"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Scars: Without a Hurt
the Heart is Hollow

One of our Black Walnut Trees,
Scarred by Lightning a Few Summers Ago


"Childhood has no forebodings; but then,
it is soothed by no memories of outlived sorrow

quotation from The Mill on the Floss, by English novelist
George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans, 1819 - 1880)

[click to enlarge collage from my clip-art phase, 1977]

Not long ago, some of my friends and family were having an ongoing facebook chat about the price of experience and the merit of scars -- what important lessons we might learn from them, what value they add to our lives. A couple of thought-provoking quotations appeared in the conversation chain:

First this, by the late writer and priest, Henri Nouwen (1932 - 96): "When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.”

And also this: "Viewed one way, scars are an ugly reminder of what has happened in our past. But, seen through different eyes, scars are our reassurance that healing has occurred" (attributed merely to Unknown).

What I had to contribute was the observation that scars serve also as a reminder of what we have loved. For example, there is the scar across my leg, caused by my little cat Marcus (RIP) one 4th of July when, frightened by some fireworks, he suddenly leapt out my lap, leaving behind a deep scratch (he didn't mean to). On the same leg, I have another long thin scar from the time when I scraped my knee against some rusty wire while helping my dear grandfather burn the trash (remember those days?). One glance at that scar, and I am immediately transported back to that very afternoon, playing around outside by the incinerator in the garden, not even caring that I was hurt. I can remember having so much fun, feeling so loved, secure, and happy to be there; and no doubt thinking myself very important because I was being allowed to play with fire!

In the novel Up From Jericho Tel (by E. L. Konigsburg; mentioned on this blog a few months ago in the post "Butterfly Collection" and also on my book blog), the narrator Jeanmarie describes making up with her best friend Malcolm after an argument. She is surprised to find that she feels closer to Malcolm than ever before and wonders why: "Maybe it was just that we had quarreled and made up, and scar tissue is tough" (144).

The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950), in one of her saddest sonnets (#IX in The Harp Weaver) captures the anguish of an unhealed heartache -- soothed not by the memory of outlived sorrow, toughened not by durable scar tissue, transformed not from despair to hope:

Here is a wound that never will heal, I know,
Being wrought not of a dearness and a death,
But of a love turned ashes and the breath
Gone out of beauty; never again will grow
The grass on that scarred acre, though I sow
Young seed there yearly and the sky bequeath
Its friendly weathers down, far underneath
Shall be such bitterness of an old woe.
That April should be shattered by a gust,
That August should be levelled by a rain,
I can endure, and that the lifted dust
Of man should settle to the earth again;
But that a dream can die, will be a thrust
Between my ribs forever of hot pain.

Brian Andreas captures a similar sentiment of rawness in one of his StoryPeople stories:

Chill Wind
Wrapped tightly against a chill wind she
just remembered from a long time ago &
no amount of current time & temperature
can help this one.

as well as:

sharp things that hurt for years afterwards
every time you think of them.

However, time does mellow most scars and most wounds do heal, leaving behind those physical and mental reminders of what we have loved and lost. No one explains it better than El Gallo, the suave, debonair bandit from The Fantasticks, who observes that "we all must die a bit / Before we grow again." Despite his worldly cynicism, he understands the human heart: "I hurt them for that reason / And myself a little bit too."

In the perfect song for this time of year, El Gallo sings, "Without a hurt, the heart is hollow."

Try To Remember
[Click song title for music]

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
Although you know the snow will follow.
Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
Without a hurt the heart is hollow.
Deep in December, it's nice to remember,
The fire of September that made us mellow.
Deep in December, our hearts should remember
And follow.
Follow, follow, follow, follow.

Lyrics by Tom Jones (b. 1928)
Music by Harvey Schmidt (b. 1929)
Sung by Jerry Orbach (1935 - 2005; the original El Gallo, from 1959 - 61, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse)

The Fires of September
Drawing by Eloise Wilkin

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, October 14, 2010

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "Scarred But Standing"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

9 / 11 Retrospective:
Not A Normal Day

Small American Flag Made out of Legos
Ben and Sam's Original Idea for a
9 / 11 Tribute in September 2001

See the Little Flag in the Window? ~ November 2001

Back in 2003, on the second anniversary of 9 / 11, French high wire artist, Philippe Petit (b. 1949), wrote a sad and beautiful tribute, "My Towers, Our Towers," in which he tells the story of his daring high-wire walk between the Twin Towers, on the morning of August 7, 1974, when high above the ground he crossed eight (8!) times between the two towers.

Petit had been in love with these towers even before they were built, awaiting the moment when he could trespass on their air space, and now he had witnessed their collapse: "Where had they gone? Who besides me knew that, despite 200,000 tons of steel, glass, concrete, and aluminum, the towers were made mostly of air . . . air to air . . . ashes to ashes?" (Wall Street Journal, Thursday, September 11, 2003).

