Once upon a time . . .

The RonettesDuring my post-college, single-in-the-city years, I almost never watched TV.  Time spent alone in my Upper West Side digs meant time spent reading or listening to music—rock, classical, disco, jazz, whatever the mood called for.  A solid state Fisher stereo was all I had room for and the sound was stupendous. Pump up the volume, Graham Parker or Donna Summer, and Saturday A.M. cleaning took on a whole new beat.  My solo weeknight TV viewing largely consisted of old movies or a PBS special.  Late-night Saturday TV with friends, or a boyfriend, was another thing altogether.

It was the boyfriend who would become my husband who would eventually hook me on two of his favorite sitcoms, “Cheers” and “Seinfeld. “  I dismissed them at first—like, please, don’t waste my time. These days, late at night in bed, you can hear me laughing out loud at some of the brilliant “Seinfeld” dialogue.  I’ve seen reruns of classic episodes more than once.

When the daughter came along, there was no escaping “Sesame Street.” And why would I want to?  Only a fool could resist the charms of Elmo. Don’t have to be a Springsteen fan to see Born to Add for the delightful parody it is, though the humor of “Miami Mice” might be lost on you if you never saw Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in action. Educators may differ in their views re:  the nuances of teaching children the three R’s and where a ground-breaking show like “Sesame Street” figures into the picture, but there’s no arguing the brilliance of luring mom and dad into the clever riffs on pop culture.

In a wonderful interview with Krista Tippett, folklore/mythology scholar Maria Tatar reminds us that entertainment in days of old was of the sit-around-the-fire-and-tell-stories variety. There was interaction, and the nature of fairy tales, once they were collected and chronicled by the Brothers Grimm, began to change.  R-rated fairy tales originally narrated by and for adults softened to PG as they morphed into children’s stories. Morals crept in, and with them, the happy ending. The violence in fairy tales was surreal, burlesque, carnivalesque.

Times change, literary arts evolve, but the very undercurrent of fairy tales just won’t go away. From “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (which my daughter lured me into watching with her) to “True Blood” to “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” (which fascinates me for its interplay among fairy tale characters caught between worlds), content adapts itself to motif.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see Cinderella in Carrie Bradshaw. She even loses a shoe in one episode. And isn’t there a touch of the fairy godmother at play in handing a book contract, followed by a plum magazine job to the novice Hannah Horvath in “Girls”?  That her own self-absorption is her constant undoing can’t be helped; it’s part of the character, an anti-Cinderella who wants her dreams fulfilled but lacks the generosity of spirit inherent in a humble fairy-tale heroine.

The irony? We may think we’re watching TV to escape the real world, only to find ourselves pulled into a world more unsettling in the reality it portrays.  Yes, it’s stylized, fictionalized, often too formulaic.  But like the best of stories, a show like “Girls” gets us talking.  It’s the nature of how we live, sharing stories; it’s something children learn the minute we introduce them to bedtime books and they squeal: read it again .  .  .  and again  . .  .  and again. Or listening as carefully as they do, they stop us if we skip a line.

So when I’m propped in bed, watching “Once Upon a Time” on my iPad, the comfort of years and years of nighttime reading insinuates itself into the experience.  That I can watch episode after episode in one sitting only proves that technology strives to give us what storytellers have always known.

And when I read a comment from my dearest childhood friend in response to my daughter’s reflection on “Girls,” in an instant I’m transported to another once-upon-a-time, teendom, BFFs sitting together, any day of the week after school, tuning in to “American Bandstand.” It’s what girls did. It’s what we still do.  Even if we’re not in the same room looking at the same screen, we’re texting about it, posting on Facebook, generating conversation via blog posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sound of one leaf falling

chipmunkThe transition from one season to the next is always a reminder of something fluid, even elusive. Sure you wake one day and the calendar tells you it’s autumn, this year’s arrival last week still in the afterglow of the Harvest Moon.  But it’s not as if you haven’t already sensed it, the shifting light, the shortening of days.  It’s a lot like the space between breaths that sometimes becomes the focal point during meditation. If you pay attention, breathing in can only become breathing out. And vice versa.

So it goes with the slipping of summer into autumn.  By late August there’s a diminished vibrancy to the lush green of the leaves; mid-September the ache kicks in, that fading to yellow, a reminder that leaves may be dying but we still have that riot of red and orange, yellow and brown against that seasonal golden light to look forward to.    A quote I came across the other day by the Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang sums up so eloquently the way I feel:

“I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its leaves are a little yellow, its tone mellower, its colors richer, and it is tinged a little with sorrow and a premonition of death. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and is content. From a knowledge of those limitations and its richness of experience emerges a symphony of colors, richer than all, its green speaking of life and strength, its orange speaking of golden content and its purple of resignation and death.”

It’s a busy time for chipmunks and squirrels, I’ve noticed, a kind of rush hour as they scamper and scurry back and forth, in and out, so much to hoard. It’s a noisy season, too, lawnmowers still cutting the last bits of summer grass before the leaf blowers take over.  Who needs an alarm clock in the morning when you have crows?

A few weeks ago, Labor Day to be exact, I was sitting on my deck, early morning. Sipping coffee and reading.  Something made me stop.  Look up.

More often than not what distracts me is something I see or hear: a  squirrel doing acrobatics across tree branches. A majestic hawk circling the sky.  A woodpecker rat-tat-tatting.  Deer passing through my yard.  A tree being trimmed.

On that particular day, the memory still vivid, it was the complete absence of usual morning sounds that enveloped me.

Not a crow caw-caw-cawing.

Not a car thrumming down the road.

Not a dog barking.

Nada, when it came to sound.

That I could be so caught up in its absence was a curious reminder, ironic as it seems, that I’m not alone. “The world is too much with us,” wrote Wordsworth, and that was way before technology wreaked havoc on our neurology: Being present to the moment is a far cry from the beeping urgency of text messages.  The immediacy of sending e-mails brings an expectation of response in a timely fashion, the question being: whose time frame is it anyway?

Years ago I read A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle,  drawn to the title.  At the very beginning she writes:

“I like hanging sheets on lines under the apple trees—the birds like it, too. I enjoy going out to the incinerator after dark and watching the flames; my bad feelings burn away with the trash. But the house is still visible, and I can hear the sounds from within; often I need to get away completely, if only for a few minutes. My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings.”

The quiet a writer needs to do her work was at the heart of a conversation between novelist/filmmaker/Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki and editor/novelist Carole DeSanti, hosted by WNBA-NYC.  “Real creative work comes from a quiet place,” said DeSanti.  We may need the noise, that “conversation with the world,” as Ozeki put it, at the start of a project.  “But at the end I need quiet to dig in.”

“Silence is an endangered species,” says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton in an interview with Krista Tippett that begs to be listened to.  “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything,” he explains, taking listeners on a virtual hike through the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park to what he calls One Square Inch of Silence.  It’s through silence that we regain the power to listen.

“Now we will all count to twelve/and we will all keep still. . . .” begins a Pablo Neruda poem that Jewish-Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein is said to carry with her everywhere she goes. Listen to her recite it. Or read it here.

The poem, a favorite of mine, is called “Keeping Quiet.”