Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein
Woman with a brilliant mind

Friday, January 25, 2013

Someday when I'm old, will anybody view me the way I do Gertrude? Or is she the only one of her kind, and am I the only one who knows her?

I know a girl, Androgyne, who looks at me like I'm a fool most of the time. To her I seem irrelevant and outmoded because I question myself and I move slowly, hesitating where she would leap. When I look at Gertrude and how slowly she moves and how little she seems to do, I sometimes feel sorry for her too. I'm middle aged; I can still do so much, almost anything except sit on the floor and hug my knees.

Androgyne doesn't know a lot about love, and I can't tell her anything because I never learned how to love even someone like Petrus until I passed through that period of time in my life when my self absorption and inability to love deliberately came to a head and I felt my ego crashing to the point where all of my emotions had turned into one big psychic bruise. Afterward I saw that love isn't from above. It's not like water, something you can go and get and share. It is the stuff I'm made of that flows from me with warmth or held back with coldness, is clean or polluted, is generous or miserly.

It seems to me like Androgyne feels as if love is a happy accident that might come crashing in one day and the stars will align, rendering a stable and mostly gratifying situation, knitting together most of life's contingencies with the life of the other.

I can only hope she finds a situation that starts out like that, but which can make that difficult transition to the point where it's not easy anymore but it's worthwhile, and you have to lose something of what you started with, to trade for something you never knew existed until you reached your hand out into the fertile darkness of what lay beyond your vision.

Gertrude is on the other side of me from where Androgyne dances. She is maybe more fully human than I am. She enjoys simply being alive. I drink more of the blackberry tea at her table.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Travel into your own life can be the strangest trip

When I can't sleep and my heart is pounding and my thoughts are racing, sometimes I get up from my bed and put on my beat up shearling slippers and my fleecy bathrobe, and I'll get in my car and drive past Gertrude's townhouse to see if her light is on. When it is, I go and knock softly on her front door. And if she's awake, she'll hear me and let me in and talk to me.

Except, last night I don't remember getting dressed and driving. I just remember being aware I was at her house and we were sitting on the couch, each with our own comforter keeping our feet warm. Cars swished past. I leaned my head back and fell asleep on the worn out burgundy couch where I usually have some tea.

I asked her, "Gert, what am I doing here on earth, now that my children are almost grown and independent, when I spent twenty years focusing on them? I just don't know."

Suddenly part of me came unlaminated and it rose up into the air. It felt the way you feel when you're a passenger in a jet that is taking off and it accelerates very fast, except I wasn't moving forward. My consciousness drifted upward and left my sleeping body and my brain down there on the couch.

Gertrude was there with me, only now she looked young, like about thirty years old. Her huge, dark eyes lost some of their dark circles but she had those hooded lids, like a gypsy. Her hair was long and curly and held back by something invisible. And it looked as if she wasn't 3D. She was all front and the sides of her head disappeared into the darkness around us. She was looking at me and speaking but not moving her mouth.

I started to want to get back into my body but Gertrude's mind suggested to my mind, a very strong phrase: Look at your life from above and outside.

I didn't want to--I wanted to get back to seeing things through my own eyes and my own filters. But she had a way of not permitting me to do it.

I started fearing her. "You're a demon!" I shouted in my mind.

"Demons try to get you away from light, goodness and happiness. I am trying to help you find it! Listen to me!"

She reached out her hands from the darkness and grasped the sides of my head and turned it to what lay below.

"Open your eyes," she demanded.

I fought her.


"Why won't you look at yourself? If you won't look at yourself, who will?"

I shook myself loose from her grasp.

"I'll do it later, when my mind feels more settled and clear."

"No you won't. So do it now. Look--at--your--life. What you see is what your life is. What you're doing is what you're making your life be about."

"You're being mean!"

She slapped me. I didn't hurt because we weren't in physical states. Only her mean lashing out made contact with my cowardice.

I looked at my life and took a moral inventory, looking at everything from how I treat people to things I've done in the past--painful memories, and good ones as well. I had a hard time determining which things hadn't been necessary or what other choices I had.

