Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein
Woman with a brilliant mind

Monday, July 26, 2010

That knowing raise of the eyebrow

Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know.

Gertrude Stein

I sometimes talk with Gertrude about things I wish I could do, like go to Europe or art school.

"Why don't you, then?" she says, "If you really wanted to, you would."

"Ouch," I think, but she's right. It's a philosophical truth that the way you act every moment reveals what you want. Sure, it's true, but it's hard to believe. The things you choose to do are really the only evidence of what you want.

It's like what we say about politicians, something like "believe what they do, not what they say." And in the Bible, Jesus says you know a tree by its fruits.

Gertrude's philosophical statement made me feel a little angry. It's so easy for her to say, just save your money and make a plan, and you can do it. Well, I say, I don't earn any money and so why make a plan?

If what you choose is evidence of what you want, then I must really be wanting comfort and safety above all else. Now, I know I need to accept that about myself. Apparently, my desire for an interesting trek is secondary to my desire for stasis and rest. If I continue to see it as though I'd "be okay" if only I did something great like that, then it's self-loathing. Maybe one of my desires in life is to be loathed by myself and not accepted for who I am. And that's sad. Maybe one of my desires is to feel sad, as I do choose it after all.

I expressed my frustration to Gertrude and she just listened patiently, knitting all the while. That woman has created some beautiful, rich sweaters, hats and stockings. I told her sometimes in my eyes she looks disrespectful, the way I will say something and she'll just have a private thought in reaction to it, and then an expression passes over her face, like, "I've seen that before..." I swear, sometimes I want to use my superior youthful energy to just put her down somehow.

But I need her. And I know she's benign. I know she has wisdom to offer. It's just, sometimes my troubles seem so big, and she's above them, and then she laughs. I swear I'm going to leave her someday when I don't need her.

I'd miss her pretty old apartment with all its plants and handiwork, its old fashioned atmosphere, its quiet serenity. I do love to visit with Gertrude, and I hope I can overcome this childish will of mine to make her as miserable as I feel.

She's just so happy to have a good meal and listen to good music or read a good book. But then, the struggles she's had to go through make me certain that my struggles are necessary to shape me too.

Gertrude got married when she was seventeen years old, because her family was poor and her little brothers and sisters needed so much. The times were awful, so the solution they found was to get her married to a thirty year old man. Can you imagine a family doing that today?

She made the best of it, but he made a life for them that she didn't like. She had to wait until she got a little older, but she left him and got herself a job, and she broke free. That freedom was hard-won, and she didn't come out of it in a healthy state, or she might have made a better decision in a second husband. But she doesn't like to talk too much about it. She says it's taken her years to get to this good place she's in now.

Which returns me to my original thought: The things we want the most are the prime infuences of our choices of behavior every day. I recently bought a new bicycle. I want to take a trip back home but I'm not sure what I want out of it. I wish I could more consciously choose, but then, maybe I like being mentally weak. Saves me from trouble.


She does not put any thought into any kind of coming global catastrophe, nor end times a la the return of the 12th Imam or the Son of Man. If we mess up the earth, we have to live with it. With regards to pollution, she says all of us do things that pollute the earth and assuming we are strong enough to kill of the earth -arguable- then if we are really serious we will act in better ways. We will xeriscape. We will bicycle instead of driving. If we truly believe it, and we value a cleaner world, we will simply consume less of our own free will, and be happier in the process.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Janey Cutler singing No Regret

This is a woman in her early eighties who went on a talent show to sing a song.

And she blew 'em all away!

What this teaches me is, no matter what your stereotypical role in life may be, it's not what you are, but the song you choose to sing. Both Gertrude and I are in need of this kind of learning in life. Though she's miles ahead of me in the way she lives her life, she can still use the reaffirmation that there is always a great choice of song to sing.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Lost and found

It is so friendly so simply friendly and though inevitable not a sadness and though occurring not a shock.