Along with his memories of the earlier days of the towers, Petit includes the sad story of the sudden death of his 9 1/2 - year - old daughter, Gypsy, in 1982. In his grief, he was advised by a priest: "Speak of her in the present tense." This advice stayed with him, and he applies it now to the tragedy of the World Trade Center:

"I close my eyes, I remember, I pay my respect to the victims and their families. That dreadful morning, my towers became your towers, our towers.

". . . gone, yet still standing tall, made of thin air, yet gloriously defying the sunset on this warm late summer evening.

Look at them!"
Look at them!

For connections and coincidences, following Petit's eloquent observations, I have decided to simply re-post the essay that I wrote last year on my daily blog for September 11. I am guessing that some did not see it a year ago, and that others won't mind reading it again. The fact is, these very same recollections will always be my story of that shattering day:


A moment of silence and retrospection on this saddest of anniversaries. As with the assassination of JFK, we all remember where we were. I was in my kitchen, working on some scrapbooks for my children. The new school year had just started, and I was sorting through the previous year's memorabilia. Such a simple pleasure, so mundane. But many days are like that.

Just a few days before, on Sunday the 9th, my husband Gerry had flown to California for a meeting. Monday night, he had taken the redeye home, arriving back in Philadelphia very early Tuesday morning and, naturally, going in to work a couple hours later, after walking our sons across the street to school. He hadn't been on campus very long before calling to ask me if I needed to drive anywhere that day.

"Only to the boys' piano lessons after school."

"Why don't you call and cancel, okay?"


"Some strange things are happening in New York and Washington."

"You mean the stock market?" Not that finance is my specialty, but that's what came to mind: desperate History Channel images of the Great Crash.

"No," he said. "Some planes have crashed in both cities."

"Are we at war?"

"I don't know. Just don't turn on the TV."

So I called our piano teacher (remember from the other day, scales & Bach). She was fine with the cancellations, as she herself was worried sick, having just heard from her sister who worked in Washington, DC, in a building that was currently locked down with everyone inside until further notice.

Then I called my sister, who also worked in DC. No answer anywhere, but as the day went on, I learned that rather than being locked into her building for the day, she and her husband had been turned away from their parking garage upon arrival that morning and instructed to return home. They spent the long hours in traffic on I-70, very frustrated but safe.

Then I turned on the TV. Then I turned it off again and thought of what to do next. Get milk.

2nd Street, Philadelphia

I opened the front door into the irony of one of the most beautiful days on earth: high of 72, low of 72, not a cloud in the sky. Wondering how it could be true, I walked the few blocks to the nearest 7-Eleven (on 2nd Street). Actually, in Philadelphia, it's not called the 7-Eleven; it's the Wawa, which sounds kind of silly until you notice the flying goose on the store logo and realize that "wawa" is an onomatopoeic Leni - Lenape word for "goose" or "wild goose" or "Land of the Big Goose."

Standing in the dairy aisle, I reached for a gallon of milk, then deliberated about taking a second, though I knew we didn't need it. I reasoned with myself: as an act of faith, lets take only one today. Lets have faith that the store will be here tomorrow, that the milk will be here tomorrow, that there will be enough.

Resolved, I headed home, cutting across the school playground on the way. Everything was very close together -- the house, the Wawa, the church, the school. That was a happy urban time when we were able to live a mostly pedestrian life, sometimes using the car so infrequently that we forgot where we had parked it last.

The teacher out watching the students on their after-lunch recess hailed me to ask if I wanted to take my kids home early. I could see the younger one there playing with his friends, still innocent but wary. They must have sensed that something was up. Hanging on to my moment of faith in the Wawa, I answered the teacher, "No, not yet. Just let them have a normal afternoon."

When Gerry and I went over a couple of hours later to pick them up at the regular time, the older one was ecstatic, exclaiming, "All I could think was, 'When's Daddy getting back?' And then I remembered, you were already home."

Our Fine Front Door on 3rd Street, Philadelphia


Thanks to my friend Jan Donley for suggesting a poetry connection that perfectly captures the mixture of shamefulness and gratefulness one feels for being granted an ordinary day, while at the very same moment others are in despair. How amazing and humbling to feel so secure despite the uncertainty:

September Twelfth, 2001

Two caught on film who hurtle
from the eighty-second floor,
choosing between a fireball
and to jump holding hands,

aren't us. I wake beside you,
stretch, scratch, taste the air,
the incredible joy of coffee
and the morning light.

Alive, we open eyelids
on our pitiful share of time,
we bubbles rising and bursting
in a boiling pot.

X. J. Kennedy (b. 1929)
American poet, translator, editor; and
creator of textbooks for teaching Literature and Poetry