Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Kitties Are the Ultimate Kitsch-- Early morning wanderings


Six in the morning is no longer early these days. I wake on the hour from around 2am until 6 to nurse the baby and then he decides it's time to rustle awake for a couple of hours so I'm up with coffee to play with him. He mostly entertains himself but right now he's grunting and I should do something. I wrap him tight in his blanket and we smile at each other for a while. 


Kitties are the ultimate Kitsch 
I've been reading Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams and last night I was reading her essay on sentimentality, something I've always been a little confused by. She notes that Oscar Wilde wrote that sentimentality is unearned emotion. She likens sentimentality to low cal sweeteners, in that they're sugar without the calories just like emotion without the complication. OK, so here is a passage that I find particularly illuminating from her essay entitled "In Defense of Saccharine" (the essay I've been discussing):

Sentimentality describes the moment when emotion becomes a prop to bolster the affective egos of everyone involved. "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession," Kundera observes. "The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!" 

"Kitsch" refers to art that is overly sentimental or melodramatic. (The contemporary use of the word references stuff like porcelain kitty cats, paintings of the virgin, and pho-fur sofa throws). So in a way sentimentality refers to a type of emotion that is readily understood by all or to cliche emotion. Maybe it's that simple, cliche emotion = sentimentality, which is why it's so hard for me to write after having a baby because everything about love for your baby feels stickily cliche and everything has been blogged about in terms of babies and the highs and lows of parenting. The obscene humor of parenting. The rage of parenting. The extreme high of loving a child. And so on. We are experiencing a golden age of confessional writing and to be frank I am all for it. Honest, cutting, confessional writing is so very human and sometimes cathartic for both reader and writer. But I have always been afraid of sentiment and I suppose this is why I started writing in secret, cryptic poetry that could not be unlocked.

The other day while having tea with friends we began discussing the growing art of oral story-telling. For example, the NPR broadcast "The Moth" features stories told on stage by individuals. In many ways this is a fast growing art form. My friend wondered if story telling was becoming an art because we no longer spent time telling each other stories. This is an interesting idea. Art becomes art when it is no long quotidian. Of course this is in no way a definition of art. If I were to define art I would say it is the expression of ideas and feelings and experiences that we can't readily express in language. I cannot explain to you how I feel about my sons in a simple sentence. I have to create art to reveal or get at the truth of the feeling. I am sentimental when I say, I love these two boys more than I could have ever imagined not because it's unearned emotion (trust me I have earned this love) but because it is unearned language, it is useless language... it's too easy. Still, why is story telling as an art form becoming so popular along with podcasts and talk radio? It's an interesting question and perhaps my friend is right, we live insular lives with technology as our main source of connection with each other. I barely see half my friends but I feel close with them because we email, text, Instagram, Facebook, and occasionally chat on the phone.

Willem baby is asleep now and Moses is up watching "Peep." I heart Peep. The full name is something like Peep and the Big Wide World. It's slow and silly and just the right pace for a two-year-old and yeah, for the record, I'm all for kids watching TV.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

One Last Hurrah to a Dear Old Friend

A childhood friend died of an overdose today. He struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues for many years and had just been released from an institutionalized setting. I knew him for a moment when he was not yet fully submerged in the disease of addiction and before the onset of serious mental health issues. He was bright and funny and full of life. He was a joy to be around (most of the time). But once his disease got ahold of him I did not want to see him.

Over the years I gave him countless lectures, pep talks, advice--sometimes in bars but later on at restaurants or on the street or at my father's small town pharmacy. Once, we met at Riverside so I could do a reading (of my Goddess cards) for him. I had quit drinking by then and was probably urging him to do the same. He was so ernest about the whole thing, insisting that we meet at the Riv and not a my parents' house with all my other siblings around. I think we chugged coffee and he chain-smoked. I can hear his voice, "OK, Emily, OK." But he never wanted to quit drugs and alcohol. It just wasn't going to happen for him.

I have been thinking of him for days now. He floats through my mind as I pour the boiling water into the french press to make coffee. The baby in one arm, Moses on the floor with a toy. I see Dave walking or hear him talking and I think, I haven't thought about him in years (he was in jail for the past two), why does this feel so bad. I think to myself, I shouldn't feel that sad, should I? But it is hard to mourn alone, miles away and not able to attend the memorial or funeral. My husband met Dave, knew who he was, but he didn't know him. My sisters quietly grieve this loss in their own ways. It is not like them (or I suppose me) to carry on publicly about loss. Then I find myself wondering, do I feel sad just because I don't want this to happen to me or to my children or my siblings or parents? Isn't that selfish? Is that what this is? Why do I feel compelled to write about him?

But I know that he touched me in his way. I know that his charming, endearing self was one that I loved. I was on his team. I wanted him to succeed. And, to a certain extent, I think he was the kind of person that made everyone he knew feel special and loved. He was an open, heart-on-his-sleave kind of guy, like many alcoholics and addicts. He took it all in and then he really didn't know how to filter it or deal and so he used in order to obliterate his feelings or just numb out for a little while. This, as we know, over the long haul, doesn't work. Things just get worse, and they did for him. He ended up in trouble from drinking and driving and with some pretty serious mental health issues.


Today I think of the road to his father's house and one of the last times I saw him-- years ago now since I don't live in Minnesota--he was waiting for a ride from my sister and I, standing on the edge of the dirt road in the forest. He was a bulky guy, strong and solid, not overweight, but broad and rangy like he might have been good at tossing a football or making a tackle. His head was down or perhaps his hand was over his eyes, shading them from the sunlight. He ducked into the backseat of the car and said hello. He was quiet for a time, lost in thought and staring out the window, or perhaps he began right away talking about whatever it was that he'd been thinking about as he stood there waiting, as he often did. There was this seamless movement in him from thought to speech. Or perhaps he began pouring his heart out about something that deeply concerned him. He could become fixated.


I remember how he talked about politics (conspiracy theories when he wasn't on his medication). He always wanted to return to school to study political science. He was bright and yet vulnerable in a crushing way. I suppose it was hard to see a big, overgrown boy fall so hard. My sisters and I always had a soft spot for him--one of them dated him for a while. He had a good heart and true spirit. There was something about him that seemed almost possible, if only he could get it together. I wonder how many people wanted to grab him and shake him and tell him to get it together, but only because they could see so much in him that was blocked by his use of drugs and alcohol, the disease of addiction that is only kept at bay through abstinence. But he could never stay clean for long (I don't really think he ever tried) and then he'd end up in the hospital or jail for violating probation. He'd stop taking his medication and we wouldn't see him for a while.


I remember him in Minneapolis, young and hopeful. I see him walking with his head a little down, dipping into his broad shoulders, covered most likely in a slightly warn jacket, his pants a little unkempt and out of style in that heart-breaking way that made you love him more. I want to see him walking away into some other possibility, happily living a boring daily life with a job and kids and a dog. Or perhaps it wasn't boring, it was wild and exciting, but sober. I don't know.


I wish him all the love and peace in the world.

Safe travels my friend and may the light be with you always.