Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet – Margaret Atwood

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“Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.”

Margaret Atwood is, hands down, one of my favorite contemporary authors. It should come as no surprise to anyone, therefore, that I was rather excited when I received her short story, “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet”, as a reading assignment for a Climate Fiction unit.

Until this point in my life, when people have mentioned climate change or global warming, I haven’t thought much of it. It has always seemed like a distant problem, one I won’t have to deal with in my lifetime. It feels like a giant, tangled, messy ball of yarn and I can’t tell where it ends or where it begins. I can’t seem to grasp the entire concept long enough to understand it, and that is terrifying.

Atwood’s short story, “Time Capsule Found on a Dead Planet,” paints a somber portrait of a decayed planet and the demise of the life that once inhabited it.  Atwood describes a world rich in resources that is swallowed by its own greed and desire for wealth and power.

I have had the privilege of growing up in a very rural area – full of trees, rivers, and rolling hills of lush green wilderness, and just about every other type of natural beauty one could think of. I have recycled my entire life, and I learned what a carbon footprint was long before I actually understood what it meant. I have spent much of my life trying to give back to this planet, and I will continue to do so.  My boyfriend teases me and calls me The Lorax, but it has been approximately a year since we decided to cut out single use plastics from our home – water bottles, grocery bags, etc. We are not always successful, but we keep trying every chance we get.  It’s all about those baby steps, and picking ourselves back up when we fall off the wagon.

My actions may be minuscule in the attempts to save our planet, but could you imagine the impact we would all have if everyone tried a little harder? Walking or biking where you are able, eliminating single use plastics, recycling and reusing, and buying produce from local markets are all small and relatively easy steps one may take to contribute.  I think if everyone focused a little harder, it would make an astounding difference.  Reliance on fossil fuels is an enormous issue to address – but we are David, and them, Goliath.  I will continue to do all that I can, and I will continue to talk about these global issues; it gives me reassurance that there is hope.  We can make a difference, one baby step at a time.

Gertrude Stein Gives Me Tremendous Anxiety and I Love Her For it

M24554-16 001“What is the answer? In that case, what is the question?”

I would like to talk about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, but in order to do that we must first take a step back and discuss the light, the context, in which is best to regard Stein and her work. Trust me.  It’s a necessary step when addressing this book because to understand Stein, one must consider the climate of the artistic world that surrounded her.

Gertrude Stein was an American writer who moved to Paris in 1903, and remained in France for the remainder of her life.  She hosted a Paris salon where the leading figures of modernism in art and literature would meet, such as Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald (of the F. Scott variety), and Matisse.

picasso-violin-255x300Cubism: where objects are analyzed, broken up, and reassembled in an abstract form with multiple viewpoints to represent the greater context

Stein said, “Everything I have done has been influenced by Flaubert and Cezanne, and this gave me a new feeling about composition. Up to that time composition had consisted of a central idea, to which everything else was an accompaniment and separate but which was not an end in itself, and Cezanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing.” (I swiped that quote from a PowerPoint slide in my American Literature II class – thanks, Dr. Cassel 😉 )

So when reading Gertrude Stein, don’t get caught up in the meanings of the words she uses, and instead consider her words like paint being applied to a cubist image. Each bit of paint has a purpose, but it may not necessarily be your traditional understanding of that image. Got it?  I’m sure you do. Here we go.

Here is a small poem from Tender Buttons:
Mildred’s Umbrella

A cause and no curve, a cause and loud enough, a cause and extra a loud clash and an extra wagon, a sign of extra, a sac a small sac and an established color and cunning, a slender grey and no ribbon, this means a loss a great loss a restitution.

Still with me? Yeah.  See what I mean?  Good Lord.  I hope you aren’t trying to read this under the influence.  I can’t really tell you not to, though, as I sit at the computer in my own state of giddy intoxication.  I am many things, but a hypocrite is not one of them.

As I said earlier, one must not consider Stein’s poem as a whole.  To do so while assigning traditional sense to the words she uses makes it disjointed, repetitive, and perhaps even nonsense. It reads like a stream of consciousness. As a lifelong voracious reader, how am I supposed to read Stein’s words without allowing them their meaning? My chest hurts, this suddenly feels like a Mad Lib.

When first unpacking this piece, the first thing that came to my mind was an automobile. In the early 1900’s, Ford’s Model T automobile was indeed a “sign of extra” and most definitely an “established color,” as Henry Ford himself is quotes as saying, Any customer can have a car painted in any color that he wants so long as it is black.”  Then, the poem’s “no curve” and “extra loud clash” potentially becomes about a car accident. That would indeed be a great loss, potentially in more ways than one.

In contrast, a friend felt it was about the expatriates’ sentiments of the time period that they could not express themselves in art and literature the way they wanted in America, and this constant clash is why they moved to France. To move from your country would indeed be a great loss, and great restitution.

Or, perhaps the lack of curve means that the umbrella won’t open, even though there is cause to open it. Why won’t this Mildred open it? Has she lost it? What if she thwarted a robbery, and busted it over the head of a seedy villain, and it is now stuck? Are there zombies?

Okay, I acknowledge I went too far on that last bit.

 The amazing aspect of art is that neither of us are wrong, excluding the bit about the zombies.
Possibly.
Probably.
The most beautiful thing about literature and art is that cliche of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.  Writer and director Joss Whedon says, “All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend.  Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid.  It grows up and talks back to you.” Regardless of a writer’s or painter’s intent, everyone has their own interpretation of the piece that has been drawn from their own experiences, emotions, and lifestyles.

You should give more poems from Tender Buttons a chance.  I was intimidated and very put off at first when I tried reading this book, but now that I understand the light that it must be read, I am enjoying it significantly more. Gertrude Stein is a fascinating woman, and if they decide to make a Biopic about her extraordinary life I nominate Tom Wilkinson for the role.

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Hands – Sherwood Anderson

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“You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams.  You want to be like others in town here.  You hear them talk and you try to imitate them….You must forget all you have learned.  You must begin to dream.  From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”

I feel so terribly sorry for Wing Biddlebaum.  His story is nothing but alienation, fear, isolation, and loneliness.  Biddlebaum lives alone on the outskirts of town, and  he “did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years.”

Before moving to Winesburg, Ohio, Wing was a school teacher.  He was wrongly accused of touching his students inappropriately.  He was beaten, and driven from the town by a mob in the night.  It is because of these very accusations that Wing lives his life in isolation.  Wing feels there must be something about his hands that are to blame for what happened, because as he was beaten the child’s father roared, “Keep your hands to yourself.”

Symbolically, hands are used as tools to express oneself.  But because of the nature of the accusations against Wing, he spends the majority of his time confining his hands to his pockets. By doing so, Wing is unable to express himself which in turn may suggest his inability to connect with others and the narrator likens his hands to “the beating wings of an imprisoned bird.”

I read a separate article about this short story a while ago, and I cannot seem to find it again to share.  But the author raised an interesting point about the final paragraph and its religious imagery that I had not considered.  The author argues that even though Wing has been misunderstood by others, his hands are not an expression of evil or of something dark but rather they are simply his tools for communicating with others and expressing love – not unlike someone devout in faith utilizing the rosary to communicate and express affection to God. I wish I could find that article again, it was very interesting.