“. . . so we can renew time in all places . . .” (Ibrahim Nasrallah)

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The sky at Susiya (Photo: Harold Knight, November 2015)

(Please note: Writing with serious intent is the work of a lifetime. I’ve begun much too late,
so I don’t do it well, but I will continue to try as long as I can.)

This morning in my email one of the daily “meditation” messages I subscribe to was the musings of the author about his sense that there is always something left to do ― something is about to happen ― that will make his life complete, or happy or fulfilled or . . . I have forgotten the words he used. He seemed sad or a little put out, of course, that details get in the way of the big accomplishments or realizations or successes of his life. And then he realized that the details are his life.

I don’t really meditate, and most of those daily messages seem pretty sappy and not of interest to me, but I subscribe to them to get myself to start my day by taking a moment to slow down and read something someone else finds important or inspiring, as a sort of personal discipline.

I liked the meditation this morning. It was a bit ironic in a gentle, almost humorous way. But as the day went on, I liked it less and less.

I don’t think the details such as going to Kroger to get the coffee I forgot to buy and the kitty litter I didn’t realize I needed, or making sure I’m signed up the way I need to be for Social Security for the coming year, or answering non-personal emails, or practicing the organ to be ready to play at the big church on January 1, or teaching my GED class are my life. They may be something of the glue that holds my life together day by day, that gives me a sense that something is happening, that time is passing in a purposeful way, but they are not my life. Not even the organ playing that I love so much. Those details get in the way of my life.

My life, my reality, happens when I am doing nothing.

Every day I look through the headlines of about a dozen online news sources from Palestine. I find four or five items that seem to belong together, either about similar events, or about the same event from different points of view, or some other connection that only my unconscious mind understands. Eventually my bewildered brain lets me know what it is seeing, and I begin to fashion a blog post around an idea. Then I log on to the university online library databases to which I have access and search for academic journal articles that might somehow present background for the nebulous thread of an idea I have ferreted out from the day’s news. Or I look for a poem by a Palestinian poet that seems to go with the news. Then I put together the day’s post and upload it.

Isn’t that odd. I say my reality happens when I am doing nothing, and then I describe a complicated, detailed process I go through almost every day. It certainly seems like doing something. The fact is that I am in a way doing nothing. I do not have to do this. No one is expecting me to do it. I derive little if any personal satisfaction from the blog. I almost never put a word of my own in it. The work is simply there to be done. It must be done. Note the passive verb: it must be done, not “I must do it.”

I have been to Palestine three times. I have friends in Palestine. Traveling there does not seem to be nothing. When I have been there, I have been overwhelmed with a reality that I have experienced nowhere else. Time for me stops ― certainly not for the Palestinian people. Their lives are as complex and busy and fruitful as anyone’s, and they live in a crushing reality that would, I am sure, destroy most people I know. And they keep on with the details of their lives.

Their details reach back into the history of mankind and yet are as immediate as human existence can be, and more difficult than I can imagine. When I am among my friends, my good fortune, my wonderment, my incomprehension is that, when I come home, I bring a bit of the eternity of that place with me and none of the modern horror.

My life has details. Preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Attending the opera. Tutoring university football players. Those common things. And I am awed and delighted to travel to the mountains, the beach, my sister’s and brother’s homes, even to downtown Dallas.

Those details are not my life. Standing still, breathing and feeling my body, calming my mind, giving myself to nothing, waiting for ― for what I do not know. All of that comes easily standing in the Negev Desert near the homes of new friends in Susiya, in a place where much of the thought and belief of my people originated, and where my friends can trace their ancestry back millennia, standing, at one with the unpaved, untilled ground and at one with the sky, the infinity. This seems melodramatic, or at least like a Hallmark card. Or one of those meditations I think are sappy.

I’ve seen places where, even if one does not believe in God, one knows what “Be still and know that I am God” means.

I do not mean to argue with the writer of this morning’s meditation. But the details ― this computer, the undeposited paychecks sitting on my desk, the sandwich I’m about to prepare ― the details are not my life. The wonder of nothing, of the sky at Susiya, even of sitting in my living room alone and still, that is my life.

