“. . . the fire of the sun has tricked you blind. . .”

eagleA friend with whom I agree probably 90% of the time on matters of art (especially theater), politics, philosophy, self-care, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, posted on Facebook the trailer for documentary film, The Brainwashing of my Dad, which is in production to be released August, 2014.

His posting will stretch our friendship almost to the breaking point.

The film, it appears, describes what happened to my mother. My dad, too, in a minor way. Mom listened to Rush Limbaugh daily for the last few years of her life (until Alzheimer’s). She changed from being basically non-political to being a somewhat rabid conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy being the liberal left out to destroy the country.

My parents came to visit Jerry and me in Dallas. How Mom could listen to Rush regularly and think nothing of coming to my home and sleeping in the bed I shared with my partner while he and I slept together in the next room still boggles my mind. This was the late ‘90s before same-sex marriage was legal anywhere, and Rush was ranting and raving about the “gay agenda” that was destroying society as we knew it.

Of course, he was also ranting and raving about the incipient salvation of the world when that philandering liberal stooge, Bill Clinton, was no longer President, and a true patriot like—well, we weren’t sure yet which Republican it might be—would be President and things would settle back into the paths God intended America to take.

While my parents were with us, I came home from class to discover Rush’s voice blaring through the apartment. I turned the radio off and

The liberal media? Huh?

The liberal media? Huh?

announced that I would not allow that lie-based trash in my home. Sometime later I was in my parents’ home in California when my dad announced (for reasons I don’t remember because I never watched it) that he would not allow CBS’s lie-based show “60 Minutes” in his home. It was part of the “liberal media” that had almost succeeded in brainwashing America.

America brainwashed by liberals?

That is such an absurd concept I don’t know how to think about it, much less write about it. Americans—especially Rush Limbaugh’s devotees—have no clue what a liberal takeover of this country would look like. I feel an urgent need to explain. That’s why my friend’s Facebook posting is going to stretch our friendship almost to the breaking point.

I have enough imponderables in my old age. What will happen to me the moment I die? for one small matter. Anyone my age who is wasting his or her time thinking that government is in the hands of either the liberals who are destroying society or the far-right who want to destroy it is simply a coward. That is, all of that political nonsense is a way to avoid the absolute non-political essence of thinking about one’s life. Neither Rush Limbaugh nor Al Sharpton can help me or anyone else face the final moment of truth—the moment of death.

Thinking with any kind of emotional intensity about politics is a smokescreen to hide the real issues of one’s life: what happens when I die? Is living alone an unnatural state or the best way to ponder the mysteries of life? Do I need to be in love to feel complete (how much are human beings like apes, elephants, and dolphins)? How can I be sure I have achieved the right balance of taking care of myself and working to care for the poor, homeless, and hungry? Does it matter if I leave no “worldly goods” to anyone, if I use up every penny I have? Does it matter how I use up whatever I have? Does it matter if I’m contentious or nice? What’s the use?

“Exquisite Politics,” by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton

The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes,
maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes,
maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium.
Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.
I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.

Someday I won’t politic anymore, my big heart will stop
loving America and I’ll leave her as easy as a marriage,
splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage
before the other side yells: Wow! America,
Vespucci’s first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.

“Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth of a king. . . America, Vespucci’s first name and home of the free and the brave.” How free am I?

It seems to me right here, right now, sitting alone, recovering from a horrendous week-long cold for which I received not one single hug or delivery of chicken soup (I’m not feeling sorry for myself—simply stating the truth about aloneness most people don’t know yet, but will someday) that we Americans have been brainwashed—one and all—into a trance, a coma, in which we truly believe we are (living in) the land of the free and the home of the brave, that if we believe we are right strongly enough and argue strenuously enough, we will leave this life “as easy as a marriage, splitting our assets.”

And I say, with Daniel Mark Epstein that “The fire of the sun has tricked [us] blind.”

Epstein. I hope I look that good when I'm that old. Oh, yeah, I am that old.

Epstein. I hope I look that good when I’m that old. Oh, yeah, I am that old.

