Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Remembering Toni Morrison


“If you surrender to the air, you could ride it.” The Song of Solomon

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind — wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”  Beloved

“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”                                                                                                                         Beloved

“Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”   Sula

Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be’   Sula  

   I am a reader: I have always been a reader. I don’t know exactly when I learned to read, but I cannot remember a time when I did not read. Comic books, newspaper comics, magazines, books, poems, cereal boxes, street signs, historical markers, advertisements: if it had words in English and it was in my sight, I probably read it. It is and has been one of the most joyous and important parts of my life. I interact with words, and I interact with them in a number of different and meaningful ways. That means, of course, that I love libraries and bookstores: those two institutions have helped me read a hell of a lot of books in my life. Dramas, history books, brochures, mysteries, fantasy, pamphlets, biographies and autobiographies, comedies, and fiction from any and all genres. And I collect quotes, quotes from movies, friends, historical figures, historical sayings, plays and especially from books. I find that authors, especially novelists, often have ways of saying and expressing things that capture me, touch me deeply, and lead me to new realizations. The above five quotes are among my all-time favorite literary quotes. They give me much to reflect upon, and they have been with me for years. And they all come from the mind and vision of one incredible and powerful author: Ms Toni Morrison.

  I have been a fan of Toni Morrison for over 45 years. She has been and is a voice that causes me to pause, to look at something differently or more deeply, and to become more aware of my own expectations, biases, and assumptions. She surprises me, and she helps me look at myself, sometimes even against my own will. She has a way of assembling words in ways that build images, share feelings, evoke scenes, paint landscapes, and allow you to hear the voice and meaning of her characters and what their lives really show. Sula, set mostly in a small Ohio town, was the first of her novels that I read, and the way her narration mixed poetic language, imagination, keen imagery and observation had me stop on page after page to re-read a particular passage again out loud-to hear it and to taste it and to feel it. Her ability to make us deeply feel and know the struggles and choices her two heroines go through in their attempt “to create something else to be” is almost painful. And the ways we are shown how loneliness, anger, and self-doubt, as well as determination, can sometimes be “dangerous” ring true throughout the novel. Sula is a relatively short book: 194 pages. But it seems full and deep.  It is truly a “weighty” book. It was also one of the first novels that had me seriously and deeply connect with female characters, and that opened up a whole new literary world for me.

  Song of Solomon, with its richly and multi-layered, symbolic language and mix of folklore, Biblical references, mysticism, and harsh reality is probably my favorite of all her books. As with all of her works, one of its major themes is identity and how we come to appreciate and learn our various ones. There is also incredible word play in the work, starting with the names of characters and the specific ways each of them speaks, and going on to include irony, puns, and the quiet power of the unsaid. The way Macon Dead discovers he has to look back and down, not only to his cultural past but also to his own childhood while on his quest, resonated with me on many levels. It amazed me that one writer could not only have all of these thoughts and ideas and themes going on in her head, but that she could somehow express them on paper in such a way that they speak to real people and to their real lives. It is one book I truly regret never having had an opportunity to teach.

  But the book which first exposed me to Toni Morrison and helped deepen my own searches for identities wasn’t one she wrote. It wasn’t a novel, and it was not a book of literary criticism and analysis. It was a massively researched and beautifully pulled together scrapbook she helped edit and nurture into being. It was a joyous, painful, celebratory, anger-producing, angry, and proud collection of words, facts, records, and pictures called, The Black Book, that she helped edit and publish in 1974 while she was an editor at Random House. I encountered it at the old Robins Bookstore on 13th Street, and I had never seen anything like it. It was a trade paperback with a cover that was a collage with pictures of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and Satchel Paige, racist stereotyped advertising labels for products, a Black cowboy with a rifle and saddle, an African bronze sculpture, and the words, “The Black Book” proudly front and center. In time frame it ranged from the pre-Columbian history of Africa and South America to the black movies and music stars of the 1930’s. It also included descriptions of slave whippings, escapes, stories about Black soldiers, pioneer farmers, seamen, athletes, inventors, and scientists, pictures of all black towns in the Midwest:  it was literally a book of just about all that we as a culture have seen, been through and done. As a 24 year- old in 1974 that book sent my ADD and curious mind in a thousand different directions at once, searching and looking at things, reading, researching and listening to hundreds of new things, and increasing my own knowledge and understandings of African-American cultures and experiences. (And, yes-we are way more than just one “culture.”) I wore the pages out of two editions of that book, and I later lost my remaining well-worn one during one of my many moves. But hearing of Toni Morrison’s death On August 5th took me to the library to take out a copy. And once again it did its magic, reminding of so much about heritage, triumph, struggle, and the incredible, simple resiliency African-Americans, and indeed, all human cultures need to have in order to survive in this world. It is a joy to re-encounter it, and I am joyously working my way through it again. It never gets old.

