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The Gratitude Stole

The Gratitude Stole
Which is to say, mi corazon, drink up the sunlight you can and stop feeding the good fruit to the goat. Tell me you believe the world is made of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals, that anything, everything is still possible. I wait for word here where the snow is falling, the solitaires are calling, and I am, as always, your M.
- from "To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary," Incarnadine by Mary Syzbist

The Gratitude Stole is a tradition at Stanford University. The stole's only decoration is the University logo in gold thread at the bottom. Graduating seniors who choose to do so, wear this red silk stole through commencement. After commencement, the new graduate removes the stole and places it around the shoulders of that one person the student feels supported him or her most significantly, mentored their success, or inspired them toward their life calling.

My son placed the Gratitude Stole on me.

He didn't need to. I was forever and always his number one fan, yet other fine men and women had a hand in his success. We'd been though a lot together as a family. I knew he was thinking not just of me at that moment, but of his absent father, who passed away in 2003. I knew he was reflecting on the unexpected challenges and struggles he endured to grow into a young adult, a confident man, and today a university graduate. We both knew the accomplishment was entirely his; his alone that core of courage and determination. I was simply that someone who believed in him. I offered faith. Faith in his ability to meet his challenges, faith in his intelligence and talents, faith in his chosen dreams, and faith in our resilience and love as a family. I believed in my son, because that's what parents do. But I was believing for two: his father and me.

I know Ken would have been incredibly proud of David on this day. I know he would have been proud not only for the completion of his education, but for the character and integrity his son exemplified every step of his journey. I felt the twinness of their beauty, the father and the son. The light of the man gone illumined the sparkle of the younger man before me. Receiving the Gratitude Stole from my son made visible the love and faith carried forward by a long line of strong shoulders. The father. Grandparents no longer here. Our closest friends. All of us bearing witness to one young man's quiet triumph on this day.

I think symbolic ceremonies set apart life's important moments and teach us about continuity. These ceremonies mark one journey's end and embrace turning forward to the next. Symbols of recognition and accomplishment, while certainly cultural or institutional, live within the deeply personal. Behind a graduation or diploma stand the dreams and struggles every such achievement signifies. Years, perhaps entire lifetimes embroider the borders of ceremony. I like to think even the presence of those no longer with us.

We see ourselves in these moments, and I know that I saw myself in David's eyes.

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Book Review: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

The worst that being an artist could do to you would be that it would make you slightly unhappy constantly.
- J. D. Salinger

But right now I needed to be slightly unhappy constantly.
Slightly unhappy constantly alone.

- Joanna Rakoff

MY SALINGER YEAR by the writer Joanna Rakoff (A Fortunate Age) is a curious, engaging memoir reflecting on the year the author apprenticed as a literary assistant at a venerable New York literary agency. At this respected, decidedly "old school" firm, one of Rakoff's tasks was that of answering fan mail sent to the agency addressed to their long-time client J. D. Salinger. The letters on Rakoff's desk, from fans of all ages and nationalities, became the narrative echo of her own adjustment to adulthood, the city, a difficult relationship. As she painstakingly answers each letter, as no letters are ever forwarded to Salinger (by his own edict), Rakoff begins to engage with both the author as well as his fans. For devotees of J. D. Salinger, these shared bits of "Salingeriana" as Rakoff calls them, are interesting in their own right: Salinger remains to this day one of America's enduring literary giants, and forever a mystery to his fans and critics. As she works her way through the letters Rakoff begins to treasure her handful of conversations with the reclusive writer, even assisting her boss, Salinger's devoted literary agent, on a secretive book project. But what makes MY SALINGER YEAR a satisfying read is the slow opening on the page of Rakoff's awareness of herself. This is a tale not of Salinger but the coming of age of a young woman and poet.

Rakoff's memoir is set in the New York high-rises of publishing at the cusp of the digital age. This twilight of "the genteel agency" is evoked beautifully on the page in Rakoff's confident descriptive language:
"We were girls, of course, all of us girls, emerging from the 6 Train at Fifty-First Street and walking past the Waldorf-Astoria, the Seagram Building on Park, all of us clad in variations on a theme - the neat skirt and sweater, redolent of Sylvia Plath at Smith - each element purchased by parents in some comfortable suburb, for our salaries were so low we could barely afford our rent, much less lunch... All day we sat, our legs crossed at the knee, on our swivel chairs, answering the call of our bosses, ushering in writers with the correct mixture of enthusiasm and remove, never belying the fact that we got into this business not because we wanted to fetch glasses of water for visiting writers but because we wanted to be writers ourselves..."

The heady literary spice woven through the memoir is of course J. D. Salinger's work - his beloved stories and novels. The author comes to treasure certain of Salinger's characters as they reflect back to her her own life. She is moved by the way Salinger's fans write to the author, sharing the raw, intimate, and oftentimes confused moments of their lives. She finds company in these letters and answers to her own questions as she crafts answers to theirs. MY SALINGER YEAR is finally also a love letter to literature. The way books and writers accompany us in the quotidian trenches of our uncertainties and misery; how they light the unknowable. The way we keep in our hearts that line from a story that somehow finds resonance when nothing else can.

I recommend Joanna Rakoff's memoir. I know you will enjoy its subtle splendor as greatly as I did.
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I saw the heron
like a branch of white petals
in the swamp,

in the mud that lies
like a glaze,
in the water
that swirls its pale panels

of reflected clouds;
I saw the heron shaking
its damp wings -
and then I felt

an explosion -
a pain -
also a happiness
I can hardly mention

as I slid free -
as I saw the world
through those yellow eyes -
as I stood like that, rippling,

under the mottled sky
of the evening
that was beginning to throw
its dense shadows.

