read the news that John David Charles Thornton had died in Indianapolis, after his long bout with cancer. Dave had been in that 6th grade class with me. Tears filled my eyes as I thought of this childhood friend. Images from my childhood careened through my brain, and I remembered exploring Death Be Not Proud with Dave in my reading group. But it was more than just this 6th grade class that came back to me—David and I had gone through every single grade together from Kindergarten to senior year of high school. From 1969 to 1982, Dave and I had shared every school day together!

As I thought of childhood birthday parties at his house, and Cub Scout outings, and high school performances with Studio Choir, and our meetings with our beloved Pickwick Club in our senior year,  I kept coming back to the messages of that book we read long ago in 6th grade, Death Be Not Proud. In the book we learn that Johnny Gunther was only seventeen years old when he died of a brain tumor. During the months of his illness, everyone near him was unforgettably impressed by his level-headed courage, his wit and quiet friendliness, and, above all, his unfaltering patience through times of despair (wow—just like David). The book is about his illness, of course, but ultimately about embracing life and loving life.

Dave Thornton loved life. In the last few years—joined again because of the miracle of Facebook—we would meet for lunch or dinner and talk about our lives, our growing up years in Westwood, and most importantly how we loved teaching. When Facebook reunited us in 2009, we were in our mid-40s, not having seen each other in over 25 years. I loved learning about Dave at these quick lunches over Skyline Chili, hearing about his work at the same high school for 20 years, coaching, working with musical groups, and finally, how he found the love of his life and enjoyed his two little girls. Dave had carved out the kind of niche in life we all seek—happiness, fulfillment, challenges, and love.

So in these days since the announcement of Dave’s far-too-early death, I have thought about how our paths crossed in our lives. While Dave was always smart, he was not always compliant, and I remember several examples in our childhood of a teacher’s exasperation with him. In 1st grade, with Mrs. Drummer, once in awhile she would say his whole name, slowly, her voice rising in frustration with each syllable: “John David Charles Thornton!!” In 4th grade, in Mrs. Greer’s math class, Dave decided to throw a desk out of the second floor window to see what happened. Again, the halls of Westwood reverberated with his name! This, in retrospect, might have been one of the first public examples of his brawn as well.

David and I ended up in the same classes year after year. We moved through Gamble Junior High together, and his house was just a minute or so walk from school and we could go there and watch Batman. David began spending more time with the football team as I spent time on music, but we were never far from a class together. In high school, David joined Studio Choir, and then in our senior year, Mrs. Michaels chose us both to be in her exclusive Dickens class. We read The Pickwick Papers first and Mrs. Michaels asked us to choose a character with whom we identified. David chose “Nathaniel Winkle,” a young friend of Mr. Pickwick, someone who considers himself a sportsman, though he turns out to be dangerously inept when handling horses and guns. This was a perfect fit for Dave since in real life he was the best athlete in the school, excelling at every sport. Indeed, on Class Day, Dave would be chosen the Best All-Around Boy in the school (look up to the photo to see that selection for the Class of 1982!).

Our good friend Dawn invited us out to lunch last summer—we three had not been together in (gulp!) 30 years and it was a long overdue lunch to catch up with all of us together. When I announced plans for this spring break, Dawn quickly secured a night when all three of us could meet again and enjoy each other. By that time Dawn and I had realized that the cancer had returned for David, and while he did not dwell on it, we talked about his health issues and he assured us he was doing all right. We three each drove about 50 miles and met in a charming old inn in Batesville, Indiana. Again, we laughed as talked about old times, our teachers, and where life had taken us. We planned to meet again this June for another dinner. I had no idea that that sweet night in March would be the last time I saw my childhood friend.

Dave’s wife started a blog to relay the current situation about Dave’s sickness. She talked of the ups and downs, and how he had wanted to be there on the day his students took their AP exam. He was indeed there, cheering them on, and died soon after that milestone.

As I looked back over my childhood and youth with David, I kept coming back to that book we read in Mrs. Dorsey’s class. I have no idea if in the 6th grade we looked at the John Donne poem upon which the Gunther book title is based, but I checked it out on-line to give it a ponder. Here are the 17th century words that Englishman John Donne penned about the Goliath of Death:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more, death thou shalt die!
From the get-go the speaker starts talking smack to Death. Death isn't so scary! Then he calls Death a "slave" and weak and defeat-able. Yeah, Death--take that! It is strange thinking how death comes, like a thief in the night, and spirited away this brave, intelligent and vibrant friend. As in Gunther's book, our confusion might lead to epiphanies about beliefs in larger purposes, and indeed, this poem asks us to look at the harrowing episode of death to make us perhaps finer, subtler, and more sensitive about life.
We know Death will win, but Death need not be proud. David fought a valiant fight; and, along the way, he gained even deeper respect from his family, friends, his students, his colleagues, and no doubt his doctors, and perhaps strangers.