   There is so much more I could say about Toni Morrison and her importance to United States literature, cultural studies, and intellectual development. She was a prodigious writer: she wrote 11 novels, wrote and/or edited several books of literary criticism and analysis, co-wrote 5 children’s books, and penned numerous articles. She also taught at several colleges and universities including Princeton, Rutgers, Cornell, and the State University of New York. Her output lasted from the 1970’s until now, and several generations of readers, thinkers, writers, and fans got to read, meet, and encounter her ideas.  I cannot begin to catalog the ways in which she has influenced me, She is one of my many inspirations and starting points. So many of her quotes and ideas have become a part of me and how I look at the world. If you are not familiar with her, I encourage you to take the time to encounter her. She is not an easy read by any means. But she is a read that will give you much to think about, will amaze and dazzle you with the power of the written word, and just maybe have you look at the world around you and yourself in different and rewarding ways. She is simply one of the best and most important thinkers and authors it has been my good fortune to read. Rest in Peace, Ms, Morrison. Rest in peace. And thank you, so very much.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia biography of Toni Morrison:
The Toni Morrison Society:

Link to review of The Black Book:

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Magic of "Surprise"


“One of the things that humans have is the wonderful opportunity to encounter surprise. But surprise is not going to track you down or come up to your door, knock, and ask to be let in. You have to be out there in the world among people and places to meet it, and, most importantly, you have to be open to it happening.”   Curtis Williams

“You want to make God laugh? Tell God you have “plans.”   Anonymous 
       Many people who know me would probably tell you that I am not a strictly-scheduled person or a person who necessarily thrives on routine. I like to hike and birdwatch following whatever calls to me, walk around the downtowns of cities just following whim and curiosity and what calls to me, and reading about, searching out, and following up on things that just catch my fancy. (My wife once commented that I had never met an historical marker I didn’t love.)  I have always been a curious and multi-active person, and I am ADD. So I can go off in several directions at once instantly, no matter where I am and what I am doing.  At the same time, though, when I do have a routine in some area of my life, I can get pretty hyper-focused on it and a bit miffed if it is disturbed. I am still an early riser after 40 years of teaching, so my morning routine is to be up and out of the house by about 6AM, go up to Chestnut Hill, have some coffee, walk around a bit, and then do something definite-meet some friends for coffee and/or breakfast, go shopping, go to a museum, walk around a specific place, go on a little trip, etc. And last Sunday was a day that I had known what my morning plan was, and I awoke fully ready to embark upon it.

     I got my coffee in Chestnut Hill, met with some friends, went back for another cup of coffee, and then went to catch a train. Most Sundays I like to go to Quaker Meeting for Worship, and I normally go to the 10:30 Germantown Meeting at Coulter and Greene Sts. This was the first Sunday of the month, however, and there is a wonderful First Sunday brunch and blues jam at Jamey’s House of Music in Lansdowne that I love attending. So on those Sundays I train it to 30th Street Station and catch the Elwyn local, departing at Lansdowne station and walking up to Lansdowne Friends Meeting. It is a ¼ mile from Jamey’s and starts at 10. I have been doing this for some 7 months now, so I know the schedule of the trains and how long it takes me to walk from the station to the meetinghouse. I’ve  got it down; it is now part of my routine.