No! said my heart, and drew back.
But my bones knew something wonderful
about the darkness-
and they thrashed in their cords,

they fought, they wanted
to lie down in that silky mash
of the swamp, the sooner
to fly.

- Mary Oliver

There is something about the delicacy of the transitions into early summer and late fall that always remind me of the poems of Mary Oliver. The way in which she captures the voice and imprint of the unseen, the song of the living things, the guardian silence of the skies. When I read this poem, it reminded me of my late husband Ken, who passed away in 2003. His presence among us is the heron at the water's edge below the cliffs of the place he is buried. For a week after his death, this single gray heron waited there at the river's elbow, braced against the rushing waters. Still and tranquil, he watched us. Eventually, as twilight fell to its deepest hue, our heron would spread its feathered wings and lift into the sky, lost in the dark.

This weekend, our son, David, our youngest, graduates from Stanford University. Ken would be so proud. He understood dreams, and struggle, disappointment, integrity, and determination. He experienced the accomplishment of great ambitions, and the loss of things the heart can only imagine. I will be celebrating David's accomplishment for him, and for us. For what that beautiful man did not live to see. Yet I know he will be there beside us - in that great silky mash of life, memory, love. David thrives, brilliant in his passion for life, rooted in the deep strength of his father. His commencement this weekend marks something wonderful; a milestone in a great and terrible journey of his own, through experiences a young man should not have to weather at such a tender age. All of us sing from an unknown song sheet when it comes to life. We receive, we give. We begin to hear the melody in our song as we progress through the years.

I celebrate life. I celebrate family, love, the accomplishment of big dreams, and yes, the reflecting clouds. The presence of the heron.

To you, my son, shining so bright this moment.

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What Is Left Unsaid

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Island, Scotland
Deciphering prehistory is the ultimate conjecture. I am instantly drawn into the imaginary possibilities of mute objects and ruins. Without a written or decipherable symbolic language, the humans of prehistory leave no record behind but these found objects. No record that we might use to correctly interpret fireside story retellings, or the adaptations of later generations to their own current morals and politics. Prehistory is the story of archeological finds. If a rune fragment or a decorative design is found on something as symbolic as a temple site or humble as pot, that bit of intentional marking represents a leap forward from the interpretation of found items without any frame of reference beyond other similar finds. To make interpretation of these early human settlements all the more challenging, the detritus of a civilization is not always found in context but scattered by time, weather, destruction or looting. What do we make of a carved stone ball at the buttress of a presumed gathering space, of intentional niches in stone walls, the placement of a hearth or a doorway?

On the heels of prehistory, the medieval Nordic lands - where I am now - give us Norse history interpreted through the two major eddas (poetic works) and sagas (about a hundred spoken, sung, and written stories). These later language records give us magnificent stepping-stones to understanding how these past cultures identified their roots and history, tell of migration, evasion or incorporation, and are important to developing a collective literature as well as art, frequently embellished by fabulist elements of religious and mythic belief incorporated from earlier periods or nonnative cultures.

Archeologists and anthropologists, along with their compatriots in culture studies and the arts, conjoin expertise to postulate explanations for earlier mute cultures of prehistoric times. There is now evidence of thriving communities that may have functioned in situ for as long as a millennia; a contradiction of past assumptions our ancestors were nomadic, their settlements of short duration. On islands such as mainland Orkney, the stone Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, the Ness of Brodgar excavations, the burial mound of Maes Howe, and the early settlement of Skara Brae gives us hints Norse prehistoric cultures had shared stories, rituals and ways communicated down the generations - we have only to discover how.

From the development of tradition-based songs and ballads, carved symbols began to record community history. Early runes, mostly in the form of early Viking graffiti (“Thor, whose mighty sword killed Hagar the Ugly, was here.”) provide valuable records of war and migration. Early Christians, spreading outward on the heels of the Vikings and Romans, brought with them the Latin word. Christianity was a religion of the book. And the spreading of literacy, of written histories, introduced a cultural medieval record rich in detail, tracing entwined ethnicities and themes, and imagery taken from pagan Nordic folk tales incorporated into Christian traditions. We begin to see how ancient peoples thought, and how they organized their lives. They put their faith and parables down in beautifully embellished altar books, hand-lettered in brilliant inks of native dyes recorded on vellum. The first “author pictures” introduced human figures in monastery records; in the form of images of the evangelists, drawn in the act of writing their testimonies of faith. Entwined in the art that adorned the pages of these books – the incipit page, catalogue of canons, intricate carpet motifs, letter adornments - lay a geographic migration of cultures. Animal designs and rune symbols, the inclusion of ancient Greek, the surprise of a Celtic symbol.

But the long silence of the prehistory peoples continues to haunt me as I stand in awe before these carefully constructed stone houses. I stand before immense pillars of basalt, still standing these thousands of years against the assault of wind, ice, earthquake, and pounding rain. Pillars of rock that weigh more than men can move yet somehow have. I wonder at the reason for the positioning of such immense stones. To catch the light at solstice? And the intentional shaping of workrooms – what were they for? Here there are earth-mounded repositories: stone chambers with pivot-stone entrances, dug in the earth to house the bones of ancestors. Clearly these long ago people cared for their dead, their engineering has lasted centuries. And yet what was the effort involved, the purpose of Nordic bog burials of entire ships and animals and human sacrifice? The meaning of a rock scraped with intertwined triangles? The spoken poetry, the songs, keep old languages alive; the sagas bring to life the myths and heroic journeys. But the unanswered silent mysteries of prehistory haunt us.

My thanks to the knowledge shared by Yale Professors Roberta Frank and Walter Goffart, Harvard Professor Stephen Mitchell, and Dr. Wendy Stein of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for their many inspiring remarks and text and art samples of Old Norse culture.

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