Gertrude Stein

Sensations get complicated

Gertrude lost a gold bracelet and she asked me to come and help her find it. My heart sank because looking for lost items is about third from the bottom of my favorite things to do, right above getting a root canal and cleaning up vomit.

I don't know why I hate it so when I have to try and find something that's been misplaced. I get a desperate feeling inside. I'll give a lost item the normal amount of attention but when someone bugs me about it, or when it gets obsessive, I'd rather lose the item.

But this gold bracelet of Gertrude's, being lost, really had her upset. She wasn't crying or anything, but she kept walking around her house randomly reaching out her hand and pushing aside her geranium pot, rearranging the canisters on her kitchen counter, then going to the front door and fishing around in a little basket where she throws match books, bobby pins and perfume sample bottles that are too good to throw away. She clearly had no idea where to look. I didn't either, but at least I could be systematic. Plus my eyesight is better than hers.

I didn't want to do it, but then it became almost like a mission. It didn't matter whether I had fun or not. I was going to either find the gold bracelet or eliminate all the places it wasn't.

She described the bracelet. It was made of links like a necklace, but bigger. Oh great, I thought. It was a little dinky bit of chain that could collapse upon itself and contort itself into any nook or cranny. Ugh!

Who knows where or when she first realized it was missing. I could do nothing but start at the front door of her house and work to the right. At first it was easy because her little nicknack basket sits on the edge of her old upright piano. I set aside the basket of no gold bracelet. We pulled the piano out from the wall, where inches of dust billowed out from beneath it.

"I'll vacuum," I said, but Gertrude wouldn't let me because if the bracelet was on the floor there, I might vacuum it up. She helped me pull harder on the piano and she gathered up the herd of dust bunnies with her hands. That left only the sand and pebbles and dried old flower petals, which I had to ignore. I visually followed the ribs of the back of the piano, without the sense that a bracelet would end up there at all.

We hunted through the front of the piano, and no bracelet.

"You better dust," I said, and she must have had her mind lost in finding the bracelet because she just said, "Yes, I really must." We pushed the piano back up against the wall and checked in the dusty silk flower arrangement, no bracelet. Next was her couch, an old red velvet one with dark wood flourishes. I pressed hard to push the cushion down and we hunted through the cracks, pulling up breadcrumbs and coins and an old, old piece of crayon with the paper on it soaked in wax. I found an M&M and a cigarette butt, showing it to her with amazed consternation.

"Hmm?" I said, and she shrugged. "I had a friend once, for awhile, and he wasn't too careful with butts." The vacant look had already returned to her face, so I didn't get to ask her what was the nature of that friendship. We felt everywhere in and around that couch. I thought it might be snagged in the old shawl she kept draped over the red velvet arm, but my hope was dashed.

"He died from a house fire," Gertrude said. Another one of her non-sequiteurs? "He?" I asked her. "My guy friend, Hank." I said, "Ohhh." That time I was the distracted one. "He dropped a cigarette butt after he fell asleep on his vinyl couch. It went down in the crack of it and smouldered all afternoon, and then when it finally flared he stayed and tried to fight the fire but he died of smoke inhalation." She shook her head. "He died with his photo album in his arms."

You know, getting older I notice that my mind is slow. Once I could've kept three things going on at once, and kept track of each item. Now I just can't do that. My daughter is the sharp one now, and the contempt I hear in her voice at the times I let something slip, I remember oh so well using against my Mom. But now, not only do I not have much speed in my brain, I don't quite care about as many things as I once did. So it's not so bad, but the contempt stings a little bit. I tell myself it's my turn to be judged the stupid one. Karma is undeviating justice personnified. Getrude's friend Hank may not have been able to think clearly, and that's very sad that he went that way.

Karma is linear. Events and my responses to them all seem to work out the justice that is coming due. I hope I have chosen enough kind and decent responses in this world that my karma eases up when I'm old, when my non-linear, eternal spirit rises out of my body.