   Except that for the past two weeks, SEPTA, on weekends and during off peak hours, has been doing track repair on part of the Southwest section of tracks, and they were running shuttle buses from 30th St to the 49th Street station and sending the Elwyn local trains on from there. Not only that, but the schedules were now different, and I would not get to Lansdowne before the start of Meeting. POOF! Routine vanished!  (And there may have been some quiet chuckling going on overhead.)

  As I made my way to the shuttle bus I was miffed and trying to calm myself down. I was upset, and I definitely did not like my routine being tossed away. But as the shuttle bus finally left 30th St and took its slow, winding route through parts of West Philly, something strange began to happen. We went past the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and I remembered that I used to work there for 2 ½ years in the mid-1980’s. Suddenly I was remembering people with whom I used to work, including 2 of whom I am still in touch with to this day. And the bus went by that little campus walkway off 38th Street that led to the Biopond on Penn’s campus where Penny and I would sometimes go bird watching. It also went past Woodland Cemetery, a wonderfully large and immaculately landscaped space where we would hike and regularly see red-headed woodpeckers, ruby crowned kinglets, and cuckoos as well as some incredible tombstones, monuments, and crypts. I used to live in several spots in West Philly, as did Penny and my son, Evan, and the bus passed near those places as well. I used to play with a lot of West Philly musicians who lived near Chester and Baltimore Avenues, and we used to play picnics and gigs in Clark Park, which the bus also traveled past. Somehow I was recalling a whole slew of people, events, scenes and places I had not thought about in literally decades! By the time we got to the 49th Street Station I had re-connected, at least mentally, to a lot of great times and experiences in my earlier life. And I was-surprise!-happy about it.

   But the morning was not over, and there was more to come. I realized that Meeting would be more than half over by the time I got there, and I do not like to come that late to Meeting for Worship. It is silent worship, and I feel it would make too much of an interruption should I come in more than 10 or 15 minutes late. The Elwyn local continues on to Swarthmore, though, and I suddenly remembered how much I loved that little community. So I thought I would go and re-acquaint myself with some parts of that town.

    There is this wonderful coffeeshop called Hobbs right across from the train station, and, I stopped in there. Blast from the past; I was able to get a bottle of Stewart’s Cream Soda there-Stewarts! With my bottle, I started walking around that side of Swarthmore, remembering times and people and events from years ago. I had played coffeehouses there in the mid-1980’s. I had taught in a summer Upward Bound program for high school students from Chester for three years that took place at the college. I had gone out with a woman from Swarthmore. I had used their simply beautiful library several times. I had always liked the “old English Village” feel of the part of town across from the train station and the college, with its winding streets and Victorian architecture. Sunday was a sunny, beautiful and breezy day; the clouds overhead were stunning and wispy-stretched out with long, shapely curves. So many people of all ages were out and walking about those winding streets. I saw and spoke to a number of families out walking with their kids, including one 2 or 3 year old who was a master tantrum-tosser. He reminded me that when toddlers were upset, their whole bodies are upset: it is a total body experience. I also saw a number of older couples, including one that looked to be in their 80’s holding hands and joking as they walked along. I chatted and exchanged greetings with a number of folks of all different ages and nationalities, and by the time I caught the train back to Lansdowne to go to Jamey’s, I was in a far different frame of mind then I had been some two hours earlier. Surprise had appeared, and it had taken me to places I could not have expected or anticipated, and that I thoroughly enjoyed.

  The jam at Jamey’s was wonderful, as it usually is. The various musicians there were both fun and having fun, including the regularly appearing Carol Moog Dave Rieter, Tony TNT Jones, Jamey Riley, and Toni Washington. The brunch was delicious. But the highlight of that day for me was the magic and power of surprise. Once again it had played an incredibly quiet and powerful role in my life. Had it not appeared as it did, and had I not been open to it, who knows what mood I would have been in when I hit Jamey’s? But surprise carried me through, even in spite of myself. And when that happens, I am in a much better place. Thanks, Surprise; once again you have saved me from myself.

A couple of websites: