Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Checkin' What Condition My Condition is In

Obviously, I really must work on consistency. It's the distractions, of course. But this last was big - a birthday. Try as one might, these little 'rights-of-passing-time' grab the ole psyche & demand attention. And reflection. And stock-taking - of the 'self-evaluation kind. And as the chips fell this year (would that they could have dipped and scooped something savory, creamy & plentiful - chip behavior far more befitting of a birth commemoration/commendation affair) I was pleased, embarrassed even, to receive several sincere inquiries re: why I was not writing. In truth, I've never met a quandary that plunged me into a celebratory mood and this one took it's place in the ever- lengthening line of similar "fixes-you'd-like-not-to-be-in", floppy quandary feet firmly planted in the quicksand terra non firma. What to do, yada, yada as I stood, 'stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox'. Or sister. Whatever. I'd recently developed an interest in the study of antiquities & thought myself too preoccupied & focused (having begun with myself) to interrupt this inchoate passion. Certainly not by this 'writing thing'. But there truly is nothing to be gained by avoidance tactics, save perhaps peptic ulcer disease, so I vowed to face the "situation", answer the question, do SOMEthing. Sooo, I once again dug around, looking for the muse, the etiology of my affinity for writing. It made sense to re-visit my feelings, analyses, opinions of someone - a writer - whom I knew filled that role for me. Naturally, I also fell back on my other problem-solving activities - dream interpretation. But my main focus, to be sure was a writer under whom I studied, wrote about and clearly saw as something of a Doppleganger. The man was Tony Ardizzone - author, teacher, my "Man Between the Lines", as it were.

(I plunged as well into ye olde Dream Journal. You've been. You perhaps just don't remember. Anyway, I was reading a very telling section of one such analysis - under the circumstances then and now - which contained some dialogue which I'd written in an attempt to get at the meaning of images and words recalled from a dream I'd had centered on my mother's death - clearly a life-changing, direction-altering, numinous event in any one's collection of experiences and, therefore one that renders contemporaneous happenings, ie, dreaming of it, frightfully significant in the short and long run of "this living, this living, this living" as Ms. Parker might tell us.)

His office told stories. Theater posters reminded me of his wife, actress Diane Kondrat, her art, her career. Framed photos of their son, Nick, traced his progress as he looked on his way to being four. Students' and administrative papers vied for the eyes and ink of the man - writer, husband, father, teacher - writer. Books - not leather-bound tomes planted to announce, "Academia lives here." but miss-matched, old/new, vertical/horizontal ones, worn and comfortable from being read. On the door you learned you were in the office of - TONY ARDIZZONE - DIRECTOR OF CREATIVE WRITING. They are not props - the wife, the son, the work. Rather they're loved, nurtured daily. He'd water a cactus & tell you he'd rather talk about his work than himself.

But gracious, polite, this man of letters answered questions. Grew up in Chicago. Dad from Sicily. Mom from Liechtenstein. Two sisters; two brothers. But he couldn't play 'fill-in-the-blanks'. He was a story-teller. Relaxed, dark eyes now merry, now sober, combined with his light voice to share scenes, portraits of people and events that'd molded his life; produced the artist who shared and cared about Hampton Roads. Tony spoke with a gentle intensity and his reverie settled on the room like dusting powder - that his favorite grandmother wore. "My mother would make us crepes for breakfast rolled around fresh fruit. Only she called them omelets." He didn't know until in college that omelets were made with eggs.

(That dialogue I wrote about dreaming about my Mom's death went like this:

Me - So, here we are. I figure I'd better start this conversation since I dredged you up.

Mom - Listen, don't go getting all cerebral and spiritual. I'm here now so let's use the time wisely.Or else you'll just get carried away and you're not supposed to. I am 'cause it's my funeral.

Me - Very funny. I know you mean well but, shit, look at my situation here, will you? I've got to go through the day I've dreaded all my life . . . you went and died first. . . I still can't get over that and now to top it off, I'm talking to you and you're dead.

Mom - that's just the point. I'm still here. Still bitching. Still bugging you. And you'll see. It's a good thing, this continuation of a force, a feeling. You need some grounding. For instance, when I said I had a headache, I didn't mean I had a headache; I meant I had a headache, don't you see?

Me - When you put it like that, who wouldn't see? What's to 'see'? Don't give me parables. Let's talk straight because I've got some big stuff on my agenda, here. You want a headache? I can give you a headache.

Mom - That is the headache. To see you're still so upset about my leaving; to see that you still concern yourself with things that you can't control. That's a headache. I'm dead and that's that. But you and me - that is an always because we are all one. You just have to learn to look, for what, and where.

Me - You know, I can understand that, and that gives me a headache because this is a really freaky conversation. We're pitching around some really freaky notions. I mean, what's it all about?

Mom - Did you just call your Mother a 'freak'?

Me - I know that's supposed to be an attempt at comic relief, but going back to what you said earlier, yes, you're a freak, I'm a freak, all of these 'me's' are freaks because I don't trust the validity of these thoughts. To say nothing of chats with the dead.)

