Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Inheritance and Stewardship

One of the first committees I was asked to be on at Twin Cities Friends Meeting, was to address concerns about care of the meetinghouse. The problem was that the meeting couldn't get enough people to serve on the committees responsible for the physical plant, and the long-serving members who had led those committees were aging out of their ability to handle everything themselves. One of the questions we asked early on was how we could bring a sense of spiritual life to the mundane issues of physical plant maintenance.

There are plenty of traditions in which spiritual practice is bound up with work. In some traditions, prayers are counted out along with repetitious labor. In others, focused concentration on a task is used as a way to remove distraction from worldly concerns. Christian monastic traditions engage their followers in work—hard work—as part of their humble duties to God.

We aren't monks, and the work in question was not made of boring, iterative tasks like planting or wall-building. It was things like fixing the toilet and maintaining the furnace, making sure the building was vacuumed and the walks shoveled and the grass mowed.

Where we ended up, was that we wanted to emphasize a sense of "stewardship," that this was not just one more job in our daily lives, but care for a space that was built collectively for the benefit of a greater whole. This was in contrast to emphasizing "property," the value of which is worldly wealth. Stewardship suggests that we are caretakers rather than owners—a steward is not the owner of an estate, but the manager on behalf of the owner, whose job is to make the property do what the owner wants. If we regard the assets of the Meeting as in our care rather than in our keeping, the sense was, it will give that care a greater sense of spirit-led purpose.

There has been a lot of talk about wealth recently in the public sphere. The Occupy movement uses the "99%" and the "1%" as rallying points, noting an increasing concentration of wealth over the past few decades. Conservative commentators, in turn, argue that we ought to be able to enjoy what we earn—that communist redistribution ends up sapping the initiative out of an economy.

The piece I keep thinking is being left out is the matter of inheritance. Not in the broad collective sense liberals like to trot out ("what kind of a world are we leaving our children"), although that is of course important. What I keep wondering about is specifically what parents leave to their children.

Now, I have been the beneficiary of lots of generous inheritance. My mother's parents effectively paid my way through high school and college, and the inheritances from my grandmother and my wife's grandmother made the bulk of the down-payment on our house. When I've gotten myself into sticky financial spots over the years, especially in my first ten years out of college, my parents bailed me out… nothing mind-boggling, but help that got me more quickly over bad decisions. I'm very grateful for these inheritances, and even more so as I now find myself in the position of parent.

As a father, I so want to "be there" for my son. I want to give him all I can. At the same time, I don't want to spoil him, or have him never learn form not getting what he wants. And he doesn't always get what he wants, as he will be happy to tell you.

I think the question of how to bequeath to my child goes back to the question we were asking in the Meetinghouse Care committee. Is what I am giving my child his property for him to work his will upon, or is it something he needs to take care of? To invoke stewardship doesn't necessarily affect inequality of inheritance—the sense of stewardship is a long-running theme among large land-owners in England, for instance. But when it's brought together with questions of collective versus individual ownership, it affects how we go about transferring wealth to the next generation. Is that transfer for the benefit of our child or for the continued health of the stewarded property?

A lot of our fears for our children come about because we don't trust the collective community to care for individuals. We have to care for them ourselves while we can, and train them up to take care of themselves. We wish we could do otherwise, that we could let them rest in the arms of the whole, but we don't. Some of us live in smaller communities that have some of that trust—religious communities especially, in this country, but also communities like those that came together out of the gay community in the AIDS horrors of the 1980's and 1990's.

If it came down to it, in a collapse of civilization, we'd find and make communities. Mad Max aside, we have the basis for real support and care in times of need already. In my own life, the morris dancing community, meeting, my work community, my family, and my neighbors (well, some of my neighbors) would form webs of care. We'd do what we could for each other.

But we as a nation do not trust the nation, or even our individual states, to provide that network. We depend on that national framework to hold up our economy: we have a common, nationally determined currency and laws that form the basis for most of our work outside the home. But it's clear from the way politics are headed that we simply don't want to trust our lives to this nation. There is something in that collective we do not want to give to our children.

Is it racism? Classism? Culturalism? Some unholy mixture of all our group-identity-based biases? A lot of my friends would tell you yes, that is the fundamental problem. And I agree they are problems. But they all run up against the question of personal inheritance: when we give our child this package, it includes everything, warts and all.

When we look at what we give our children in terms of fungible value—give them liquid assets so they have the freedom to do what they can with it—without also looking at the thing we are giving into their care as a thing that needs care in and of itself, we are also giving them the idea that fungible value is what is important in a thing. In short: when we give our children freedom, we also give them the false idea that they are free from responsibility.

On the other hand, too many wealthy parents give their children specific, non-liquid inheritances that those children simply aren't fitted to: children who drive their parents' company into the ground, who don't care about the old house and let it rot, who don't want to take care of that stupid artwork... Or who understand the value in these things but don't really carry it in their hearts, and so lose their souls in what their parents or grandparents acquired. They own but they do not love.

I don't see an instant way out of this knot, except that we need to rethink what it means to leave things to our children.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sherlock, Spock, Encyclopedia, and Corlis.

I've had this archetype on my mind. My wife and I just finished watching the first season of the modernized BBC Sherlock. My son is reading Encyclopedia Brown and (as intended by the author) trying to solve problems through knowledge and logic. And we've been reading Sherlock Holmes as bedtime stories. Star Trek's Mr Spock is in there too, and the ideal of old-fashioned science fiction in general.

It's an ideal of mental acuity and compiled knowledge, able to defeat raw ambition and violent oppression. Brains over brawn—but not trickster-y brains, mostly. Brains in service of Public Order. Sherlock as brother to Mycroft, presiding over a (mostly) enlightened Empire.

Sherlock Holmes was written before Gandhi showed the corrupt underbelly of the empire that Dr Watson had fought for, and never really addressed what that empire did to the generation of young men who marched off to destruction in the trenches of World War I. The archetype after Holmes turned away from Empire. The Star Trek universe is more ambivalent about smarts: There's Spock, of course, and his successor, Data, but these are more uncertain geniuses, uncertain about their magnificent rational minds, and tenderly exploring the gulf between themselves and that confusing, alien, emotional humanity. And defending against the seemingly perfect, rational but totalitarian Borg.

