Monday, February 28, 2011

A Memoir of My Imaginary Life

today i was grading papers for one of my literature classes. 3 of the students had done response papers to one of my favorite short shories, Jan Neruda's "Saint Wenceslas Mass," the tale of a young boy who sneaks into Prague's Saint Vitus Cathedral and hides there all night. He has done this because of a local belief that St Wenceslas comes to his chapel every midnight to say mass. the boy plans to be the first to actually witness this. as the story moves on, we get a magnificent if slightly crazy description of the mass as the boy imagines it must be. it's a long, complicated, perfect evocation of the imaginative life of a little boy;  my students found it as perfect as i did.

as i sat there looking at those papers and at neruda's words, i thought about my own make-believe life as a chlld. idly, i began tracing my later imaginary worlds, through my teens, young adulthood, middle age, and through the present.  I've thought about those fantasies from time to time, of course; now i realized i'd never seen them as a contium, a kind of parallel to my real life.  walter mitty, in progression.

They started, as such things do, with imaginary friends.  I suspect they have continued with such friends, transformed into images of real people in my life.  My first imaginary friend i don't remember at all, except through my parents' tales.  I was apparently quite dedicated to Boidy Grief, whose odd name my father thought must have been inspired by my hearing the phrase 'void of grief.'  i love that story, but don't regard the unremembered Boidy with affection.  i was still pretty young when my next imaginary friend arrived, from the face on a poster for some child's product.  her name was Polly Pigtails, and she was cutely girlish in a way i never could be.  Still, she had the good sense to share my every belief, and she liked to do what i did. We spent a lot of time together, and soon acquired a third party for our happy little consort.  Marie was fuzzier looking than Polly; I must have seen her on an early TV show, or a comic book.  she wore the same A-line dress every day, and had long blond hair.

Our big project together was to build a huge mansion, in which we lived in a household of all children, with no adults around.  it was not, however, an anarchist heaven: i was the ruler, polly the second-in-command, and marie the third.  all the kids who lived there were fuzzier even than marie, but they were very happy with our rule.

as polly and marie faded away, i had, briefly, an identical twin, and we understood each other much better than our parents or brothers did.  we both looked like a 1950s movie star in a bathing suit, never mind that we were under 10 and that i had buck teeth. i think the image came from a coloring book; my nameless twin had a distinct cartoon-lady look.  i don't recall any adventures or projects we shared; she just spent all her time understanding me.

Strangely, i don't recall any imaginary freinds in my high-school years--which is odd, because with one exception i didn't have any freinds at school, which was a ghastly catholic institution that certainly called for any escape mechanism possible.

by college, i had become politicized through the civil rights movement, at which time my pretend world didn't include made-up people.  i never followed the freedom riders south, and it's probable that i pictured myself going to someplace like mississippi, where i taught all the illiterate negroes how to read and fought off  men like bull connor.   if i did have such fantasies, they faded in the events surrounding  the real-life civil right heroes, like the 3 young men murdered during 'mississippi summer.' the fact that one of them had gone to my school and i had seem him around made imagining his fate far too grim, and imagining myself in their position but surviving would have been far too trivializing.

but the 60s counter-politics provided "scope for imagination" in other areas.  for a long time, i saw myself in a nameless but embattled north american country, whose dictator was supported by US dollars and US political leaders.  I lived in the mountains and i was the leader of a strong group of indigenous freedom fighters.  Why they had chosen as leader a 20-something weakling from new york was never clear.  Of course i had learned a lot in my brief but torrid affair with Che Guevara, so that must have helped.  As did the fact that I had been tortured hideously without ever breaking down and given information that could threaten my comrades.  In the process of the torture [which never occurred as part of the fantasy] i had gotten a nasty cut on my face, which left a fetchingly fascinating scar on my cheek.  When i returned to new york and showed up in slinky silk gowns to fashionable society parties, people were curious about my scar.  but like the scarlet pimpernel, i could never reveal my true story, and besides, i disliked the attention.  [that may well be the most absurd aspect of the entire fantasy.]  Because of me, the nameless country finally succeeded in overthrowing their dictator and the CIA, which made me a heroine of the revolution, though my modesty forbade my accepting any formal acknowledgement of my role. [alas, i wish i could send that fantasy self  to the mideast today, so i could resolve all their problems and come back in time to get the right wing out of power in America.  i personally have no interest in being president, but i might be able to convince the country to elect bernie sanders.]

