The Leaves Begin to Fall

I was talking to an MIT senior the other day about her application for a scholarship. In it, she said that life doesn’t have a prescribed arc. Agreeing that this was true, I pointed out that an individual life tends to move in spirals, that the things that were minor interests might a decade or two later become an obsession (a larger loop), and obsessions from one age might become minor background noise many years later (a smaller loop). But we are likely to continue to care about the same or at least similar subjects throughout our lives.

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For example, I have always been more or less religious. I came “this” close to becoming a Roman Catholic nun thirty-some years ago. With friends, I co-founded Middlebury College’s Interfaith Council. After I left the Roman Church and became Episcopalian, I got a Master of Arts in Christian theology. This all happened across twenty-five years.

I have always been a martial artist. I started out in high school doing Aikido, went to college and did Japanese karate. Thirty years later, I practice Chinese kung fu. Although years of therapy have taught me that not all interactions are inherently competitive or combative, I still tend to face the world prepared to do battle. So sue me.

I am a poet, have been since high school. I’ve published in professional journals, was nominated once for the Pushcart Prize, and have taught in university night school. I write (sorta! sometimes!) this blog. I see the world in pictures and turns of phrase.

I have in other places described these patterns as being my watermark: the Battling Bard of Boston, who wrestles with God and man. Yeah, it’s a little over the top, but it works for me.

The point is that these pieces of my identity are always going to be the first I will draw on when I am faced with troubling times.

And, let’s face it, children: these are troubling times indeed.

When tiki torches are not being used to lend a quiet glow to gatherings of families and friends, but to lend the element of fire to make an American Nazi rally more terrifying, we’re doing something wrong.

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When a disturbed young man drives an SUV into a crowd at a peaceful protest that he disagrees with, killing a woman, and state legislatures contemplate legislation that will legalize “accidental” death when a car hits people in a road, we’re doing something wrong.

When we see two Category 5 hurricanes in two weeks–with more on the way–and dozens of our legislators, who ought to have the education to know better, still deny the existence and increasing power of climate change, we’re doing something wrong.

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So yes, I am deeply troubled, but I am done being troubled and silent about it. I don’t want to spread pain around. That never goes well. But I do want to question power structures that support unegalitarian regimes of social interaction:

  • Confederate statues that lionize the losers of an attack on US unity, for the purpose of making people of color feel attacked;
  • gerrymandering that prioritizes white communities over communities of color in voting–just as they are in environmental and educational justice;
  • and the lag in money for infrastructure in communities of color, compared with affluent white communities.

And don’t even get me started on the whole GOP attack on Obamacare. God knows that American healthcare, while having the potential to be the best in the world, lags sorely in people’s ability to access and pay for it.

Troubling times, in a country whose founding principles call us to do much, much better.

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In 1775, Patrick Henry encouraged the convention in Virginia to allow him to organize a company of volunteer cavalry in every county in Virginia to protect themselves from the attack that he saw soon to come from the British. He said:

The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country….  Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it….

“Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne….

Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

I am not quite ready to say the same thing, and I hope I never have to. But at times like these, we need to remember that the people of this country have endured times like these before, and like them, we will overcome them if we, like they, stand up.

 

Source: Wirt, William. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry . (Philadelphia) 1836, as reproduced in The World’s Great Speeches, Lewis Copeland and Lawrence W. Lamm, eds., (New York) 1973.

The Fall Is Here, and Winter is Coming

I know that I have not written much on my blog since December. But a few things have happened in the last few days that have changed my thinking.

First, on Saturday, I went to the protest on Boston Common, where people rallied in front of the State House to support DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and reject 44-and-a-quarter’s ending of the dreams of the Dreamers, children brought to America by their immigrant parents. It is not their fault that they are undocumented. Obama’s administration knew that. The current administration does not.

I marched because I interact with international students on a daily basis at Northeastern University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and, years ago, at Emerson College). I have worked at all these places with the children of immigrants. Were they legal? I have always assumed so, but the odds are that a few weren’t or aren’t. They are, as a rule, smart, motivated students who want to make the world a better place, and an American higher education will help them do that. They need us and we need them.

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So I marched and chanted with friends and strangers. I took pictures of the signs I saw, and as we marched, a lot of shoppers and tourists took pictures of us. Were we entertainment? Were we an inspiration? Were we an annoyance, cutting off the road for half an hour? I don’t know.