Barry Lopez's Corlis Benefideo is a bit like these characters, in his sense that if we just make enough maps, we'll get the answer to our question. If we make a broad and deep enough atlas, we'll come to know a place.

The truth is, it's too easy to keep our focus on Sherlock. He's flashy; he's impressive, and he's way smarter than us. But he is always an actor in a play. He reveals a human drama, but he seldom actually controls the drama, and he gets bored and restless when other people aren't providing the other necessary elements. He is reactive.

And Spock is not the captain of the Enterprise, any more than Merlin is king of Britain. Encyclopedia Brown is not the leader of his group, he's just the go-to problem solver. He finds the faults in the bully's story, and lets the police and the other grownups take it from there. The mistake I think people who want to identify with Sherlock as their hero, is to make him the center of everything. But he is an impatient (and in some ways self-destructive, as in his cocaine habit) outsider to most of the dramas he plays out in, withdrawing into the wings when his role is done.

Sherlock Holmes never really addresses the deeper "why" of criminal behavior. We never find out why Moriarty is such a twisted evil mastermind. That was left for 20th century crime writers, raised on Freud and his successors. Holmes' job is to simply assume the goodness of the law and to shine the light on places where it has been crossed.

He is working in a fixed system of truth, morality and justice, within which he jumps about like an agile monkey, acknowledging that there are sometimes places where morality and decency trump law, but always believing that revealing the truth will clarify the situation and make moral choices clear.

It's a nice dream.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Agnostic Gospel Choir

I had a blast back in August singing in a Village Harmony adult camp. The obvious highlight for me was singing the solo part of a gospel number, “Ain't Got Time To Die." It felt good, was a fun stretch for me, I'm told it sounded good... and in reflection it was a very odd choice for me.

As I've discussed earlier, though I belong to a denomination that many think is a Christian sect, I am not a professed Christian, nor do I carry may of the hallmarks of such: I do not accept Jesus as my savior, nor do I accept God as Father, or believe most of the stories in the gospels as literal, if-you-had-been-there-with-a-video-recorder-you'd-have-seen-it-too truth. I'm some flavor of agnostic, one with pretty strong non-theistic sensibilities. Deistic, maybe, but... here I am really enjoying singing gospel tunes.

OK, there's really nothing new here. I learned “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and all those other spiritual standards back in grade school. They were cultural artifacts—good songs from the African-American tradition. I learned a lot of them off of Weavers records: Lee Hays was a lapsed minister's son. I sing and love Christmas carols. I sang Vivaldi's Gloria and Schubert's Mass in G in school. And so on, and so on. You'll have a hard time singing choral music in this society without singing music meant for church services—but over time we've developed a framework where if it's sung in concert, it doesn't count—the whole performance has a big frame, a set of quote marks around it, just as performing in HMS Pinafore doesn't suggest you have any experience as a sailor.

Out of concert, and the frame is not so clear. When the Blind Boys of Alabama opened for Peter Gabriel a few years ago, we were all singing and dancing in the aisles, and then one of them said something to the effect of his feeling the power of the Lord and this whole hall praising Jesus, and OK fine, who am I to say otherwise, but it felt a little awkward because, well, I was singing along but I didn't mean the words literally.

Or my atheist/pagan fellow singer who got in a huff about all the religious songs—old-time gospel, mainly—that cropped up in a row at a pub sing. Or the fellow singer at the camp who wondered what his fellow Jewish friends would think about him singing gospel with such gusto.

The “frames and quotes" think only goes so far. I find a lot of the white-folky versions of spirituals I grew up with pale and even a little offensive. I joke about forming an "agnostic gospel choir" for people like me who love to sing the songs but aren't interested in being the house choir for a faith we don't really share. But as I think about it, the built-in insincerity would end up showing, one way or another. It would be fake.

Because what makes gospel work is something I just don't have that explicitly: utter commitment. Not that gospel singers are free from sin, or perfected saints in any sense, but when they sing, and sing well, it requires the whole body to dig in and hold up the song, and the lyrics are about as un-ironic as you can get. And that's part of the appeal, and it's something I and a lot of urban liberals like me simply don't carry around with us in any sort of coherent package.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


I had a dream a few nights ago, where I was some sort of volunteer assistant teacher in an inner city school. The kids in my group were all African-American boys, about second or third or fourth grade. They had a series of little books about feelings on the table near them, and they were really pissed off about having to read them. Their objections amounted to, "Don't you go telling me what to feel, asshole." Probably not in that language, but I could feel their rage coming off them.

And so I tried talking with them, saying, "You know, of course you have a right to feel what you feel, but do you really always want to be drawn into a fight whenever you feel mad, or burst into uncontrollable tears when you feel sad? And when someone else is mad, do you have to just go with getting mad right back and getting into a fight with them?" I think that's what I said, or something like that. Hard to remember; it was a dream. And I woke up before I could hear any sort of reaction from them.

I've had a couple heated discussions on Facebook lately. One was with a guy in my neighborhood arguing that conceal-carry laws are good: he carries a gun as he walks around the neighborhood and it makes him feel safer. I'm not a fan of conceal-carry, but it turns out most of our energy about this comes not from facts but from communal beliefs: he's a passionate defender of individual liberties, while I tend towards a passionate interest in communality and mutual responsibility. When you get to statistical studies, having a firearm is more dangerous to the carrier because of household accidents and moments of passion, and in terms of public safety, conceal-carry a statistical wash.

But here's the thing I noticed about our back-and-forth: he came out of the box spitting mad—calling names, making accusations, saying things that weren't threats but carried the structure of threats ("If you... then I..."). And of course he has a "right to his feelings," but what I was seeing was how much his anger in and of itself washed over the relationship. It almost instantly stopped being just his anger. It was anger that I also had to deal with.

We use the word "feelings" to describe emotions, and this makes sense for little kids that are just learning about themselves: "What do you feel?" is a really good question for little kids to step back from themselves and name the churning mass of stuff inside them.

But I'm wondering about the use of that word in adults, because feelings in a group of people are more like waves: they aren't felt by you as an individual, they are emanated. They are like germs: sometimes your neighbor gets infected, sometimes her immune system kicks in with its own anti-emotion. But none of us live in emotional bubbles. Even those of us who try to, end up emanating their own weird little "can't touch me" vibe.

