Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein
Woman with a brilliant mind

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."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Have I been wrong? Was I unwise to shut my eyes and play along?

I've been talking to people who, like me, feel shafted by the election. We know we failed and we have a lot of ideas how and why, and yet the worst thing is the loss of a sense of control.

But I know damned well that most of this world offers only an illusion of control. We truly have control over a fraction of a second after any piece of input we receive, whether to answer with a 0 or a 1. I know this in my head. My primitive heart keeps searching for magic.

She called me and asked me to come over and help her dig some old dishes out of the top shelves of her kitchen, ones she hasn't used in decades. I took them down, and some of them were just chemically-broken-down Tupperware that is now cracked and sticky and discolored. But some of those dishes we got down to look at were fine, painted by hands that had the patience to work in a sweet, even pattern of ornamentation.

"Should I get rid of that soup tureen?" she asked me. I picked it up in my hands, and it felt weighty.

"Why not make soup to put in it one more time?" I asked her. She hesitated and then said all right.

We chopped onions, celery, carrots, garlic. I said don't use parsnips--yuck. She said okay. We browned the aromatics and then we put in lamb. The soup cooked all day and the broth concentrated nicely, and while it cooked we got the whole top shelf of the kitchen emptied, wiped, and decluttered. When you open the cupboard now, you see just a few nice things lined up with a lot of air space between them.

I don't know if Gertrude is a progressive or a conservative. This bothered me a little bit. I had to get over this need to label her like I label myself. Still sometimes I will ask leading questions to try and get her in one box or the other. Today I started doing it again and she tilted her head to the side and frowned and blew air out her nose and scratched her arm. Then she said,

"Here's something from the Blueprint that applies. As the world gets created and sustained, there is justice. It never deviates. Human beings just don't understand that Justice. We think of justice as us getting something that satisfies us, either in thoughts or in materials. Justice is a metaphysical reality that always displeases one person or the other. Like my husband Oswald, back when we thought world wars were over with. He got in a business deal with another man...what was his name? Anyway, the situation never panned out and there was only enough money left in the kitty for one man to get repaid, or both men to take a hit. Oswald didn't get the money--he took the role of the nice guy and let the other man have the last of the money. And Oswald never felt good about it. He wished he'd insisted he get that money himself."

"Uh..." my attention span was waning and she saw that.

"One more second. Okay now, Oswald could not see the justice in himself doing the decent thing. But it was there. What a good man-if only he'd accepted that about himself."

That soup was good and it felt great to get rid of bad old plastic.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sucking up bitterness, spitting out honey

A boring sort of alchemy

It's days later and I'm still sick with disappointment. It doesn't help that I keep searching the same old media sources for some kind of hope. The best idea I've read out there is that we can keep our ideas out in the culture.

In my great grandparents' time, they were so damn happy to come to the US, they learned English, kept their Dutch to themselves, went to work in the silk mills in New Jersey, and voted Republican. I think that might be because they hated the Catholics.

And on my Mom's side, they were jack-Mormons who went to Idaho and Northern Utah. They were Scots-Irish too. Relatives of the hillbillies. They were Republicans too, probably because Republicans weren't prohibitionists and they liked their alcohol.

I feel it inside me how great my ancestors were in the grand total of things, and their ways were good. Not joyful, not triumphant, but decent.The lovely picture of television families going on picnics was just not what it was like. Love wasn't pretty.

The blueprint

Gertrude has been every religion, and she's told me hair raising stories about things people did to each other under the protection of religion and culture.

Everyone is human and religion doesn't stop that. She says, in her view, there is only a sum of small things that makes the difference between a good system and the lack of one.

The first tenet of the blueprint, Gertrude says, is that all the power that ever was, or will be, is the one right here, right now. Everyone has an imperfect realization, of what's good, and everyone has just this moment to tap into what little bit of power there is behind what we see and what we choose. It's not much but it really adds up.

Alchemy is lots of small steps, most of which don't exactly make you feel comfortable. Things get crushed, burned, mixed with caustic chemicals, set on fire, pulverized, compressed and thus purified.

 This is happening all the time, and probably if I use this suffering to accept what life forces upon me, I will be doing what is supposed to be done. I and my people got too comfortable and we lost our ability to work hard for things we wanted. We will get it back only when we are forced to.

But... Life was not supposed to be a picnic.

What I was born to be and do, I have to accept and work with.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Ghosts of Dead America

Sometimes Friendship, Sometimes Something Else.

I've considered myself a conservative. Now the US has elected a socialist for a second term as president, and I'm disconsolate right now. I have an ache in my gut and a sore heart, and I'm angry, and I'm grieving the loss of the man I wanted to be president, because he had qualifications that I felt were missing from the top of US politics.

I no longer want to be friends with some of the people I used to like. I'm burnt out on the media. I'm lonely and isolated, and I am in need of some kind of alchemical transformation.

So I went to Gertrude's house for a little while before I ran errands that would take me to new places. Namely, I want to join an artists' collective. I will get the application today and then start to look at what I'm capable of, and ignore the negative voices, paying attention only to the practicalities but not letting a fake practicality that is really a wimp-out, take hold.