I looked at Gertrude's spirit form and I said I was afraid. She said, "Now you're on your way to becoming whole. You were never meant to always feel comfortable and happy."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Solo, Solitary, Alone, Lonely, Life!

Gertrude seems to be the epitome of someone whose life is all behind her now. I get so full of pity for her! She's got old pictures fading on her parlor wall; fading pictures on top of fading wallpaper. Her velvet sofa needs vacuuming. I did it once but it was a hopeless gesture. And whenever I come to her house, she has no music or TV going. She's just listening to her Thomas clock ticking.

I cleaned her bathroom for her, and it really improved things even though her enamel is stained and those black and white tiles are cracked. The fixtures in there are antique, but not nice. The copper pipes have verdigris but not the pretty kind. But I like it in there and often when I use her bathroom I spend more time than necessary, enjoying the heat of the radiator and the way it warms up the back edge of the tub and the toilet seat. I make soap and I brought her some, but somehow the pink bars she usually gets seem right somehow. And the bright green Prell shampoo. Her towels are raggedy but when I brought her new ones she gave them to a needy neighbor with young children, saying that her towels still did the job.

Her house is quiet except for the clocks, the pipes in the radiator, the old fridge motor that turns on and off, and the birds in the trees, the passing traffic, and the sounds of people walking by.

When I look at it that way it seems like she doesn't need a radio.

But I wonder if she isn't terribly lonely sometimes. I drank some of her blackberry tea and talked with her about it.

She said,

"I do get a lonesome feeling sometimes. I suffer from it and I feel that if I only had people around, I'd be happy. But then, it's strange how, other times the situation is exactly the same but I don't feel loneliness. I feel solitude and peace. Especially when I let the presence of greatness dwell in my heart."

"I get lonely," I said. "I feel very sorry for you being here and lonely. That's why I came here today."

"Oh! Well, you shouldn't let it stop you from doing what you know you should do, even when you don't feel completely at ease, joyful, or whatever. There's a different kind of happiness in suffering. It's good because you know for sure you've earned it well."

I sat there and suffered and felt love and felt that kind of happiness that is really a few millimeters from where we are right now.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

What choice do you have but to be thankful?

I feel sorry for Gertrude a little bit because she seems so alone. Who does she have to eat Thanksgiving dinner with? I asked her to come and eat with me and Petrus but when I did, she didn't say anything--she just shrunk down momentarily and turned her eyes away. My husband doesn't ever see her but she stays away from him too, like they're both positive poles and I'm a negative one. I dunno.

I went to Gertrude's once when she made a special meal. It wasn't for any predetermined reason, nothing like "okay we're all going to sit down and be thankful today," nothing like that. She wanted to celebrate a full moon on the birthday of someone who meant a lot to her, who is no longer on this earth.

She put a beautiful silk runner on her cleaned-off dining room table, and lit every candle she owned. We drank goblets of dark and musty wine as we tasted some rich, well-marbled cheese and very crusty bread. She told me the story of her old friend and teacher, Leonard Neibaur, who spoke four languages and knew of many things too complicated to teach. He introduced her to philosophers and told her of the real-life implications that grew out of each philosophical basis. When he did, he told it all in the form of storytelling. He'd known many people and many situations, because of the network of friends and colleagues he'd built up all of his life. I asked Gertrude, what was the nature of their relationship--just friends? She shut her eyes for a moment and smiled, and that was all the information I could get.

After we finished the wine we went out and sat on a bench, looking at the clouds drift across the moon. It was cold and I started to shiver, but I felt so enchanted I didn't want to go in. We scooted together on the bench and huddled with our arms across one another's shoulders. We finally went in when the street sweeping machines went grumbling loudly past.

I don't know what Gertrude does when I'm not there. I think she reads a lot, and makes soup. I'm grateful for her. Maybe I'll bake her a pound cake and take it over to her.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Does this swimsuit show my bitterness?