The other Facebook discussion was with a friend of a friend, about this letter and quickly turned into a debate about tyranny (taxation) vs reckless individualism (anti-taxation). And the guy I had the tête-a-tête with was pretty hyperbolic. He's clearly been through the comments-section school of political commentary and debate.

If you read the comments section of pretty much any article on the internet that touches on politics, you know the language: a group of villains is named, fear-and-anger-inducing words are invoked, and and either a plea for divine retribution or a call to arms concludes. These are the tools we use to try and win arguments. Except they utterly fail at that. They help us gather allies, and maybe we swing one or two people who are confused and unsure where they stand, but they don't turn anyone from the enemy camp, because they make it clear the enemy camp is the enemy.

When Jon Stewart made his plea for civility and less hyperbole ("These are hard times, not the end times...") this summer, I was interested to see some of my left-wing friends get pissed off because to them Stewart seemed to be saying "Stop fighting for what is right." And I didn't really know what to say to that, because of course we want people to fight for justice. And liberty. And freedom. And communal responsibility.

But who are they fighting? And how do you fight a demagogue, or a whole sea of demagogues? When we say we are going to fight, we invoke a specific set of analogies: there is a battle, there is an enemy, there is going to be some kind of combat. There's a poster/t-shirt slogan, "fighting for peace is like f***ing for virginity," which makes the point crudely, but the problem is, we don't know how to talk about large structural issues except by fighting.

And I think the root of the problem is the tidal-emotion thing I started this post off with: When I am passionate about something, a lot of what you—my audience—are paying attention to is the passion. The work of understanding the something itself does not come in presentation, it comes from our internal processing and piecing puzzle pieces that fit our internal unanswered-question puzzle-pieces.

And so I wonder about the place of passion in public debate. It seems to me that opening more of a place for testimony from personal experience, and clear, interesting delineations of the field of debate, are needed. But that's me. Actually, I was bowled over by this discussion of the divided mind, from a recent talk at the Royal Society of Art. It may sound boring from the title, but the conclusion about the sort of balancing needed in our world, is profound:

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Physical Maps

I'm recovering from NACIS 2011, which as usual was wonderful and rich as a source of ideas and techniques and wonderful conversations with fellow cartographers and mapheads.

The thing that kept coming back to me this year is how we often leave aside the idea that maps are physical objects, or at least are experienced as physical objects. It's easy in this electronic world to get caught up in the content that streams to us via our screens, and learn to ignore the screen itself, or at least allow it to fall to a different level of consciousness.

A map is our word for a kind of information transmission: we talk about map makers and map users, about map-generating technology, the language of maps, the meaning and power of maps. Every link in that chain, from the physical ground of our discussion, through the physical means of recording, the physicality even of computers and their electronic guts, exists in physical form. It is grounded in stuff.

This used to be so self-evident as to be an absurd statement. Phrases like "buying a map" or "reading a map," "folding a map" or "publishing a map," represented physical processes that were the primary concern of map makers and users. In fact, we as a map culture were so caught up in these physicalities, that it was kind of a surprise and a jolt to be reminded a generation ago that there was something abstract, ineffable, and grounded in symbol about map-making.

This is to me one of the huge changes the digital revolution has brought about. We now mostly accept that maps are images, texts, arguments, or propositions. The public no longer talks about "folding that paper up like a road map" because our children have no more idea what we're talking about than they do when older folks talk about "dialing someone" on the telephone.

We need to be reminded of the physicality of maps. At a session in NACIS, I made the point that a technique of cross-hatching that Patrick Kennelly presented (really cool idea, by the way), would carry more of the rich texture of the art prints he was using as examples, if he actually made copper plate intaglio prints from them. And the conversation then turned to how you could add texture in Photoshop and so make them look more like old prints. And I held my tongue. The point is, an actual copper plate print, in its physicality, looks and feels different than even the most interesting plotter print—they may look the same on the projection screen at a conference, but their physical appearance in the world is not the same. Physicality matters.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Traditional Marriage

If you wander the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, you'll probably run into a group of men dressed in white, with bells strapped to their shins, dancing while waving handkerchiefs or clashing sticks. They are Morris dancers.

I am also a Morris dancer. Morris dancing is an old tradition, but we hedge a bit on exactly how old it is. Passers-by ask, "where does this come from?" and "when is this supposed to be?" The answer they want to hear is "It’s from England, and it’s veeeerrry old," but the answer I want to give is "it’s from here and now,” because we perform in what we folky types call a "living tradition."

A living tradition is passed down over time, but we expect change in its patterns. We celebrate freshness within the old forms we love. Think of bluegrass, or ballet, or French cooking: in each case, there’s a reverence given to old ways of doing things, and a sense of joy when a new variation on an old theme is introduced.

What's the opposite of a living tradition? A fossilized, hidebound tradition? It isn’t simply conservatism—people find real life in many conservative traditions, where in each presentation of an ancient unalterable text or ritual, the devotee hears something deep and vital. A tradition truly dies when it becomes separated from life—when it is empty of meaning for its participants, when it holds together a group that exists for no good reason. Or when it has become a lie.

Marriage is (or ought to be) a living tradition.

Marriage may be grounded in seemingly unchanging forms, and in words that have been said for a very long time. But the world itself and what it means to live in the world are constantly changing, and so does marriage. What it means to be a husband or a wife is different for me and my wife than it was for our parents, and their marriages were different from those of their parents.

My religious community, the Society of Friends (Quakers) has a strong sense of tradition. If our ideas seem odd to outsiders, it’s not because they are new. From their founding, Quakers rejected the idea of ordained ministers acting as intermediaries between people and God. Quaker weddings had no officiant standing between the couple and that that joined them. We still have no officiants today, and we can honestly say we marry the same way Quakers have been marrying for almost 400 years.

And yet, things do change. We no longer "disown” members who marry non-Quakers, as Friends Meetings used to do. We marry couples who have been living together unmarried, which would have appalled our forebears. And we marry same-gender couples. My congregation, Twin Cities Friends Meeting, has been doing so for 25 years.

This is the witness I want to bear as a member of this congregation: Recognizing marriage between two people of the same sex does not undercut traditional marriage. My opposite-sex marriage (also under care of this Meeting) is strengthened by the same living tradition under which my friends' same-sex weddings are celebrated, and by the examples of those marriages.