His Father was a printer and teletyper. Always had two jobs. They lived in a flat - second floor of a house - where there were "drunks in the hallway." He was supposed to be named Vito - after his grandfather. But he didn't think he'd be alive or would be a very different kid if he'd had the misfortune of being named Vito. This because Vito was a 'tough' name and he'd have been in more fights. Theirs was a tough neighborhood but by then, the Italian areas in Chicago had been effectively scattered by urban planners - the Democratic Machine.

Both parents encouraged the kids to read, get an education, work hard. "They pushed all of us kids. My Mother would say, 'If you can't get it right, don't do it.' So he'd say, 'Well, then I'm not gonna do it,'which produced 'You do it and don't get smart with me.' from Mom. And it was done and done right. Tony read, always loved reading. He said, "At some point, I really came to understand, appreciate what writers can do. They could take a kid like me and put him someplace else. I thought that was an incredible thing - and envied their power. When I read "How Green was My Valley" I didn't even know where Wales was." It flabbergasted him that this man who wrote the book had a completely different metaphor/background and he was touching Tony, this kid from Chicago. Tony wanted to do this for other people.

(Mom - Thoughts are thoughts.What's to trust? They come in and go out of your railroad station. Some stay longer than others. Some leave a more lasting impression but they should be free to move about on their own course. Now trusting, that's always been more of a problem for you than thinking. You were always looking to me for approval/disapproval when you knew the value of your actions. You just used me as your conscience so that you wouldn't have to take any responsibility. Well, you've got the ball now and trusting yourself might be a good place to start on your 'solo' adventure because you are really all you have. I also think you always knew that.

Me - But I'm so damned weak, easily-influenced, confused, lacking in both experience and any really strong convictions. I wouldn't cross the street on my say-so right now.

Mom - You'll get so tired of that side of the street so fast you won't have to tell your ass to follow you as you run across. You're far more prone to error due to commission than omission.

Me - You got it. I'm impulsive. I'll probably screw up more than just a few times because of it.

Mom - And it will be the best thing that can happen. Because for the first time, it will be your very own screw-up, not one you can say I made you do. And this is how you will learn to trust your own thoughts - they led to actions that were either harmful or beneficial to your process, Either way, you learn something. But eventually, you get tired of screwing up and you GET THE ACTIONS THAT DETER OUT OF YOUR ACT. More importantly, you pursue and hold on to those that are right, good, good for you - and for others. You'll always belong to the people.)

He was laughing at the thought. That he wanted to get other people to other places. He remembered thinking that knowledge would get Tony out of the neighborhood. It was a little scary at the time. There was even a time in middle school when he rebelled. But in his defense he explained that you had to see that 'spelling B's' were dumb. You got punished if you got it right. You didn't want to sit down right away, but if you kept on getting it right, you had to keep standing up there - just you and the smart girls. He won once and said 'Enough!'. He'd look for his best shot. When was it 'respectable to make a mistake? That's where all the fun was. He'd get to sit down and watch the other kids.

He was sent to a college prep high school where 'they' wore cuffed, white pants and 'he' wore black stovepipes. Of course there was a clash and he got tight with the city kids.But I got the sense that it was a treasured difference; no bitterness; acceptance of people and situations. He learned to play well with the hand he was dealt - and really cared about the differences. But it wasn't until after grad school at Bowling Green that his work was appreciated and after getting his degree, marrying Diane and "really working," his first book, "In the Name of the Father", was published and he officially dedicated himself to writing and teaching. Oh, and when he came to Old Dominion, they had Nick. Can eyes turn neon?

After teaching in Morocco for a year, he realized how myopic we were as a 'reading' nation. When asked where the kids are whom he would take somewhere else through his writing he said, "I wanted my work to reach the people who would like it. I don't just write for Americans. If I get lucky, I'll be read by the world. But I'm not going to explain what a refrigerator is. I can't pander to someone who doesn't know the culture. And my concept of my audience will always go beyond the people who live on this land mass." He also feels the community has a responsibility to the writer. He feels they should read. But even then, he thought our society conspired against the quiet moment. And that's because the quiet moment can't be sold. For Tony Ardizzone, that's America in a nutshell - buying and selling. He wanted to take a "crack at the world" and then leave behind some books. He has. He's also received the "gravy" of respectable recognition. Writing - like living - can be a tough, lonely road. But I guess you have to take your best shot.

(Me - Well, as usual, you're right and I must confess I had an incling this would be the deal. Baggage will have to be thrown overboard. I'll have to hurt and hurt some others but the process will out and will triumph because it means survival, facilitating the collective destiny, getting as many people as possible - especially yourself - together.

Mom - Alright. Now that's a big order. Don't expect you'll wake up tomorrow and all your ducks will be in a row. (I don't think I've ever accomplished having them all in the same place at the same time. Row? Really, Mom?) You see the way you think you should go. Now prepare; pack; take only the things you need for any particular part of the trip.

Me - So. What now? You're going back or forward or whatever to your process now, right? And I bury the child and bear the adult. . . DO drop in now and again, won't you?

Mom - I'm here more than you know. Learn to listen.)

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