David’s wife wrote in her blog that David was often able to function at a level that could almost be called “normal,” but no matter what new treatments they tried, they couldn't find a cure. The struggle against death is a fight against the void, against the loss of life—the spark. It is, as Gunther says in his memoir of Johnny:  A primitive to-the-death struggle of reason against violence, reason against disruption, reason against brute unthinking force--this was what went on in Johnny's head. What he was fighting against was the ruthless assault of chaos. What he was fighting for, as it were, the life of the human mind.”

What I remember from our 6th grade discussions is that we must love life more, be more aware of life, of one’s fellow human beings, of the earth.  Those are wonderful thoughts for 12 year-olds and anyone else traipsing around the planet. As I thought of these words from over 35 years ago, I thought back to David’s fulfilled life, and how my grief was not about metaphysical issues, universal laws, or deities, but that David would no longer be here on earth to enjoy the blessings on earth.

I went through school from Kindergarten through 12th grade with two friends: David Thornton and Kathy Gardner. We were friends in Mrs. Gardner’s kindergarten class, and friends through senior year at Western Hills High School. I haven’t seen Kathy since graduation in 1982—this is a good summer to find her again, talk about our growing up, the wonder we enjoyed in Westwood School, the tumult of junior high, the coming-of-age in high school. We should toast our good buddy David, thank the stars that we had an idyllic childhood, and that we had friends to know us since our childhood. David’s courageous battle will not soon be forgotten, and I will curate our memories of boyhood. The Pickwick Club is missing its audacious and tender-hearted sportsman!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mustard seeds anyone???

Yesterday was Mother’s Day in the United States (in Jordan, their Mother’s Day is actually the first day of spring—kinda nice, don’t you think?) and so while it was quite obvious it was American Mother’s Day when I made a visit to Facebook, otherwise, it was a regular Sunday—a regular school day here, and kinda easy to forget about the day and moms celebrated back home in the U.S. of A. This is now the 8th Mother’s Day since my mother, the incomparable Mary Martha Griley Leistler, departed this earth. At one point during the day, I wondered exactly what one does on Mother’s Day without a mother. I don’t mean that at all as maudlin as that sounds, but, here in Jordan, thousands of miles from anyone who knew “MM” it vexed my mind what one should do…raise an imaginary glass and offer a toast?

So at the end of the day, looking at the beautiful Facebook tributes of friends to their mothers, enjoying a poignant memory of my mother, I looked back on how I had spent the day.

As I said, just a regular day, albeit, a gorgeous spring day, chilly even (MM would have thought it freezing!) and the start of my post-AP test Curatorial Art projects in AP Art History class.  One student offered a show about art works that allow us an opportunity to think and project into the future. One student asked us to put on masks, read the Dunbar poem about masks, and took us on a tour of art works that are mask-like, urging us to finally imagine the concealed features of our un-masked selves. Another student’s show, entitled, “They’d Rather Die!” juxtaposed art works of people/regions that despised each other, and how seeing the art works side-by-side reminded us of their original historical feuding context. A last student asked each of us to take off our school tie, blindfold ourselves…then asked us to put our hands in various bowls she passed around. One felt like flour, one smelled of cocoa, and ewww, one felt like brownie batter. She then asked us to eat a finished brownie and imagine all the ingredients working together. Her artworks begged us to look past the finished art work and ponder the ingredients and process that went into the creation of each work.

Later in the day a colleague passed by my office. We had had an argument the other day and she had stormed out. The colleague came by, asking to talk, to reconcile, and asked sincerely that we try and figure out and understand each other better.

Mid-day I sat and enjoyed the Fourth Annual Faculty Arabic Play—do you need to ask why I did not volunteer???  As a non-scholar in Arabic, I wanted to sit and enjoy colleague Lina’s ingenious writing, the funny scenes of a “My Big Fat Jordanian Wedding” takeoff, complete with a real month-old baby, the new daughter Jeeda of dear colleague Ruba. Author Lina topped herself from last year, and cleverly included filmed cameo appearances from about a dozen former faculty who now live back in the US, and wanted to be a part of this fun event speaking Arabic.

