Monthly Archives: January 2011

Ophelia Act IV, Scene 5 Hamlet

We know what we are, but know not what we may be. (Hamlet Act IV, Scene 5)

Especially near the beginning of a new year filled with goals and resolutions that we may or may not be keeping, I think these words are worth remembering. Something I have learned over the course of my life is that tough times have often been the instrument that has shown me what I may be. The strength and skills that sometimes surface in the midst of the hurt and the suffering have very often come as a surprise.

In some ways we are like flour. Without a baker we are white powder on a shelf with a label: “Flour”. Inexperienced and uneducated, we know what we are: a dusty substance that came from wheat. With experience we may discover that some people are allergic to us. In those cases, if we remain inert in our package, we won’t hurt anyone. But if we stay in that package, we won’t help anyone either.  It’s when we are willing to get out, mix with others, be more than a little uncomfortable for a while and risk getting hot and possibly burned  that we realize that flour can also be bread, cookies, cake, gravy, noodles, sauces, biscuits, waffles, pancakes, muffins, pie, crackers, binding as a paste, life-giving as food, entertaining as a crucial element in the *penny flour game, a low cost special effect in home theatrical (and most likely outdoor) productions.

We know what we are, but know not what we may be. It’s a great time to get brave and pursue what we hope we may be, don’t you think?

*penny flour game: Fill a flat-bottomed bowl completely with flour, using a butter knife to remove the excess so that the flour is even with the top of the bowl. Place a plate face down on top of the bowl. Flip the bowl and plate over as one unit and set them on a table. Carefully remove the bowl. You should have a white mound of flour. Gently place a penny on the top. Players take turns cutting flour away from the penny with a butter knife, without shifting the penny in any way. The goal is to remove as much flour as possible, without tipping the penny. When the penny falls, put the flour back in the bowl and set it up again, letting a different player make the first cut.

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Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope

When I think about the sharp tugs, the personal disappointments, the yearnings and the longings we have as human beings to do better and be better, whether for those we love or for ourselves alone, two Shakespearean passages come to mind. I’ll share one of them today. Sonnet 29 opens thus: When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries And look upon myself and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d, Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, With what I most enjoy contented least;

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, With what I most enjoy contented leastI read these lines and know that inside, that’s me. I purposely seek out examples of excellence that I want to emulate. I study and watch with the intent to learn how a skill or a grace that I want to acquire is developed and done. It can be motivating, but it can also be discouraging when the distance between where I currently am and where I would like to be is great. These chasms can be frightening and difficult to cross. Ironically, it is often what I most want for myself that fills me with the greatest fear and dread. Where my motivation is the deepest and the most powerful is also where I am the least patient with my own efforts. It can make it enormously difficult to stick with it, to continue to take the necessary steps and to endure the embarrassing and torturous spills and setbacks that are often, unfortunately, an integral part of the growth process. How do you develop the strength and the courage to keep moving forward when what should be exhilarating isn’t, and what should be a joy isn’t fun?

Shakespeare has a suggestion: Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising I think on thee, and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate; For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings. I see this in two parts. First, love is a powerful motivator. Second, gratitude for what we do have is tremendously healing and stabilizing, especially during rough times.

Difficult days come to all of us, especially when we desire and are striving to improve and grow. I love how Shakespeare doesn’t ignore or diminish the painful thoughts and feelings that we experience day to day. I also love how it doesn’t have to end with the sad, that often, if we can direct our thoughts to the love and light that is already ours, at least in part, we can find happiness and joy in the present. It isn’t about having the whole world around us suddenly and obligingly burst into blessings and sunshine. It is about the power each of us possess to help reignite the “spark of divine fire” within us through kind thoughts and loving gestures.

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An Ever-Fixed Mark

The first time I actually connected with Shakespeare was when Kate Winslet recited a piece of Sonnet 116 in Sense and Sensibility near the end of the movie, in the rain: Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove: O no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken.

I remember memorizing that sonnet soon afterwards, reading it from the small piece of paper that I copied it to, reciting it over and over as I watered my front lawn my freshman year of college. I still love those words and find myself incredibly moved by them. Real love lasts. In my life I’ve been able to see living examples of this in hospitals, in burn units, in times of economic distress, in what comes after death for those of us left behind, and in sweet looks and moments shared with people who are not embarrassed by the love and admiration they feel for one another. This sonnet reminds me that this chosen and determined devotion is what real love is. It may not be common, but it does exist, and when it exists in us it is the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. It can help us through rough times and circumstances when we remember that love is not only a feeling but a determination to be there for those we love even to the edge of doom. Principled and devoted love is the gold standard; the real deal in a world full of tempting counterfeits.

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Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel…

Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel (Romeo and Juliet Act 3 Scene 3) which is why a lot of people get tripped up in Shakespeare- they can’t feel what they are reading… yet. The great thing about Shakespeare is that through his characters he gives voice to thoughts and feelings we experience as human beings every day but can’t always find adequate words to express on our own. Reciting as a character in a play can give us the freedom to express ideas and feelings that may be too frightening or audacious to hear from our own lips in relation to ourselves. The words and the characters give us boundaries that make connecting with emotions deep within ourselves a safe experience that can help cleanse, heal, and awaken the human and the divine in us.

In that spirit, it is infinitely helpful when reading Shakespeare to experiment with possible feelings behind the words. You can try it right now with this one line: Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel. Try reading the line while laughing or giggling. Say it boldly with conviction. Speak it as a question. Say it like you are in the heat of an argument. Say it like you would say “You don’t understand.” Pronounce it with an accent (or two or three- have fun here). Say it while frowning. Now while your mouth is open and your eyes are opened wide like you are surprised. Now say it as you think someone who has seen and experienced much in life would.

If reading with emotion is difficult for you, try this: Read the line v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y. Now say it as fast as you can. Whisper it. Read it with one word louder than the rest. Experiment with what word gets the emphasis. Say it while brushing your teeth. Say it while doing jumping jacks. Say it as you reach for something as high and then as low as you can. Say it as you sit down. Say it as you stand up. You probably have it memorized by now. Say it one last time. Does the line sound differently to you now than when you first began? Does it feel differently- more natural and real perhaps?

Go ahead and try it. The ways that help the words make sense and feel real to you may surprise you. Also, being silly with Shakespeare can help take the fear, the foreigness, and the “boring” out.

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