“Shadows,” by Ibrahim Nasrallah

Our souls have become shadows in the dust,
so who will circle around us
after they leave?
Who will visit us on a pilgrimage
so we can renew time in all places?
Shadows might have shadows:
Them . . . us . . .
you . . . and you . . .
and me.

From Rain Inside: Selected Poems by Ibrahim Nasrallah. Willimantic CT: Curbstone Press, 2009.

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The desert between Jericho and Jerusalem, (Photo: Harold Knight, November 2015)

Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom

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A new-fangled cream bottle dressed in environmentally dangerous plastic, nearly impossible to tear into.

There’s a funny thing about getting old(er). Just one for today, at any rate.

For 35 years of teaching college writing, whenever a student began a sentence with “there,” I patiently asked them if they knew about Richard Nixon. An expletive, I would explain, is “an interjectory word or expression, frequently profane; an exclamatory oath.” Anyone old enough to remember 1975 knows why I always used Richard Nixon as my opening example for a lesson about writing expletives. What many people (most people, even college graduates) don’t know is that “There is” and “It is” and their various tenses are “expletives.” They hold the place of a real subject in a sentence. That is, they are profane substitutes for telling your reader what you’re talking about. I told students that they did not need to vent their frustration at the writing process by swearing at me.

What is the subject in my sentence about a funny thing?

My subject is “a funny thing” although it is obscured and delayed so you would hardly know it by my use of the expletive.

Never mind. There’s a funny thing about getting old(er). The subject at hand (pun, I suppose, intended as you will see below) is what happens to your fingers as you senesce. They begin to balk at doing small jobs that they have done all your life. Buttoning the top button on a dress shirt, for example. This morning it was getting hold of the “pull here to open” tab on the half-and-half bottle to cream my coffee. Turning pages while playing the organ is simply impossible. And pages in books present a challenge, too (Nook Books are cheaper, anyway).

And then there’s the iPhone keyboard or whatever you call those little squares with letters on the screen of my phone. But I won’t even begin with that frustration.

There’s a theory that fingerprints wear off as you age, and you don’t get as much traction when you try to do something requiring dexterity. My dermatologist said he didn’t think that was true, and then he looked at the ends of my fingers. He wasn’t convinced, but he wasn’t so certain he was right, either. The ends of my fingers are pretty smooth.
There’s also a theory that your joints get creaky―not necessarily arthritic, but not as flexible as they once were. I don’t believe that. Last Sunday I played the big Bach chorale prelude (really a fugue) on Wir glauben doch all’ an den einen Gott, and my fingers moved just fine; my musical brain may be slowing down, but if I practice, my fingers aren’t.

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My smooth old fingers.

There must be lots of other theories.

I have my own theory. (Subject, “I,” verb, “have,” direct object, “theory;” no swear words.)

My theory: almost always when I have trouble doing some little task because my fingers won’t cooperate, the trouble is really caused by my mind. Not that my mind is slowing down (it is, of course, but that’s not the problem here). My mind goes immediately to someone’s idiocy. To put it plainly, opening the half-and-half bottle should not be difficult. I mean, it SHOULD NOT BE difficult. What idiot made these things so you have to have either an 18-year-old brain to figure out or 18-year-old fingers to cope with it?

Milk is supposed to come in glass bottles that the milkman picks up when you’re finished with them. And they are supposed to have little paper stoppers in them with cute little tabs that you pull to open it. And the whole affair―for all you young environmentalists―is biodegradable. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

I know I am turning into one of those crotchety old men who just wants to Make America Great Again―great as in uncomplicated, easy, natural.

Natural. It’s not natural to know all about the billionaires in our midst. It’s not natural that there ARE billionaires in our midst. It’s not natural to think you’re better than someone else just because of your skin color. It’s not natural to want to keep out of the country people who have lost everything they own to a war they didn’t start and don’t want. It’s not natural to substitute fake news for real news. It’s not natural to think your religion is better than someone else’s religion. It’s not natural to hate someone who loves someone of the same sex. It’s not natural for you to hate people for any of these reasons (and a lot more) because, actually, who they are and what they need and want is none of your goddam business.

