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It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a year since I first learned about the Let’s Talk About It: Love, Forgiveness and Wisdom grant from the American Library Association and the Fetzer Institute. I want to thank Joanne Dunmyre and  Kaarin Van Ausdal of the Carnegie Library-Main for their assistance in both writing the grant and keeping me on task.

When I read your evaluations of our series (thank you, everyone), the overwhelming thread was  gratitude to Heather McNaugher for her enthusiastic presentations. What set this book discussion series apart from  others here at Main was the scholarship that Heather brought each week. And as I said at our last meeting, I am also grateful to all of you for committing yourselves to the group — I know that during dark, cold evenings in January and February it might have been easier to stay at home, but you came and I do appreaciate your attendance and your participation. If we are fortunate enough to receive another grant next year, I will consider all your suggestions on how we might improve the series.

Some of you asked me to repeat the Anne Lamott quotation I mentioned during our discussion of Atonement. Here it is:

“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Main offers book discussions, musical events, foreign language clubs, poetry readings, and lots more. Check out our website or ask any librarian for a copy of the monthly calendar. Please stop by the reference desk on the first floor and say hello the next time you’re here at the library. Until then, keep reading and please do keep in touch.

Peace, Jane

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Atonement – The Essay

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Good morning — Only one week until our final class: Atonement on Thursday, March 5th.  I’m not quite ready for our meetings to be over, but all good things…

Maureen Rolla, one of our alert members, found a terrific article in the February 23 issue of The New Yorker.  It’s called “The Background Hum” by Daniel Zalewski, and it’s a wonderful profile of Ian McEwan; the subtitle of the article is “Ian McEwan’s art of unease.”  I hope you get a chance to read at least some of it before our meeting next week.  mcewan450The article is available in print or through our library databases (Expanded Academic ASAP, for example). You can access the databases from home using your library card number or from within the library. This article has much to say about McEwan’s works, including Atonement, Saturday, and Black Dogs.  Additionally, there’s much here about McEwan’s private life, which added to my understanding of his writing. Here’s an interesting story:  After trying unsuccessfully to distribute a variety of free novels to men in a London park (the women in the park eagerly took the books), McEwan declared, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”  Hmmm.

If you find yourself becoming a real McEwan fan, be sure and investigate some of his other works available at CLP: On Chesil Beach, Amsterdam, and The Innocent.

Finally, here is the essay from Dr. Betty Sue Flowers. I can’t wait to start the discussion!

Atonement – Ian McEwan

Between the plea for forgiveness and the granting of forgiveness, there is atonement, defined as “reconciliation” or “propitiation of an offended or injured person, by reparation of wrong or injury; amends, satisfaction, expiation” (Oxford English Dictionary). On one level, atonement is a kind of payment for a wrong committed. We make amends by trying to repair the damage we have done. But sometimes, like the broken vase in Atonement, lives are too shattered to be put back together again. In the novel, as in life, when amends cannot be made, another route to forgiveness must be found.

In South Africa, for example, there was no way to make amends for the years of injustice suffered by blacks under apartheid. But neither could the past be ignored when apartheid was abolished. Some path toward forgiveness had to be found in order for the people of South Africa to move forward into a shared future. That path was created through the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed anyone—victim or perpetrator—to tell his or her story. People who bore witness to their own roles in the injustices committed were given amnesty after their public confession.

Like the public confessions before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Atonement is the attempt to make amends through the telling of a story. Briony, the thirteen-year-old protagonist of Part One of the novel, commits an injustice that arises from her overactive imagination and lack of experience. 200px-atonement_28novel291She sees her sister Cecilia embracing the charlady’s son Robbie and assumes her sister is being attacked. Shortly after witnessing the embrace, Briony discovers the victim of a real attack and puts together pieces of circumstantial evidence into a plausible but incorrect story that condemns Robbie to prison and separates the lovers. Lives are shattered, and Briony spends the rest of her life trying to atone for the story she has told, first by being a nurse under difficult circumstances (a kind of penance) and then by telling what readers believe to be the true story.

Atonement raises a number of themes related to love, forgiveness, and the stories we tell to make sense of our lives. Because we are the authors of the stories of reality we tell, we are like Briony in that we interpret the incidents of our lives in our own, limited way. We are capable of condemning the innocent. We are also capable of bearing witness to horrors we have never seen. Part Two is a vividly imagined story of the chaotic retreat toward Dunkirk in the Second World War—witnessed neither by Briony, nor, in real life, by Briony’s creator, Ian McEwan. Bearing witness to unbearable truth is a step toward reconciliation.

