Building Community by Featuring Followers IV

Time for a Stat-ervention? Checking you blog stats can become addicting. I challenge you to walk away for the month of Oct and see if you can refocus on the joy of blogging.

The statisticians here at “A Way With Words” have advised me some time to put out only one post a day, saying –

Your optimum visits-per-post ratio can best be achieved with a single, targeted daily post. 

I say,

Get a social life.

Tonight I’m in the mood to “share the love” and feature more of my followers, hoping to further build community and simply sow seeds of gratitude for having faithful readers.

To read more, visit my new blog address by clicking on the title below —

“Building Community by Featuring Followers IV”

Building Community by Featuring Followers III

 It’s Sunday afternoon.  Morning worship is over.  The Colts have the game well in hand. Over two hours before evening worship.  It’s time to fire up the virtual grill and welcome a few more followers over, carrying casserole dishes of flash fiction, bags of poetry, and coolers of life reflections.  A good time will be had by all.  To join in the fun, simply visit any of the sites or featured posts and tell them Tony, who has “A Way With Words” sent you.

To read more, visit my new blog address by clicking on the title below —

“Building Community by Featuring Followers III”

Bon Apetit!

the planet blue potluck!

Finding Human Touch for Mental Illness

I first read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in college, a couple of decades after it was written. I was far removed from the reality of psychiatric hospitals and read it more as a parable about social control than an accurate description of the horrors of mental institutions.,,,

To read more, click on the title below —

“Human Touch and Mental Illness: A Perspective on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

(image above from Anna Memnon in Bookworminess)

Escape from God: Sylvia Plath’s Journey Through Suicide

On the flight to New York this morning, I was able to read some more from Sylvia Plath’s journals, continuing through her junior year at Smith to her “nervous breakdown.”  I was struck by the transition as the light in this luminescent young woman gradually burns out.  Plath is aware of her changing perspective and sees it as a reflection on the nature of truth.

For a time I was lulled in the arms of a blind optimism with breasts full of champagne and nipples made of caviar.  I thought she was true, and that the true was the beautiful.  But the true is the ugly mixed up everywhere, like a peck of dirt scattered through your life.

Plath, like so many Modernists, doesn’t believe there is a God beyond this world.  Ironically, she continues to call on this God in whom she doesn’t believe, crying out for clarity, vision, and beauty.

God, let me think clearly and brightly; let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences…

She prays in vain, however.  So, she tries to will herself to believe.

Believe in some beneficent force beyond your own limited self.  God, god, god: where are you?  I want you, need you: the belief in you and love and mankind.  You must not seek escape like this.  You must think.

It is unclear to me whether Plath directs these last two sentences at God or herself.  Herself, I think.  She is the one desperately seeking escape – a “return to the womb” (as she expressed it earlier).  She is the one frantically trying to think, to come up with a reason to live.

There is a huge gap in Plath’s journals after these words.  The editor’s note indicates she attempted suicide.  After treatment, she returned to graduate from Smith.  She didn’t keep a journal her senior year.  Her next entries pick up during her post-graduate work.

These later entries reveal a more disjointed, jaded, perhaps resigned perspective.  God makes an appearance – only to note His absence.

God is on vacation with the pure transcendent sun and the searing heat that turns the flawed white body of our love to glass.

Plath went on to produce some masterpieces of poetry and literature (including The Bell Jar), and it is worth noting that she excelled academically even after being aggressively treated with electro-shock.  In her journals, however, she seems to lose (at least temporarily) the ability to engage in deep self-reflection spiritually, psychologically, and intellectually.  She also seems to lose even the glimmer of hope she once had for something (or Someone) eternal.

“SYLVIA PLATH” from T. Shahrizan T. Mustapha in Caricatures

Luxuriating in the Feel of Words: The Writing Life of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s journals detail, among other things, her love affair with words.  She expresses great passion in her writing, yet also a grave sense that it does not yet measure up, that it is too self-absorbed.

What I have written here so far is rather poor, rather unsatisfactory.  It is the product of an unimaginative girl, preoccupied with herself, and continually splashing about in the shallow waters of her own narrow psyche.

Plath, from an early age has a keen sense of what makes for great literature, yet like Van Gogh copying the masters in his early work, she sees herself lacking originality.

Do I create? No, I reproduce.  I have no imagination. I am submerged in circling ego.  I listen, God knows why.  I say I am interested in people. Am I rationalizing?

At 19, she has much to learn, and she is aware of this.