“Heading Home,” by Daniel Mark Epstein

I watched the miles, I saw my life go by,
A drumbeat of bare trees and frozen ponds,
Forlorn stations, ruined factories.
I must have dozed, my head against the glass.
Women I dreamed I would have died for once
Mourned me in a dream. South by southwest
Our train cleaved the horizon, pushed the sun
Toward somebody else’s sunrise, while
Heaven and earth denied my day was done,
Painting a fantastic continent
Of cumulus and ether, air and mist,
Real as any land to a waking man.
A wall of purple hills sloped to the shore
In fluted cliffs; cloud archipelagos
Edged with golden beaches jeweled a sea
Bluer than our sky. Had I missed my stop?
Now was I on my way out of this world,
Alone on the express to Elysium,
Lotus trees, the lost woman of my dreams?

Shadows deepened and the speeding train
Rolled on into twilight. Slowly then
I came to myself, cold, woke to the thought:
This is how it must be at the end of the line.
You cannot tell the water from the sky,
Mourners from the dead, or clouds from land.
The fire of the sun has tricked you blind,
And earth, air and water join in one.

‘Living is no laughing matter. . . “ (Nazim Hikmet)

He knows where his nuts are

He knows where his nuts are

Every morning I sit down and intend to do my work (grading papers, checking my retirement fund balance, writing that recommendation letter for a student applying to transfer—you know, those things). But then I get sidetracked because I simply have to write.

Sorry. Another rant about having to write.

Please read my explanation of that.

And I haven’t been able to for the last five days because I’ve been too sick to think. Well, thinking isn’t always a part of this writing. But this cold or whatever it is has made it pretty much impossible for me to do anything. I start something and immediately want to take a nap.

But it may be winding down, the cold, that is.

At any rate, I’m not cancelling my classes today. Let them eat cake. No, let them get sick. My gift to them. I’m sure one of them gave it to me.

Enough ranting.

One of the reasons I want to get back to the university is to check on my squirrels. A whole colony of them who live between McFarlin Auditorium and Perkins Administration Building. I watch them bury their acorns in the summer and fall and dig them up in the winter and spring. I know they remember where they are. How?

Where the family lives

Where the family lives

The most interesting mystery I know. Who cares about the Big Bang, or the New American (all-powerful) Oligarchy, or who won March Madness. I want to know how those squirrels know where their nuts are. Watch them if you don’t believe me. They bounce along over the ground, stop, dig for a couple of seconds, and come up with an acorn and start nibbling on it. How do they know?

I love this poem. I don’t know anything about Nazim Hikmet except that he was born in 1902 in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire, but which World War I turned into part of Greece (see, the Ukraine is only the continuation of European boundary changes). Hikmet may have been something of a socialist radical. So much the better. I’ll have to research. You’ll easily see at least one of the reasons I love the poem so much.

I don’t know what any of the above means or says, but I’ve written. That’s all that matters.

“On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet
translated by Mutlu Konuk and Randy Blasing

Living is no joke,
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel for example,
I mean expecting nothing except and beyond living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.

You must take living seriously,
I mean to such an extent that,
for example your arms are tied from your back, your back is on the wall,
or in a laboratory with your white shirt, with your huge eye glasses,
you must be able to die for people,
even for people you have never seen,
although nobody forced you to do this,
although you know that
living is the most real, most beautiful thing.

I mean you must take living so seriously that,
even when you are seventy, you must plant olive trees,
not because you think they will be left to your children,
because you don’t believe in death although you are afraid of it
because, I mean, life weighs heavier.

II

Suppose we’re very sick, in need of surgery,
I mean, there is the possibility that
we will never get up from the white table.
although it is impossible not to feel the grief of passing away somewhat too soon
we will still laugh at the funny joke being told,
we will look out of the window to see if it’s raining,
or we will wait impatiently
for the latest news from agencies.

Suppose, for something worth fighting for,
suppose we are on the battlefield.
Over there, in the first attack, on the first day
we may fall on the ground on our face.
We will know this with a somewhat strange grudge,
but we will still wonder like crazy
the result of the war that will possibly last for years.

Suppose we are in the jail,
age is close to fifty,
supose there are still eighteen years until the iron door will open.
Still, we will live with the outer world,
with the people, animals, fights and winds
I mean, with the outer world beyond the walls.

I mean, however and wherever we are
we must live as if there is no death…

III

I hope he was a socialist radical

I hope he was a socialist radical

This earth will cool down,
a star among all the stars,
one of the tiniest,
I mean a grain of glitter in the blue velvet,
I mean this huge world of ours.