In the story she tells, Briony is not forgiven. But as she stands alone, confessing and begging forgiveness, we forgive her, even if the characters within the story do not. Later, we discover that the scene of confession has never actually occurred except in the story Briony is telling. Her own lack of courage has prevented her—and circumstances thwart a happy ending. So what difference has her story made?

By the end of Atonement, McEwan has applied this question to fiction itself: What difference does a story make in relation to injustice, atonement, forgiveness, and love? As Briony asks herself at the end of her life: “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. . . .No atonement for God, or novelists . . . .

See you all on Thursday —

Peace,

Jane

 

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Some Final Thoughts on Rumi

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I hope you  all enjoyed our class last week. I’m especially grateful to Ali and Audrey Masalehdan for volunteering to read to us, both in English and Farsi. I think we could create an entire discussion series around Rumi and Middle Eastern poets — what do you think? 

The next time you’re at CLP-Main, stop and see the display I’ve created for our Love, Forgiveness, and Wisdom series. I’ve selected titles that reflect the theme of forgiveness. In fact, as I was searching for these books in the library catalog, I found 37 books with the subject heading “Forgiveness–Fiction,”  but a whopping 345 books with the subject heading “Revenge–Fiction” — I’d say our culture has a definite point of view on these two options!

I also found a book recently added to our collection. Rumi: The Fire of Love  by Nahal Tajadod — it’s a fictional account of the life of Rumi, exploring his relationship with Shams of Tabriz.

NEXT POST: Atonement: The Essay

Until next time,

Peace,

Jane

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I hope you are all enjoying The Essential Rumi. Although we’re only going to be discussing Section 8: Being a Lover (pp. 100-109 in the Barks’ translation), I’m sure you’re finding that it’s difficult to stop reading his poems — images3each one is a small gem, and as I  get into the rhythm of the words, I find myself in a sort of  meditation. In this busy world, and with all the terrible financial news washing over us every day, it’s been lovely to spend a few moments each day with Rumi.

Heather will begin this week’s meeting with another of her wonderful “talks” — I don’t want to use the word lecture because that sounds a bit stuffy,  and Heather always encourages us to join right in. I’m happy to announce that we will also have  a special guest joining us this Thursday night. Ali Masalehdan will be reading the poetry for us in Farsi. His wife, Audrey (one of our members), will read the same poems in English.

And now, here’s what Dr. Betty Sue Flowers has to say about The Essential Rumi:

The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Section 8: Being a Lover

 

Coleman Barks’ introduction tells the story of the 13th-century Afghan poet Rumi and Rumi’s deep love for his friend, Shams. After Shams dies, other friends become the focus for the practice of the ecstatic love that informs almost all of Rumi’s poetry.

Like the verses in the biblical Song of Songs, Rumi’s poems appear on the surface to be deeply romantic expressions of love directed toward a Beloved who can be seen and touched. But on another level, these poems are addressed to the unseen “Source” or “Sun” that the Lover is led to see through the experience of loving.

Almost any of the poems can be explored in terms of the way they function as windows into these unseen and larger dimensions of life. A glimpse of the poems in Section 8, for example, gives us a sense of what these windows reveal. The fact that any of the 27 sections would have offered a similar glimpse is an indication of the richness that The Essential Rumi offers.

 

The Sunrise Ruby

When the Beloved asks the Lover, “Do you love me or yourself more?” the Lover answers that there is no “me” anymore. The Lover is like a ruby held up to the sunrise through which the sun shines so that the sun and the ruby are one. Developing the capacity to allow the sun to shine through the self requires “a daily practice,” which operates like a knock on a door. “Keep knocking, and the joy inside / will eventually open a window / and look out to see who’s there.”

Getting rid of the “me” or the selfish ego is a goal that many religions put forward. Even though the paths to that goal may vary from religion to religion, the wisdom traditions within each usually present the achievement of that goal as a form of ecstasy, or bliss.

 

Water from Your Spring

“The form of our love / is not a created form.” The deep spiritual love of the wisdom traditions is often compared to water—living water—that the Beloved offers the Lover. Like water from a spring, the spiritual water of love is renewed and flows freely.

 

You Sweep the Floor

Like someone sweeping a floor, “the lord of beauty enters the soul” and sweeps away obstructions to our seeing what something truly is. In that clarity, the strength of the heart can take us to the point of wisdom, even when the Beloved is no longer with us. “You live where Shams lives, / because your heart-donkey was strong enough / to take you there.”