I lay down on Gertrude's lap and I cried out my sadness. I feel my country has been lost to Saul Alinsky's acolytes, and I hate them, and they're rejoicing. I can hear the demonic keening and gloating.

I'd hit the bottom and was in danger of making myself sick if something of my capacity didn't give way. Gertrude said, sit up and let's have some tea, if you can swallow. I'm going to start you in on something I feel you're ready for.

The Blueprint on the Drafting Table

Gertrude sat with me and told me about something I'd been starting to suspect: we are all in a pattern, or a laminated series of truths and tendencies, which when combined, compose us.

But just to say it's a pattern is not to imply that it's perfection. Patterns are good but the rendered product can always use improvement. Or in other words, we are a mesh of patterns that came together at one point of a pulse of energy caught in time. It's not the only way to look at us, but it's one way.

Gertrude read me the pattern, which is what this blog will now be all about, but I won't just rattle off the whole thing. If you want to google it, I got it from the curriculum of Builders of the Adytum, of which I was a member for about fifteen years. I memorized it. I don't think it's proprietary. It's one of those things like the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. It's called the Pattern on the Trestleboard. But Gertrude described it as the Blueprint on the Drafting Table. I can see it in my head and feel it in my bones. She had listened to how messed up I am right now, and this is what she said:

Your Born Connections

Gertrude said, "We are working for the Realization of the Eternal."

I hadn't been paying close attention but I as she spoke, the black of her eyes was like polished obsidian. The hazel of them was like citrine, and the white was like ivory. I stared at them, searching for where her transformation had come from. It seemed to surge from somewhere within her.

"That's so...far away and high above and esoteric. I don't even think I can get near that. Can you give me something closer to shoot for than realization of the eternal?"

She gave a dry laugh and shook her head. Then she looked at me and tried again. "You are going to realize it, one way or another. In this lifetime or another. It's the nature of things. It's why you have this difficult life to live--all of it will beat you into shape and you will be perfecting your realization of it all."

"Oh! right now I am in the throes of an imperfect realization. That's like saying I'm all screwed up, isn't it?"

"No, Lisa. You are talking about your disappointment. From one point of view it's a noble sadness. From another point of view, it's "nanny boo boo, you didn't get what you wanted and now you're whining." But it's really just what it means to be human.

I turned away from her and emptied my tea mug into the sink. I'd had enough and I was leaving. I felt I was being diminished.

She called to me, "wait a minute." "What I was talking about was something different, Lisa. You've put your disappointment into a small little box of right now.

What I'm talking about is your eternal soul, more than just your life right now. You've got to let go of what you can't keep, and your presidential preference is something you can't keep."

I will trade my current ego crisis for perfecting my realization of the internal. I never did have control over any of that presidential, political stuff. No telling how it's going to turn out.

Maybe I was wrong. I doubt it, but if I was wrong I might feel better.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Gertrude finally shows me something useful

Gertrude is real. I thought for awhile that I was just imagining her, creating an image of what I wished for and then trying hard to believe it. Others could not see what I saw, and silly me, I believed their certainty more than I believed myself!

I think it's just that I ignored some of the realities others were not ignoring. Where I could see her and others could not, they could see what surrounded her and couldn't see this old woman I thought was so marvelous.

Gertrude lives in a cluttered, messy, dirty place. There's handwriting on the wall. There's dirt in the cracks. There are skeletons hiding. All that. Maybe I'm lucky I couldn't see it at first. I saw the velvet upholstery but not the cigarette stains. Gertrude hides herself. Why would she do that? If I knew what she knew, I'd come out and try to teach others. She does not offer schooling.

Why not try to say something to the world, Gertrude? That's what I asked. She shrugged and looked down at the ground. I stood there for a long time waiting for words to come out of her mouth.

"It's... They... Everybody..."

In a flash I understood. I think so, anyway. If you put something into words, it isn't the same as the real, the true, the actual. It just doesn't work to try and teach it.

I threw out words after that. I started to spend some time eschewing verbalization of my thoughts. I began to ignore the words of everyone I saw or met or heard on the radio, and then something new came to me. Words really don't mean much. They're just colors coming off a paint brush. The artist is what matters. The intention of the one saying words is all I really need to know.

Some people are just lonely souls like me, seeking companions on this life journey. Other people do have spirit and wisdom to offer but they only know one way to get through, and that is with words. And hell... some people use words because they love talkin'. They get paid. They take up a position and start chewing on it.

I looked back at Gertrude and she had her eyes on me. They are grey eyes, kind of rheumy and the whites of her eyes are a little yellow. But I love her eyes. She was using her eyes to see if I understood her. When she saw that I'd gotten a glimpse of her meaning, the one she wasn't about to try to spit out as words, she smiled a little and relaxed.

Gertrude of the week: Dame Judy Dench. She is beautiful! Her eyes have a serious condition but she, a British dame, is no soft cookie and she can deal with it.