Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Lovely Afternoon Plea for Help

So the past several days, as I've driven round the lovely countryside of north-central Indiana, I've noticed some beautiful purple flowers either off to the side of the road or on the edges of cultivated fields. While a lot of wildflowers seem to be a little bit drab until you get up close and realize just how amazing they are, these ones are brilliant and vibrant even from a distance. The problem is, I have no idea what they are.

So today as I was driving home from the institute after a lovely morning at the temple, I decided that I needed to know what they were. The problem is, like I said, most of the time I see these flowers off the side of the highway, and a lot of times the highways 'round these parts don't have convenient shoulders. Also, after driving down to Carmel and back I wasn't all that keen on going for a long drive out into the country. So I decided that my best bet was to go to my favorite cemetery, park back in the corner, and explore my way through the wild until I found what I was looking for.

So I did.

First a word about my favorite cemetery:

St Mary's Cemetery
It's my favorite not so much because it's particularly outstanding in any particular way, but rather because it just seems like it's just what a cemetery should be in all the normal, lovely ways. Namely:

  • It has lots of really big trees
  • It's away from the crowds and the bustle, so it's always quiet and peaceful
  • It's close enough to my apartment that I can ride my bike to it
  • It has a lot of winding roads/paths that are fun to ride my bike around on
  • It has a nice mix of old and newer stones
  • It's big enough that I don't get bored
  • It's close-but-not-too-close to a set of train tracks. And I love the sound of trains
So, like I said, I drove back to the corner of the cemetery, parked my car, and wandered back into the trees.

As I stepped into the knee-high grass that marked the edge of the wild, the thought occurred to me that I was putting myself in a prime position to be snakemurdered. I took this as a sign that I was going about things the right way. (Jordan understands.) Almost immediately I found myself on what appeared to be a game trail that turned into something of a tunnel under and among rows of honeysuckle bushes:

While that picture may not be much to look at, let me tell you that it smelled like heaven will surely smell. I went weak at the knees just being there. (My sister Melanie reminded me that heaven will also likely smell of lilac bushes because of their associations with our Grandparents Anderson and Turner. I heartily agree with that sentiment.)

After a blissful trek through the honeysuckles the wood opened up into a clearing of sorts. I felt good about my chances of finding my quarry, because these purple flowers had always been seen (by me) in open spots of land. So I began walking along through the grass, keeping an eye out for any hints of color. As I came around a bend, I saw off in the distance next to the woods a spray of purple against the green of the grass and trees. Unable to contain myself, I set off high-step running through the grass. I paused just a few paces from the stand of flowers and took a picture of what the flowers usually look like from the road:

As I got closer, I was happy to find that they were just as if nor more lovely up close as they had been driving past at 50 mph. 

At this point you're probably asking yourself, "Hey, I thought Sam was asking for help. So far he's just off rhapsodizing about cemeteries and flowers again. What gives?" Well, let me tell you what it is that is givin.

Unfortunately, while I certainly found these flowers to be lovely, I just as certainly found that I had overestimated my powers of identification. I had hoped that upon close inspection I would immediately know what they were. But I didn't. I have to admit that I was kinda disappointed in myself, but by that same token I figured that if I didn't know, surely the internet would. She'd never let me down before, after all. But I realized that googling "purple wildflowers Indiana" was a pretty fruitless endeavor, since there are many, many flowers which answer to that classification.

So now I turn to you. If you are reading this, please imagine that I am sitting next to you with a pleading look in my eye hoping that maybe, just maybe, you'll be able to help me identify this enigmatic source of joy in my life. As you consider my plea, you feel a moment's compassion and want to help in any way you can.

Now, focus on that desire to help your good friend, Samuel James Dunn. And as you're feeling that, take a look at these other photos that provide a better look at the flowers in question from various angles:

A closer look at the blossoms

The whole plant, isolated from the bunch
Each blossom from edge to edge was probably about the size of a nickel.

My dear friends, what is this flower. While the knowledge I seek is probably not earth-shatteringly important, I crave it all same. Please help.

