What I learned about and from Clover Adams

Last week I wrote about Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture commemorating Clover (Marian Hooper) Adams. This week I want to write about Clover Adams, the woman. I don’t want to know and remember her only because of the statue that commemorates her death. I don’t want to know and remember her as the wife of Henry Adams. I definitely do not want to know and remember her only as a woman who committed suicide. But what to remember about her?

Which leads to the ubiquitous question, how did we live before the internet and search engines? I can remember, and it was not pretty. So, I fired up my computer, and searched for Clover Adams’ name. Troll as I might, the findings were slim. And then I came across Natalie Dykstra’s biography of Clover, “Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life.” I struck gold with that find. Here is some of what I learned:

Clover was a practical and quick-witted woman. Henry James described Clover as an ideal specimen of a particular type of American woman: practical, honest, quick thinking with a streak of independence and rebellion. When she was 28, in 1872, she married Henry Adams, who was 5 years older than her. A typical day for the couple included horseback riding in the morning, Henry would take the afternoons for writing, Clover was left to fill that time as she might, then they would serve tea at 5PM for visitors, followed by dinner, and then perhaps an evening ride, a stretch of reading by the fire, dinners with friends or activities supporting various causes.

But Clover battled dark moods throughout her life. She used her wit to maintain perspective and her will to manage people and events around her to suit her needs.

In May 1883, Clover took up photography, both taking and printing her own photographs. She didn’t just take photographs, she made art, and the process changed her life, giving her a new focus and purpose. She reveled in the process: composing the scene, planning and exposing the image, developing the negative, sensitizing the printing paper, making and developing the print—processes that required patience and concentration.

But just as Clover discovered photography as a way to express herself and her creativity, her life started to unravel. Around 1884, Henry evidenced a growing interest in Lizzy Cameron, one of Clover’s friends. It there is no evidence that Lizzy and Henry were ever more than friends, but about that same time Henry began to speak about how he and his wife had grown bored with each other. In April 1885, Clover’s father died. After her father’s death, Clover’s wit deteriorated into sarcasm. By Jul 1885, Clover was profoundly depressed. She lost her appetite and could not sleep. But in late November, she showed signs of improvement and recovery. In early December 1885, Clover committed suicide by drinking from a vial of potassium cyanide, a chemical she used in developing her photographs. The vehicle of her creative release became her pathway to self-destruction.

Clover Adams was a woman who had it all, who had a perfect life rich in family, friends, creativity and the means of enjoying it all. And she stands as a testament to us all that sometimes everything is not enough, that what looks like perfection may in fact be pyrite (fool’s gold).

So, trust your heart, my friends. Be honest with yourself. Stay close to at least a friend or two. When you need some help, ask. Even the hero’s journey includes a mentor/guide/helpmate.

One thing I learned for sure from the Covid years: hugs—warm, cuddly, bear hugs from people you choose—those hugs are precious and life giving.

On loving your neighbor as yourself

 I find the great invocation, “love your neighbor as yourself” which finds expression in many of our world’s religions, to be problematic, not because I have any trouble with the idea of loving my neighbor, but because as I look around my world I simply do not think that many (if any) of us love ourselves all that well. Love your neighbor as yourself. How well do any of us really love ourselves? Psychiatry, psychology, social work and self help industries would not be flourishing to the degree that they are if authentic self love flourished. Rather self love stands as an anathema, it is more often taken as self indulgence rather than acceptance and cherishing based on awareness, knowledge and insight.  More often those who begin to walk the path of self-acceptance experience a duality within themselves – good and evil, angel and demon, love and hate – and then work to nurture one side while banishing the other. But, a house divided against itself will never stand. Until we each learn to fully cherish our selves for all of who we are, in all of our wonderful, delicious complexity, there will be no loving the other well. Until we each learn to fully cherish our selves for all of who we are, in all of our complexity, and until we learn to love each other well, there will be no justice, no respect for human rights, no peace.

 ‘Love yourself well, and love your neighbor as yourself’ is perhaps a better rendition of the precept. Karen Armstrong has eloquently described a path to loving our neighbor in her book, “twelve steps to a compassionate life.” The first step: learn about compassion progresses to look at your own world; develop compassion for yourself; develop empathy with others; practice mindfulness; take action; be aware of how little we know; consider how we should speak to one another; act with concern for everybody; continuously develop your knowledge; expand your recognition; and love your enemies.