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Two days later I got a letter from an old friend, someone who has always, since I met her when she was a college freshman, wanted to have a positive impact on the world. She has always hoped to do it through her creative writing, as I have, and for several years she was very active in the movement for food justice. But the last ten months have been hard on her too.

She asked, “What does it mean to live a life of historical relevance?

What does it mean to live a life of political relevance?

What does it mean to consciously participate in this particular moment in history, in this particular time and to fall on the right side of history?

Who has done that? Who is doing it now?

And how do I fit my own existence into this particular time and place and make it as potent and transformative as possible?…

And how do ideals and pragmatic strategic viewpoints find equilibrium instead of tangling in conflict and negating one another?”

These are powerful question, to which I have no answers.

But, as I have often found, when the brain has no mooring space and cannot offer guidance, the body leads the way. After reading her ten-page letter through, I found myself rearranging the books on the shelves in my living room. I have over 900 books (not counting cartoon books and cookbooks), largely arranged by categories that can fit in a single bookcase:

Science (small)

Theology (three shelves)

Writing about Writing

Books about Books.

Cartoons

Poetry (two shelves)

Topics I Am Writing About

(My television and space for my cat to stare at me)

Popular Culture/TV

Architecture

Fiction (several shelves)

Intellectual History

Church History

Turn of the 19th/20th century History

History of World War II

Holocaust Studies

Mythology (Norse/Egyptian/Japanese)

More Theology

Medieval European History

Asian Martial Arts

Cats/Business/Classic books

Philosophy, Mainly Asian

There’s other stuff, but these are the subjects that get whole shelves in my small apartment. These are the subjects that have survived my annual cull and sell. These are the subjects that will guide you to the bits of my mind that are mappable.

I always have at least one shelf that contains books that will inform me on the current topic I am writing about or at least thinking about. Last year at this time, it included such titles as:

Bell, Quentin. On Human Finery.

Boyer, G. Bruce. True Style: The History & Principles of Classic Menswear.

Mason, Philip: The English Gentlemen: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal.

On Sunday night, I pulled out the old and replaced them with titles from other shelves:

 

Dorff, Elliot, N. The Way into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World).

Gossett, Thomas F, Race: The History of an Idea.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Anatomy of Power.

 

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure.

Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.

Mandelbaum, Seymour J. Open Moral Communities.

 

Meinecke, Friedrich. The German Catastrophe: The Social and Historical Influences which Led to the Rise and Ruin of Hitler and Germany.

Oliver, Mary. New and Selected Poems.

Scarry, Elaine. Thinking in an Emergency.

 

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Wallace, Max. The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich.

Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

 

Bit of a change, but difficult times lead to difficult reading, especially when contemplating having to do some difficult writing. More than half of these books are new; I got them during or after my MA in Theological Studies. But one I’ve had for a long time, and it is also the oldest. Meinecke’s book was published in 1950; I bought it in 2005. I’ve always cared about World War II and the Holocaust, although in retrospect I thought that understanding how people could come to do such horrible things was an exercise in knowledge for the sake of knowledge, not because I ever thought I would have to fight Nazism here on American soil. But as the white supremacy boiling under the surface of American national life has reared its ugly head lately, I find myself instead remembering that those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.

And as God is my witness, we are not going there again. Not here.

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All of these books that now march across my Current Passion Shelf will inform the things I talk about here in the next few months. So, if you’re up for that, stick with me. If you don’t want to hear about it, that’s okay too. I will still talk about poetry, of course, and that is one reason why Mary Oliver is in a list with Galbraith, Lakoff, and Zimbardo. In the 1960s, during the fight for civil rights, feminism and an end to the war in Vietnam, protesters always sang and recited poetry. Art keeps us going when the road ahead is dark and dangerous.

All I know is that I am sick of feeling like Hamlet did in the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, when he lays out how awful things have been happening and he dare not speak of it.

He says, “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (I.ii.160).

Well, fuck that.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in the year I was born, “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.”

 

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam.” Riverside Churh, New York. 4 April 1967. Lecture. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/speeches/Beyond_Vietnam.pdf. Accessed 19 Sept. 2017.