This earth will cool down one day,
not even like a pile of ice
or like a dead cloud,
it will roll like an empty walnut
in the pure endless darkness.
You must feel the pain of this now,
You must feel the grief right now.
You must love this world so much
to be able to say ‘I lived’…

“. . . by dividing the shame among them, it is so little apiece that no one minds it.” —Benjamin Franklin

Are you ready to eat some cake?

Are you ready to eat some cake?

Benjamin Franklin thought an absolute monarchy was preferable to an oligarchy:

The arbitrary government of a single person is more eligible, than the arbitrary government of a body of men. A single man may be afraid or ashamed of doing injustice; a body is never either one or the other, if it is strong enough. It cannot apprehend assassination, and by dividing the shame among them, it is so little apiece that no one minds it  (“Political Observation.” Franklin’s Sayings. Ebook available from Google Books).

It’s a good thing to be sick now and then to keep us humble. I wonder what David Koch and Alice Walton do when they get a cold that lasts with a fever of 100 degrees for four days. Do they have access to doctors and medications better and more effective than rest of us, or do they suffer, too? I can’t imagine David Koch with a cold.

So I’m writing almost nothing today because I can’t write more. I haven’t written for four days. That in itself is enough to make me sick – crazy, at any rate.

My purpose today is very simple. If I can get one person to listen to the Bill Moyers/Paul Krugman discussion of Tomas Piketty’s book on capitalism in the 21st century, or—better yet—buy the book and read it, I will have done my part in bringing about the beginning of the revolution we need in this country.

Here are hyperlinks to Picketty’s seminal book and the discussion by Bill Moyers and Paul Krugman.

That old rabble -rouser!

That old rabble -rouser!

If you want to understand the world in this necessary new way, you might look for and read the following academic articles (I realize that academics are suspect and seen as rabid commies or something in the anti-intellectual milieu of this country, but I’ll make the suggestion).
________________

Fukuyama, Francis. “Left Out.” American Interest 6.3 (2011): 22-28.
(Francis Fukuyama is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute of Stanford University.) This article is available online.

“Scandalous as it may sound to the ears of Republicans schooled in Reaganomics, one critical measure of the health of a modern democracy is its ability to legitimately extract taxes from its own elites. The most dysfunctional societies in the developing world are those whose elites succeed either in legally exempting themselves from taxation, or in taking advantage of lax enforcement to evade them, thereby shifting the burden of public expenditure onto the rest of society” (Fukuyama).

“Another set of ideas was of even more direct help to the wealthy: Reaganomics. Supply-side economics provided a principled justification for the rich paying lower taxes on the grounds that entrepreneurial incentives unleashed by lower marginal tax rates would not merely trickle but pour down both via public finance and through the creation of employment. This argument was likely true at the near 90 percent marginal rates that prevailed after World War II, but those rates were reduced in several waves beginning in the 1960s. Clinton’s tax increases of the early 1990s brought rates up only slightly, and didn’t have the growth-killing effects widely predicted by Republicans—just the opposite, they preceded one of the great economic expansions of recent memory. The benefits of the Bush-era cuts flowed overwhelmingly to the wealthy, and yet were promoted on the grounds that lower rates would redound to everyone’s benefit. This is still a gospel that many people continue to believe, including, oddly enough, all too many of those left

Nothing to fear but George Lucas's money

Nothing to fear but George Lucas’s money

behind” (Fukuyama).

________________

“Too Important for Clever Titles — Scientific Study Says We Are an Oligarchy (Update).”
Daily KOS (Mon Apr 14, 2014)
________________

Piketty, Thomas, and Emmanuel Saez. “Top Incomes and The Great Recession: Recent Evolutions and Policy Implications.” IMF Economic Review 61.3 (2013): 456-478.
This article is available online.
________________

Spitz, Janet. “Intentioned Recession: An Ideologically Driven Re-Structuring.” New Political Science 33.4 (2011): 445-464.
This article is available online.

“. . . if my bubbles be too small for you, Blow bigger then your own. . . “

`bubblesYesterday’s newscasts included notice that the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez had died. He was 87.

He was but 18 years older than I. That’s on my mind because I’ve been talking to advisers about how to use the pittance I have put away for retirement, and I hope that, if I live to be 87, my money doesn’t end before I do. I’m sure his didn’t.

