How to Fix a Broken Heart

img_20160911_131835It is easy to get lost in the hospital. From the main artery grow several asymmetrical wings rising to varying heights. When one of the two main artery elevators opens, the landing pad presents an unexpected reception area, depending onto which floor you alight.

I had thought room 3217 afforded a view of the Hope and Healing Garden, but over the week, as I wandered about on visit breaks, I realized it wasn’t the garden I had seen on the hospital floor-map, but just a breezeway between wings, an alley, really, of a horizontal line of maple trees rising vertically above a trapezoidal space created by three wings. One of the nurses said that when she started at the hospital, those trees were only a few feet tall. I was reminded of the William Carlos Williams poem,

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where
nothing

will grow lie
cinders

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green
bottle

Williams found hope and healing where he could, and here between walls grow beds of dark green, glossy ivy, out of which grow the spindly maples.

On another walk, taking another breath break, I discovered the Meditation Garden, an open air courtyard enclosed by hospital walls. The Meditation Garden was quiet and relaxing, with a variety of benches and tables for sitting and if lucky, meditation. But I thought of the little book “How to Relax,” by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Meditation is not what you might think; it’s more about what you don’t think. And, Hanh says, you don’t need a special garden, mat, or incense to meditate. You just need to relax, and breathe. I get that, but still, the Meditation Garden is a good hospital getaway space.

There were other places to chill out: outside on the grounds; the cafeteria; the Pavilion lobby was very pleasant; the LivingWell Bistro; the chapel. I liked the chapel, but was a bit put off by the giant mural of a long, blond hair and blue eyed Jesus. Susan has blue eyes, and her hair was once beach blond. I think Jesus’s hair must surely be grey by now, if he hasn’t pulled it all out.

Another day, I found the Hope and Healing Garden, but I couldn’t get in. I saw a tree growing over a circular brick wall, and I tried to find a way into the garden, which I could just barely see through a door window across an aisle and though another door window.

As I was writing that last sentence, in my pocket notebook, sitting comfortably in the digs of a spiffy waiting room lobby area outside the vegan LivingWell Bistro, an immense amount of new and fascinating technology was wandering Wi-Fi-like through and around patients, taking blood, artery, vein, and heart pictures. I had a glimpse of the imaging room from the hall just before I came out to sit here to wait: clean and sparkly, the four imaging technicians in starched blue scrubs, and the cardiologist, an ancient oracle, about to reveal obscure things that live behind screens.

On a slide show screen on the wall in the lobby, across from the waiting area couches, I could see photos of the Hope and Healing Garden, and reading the slides, discovered the garden has limited access. It’s for mental health patients.

I’ve been waiting almost two hours now. The oracle should be coming through the big set of automatic doors soon.

It’s hard to fix something that is a work in progress. The heart is a jalopy, constantly under repair; a fishing barge rising and falling with the tides, taking on water; a yo-yo with a broken string, a bicycle with a jumped chain, a stew of recycled images.

The gods make contact with the humans through the oracles. The people want miracles, but the gods grow jealous of the oracles and humans and make mistakes. What a strange way for a god to behave.

The modern god likes to hide. Like Tolstoy said, he sees and knows but waits, while humans, as Gertrude Stein remarked, inside, are always the same age. But I’m not sure about that. As Cornel West said, time is real, and we can’t break-dance at 70 like we could at 17. Or surf. But Isaiah said:

He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. (40 KJV)

And they shall be reborn and breathe again? Where is this Lord when you need him? Surely he must at least be weary of request after request after request. What else do people give him but requests? To fix your heart, he says, call a plumber. He gives you what you need, never what you want.

Ruddy Rubescent Red

RedIf you’re thinking about figurative language (and who isn’t?), you’ve probably bumped your head on the thought words have meaning, but whose? And too much meaning for their own good, or ours. We pick words like bananas, firm but yellow, not too green, ready to eat. We try to narrow our meaning, so as not to be misunderstood. Ambiguity is not valued in certain kinds of communication, but confusion is hard to avoid because readers puzzle over variations in a word’s meaning, and may disagree or simply read differently the meaning or significance of even the simplest of words.

It’s hard to stop words from connoting, from loitering. Words hang about, and we’re unsure what they’re going to mean next. Words are two-faced, and when you talk out of both sides of your mouth, you’re really asking for trouble. Denote this, literally, as if we are running our tongue around an auricle. The connotative meaning of a word is its suggestive, associative meaning, definitions farther down the word’s trough in the dictionary, the entry to the word corral. You might find a connection in its etymology between a word’s denotative and connotative meaning. The suggestive meaning of a word might include a cultural, technical, auditory, or personal source. Connotative meanings may be widespread and commonly understood, or limited to idiomatic or idiosyncratic inflections understood by only a few.

Try on, for example, the word red, the color, one of the three primary colors, located on the color wheel between orange and purple. What are some connotative meanings of the word red? Ideas, emotions, or things we might associate with red: shame, fear, or embarrassment; danger, risk, or emergency; love, passion, or temperature; emotion, anger, or temper; communism, US Republican states, or wine; blood, sacrifice, or courage; prostitution, fast cars, or valentines. Of course we think context is also a kind of corral, but its fences are weak.