The idea that marriage must be protected from change is a lie. The implication that my friends’ same-sex marriages are not legitimate is a lie. And the suggestion that we are corrupted by the growth and change in our living traditions is not just a lie. It is a lie that, if followed, ends in the death of those traditions.

Those who believe these lies need to ask themselves: Is your sense of marriage’s fragility bound up in a tradition to which you no longer fully subscribe? Look to the strength and life in the tradition of marriage and welcome same-sex couples. Don’t just reject the proposed Constitutional amendment. Legalize same-sex marriage. Do it now.

Friday, September 2, 2011

New blog: Measured Words

I've started a new blog, Measured Words, which I describe below. I'm not abandoning this one, but wanted to do this to impose a structure on an idea that's been floating around in my mind for a while. I hope you'll join me over there.

Words are not sticks and stones, but we use words to get people to throw sticks and stones. Words are like magic—that's why magic spells are such a part of magic's trope. And words, in order to work, in order to work their magic, have to mean something.

Words are slippery. Words are malleable. They are not the rocks beneath our collective understanding we want them to be, because they shift in their meaning, subject to our changing wants and our collective will (or lack of will). But we still use them, because we don't seem to have any better tool at hand to work that magic, to reshape our world to meet our desires.

We lie with words, and we tell the truth with words. What makes those words into truth or untruth is not the words themselves, but how well those words match up to the things they describe. And we have gotten way too lazy about making that connection.

And so this blog. Each entry I will pick a word and try to get at what we mean, and sometimes what we ought to mean, when we invoke it. Some of the words are at the forefront of political speech (jobs, freedom, government), others are parts of my particular life (Quaker, map, folk). And still others I expect to pick up just because they pique my interest.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Blind Spot

There's an old trick where you place a dark spot on a white wall, then sit back and with one eye open, look slightly to the left or right, and at some point, the spot will simply disappear from view. This marks the small area (scotoma) on the retina where there are no visual receptors (no cones or rods) because that's where the optic nerve connects the retina to the brain.

I think we each have points like this is our psychic landscape, which cannot be approached in the direct way we know how to approach most of the world, not because they are too painful (that's another story—see below) but because they simply contradict our ways of understanding; they are incomprehensible because they are in the blind spots of our comprehension.

The annihilation of being is the big one for most people. Of course we can see death all the time; all living things die. But we cannot understand what it means to die, because it would be to imagine not imagining, to think about not thinking—ever again.

We construct all sorts of ways to bridge this blank spot, but at root it is almost impossible to understand a world without a self. That is to say, a story with no narrator, a picture not drawn from a point of view. So when a character in a story (or, in the particular case I'm thinking of, a play I saw last week) considers his or her undoing, and the creator is portraying this as straightforwardly as possible, there comes a kind of gray moment, when the artist (and character) is simply lost.

All of this assumes that the "soul" does in fact die, that consciousness, the self, does not have an immortal component. And I suspect that the power of that "blind spot" is a big part of the impetus to discover alternatives to total death of the self, whether immortality of the soul, or reincarnation, or some other process by which something happens after the end.

Well, something does happen to the body of course: it decomposes and—one way or another—is eaten. And that eating is a root of horror. There was an interesting discussion on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning recently, with the author of the hot new werewolf novel, The Last Werewolf. My question for him was about the horrific effect of having a sympathetic character become meat, how viscerally painful this is for the audience, and how he as a writer used—or at any rate dealt with—this horror. He said that specifically it was being eaten that to his mind was the horror: that all you have worked for in your life is summed up in being a meal for some other creature, and that this was in a way the key to horror as a genre and as a tool. I think he was spot on. Like death, the prospect that we (or our bodies if our sense of self is gone) will be consumed elicits a visceral turn of the stomach.

It is not, however, as powerful a blind spot, because we can in fact imagine being captured in a great monstrous maw like a bird in a cat's jaws. It's painful and horrible but the horror is comprehensible.

I wrote earlier about Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock, and about my troubles with the ending. In the denouement, she pulls from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets an image of Nowhere as a place, in her book an eddying gray horror, a pool at the foot of a garden, the maw of Hell — not a fiery place but an utterly empty negation of everything, good and bad. I think this is the blind spot, and perhaps this is why I find the ending of the book unsatisfying: it takes us up to the lip of a visible impossibility, and then uses a sort of rule-manipulating trick to turn us away, pull us through and out. In the end, that horror is simply left behind, unaddressed.

I recently read William Styron's Darkness Visible, an account of his own deep clinical depression. The book was recommended to me as the truest and clearest description of clinical depression a friend had ever read. It is an excellent book, but one of the things it makes very clear is that depression in itself is indescribable: you can approach it, you can say something about it, but it is a pain of absence, an experience of void, and as such is not really possible to put into words, because the words fill a space in the audience's heads that are simply missing in the sufferer. Depression is like a blind spot of the self, a place that by definition cannot be held and looked at directly. It can be described in the descent, and—as Styron notes, quoting Dante in his return from the Inferno—in the ascent back out of it, but because description is itself something, the void cannot be captured in words.

Is there any way out of these blind spots? If the analogy were perfect, one could just open the other eye. If one trusted the vision of others, one could ask what they saw, but no-one else can truly see our selves from the inside, or be a sufferer of depression for the sufferer. People describe near-death experiences, but these experiences are unsatisfactory because they are about someone else's negation, not ours. Our blind spots are places where our frame of understanding is fundamentally personal, and because we are conscious in some essential way within our own bodies, there is no sure-fire way to add the equivalent of parallel vision. Even a close companionship like Styron had with his wife can't bridge the disease, though of course it sure can't hurt either. It probably saved his life—his realization as he considered suicide that he couldn't just do this selfishly to those he loved. But it didn't cure or offer a window to his condition.

Buddhist practice, with its focus on non-self and non-being, maybe comes closest. But here I fall short, never having really studied such practices. And my understanding is that in Buddhist meditation, the goal is a stilling of self so one can experience the not-self, not the prospect of the soul's extinguishment.