I distinctly remember Dean Anne Minton of Bunker Hill Community College telling me I MUST read Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I tried. The closest I ever came to finishing it was meeting Edith Grossman, the translator, at the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas a couple of years later when I was a graduate student there and took a course in translation

The copy I tried to read disappeared from my library at the great book giveaway I had a couple of years ago. As a faculty member at SMU, I can get an online copy. I will see if I can finish reading it.

This has been a week of much contemplation of what my life might have been. So many accomplishments such as reading Love in the Time of Cholera have simply slipped through my fingers that I am grieved by what I have not done. I know, I know, everyone my age experiences that discomfiture. If one does not have regrets, one is probably living in some sort of la-la-land.

I am not a concert organist (although I have given concerts), I have not written the great American novel (although I have two unfinished on 3 ½ inch floppy disks I can’t open), I am not a poet (although there’s plenty of what might be some stretch of imagination be called poetry on this computer), I am retiring not from a full professorship but from a 15-year fulltime lectureship, and in these golden years I am going to have to go looking for the gold to support myself..

There’s a whole lot of coulda shoulda woulda mighta in my life. Of course, if I had the ability to do any of those things, I probably would have, so I have no need to complain. I simply don’t have the brains or talent to have accomplished any more than I have.`love in the time of cholera

That’s not true. I’m pretty sure. Or is it? I’m confused. I’m unsure. I don’t know. My scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the SAT and the GRE all indicated that I would be more than marginally successful. I do have a PhD after all (proof of only one thing—the ability and willingness to jump through more hoops than the average citizen).

It’s no secret—or great discovery on my part—that hardly anyone who is 69 has no regrets. For example, I assume what is intended when PBS announces at the end of programs supported by the Carnegie Foundation, established by Andre Carnegie to do “real and permanent good,” that we’re supposed to think, “Isn’t that wonderful. He used all of his money to do Good and he can’t have any regrets.” It’s easy to give all of your money to do Good. Even you and I can do that with our pittances. His money is doing Good because in life he was a ruthless “robber baron” bastard for whom we should have little respect. Carnegie was able to assuage his conscience from “regrets” by thinking at the time of his death that his “Good” would live after him. I don’t mean that to be harshly judgmental, but a morality tale.

I’ve known a few people who lived to be 69 or 70 who seemed to have no regrets. I’m not going to make a catalog of them here. They were (are) all people for whom I have the highest regard, not for what they have done, but, more often, for what they have not done.

They are people who have managed not “To praise the very thing that [they deplore]” (E.A. Robinson). I could write a sentimental tribute to poverty, obedience, love, kindness, and so on. But I don’t need to. Anyone who reads this can fill in those blanks.

I’m not even going to write a sermonette about humility and graciousness and caring-for-one’s-fellow-man. I don’t need to do that, either. Except for a few people who are so far gone in self-centeredness they hardly seem to live on the same planet as the rest of us, we all give lip service to the sentiment expressed in the Bible, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NRSV). Would anyone who reads anything I write say they are against justice, kindness, and humility? I don’t want to associate with such a person.

Real and Permanent Good?

Real and Permanent Good?

I don’t know what I might have done with my life if I had not been an active alcoholic until I was 46, or if I didn’t have lots of other quirky obsessions that take up my time. Or if I didn’t have two little oddities in the way my brain works (not my mind—it has many more than two). Or if I were not simply lazy at the core. That’s probably why I didn’t read Love in the Time of Cholera when Anne gave it to me. Pure laziness, or obsessing about some other dumb thing.

No one else I know will admit to me that they can simply sit for an hour and do nothing—not watch TV, not play electronic games, not read, not—not anything. I can. Because I’m lazy?

What those people whom I respect can (could) do was to do nothing creatively and with a purpose. Somehow those people have (or had) a quality of simply being.

I’m not even sure what I mean by that.

“Dear Friends,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Dear friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own: the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.  

And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores;
So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.

“. . . Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

A very thin place.

A very thin place.

Seeing the natural world and understanding how it fits together (either as the random result of the Big Bang or as the handiwork of a god) and having the experience of “otherness” or “oneness,” or of the “numinous,” or of “eternity,” or some such mystical comprehension is not my style. My mystical experiences are infrequent, and they are often (like so those of so many other people) dependent on nature or the cosmos or some such grandiosity. I write about them fairly often—sometimes even in public—and when I do, they are usually tied in with some experience of nature. Most often they are connected somehow to my being at the edge of the ocean.

