These are some of my dirty secrets:
- I won first place in the Arizona state spelling bee in 1967, and I got a prize (not first) in the state math contest in 1971.
- My entire freshman year of college, I had a calculus class at 7:40 a.m. Monday through Friday.
- When I actually had a place to store them, my books and records (yes, it has been that long) were in alphabetical order.
- I always put things back where I found them.
- My favorite iPhone app is the American Heritage Dictionary ($19.99).
- I can calculate square roots and do Celsius-Fahrenheit conversions by hand.
- I have a poster on my office wall with several famous opening sentences in literature–diagrammed.
- A friend from graduate school proposed that I infiltrate the Moral Majority because I would fit right in.
- My culinary motto is “If you can read, you can cook.”
- I suspect that I belong with the “instruments of precision” at the end of Lionel Trilling’s short story “Of This Time, Of That Place.”
- If you have read this far, the factoid that follows should be no surprise: On the pop-psych quizzes I love to take, I usually score about 75% left brained.
In sum, lists, schedules, logic, and order comfort me; the second law of thermodynamics–that entropy will win in the end–terrifies me. I am a master of linear thinking, induction and deduction, and the appeals of logos, ethos, and pathos.
On the other hand:
- Playing music–piano at 7, cornet at 9, bassoon at 12, and a few more instruments over the years–has been the raison d’être for most of my life.
- I chose to major in chemistry because of my passion for the periodic table.
- I often interpret life events through the lens of literary allusions–measuring life with coffee spoons, careless people, the damp, drizzly November of [the] soul.
- Despite being told by someone whose opinion mattered inordinately to me that people who listen Rachmaninoff read Harlequin romances and drink Manischewitz wine, I thrill to the pounding chords of his second piano concerto.
- I believe that a poem should not mean, but be.
- Since I first heard the scornful phrase in a course on the history of Western civilization, I have with scarcely concealed delight used the epithet “Herr En-cha-NEER” (spoken in staccato and with furrowed Aryan eyebrows) to refer not only to those of the slide rule persuasion, but also to Marines, martinets, and all those who know they’re right.
I have always felt irresistibly attracted to society’s outrées. Judy Schneider was my first; we became friends when she searched the dormitory halls for someone who had a television and wanted to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; she slouched when I stood at attention and proved herself out of my league when she spent Sunday afternoon “playing backgammon, drinking bloody Marys, and reading the New York Times” with someone whose first name was Parker. The second, Vicki Mann, was wearing softly permed hair, leg warmers, and rings on the first knuckles of her fingers long before her fashion choices became de rigueur affectations of people who didn’t even dance; she left her newborn child in the hospital and went to Woodstock; she died of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by long-term cocaine use. Another of those outrées gave me a long, flowing white caftan with a huge purple flower splashed across the front; I hid it in the back of my closet because it was clothing for my soul instead of my body. And of course, I married a man for whom daydreaming is as necessary as air and water and who keeps a broken-down pick-up truck in the driveway because it’s hope and the future.
But I digress.
My point–reached somewhat circuitously, I realize–is to emphasize the tension between what I gravitate to and what I am. Music provides probably the clearest illustration. Yes, I have learned to play numerous musical instruments, but I cannot improvise. I finally abandoned my mandolin lessons because the teacher taught nothing else. After my first lesson, I had no scales to learn, no chords to practice ten times each, no sight-reading exercises. I had to select a favorite song and figure out the chords–and then an interesting way to play the song. Although my future husband, giver of the mandolin, insisted that I keep trying, I knew from the start that the lessons would fail. Similarly, I consider myself an excellent writer. I can say exactly what I want to say (le mot juste inspired my blog title, after all) in as few words as possible (I know my Strunk and White). Give me a subject, even one with which I am not particularly familiar, and I can research it and write about it in at least creditable fashion. But even though I believe I have several short stories in me, I cannot write one.
I am simply not creative. Although I intensely admire creative people, I understand that their gifts are not mine. I am good at many things–very, very good at a few. Nor do I have any tendency to hide those particular lights under a bushel. I merely recognize the arrested development of the right side of my brain at the age of 10 or so. When I argue this topic–and classical rhetoric is one of my fortes–my opponents always believe I am somehow selling myself short. But I am simply being honest about my limited capacity for doing something new, for making something out of nothing, for seeing things in a unique way.
I was therefore somewhat unhinged by an experience earlier this week. I have been corresponding via Facebook Messenger with Robert Mihaly, the brilliant sculptor who created “Wade’s Angel,” the inspiration for many hours of quiet meditation at Raleigh’s Historic Oakwood Cemetery. I asked Mr. Mihaly about the creative impulse behind the angel and then sent him my own interpretation, which he pronounced “transformative.” And he closed his message with these startling and–yes, transformative–words: “Thank you, my creative sister.”
Therefore, at 63, I have begun with trepidation to reëvaluate the results of my long-standing creativity self-assessment. Maybe my facility at learning to play musical instruments even in my pedestrian fashion really is something more than just play-by-the-number. Maybe my ability to find the perfect word and create the magical sentence really is more art than craft. And maybe my eye for a well-composed photograph represents more than a plodding application of the rule of thirds. To be frank, I always imagined that the startling results of my tentative efforts under the red lights of the darkroom were the product of something more than intoxication by the seductive aroma of fixer.
Thank you, my creative brother. Thank you. Thank you.
All photos were printed in a wet darkroom; scans have not been digitally manipulated.