Perhaps the key to addressing these blind spots is to think of them not in terms of their being things we see, but products of how we look. That is to say, it is not self-negation, or death, that we cannot see, but our way of seeing that keeps us from seeing death. The idea—and this is really just an untested idea on my part—that depression is similar in kind to the gray space around the idea of the absence of self, suggests that there is something organic in us, as there clearly is in depression, that makes our seeing unclear. If we saw the world differently—as some who believe in an immortal soul do, for instance—that nothingness would not be a gray and shimmering horror.

What the blind spots do show pretty definitively to me at least, is that description, the set tools we use to say what the world is, has inherent paradoxical limits. It's not that we won't look at them—in the way we won't look at being eaten, or at any of a number of bogeymen and women we set up as furniture in our psychic household—it's that description itself is housed within a finite, mortal frame and cannot therefore see the absence of that frame itself.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


In my world, whether Dominique Straus-Kahn raped the hotel housekeeper or had consensual sex with her, he's still political damaged goods—what kind of trust do you place in a potential leader who has unprotected sex with a total stranger on a moment's notice?

Well, if you're a gorilla, you respect him (perhaps grudgingly) as the silverback leader of the tribe. And there's some part of us that recognizes silverbacks among us, and accepts them into leadership positions. Perhaps this is why so many male politicians get tripped up by exercising their sexual desires—they were chosen for their silverback qualities, and now here we are punishing them for them.

But why should these two be necessarily connected? Straus-Kahn didn't make his way to the top of the IMF and France's Socialist Party on the size of his "harem." Even among those who accept that powerful men have mistresses, it is expected that they will be discreet about it.

I find myself thinking about the side-effects of domestication. When you breed wolves into dogs, one of the side effects of becoming part of the human household is a sort of perpetual puppyhood. In fact, you can correlate certain kinds of breed-related gentleness with the degree of puppy-like physical charateristics: floppy ears, shorter snout, rounder body. (A couple starter sources on this: Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human, and the excellent Nature documentary "The Secret Life of the Dog")

Is male sexual aggressiveness tied to wider social leadership qualities? Does promoting faithfulness and lack of sexual aggression give us milquetoasts? It makes a certain amount of sense—the leader of a gang or a tribe proves his kingship by having his pick of the women.

But this is far from the only model of human social organization with deep roots. The model of a chieftan who rules by loyalty and punishment is matched by that of the council circle—an egalitarian model where getting too far above oneself is a recipe for a group smackdown.

What I observe is that these models move back and forth. The silverback king model makes more sense when there is immediate threat, and the group needs to move quickly and responsively. Think of a platoon in battle or a group of escapees from slavery or prison—adrenaline pumps, and you do what the leader tells you, or you are dead.

By contrast, the egalitarian model makes sense when life is stable, and threats to life are longer-term—harvest, hunt, and child-rearing. Instead of adrenaline-fueled survival instincts, we take time to consider and plan, and good planning means listening and considering advice, something that doesn't happen as effectively when we are worried about Darth Vader enforcing his will upon us...

The kingship model also makes sense when the population becomes to large to manage by consensus. In a mass society, you can mitigate this by choosing a council to govern the larger group, either by election or tradition. But when selection to this council becomes competitive, it is the silverbacks who will tend to put the energy into getting onto the council, and suddenly you don't have a group of a co-operators, but a bunch of people trying to be top gun.

When the language of egalitarianism becomes embedded in a competitive political system, you thus end up with strange cognitive dissonances: Anthony Weiner on one hand brilliantly calling out outrageous anti-democratic abuses by his opponents, while on the other hand playing out an aggressive primate mating ritual on line; Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin's strange combination of driven personal ambition and endorsement of traditional stay-at-home motherhood; calls for bipartisanship alongside constant (and often personal) political attacks.

Now, it isn't fair to say that religious conservatives are somehow promoting aggressive promiscuity. Because clearly the orthodoxy says you should keep your pants on if you want to go to heaven. And good behavior is enforced by shame—the tearful admission of sin has become almost routine in scandals involving politicians. But the purist sense of human behavior—the sense that we ought to be above primate wrestling in the mud—which much of modern conservatism is grounded upon, might be a big part of the problem. Especially when that purism becomes embodied in political and social structures that are driven by the energy of those primate combats.

And that I think gets to the root of the silverback problem: We depend on silverback models of leadership to keep us together and to give us drive, but we also want to feel a sense of rational or spiritual community in which we are all treated as equals. And these two models simply do not play well together.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The territory of race

The thing that keeps coming back to me, after the White Privilege Conference I attended a couple weeks ago, is a futile sort of ping-pong:

Point 1: While the justification for the idea of race is "biological," there is no real basis for "races" in terms of genetic variation. There are no "subspecies." There's more genetic variation within sub-Saharan Africans than there is between all of the peoples who in 1500 were living in the arc between England and Japan. So: race is arbitrary. It doesn't have a basis in biology.

Point 2: Race has become fundamental to identity. You can't just say "race is meaningless," because this deeply disrespects the suffering that has been endured in its name, and the sheer effort that has been made to reclaim identity and pride. It has meaning grounded in history.

Point 3: The founding of the idea of race is bound up in power. People brought to America from Africa in the age of slavery weren't "black" or "Negro" or "colored" or even "African" before they arrived here— they were whatever nation or tribe or clan or other classification they identified with in Africa. Same is true of "Indians"/"Native Americans"/"First Nations." These broad terms only make sense within the context of European colonization of the Americas. And today, the terms used in the United States for people from vaguely south of the border, or from Spanish colonial heritage within our borders, terms like "Hispanic" and "Latino/a" and "Chicana/o" only make sense in the context of the United States: in Venezuela the terms are effectively meaningless, because the major cultural divides there are other than Anglo/Spanish-speaking. So the very idea of race as we live it has no meaning outside of our American culture.

Point 4: Just because something is a construct, specific to your culture—an arbitrary line drawn in the sand—doesn't mean it doesn't hold extraordinary power...

Just like the Grid—latitude, township, plat and so forth—we've spoken of so much here.

But—as I've argued about the Grid—race (or rather the thing race is supposed to measure) is not inherently evil. In the case of race, the idea of grouping people by ancestral heritage isn't the problem. I dance English folk dances in my spare time... nothing actually dangerous about that. Consider how different European heritages in American that were once at each others' throats have become essentially fodder for folkloric festivals and tourism in midwestern towns; you never see anti-Irish riots like you did 150 years ago. The sense of identity we white people derive from our specific heritages adds variety and interest to what is sometimes a bland "American" cheese product...