(The hyperlinks to other of my writings more or less on the subject are not for my reader, but for me to have them all together. That may be annoying to anyone trying to read this, but I have to do it.)

The natural world and I have a “come here/stay away” relationship. I have had some remarkable experiences in nature.

The truth is, I have to admit, that my obsession with talking about “mystical” or “religious” or “spiritual” experiences is something of a smokescreen for my inability to believe in God. One might ask how I can write all of this stuff more-or-less about God (at least the numinous or inexplicable) and say I don’t believe in God.

Two daily “meditations” arrive in my e-mail. I subscribed to them, hoping they would help me focus my thinking for the day. One is hardly ever helpful. The other occasionally presents an idea that arrests my attention.

One of those came today.

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp, something that no thought or feeling can help me know. It appears only when I am not caught in the web of my thoughts and emotions. It is the unknown, which cannot be grasped with what I know. (Jeanne Matignon de Salzman, 1889 – 1990)

Madame de Salzman, I found in Wikipedia (don’t tell my students), was a musician, a dancer, and a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff. All I know of him is that he was an “influential spiritual teacher.” Forty years ago when I was in graduate school trying to find my way in the world and rejecting almost everything anyone said, an older man with whom I had just had a “fling” gave me a copy of Gurdjieff’s most famous book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and I promptly gave to a library book sale. I have come across mention of Gurdjieff many times since then but have never bothered to investigate his work.

Can this be a thin place?

Can this be a thin place?

Many times throughout my life someone—a plethora of someones—has presented me with a book, with an idea, with a “retreat,” with a spiritual course of some sort to help me on my—my what? my spiritual quest? Is that what I’m writing about? The most helpful notion I’ve received was years ago when Sue Mansfield, rest in peace, from the church I still consider my “home church,” Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, said, “You don’t have to believe; you just have to believe that we believe.”

If my Holy Week cold is less obtrusive tonight than it is right now, I will attend the Maundy Thursday Service at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal) Church, of which I am a member. For about two years I have not been to a service except those for which I have substituted at the organ. I’m not 100% certain why I will attend tonight, except that some inner voice is telling me I need to. It’s a lovely service with foot-washing and stripping of the altar in preparation for Good Friday. I like the name—Maundy Thursday. It’s one of those churchy mysteries—Maundy is probably from the Latin mandatum, “commandment” from the injunction Jesus gave at his “last supper,” the new commandment that they love one another.

I’ve never been able to bring together in my mind those words and the experience I had on the beach near Port Orford, Oregon, a few years back.

As I walked in the edge of the ocean, the ocean began to extend itself out to the horizon. I know, I know, you will say that it already did. That’s what oceans do. But the ocean unfolded itself, rolled itself back as I watched. The undulation of the surf was exactly the necessary disruption of the view. The motion was not, as surf had always seemed before, an unending series of discreet waves crashing offshore a few yards and the foamy edges washing up around my ankles. The ocean was all one. . .

Something about the ocean that day, something about the box work formations of Wind Cave in South Dakota, something about the service for Maundy Thursday at St. Michael (at any church that “performs” that liturgy with a certain “style”) is a “thin place” for me.

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us (Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2004). I didn’t discover Borg’s language on my own. My friend Lee suggested I read Borg.

I’m not certain, but I think what I struggle with is the thin places. Daily.

The thinnest place for me

The thinnest place for me

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp.

I don’t know about God. I don’t accept the theological/religious language I will hear tonight and on Sunday. But I know the space between me and that something mysterious will be very, very thin—as it has been on the beach in Oregon and deep under ground in South Dakota. And the space is thinnest when I love. Someone. Anyone, I think.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider,” by Walt Whitman
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

“. . . A type of that twin entity which springs From matter and light . . .”

Hungary or Ukraine

Hungary or Ukraine

My students are writing this semester on my favorite class topic, “Writing about the grotesque.” Flannery O’Connor’s essay on the subject, her story “Parker’s Back,” the Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Body Snatcher,” the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the work of the French performance artist ORLAN.

It occurred to me the other day when I heard a news story from Odessa (not Texas) that I might have used Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which I studied years ago in a graduate seminar on the language of film instead of Invasion. Could we have discussed the “grotesque” in a film based on an historic event? We might have discussed the grotesquery of propaganda. Or of the slaughter of innocents. Or of Tsarist totalitarianism. Any of those things. The over-acting of silent films?