There. You were waiting for my expletive, weren’t you? Well there it is. It’s none of your goddam business. Hardly anything that someone believes or thinks is any of your business unless they’re family. Oh, and if you happen to be a Christian (or some other religion―Christian is the only one I know about), and they need something like food or a decent place to live, then it’s your business. Then the king will say unto you if you take care of them, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom. Because you took care of those refugees, and those homeless folk, and those kids without enough food. That’s the only way you inherit the kingdom” (whatever that is, but it sounds like something I might like).

Choose your battles. Stop fuming because you can’t open the milk bottle. Be thankful you have one. And stop getting mad because someone wants to move in here after their home is bombed. Be thankful you have a home. And share. “Inasmuch as you do it for one of the least of these”― one of these whom you despise the most ― “you do it for me,” says the King.

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Milk bottles the way milk bottles are supposed to be.

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Republican duplicity

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William Blake. Dante’s Inferno. The Hypocrites with Caiaphas. Hypocrites filing past the high priest Caiaphas, who is nailed to a cross on the ground. Caiaphas was the priest who said that Christ should die. Each hypocrite steps on Caiaphas as he passes.

When Donald Trump refused to declare on October 19 he would not subvert the basic tenet of American democracy, many Republican leaders feigned outrage – “feigned” because his threat not to accept the results of the election mirrors precisely what the Republicans have done for eight years.

Beginning on the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated, when Republican Congressional leaders apparently met to covenant with one another that they would thwart every suggestion, every constitutionally mandated action the President took, the Congress has essentially proclaimed their belief that the election of the first African American President was not valid, that it was somehow “rigged.”

They have

  • shut down the government to prove him wrong,
  • sued him several times to question the constitutionality of legislation his first Congress passed,
  • mocked him to his face during the State of the Union Address,
  • refused “advice and consent” for his court nominees to ensure that his electoral mandate did not extend to his constitutionally prescribed responsibility,
  • invited the head of a foreign nation to speak in Congress against a treaty the President had negotiated to which the visiting politician was not a party, thus circumventing the President’s constitutional obligation to conduct foreign affairs.
  • and much more.

In short, they have defamed not only the man but the office he holds, and in doing so the Republicans have destabilized the Constitutional underpinnings of our democracy.

Furthermore, they have refused to lend the power and prestige of their offices to efforts to end the insidious “birther” conspiracy, thus contributing to lack of trust in both the President and the office of the Presidency. They have not spoken against the persistent fringe belief that the President is a Muslim, thereby undermining his Presidency among Islamophobic Americans (and, by implication, fostering hatred for American Muslims). They have refused to refute any of the myriad absurd conspiracy theories about the President. Not dignifying them with responses is, of course, laudable, but refusing to make any effort to change the atmosphere in which those theories could flourish – indeed speaking of and treating the man in such a way to encourage those theories – has been despicable.

Donald Trump is the creation of the party he now represents. The Republicans, indeed the entire nation, are reaping what they have sown: hatred, disrespect for persons and for the Constitution, selfishness above concern for the body politic, and – perhaps most unsavory – for some people,  an unshakeable belief that President Obama’s election was never legitimate because it resulted from the cooperation of a coalition of Americans whom they consider to be less than representative of and not worthy to be counted part of the body politic.

Donald Trump is at least honest in his desire to subvert the Constitutional workings of our democracy.

. . . seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all . . .

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Scotts Bluff from the east, as migrants on the Oregon Trail would first have seen it.

Between August 18 and August 25, 2016, my sister, my brother, my sister-in-law, and I made a small pilgrimage to the cities in Nebraska where we lived from 1950 to 1969 – Kearney, Scottsbluff, and Omaha. Scottsbluff, 21 miles from the Wyoming border, is where we have the most memories in common. Scotts Bluff National Monument dominates the horizon from Scottsbluff the city, as it does all of the small cities in the area, Gering, Mitchell, Bayard, and others. The bluff is to this day a constant in my memory. I wrote the following shortly after our trip to try to explain the significance of Scotts Bluff to me.

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From the southwest, approaching from Gering.

As geological formations go, Scotts Bluff National Monument in far Western Nebraska is not overly impressive. Its elevation above sea level is only 4,659 feet, and it rises only 800 feet above the North Platte River at its base. The Riverside Park in the City of Scottsbluff, is on the other side of the river.