(And now I very anticipate being told what that it is the commonest of common flowers and I should feel like an idiot for not knowing it straight-away. But I don't care. I'm willing to be made a fool if it means I can know what this is.)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Finding Motivation in Blessed Unrest

Last weekend I went with some friends up to the Art Institute of Chicago, aka, my shelter from the storm.

(This photo was taken at Christmastime, not last weekend)
While in the gallery full of Monet's works (and a couple of Rodin's sculptures) I noticed a pattern on several of the placards discussing the paintings, and I've been thinking about it off and on ever since. I took pictures, so I can give you examples of what I'm talking about. First there was this placard describing Bordighera

Then this one describing Water Lilies

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here, but I want to focus on one sentence in each of these descriptions. In Water Lilies:

"It is beyond my power as an old man, and yet I want to manage to render what I feel. I have destroyed some....Some I've begun again...and I hope that out of so many efforts, something will emerge."

In Bordighera:

In a letter to the sculptor Auguste Rodin describing his efforts to translate into paint the brilliant Mediterranean light, Monet declared he was 'fencing, wrestling, with the sun.'"

Elsewhere, on a placard for the painting Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect (of which I unfortunately took no photo) it read:

"The Art Institute's two Waterloo Bridge paintings are dated 1900 and 1903, but both were likely begun in 1900 and dated only when Monet felt that they were finished."

I love that in each of these three small excerpts that I've quoted there is some sort of struggle narrated. Either's he's wrestling and fencing with the sun (a very fun image), or he's dissatisfied with his work so he's destroying it and starting again, or he's taking 3 years to finish two paintings.

These kinds of acknowledgements of struggle and revision have always appealed to me. It seems that we (and by "we" I mean "I") sometimes look at those whose work we revere, and we/I assume that doing that work came easily to them. They just have a way of having success in their work descend as the dews from heaven, while the rest of us poor schlubs toil away and have little to show for it. While I think there is something to the idea of natural genius (a subject I'm not going to get into right now), I also think that there is something significant to be said of nose-to-the-grindstone effort. With Gordon B. Hinckley, "I believe in the gospel of work." And it's comforting to me to see that even those who were likely blessed with a preternatural abilities have to struggle and work and destroy and start over. It's heartening and motivating to know that hard work may be an intrinsic part of what makes great things great. 

While the direct context of these musings was the world of art and artistic achievement, my thoughts were naturally drawn to my composition classes where my students at all levels are often satisfied with fair to middling. They don't jump into the writing enterprise as something to wrestle or fence, but rather a big hoop-jumping exercise on the way to something else. In fact, if they see themselves wrestling or fencing they see their opponent being me, their teacher, and not the struggle to write. There is often no intrinsic drive to create quality work, but rather to fulfill some vaguely understood "requirements."

I am definitely painting with much too broad of a brush here, as I have had many students over the past few years who are driven by an inward desire to produce quality work for the work's sake rather than just hoping to produce something that's "meh, good enough for government work." And I'm not saying I want all of my students to see their writing as art, and to become artists. I don't even believe they necessarily need to be making their imagined readers feel something. But even if they aren't viewing writing in that way, I wish they could view their writing as important enough to do the very best they can, and to not be satisfied with a second draft that was cleaned up a bit from the first go 'round. I want them to feel the drive that Monet expressed to work and struggle and revise in order to get it right.

Over the past couple of days these thoughts have moved past art and teaching writing to basically any and all enterprises we engage in throughout life. Which has lead me to having several conversations with various people about this subject, basically trying to tease out this question:

How how do we motivate that drive to desire better from the work we do in any and all contexts? 

In these conversations there have been several ideas come up:
  •  The motivation to work harder, to revise, to continue to work and improve something even when it's hard requires an expanded vision of what is possible.
  • That vision often comes when people feel like they are actually contributing something real to the world, that they are engaged in a project that makes some kind of difference.
  • Good leaders, teachers, friends, family, etc. can help to inspire and expand that vision.
  • Good leaders, teachers, etc. aren't enough. Ultimately at some point the individual has to decide  for her/himself to do it.
  • There is a fine line between motivating and despairing dissatisfaction. 
I think the need for that vision that kept coming up in these conversations is encapsulated nicely by Monet when he expressed this hope:

I hope that out of so many efforts, something will emerge.