And, as bad as I feel that I seem so mentally sluggish now, I even still now feel sorry for Gertrude, because my mental fuzziness, in her, is a haze.

We moved across her front room to the TV stand, the arm chairs across from the sofa, the little side table with the stained glass lamp, the doily her mom had once had in her front room. We checked her big windowsill all festooned with cobwebs and dead flower petals, and even located her lost coin purse.

Finally I needed a break. It was time for tea.

We found the gold bracelet wrapped around the back of the base of her tea tin. she'd moved the tin out, somehow dropped the bracelet, then pushed the tin back. We made a bigger deal of finding it than the situation truly merited. But I remembered how much that bracelet meant to her. Just for no good reason it disappeared and she felt the loss of it more than she could think of what she'd done earlier.

I try very, very hard to have a positive view of the things Gertrude does and thinks, because right there, that's me in a few short years, and if I ridicule her it really means I can't tolerate myself. And how is that okay?

Guest Gertrude of the Day: Jamie Lee Curtis

She has played the cute kid in the neiborhood, the smokin' hot babe, the con artist, the great mom and is an author. I love her. I love her because she showed us something about the common images we see in magazines being faked, thus making credible people think of their own bodies as inadequate. She combated that. She is a mature lady now but the expression in her eyes, and in her smile, are still wonderful. And she married one of the band Spinal Tap, so she really did good in the marriage department too.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Gertrude is Funny

When they are alone they want to be with others, and when they are with others they want to be alone. After all, human beings are like that.
Gertrude Stein

I hung out at my friend Gertrude's house one evening. She lives in a little tiny bungalow in a decent but old neighborhood. I had just been to the cheese importer's place and brought back some really nice brie, Stilton and goats' milk stuff with some good crackers. She knew what kind of wine would go with them, so she brought it out and also some fruit. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the wine, but when you had the taste of the cheese in your mouth and then you sipped the wine, they blended. To me, that is like magic. You can't tell me it's wrong to have wine with the perfect food accompaniment. I wouldn't give that up. We sat at the table together, sharing a feeling of contentment and friendship.

And then after we did that, I watched her make tea. Here's what she did that was funny: She had on a maroon, cotton cardigan sweater that had seen better years a long time ago. From the pockets of it she pulled out a spoon and a couple of packets of tea. When the water was hot she pulled the cuffs of the sleeves down over her hands to use instead of hot pads. And when she spilled a little hot water on her wooden cutting board she used a corner of the sweater to wipe it up with instead of a towel. Then when she got a sniffle she used her sleeve instead of a kleenex.

I hoped that sweater had been washed recently. I didn't say anything about it, though. Judging by its condition I was sure she threw it in the laundry quite frequently. Plus, where I come from we didn't put too much stock in always being proper and tidy, so if I had misgivings about where those sweater cuffs might have been, I was able to ignore them. And I was glad to keep her company there in her kitchen. Sometimes I've been afraid she gets lonely. But then, a famous author said this once: Loneliness is the poverty of self. Solitude is the richness of self. I had to trust that what my friend Gertrude has is the latter.

Toward the end of the visit, Gertrude had that look about her, as if expectant that I was going to leave soon. I took the hint and drove home. It's nice to visit, and nice to have the visit end at the right time too. I admire how Gertrude has a sense of boundaries and is nice about how she communicates them. That is just another way I want to be like her.

Guest Gertrude of the Day: Laura Bush. She listens to Bob Marley music and appears on Oprah Winfrey. What I like about this is, she stands for what she stands for, but then doesn't expect everyone to agree with her position or be just like her. That's poise.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Floating at one's level

Disillusionment in living is finding that no one can really ever be agreeing with you completely in anything.
Gertrude Stein

I hadn't visited Gertrude in awhile. There were some ostensible reasons such as things to do, etc. But the real reason was this: When I visited her before, the things I'd said seem to have put her to sleep. And though if I asked her about it she'd probably apologize, the truth was it was my own fault somehow but I couldn't put a finger on it.