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From the south. A quintessential Nebraska view.

As a kid I discovered in the Encyclopedia Britannica that if the Empire State Building were in Riverside Park in the city of Scottsbluff, it would be almost half again as tall as the Bluff. I used to try to imagine how that would look, but I could never in my mind’s eye get the New York building even as tall as the Bluff.

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The South Butte of the Bluff.

My birthplace is Douglas, WY, at the base of Laramie Peak. I have memories of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming from the first five years of my life. I went to college at the University of Redlands, nestled at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio in Southern California. I lived in Upland, CA, for several years at the base of Mt. San Antonio. I know mountains. I know Scotts Bluff is not a mountain.

However, the Bluff dominates the lives and thinking―the consciousness―of the people of Scottsbluff (2013 population, 15,023), Gering (2013 population 8,084), Mitchell (2013 population 1,685), and several other small towns in its shadow.

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From the top of the Bluff looking southeast.

Scotts Bluff still, 56 years after our family moved from Scottsbluff to Omaha, in some way I cannot explain, dominates my consciousness. This past week I was in Scottsbluff for only the fifth time in those 56 years. Driving across the plains of Nebraska and seeing the Bluff come into view brings me to a place of peace and self-knowledge that I have achieved nowhere else I have ever been.

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From the top of the Bluff looking east toward Gering.

The Bluff apparently gave many of the settlers 150 years ago crossing the country on the Oregon Trail a sense of peace and understanding, or at least hope and courage.

Many times in my life I have wondered how I would be different if I had spent the 10 most formative years of my life in the shadow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the Library of Congress in Washington, or Mount Vesuvius, or the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, or the Great Wall of China, or La Scala Opera House in Milan.

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Looking northeast toward Scottsbluff the city.

If I had read Proust or Heidegger instead of Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather.

It is, of course, pointless to speculate how my life might have been. I know only that my consciousness was shaped in part―a very large part―by seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all. The processes of the gathering and demise of the great North American inland sea, and the uplift and erosion of mountains are fairly obvious here. The geological history spans 33 to 22 million years.

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Looking west toward Laramie Peak (128 miles away and visible on a clear day).

The history for me began in 1950. It is the history of knowing day after day the power of the natural world to create itself, to build structures that show us―me, at any rate―how little power or control we have over anything.  The Empire State Building may be taller than the bluff, and we could build another one exactly like it. But we could not―cannot― build another Scotts Bluff. It is not spectacular like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. It simply is. The bluff is the farthest extension of a reality stretched across the horizon of my life, the edges of my mind, reminding me that we, all of us humans together, cannot, did not, and could not create anything remotely like it. It is the embodiment of the mystery of my life.

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Sunset from the base of the Bluff looking toward Laramie Peak.

Sunshine

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My love for, obsession with, clouds continues on my walk to the phone store.

A little poem I wrote on a recent day when I had had seizures several days in a row. Senescence apparently does not mean the end of long-time physical anomalies. Don’t feel sorry for me; they’re tiny seizures that no one else knows about. Just a nuisance. But a real nuisance.

Sun.

Every word
that needs saying about the
Sun
Is in poems already
Tucked away in volumes
Of exquisite lines set down by
Wordsmiths
Emotionsmiths
Observationsmiths
Figure-of-speechsmiths.
And I, depersonalized,
derealized
want the
Sun to fold itself away
In my mind
and in my body to
Bring me back from wherever
I have gone.

img_5699About this poem: It’s 83 degrees today. I walked 2.28 miles round trip to the a,t AND t store to change my order of yesterday.  Could have played in the park but didn’t. The sun always makes terrifying (at least bothersome) seizure dissociation less so.

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I didn’t play on the slides in the park.

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“. . . seeing the Nothing from which he was made . . .” (Pascal)

1-IMG_4991College writing teachers face an impossible choice between allowing free thought and insisting on a despotizing formalism.

I wish I had a dollar for every student essay I’ve seen in the tutoring center that had an inverted triangle at the top drawn in conference by the professor with the instructions, “begin with the general and move to the specific as the thesis for your essay.”