the nobly acquired scar remained a great part of my imagninary life for years--until i was in the midst of fending off some hero-worshipping leftie while i was walking toward the dentist's office. the 2 lives suddenly merged in my mind, and i knew to my core that the pain of the novocaine needle going into my gum would instantly elicit any secret i might have, whatever the results.

in more recent years, my make-beleive life  has toned down pretty seriously.  my make-believe friends are real  people, who are as impressed with my intellect as my south american comrades were of my skill and daring.  I have spent many happy hours being interviewed by bill moyers, whose producers made him stop having me on so often, because i was so fascinating that he kept cancelling all his other guests.  this has also become a problem for keith olberman and rachel maddow, which will be harder for rachel now that keith is off tv, since it will double her obligation to keep me on the show for the whole hour, at least once a week.

i've come a long way since polly and marie, and from the bathing-beauty twin. or maybe not such a long way. i have never lost my love of reading fiction, and what is a good read but a visit to an imaginary world in which you are implicitly a part?   and if my  young make-believe freind in the neruda tale asked for my advice, i'd tell him to stay away from Saint Vitus church from now on.  If Saint Wenseslas ever does celebrate mass at midnight, miracle though it will be, it won't hold a candle to the boy's vision.  my child,  you've seen what you came to see.  cherish it. real life has its own place, and a very important place at that.  but it will never take the place of your imaginary world, or fill your need for that world.  in the story, the Saint Wenseslas of the boy's imagination places his heavenly hand on the child's head.  Accept, with gratitude, that eternal benediction.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

RIP Haila Stoddard

No, of course you don't recognize the name.  Well, maybe one or two of you do, or at least might remember her character on "The Secret Storm" in the 1950s.  I just saw in the NY Times that she died this past week at 97. 

It seems odd to me that i remembered her name.  As far as I know, I hadn't thought about her since i was a little girl and mom watched Secret Storm.  Yet the name jumped at me instantly, and i remembered her face and her character before i saw them confirmed in the obit.  She was beautiful, to be sure, but not in the beauty mold of the early soap heroine.-  more like a harsher- hepburn face. a meanly beautiful face.  but still, why remember her some 60 years after i'd seen her on the show? the only other soap stars from that era that have stayed in my mind over the decades are those who later became famous and visible--people like hal holbrook {ok, who remembers him as greyling dennis  in 'the' brighter day'? )

i can only think it was because of her character, and her perfect portrayal.  aunt pauline was highly sophisticated--brittle, bitchy, always scheming, always coolly on top of everything.  i don't remember her smoking or drinking, but she was the sort of character who should have been doing both---smoking through a long cigarette holder or at least leaving a dark lipstick imprint on the cigarette; drinking either martinis or  something else in a v-shaped, long-stemmed glass. 

the whole feel of aunt pauline came back to me tonight, with that obit.  a trimmed-for-tv version of the film-noir women, except that unlike the film medium, the soap opera format allowed her triumph and survival to continue for years.  what a glorious figure for a girl-child of the 1950s!

Stoddard herself, i  learned, continued living a long, successful, and salty life, as an actor and later as a producer (in decades when women producers weren't plentifold).  among her friends were people like noel coward and james thurber.   she was witty and acerbic, in the dorothy parker style, only unlike parker, she survived.  a couple of her parker-esque lines:  "A fool and her legs are soon parted," she frequently said, though always citing thurber as the originator of the comment.  Her remark after her 2004 stroke, which left her bedridden for the rest of her life, seems to have been unquestionably her own. 'chris,' she told her son,  'i have never been bored in bed.  until now.'

a good long life. Good journey, aunt pauline!