All week we get to have Advisor Lunch (usually just twice a week) as we march toward Commencement, the farewells to seniors, and the end of another year. We laughed and enjoyed our advisory group.

After school I made sure to call some of the women in my life from my other school eras who have acted as surrogate mothers to me. I called “Cookie”—perhaps the most articulate friend I have ever known, and a Southern Belle that has always been congenial and warm and wickedly smart and observant.  I called Grace, the receptionist at Charlotte Latin, who has blessed my life for nearly 25 years with friendship, strength, and a loving heart. I jotted notes to Anne and Judy, friends who transcend mere geography, and also called my sister, my sister and a mother to my favorite niece and nephew.

Soon after I went with Moamer and John Wolff on another of our “science experiments,” i.e. gathering data on where the best burger is in Amman. I chose the Double Onion for this experiment at my favorite “lab,” a.k.a. The Burger Shack.

When we came back I decided to spend some time checking in on students in various dorms, seeing how their progress continued for today’s AP exams, hoping they had had a good day.

As I looked at the sweet pronouncements of love for mothers on Facebook, I thought again about how I might have spent Mother’s Day honoring My Best Girl. Hey, wait a minute—let’s look at the day…this was a pretty good day. The day involved realizing how beautiful this Sunday morning was, how blessed how I felt all day to work in a school with colleagues who practice and embody civility, reconciliation, humor, and graciousness. I witnessed exciting creativity in my students. I laughed at an inventive and fun theater piece. I enjoyed a table-ful of laughing, kind advisees. I talked on the phone about memories and love. I went out to eat! I visited people, made and strengthened connections, and savored my day. 

Hmmmmm….without being really cognizant about it, maybe I honored Mary Martha Griley Leistler in the very best possible way! I lived a day that she would have treasured and loved! I felt blessed! I knowingly savored the exchanges and encounters of a regular day. MMGL never lived anywhere but ordinary Cincinnati, Ohio. However, what I learned from her from, wow, maybe infancy, was that one could take an ordinary day, in an ordinary place, and make it extraordinary. A bright smile started it off. Talking to people. Reveling in creative thought, gracious company, telling people you loved them…any day and any moment with her felt vibrant and worth living and cherishing. I had lived an MM day just because.

Of course remembering MM usually includes remembering the MS that challenged her body (but never her psyche!). By no means is that MS her identity, it simply was there, degenerating nerves, but never diminishing hope or the fun of being alive. MM loved the New Testament story about the mustard seed. Two times in the New Testament, Jesus discusses the power of the tiny, tiny, mustard seed. In one of my mother’s favorite biblical passages, Jesus says, “If you have the faith of the mustard seed…nothing is impossible for you.” She loved that imagery and told people often that it only took a mustard seed-size of faith to remove huge barriers such as mountains—nothing would be impossible for you.

Of course I occasionally wondered how and why she could maintain her sunny disposition and feelings of wonder about the beauty of life as she suffered with the MS. Cynics would probably demand to know why couldn’t her faith remove the barrier of MS???

But instead of self-pity (She never had time for that! She had parties to plan, connections to sodder, souls to reconcile, creativity to spin, and restaurants and loved ones to visit!!!) she went back to the mustard seed, knowing full well that it was not about the obvious mighty barriers that we might lose—she focused on the Mustard Plant! She was not exactly a botanist, but to hear her tell it, the mustard plant grows to a remarkable size in comparison to the original mustard seed. MM always loved contests, and especially loved winning them (my father would remind us that she was used to winning!). Maybe her lifelong desire was to grow the biggest Mustard Plant ever, the biggest Mustard Plant representing her faith in the beauty of life, the warmth of humanity, and her faith that a day held so many wondrous possibilities of transformation and joy.

It was a good Mother’s Day. Just thinking how she would have written, or spoken about, or waxed poetic about her day and her connections, it was a beautiful and appropriate honor to her life’s work. By the way, that old photo at the top of the blog entry? There we are, together, Mother's Day,exactly 50 years ago!

I know she is evaluating that statement in Matthew 13:31, “The kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.”  Preach, MM!