So: where is the cause of race as a cancer?...because the use of race as a basis for action is a cancer on this country. Look at the populations in our prisons, in our slums, in our schools, in our places of employment, in our graveyards...

I go back to my earlier discussions of the Grid, and my conclusion that the problem is not in the Grid itself as a tool for measurement, but in its checkerboard reapplication back on the land, ignoring the texture and shape of that land in itself.

Race was never a really useful way of measuring out the American people, except as it provided an excuse to summarily take away rights and property from some and give it to others. It is grounded in enslavement of Africans and the de-nationing of American Indians and Spanish-speaking colonials. It doesn't actually say anything about what we are capable of as individuals. Nevertheless, it forms a part of our heritage...

It's a mistaken and misused shorthand for ancestry—where we and our parents came from. It's a way of not saying our actual ancestor stories, but instead linking to a common story. In this sense it's like latitude, which links to a planet we do not interact with as a planet on a day-to-day basis. And unlike latitude, it doesn't even actually relate to real physical differences.

Race only means anything because people were and are forced to live within its arbitrary lines. And that in itself carries a lot of meaning, as much like nation-states, whose arbitrary lines make territories we send soldiers out to die over. Our history of enslavement, displacement, lies, cheating, and papering it all over with niceties about law and rights.... that is the can of worms. When we address it forthrightly, as for example Howard Zinn did, and as all sorts of "radical" or "alternative" historians and artists have done, we don't necessarily heal anything, any more than making a map solves a mess like Israel and Palestine.

I feel as if, in my sense of the world, I have cleared away a pile of brush that covered a big, unsightly hole. It's more exposed, but it looks raw and ugly from here. We can't fill it—that's what the brush was, an attempt at covering it over. What we can do is step back and see how we can make it a useful and pleasing part of the landscape. Can we take race and make it charmingly ethnic over time? Can we plant seedlings and let it grass over, not changing its shape or denying it was ever there, but making it a part of our landscape? I think something like that may, in the end, be the best we can hope for...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The humble church

I've been sitting with Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It's a challenging book—probably to nearly everyone. It's no atheist screed, wiping the supernatural before it with a materialistic sneer. But it does play—lovingly—with the two sides of the character of Jesus Christ: the radical millennialist and the founder of an eternal church. It does this with the device of separating the one man into two twins. Not the easy device of a Jekyll-and-Hyde, Cain-and-Abel dichotomy; these brothers complement each other, fight each other, and end up playing parts in a story they're neither of them entirely happy with. But both seek to do the best they can do, and be the best they can be, with what has been given.

The book more or less follows the narrative content of the Gospels, along with some childhood legends. And near the end, with Jesus kneels in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking one last time for God to speak to him, to make Himself immanent to him. This paragraph has embedded itself in me:

'Lord, if I thought you were listening, I'd pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it would wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenters; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say the the sparrow "get out, you don't belong here?" Does the tree say to the hungry man "This fruit is not for you?" Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?
I don't really have much to add. I think Pullman's vision of the kind of church Jesus would have put up with is spot on, and is a challenge even for the liberal sect I belong to. I think I need to carry this around with me some more.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Problematic Fundamentals

Paul Krugman's recent column puncturing the myth that education is the key to jobs put in to words something that's been bugging me for a while now, a sense that our fundamental terms of discussion on economic issues are missing the point, over and over.

First, the use of "jobs" to mean "earned income." We're used to wage employment being the primary source of sustenance for most American families, but this is pretty new, globally speaking. The move by more and more friends and acquaintances to grow at least some of their own food is striking, and I think points to a broadening sense that wage labor is not the only way to go in terms of providing for oneself. When we say "we want everyone to have a job" what we ought to be saying is "we want everyone to work such that they can sustain themselves and have time and energy for the pleasures and joy of life"

Second, the sense that money is the fundamental unit of economic measure. It is certainly the most easily quantifiable measure—maybe the only easily quantifiable measure. But in the end, it is a measure, not the thing itself. A dollar is a unit of exchange. As has been pointed out countless times, you can't eat gold. The focus on money also means we ignore non-monetized parts of the economy. There are fewer and fewer of these to find, but if you look at the heart of the economic system—the household—most of the work is unpaid in financial terms. The οἰκονόμος (the "householder," the root of "economy") is paid in kind.

The core economic question is not "how much money do we get for our work?" but "how should we spend ourselves?" because whatever we earn in cash, when we work we are spending time out of our lives. The product, whether it is fungible or not, is what we should pay attention to. Not everything needs to be exchangeable on the open market.

Finally, what Paul Krugman said: equating formal education with jobs is not a good long-term, fundamental principle. Education is good, because it provides a framework for learning about the wider communities we live within. It makes church members more deeply resonant with their churches. It makes citizens better able to be active citizens. It makes humans able to be part of the whole species. It makes Earthlings able to be part of this planet. Well, anyway, it should do all these things. And, sure, the better you can be part of the larger wholes you are part of, the more opportunities you have for productive—and paid—interactions.

But school is just the simplest way to get there, and it isn's the easiest for everyone... a friend was recently telling me how his middle-school kids are struggling with the cookie-cutter bureaucratic nonsense they are starting to really feel impinge on their deep pulls and pushes and passions in life. They are in a pretty well-off family, so I believe they will have the ability to pull through with some creativity and work. Not everyone has those resources. This is a problem, exacerbated by our insistence that the school is the key, always and for everyone.

Thanks, Paul, for inspiring me to get this off my chest.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Who are we and what are we doing here?

I wrote this back at the end of December, and I'm not sure why I never posted it. But here you are...

I'm not sure this is ready for prime time, but I feel compelled to post.

An interesting thread on Facebook earlier this week began with the posit that the writer could not see a "place in the modern Pagan movement for spiritual values that do not embrace values of feminism, environmentalism, and the deepening of genuine, engaged community."

Now, I'm all over those values, but played devil's advocate, imagining a neo-pagan with strong patriarchal values, a sense of human entitlement to lord it over the earth, and a desire to live alone in the woods away from other homo sapiens.

