Monday, December 28, 2009

Seekers And Finders

As Socrates said to Aristotle just before his Hemlock shake, The unexamined life is not worth living. Internal Revenue, I’m sure, would agree.

Most of us have been self-examining for decades; lifting rocks for small but tell-tale signs, seeking patterns, pondering the imponderable. We have paused more than once wondering what life is asking of us. Ever on the verge of a grand reply we are always met with yet another even grander question.

My step-son, Ron and his wife, Laura, have a ritual of inviting ten guests for New Year’s Eve dinner. A six-course banquet is served at the rate one course per hour during which time a question is thrown out to be chewed on until the next dish appears on the table.

I have no quarrel with questions. Some of my best sentences end with question marks. But let's hear it now for exclamation points! My wife takes it that one step further. Peggy is not only a seeker, she is a finder.

Finders are rare. They are the ones who make the most of what is right in front of them. They listen and hear music or overhear a voice in the next booth. They see and they notice a line of beauty in something discarded, the way a shadow is thrown against a wall

Peggy has antennae. She picks up sounds I hear as static. She stops the clock just as she has halted the calendar. Pushing 89 she is the youngest person I know,

While I’m busy weighing bloated abstractions she is down on her knees collecting fish-like leaves or an angular twig that will sculpt the space around a vase.

True, the journey itself is sufficient for most. Self-help books keep bookstores in business; readers seeking large truths waiting for the light bulb to shine. While seekers are riding the waves finders are dwelling in harbors.

Our forefathers aren’t called founding fathers for nothing. The enlightenment produced many great thinkers but it took Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams et al to actualize the vision.

Life gives us moments, the poet Eleanor Graham wrote, and for these moments we give our lives. Peggy lives her life in moments. Her poems are often found-poems plucked from the quotidian. And even more astonishing to me are the close relationships she has forged out of casual encounters.

Several of her doctors have a regard for her close to family. When a favorite checker in the market died she was the lone white person at her memorial service. She became the confidant and dear friend of a teller at the bank. In a hill town in France I dropped Peggy off at shop while I fetched the car. Ten minutes later I returned to find she and the shopkeeper had bonded like sisters..

Hers is a life self-realized. She looks In, she looks out; a discovery without end. This is not necessarily an endorsement of what already is but an engagement with life, various as it is. Beyond the final No there can be heard a Yes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Rally Around Barack, Boys

Our president is beleaguered. He's been vilified by the vile opposition for the past year and now his own followers are abandoning ship.

His natural instinct seems to be toward conciliation and quieting the rhetoric. Perhaps he has been threading the needle too much. His attempts to placate conservatives have gained hardly a peep of support from them. In the meantime his staunch supporters have reason to be dismayed.

However we need some perspective. Lincoln was responsible for the largest mass execution of Indians in history when he allowed the hanging of 37 Sioux.

Our greatest president also passed the Railway Act in 1862 which gave away ten miles of land for every mile of railway built. A corporate windfall creating the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age.

As for abolition of slavery, that took him two years. Before emancipation he opposed only the extension of slavery.

The point is this. Obama needs our voice to push him to do the right thing. He needs to feel a ground swell at his back to counter the noise from the nitwits and corporate interests. What he doesn't need are the rants of condemnation.

There are those in our midst whose habitat is some distant perch from where they shoot down everything which isn't as they would wish. I know this radical posturing. I was one of them. It's too easy and self-serving. It gives vent and secures a safe argument but does little to advance the agenda.

To be sure, decisions have been made by this White House which seem indistinguishable from the previous administration and demand an explanation. e.g. defending John Yoo of the torture memos, opposition to the landmine treaty and delayed reversal of the Don't ask, don't tell policy to name a few. I believe we're going to see a correction on these very soon.

It has been said many times that there is a shadow government in place which operates regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. To the extent this is true the president has a mostly custodial job minding the shop.

We ask that in his second year Obama be bolder in his initiatives for job creation and show the door to his economic team whose protection of the banks has not yet re-started the engine. Clearly the faces are too familiar and chummy.

It took Lincoln far too long to dump his incompetent generals. I would hope Obama connects the dots and we see some correctional changes in 2010. His is the only name on the marquee; we must seize his term of office as an opportunity not as a dartboard.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Solstice

Such a fuss over a birthday. From menorah to manger….get a good fable with powerful metaphors, tie it into the solstice and tell it often enough so folks take it literally and you have a religion.