Saturday, May 10, 2014

For Seeing Out Loud

I gnash my teeth when I feel myself starting a blog entry with, “It was a crazy week…” because that just sounds like a big, silly, bourgeois excuse for not writing an entry earlier! In my head, I had started four different blog entries, and none came to pass. And not because it was a particularly crazy week. But I did go to the hospital. That part is actually among the more mild-mannered features of the week. I’ll get to it.

The big news this week is that it was the AP Test Day week. All year long, the countdown is on. From the first day of class, until the end of the 136th class day, the sands in the proverbial watched hourglass move oh so quickly and quixotically . I usually sing the song from Mame, “It’s Today!” on the day of the test. I have learned from years and years that review should be done in the evenings and that learning, the building of momentum of something new and exciting, should continue up until about 48 hours before the test.

This year I wanted to try out a few new art works and see how they flew as we came up to the end of the course. I had more 21st century art works than ever before, and they will get their own blog entries soon. But one piece that had more “bite” than I thought (pun intended, you’ll see why…) came from the above piece by Rene Magritte, the 20th century Surrealist who is always a big hit. Later in his career, 50 years ago exactly, Magritte painted this piece he entitled, Son of Man. Take a look at it.

I had already taught a half dozen of Magritte’s works, oh, and they are always fun, and slick and a kick to try and figure out. As I taught this one for the first time this year, I asked the most obvious question one should ask about art: what do you see? Daniel, always a particularly observant young man, said, “I see this disquieting apple.” I asked why he thought it was disquieting, and he responded that that was what all the Surrealists wanted from their art. I asked the class about the title of the work, and Rami, ever quick to jump on symbols and names, said, “It should be about Jesus, since he is the Son of Man and the Son of God, or maybe Adam as the first Man. And there is the apple so I say Adam.”  I let them simmer and look at it a little longer, and finally, asked, “It isn’t as simple as the name suggests, right?” As they stared at this utterly simple and straightforward work, and yes, disquieting apple, I asked, “What do you want to do with the painting?”  Farouk, not my most vocal student, but reliable, and good, and hard-working, he said calmly, “I want to move the apple!” A couple people laughed, but more nodded, and Sara said, “Yes, I want to see who is there!” As they looked more at the same unchanging work, Ward finally said, “Even if we see the man, we can never know his true form.” The conversation continued from the classroom to their weekly journal sheets: “Surrealist art commonly encompasses the concept as seeing through the veil of illusion, and to be able to distinguish what is valid and what is a lie.  In, Magritte’s “Son of Man” a mystery man is concealed behind an apple which may lead many uneducated art historians to infer that man to be Adam or Jesus. Ward said “No!,” Magritte’s intent of the painting was to allow us to see beyond what we believe.”

In the next class, I began the same way. I wondered if anyone would have the same great Farouk-like visceral reaction. Sure enough, someone did. I asked, “What do you want to do with this painting?” The kind, sweet, and intellectually sharp Heidi, practically bared her claws as she answered, “You want to take the apple out of his face!”

Later in her journal sheet, Heidi wrote: “I look at it and I want to do everything in my power to get the apple away from the man's face. I saw it for the first time and was thinking, “Come on Magritte, you've got to be kidding.” Okay maybe not exactly that reaction, but after a couple seconds of staring at it I really wanted to see the man's face. I think that's what makes surrealism so interesting – it's kind of annoying and hits you right between the eyes in a way you really don't want it to. Even Meret Oppenheim's "Breakfast in Fur" is like this, very disquieting and weird and after awhile you want to keep looking at it and stop looking at it at the same time. But I really like how Magritte uses the disquieting nature of his art to make us think: did Adam only give us sin or did he give us curiosity too? Can there be good and bad in the same thing?

And there we have the comments that keep me in this business for years and years…instead of this just being a joke-y painting, Heidi wonders what the Son of Man bequeaths to us: is it the curiosity to want to move the apple??

Another student responded in writing in this way about the same work: “How could it be so simple? I thought that if an artwork could ever come to define humanity it would be grand, complex, and perhaps indecipherable, as Human Nature seems to be. We may not be so complex after all, or it may be our essential simplicity which makes us unique. I could not agree more with Rene Magritte, the essence of humanity is curiosity, as his Son of Man, 1964 implies. When I first saw the painting I was consigned to see the apple, I cannot move it, it’s a painting, the thought did not even cross my mind, maybe it did my unconscious mind. Ignorance, leading to conformity, could also be said to be part of what makes us human. After Farouk said his comment about wanting to move the apple, the realization flooded me. I did not desire to move the apple, for I may be afraid to see the reality of man….The fact that Mr. John told us that behind the apple is Magritte’s self-portrait, is an assumption I take to be true, yet question. It is almost as if learning in his class would be incomplete if he hadn’t, it is almost essential to have an assumption. I wonder if Magritte actually painted anything behind the apple and covered it, knowing he had unlocked humanity and had chosen to enclose its secret again while at the same time revealing its essence. I wonder if Magritte had to say that it was a self-portrait or some spectator would see the art work and be driven mad by the question.”

