“The Hopes and Fears of All the Years” (My Christmas Greeting to Friends and Family)

tree 2

My brother and sister-in-law’s Christmas tree. Yes, I do know how to have a “Merry Christmas.”

When I was a kid, my parents mimeographed a “Christmas letter” to send to friends and family across America. The letter recounted our family’s important accomplishments and activities for the year, and included “Merry Christmas” greetings. It was a substitute for writing the same message many times, once for each recipient.

For several days I have been trying to write a “Christmas Letter” to email to friends and family across America, “a substitute for writing the same message many times, once for each recipient.”

I wrote about my gratitude for the opportunity to teach a GED class at the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas, the joy I have in tutoring athletes at SMU, and other happy events and activities.

Then I wrote, “My year’s activities culminated in joining a Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Witness Visit to Palestine (November 3-11). Learning more about and advocating for the Palestinian people and the unspeakable tyranny under which they live is, as my friends know, more than an ‘interest’ or a ‘passion’ for me.”

The fact is, that Visit, and the reasons I made it are perhaps my central concern of this year (and most years since 2003).

If my life has significance, it lies in large part in my determination to do what I can to bring to my American friends and loved ones awareness of the inhumane and tyrannical reign of terror that has been visited upon the Palestinian people since 1948. Israel’s daily and unrelenting state terrorism precipitously worsened and broadened in scope in 1967 and has been progressively crushing more of the life from Palestinian society and individual Palestinians every year since then.

house me - Copy-001

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care. . .

At age 70, I have little hope of living to see the end of Israel’s project of Palestinian genocide. I can, however, continue to try to help other Americans to understand the deceitfulness of our nation’s official palaver about supporting democracy and fighting “terrorism” while at the same time supporting and financing a regime and system of tyranny and state terrorism which has almost no equal in the world.

Americans (those of us from the Christian tradition) who, during these Twelve Days of Christmas, sing

O little town of Bethlehem How still we see thee lie . . . . Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light: The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given . . . Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in . . . .

participate in a duplicity so frightening that I wonder how we collectively can sleep at night. It is no wonder we seem to have a mass psychosis about nearly every problem we face. Willful and ugly hypocrisy cannot help but destroy the hypocrite. And woefully shrugging our shoulders and saying, “But what can I do?” does not absolve us from participation in this pharisaism.

This is not an abstraction for me. In Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and beyond, my friends Samia, Nuha, Omar, Yusef, and many more live this horror every day. Samir, Waseem, Dalell, Noor, Shukri, Mufid, and many more American friends live daily with the memory and the unspeakable results of this brutality.

If I were a man of prayer and contemplation, I would be tempted to join a cloistered order of monks and live out my days praying for Palestinian liberation. If I believed unequivocally the “facts,” the particulars, of the Christmas story or any of its meaning in the lives of Christians, I would find ways to relate them to the current situation.

I know that the majority of my friends and family (and probably most readers who stumble upon this blog) believe in some way that the Biblical accounts of Christmas are true, so I ask you to consider what the words “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” pronounced to ancestors of today’s Palestinians, might mean in the context of a cruel occupation of one people by another―in exactly the place Christian tradition says those Christmas words were sung by the angels.

I have friends who will accuse me of trying to be “politically correct” by not writing “good will to men” as is traditional (See note** below). The Greek of the New Testament, however, places the responsibility on us. “Good will” is ours to live, not a sentimental gift from God. Peace comes when we live in favor with God―I would hasten to add, whoever your God is.

On October 27, in my daily blog post, I quoted Dr. Ramzy Baroud’s statement about the relationship between the situation of the Palestinians and the “terrorism” our leaders insist we should fear so much (“Palestine Remains the Core Struggle in the Middle East”). I hope you will read the article.

And I hope you will read the Christmas message from Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Center in Palestine.

A Blessed Holiday Season to Everyone!
Harold

IMG_2988-001

Lifta Village, Jerusalem. The population was driven out during the Arab-Jewish hostilities of 1947/48. Israeli neighborhoods surround the depopulated village, evidence of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. (Photo: Harold Knight, November 6, 2015)

Note**
From Wikipedia, which, of course, I would not accept as authoritative for a university course in research, but which says succinctly what I could quote pages about from scholarly sources.

“. . . most modern scholars and Bible translators accept the reading of the majority of ancient manuscripts, translating [the passage] as ‘on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’ (New International Version) or ‘on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased’ (English Standard Version).”

Note two salient features here: the “good will” becomes the attitude of human beings not a sentimental gift from God, and neither of these translations is by “liberal” scholars; on the contrary, they are from “conservative” scholars.