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Candle for Neruda

Jan Neruda, that is--the 19th century czech writer who, a century or so later, lent his name to a Chilean poet who was looking for a pseudonym and found it in a long-dead writer who might have indeed been his literary father.

Several years ago, when I first learned that the upcoming spring semester at the Castle would include a group trip to Prague, I decided to create for myself a quick, personal minicourse in Czech literature so that i could include some in my upcoming castle lit course.  I spent a long time on google, an even longer time in the library, and came up with a respectable number of czech authors, past and present.  they were unfamiliar to me, except for kafka--whom i'd never realized was czech; he was always just kafka--and vaclav havel, the poet-president of the post-velvet revolution days. decent start. soon i happened on another one i had known, but not well--  karel capek, author of RUR, the world's first robot fantasy play.

then came the discovery, someone i'd heard nothing of , very popular in his day, who wrote in czech rather than german [a fascinating result of the complicated history of the much-invaded Czech and Slovakian regions].  So i curled up with Tales from Mala Strana, with which i fell instantly and probably permanently in love.

Prague, i soon discovered, was a splendid city, which had produced some splendid writers.  To one of them, it has given great attention over the years.  Walk around awhile and you will stumble upon a street or a house or a whatever in which franz kafka once lived, ate, drank, or visited.  he even has his own museum, a small but admirably designed one. 

all this is to the good.  but where was my neruda to be found?  unlike the peripetatic kafka, neruda didn't stray from the  neighborhood he grew up in--Mala Strana, the "little town." Knowing I'd get lost on my own, i got a couple of kind students to spendpart of their free time in Prague helping me find the long,  steep block now known as Neruda Street.  there we found the house had had grown up  in: attractive, narrow, and with nothing left of the writer  except a plaque on the wall, proudly proclaiming that he had once lived here.  on the street level was a small store selling post cards and candy and a few 'sundries.' we went inside, because i wanted to stand as close as possible to where he would have stood.  a shy elderly man sat behind a small counter. did he speak english? we asked. 'little,' he said, almost apologetically.  'there was once a writer here,. jan neruda,...' i began.  the man beamed.  'neruda, yes. writer! czech!'  we tried to find out if the man had read the works, but his slight english and our nonexistent czech made it impossible. still, he was definitely proud of his writer and pleased that we americans had come in search of neruda.

before we left,  bought something. i don't remember what it was--a pen, maybe, or some postcards. i do remember that i bought it.

i've been back to prague on several more class trips, but somehow have never gotten back to neruda street. i keep meaning to.  we go again in  a few weeks, and this time i'm determined to get back there.  i've' even found the names of the cemetery where he was buried, in mala strana, and a place not too far, i think, where there is a lone statue of him. i'll shoot for them both, and make a real pilrimage to neruda's spirit. if i can't  wheedle any companions this time, i will certainly get myself--by foot, bus, or taxi--back to neruda street and his old house. if there remains any sort of store there, i will buy something--a pen, maybe, or some postcards.  of course i will. thinking about it this week, i realized for the first time what that tiny purchase had been about.  certainly, a thank-you to the enthusiastic merchant.   but there was something more, though i couldnt place it at the time. now i understood that  it had the feeling i have in a cathedral when, for all the years i have been away from catholic belief, i experience the holyness of the place, and can't leave until i've lit a candle. it's the same feeling i had unexpectedly at the remains of a shrine to Athena, in france, and , not knowing how to respond to it, had hastily thrown some pennies into a hole in the marble.

neruda's house is a chapel to me.  so of course i bought a chachka or two there.  of course i'll buy a chachka or two again.  i will light my candle to neruda.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fragments On Aging (an unexpected poem)

how bittersweet can it get?
they give her their seats on the subway.

the bruise has faded, but the pain's still there.
and now no one says
you poor thing!  what happened?

sitting on the john
she plays connect-the-dots
with the age spots on her legs.

