From the Ashes, a Fire Shall Rise

Spring has arrived. It took about 123 weeks, but it happened. The snowbells are blooming, the sun is shining, the Democrats took back the House, and I think I may be able to write again.

Until the last presidential election here in the US, I had not clearly seen what an act of hope writing is: we hope we figure out our thinking, we hope someone publishes it, we hope someone reads it, we hope it makes a difference. And when your hopes for a better world, or a good world, or at least a world not currently ablaze and flooding at the same time, at a time, I say, when those hopes are dashed not just in the course of an evening as the map of your nation turns red with what isn’t currently blood but could be, but also over the course of day after day, week after week, month after month—

I think you see where I’m going with this. Circumstances like that make it hard to have enough hope to write.

I’ve tried. I’ve started things, short and long, but they never seem to lead anywhere and I can’t see the way forward. So I stopped.

It reminds me a bit of that moment in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry is up in Dumbledore’s office and he sees his professor’s old, sick bird burst into flames and turn into a pile of ash. “Your bird,” says Harry frantically when Dumbledore returns to his office. “I couldn’t do anything—he just caught fire—”

Dumbledore explains, “Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.”

I was thinking of this because of a project I got starting with a friend and the thought that our conversations these past few days got the ashes sparking again. I will be writing about that soon, and hopefully (feathers crossed) often in the coming days. And weeks. And months.

Image: “Phoenix Rising” by Michael Balchan0316-phoenix-rising

Recognizing the Paradigm


I have been spending my summer vacation so far rereading the Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter: Goblet of Fire, the three European wizarding schools are set in a competition against each other. The individual champions must face dangerous tasks to prove how good they are at magic, strategic thinking and sheer bravery, all in the interest of fostering international and inter-school cooperation. Our Olympics are very similar, using a competition to foster cooperation.

This seems odd. Aren’t the skills that are inherent to competition kind of opposite those that are inherent to cooperation? I have been thinking about this in relation to my teaching these last two or three years. After teaching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” two to five times a year for the last twenty-plus years, I have seen how he manages to avoid the language of combativeness and argument and replace it with a more nonviolent language of persuasion. He always treats his readers not as opponents who have to be put down or put right, but rather as people who don’t realize they are imminent allies or possibly already allies. This is a very different way of presenting one’s ideas and, if the American political discourse going on these days is a marker, possibly an alien one.

But it is not just politics that seem inherently combative. The news is full of this kind of language, from politics, to sports, to weather. So where do we go for alternate ways of speaking? I wonder if there are texts out there about artistic collaboration, people describing how they work together to create a shared vision. We need more of that and we need it yesterday everywhere. You can’t change the world’s paradigm if you can’t even talk outside the paradigm.