It didn’t hurt when Charles Dickens gave us some cozy images and Hallmark cards smelled a good idea. Then drag out a few choice words and phrases just for the occasion like Merry and Jolly and peace on earth.

Buffy St. Marie sang this song 40 years ago.

Merry Christmas, jingle bells
Christ is born and the devil’s in hell
Hearts, they shrink, pockets swell
Everybody know but nobody tell

I don’t want to think that hearts shrink. It has become a secular holiday of gift-giving and partying, maybe even a pause in combat and some familiar songs.

Here’s a poem I wrote a while back which fairly well sums up my sense of the holidays.

J.C.

Jesus, it’s the anniversary of you.
Time to mark the day in our neo-pagan way
With our hemisphere un-leafed
we drag in the remaining green
and illuminate our shortest days
with menorahs, glitz and fallen stars.
We look for you in other J.C.s……
Joseph Campbell, Jacques Cousteau,
Judy Chicago and Joseph Cornell

Irving Berlin’s on Musak again
and Wenceslaus is in the elevator.
The money-changers are loose.
Cash registers toll while politicians
rant about good will and the robed men
who made you into Julius Caesar
mumble in their edifice.

Jesus, you look weary. Forgive us
for the misdeeds done in your name
and your early subversion we have bungled.
Just tell me this….did we get the story right?
Are you a man, nothing less?
A Jewish-Christian, Jimminy Cricket,
Jeepers-Creepers, Jellico Cats,
juicy cantaloupe, jeweled constellation?

From your manger in a cardboard box
by the off-ramp
come silence the night, halt our traffic
so we might pause and wake
with astonished eyes, re-seeded
for another go round as if
in a haloed world, as if
with turned cheeks, as if………

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Couldn't Have Said It Better

It occurs to me that my main reason for writing is to organize my thoughts. The blank paper seems to work for me in that way.

Every so often I come across a work of fiction whose characters articulate a world view pitched to my own. One such book is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

I’m not referring to the movie which took just a piece of the narrative and ran with it. My memory of the film was of a steamy love story between two characters, very constrained, very taciturn, very English. Ralph Fiennes has a constipated look throughout and Kristin Scott Thomas displays her usual pinched demeanor. Their love affair becomes a metaphor of the passion that breaks through all these boundaries.

The novel focuses on four people in a bombed-out Italian villa immediately after the end of the war in Europe. In their proximity to death all of them are, in degrees, haunted by the recent past and almost ghost-like in their non-attachment to the world. The author has set them free to muse on renaissance art, dislocation, possession and identity.

I have long felt a dis-indentification with my religion. Even before my Bar Mitzvah I turned away from the theology. What I first regarded as a sham, irrelevant and hypocritical has since evolved into something offensive to me. The transcendence and soulful dimension which organized religion lays claims to is too important to cede to any institution. The religious experience is a relationship between people who are fully met or lifted by the power of art beyond themselves.

In this context of universality I see any form of nationalism as divisive in nature and tribal; a vestige of pre-history. My notion of identity has nothing to do with the usual givens of nationhood, geography, religion, job etc.. It crosses borders, gender, even time. It has to do with a kinship of like minds.

These sentiments are not meant to persuade anybody. They are an attempt to locate my position within a larger belief system. I'm also aware that my wish to reach beyond the conventional margins is most probably fraught with challenges and resistence by forces in society just as the characters in the book are also doomed.

In the pages of the English Patient we are presented with characters and images which are universal. The desert sand constantly shifting. The Sikh sapper halfway around the world as questions begin to focus for him. The English patient who is not English yet might as well be. The professional thief who sees himself re-distributing wealth. The young nurse exploring different facets of love.

All these find resonance in me as they speak to a recognition of a life beyond our petty grievances into a community of caring persons. Even as I write this I’m aware that we have few words to say what I’m reaching for. I’ll try this poem instead.

The Sahara was a sea
of dunes in waiting.
The Sahara is the lovers’ skin,
oasis and cave.
The sand of bodies shifting,
no border between
the rise and fall of.

