A Note On Understanding

 

Family. Kristin Vestgard, oil on canvas, 2006.

The following is an abridged version of an editorial I wrote for American Athenaeum Magazine’s “The Understanders” issue in Winter 2012.

The summer before last, a high school friend of my husband, who was also becoming a friend of mine, asked me one night, out of the blue, “How are you so nice to people?” I was surprised by the question and didn’t really know how to answer it, but I managed to say, “Well, I think I understand people.” He responded with a laugh and said, “I guess that’s the difference between you and me. I don’t understand people at all.” It was such a casual, in-passing kind of conversation that I would have forgotten it, except that that was the last night I ever saw him, and it was one of the last things he ever said to me. A little more than a month later, he committed suicide.

I realize this is a macabre, intimate story to share. I don’t mean to be confessional, and I certainly don’t mean to be macabre. But I think that memory is important here because it highlights a significant but not often enough considered aspect of the theme of this issue: the fundamental value of understanding for one’s own salvation.

When we speak of compassion and understanding, we often think of it as a kind of votive offering, a sacrifice, something we give of ourselves to others. And there’s truth in that. True understanding is deconstructive. It requires us to break down those presumptions and hard beliefs that act as walls to divide us from other people– especially those people whom we consider our enemies — and to reconsider our world and the events that happen within it from a perspective beyond ourselves. Doing so requires humility in accepting that our perceptions of the world and our understanding even of ourselves is subjective; it also requires a nimble imagination to go beyond our particular experiences and modes of thinking. Understanding is challenging and too often taken for granted.

Even so, understanding doesn’t have to be perfect to have its effect. Often, simply acknowledging that another person has a completely different frame of reference that we may never fully comprehend is enough to humble us, to make us reconsider (or consider for the first time) our sense of our own righteousness. What I meant when I told my friend that I think I understand people was that I understand, however imperfectly, that every person I meet has known pain and that pain is very often the cause of the hurtful, sometimes truly terrible things people do. It doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t often feel frustrated — even enraged — by others’ actions and words, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I haven’t sometimes hurt other people. But I do carry with me that glimpse of wisdom in knowing that there is a common thread that binds us all together and that this thread is, macabre as it sounds, pain. This unifying thread reminds me to be kind as often as I can, in whatever small or great ways I find. It also reminds me to forgive and move past the pain I experience. Understanding our common humanity — our sensitivity and frailty — makes us able to use that pain to heal rather than as a weapon.

Carl Jung’s first mandala

As I’ve said, healing ourselves through understanding is inherently a part of that forward movement. This is something that my friend unfortunately never realized. To him, his pain was unique and unbearable. He didn’t understand that others had felt similar pain before, that it was something we keep mostly hidden, as he had done. When we can’t perceive the suffering of others, we are left only with ourselves and our own heavy pain. We are engulfed by it, and it makes us feel supremely, desperately lonely.

Because many of us don’t often share our pains with each other face-to-face — perhaps we’re ashamed to; maybe others discourage it, finding it uncomfortable or even frightening; or perhaps the opportunity never really comes up — it is often through art that we learn to understand and find understanding in others. James Baldwin wrote in The Price of the Ticket: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Reading opens us up to a larger community — however remote in space and time — that is always there, and through it we realize that we are never truly alone. Reading makes it possible for us to experience the pain of others, helps us begin to understand experiences that may be far removed from our own and otherwise inaccessible to us, and to find the common threads between our own and others’ stories. This connection through words is what Baldwin relished. …

It is a gift to ourselves to understand — to see the humanity in others, to see ourselves in them and, reflexively, them in ourselves. This is how enemies cease to be enemies, how strangers grow close and become part of a growing sense of a human family. It allows us not only to become kinder to others but also to ourselves. Understanding makes it possible for us to persist in spite of our struggles, in spite of our pain, because we know that others have been before where we are now.

I hope that the stories and poetry in this issue help us all to do just that: to be challenged, to be seized and opened wide, to take in alien thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to be made freshly vulnerable to pain, and therefore to be transformed, made greater and more understanding, and to be healed. Because we can be healed by understanding, in recognizing and accepting the pain that lies in others and in learning to identify and love the humanity revealed by that pain. Through that, we can be re-made universal and whole.