Technically, I suppose the visual appearance and sound of words, taken alive, may be much like the mechanics of music… or the color and texture of a painting.  However, uneducated as I am in this field, I can only guess and experiment.

At times, the young Plath’s lack of wisdom causes her great frustration.  She desperately wants more time – an eternity – to learn all there is to know (in all realms of knowledge) so she can produce good writing.  Occasionally, though, she hits on poetic expressions that bring her great joy.  After writing a poem she entitled “Sonnet: To Spring”, she writes –

Luxuriating in the feel and music of the words.  I chose and rechose, singling out the color, the assonance, the dissonance and musical effects I wished – lulling myself by supple “I”s and blend long “a”s and “o”s.  God, I am happy – it’s the first thing I’ve written for a year that has tasted wholly good to my eyes, ears, and intellect.

Sylvia Plath would go on to write many poems, as well as the novel “The Bell Jar”, that would taste “wholly good” to the eyes, ears, and intellects of many people – in her own generation and for generations to come.  Yet, she would not find ultimate satisfaction in this.  Rather, she slipped into such despair that she opted to end her own life at the age of 30.

In many ways, this was an abrupt, tragic end to what was shaping up to be a brilliant literary career.  In other ways, it was the culmination of a struggle that lasted over a decade.   On November 3, 1951, Plath wrote in her journal –

God, if ever I have come close to waiting to commit suicide, it is now, with the groggy sleepless blood dragging through my veins, and the air thick and gray with rain and the damn little men across the street pounding in the roof with picks and axes and chisels, and the acrid hellish stench of tar.

Yet, it was not the unpleasantness around her that caused her the most trouble, but the unsettledness within.

I am afraid.  I am not solid, but hollow.  I feel behind my eyes a numb, paralyzed cavern, a pit of hell, a mimicking nothingness.  I never thought, I never wrote, I never suffered.  I want to kill myself, to escape from responsibility, to crawl back abjectly into the womb.

The Grimness of Atheism: Theological Perspectives from a Young Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath doesn’t reflect much on God in her early journals, but when she goes to provide child care for a Christian Science family, we see a developing theology which, though unorthodox, she articulates well.  She finds some common ground with Christian Science, in the value placed on the importance of thought (Mind).  But she differs in her perspective on the basis of this Mind.

Now that I ponder over it, I do see a sudden neat edifice of logic, and I do agree with some of their generalizations in spite of the fact that I am philosophically at the other end of the pole, – a “matter worshipper”.

Yet, Plath is more complex than a simple “Material Girl”.

I believe that there is a realm (abstractly, hypothetically, of course) of absolute fact.  Something IS.  And that, in our poor human lingo, would be the “truth”.

No sooner does she assert some eternal verity (however hypothetical) than she retreats to relativism.

We all live in [our] own dream-world and make and re-make our own personal realities with tender and loving care.  And my dream world – how much more valid, how much nearer to the truth is it than that of these people?  Valid for me – perhaps – even though it is not metaphysical.

As much as she wants to will herself to validate her hosts’ “mind over matter” perspective, she can’t help but find it humorous.

I turn to hide irreverent laughter when Susan, constipated, gets a lesson instead of a laxative.

Later in the journals, Plath reflects in a letter on the accidental death of a friend (Sandy Lynn) and rejects the conventional theology of diving sovereignty.

… if it was god’s will it is a very stupid arbitrary blood thirsty god, and I do not like him or believe in him or respect him because he is more foolish and mean than we are and has no sense of proportion of what people are good for living and what people are unfit.

Free of the moral restraint gained through a theology of God’s sovereignty, Plath is able to construct her own morality.

The ways to hell on earth are easy, and one can always cross out hell and scribble in heaven.  So much sweeter that way.

Yet, this freedom provides her little satisfaction.  She continues to call on “God” (in words that sound more like a prayer than taking God’s name in vain).

You, God, whom I invoke without belief, only I can choose, and only I am responsible.  (Oh, the grimness of atheism!)

Quotes from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. 

For more reflections from Plath’s Journals, see –

Beauty Out of Sorrow

Being a Writer or Becoming a Wife

Ricocheting Madly In-Between

Luxuriating in the Feel of Words

(photo of Sylvia Plath from Carrie Paris in Clear Inquiry)

Ricocheting Madly In-Between: The Emotional Perspective of a Young Sylvia Plath

At 19, Sylvia Plath was a top scholarship student at a prestigious college, a published (for pay) author, as well a vibrant blond beauty with many suitors.  Yet, all was not well within her.  She writes in her journal –

I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad.