There's a haze of blended air in my life that I have to walk through sometimes, where vision is clouded not by a cloud but from an area that is out of focus. It hovers at mostly eye level but can go over my head or as low as my legs. One thing in that cloud of blur is the question of why I isolate myself more and more, just on the tiniest of influences such as someone not responding to things I say as I hoped they would respond. I feel the dead air and I stay away from it.

I mean, what am I supposed to do, change my way of thinking, figuring out what to say based on what I think will get a response? I choose instead to be by myself with my thoughts more often than not.

The problem with that is, I don't want to lose Gertrude. I value her to the utmost. She is peaceful and kind, but she remembers so many of her struggles and dramas and she doesn't mind talking about them. True, her house is old and tattered, but her worn out things are still comfortable to sit on. And if you made a hand gesture that hit a cup of tea and made it splash onto the arm of her divan, she wouldn't care.

Beyond all the words we share, the connection we have is what really means something. Maybe I ought to remember that for other people I know. The invisible thread may be a strong rope or just a little piece of string or even a spiderweb--it really matters. If I must isolate myself at least let me maintain the regard I have for others in some way.

Gertrude of the Day:

Sharon Osbourne (photo from Woman's Day Entertainment, 10/8/07

We've seen her up and down, supporting her husband, carrying her husband, coping with ordeals, slapping down people who needed it, being slapped down, and still coming up strong. We've seen her fat, we've seen her thin. Her hair's been this way and that way, but she's not about her hair--she's about having a set of huevos anyone would envy.

My Gertrude is not unlike our Gertrude of the Day, even though there's a lot of outward difference. Both of them fought with their best skills and took hits on their worst achilles heels. I look up to them both.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Striding Atop Uncertainty

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.
Gertrude Stein

I tried and tried to join Christian churches and to belong in the groups. I also tried atheism but during that month or so I felt miserable and had to keep talking myself into it,and then one day admitted I'm not an atheist and felt better.

I had a long talk with Gertrude over some nice little glasses of sherry and some good cheese and bread, and I was feeling all warm and safe there in her drawing room with the dust motes dancing around in the air. That woman does not have a 5:00 rule at all!

I told Gertrude I feel like the ugly duckling sometimes, and I'm ugly inside if you think of everyone else as having found a group identity they can live with. Gertrude said, "Well, the ugly duckling wasn't a duck at all." She looked at me with those liquid eyes of hers and it dawned on me what she was pointing out. Then I ruined it by wondering if I'd applied a self-flattering analogy to myself. I shook my head, and put it down on my list of things to ponder, if I'm really vain but don't want to admit it.

She said, "Well, maybe what you are is Post-Christian. You believe in Christ, or so you've said, and yet you don't give Christianity the ownership of that particular concept. You told me you believed that Christ was an archetypal structure where someone so pure has such an evolved ego, he let others play out their sickness to the point where he let himself be publicly destroyed, and thus showed there's more meaning to life than what human beings understand."

I felt humbled that someone had actually listened to things I'd said, and thought about them. I felt awful that I often didn't listen to things she said quite as well.

"Yes," I said. "If Jesus Christ was the answer, then it seems like the world would be a better place by now. God knows there are many good Christians and all they get out of it is peace of mind. Is that the best we could hope for? And Jesus only taught for 3 years. He said to be humble and to not think so much of yourself, so you'd give to the poor and you'd forgive your brother even though that can be sooo hard to do. I think just doing those things would make you a spiritual success. Then the epistles were written and I think that's when it turned into a religion. I just can't join a religion."

"That's too bad," she said. "You seem to need something.