“Bring only what you must carry—tome of memory. . .” (Natasha Trethewey)

glass blower
In August of 1994 my father turned 80 years old. He had been retired for some number of years—depending on which of his successive retirements we considered the “real” one. I was 50. On September 1 that year the Methodist Publishing house, Abingdon Press, published the long-awaited first volume of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Dad subscribed to the publication and received by mail each of the 12 volumes as they were issued.

It was a fairly expensive proposition for a retired American Baptist minister. Even more remarkable was that an 80-year-old man was determined to have the latest general research resource in his professional field. He had bought the first edition the same way in the 1950s. The beautiful set of books became mine when Dad died.

The second time I was in Hebron in Palestine (2010) the group I was with visited one of the few glass-blowing shops left in the city. The Israeli government, in protecting the illegal settlers in the middle of the city, has nearly destroyed the centuries-old Palestinian culture, including the thriving and internationally important glass-making industry.

The walls of the workshop’s gift shop were lined with shelves of glassware—much of it elegant blue—waiting for the tourists who, of course, no longer come. The Israel Defense Force, in defending the illicit settlements have made the city a perpetual war zone which very few people want to visit in spite of its historical and religious significance and its former cosmopolitan and vibrant society.

I bought and had shipped to myself in Texas four pieces of the cobalt blue glass—my favorite color. The most delicate of the pieces did not survive the trans-Atlantic journey, and I gave one as a gift to a friend. The other two are in places of honor in my apartment. They are not delicate, fine workmanship as the other two pieces were, but they are bold statements of the skill of the artisans, some of whom we met that day in Hebron.

Last night I went to dinner with friends, a couple I’ve known and loved for 21 years. It’s difficult for me to comprehend I’ve lived in Dallas that long. Even more surprising is that they and I can still pick up the conversation more or less where we left off when we were last together (about a year ago—we must not let that happen again). Nothing much has changed except that I walk with a cane much of the time.
photo(42)And he is in seminary studying to become a Lutheran pastor.

The stated purpose of our being together was for him to come to my apartment and carry away my dad’s New Interpreter’s Bible. The equally important purpose was to be together, to remind ourselves how much we love each other, to attend a service of the Eucharist together, and to share a delicious meal together (healthful salmon for me, thank you).

Last week a friend of about 18 years came to my apartment and took away the signed Johnny Ott Pennsylvania Barn “Hex” Sign I inherited from my late partner. My friend was one of the group I traveled with to Scandinavia and Russia two years ago. She will place the big colorful circle on a wall of her newly renovated kitchen.

I have a stack of books—Dr. Seuss, The Velveteen Rabbit, and several books of short stories by Hispanic-American writers such as Gary Soto. They will become available to the Aberg Center for Literacy for the use of adult ESL students.

There is a pattern in all of this. A conscious pattern and a purpose.

I have learned a new way to give myself immense personal, very selfish, pleasure: give something I own, something I cherish, to someone I love who needs it or will take pleasure in it.

This is one of the simplest ways of meeting my own needs for connection and community. Shall I be perfectly old fashioned (can I help but be?) and admit that I wept for joy after Miles and Brigitte left with Dad’s books last night.

Not a tinge of sadness or regret.

My joy at the pleasure of someone I love is genuine and deep. If parting with some trinket to which I have attached personal importance is all it takes to give delight to a friend—well, as they say, it’s a no-brainer.

As for those two Hebron glass pieces. For some items that have special meaning to me the recipient is not yet obvious. But when they are, I will know who they are. When I take that small step away from my fear of letting go, another small glimpse of “who [I am]—will be waiting when [I] return.”

“Theories of Time and Space,” by Natasha Trethewey (b. 1966)

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one—
by—one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on a mangrove swamp—buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry—tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph—who you were—
will be waiting when you return

Natasha Trethewey, who has served as both the state poet laureate of Mississippi and the U.S. poet laureate, received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2006.
2014-09-04 07.57.43

“Little is certain, other than the tide. . .” (Amy Clampitt)

Birthday number 2 - NOT un-satisfactory

Birthday number 2 – NOT un-satisfactory

This is it! The first day of my 71st year. I’m either bummed out or excited, depending on the hour of the day.

One of the few regrets (but perhaps the major-est) I have at this moment is my lack of discipline in writing. I’m a damned good writer from moment to moment, but I have no ability to sit four or five hours a day and pour over what I’ve done and make it better, make it cohere, make it either beautiful or rhetorically sound. Writing is, as, Pete Hamill, pointed out, “The hardest work in the world that doesn’t involve heavy lifting.” For many years as a professor in writing classes at several colleges and universities, I copied Hamill’s adage at the bottom of my syllabuses. My ulterior motive was to try to convince my students to “do as I quote, not as I do.”

Amy Clampitt (1920-1994) was a poet who either was or was not a “formalist” (whatever that is) according to which literary critic you’re talking to. She either did or did not write poetry with a proper “narrative.” Her work either is or is not too wordy, too descriptive.