To purchase the issue, click here.

Review of American Athenaeum’s Winter Issue: The Understanders

My editor-in-chief sent this review to me a couple of days ago (I’ve been strangely internet-averse lately and so haven’t been as vigilant with my email-checking as I usually am). The author is David R. Matteri, who has some glowing things to say about the issue and AA as a whole.
__________________________

American Athenaeum invites you to step into their “museum of words” with their latest “Understanders” issue. Inspired by T.S. Elliot’s unwavering dedication to his craft in the face of stinging criticism, the editors dedicate this issue “to every artist who stays true to their art and vision amid the naysayers.”

Reading this issue really is like walking through a museum. The “Views from the Past” section features writing from across human history. There is poetry from Li Qingzhao and the Sixth Dalai Lama, and haiku from Matsuo Basho. Sojourner Truth and Henry David Thoreau speak of gender and the human impact on the environment in a pair of thoughtful essays. We even get a few laughs from the wickedly funny play “Philosophies for Sale” by Lucian of Samosata, a chapter from Hugh Lofting’s “The Story of Doctor Doolittle,” and James Kenneth Stephen’s poem “The Millennium”:

Will there never come a season
Which shall rid us from the curse
Of a prose which knows no reason
And an unmelodious verse:
When the world shall cease to wonder
At the genius of an Ass,
And a boy’s eccentric blunder
Shall not bring success to pass

It is this journal’s mission to bring together voices from the past and present, and there are plenty of strong contemporary writers here. For example, Ed Tasca shows us how the people involved in the trial of Socrates could have interacted if they had access to twitter in “If Plato Tweeted: A Techno Defense of Socrates.” The entire story is written in tweets as Plato tries to gather support for his beloved teacher. He does his best to defend Socrates in under 140 characters but is rebuffed at every step:

@Platothephilosopher
Meletus, you were the one who brought the charges against our great teacher. And all you care about is Glucosamine’s party?

@olympusrules_Meletus
Plato, my inbox is on overload! Give it a rest!

Plato’s frustration is confounded by the technology he uses. Not only do people disregard his arguments, but they also criticize his lack of technical savvy: @Aristophanes3xfestivalwinner says, “For Olympus’s sake, Plato learn how to tweet. All ur tweets are 2 long and don’t make sense.” The communication breakdown is parallel to our own dysfunctional internet debates. It is funny, but so close to the truth that it hurts.

Jacqueline West takes a leap into magical realism with her short story “Paper Dolls.” It is about a young woman living by herself in a big city. She works at a school, but does not interact with other people or get enough to eat. Loneliness and hunger permeate the story as the woman goes about her mundane life: “No one would have noticed, she knew, if she had folded herself into smaller and smaller shapes until she finally disappeared.” Out of this crushing loneliness comes the unexplainable urge to create a paper doll in her small apartment. Over time, this doll takes shape and an eerie, life-like personality. The woman starts to hear voices as her work progresses: “Hungry, they said. Hungry.” It would be unfair to tell you what happens next; let’s just say that the departure from the real world is sudden and shocking. Trust me; you have to read this for yourself.

Adriana Páramo takes us into the poverty-stricken heart of Kuwait in her essay “Cheesus, A Very Good God.” Sent to this oil-rich country as a teacher, Páramo goes on a quest to learn more about the mass of immigrants moving into the small sheikdom. She offers an extensive history of the country’s prosperity and shows how the multitude of jobs created by the booming oil industry attracted so many immigrants that the number of native Kuwaitis dropped to 37 percent of the population by 1995. Páramo witnesses the grinding poverty and abuse that came as a result of this mass migration by posing as a Christian missionary. However, Páramo also discovers that the missionaries she tags along with are just as capable of cruelty and ignorance as the apathetic Kuwaiti government. It is a tightly written essay loaded with gritty details of the horrendous living conditions the immigrants are forced to live under with the opulence of Kuwait City looming in the background:

The kitchen, a tiny windowless room of about ten-by-fifteen feet where, despite the lack of ventilation, ten propane cylinders were connected to ten small stoves with mismatched, amended hoses. The assemblage more so resembled a grade-school science project than a functional kitchen for grownups.

