At Trope Topic College I've been busy. Indeed, since my last posting here, I've been testing and grading, conferring and advising, editing and recommending. To give you some idea of my work, I thought to share a single scholarship recommendation, a classic form I've had a few chances to perfect. Happily, my student — Jason Artful — made my own work easy.
To the Trope Topic College Scholarship Committee:
Jason Artful has asked for a recommendation supporting his TTC scholarship application. As his teacher in English 101 last fall, I can happily comply. Jason is a very deserving applicant.
Jason combines good sense with personal integrity and, vocationally, very impressive artistic talent. I have just finished reviewing a shared set of CD images that, like three essays I still possess, affirm the conclusion that he works skillfully. In everything, he succeeds, and I would consider his work still more broadly competitive. For I trust he will transfer one day, and with the pride he now takes in OHS carry on our fine traditions at TTC to bigger and better things. I know he has designs on such, already now partly fulfilled in his recent promotion at Starbucks — with whom he wishes to continue working one day in the design department. Goal-setting, I tell my students, is the real deal, and Jason truly is its exemplar.
He is also an exemplar of the steady application of head and heart to class work. His first essays initially fell short of that task in 101, but without batting an eye — and sitting always up front — he learned his lessons, applying himself and coming away, as he wrote in a final bluebook essay, as "a simple, complete, and focused writer." I wish more students would do the same.
In any event, he deserves everything TTC can give him, and your committee clearly has a fair share to offer. I trust Jason won't misspend it.
Jason thought that might do the trick, and I concurred. Some few letters do just write themselves. Prompted here by his own well-formed self, Jason's is but a brief, quite colorful, artfully "stylish" example.
· My Boilerplate Baptism Unto Death, Seahawk Style ·
I signed using my full name, Styles Stillwell Stylechoice, and even the law clerks brought in to mark my competence couldn't tell I was attending to a loud rain pounding on the roof. Maybe they were interested, like me, only in getting home to watch Judge Alito's hearings on TV or, with their husbands, to see my Seahawks training to meet the Washington Redskins Saturday. I mean, after twenty-three days of rain, who can endure on a dark and stormy afternoon signing "boilerplate" wills and testaments in law offices?
So what's the word today, you ask? Well, water — though maybe not quite as viewed, "thereunto," in Better Than It Ever Gets. That needs even some fine grain "brewing" in the sun to take. So I've thought to offer my own unlegal boilerplate on death and taxes — those in light of a theme I thought to mark in terms of a question, "How have stylish literary artists used water 'symbolically'?"
At least thematically, Martin Luther best answers this question. "For all our life should be baptism," he writes, "and the fulfilling of the sign, or sacrament, of baptism; we have been set free from all else and wholly given over to baptism alone, that is, to death and resurrection." Although I offer this sentence without sectarian pleading, I find it suggestively resonant. Charles Schulz's memorable Peanuts strip of January 2, 2000, renders its theme with some well-drawn water. In ten reiterating panels of pouring rain, Mr. Schulz plays with his own then-acknowledged leave-taking, not only of life but of art. To begin, Peppermint Patty says: "Hey, Chuck, it's a great game isn't it? . . . We're having fun, aren't we, Chuck? . . . It's still your ball . . . Fourth down . . . What are you gonna do, Chuck . . . You gonna run or pass? . . ." Then under an umbrella, Marcie says: "Everybody's gone home, sir . . . You should go home too . . . It's getting dark." To which Peppermint Patty replies: "We had fun, didn't we, Marcie?" And Marcie, "Yes, sir . . . we had fun." And Patty, "Nobody shook hands and said, 'Good game.'"
From that vale of tears we call life, Schultz suggestively distills for us the essence of the old art of "singing" in the rain — of smiling, playfully, in the face of death. Great or good, every artist of course plays the game well. In his Moby-Dick, Melville plays it perfectly in his chapter entitled "The Grand Armada." "But even so," he writes, "amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mild calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy." So does Thoreau in Walden. When he buys in imagination "all the farms," as he says in "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," he aims to die by water first, "so," as he says, "it may please me the more at last." These artists seem to say, "Come on in, the water's fine. But, please, 'Don't kick the bucket.'"
Of course, these "Waters of Separation," as Annie Dillard calls them in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, haven't much to do with size, as one can drown as easily in a backyard spore as in a small pond, in a nasty virus as in a vast, vacant sea. But for artists herein lies the fascination of rivers — for they always run in medias res. And from small to large — from "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi — their watery message is ever the same: the snag of death downstream and the current song of life. Think here of Walt Whitman's East River in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," or of the gentle-cycling "embrace" of the River Liffey in James Joyce's Finnigans Wake (wherein his "riverrun" goes "round and round").
