Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein
Woman with a brilliant mind

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gertrude asks, what kind of story are you?

I walked all the way to Gertrude's house in the middle of the night. I saw her there in the open door, in her saggy bathrobe and old slippers. I'd meant to make her new slippers for Christmas but hadn't ever gotten around to it.

She squinted because she didn't have her glasses on, and then I saw her forehead furrow, her eyes grown round with concern. She didn't look like she was in the mood to have a wreck like me wash up on her doorstep, but she had to let me through out of human decency. But I needed her--that was all I could think of at the moment.

She let me hug her and then she bade me sit down. She sat by my on the big, worn velvet couch but then I was so beaten down I lay with my head on her lap. She patted my hair and it felt very cool and nice on my fevered head.

"Tell me what's in your heart," she said.

"It's just, I feel like a loser. It seems like I've been lazy in my life, and now I have nothing. While others persevered and won, I gave up and now I'm getting older, I'm washing out, and those just starting now will get far ahead, leaving me behind. I don't inspire anyone to take me along, and I feel like giving up completely."

"Well, dear. Maybe you're not the success story you thought you should be. Maybe you're a tragedy. But, tragedy is still a story worth telling. Shakespeare did well with tragedies."

"But I'm useless! If I were a movie I'd be one nobody remembers, I feel like a mildewed rag that fell in back of the washer. You didn't even want to let me in, did you? I'm a bother--yes or no?"

She paused to decide what words to use, then leaned over and looked at my face.

"You and I always speak completely honestly to one another, right?"

Now I paused. I was supposed to say yes, that's true, I'm always honest. But then, that would not be true. There are many ways I haven't been completely honest. The truth is, sometimes I've looked at her and felt sorry for her. She can be so dingey and messy, even kind of stale smelling sometimes. My silence probably told her everything.

I just don't think I can take that much honesty. Just now I'd prefer it if I could say anything and believe it. I'd say I'm okay, I'm great. I'd snap to my feet and make a plan for future success. I'd name something I'm supposed to want and I'd go for it, by golly. Because, everybody knows success means you are not a waste of oxygen. Be a winner! Tell a happy story and people will want to hear it.

"Okay, you asked for the truth," she said.

"I didn't like you knocking at my door. You woke me up from a very good dream I was having. I feel put out by it. But what can I do? I'm your friend."

I started sniffling and wiping my eyes on my sleeves.

"I'm sorry," I said, sitting up.

"Lay back down," she said, and pulled the afghan from the back of the sofa and reached to throw it over me. "Listen."

"I'm old now. I've had many nights of rest. I've slept in a hammock on a beach in Mexico with the sea breeze washing over me. I've slept in a cabin in the Alps under an eiderdown quilt. But I've also had many nights I couldn't sleep.

I've lived through the blitzkrieg, where my home and my neighbors' homes were getting destroyed by bombs. I've stayed awake through epidemics and a couple of earthquakes. In my marriage I had many nights I couldn't sleep because we were fighting. I've spent nights eaten up with worry over my own children. I am not worried about you. You're fine, you just get caught in your thoughts."

"Oh, great," I said. I'm just not that much in the scheme of things, and here I am so full of myself..."

"...Shhh...shhh..." she said. "Here, stretch out on the couch and think about where you are."

I fell into a heavy, uncomfortable sleep. When I woke up in the morning I felt all sweaty and my hair was dirty, my clothes baggy, stretched out and wrinkled. Gertrude's whistling teapot woke me up with its screaming. She turned the burner off and poured me a cup of that good jasmine tea she keeps in her tin.

The tea smelled like a little hint of heaven--flowers and summer winds, berries and sky.

"Thank you, Gertrude," I said.

Friday, December 31, 2010

How I made it through the Holidays

Gertrude has a very nice kitchen table but it isn't often seen because there's a reservoir of clutter covering it and leaving just enough space for people to put a plate on when they visit her table. I look at the stuff she's collected there: Pill bottles, opened rolls of throat lozenges, bowls of beads, a can of old pens and pencils, the puzzle page of a weeks-old newspaper, a Reader's Digest, a box of paper clips.

When I visited today the table had been cleared off and the stuff that was there, now swept into a cardboard box. Instead she'd spread out a jigsaw puzzle and was sitting there flipping the pieces over--little pieces, thousands of them.

All right, I said and I sat down and we worked on the puzzle. She'd done it at least two other times. She had quite a few puzzles in boxes on the top shelf of her coat closet, all with scratched up, tattered pictures on the sides. I marveled that she wasn't bored by doing the same ones over and over. But since I'd never seen it, this puzzle was actually interesting to me. The image in it looked like a natural still-life scene until you looked closer and everything was made of little items like thread spools, combs and graham crackers and yarns and stuff like that.

I said, This stuff that makes up the picture in the puzzle is a lot of the same stuff you had on your table before, only now it's a pretty arrangement.

I think of my house that way sometimes, she said. I use everything I've got eventually. Why make a fetish of neatness?

Well, I feel better when my stuff is neat, I replied. I feel...virtuous.

You have the fetish.

That's what she said, and I knew for sure that she was wrong. She can be so annoying sometimes. She thinks the way she does things is the best. She's stubborn about it. She won't listen to anyone else's ideas. How selfish, how boring.

Puny, negative feelings crept into me and I was hating her.

Now, one thing I have learned about Gertrude over the years is, she's sensitive. Psychic. She isn't afraid of what other people think or feel, but she's well aware of it. She has a way of turning your feelings back on you if you try to blame her. I know it but I tried anyway.

To each his own, I said pointedly.

You say that, but what you mean by it isn't what the words say. Pardon me if I'm wrong... She frowned at me and her eyes glared slightly, taking me aback.