I have never formally studied logic. My understanding of what such instructions mean is guesswork, but I think they are aimed at getting a student to write an essay using inductive reasoning, that is, “the process of estimating the validity of observations of part of a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole class.” The student is invited (well, no, ordered under pain of a low grade) to demonstrate through their observations of a “class of facts”―ideas of their own or ideas they have gleaned from approved sources―that their proposition is valid, that their thesis is plausible.

Okay. So my thesis (proposition) here is that it is better for me to have contact with other people―friends, relatives, neighbors, anyone―than to spend a 24-hour period at home alone. I could have begun with general statements about the way one can spend time (or specifically the way I might spend time), or found a clever quote from some psychologist about the necessity for social creatures to be in contact with other social creatures. Then I might have moved carefully step by step to the proposition that  I  should not have been alone for the past 24-going-on-48 hours.

But I’ll jump right in, a flat line instead of a triangle. I will use as evidence first the class of facts around the tasks I have not performed today because I had no deadlines. My breakfast dishes are not yet washed. My laundry is not done. The floors are not vacuumed. I didn’t take a walk (for that I have an excuse: thunderstorms were moving through the area). If I were a college English student, all of that would be the first of the three obligatory “body paragraphs” before the conclusion.

I might use my second body paragraph to estimate the validity of what I did accomplish. I spent about six hours researching International Humanitarian Law on Collective Punishment in a given territory by an occupying power. (You can read the result of that work HERE. ) I read a couple of chapters in my current in-progress book, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson (which I highly recommend). I played Sudoku. I took a nap. All of these things are worthwhile, but I didn’t need to spend the entire day at them.

I’m not sure my third body paragraph “estimate(s) the validity of a part of the class of facts” or fits my argument. While I was having lunch, I turned on CNN for company as I often do. I’ve never watched an episode of “The Voice,” so I’d never heard of Christina Grimmie until today. I had to search for her online when the news turned to an item about the man who killed her last night. And yet I wept at the news. Yesterday I heard on the radio and saw on TV much of Muhammad Ali’s funeral. I wept. I heard Lonnie Ali and others say with apparently absolute certainty that the Great One is now in heaven. I’ve been thinking about death today. Calmly, but not with detachment. The truth is I think quite a lot about death, trying to get my mind around the idea. I’m going to be dead soon. Even if I live the 97 years my father lived, I will be dead soon. If you’re 50, you’re thinking, “Why does he say ‘soon’? That’s 25 more years.” A 50-year-old thinks that’s logical. It’s not. We’re all going to be dead soon. This is not cocktail party conversation. Or a chat on Instagram. Many (most) people reading this will think either I’m some kind of Goth or I need psychological help. When I was in about 7th grade and finding my feet as an organist, I played and sang with great gusto and conviction

This world is not my home I’m just a-passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

I can still sing the first line with gusto and conviction. The rest, not so much. Some time ago I read an article (I did not save the reference) that quoted a passage from Blaise Pascal (of “Pascal’s Wager” fame). I saved the passage.

For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. (Pascal, Blaise, 1669, Pensées, Sect. II, 72. trans. W. F. Trotter. The Harvard Classics. New York: P. F. Collier & Sons, 1909–14).

This third body paragraph has all of the problems a student paragraph could have: too many ideas, not a logical progression, straying away from the topic. Too long. Disorganized.

I will make my mandatory conclusion strong since the body is hopeless (even though I have, in fact, provided “a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole”). It is obvious that I should not spend 24 hours alone. I cannot keep my mind from wandering to topics like being dead. I’m pretty sure my “audience” (another despotizing college writing idea) doesn’t like thinking about my thinking about being dead. It’s not healthy for me to sit at home alone contemplating death. Or to end an essay with a sentence fragment. Even though that’s the topic of the essay. A fragment.

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“. . . and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up . . .” (Pascal)

“. . . They . . . turned me into A file . . .” FREE DAREEN TATOUR!

❶ Israel Places 27 Palestinians under Administrative Detention ❷ 7 elderly Palestinians indicted for ‘incitement’ at Aqsa . . . . . ❷― (ᴀ) Israel bans Palestinian travel from Gaza to Aq…

Source: “. . . They . . . turned me into A file . . .” FREE DAREEN TATOUR!