That occurred to me for the same reason I’ve listened several times recently to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 –the “Little Russian.” A colleague at Bunker Hill Community College told me (20 years ago!) the “Little Russia” the title refers to is the Ukraine. The Symphony makes elaborate use of Ukrainian folk tunes. My colleague had relatives living in Kiev. How I’ve remembered this bit of musical trivia all these years I don’t know.

For a couple of months I’ve been trying to explain (to myself) my aversion to hearing about the events in the Ukraine. I cannot hear the news from Kiev or Crimea without cringing.

That radio piece about Odessa began with the Potemkin Stairs.

Potemkin stairs

Potemkin stairs

My thinking is circuitous at best. From classes today back to a graduate seminar in the language of film and Battleship Potemkin, forward to my teaching at BHCC, to the present and my desire to hear no more news from the Ukraine.

The “situation” in the Ukraine has taken on a significance for me far beyond what is warranted. I grew up in the ‘50s when Russia (the Soviet Union) was the arch-enemy. The Soviets sent tanks into Hungary in 1956 to quell an uprising. The Hungarians were willing to remain part of the Soviet “empire.” They simply wanted autonomy.

Right or wrong, that’s the way I remember it. My parents were particularly interested because many of the radio news reports we heard from Budapest were by a reporter with whom, I think, my dad had attended high school. Why I remember that (whether or not it is fact) after all these years is even more mysterious than my remembering Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russia.” However, some memories that seem far-fetched are, I think, too strange to be imagined.

Not long ago I rediscovered and wrote about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “The Soul’s Expression.” The poem ends with an image I can’t get out of my mind: If I were to manage to express myself in words, just as thunder tears apart the cloud from which it comes, so my words would tear apart my body.

But if I did it,—as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,
Before that dread apocalypse of soul
.

A student asked me the other day if, when I spoke in class—as part of my introduction to Invasion of the Body Snatchers—I spoke with some resentment about the ‘50s. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer that question. It was my childhood. I was in sixth grade when Russia put down the uprising in Hungary. At almost the same time Britain and France were involved (with American support) in the “Suez crisis.”

It seemed to me our country should have helped the Hungarians who wanted freedom (a vague concept to me, but one that I had learned in school and at home was the basis of our society). I could not see what the Suez Canal had to do with that. I remember standing in our kitchen with my dad while he explained both crises to me. I don’t remember anything he said except that there was a possibility that the US would go to war in the Suez, but not in Hungary.

(Another inexplicable memory: In the background of this conversation Vic Damone was singing “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Neurologists who study the workings of memory might find this fascinating. The radio most likely was not on during that conversation, but “The Street Where you Live,” Hungary, and the Suez Canal are run together in my mind inextricably.)

I don’t want to hear the news about the Ukraine because my feelings about that situation mirror so closely the feelings I had about the danger of the loss of freedom in Hungary—the bedrock of everything we believed about the political world—and the inability of our country to protect the Hungarians while supporting Britain and France in a war to keep the flow of oil uninterrupted through the Suez Canal.

How much of that I put together in 1956 I don’t know. I put some of it together now. The reason to be concerned about Ukraine is the flow of natural gas through the country to Europe. The 1956 tension with the Russians is resurrected—and in some bizarre way for the same reasons.

Now the longest stretch in my thinking. In his poem “Sonnet—Silence” Edgar Allan Poe juxtaposes two qualities of humankind, the “double life.” First is the physical, that in death

. . . dwells in lonely places,
Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”

By this quality no “power hath he of evil in himself.”

The other quality, the “shadow. . . haunteth the lone regions where hath trod No foot of man.” Whatever is going on in Ukraine, whatever our response to it, we are perilously close to the lone region where has “trod no foot of man.” We are looking squarely at death.

“Sonnet—Silence” —by Edgar Allan Poe            
There are some qualities—some incorporate things,
   That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
   From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.
There is a two-fold Silence—sea and shore—
   Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,
   Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”
He is the corporate Silence: dread him not!
   No power hath he of evil in himself;
But should some urgent fate (untimely lot!)
   Bring thee to meet his shadow (nameless elf,
That haunteth the lone regions where hath trod
No foot of man,) commend thyself to God!

The stairs in fiction

The stairs in fiction

 

“. . . an angel who flew in midair with one eternal gospel to proclaim. . . “

Michael Blumenthal says "Be Kind"

Michael Blumenthal says “Be Kind”

Sometimes the way things happen in tandem is almost too bizarre to bear. Or so much fun not to rejoice. New Age folks call it “synchronicity.” Old Age folks might give it some religious connotation that makes me equally uncomfortable.