That last bullet point, that there is a fine line between motivating and despairing dissatisfaction is an interesting one for me. y friend Robert shared a lovely quote with me from modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. It's a little long, but I don't include it just to pad my word count (a practice used to be my bread and butter when writing term papers, but one that I've long-since abandoned), I include it because it's fantastic and well worth your time:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not yours to determine how good it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

I love that. I especially love viewing that dissatisfaction as "blessed unrest." What a lovely turn of phrase. But how do we get to that point? How do we get to that point where unrest is motivating rather than discouraging? That's a question that I often struggle with. A lot of times with the various activities I engage in, when things get difficult and I'm dissatisfied it can be very easy to disengage rather than buckle down and work harder. There are many people in my life who seem to have wills made of iron that allow them to just get things done. In fact there are and have been flashes of that in my own life. But it happens all to infrequently for my liking.

All of this leads me to two questions:

1. How can we expand our vision in whatever work we are engaged in?

2. How do we push ourselves and others to see that there is more, that we can do more, and that we can expect more from ourselves and others?

3. How can those of us like myself shift away from seeing difficulty and struggle as discouraging to seeing it as motivating?

Okay so there ended up being three questions. So sue me.

I have some thoughts on how these questions can be answered, but I'm curious to hear what others think about it. I'd greatly appreciate any comments, questions, or advice anyone who reads this might have on the subject. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Regarding How My Mom Is the Best

I don't mean to belittle anyone else's mother by my title to this post, but here's the deal, my mom is the kindest most loving woman you've probably ever met. Those of you that have met her will readily agree. Those of you who haven't met her, I'm sorry. You're really missing out. I mean, really missing out. She's one of those people that can make others feel welcome and at ease and comfortable no matter what. I could tell a host of stories illustrating these attributes on large and small scales, but I just want to briefly recount a seemingly insignificant story that she may not even remember, but it's an experience that has stayed with me a long time. 

Before I get to the story I need to insert two brief bits of background: 

1. Ever since I was a little kid, books and movies have affected me very deeply. If characters do something that I don't like or that I don't necessarily agree with I react much more strongly than I probably should. Just today, in fact, I was discussing with my friends how I can't watch the movie Dan in Real Life because the awkwardness of the various situations that come up are just unbearable to me. I physically squirm every time the bowling scene happens. All of that unpleasantness could have been avoided if people had just talked to each other, for crying out loud. The same goes for It's A Wonderful Life. Every time I watch it I hope against hope that maybe, just maybe, Mr. Potter will find a heart and give the money back to Uncle Billy. But he never does. He never does! Maybe this is just a manifestation of my very strong aversion to conflict, but that's beside the point for now. The point is, when characters do things that I wouldn't do or that I feel like is the wrong thing to do, I can't help but to be bothered by it. And continue to be bothered by it long after the movie or book is over. (I could give many other examples, but this is enough for now.)

2. During my teenage years I had a midnight curfew whenever I was staying out with friends. Whenever I was out, my Mom stayed up until I got home, even if I was getting home a little later than my curfew. It wasn't that she wanted to check up on me and police me to make sure I got home alright, it was that she couldn't sleep until she knew I was home safe and sound.

With these two facts in mind, I want to tell you about the time I went to the midnight showing of War of the Worlds during the summer of 2005.

I need to mention that I didn't think the movie was all that great. In fact, I frankly didn't even really care to see it. But a couple of my friends wanted to go, and we were all about to take two years out of our lives to be Mormon missionaries, so I wanted to go with them. I think we may have even decided to go to the midnight showing not because anyone was really dying to see the movie, but because it was a plausible excuse to convince my parents to let me stay out after midnight and we wanted to hang out as much as possible.