 

Each Note

Paradoxically, the practice of love results in a kind of radical freedom that leads to both unpredictability and originality. As Rumi puts it, “Don’t try to figure / what those lost inside love / will do next!” And later, with emphasis: “Be your note. / I’ll show you how it’s enough.”

 

Granite and Wineglass

The Lover coming into contact with the Beloved is like a wineglass coming into contact with the reality of granite. “You know what happens when we touch!” Presumably, the wineglass shatters, and “Love opens my chest.” Love is the contact that opens or breaks the self-centered ego. “Love / is the reality, and poetry is the drum / that calls us to that.”

 

Buoyancy

“The sky is blue. The world is a blind man / squatting on the road.” When the self is broken or emptied of the ego, there is room for the possibility of a larger, more beautiful existence. We develop the capacity to see with different eyes. “To praise the sun is to praise your own eyes.”

 

Music Master

“We rarely hear the inward music, / but we’re all dancing to it nevertheless, / directed by the one who teaches us, / the pure joy of the sun, / our music master.”

The poetry of wisdom and love is threaded with the image of the sun as the source of life and joy. One of the masterpieces of Western literature, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, ends with the line, “The Love that move the sun and the other stars.” Like Rumi, Dante is inspired to go on a spiritual journey by falling in love. Even though, like Shams, the Beloved dies, the heart that has been broken open by love moves from dependence on the physical presence of the Beloved to a spiritual understanding of the larger source of life (the sun) and the Love that the sun represents.

 

Someone Digging in the Ground

“An eye is meant to see things. / The soul is here for its own joy.”

 

The Phrasing Must Change

When Zuleikha lets “everything be the name of Joseph,” her Beloved, then the whole world is transformed, and miracles occur. “The miracle Jesus did by being the name of God / Zuleikha felt in the name of Joseph.” Love is the principle of transformation through which the daily water of life can become the ecstatic wine of a wedding.

 

The Guest House

“This being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival.” Through love, we “welcome and entertain them all!”—even depression or shame or meanness. When the eyes through which we see the world have been transformed, we can “Be grateful for whoever comes, / because each has been sent / as a guide from beyond.”

 

In Rumi and in other wisdom literature, the principle of love is not something that lies outside us. “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. / They’re in each other all along.” That is why, when we look at forgiveness through the wisdom of love, we understand that “We are pain / and what cures pain, both.” We have the capacity within us to move beyond pain, through love, to joy.

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I know we’ll have lots to talk about on Thursday — until then,

Peace, Jane

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First of all, once again let me say THANK YOU to the students from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Drama for their spirited interpretation of Act V, Scene III of The Winter’s Tale last week. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how the language springs to life when we hear the words aloud and watch the faces of the actors?

I was left with more than a few questions after our discussion last Thursday night. I see the play as three plays in one: a tragedy, or at least the beginnings of one, in the manner of King Lear or Othello; second, a comedy complete with strange happenings in the woods; and finally, a romance with its compulsory happy ending. For this reason, The Winter’s Tale is one of the least performed of Shakespeare’s plays. But as Elouise pointed out to me last week, it’s the play’s inability to be easily described that gives it charm, and makes it most like the lives we lead.

Before I leave our discussion of the play, I want to share something with you that I found in my reading of last week’s New Yorker. Shakespeare lives!

NEXT POST: Dr. Betty Sue Flowers’ essay on The Essential Rumi.

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Hello, everyone — As promised, here is the essay on The Winter’s Tale by Dr. Betty Sue Flowers:

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            Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, The Winter’s Tale has inspired many volumes of critical commentary. A number of readers have pointed out that the structure of the play mirrors the Christian “divine comedy” in moving from sin and loss to transformation and redemption. But while this structure may be felt behind the action, Shakespeare’s focus is on the psychology of the characters—and of the audience. 

            In each “movement” of the play, we see different aspects of love, forgiveness, and wisdom. In Part One (Acts I to III), we observe the “sickness” of the brain that leads to fatal errors of the heart. In Part Two (Act IV), we witness the transformations that make forgiveness and reconciliation possible. And in Part Three (Act V), the wisdom of love and forgiveness that redeems the past is dramatized in one of the most remarkable scenes in all of drama.