Rather than talk to someone about it (a friend advised her to see a psychiatrist), she tries some encouraging self-talk, and she is able to “pick herself up by her own bootstraps” (or saddle shoes, as the case may be) –

I have started on the rise upward after bouncing around a little on rock bottom.  I know I am capable of getting good marks: I know I am capable of attracting males.  All I need to do is keep my judgment, sense of balance and philosophic sense of humor, and I’ll be fine, no matter what happens.

Yet, her very next journal entry reveals the benefits of this self-therapy are short-lived.  She hits another rock bottom.

Now I know what loneliness is, I think.  Momentary loneliness, anyway.  It comes from a vague core of the self — like a disease of the blood, dispersed throughout the body so that one cannot locate the matrix, the spot of contagion.

Plath, however, does not let this “disease of the blood” incapacitate her.   She continues to write, to go to classes, to go out on dates.  But inside, she is dying on the vine.

God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of parties with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear.

Plath talks very little about her family in her journals.  One entry, however, does reveal her mother’s concern for her emotional health – a concern not well received by Sylvia.

My enemies are those who care about me most.  First, my mother.  Her pitiful wish that I “be happy.”  Happy!  That is indefinable as far as states of being.

While Sylvia perceives happiness as unattainable, she does believe behavioral choices contribute to emotional states.

I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad.  Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.

At 19, however, Plath saw life as very much worth living.

For all my despair, for all my ideal, for all that — I love life.  But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.

Quotes from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. 

For more reflections on Plath’s journals, see –

Beauty Out of Sorrow

Being a Writer or Becoming a Wife

The Grimness of Atheism

Luxuriating in the Feel of Words

(photo of Sylvia Plath from Erna Peters in Writers)

Being a Writer or Becoming a Wife: Reflections from a Young Sylvia Plath

At age 19, Sylvia Plath had gone from being an awkward, painfully shy girl to a sexually confident young woman.  As she prepares for one of her many dates, she reflects on her image and identity.

In the mirror, undressing, I look at the rather impish and mobile face that grins back at me, thinking: oh, growing to be a woman, to learn the art of subtle power!  As long as men have ideals, as long as they are vulnerable, there is the power to create a dream for them.

Plath did not rest easy in such power.  She saw the complexities of the relationship between men and women and feared what power she might lose were she to pursue marriage (the only perceived “safe” arrangement for coupling at the time).  Nonetheless, she found herself driven to men by a strong sexual urge she calls “refined hedonism”.

Victimized by sex is the human race.  Animals, the fortunate lower beasts, go into heat.  Then, they are through with the thing, while we poor lustful humans, caged by mores, chained by circumstance, writhe and agonize with the appalling and demanding fire licking always at our loins.

This creates a dilemma for Plath.  As she considers her relationship with “Dick”, a pre-med student, she ponders difficult questions.  Would she pursue her writing or become a wife?  Could she do both?

The fact remains that writing is a way of life to me… Would I be forced to give it up, cut it off?  Undoubtedly, as the wife of such a medical man as he would like to be, I would have to.  I do not believe, as he and his friends would seem to, that artistic creativity can best be indulged in masterful singleness rather than in marital cooperation.  I think that a workable union should heighten the potentialities in both individuals.

This “marital cooperation” was not to be found with Dick, who interprets Plath’s assertiveness as a desire to dominate.  She finds others and maintains hope in some “workable union” as she enjoys various romantic relationships.  The idea of being both a wife and a writer remains an ideal.

… would marriage sap my creative energy and annihilate my desire for written and pictorial expression which increases with this depth of unsatisfied emotion… or would I achieve a fuller expression in art as well as in the creation of children?  Am I strong enough to do both well?

Yet, in quieter moments, as she reflects on her passion for poetry and poetic prose, she wonders if she would ever be willing to make sacrifices necessary for marriage.

And when I read, God, when I read the taut, spare, lucid prose of Louis Untermeyer, and the distilled intensities of poet after poet, I feel stifled, weak, pallid; mealy mouthed and utterly absurd.  Some pale, hueless flicker of sensitivity is in me.  God, must I lose it in cooking scrambled eggs for a man.

Quotes from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. 

For more reflections, see –

Beauty Out of Sorrow

Ricocheting Madly In-Between

The Grimness of Atheism

Luxuriating in the Feel of Words

(photo of Sylvia Plath from Caitlin in To Read)

Beauty Out of Sorrow: Reflections of a Young Sylvia Plath

I’ve been reading through The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath and thoroughly enjoying it.  I am enjoying it so much, I keep going back to re-read portions of it that really speak to me and may never finish it.  Oh well.