And of course, that's our own recurring theme. And I hope we all drown in it — joyfully and sadly — maybe along with Norman MacLean, whose A River Runs Through It ends with this arresting sentence: "I am haunted by waters." Just think about it. In a strictly non-sectarian sense, it's like Luther's, especially as our theme "passes away" and our new one "runs" — but doesn't "punt" — now into eternity. I'm here for the plunge.
That Redskin who goes down in Moby-Dick at last — Tashtego is his name — is not quite taking another Seahawk with him. Care to bet on that? For win or lose, there's always-already, folks, another game, or year, or life to look forward to.
It's good, I tell my students, to have varied interests. Their advantage is clear: if you're ever fooled or frustrated by one, you can perhaps pursue another for support. Take, for instance, my own Seattle Mariners. They blew their annual opener yesterday by losing 10-5 against the Angels, so what I needed today was solace. And who should offer it but my stylish, poetry-writing daughter-in-law, whom you first read in Flight Song for Wren Marie. She also happens to be a very talented artist.
Last Friday night at her latest opening she drew many who declared, over wine and hors d'oeuvres, how she'd hit the artistic equivalent of a grand slam. She sold all but one of her new art works. But as the title of her show makes clear, "Solace" is in fact her larger interest, and I thought to say so here by sharing her "Artist's Statement":
My works [she writes] derive from the physical beauty of natural landscapes and/or the emotional landscapes of literature. They are intended to evoke a sense of those physical and emotional spaces — "windows" into transformative views.
The process of creating them is, in part, a meditation. Elements of watercolor, colored pencil, and fine papers are juxtaposed, cut or torn, layered and reworked. Seemingly disparate "bits" are assembled into a unified whole, much as glass tesseræ combine to form a mosaic, much as the snippets of one's existence are woven together and transformed to shape a life.
Perhaps somewhere between the luminous washes of color and the obsessive rigidity of the rectangular bits, one finds a balanced hush, a safe and quiet space of solace.
"Broken and Mended" is but a sample of her art, yet more to the point is the quiet substance of her style. Note how in three short paragraphs she moves deftly from a personal to impersonal vision, from "My works" to "one finds." Then focusing on elemental things inbetween, she gives precise meaning to the subtle use of the passive voice: "are intended," "are juxtaposed, cut or torn, layered and reworked," are assembled," "are woven." We feel wrapped in the warm embrace of truth and beauty, goodness, solace, and (perhaps) soul.
As I was saying, if baseball just doesn't work for you today, maybe give art a chance tomorrow.
My last entry on punctuation has prompted a related thought on reading. The image at right is not, however, its immediate occasion.
Indeed, Bennozo Gozolli's St. Augustine Reading the Epistle of St. Paul — the tenth of seventeen famous frescoes in Sant' Agostino Church in San Gimignano, Italy, 1465 — is not here properly its apt expression or, better, visualization. Neither, for that matter, are Gozolli's depicted characters — St. Augustine and his intellectual friend Alypius — even the immediate subjects of my thought. Rather, they are Alberto Manguel and Stylish (my wife and intellectual friend), who, some years back in an extended review of Manguel's A History of Reading, wrote this intriguing paragraph:
We also take for granted that most adults read silently. But imagine seeing for the first time someone reading silently rather than orally. That is what Saint Augustine describes in his Confessions when he sees his master, Saint Ambrose of Milan, reading silently. According to Manguel, Augustine's description is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature. Augustine, a professor of Latin rhetoric, found himself — reportedly in 384 A.D. — unable to ask Ambrose the questions about matters of faith that were troubling him, because, as Augustine explains, when Ambrose was not eating a frugal meal or entertaining one of his many admirers, he was alone in his cell, reading. Augustine describes the strange observation: "When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still." Manguel explains that not until the tenth century does silent reading become usual in the West.
My thought is simply this: just as we learned in the West gradually to mark words with visible writing spaces, so gradually we learned (as in the two scenes "depicted" and "described" above) to observe related reading silences. Both, of course, may just be twin aspects of a definition of style, appointed spaces and appointed times — marked, we might say, for reflection. I don't quite know what to make of them, save perhaps to recall E. B. White's famous dictum on writing: "Writing is an act of faith," he said, "not a trick of grammar." I think old St. Augustine would agree.