the crows' feet have stopped clawing:
they settle in and make themselves at home. 
she almost doesn't mind them.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Wait till after Paris"--A Love Story

today it's two weeks, exactly, since we arrived at the castle. i'm over the jetlag, but not my usual insomnia, so am very sleepy and very busy. and very happy. some of us who have been at the castle for several years have a saying when the students seem great: "Wait till after paris." we still use the phrase, though the last group trip to paris was five years ago. at the time, we had 2 required trips, of which paris was the first. after paris, they had their first weeklong break, and when they returned, their week of freedom had affected them in several ways. if anyone was going to start acting up, either in terms of their classwork or tehir personal behavior, it would begin after that break.

now, in a tighter semeseter, we have one break, a real 'midterm' break, which begins with a required trip to prague. whenever faculy and staff are chatting about the group, and praising it, someone will look grimmer than the others and ominously remark, "wait til after paris."...and we sigh.

the past three or four semesters, 'after paris' has been uniformly good. the students aren't angels, but their infractions have been small, relatively few, and bearable. nothing that changes the feel of the group, which is mega important. in a small community [80 students] living together, even a castle is tight quarters, and a couple of acting-out students can sour the whole group.

once again, i think we've got a stellar crew. in the classroom they're pretty aamazing--at least in my classes.they seem to care about the material, to work with it beyond getting today's assignment in on time. i always get some of those kids, but so far, in my 3 classes, it's been most of them. this past wednesday, when i gave them the usual mid-class short recess, two of them sat together fiercely huddled over the odyssey, discussing one of the things we'd been talking about, flipping pages to back up their thoughts. later another student came over to me in the courtyard to talk about the book, laughing. she had been prepared to learn what she had to about the classics, she said, but not for this. her roommate was also in the class. 'we sit there and gossip about these people--like they're friends we  hang out with." i have similar reactions in the European Literature class, except here they're unhappy with the second book, and are ready to argue with me about it. They don't want to read the Dumas novel; they don't get, or like, the first part. 'didn't you tell us you used a different book before?' one says. they want me to dump dumas and go back to the other one. i don't, but normally such a request would sound like a whiney 'make it easy for us.' not now: we've already finished one book, and their enthusiasm was intense. so we work on the dumas: no, i won't changae it, but i'll spend more time than i might normally use in it helping them figure out the confusing beginning, promising it will get better [it does, in fact: the first four chapters are dense, and when that part of the plot is resolved, it gets easier and to me at least, more fun.] so far, that's going well; they work with me, and they challenge me.

out of the classroom, they're just as delightful. fun, funny, sharp. courtious to all of the techers and staff, as far as i can tell. [and in this small a community, you pretty much know what's going on from everyone's perspective]. a couple of them have asked me to go to the thermal baths with them on sunday. how many students actively want to hang out with their teachers on the weekends? [yes, of course i'm going! did you think i might not?]

the castle--living here and working here--could never pall on me, even in a problematic semester. i have come here every spring for more than 20 years, and if i live another 20 years, i hope i come back for every one of them. they'd have to turn it into a Tea Party convention to keep me away. but with kids like these, and the kids from recent years [that's awkward construction but it's true, and i know some of them will be reading this so i'd better say it], it's the icing on the cake--or maybe the icing on and layered throughout the cake.

every year it seems to get better--not just the students but the whole experience. if i ever write an autobiographical love story, it won't be about a romance or a sexual relationship; it will be about this place, and my 20-year affair with it.

this feeling is hard to convey, and yet i know i'm not the only one. i talk to students from years past, and they still miss the castle. we joke about me bringing them back in my suitcase. i wish i could. each term i fall in love with a new group; it's interesting to watch my own falling-in-love process. right now is the excited beginning, and the feeling will either grow or, with some students or some situations, cool  or possibly stagnate. but it won't go away, ever. i haven't stopped loving the old kids--even those i have forgotten individually. the whole 20 years worth of them are woven so deeply into the fabric of my self that they are part of every other joy in my life. they enrich even the times i'm not thinking about them or about the castle.

three weeks, and we'll be off to prague together. then they go on their long trips, and i go back with my wonderful colleagues, and enjoy the quiet of the rest of the week. and i wonder who the kids will be when they come back.

 when they come back, after paris.