I dunno.

I don’t know what an educated, literary person is “supposed” to think of the last stanza of her (longer than it needs to be, I suppose) poem, “A Hermit Thrush,” published in a collection of her work in 1997.

. . . there’s
hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

This botched, cumbersome, much-mended, not-unsatisfactory thing. I suppose the academic literary types who think her poetry is too wordy, too descriptive, would say this string of adjectives is a primary example. But I think it’s both charming and right on the money.

Botched. I’m not going there. But I can remind myself of a failed marriage, several relationships ended without much grace, a PhD instead of a DMA, insufficient savings to live the “lifestyle” I’d like in retirement. Cumbersome. So much left undone because I simply don’t have the will or the energy to finish all I’ve started. And the heaviness of still (at this advanced age!) trying to figure out how to life with freedom and joy. Much-mended. Two messages already this very morning apologizing for insensitivity and inattention to friends.

But all of this is not un-satisfactory. Clampitt doesn’t say “satisfactory” but the double negative “not unsatisfactory.” Does a double negative make a positive or simply imprecise writing? I used to tell students who wrote double negatives they were being needlessly wordy and confusing their rhetorical project by trying to express two contradictory ideas at once. (Speaking of wordiness.) I, however, being no longer an “academic” can say I like the idea: not un-satisfactory.

My life is and has been not un-satisfactory for the most part. I have a photograph of myself on my second birthday (January 3, 1947). I’m sitting outside at a small table with my birthday cake in front of me. Outside because my father’s camera didn’t have a flash so sunlight was necessary. I’m bundled up in a snowsuit and hat that nearly covers my face. Bundled because it’s January in Wyoming. Snow.

Here we have two negatives, darkness and cold. But the picture exists. My mother made a cake, and my father set up the picture to record the day. Our family was as dysfunctional as any. But that picture is proof enough to me that I was loved in every necessary way. Life has not been and is not now un-satisfactory.

Dad, brother, and little me - how I know life is more than satifactory

Dad, brother, and little me – how I know life is more than satifactory

I could write seventy years of not un-satisfactory examples, but I don’t need to. Anyone who has any imagination can imagine, can extrapolate a gazillion examples from my life and their own. Mine even includes Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Bipolar II Disorder. And falling into a tub of boiling water a year after the second-birthday picture was taken. And. . . there’s no reason to belabor the negatives.

I’m having a little party tonight, and a few of my closest friends will attend. About 40. Who has 40 friends? Someone whose life is not un-satisfactory. And to try to keep it that way, my party will include a silent auction for the benefit of the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas.

I think the best way to keep my life not un-satisfactory is to remember that I am a white, male, (not-straight), highly educated American, and whatever I think might be unsatisfactory about my life, it’s better than the lives of about 99% of the people in the world—through no goodness or achievement of my own.
Happy Birthday – EVERYONE!

(Here’s Amy Clampitt’s poem. It is wordy, but to heck with the critics: it’s wonderful.)

“A Hermit Thrush,” by Amy Clampitt

Nothing’s certain. Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up
the scree-slope of what at high tide
will be again an island,

to where, a decade since well-being staked
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us
back, year after year, lugging the
makings of another picnic–

the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified
fig newtons–there’s no knowing what the slamming
seas, the gales of yet another winter
may have done. Still there,

the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass
and clover tuffet underneath it,
edges frazzled raw

but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding.

The Hermit Thrush knows

The Hermit Thrush knows

Whatever moral lesson might commend itself,
there’s no use drawing one,
there’s nothing here

to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue
holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or
any no-more-than-human tendency–
stubborn adherence, say,

to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to
hold on in any case means taking less and less
for granted, some few things seem nearly
certain, as that the longest day

will come again, will seem to hold its breath,
the months-long exhalation of diminishment
again begin. Last night you woke me
for a look at Jupiter,

that vast cinder wheeled unblinking
in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled
toward an apprehension all but impossible
to be held onto–

that no point is fixed, that there’s no foothold
but roams untethered save by such snells,
such sailor’s knots, such stays
and guy wires as are

mainly of our own devising. From such an
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us
to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as

in the end untenable. Base as it is, from
year to year the earth’s sore surface
mends and rebinds itself, however
and as best it can, with

thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta
beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green
bayberry’s cool poultice–

and what can’t finally be mended, the salt air
proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage
of the seaward spruce clump weathers
lustrous, to wood-silver.

Little is certain, other than the tide that
circumscribes us that still sets its term
to every picnic–today we stayed too long
again, and got our feet wet–

and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching
the longest day take cover under
a monk’s-cowl overcast,

with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end

unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive–
diminished sequences so uninsistingly
not even human–there’s

hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.