            The sickness of the brain that is explored through the character of King Leontes is jealousy. Far from being a proof of love, as some believe, jealousy is a product of fear, constricting the heart and blinding the eyes to reality. Leontes sees his queen, Hermione, in friendly conversation with Polyxines, his best friend, and through the eyes of jealousy, uses even the most innocent of actions as “proof” in the construction of a case against her. This case, or story, leads to a trial in which the jealous king banishes his blameless wife and daughter because he cannot accept a story that contradicts what his sick brain has concocted. As Hermione points out in her defense, it shall scarce boot [assist] me / To say, “Not guilty”; mine integrity / Being accounted falsehood, shall, as I express it, / Be so received.”

            Act IV begins: “Enter Time, the Chorus.” Sixteen years have passed, and Leontes’ lost daughter is grown. Time itself has created this transformation, just as winter has become spring. We, the audience, move from witnessing a trial in winter in a formal court to observing scenes of springtime country life and young love. Part One seemed dark and realistic and could almost have served as the beginning of a tragedy: Two key characters die, the queen is banished (and her death is announced), and a daughter is abandoned (and presumed dead). But in Part Two, we seem to be in a fairy tale, where time itself produces the agents of redemption in the grown-up daughter of Leontes and the son of Polyxines.

Having faith in the healing power of time is a form of wisdom—even when, out of fear, we distrust the future. Like time, nature itself is also transformative, and through the fable-like simplicity of the love story of Part Two, we are reminded that in spite of the human propensity to treat tragedy as more realistic than comedy, spring is just as real as winter.

            After witnessing the familiar romantic fable of a high-born prince falling in love with a low-born girl whose true identity is noble, we are prepared for Part III, which rises above both tragedy and romance to a scene of love and forgiveness that the characters themselves can scarcely believe possible. And yet, it “really” happens, in spite of their expressed disbelief. If we are watching the drama on a stage, we see the statue of Hermione, whom we thought dead, come to life and step down to take the repentant Leontes’ hand. Through the power of drama, we experience this miracle for ourselves and are deeply moved. What was once dead can come to life again. What was once lost can be found. As The Winter’s Tale helps us understand, through the dramatic experience we undergo, faith in the possibility of transformation is a form of wisdom.

  

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I hope this essay has helped to frame the story for you. As I mentioned at our last meeting, next week’s class will be enhanced by a presentation of the forgiveness scene from Act V of  The Winter’s Tale, performed by actors from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. The actors will also give some background information on the characters in the play. After the presentation, Heather will share her insights, and then we’ll hold our regular discussion.

NEXT MEETING: Thursday, February 5th, 6:00pm – CLP -MAIN

See you then!

Exit, pursued by blinding snow flurries,

 

–Jane

 

 

 

 

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Brush Up Your Shakespeare!

200px-shakespeare2Good morrow! I’ve borrowed the title of today’s post from the 1948 Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate, which is based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Brush Up Your Shakespeare was a real show stopper! Brush Up Your Shakespeare! is also the title of a book we have at CLP — it’s a little gem of a book, discussing many of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with wit, and helping readers appreciate Elizabethan language and manners.

So, to our current challenge: How do we 21st century readers dive into The Winter’s Tale? Although I’ve seen plenty of Shakespeare’s plays performed on stage (including one particularly memorable interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew, performed outdoors in Montana featuring Petrucchio as a swaggering cowboy and Katherine as a lusty saloon girl!) — it’s been many years since I’ve read one of his plays, and I suspect some of us are in this same situation.

First of all, I suggest reading a synopsis of the play. Learn the names and relationships of the characters, something about the setting, and of course, what happens.200px-perdita_anthony_frederick_augustus_sandys1 What the story is about is important, certainly,  but it’s Shakespeare’s language that brings the story to life. At the same time, it’s the language that often trips us up. Secondly, read the play aloud, either by yourself or with a partner. You’ll be surprised how musical the language becomes when you hear the words spoken, and how an initially confusing passage comes to life when read aloud. Finally, don’t rush.  Sip a cup of tea or a pint of ale.  Or two. Take your time and enjoy the journey.  I’m anxious to hear how this Shakespeare experience is for all of you.  Keep me posted.

By the way, while The Winter’s Tale has not given us as many quotable speeches as other Shakespearean works, it does boast one of the most memorable stage directions in history.  (Hint: Act III.) Anyone?

Until next time, Jane

NEXT POST: The Love, Forgiveness, and Wisdom essay on The Winter’s Tale  from Dr. Betty Sue Flowers.

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