There is more to this issue than just solid prose and poetry. There are also reviews and historical essays, and there is a special section dedicated to authors promoting their latest books with stories that reveal their creative processes.American Athenaeum is a rich journal with plenty of jewels to offer. With that said, I’ll leave you with one more jewel from Editor Heidi Parton: “Reading opens us up to a larger community—however remote in space and time—that is always there, and through it we realize that we are never truly alone.”
_______________________________________

You can view the original post (and check out more lit mag reviews) here.

American Athenaeum: The Understanders Issue Release

As the title of this post indicates, the winter 2012 issue of American Athenaeum is now available for purchase in both ebook and print form here.

The cover features a starkly beautiful image by award-winning photographer Harun Mehmedinovic and features new poetry, stories, essays and articles by Steven Cramer, William Lychack, Pat Lowery Collins, Jacqueline West and others, alongside well-loved work by revered writers from the past. Our contributors come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, but all share a common desire to understand — themselves, other people, their own and other societies as well as the sometimes frightening, mystifying twists of fate.

I’ve written the editorial for the issue. It represents my continuing efforts to be understanding, to examine what understanding requires of us and what it offers us in return. As the need for understanding and compassion has only grown in our increasingly fragmented, embattled world, we at American Athenaeum are proud and honored to present this issue. We hope it will give you the hope and inspiration to keep pushing toward the better future we all need and deserve.

American Athenaeum’s Colossus is Out!

In this issue, you’ll find poetry, short fiction, nonfiction stories and essays from around the world and across time. From Li Po and Mary Wollstonecraft  to new writers taking memory, cat sanctuaries, Woodstock, aging, pacifism, connections and tensions with nature, urban life, and more as their subjects, I think there’s something in it for everyone. One reviewer of the issue has kindly and aptly referred to it as “a kaleidoscope into our own humanity.” Three of my poems are also included in the issue.

Both e-book and print versions are available, so you can have it just as you like it. I also recommend checking out our Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign page. We’d appreciate it if you donate — and you’ll receive a little something from us in return — or even if you just spread the word about us. Thanks!

American Athenaeum News and a Stevens Poem

Colossus of Rhodes, a 16th century engraving by Martin Heemskerck

More good news! American Athenaeum, the literary journal I’ve been helping to curate for the past several months, is just about ready to release its first issue, Colossus. It won’t be released until July, but we are taking pre-orders for print, e-book and PDF versions of the issue here. I’m proud of this work and excited to share our contributors’ stories, poems and essays, so I hope you’ll buy a copy and check it out.

In celebration and for the sake of general enjoyment, a Wallace Stevens poem I love:

“The Latest Freed Man”

Tired of the old descriptions of the world,
The latest freed man rose at six and sat
On the edge of his bed. He said,
“I suppose there is
A doctrine to this landscape. Yet, having just
Escaped from the truth, the morning is color and mist,
Which is enough: the moment’s rain and sea,
The moment’s sun (the strong man vaguely seen),
Overtaking the doctrine of this landscape. Of him
And of his works, I am sure. He bathes in the mist
Like a man without a doctrine. The light he gives–
It is how he gives his light. It is how he shines,
Rising upon the doctors in their beds
And on their beds…”
And so the freed man said.
It was how the sun came shining into his room:
To be without a description of to be,
For a moment on rising, at the edge of the bed, to be,
To have the ant of the self changed to an ox
With its organic boomings, to be changed
From a doctor into an ox, before standing up,
To know that the change and that the ox-like struggle
Come from the strength that is the strength of the sun,
Whether it comes directly or from the sun.
It was how he was free. I twas how his freedom came.
It was being without description, being an ox.
It was the importance of the trees outdoors,
The freshness of the oak-leaves, not so much
That they were oak-leaves, as the way they looked.
It was everything being more real, himself
At the centre of reality, seeing it.
It was everything bulging and blazing and big in itself,
The blue of the rug, the portrait of Vidal,
Qui fait fi des joliesses banales, the chairs.