 And as I come back to ‘love yourself well’ and Armstrong’s second step, ‘develop compassion for yourself’ I find myself thinking about how little we seem to appreciate the depth and breadth of human complexity, of how the trajectory of understanding trends toward parsimony and simplicity. But we are neither parsimonious nor simple beings. To bring Occam’s razor to understanding ourselves (and others) may be nothing more than self injury and cutting at best and perhaps slitting our wrists at worst.

 Recently, as I was reading Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, on page 75 I came across a particularly apt metaphor for what I am trying to get at here:

A person designs for herself a garden with a hundred kinds of trees, a thousand kinds of flowers, a hundred kinds of fruit and vegetables. Suppose, then, that the gardener of this garden knew no other distinction than between edible and inedible, nine tenths of this garden would be useless to him. He would pull up the most enchanting flowers and hew down the noblest trees and even regard them with a loathing and envious eye. This is what we do with the flowers of our soul. What does not stand classified as either man or wolf, what does not fit neatly into our predefined dichotomies we do not see at all.

 In order to love our selves well, we need to learn to look at ourselves with open hearts and minds, with the eyes of loving kindness and fierce open hearted compassion. Then we can begin to love our neighbors as our selves. Then we can begin to work together to build a world of justice, a world where human dignity (in all of its messy complexity) is respected, a world of peace where differences and diversity is celebrated!

The Scorpion and the Frog

Once upon a time in a land where anthropomorphism was alive and well, there lived a scorpion who lived on a secluded mountain. The scorpion was well known in throughout the community, and was regarded with wariness by one and all. The scorpion grew weary of this, was hoping for a bit of challenge and intrigue. So the scorpion set off down the mountain and across the valley looking for change and adventure. Soon enough there came the Delaware River. Just the day before there had been a heavy rain storm, and the river was at near flood level, it was wide and running swiftly.  The scorpion stood on the bank, considering the situation. New Jersey was calling out. It was the land of Jersey Shore, Jerseylicious, and The Real Housewives of Jersey. This was the place to be. But as the scorpion paused and looked, there was not see a way across the river. Running upstream and downstream, and the waters looks too wide, too deep, too fast to be forded even by a mean and lean scorpion.

 Just on the verge of abandoning hope, then the scorpion came across a frog sitting on the bank just across the river, “Hey, Froggy, would you be kind enough to carry me across the river?” the scorpion shouted across.

 “Yo, scorpion, what kind of fool do you take me for!” the frog responded. “How do I know you won’t take me out with your stinger?”

 “Easy queasy” replied the scorpion, “If I kill you, I will drown! I can’t swim; otherwise I would just pop in the river and swim across on my own.”

 The frog thought about it, and then asked, “so, how do I know you won’t wait until we are close to the other side, and then you would sting me and kill me when you don’t need me anymore?”

 “Gratitude,” said the scorpion. “Once you have carried me across the river, I will be so grateful to you my gratitude would prevent me from such an action.”

 The frog thought a bit more, what the scorpion said made sense, and so the frog swam across the river, jumped up the other bank and agreed to carry the scorpion across the river from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

 The scorpion crawled onto the frog and with his claws, held onto the frog’s delicate back for dear life.  The frog jumped into the Delaware, but stayed near the surface so that the scorpion would not drown. The current carried the two unlikely travelers downstream, much as it had as Washington attempted his crossing of the very same (but different) river some years before, and like Washington before them, they made progress across the river. They were just about half way across the Delaware when the frog felt a sharp sting, and turning to see what had happened, the frog saw the scorpion pulling a stinger from the frog’s back. The frog was stunned! How could this be happening! The scorpion had sworn an oath! As the frog felt the numbness permeate limbs and his body, the frog croaked out, to the scorpion, “you fool! What did you do? Now we will both die! And for what?!?”

 The scorpion shrugged and said, “It’s my nature, I just couldn’t help myself” even as they both sank to the river bottom.

 Just one’s nature! Do we have an immutable nature?

 Is change possible?

 Should we trust? Who? When?

 Is altruism foolish?

 Does no good deed go unpunished?

 There are no answers here today, just questions. But, maybe wisdom is knowing the right questions?