And it went back and forth and was interesting, but what I wanted to get to in this post I'm writing was near the end of the thread, when the original poster, who is also a Quaker, talked about her experience of discernment, as an invaluable process to not just "believe whatever you want," but to hold your understandings up against a standard, to measure them and allow them to be tested. It's something she wishes she saw more of in the Pagan world.

And here's what rose for me: the difference between coming to an understanding of what we are, as individuals or as a group, vs. coming to answer the old question Tolstoy asked of Russian poverty, echoing Luke: "What then must we do?" That terrible, burning question, which I first ran into as the crux of the movie The Year of Living Dangerously, reminds me of friend Marshall Massey's description of early Friends as expectant courtiers, waiting for instructions by their Lord. It's a yank-your-life-around kind of question for people who try to address it fully.

But I think it often then overwhelms that first question, one I've been wrestling with in various ways in this blog: what is this "we" we talk so much about? and what about this other "we" I belong to over here? How does that work? And even deeper, what is this "I" thing I'm so attached to?

Maybe the balance between the two questions is like the urgent vs important dichotomy Scott Covey talks about. Or maybe (this is my take), the question of identity is not one the universe really cares about, but that we as homo sapiens find essential, like food and water and fiction. Whereas the universe actually does care about what then we must do.

OK, so as a professed non-Christian, I'm going to take a leap here: the distinction between these two questions is like the distinction between worshiping the person of Jesus and following his teachings. On one hand, some people get so caught up in the identity of being a Christian, and of following Jesus as a person who lived and breathed and died and was resurrected and saves and sits at the right hand of God and is part of the three-is-one, no he isn't, there's only one godhead and your mother wears army boots if you believe that and his divinity is reflective of universal light and no it's not it's light itself and your mama wears army boots and you're not a real Christian and and and and.

And so the nice reasonable people come along and say, let's just drop this whole worshiping Jesus thing and just be nice and reasonable and follow his teachings... well, the ones that are reasonable anyway, not the ones where he goes all I-am-the-way-and-my-way-or-the-highway and then we'll sing a nice song and and and... why aren't you paying attention to me?

My point is this: the hard questions need to be asked by a person who embodies them (or we need to understand them as being so embodied; stories about embodiment work almost as well for human beings as physical presence to that embodiment). Otherwise, we don't pay attention, and in particular we can't be a group united in approaching that embodiment. Without the identity, without the personhood, we hominids just plain lose interest. On the other hand, with an identity in hand, we tend to start paying more attention to the person than to the questions. It's a tough balance, and lots of groups (my own included) claim to have found the mechanism that makes it work. But it is always hard work.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saving the Universe, one novel at a time

Late last year I read my son most of Diane Duane’s So You Want to be a Wizard. I was reminded again of what struck me the first time I read the book (and its sequels): for a young-adult fantasy novel, it brings into unusually clear focus how doing good means setting aside your own needs (and maybe your life) in service of something bigger. Self-sacrifice is one of the central common themes in hero-stories, which make up a lot of fantasy fiction (self-discovery being the other big theme). But there's usually a narrative-distance gap that dulls its emotional impact: either the novel is set far enough away in time and/or space that the behavior seems exceptional to our life and times, or else it's not the character that you as reader really identify with that does the self-sacrificing; your stand-in character is witness, not willing victim.

Meanwhile, I am getting tired of the idea of actually saving the Universe, or the Earth, or Life. I am getting tired of people who overstep their truth. I just get tired of feeling like I need to clean up after radical theoreticians when I read them, like I have to measure every sentence to see if they are still speaking from experience or generalizing out into an barely-tenable conclusion. And I think it's like the idea of our "saving the Earth" or "saving life on Earth": Folks, we'd have to work pretty damned hard to actually wipe out microbial life, or even vertebrate life, or even mammalia, let alone primates, let alone Homo Sapiens. "Western civilization" I can see getting wiped out over some lengthy period of time, though it will take some doing to wipe away so much printed and absorbed knowledge. And what hubris to think we can "save the Earth." It is large, and contains unbelievable multitudes. (see this post by Keith Humphreys that pretty much sums it up for me)

I've noticed for a long time in movies and comic books and fantasy novels, that when there's a battle for the Universe, it usually takes place in the author's backyard. Wherever the author lives, that's where the Ultimate Conflict will be. So Tom Clancy has a showdown in Washington, Harry Potter and Doctor Who in England, Godzilla in Tokyo... somewhere there's a Malaysian hero-movie with the Ultimate Battle in Kuala Lumpur, and a telenovela with the world-saving hero's sword is locked in combat somewhere near Buenos Aires. Probably the dolphins have a long-running series on the Ultimate Battle With the Orcas of Puget Sound.

There is something wonderful about your own backyard becoming the center of the universe. English fantasies do this well: old battles that were, for their participants, the center of creation—the invasions of Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans; the endless wars since—are placed against the determinedly bucolic and ordinary lives of our lead characters, living in undramatic late-twentieth-century England.

American fantasy writers struggle to do this as effectively. I have often wondered why this is. For a long time I wondered if it's because, with the exception of Native American religions and the Mormons, we do not have the Center of the Universe posited here by our religions. But I'm coming to wonder if it has more to do with the fact of fighting over land. The English are just as uncentered religiously: yes there's Canterbury, but the Holy Land is as religio-centric as it is here in North America.

No, I think the depth of people physically battling over land may be the key. There are few battlefields here in North America, and what there are are mostly framed as battles over principle rather than invasions. Really only Euro vs Native wars qualify in the same way as those repeated invasions of England, and those are a still a little crisply engraved in our cultural memory to work as the resonant underpinning to fiction, and the descendants of Europeans remain on the side of the Normans and the Vikings... the bad guy invader side. I wonder what it will take, in terms of action and the erosive quality of time, for us to get past the American equivalent of Ivanhoe-ish divisions.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Mystic Lamb

Stealing the Mystic Lamb, by Noah Charney

I wanted to like this book. It's about the life of the Ghent Altarpiece, and especially about two significant thefts of the piece, during the first half of the 20th century. The altarpiece was a hugely important work in my life as an art student—probably the most important single piece. My final comps project was built in triptych form, and used the idea of literal symbolism that is so central to Northern Renaissance art, and of which the Ghent Altarpiece is a prime example.

I wanted to like it, but in the end it just isn't a great book. Partly it's just clunkily written; it needed a development editor to really make it shine. But partly, also... well...

