the mud of sex and violence is one with the good earth

hand-made raggedy Ann & Andy dolls

“Don’t write so much about sex and violence,” my mom told me. She had made Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls for her boys. As a child, I enjoyed sleeping with Raggedy Ann and beating my brothers over the head with either doll. “Sex and violence have long been central aspects of life. I write about what’s important,” I countered.

Many years later my mom made new Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls for herself. She even sewed fall, winter, and spring outfits for them. She also made Raggedy Ann and Andy’s dolls for her twin and her closest friend. One of her twin’s granddaughters caused a serious injury to Raggedy Ann’s head. Injuries are part of life. My mom would have loved to have even just one granddaughter or grandson.

To the day of her sudden and unexpected death three weeks ago, my mom wasn’t bitter at her four sons for not producing any grandchildren. She made the most of life as it rolled out for her. To remind me of how much she loved me, she made a print of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, wrote below the print “We love you!”, and framed the work beautifully before giving it to me.

raggedy Ann & Andy: we love you

I enjoyed talking with my mom about her various artistic endeavors. One day she asked me what sort of art I liked most. I said images of naked women. I knew my mom enjoyed figure drawing. I myself am a defender of the male gaze. Today I have hanging on my apartment walls several of my mom’s artworks representing naked or near naked women. My mom had a generous heart for her boys.

female nude figure drawing

reclining nude

My mom didn’t only draw and paint naked women only for me. She had been taking figure drawing classes occasionally ever since her boys had nominally grown up. She made art in a wide range of media and with many different subjects. She also delighted in gardening. On my kitchen wall is one of her works of fragments, combining abstract watercolor and her calligraphy of quotes.

garden fragments painting

At the bottom-center of this garden artwork is the quote “mud is the most poetical thing in the world.” She explicitly attributed that quote in small, plain letters to “R.H. Blyth.” Reginald Horace Blyth was born to economically struggling parents in England in 1898. He was imprisoned during World War I for being a conscientious objector and pacifist. He thus escaped the massive slaughter of men in World War I. Blyth married an English woman in 1924, began studying Japanese culture and Zen in 1926 in Korea under Japanese occupation, adopted a Korean boy in 1933, and got divorced in 1935. Two years later he married a Japanese woman. They had two children. In 1939, Blyth became an English teacher at a high school in Japan. He sought to become a Japanese citizen. Instead, the Japanese interned him in a camp for enemy aliens from 1941 to 1945, as the U.S. did to Japanese-Americans during that time. Blyth remained devoted to Japanese culture, became a professor at a Japanese university, and lived out the rest of his life in Japan. Our world is a dirty place.

I have long been skeptical that mud is the most poetical thing in the world. What does that mean, really? My mom liked to work with her hands — kneading bread, collecting and stirring kitchen scraps into her compost pile, and many other hand crafts. My mom surely didn’t read any of Blyth’s works. She wasn’t much into Zen or haiku. My mom apparently picked up Blyth’s quote about mud as an isolated quote of wisdom or inspiration. That quote probably appealed to her through sensuous connections she made between mud and her personal experiences.

I am no longer skeptical that mud is the most poetical thing in the world. Blyth was a Buddhist, not a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. Nonetheless, I now understand Blyth’s insight like this:

The Lord God formed the human from humus-soil, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.

{ וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח
בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה }

The English word “poetry” is linguistically rooted in the ancient Greek verb “to make {ποιέω}.” My mom, in equal conjugal partnership with my dad, gave their flesh to the bodies of four new human beings. In the same way everyone was made. We’re all made of mud. I write about that. My mom no longer tells me to do otherwise.

on that little blue engine and the horror of unbounded possibilities

When she was about thirty-five, my mom read to me Shel Silverstein’s “The Little Blue Engine” as bedtime reading. My mom still remembered doing that about thirty-three years later. She then gave to me that poem in a book that she made with her own hands.

Today, college students probably wouldn’t have read to them “The Little Blue Engine” without a preceding trigger warning. Here’s the problem: the little blue engine was little and weak, yet it aspired to climb a tall hill. In the rhythm of a machine, not a human being, the little blue engine repeatedly engaged in self-affirmation: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” But it couldn’t. It failed badly. It fell back terribly and got all banged up.

While the “The Little Blue Engine” supports a violent attack on self-identity, my mom crafted her book beautifully with care and empathy. She embossed on the cover and the title page a small, charming locomotive image that she designed. Having taught herself calligraphy, she wrote the book in a child-simple letter style (she could write much more ornately). At the same time, she used multiple colors for writing the text and used some typographic design that a child would like. She hand-stitched the binding for the book with a soft, silk-like thread, not a hanging rope for self-destruction.

cover page for The Little Blue Engine

little blue engine fail

little blue engine couldn't do it

bedtime memories

I don’t have any memory of childhood bedtime trauma from hearing “The Little Blue Engine.” I’ve tried to do things that I think I can do, and have failed to do them. For example, I tried to write a great Russian novel, and failed. Failure doesn’t bother me much. I actually like to try to do things for which success is doubtful.

Making this book about thirty-three years after she had read to me “The Little Blue Engine,” my mom was concerned about the ending. We had a long telephone conversation about it. She said she wanted to change the ending. I told her that I liked the ending and that there was no need to change it. She didn’t agree. She wrote an alternate ending and wanted to know what I thought of it. I said that her alternate ending didn’t sound as good and wasn’t as poetic. She didn’t agree. My mom wasn’t one to change her view on anything in response to whatever I said. But she was very generous. She wrote the original ending to “The Little Blue Engine” and a replacement page that I could slide in over the original ending to make it how she preferred.

alternate ending

This insertable alternate ending is now my favorite feature of my mom’s hand-made book. My mom’s preferred ending reflects mainstream American ideology across centuries. She lived the American dream as the daughter of an immigrant father who began earning money as a door-to-door peddler of women’s clothes in New York City. My mom’s father went on to become a successful small-businessperson. In recent decades academics have droned on incessantly about the social construction of reality. Who wouldn’t want to believe that anything can be and anyone can do anything? The book with the insertable alternate ending incorporates important, cherished ideology. But it also allows uncovering the possibility of disastrous failure.

Within the same Shel Silverstein poetry book that contains “The Little Blue Engine” is another poem providing a radically different perspective. It’s a poem explicitly addressed to a child:

Listen to the Mustn’ts

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me —
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

While she probably read it to me as a child, my mom never said anything about this poem to me as an adult. Two weeks ago my mom died suddenly and unexpectedly. If she were still alive today and she wanted to change the ending to this second poem, I would readily agreed. Those last three verses now scare me.