The journals begin the summer of Plath’s 18th year, as she is working on the family farm and awaiting entrance to Smith College in the fall.  She writes the first entry after a day in the strawberry fields.  It is a wonderful celebration of life from the perspective of youth (yet with wisdom beyond her years).

I may never be happy, but tonight I am content… When one is tired at the end of the day one must sleep, and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth.  At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more…

Yet, the simplicity of life on the farm (and particularly the demands of domestic chores) fail to capture Plath’s vibrant imagination.  She is torn between the tediousness of daily living and the roller-coaster ride of her moods (and cries out to a God in whom she doesn’t believe).

God, if this is all it is, the ricocheting down the corridor of laughter and tears?  Of self-worship and self-loathing?  Of glory and disgust?

She finds bittersweet joy in the exuberance of youth.  After a group of children place flowers in her hair, she later reflects –

And all my hurts were smoothed away.  Something about the frank, guileless  blue eyes, the beautiful young bodies, the brief scent of the dying flowers smote me like the clean quick cut of a knife.  And the blood of love welled up in my heart with a slow pain.

Plath’s musings reveal much deeper thought and feeling than typical teenage angst (though it may be she is simply better at expressing it).  Yet, she wonders if just this depth of thought and emotion (as well as a curse of estrogen) robs her of happiness.

If I didn’t think, I’d be much happier.  If I didn’t have any sex organs, I wouldn’t waver on the brink of nervous emotions and tears all the time.

It is through artistic expression, particularly writing, that Plath finds relief.  It does not guarantee her happiness (though sometimes it thrills her), but it gives her meaning.

I am justifying my life, my keen emotion, my feeling, by turning it into print.

There is a redemptive quality in her writing.  In it, her pain finds purpose.

Perhaps some day I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.

Quotes from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. 

For more reflections from Plath’s journals, see –

Being a Writer or Becoming a Wife

Ricocheting Madly In-Between

The Grimness of Atheism

Luxuriating in the Feel of Words

(photo of Sylvia Plath from Yves Deligne in Portraits B)

Pursuing God in Art: In the Words of Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh  Autoritratto 1887

I’ve been reading Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh and finding there much spiritual treasure.

Van Gogh originally set out to follow in his father’s footsteps as a pastor, but for reasons that are only somewhat revealed, it doesn’t work out.  During this period of preparation for ministry, Van Gogh describes a foreboding sense –

These are really happy days I spend here, but still it is a happiness and quiet which I do not quite trust.  Man is not easily content: now he finds things too easy and then again he is not contented enough.

Though not terribly dissatisfied, Van Gogh senses something is missing, something is not quite right.  He wonders if this “dis-ease” could have a spiritual basis.

There may be a time in life when one is tired of everything and feels as if all one does is wrong, and there may be some truth in it — do you think this is a feeling one must try to forget and to banish, or is it ‘the longing for God,’ which one must not fear, but cherish to see if it may bring us some good?  Is it ‘the longing for God’ which leads us to make a choice which we never regret?

One thing I’ve noted early in this collection of letters to his brother Theo is that when Van Gogh describes something about pastoral ministry, his words are distant and generic.  When he describes the visual world or artistic representations of them, however, he comes alive.

As we have in our Brabant the underbrush of oak, and in Holland the willows, so you can see here the blackthorn hedges around the gardens, fields, and meadows.  With the snow the effect just now is of black characters on white paper, like the pages of the Gospel.

After a disruptive experience in his academic pursuit of a pastoral vocation, Van Gogh moves to Brussels where, thanks to a small stipend from his father and monies from Theo, he is able to eek out a living while devoting himself to his art.  He first concentrates on studying and copying the masters where he tries to “understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious matters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God.”

Ultimately, he picks up his pencil and finds great relief.

Though every day difficulties come up and new ones will present themselves, I cannot tell you how happy I am to have to taken up drawing again.  I have been thinking of it for a long time, but I always considered the thing impossible and beyond my reach.  But now, though I feel my weakness and my painful dependency in many things, I have recovered my mental balance, and day by day my energy increases.

I look forward to reading how Van Gogh’s describes his pursuit of God in his art, (and discovering how this pursuit was perverted as his mental illness progresses.

I’m also interested in hearing from you.  What do you see in Van Gogh’s art and what does it “tell you” that leads to God?

(image above “Vincent Van Gogh Autoritratto 1887” from Alessandro Tanner in Vincent Van Gogh)