Yesterday I was searching on B&N’s website for an eBook version of one (any one) of Michael Blumenthal’s collections of poetry (apparently none is in eBook format yet, so I ordered a hard copy of his No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012). I’ve written about Mr. Blumenthal’s work before—his “Be Kind” (at the hyperlink) is one of my favorite poems. We should be kind not simply because Henry James said so.

Blumenthal’s work is so compelling I couldn’t help writing to him awhile back. He answered my note, and then he put me on the distribution list for his Christmas letter. I’m not sure why I woke up this morning thinking I should get one of his newer collections—and get in touch with him again.

When I logged on to B&N, I discovered three books in my “cart.” I had forgotten about them, of course. One was Blumenthal’s book of short essays, Three Minutes, Please, essays he has written to read on NPR—an eBook, which I ordered. It showed up on my iPad almost immediately, and I read the first of the three-minute essays. It is about Blumenthal’s first surgery (to repair a herniated disc which had given him excruciating pain for many months) when he was something over 60 years old. He says,

The first surgery of one’s lifetime is a kind of loss of virginity: There is, of course, the anticipation of relief and future pleasure, but it is commingled with uncertainty, dread, and, yes, the fear of ineptitude as well (page 16).

Blumenthal was born in 1949, younger than I am by four years.

Is pain anachronistic?

Is pain anachronistic?

The second book in my cart was Save the Last Dance: Poems, Gerald Stern’s 2008 anthology (he won the National Book Award for poetry in 1998—you can look up his other many honors). I had decided to order it because of his poem “Apocalypse” about making and losing contact with people who are important in ways that are difficult to describe—a phenomenon everyone his age and mine understands. He was born in 1925, 20 years before I was born—and he’s still publishing poetry.

“Apocalypse,” by Gerald Stern
Of all sixty of us I am the only one who went
to the four corners though I don’t say it
out of pride but more like a type of regret,
and I did it because there was no one I truly believed
in though once when I climbed the hill in Skye
and arrived at the rough tables I saw the only other
elder who was a vegetarian–in Scotland–
and visited Orwell and rode a small motorcycle
to get from place to place; and I immediately
stopped eating fish and meat and lived on soups;
and we wrote each other in the middle and late fifties
though one day I got a letter from his daughter
that he had died in an accident; he was
I’m sure of it, an angel who flew in midair
with one eternal gospel to proclaim
to those inhabiting the earth and every nation;
and now that I go through my papers every day
I search and search for his letters but to my shame
I have even forgotten his name, that messenger
who came to me with tablespoons of blue lentils.

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

The third book in my B&N cart was ORLAN: A Hybrid Body of Artworks. It’s the newest (2010) study of ORLAN, the French performance artist and was compiled with her help. ORLAN’s work has consisted largely of surgeries (cosmetic?) to change her appearance. Michael Blumenthal might be interested in her assertion after her first surgery (which was to abort an ectopic pregnancy) that, “I wasn’t in pain and what was happening to my body was of profound interest to me. Pain is an anachronism. I have great confidence in morphine.”

She took a film crew with her for the surgery, and that began her series of plastic surgeries which she made available to audiences on closed-circuit TV. She has spoken and written about her work extensively.

I have a great (probably irrational) fascination with ORLAN.

ORLAN was born in 1947.

ORLAN’s life and her work are the subjects of the research projects for my students this semester as they have been several times in the past.

So here we have a synchronous morning of random events all of which point toward one reality. Age is not a predictor of anything. 1925, 1945, 1947, 1949. Not bad years to have been born. I’ll toss myself into the lineup with those famous old folks. We all know stuff that younger folks can’t possibly know. We know to be nice, we know about surgery (some odder than other), and we know about keeping track.

Keeping track of those vegetarians we meet in Scotland. Or those other old folks we exercise with at the fitness center. Or our nieces and nephews. Or those folks we went to church with thirty years ago. Or the kids in our classes today. It’s important “. . . now that as [we] go through [our] papers every day [and] search and search for [their] letters . . . [we will not] have even forgotten [their names].”

OK. Enough of the maudlin. Synchronicity may yet save us from our old selves.

Too synchronous to ponder

Too synchronous to ponder

 

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