And yet another student writes about Heidi’s comment that “people want to take the apple away from his face.” An apple right in front of a face is more unnatural than on a hand, and the unusual makes the painting attractive and thought-provoking. As Adam is saddled with sin, what about this man in the suit? What is behind the apple, an ugly and evil face that is extremely non-human? People will get their own answers. When you first said that he could have simply painted the apple next to him, or even in his hand one name kept flashing in my mind like the lights of a car traveling down the highway in solitude at one am with no lights around it. The sirens rang in my mind like a huge fire truck announcing the emergency to the world. And as these two automobiles collided the small letters began to appear, and my mind focused on the letters lost in this scene of chaotic overturn. Have I build up the suspense? I think so, and so I will reveal the artist who has done just what we wanted, and what we willed Magritte to do, Gauguin. His face alike a Japanese painting looked lost in aukiyo-e a floating world. The red rages against his face, as a gold halo floats above him, crowning him with divinity. And yes, a lush apple he holds in his hand, whilst a snake lurks near by. The painting, as Magritte's screams Adam and Eve. I feel as though both paintings are trying to explore what sin is. After all Gauguin abandoned his family to live with several women in an unknown exotic part of Africa. What is sin? What is curiosity? Is it wrong to question authority? And although Milgrim surely thinks that in cases of violence authority must be questioned, according to the story of Adam and Eve authority should not be questioned, yet followed. I don't feel like Magritte is saying that we shouldn't follow authority and what rules they set, yet I believe he comments on the fact that we should question why they put those rules and to what extent get protect and help us. What I absolutely love about this piece is that it shows the continuity and transformation of perspective, all the way from Van Gogh and Cezanne who tried to paint all sides at once to Picasso and eventually to Magritte himself.

And I keep reading these intriguing journal sheets all coming out of this painting and class discussion. One student countered Heidi: “No, Heidi, we don't want to take the apple out! The apple is the essence of the painting. What we want to do is know what Magritte put the apple in there in the first place. In my belief we are all fruits, at first completely unripe and bitter with ignorance, and then we ripen we open ourselves to the light and gain the energy to truly live and be open to the world, and then somewhere in the middle of our lives we rot and are never quite the same again. What exactly makes us rot? Well society of course. As Mohammad Hawash once said in his declamation society is a hypocrite. It brings you up when it benefits from you and tosses you to the floor when it has finished using you. We conform to ideals that the majority believe in, we mirror other people's actions as to not feel or look out of place. As humans we adopt to the situations and change ourselves on the immediate assumption that we are he ones in the wrong when in reality everyone is in a dream stance too afraid to face reality, 'traum unt verchlichkeit' (if I spelt it right Freud's saying about dreams vs. reality). We shouldn't allow society to create faceless hollow people like Munch's painting of the street in Paris. Because we do not only become faceless, but we also begin to rot because as Michelangelo once said 'the brain rusts without use.” [Leonardo said that, but why quibble?!]

One student ended with, “What was Magritte’s aim here then? Is the world above us scared to see the reality below? Are they hiding away from reality also?”

Oh, yeah the crazy week and the hospital. Oh, that’s not a big deal—I had a stomach flu, kind of thing, colleagues were kind to me, I went to the hospital, had tests, and they sent me home. My diaphragm had expanded to twice its size. The really crazy thing of the week is that my students sat for a test this week that covered 5,000 years of art and history. And they loved it!

This morning I finished the long novel, The Goldfinch. SPOILER ALERT: THIS IS NOT A SPOILER ALERT.  Toward the end of the book there is this epiphany, and it tells you nothing about the plot, but it dovetails nicely with my students’ growing and yearning and my satisfaction as an educator:

A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

Because—isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture—? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself. Follow your heart.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—?
and finally at the end:
Because if our secrets define us, as opposed to the face we show the world: then the painting was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am.

Maybe this little Magritte can help us know who we are.