I've taken to believing that life is just a mess. It's a series of situations you have to face. It's a challenge to your ability to stand up and love others and let yourself get beaten into shape and tempered. Nobody's got the answer and yet we spend whole lifetimes trying to get someone to give us one. I guess I am post-Christian. I think the apocalypse is every year, and judgment day is every day. And heaven is a nanosecond away at all times. And hell is people.

But that's just not very useful. I want, like, a pill to take that will last me for hours, to give me the sensation that I don't need to worry. I mean, when was anybody ever in control of anything? Sometimes I just haven't worried and nothing bad happened...

I looked up, and Gertrude was sitting in her velveteen armchair with her head tilted back and her eyes closed. I'd put her to sleep!

Guest Gertrude of the Day

All the women who ever married Tom Cruise: Mimi Rogers, Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes.

These women grabbed that big brass ring, got themselves the best lookin' husband in the world (or used to be) and found themselves in a hell of a mess. I do not know Tom Cruise but I think being a scientologist means he's got some weird, weird, weirdness. What a pickle! Well, Katie hasn't gotten away yet but I think he picked her because she's a genetic match-up extraordinaire and he can try to manage her inner life as long as she'll let him. In order to know how crooked a stick is, lay a straight one beside it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The heart of friendship

There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer.
--Gertrude Stein

...And you know you'd love to find happy ending to your unhappiness and suffering, but how will you handle it if there never is one?

Gertrude had gotten to where life felt empty and sterile. She didn't want to blame anyone for that, realizing that what she was all her life up into her forties couldn't be helped, because she didn't know any better...and that her younger days were indeed emptier because she'd never been cared for particulary well, so she didn't know the depths of caring about other people.

So later on when the social situation altered, the party times were over and personality was desperately needed, she found it hard to adjust and start to open up to the fact that she was just like everybody else. So she spent quite a few years alone and fallen away.

All of that changed when she began to examine her attitudes and what about her life had left her so lonely and empty. And she realized, at turns, that first of all she hadn't liked herself very much at the outset. She'd somehow gotten the idea that there was a way one ought to be, and she wasn't it. And second of all, she'd become a bit of a narcissist, trying to fill out her lack of self with talk about herself. That left little room for friends to come in. She started caring about others and being interested in them when she stopped judging, comparing and grading. After that, friends came to her and she had a much better life.

I love Gertrude because she's colorful both in style and in the way she responds to the dumb things I say. She doesn't care that I don't like a lot of the same things other people do--she doesn't expect anything like that.

Plus, she learned something important about the suffering caused by her life:

There are two kinds of pain. One is suffering, which is bearing your burdens and learning your lessons. You realize there are problems and you aren't necessarily comfortable but you have a working attitude about things.

The other kind of pain is unproductive, self-pitying and a waste of time, and that is when you have a problem and you just lay down under it. Now, you wouldn't know it to look at her but Gertrude did plenty of this latter kind of suffering. Then one day she learned the truth--that one way or another you're going to suffer.

She even had episodes of depression and they were serious. After each episode got over, when the antidepressant was no longer prescribed and after therapy, she felt fine but then, by golly it would happen again, until she no longer wanted to tolerate life if it meant feeling that way. Like, older depressions laid the groundwork for newer ones--that is until she got a new attitude about the burdens she had to carry in life. Then she gave permission for her troubles to teach her great lessons that beat down that ego of hers.

I had a hard time understanding what Gertrude was talking about when I was in my thirties but later I really, truly came to see that she wasn't kidding about all that stuff that happens between your ears as you grow older.

Now Gertrude seems happy enough to live the rest of her life. Which is funny because I know some of her problems and they're not nice ones!

Guest Gertrude of the Day: Kathy Najimy
Born in 1957 and still looking great, she's a comedica actress and voiceover artist. I like her because she's a character actress, which puts her closer to having some character. I guess a lot of my guest Gertrudes are character actresses because they're all different, where there's something alike about lead actresses, in the way they all want their hair, eyes and teeth and figures to look the same.