The dark, heated water of the hot tub had steam clouds lifting off its surface, with the smell of the chemicals filling my nose. The hyper beat of the exercise class going on up stairs was quiet enough to ignore it, so mostly what we could hear was droplets of condensation from the ceiling plopping into the bath. Gertrude had both of her arms held out across the tiled edge. When I felt overheated I sat myself on a higher step so most of me was out of the water.

She said, "Well, I'm about soft-boiled and ready to get out of the water."

She moves so slow. I had to stand there and firmly hold her hand to give her some extra balance.

Neither of us tried to look at ourselves in the full-length mirrors on the walls of the dressing room and we make small talk, trying to find our socks and shoes.

In the car on the way to her house she listens to the "forties" channel on satellite radio, and sings along to songs I've never even heard before. She acts young, like a bizarre Shirley Temple.

I am bored by this stretch of street that I travel sometimes two or three times a day. There's nothing interesting. But Gertrude points out the royal blue velvet of the sky and the cigar-shaped gray cloud, lit up by the moon.

We are each seeing the world as we are.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Blessed are the defeated and lost.

This ongoing post-election psychological breakdown has started to wear at me and give me physical pain. So I went and got Gertrude and took her to the gym, where we went down in the basement with our swimsuits on, and sat in the not-quite-hot-enough hot tub to soothe our ills--her old bones and my neck that got bent out of shape.

I asked her, "Do you pray? And if you do, what do you get out of it?"

There was a time when I felt so sorry for her physical aging. The skin on her arms hangs down and the wrinkles on her face are so deep that if I think of smooth, dewy tautness as the only kind of beauty, she is very un-beautiful indeed. But when I think of people in themselves, beautiful for being human and not for being young, she's all right and so am I, with my fat midsection.

She frustrates me so much. She never answers a question directly. She said,

"Is prayer supposed to be done so you can get something out of it? Like, you offer prayer and there is an exchange and you get a blessing?"

"Hrrrrrrrmmmmmph" I groused.

"Why, Liz? (She calls me Liz) have you started praying?"

"Yes. This morning I read the poetry of Rumi and it gave me comfort. And then I knelt down on the floor and started praying. But I didn't ask for a blessing in payback, no. Not really. I don't think--I'm not sure. I really just wanted help in understanding, however it might come to me. I wasn't even sure if God was there or there is anything like that."

"Well I guess you can always try it, why not."

"I try to define who God is for myself..."

Gertrude's eyebrows raised at that and it told me everything I needed to know at that point.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mostly dead, and lovin' it!

"Gertrude, what am I going to do now that the world I was born in has ended?"

"You just get up the next day in the new one."

"Have you ever had that happen to you?"

"Oh yes. A few times. Those of us born in the 1800's went from a way of life where we thought God was watching our every move, to a world where there was no God in mind. It was devastating to our lives and we just had to learn to embrace it."

"Do you mean you stopped believing in God?"

"Well, at first I blocked it out and insisted I would never stop believing in Him. But then the common assumptions and the expressions we used changed a lot, until I found myself not caring what God might think, and eventually I was alone in my individuality."

"Jeez. That is sad because it seems like such a beautiful thing to feel as if God is watching over you all the time, keeping you safe, telling you what is right. Sounds so secure and sweet."

Gertrude winced and nodded in such a way as to leave room for doubt.

"It was devastating to our old way of life. The new way of life also had its good points. You didn't have to feel embarrassed to show your ankles, and you could cut your hair and didn't have to keep it in long, heavy plaits and buns. After awhile women could dress like men, in pants. Now that's not even considered dressing like a man anymore. Now a woman who considers herself normal and innocent might dress like an old-time prostitute as if that could underscore how normal she is."

"I know, right? It's horrible."

"Oh, we don't have to make it like that. Life is short and times do change. People have to live their time out doing what they will. It's both a gift and a curse at the same time."

"I can't live my life as I did before. I came from a world where I thought I owned everything, and when someone lived up to my standards I would let them in to be a part of it. But that world is dead now. Each person is supposed to be a bundle of their own standards and nobody can assume to understand anything about each other, and it's exhausting and sad. But it's done with and I'm trying to let go."

"Well, do you know who you are?"

"Not really."

"That would be the thing to know now."