Figurative language involves more than connotative meanings, but the difference between denotation and connotation provides an effective illustration of the difference between literal and figurative language, and since one of the characteristics of literature is the conspicuous use of figurative language, an early awareness that words may mean more than we want them to mean is useful. At the same time, literature involves more than the use of figurative language. Flaubert is very much interested in literal meaning and in literal descriptions. A Simple Heart might be described as a realistic portrait. But when Flaubert describes Felicite early in the novella, she is said to wear a red dress all through the year. A perspicacious reader may ask why a red dress? Why not a blue or green or white dress?

The narrator of “The Custom House” introductory chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter seems to be a perspicacious reader:

But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth, — for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth had reduced it to little other than a rag, — on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were  signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.

At first glance, we want nothing past denotative meaning. We get the literal meaning, forget the word, and move on. We don’t even bother rolling the word around in our mouth, tasting it before we swallow a meaning, minding our manners. The sentence got us to where we wanted to go; no need to get out and look under the hood. And we often keep connotative meanings, when we do experience them, to ourselves. And denotative meanings are fairly reliable, often going unchanged for long periods of time, while connotative meanings may change relatively quickly. We might first associate the color red with love, roses, and amorous adventures, but when Stephen Crane titled his novel about the Civil War The Red Badge of Courage, we may safely assume he was thinking the color of red might suggest something more along the lines of fear, blood, violence, and sacrifice. In the earlier parts of the 20th Century, and particularly during the 1950’s in the US, the word red was often used to suggest an association with communism, as in “the Red Scare”; a reference to a “red state” today appears to reverse that connotation. And then there’s true blue, Mary’s color.

For some reason, for Robert Burns, in his poem “A Red, Red Rose,” a single red was inadequate. Why does he repeat the word red in the title and the first line? Does he simply mean a very red rose?

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June…

For William Blake, in his poem “The Sick Rose,” primary red also seemed inadequate. How might our reaction to the poem change if Blake had said “Of red joy” rather than “Of crimson joy”?

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Is Burns’s rose blushing? Is Blake’s crimson closer to the color of blood than red? How might our reading of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” change if the line read “Of bloody joy”?

Even if we don’t make an effort to think consciously about the effects of words upon our reading experience, connotative meanings influence our comprehension and reaction. It is difficult to avoid the effects of connotation, of suggestive meanings. Remember the effect of the sound of fingernails being scraped on edge across the face of one of the green chalkboards back in grammar school? Words make noise. Noise soothes or grates. Words have texture and color and flavor. Some words are soft, mushy, others strong, firm. We like some words; we dislike others. When we get a bunch of words together we don’t like, we might say poetry, and spit them out. Or there’s been a stampede, words running ruddy and rubescent, out of the corral. But we can always brush away the ruddy gnats and make banana bread.

Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”

What is the “relation between literature and life” in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”? Maybe just this, that they both might move us to tears. But moving readers to tears may not have been Flaubert’s intent. If readers want to be moved to tears, all they need do is hit the streets, where reality resides, or watch the news. They don’t need books. But is crying into a book a kind of pleasure?

“’A Simple Heart’…moved me to tears,” Russell Baker said, in “Hymns to Joy,” a New York Times article, the quote selected for the back of a New Directions “Bibelot” (NDP819, 64 pages). What was omitted in the ellipsis was Baker’s simple guess that most literary folks probably will have read Flaubert’s tale of the long life of a 19th Century French servant, Felicite, but he had not. Baker selected it as he was gathering reading material to take on a vacation. But the angle of his article wasn’t about Flaubert or reading that moves one to cry, but the suggestion that reading for pleasure has become a lost pastime. But wouldn’t a common reader going on vacation want something a bit more éclair than Flaubert? But what is pleasure?

Like Baker, I had never read Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” and I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of Russell Baker. A cursory search found a witty, prolific journalist, and a host of Masterpiece Theatre – ah, of course. But I was sure of Harry Levin, also quoted on the back cover, having read his “Critical Introduction” to James Joyce. In Levin’s book “Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists” (1963), he says his subject is “the relation between literature and life.” Can literature not true to life move a reader to tears? Should literature resemble life? But what is life? In any case, while I wasn’t moved to tears by Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” I was moved to put something up on the blog – but what?

A recent post over at Bristlehound’s “navelgazer” blog takes on death as its topic. It’s a good post, witty and courageous. But as I get older, I think less of death than I do of getting older. Jenny Diski recently put something up at the Guardian on the topic of aging, concluding aging might be something easier to read about than to live through. I’ve written a bit about aging in past posts, and Flaubert’s passages on Felicite’s aging and passing reminded me of Atul Gawande’s moving articles on aging. How we respond to death may simply reflect how we respond to life. If life is a bummer, so too is death. If we take grudges to the grave, or we let others pass without our making amends, life is constriction. But none of this should bring tears to any reader’s eyes. Flaubert named his heroine Felicite for a reason, and he was a master of realism. Felicite is happiness, happy, another Gawande theme. But what is happiness?

Felicite is happy in spite of her predicament. This is why Flaubert named her Felicite – she is Flaubert’s definition of happiness. Her life begins with the existential decision to leave home after a potential partner jilts her for a chance with a woman with some dough. The only dough Felicite knows is the kind made into bread. But while Felicite is dependent on her mistress, she is independent in her capabilities, her skills, her ability to read others. It all seems so random, yet the plot elements also seem to fall into place naturally, inevitably, logically. Felicite examines her life, and it is worth living. Her every day is part of the exam, a test, in the end, she passes, even as the house decays and implodes upon her, while life in the street explodes with color and ritual and motion.