The Cave of Swimmers
records the names writ on water.
Bedouins have a dozen words for wind
that make Egyptian sand, Libyan sand.
As cartographers work through the night
re-drawing lines
they are over-ruled by winds and war.

Nobody owns anything, even lovers;
particularly lovers.
Artists know this and thieves
who upset the order under a communal moon.
The Indian Sikh de-fused bombs one by one
then blows up at the assembled
over the atomic news in Asia.

In the end everyone is a patient
and everyone is English,
the one, black as Hiroshima
and the North Americans,
sick with the geometry of maps,
all those lines and false colors.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Life Stories

People, like nations, have several autobiographies in them,
multiple versions as if the shard of glass in the kaleidoscope shifts a bit with each retrieval.

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday I might be the hero of my narrative; the one person whose autograph I cannot live without. On Tuesday and Thursday I could be the guy who bluffed his way this far with a paucity of smarts and a plethora of nonsense. On weekends I abstain and the wise-fool emerges.

It helps to have a long memory for events that never happened. Like some pebble on the beach polished by the rush of waves I can see myself rounding the bases after hitting the homerun and the ovation in my ears is deafening . Too bad I didn’t make the team.

When I wrote my memoir I did it as a manuscript of about 90 poems. Many were imaginings or outright fabrications. My references were not necessarily factual but sought an emotional truth instead. They were just one version of the chronicle. From a slightly different perch I could view it otherwise.

Was FDR the compassionate and bold leader who responded to the economic crisis with social programs that made him beloved to every class and race? Or was he the president who denied entrance to Jewish refugees, interred the Japanese-Americans and continued Jim Crow in the armed forces? He was all of the above.

When we first studied American history in school we got a simplistic account of our past. As young adults we probably add some movie images into our heads and come away with a pale distortion which serves us for a lifetime. How many of us think we know the French revolution from the film version of A Tale Of Two Cities?

If we are serious about our beginnings we would do well to reconsider our presidents, our wars and the entire arc of our relatively young republic. Too often we are taught military campaigns apart from social history or technological innovations or religious movements or through the lens of architecture, language or entertainment.

Neither individuals nor countries can escape the distortion of a single perspective. As muddled as they may be lives are dimensional and warrant a cubist rendering, up close then back then off to this side and that as various as the viewer.

We have art, Nietzsche said, so we shall not be destroyed by the truth.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Two Presidents

There's so much to be said about our beloved president and his recent wrong-headed Afghan move. I doubt if I have anything new to add to the conversation.

Instead I shall talk about another president who didn't get the ink of his predecessors yet held the most public offices of any American before or since; and that was almost 200 years ago. I am speaking of James Monroe.

Our 5th president served as a Virginia state legislator, U.S. Senator, Governor, Ambassador to England and France, Emissary to Spain, Sec. of State, Sec. of War and two terms as President...elected with no opposition.

Also of note is the fact that Virginia at the time extended west to the Mississippi and north to the Great Lakes, an area greater than Texas and California together.

In the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware the other figure standing up was Monroe. In fact he led an earlier crossing that Christmas night and attacked the 3,000 Hessians from the rear while Washington took Trenton and turned the war around.

Though Jefferson got all the credit Monroe actually negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. He was sent to Paris with nine million dollars to obtain New Orleans. He personally borrowed another six million and got the entire French possession in continental America.

While Madison invaded Canada leaving Washington D.C. unprotected in 1814 he handed over the defense to Sec. of State Monroe who then assumed Sec. of War duties as well. It was Monroe who saved the day directing our fleet to Baltimore harbor and at the dawn's early light our flag was still there.

And how do we remember James Monroe today? The answer is none of the above. He is consigned to one paragraph at the end of the chapter called, The Era Of Good Feeling.

We rememember only his Monroe Doctrine which said to Europe, Hands off, it's ours.The Caribbean is our pond. Central and South America are ours to exploit, invade, install canals, bases and puppet governments. It laid the groundwork for our sphere of influence in Latin America and was the first example of our muscular foreign policy leading to overt and covert actions in support of the United Fruit Company, American Railway interests and a century of corrupt regimes.

There is an undercurrent of aggresssion in our history running alongside another strain of pacifism. Let us hope Obama hears the latter and has the courage to reverse our course into yet another needless foreign adventure.