The movie was good enough I guess, but during the movie there was one scene that really bugged me. In the scene Tom Cruise and his kids are driving through town in the only car that works, and it becomes clear to the crowds of people that they're driving through that this is the only car that works and it might be their ticket to be safe from the aliens. So the crowds start attacking the car and breaking the glass trying to get in (even though doing so means cutting their hands). Eventually Tom and the kids get out of the car and get away, but the crowd behind them keeps fighting over the car. Most of what happens after this happens off screen, but it is made very clear that individuals whom we have just met, loathsome as they may have been, are then murdered in cold blood. Again, we don't see anything, we just hear the gun shots and see the family's reactions. I didn't know why exactly, but like I said, this really bothered me.  

The movie proceeded to a satisfying enough conclusion, and me and my friends got up and headed for home. On the drive home I didn't let on to my friends that anything was bothering me, but bothered I was. Something about that scene kept nagging at me. As a result, the whole feel I got from the movie just didn't sit well with me, and I honestly wasn't sure why. I got home well after 2 am, and sure enough there was Mom sitting on the couch dozing lightly with a crossword puzzle in her lap. As I came in the door, Mom looked up and smiled and asked me how the movie was. At first I was inclined to just say that it was fine and to head off to bed, but like I said, I was bothered. Not meaning to really get into it at all, I said something along the lines of, "It was alright. It kinda bugged me, but whatever." Mom, perceptive as she is, recognized that something was eating at me, so she pushed for details. So I sat down on the stairs and started describing the movie. When I got to the scene I described above, I mentioned that that scene specifically bugged me but I didn't really know why.

I say I didn't know why, because the concept of humans killing other humans, while terrible, wasn't a foreign concept. I was nearly 19 years old after all. I watched TV. I'd seen Law and Order. One of my favorite movies was (and is) The Dirty Dozen. I had spent a good amount of my high school years playing Medal of Honor: Allied Assault with my friends. Death wasn't this new, awful thing. So it wasn't necessarily the killing that was the issue, but I didn't really know what the issue was. 

After hearing me out, Mom wondered aloud if what bothered me wasn't that people were killing and dying, but rather that what bothered me was the assumption the movie was making about humanity. The assumption being that normal everyday humans, when driven to extreme crisis, turn savage and are willing to do anything - even kill other humans whose only crime is representing some perceived threat to their survival - just to gain some semblance of advantage. As she mentioned this I recognized that yes, that was exactly the issue. I remember I stood up from the step I was sitting on and began to say that yes, I didn't buy that assumption. I didn't believe that about humanity I believed that in crisis people wouldn't turn savage, but instead would revert to the better angels of our nature and find some way to cooperate and work together. I was excited to be able to recognize what it was that had bothered me so much, and in identifying it I was able to calm down and not be so bothered.

I don't remember where the conversation went from there, but I doubt much more was said, and we both went to bed. In all, the conversation maybe lasted 5-10 minutes. Short as it was, there are a couple of things about the conversation that have always stood out to me:

1. This was the first time that I experienced first hand the catharsis that can come from literary criticism, simple as it was. Mom, by helping me dig into and better understand the argument the movie was making about the human condition, helped me to identify and resolve the emotional conflict that resulted from the film. This was a real turning point for me in being able to better deal emotionally with books and movies (and later theories and philosophies) that didn't sit well with me, and was part of the reason I decided to study English once I'd come home from my mission.

2. Mom was clearly very tired. I, fairly inconsiderately, had kept her up much later than she would have liked to be up. Even so, when I got home from the movie clearly bothered about something, rather than just saying goodnight and sending me off to bed, she took a minute to help me figure out what was bothering me. And it wasn't like it was a big deal either. I hadn't had some crisis of faith or identity that needed discussing. I wasn't an emotional wreck or anything of the sort. I was just bugged by some dumb movie. I probably would have gotten to sleep just fine (heaven knows sleeping is never a problem for me). But something was bugging me, little as it was, and she wanted to help me figure it out and get over it if she could, even if it meant her staying up a little bit longer.

Again, this isn't all that remarkable of a story, but to me it's representative of the kind of woman my mom is. She's kind and loving. She's easy to talk to. She's very perceptive of the needs of others, even relatively small needs, and she is willing to help serve and lift those in need any way she can. 

All told, she's probably the best mom this boy could possibly hope for, and I don't know how I got so lucky to have her be my mother.