You used that phrase like a tool. You used it to poke at me. You didn't mean you accept that everyone does things differently. What you meant was the opposite, it seems to me. You're judging, using a nonjudgmental phrase. What good did you do?

I let out a deep breath.

I guess the things I pay attention to and let bother me are also a kind of clutter.

Finally Gertrude sat back and smiled. She said,

I bet you thought you were being sane and rational, right? Thinking that neatness was more virtuous and that clutter on my table meant something important. Maybe you will have to let go of some sanity, if it's like that.

After our visit was over, I thought about what Gertrude had said. I lay in bed, my mind whirling and pressure building within me. And finally I felt so miserable with all my fumings, I just had to let them go. I felt slippage in my sense of caring about reality. It made me nervous but I let it happen.

The next day I started laughing more. I saw messed-up things happening and I just went, Okay! --giggle giggle. Nothing bad happened.

Somebody got annoyed at me?
Okay, sorry. Hee hee.

Ignorant driver in the left lane on the highway?
Whatever. Hee hee.

Mean person judging a weak person unkindly?
Oops. Ha ha.

So now when I go visit Gertrude, I try to slip into that new dimension and just enjoy her. She is shaped like bread dough rising, and when she wears red lipstick she looks batty. She's not.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Where do I go, what do I do now?

I say to her, Gertrude, I read the Bible every day. I read David R. Hawkins on consciousness. I think back and recall metaphysical things I've studied. I ask questions. I ask to be broken of my errors so I can grow. I ask if my Creator loves me and I look at the beauty around me and I think yes. I even read the Book of Mormon to try and appreciate what it was I loved but left behind. I do all that and I think I ought to be at peace with that. But "ought to" is not real is it?

In my dream, Gertrude fills back up with life and air and juice, and she begins to inflate like a balloon with a red light illuminating it, and she takes on the shape of a Hindu goddess with nine arms. The arms point in all directions and at all times. She is beautiful, then awesome, then fierce, then terrifying. Flames shoot from her palms and her eyes, and she burns me with them. I feel burning pain but then what was burning burns away and still I am standing there. After the wooden parts of me burn away I am free to go and do anything I want, but what's left of me is still standing there, right in front of her, waiting for some indication of what to do.

Then I come back to the room we're in and she's there with her messy gray hair, wearing her green sweater, polishing a spoon with its sleeve.

"You will never know where to go or what to do. It's just never going to happen. You're going to spend your whole life in this same state of mind, because you've built up this mental habit of never grasping onto anything."

Her words hurt me. They sounded so indifferent, like she'd stuck me up on a bulletin board with a tack and just left me there.

Gertrude, I wondered, Do you love me anyway?

Yes, I do, she said. I'd just like to invite you to hold onto me. You help me stay steady when I'm walking, and I'll suggest directions we could go. I've been a lot of places. I just need you to say yes when I want to take you somewhere. I don't think you're lazy, but I think you let your fears control you and you take too much pleasure in safety for your own good.

I said, Gertrude, I don't really want to go anywhere.

Well, okay, stay there, then! she said, throwing her hands up in the air. We sat there with not much to say until I finished my tea.

I love you, Gert, I said, and I gave her a hug, smelled her skin smell and felt the coolness of her hair against my cheek. She hugged me extra long.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Avoiding me

I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.

Gertrude Stein

I haven't visited with my Gertrude in awhile, and I can't really fathom why I've been staying away from her place.

It's not that I haven't wanted to see her--I have. I think there started to be barriers--little snarls in the flow of emotional connection. Maybe it's the way she smiled at me weirdly or didn't smile. Maybe there was just a little gap in what one of us said and how it was understood. Or maybe my ego was not flattered as it was before--we lost our charms.

Or maybe one of us got "needy," to where just a hello was not enough. Maybe one of us was seeking validation from the other beyond what can really be expected, like the cat that won't let you push her off your lap when you're tired of her.

It's not that I have stopped loving Gertrude. I always do love her. She's just this funny, unique, gray-haired person with her own proclivities. She doesn't fit into any stereotype. Maybe the closest thing I could compare her to is Maude, in that old movie, Harold and Maude. Maude liked to find what was unusual and she found beauty in all of her senses, but she was too destructive! If ever there was a stereotype for a nutty old lady, that's Maude. Gertrude, on the other hand, is over that sensibility and she just wants to do what's giving and meaningful. I appreciate that, and yet I had to hold back.

Well, today I felt lonely for her and I went and saw her. She still had the dry leaves on the rug beneath her plant stand that have been there for a long time. And there were still the shoe marks where we'd gone looking for something. There were still the candles burning in the colored glass holders, and as always a cup of tea--jasmine. I looked into her face, and she looked into mine too. And I could tell in a heartbeat that it was okay, and that when one of us could finally put our feelings into simple words, we'd be free to say anything that might clarify the muddle.

Communication is always better than avoidance. Always? Probably always. There we were, two flawed individuals, caught up in realities we couldn't fully explain. But it was nice to go and visit her just the same. I did get lazy and maybe she did too. We ought to think of something we could do together, such as go on a sailboat ride or to a museum when we've got the energy and the will. Or we could cook a meal together. And most of all we could appreciate that we were together visiting again, as if there would never be another visit, not saving the expensive china for some other occasion but appreciating it right now.

guest Gertrude of the Day:

Her name is Harriot. In her family she had a sister who was "the pretty one" and she dealt with that by going out and doing great things. She joined the women's auxiliary of the military during WWII and learned leadership. Met a great guy and married him, raised a family of ordinary kids who have done some great things, had a career in cosmetic sales and always kept a really nice home. Now her health is a struggle and yet people still come to see her and help her, thanks to her personal capital built up over the years. And she's still refined--except when she gets a little angry you hear it come out as steely firmness but otherwise politely. There's nobody else like her.

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.