The thing I love about Northern Renaissance painting is how it is filled with specific, almost textual meaning. Every object in the painting is there not just because it looks good or happened to be in the studio when the artist was painting, but because it is an element in a specific argument:

The angel Gabriel carries lilies, a symbol of purity. He speaks so we can read his words, but Mary's words are backwards so they can be read by Gabriel. The water jug and basin refer to a common argument of the time as to how Mary could be both Virgin and a mother. And my favorite: through the window we see a Flemish town, but given where the altarpiece was placed in the church, the light falling on that city comes from the north: it is the light of the extraordinary, not of our everyday sun.

Every panel of the altarpiece, and of Northern Renaissance art in general, is filled with this heightened sense that the world itself—which the paintings mirror in finest detail—is pregnant with meaning. No object is "merely" an object. Every part of the world has this added glow of importance and meaning beyond its physical self.

What's sad about the final theft of the painting, by the Nazis, is how the painting itself was important to them not for its content as a meaning-filled mini-world, but as a totem: it was thought to hold keys to the location of relics of Christ's passion, and was important as a symbol of Belgian national pride, because it was so important in the history of painting as the first major oil painting in Europe. Also, the Treaty of Versailles had specifically called for the wing panels, stolen in 1816 and eventually housed in Berlin, to be returned to Ghent, and this rankled Hitler.

And unfortunately, the author falls into the trap of focusing on the Indiana Jones-esque adventures around the paintings, losing track of why they painting is so powerful even now, almost 600 years after it was painted. In essence, the author does the opposite of what the altarpiece does: it takes an document of extraordinary meaning-full-ness and makes us see it as an object.

I don't really blame the author, Mr Cherney. His heart is in the right place, and you can see just how obsessed with the whole sweeping adventure the painting has been involved in: a theft followed by mysterious messages one year, sinister Nazi agents who take it to a remote cave in the Alps the next... it really is the stuff of movie plotting.


When does a fascination with a document become a fetish? What happens to a powerful argument when the references it draws on become obscure? When does the fact of richly layered meaning become a web that draws us towards the madness of Dan Brown-style conspiracy theory? How can we best look at a document so rich in meanings and symbols, which in their specifics carry little weight with us?

And for those of us who deal in meaning-filled arts, what does looking at such a piece tell us today about how to make our objects meaningful, instead of the other way around?

The poison of "The People"

It's a well-known fact that the name of many "tribes" and "nations" is simply the word "people" in that group's language. The implication being that we are people, and then there are those other not-quite-people who we can't even understand.

Populist and socialist politics did much the same in the era of popular revolution: "We the people" overthrew the British royal government in what became the United States. Communist revolution established "People's Republics" all over the globe. "People power" toppled Ferdinand Marcos and has been a byword for popular revolt ever since, including the ongoing changes in the Arab world.

I was struck again this morning by how that language permeates Bob Herbert's warning opinion piece this morning in the New York Times.
I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”
The problem is, of course, that what "the people" rise up against is, well, other people. And there's a thread in liberal thought that emphasizes the unity of homo sapiens (and more recently, the whole earth as one ecosystem). But we still have this idea that "the people" will empower themselves... and as we've seen in the last few weeks in Egypt, when the bulk of the population finds itself utterly at odds with a ruling elite, they will in fact do just that: take back the country.

So what's next? That's the theme of commentary over the last couple days, as Mubarak's exit seemed clear to everyone but himself. And I think part of the answer lies in how "the people" comes to be formulated in Egypt's new formal political and social structures. Nasser founded the modern Egyptian state on rhetoric of popular nationalism, borrowing heavily from his Soviet sponsors. Like those sponsors, it was in large part a smokescreen for oligarchy, and as the socialist pretense wore thin and was eventually dropped, the "people" that the Egyptian state was supposed to be founded on found themselves adrift.


"The People" is a powerful concept. It makes every human an equal component of the group in question, whether it is a nation, clan, religion, association, or rock band. But it also implies a false dichotomy whenever it is invoked: we are more human, they are less human. And whether you are dealing with class struggle or inter-national conflict, it dehumanizes.

As a concept, the equality-making "People" is offset by how we humans generally self-organize: with leaders and followers. The feudal model, of a king and his lieges, is the other extreme of a pure democracy, but both need the core element of the other: without leadership, a nation is like a ship without a helmsperson, drifting aimlessly. It can get along fine in calm waters, but watch out when a reef arises—and a reef will inevitably, eventually, appear. Likewise, when a purely power-based king forgets that he depends on his lieges' loyalty, and that that depends in turn on a feeling of commonality, he'll be chucked overboard at the first opportunity, like Captain Bligh...

European nations, and their political heirs, have been struggling with this balance for centuries. Do we endow a king with god-like power? Consensus seems to be that a constitutional balance is better in the long run. Do we let anyone run for president? Hitler was popularly elected, and most democracies have exceptions for parties or leaders who explicitly want to undo democratic institutions (remember the presidential oath to "uphold the Constitution" etc.?). And on and on...

What I find intriguing and kind of exciting is the potential of the current revolution in Egypt especially to change the nature of global political thinking. Islam, unlike Christianity, has an inherent, core philosophy of radical equality: we are all equal before Allah. There is no Islamic Pope, no priestly intermediaries. There are wise scholars, and there is the Prophet, but the structural basis for a "God-given mandate" is really a lot thinner than in the West, reserved for fanatics like bin-Laden. So we will see.

In the meantime, could we in the West please watch out for invocations of "the People"? Please? Remember Louis Armstrong's comment:

"All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song."
Despite what you may have read, we've never had a horse as President or CEO either. Let's find some other way of saying "the people who are not in a leadership position, who are oppressed by those above them in power."

We are all the People. No exceptions.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


They warn us of the cruelest month—
April with its chill, withheld promise;
And they tell us the veil grows thin on All Hallows Eve,
a shiver in the year's circle.

But what about January?
When the world itself is worn thin,
And we venture outside swaddled, wobbling like penguins.

The lucky ones travel south.
"Snow birds," as if magically transfigured.
And the rest of us? Carp frozen into the lake bottom.

There's no drama to this cold.
It's dull and it dulls the mind's knife:
The routine, the wind, the utter lack of scent.
All the little dailies and monthlies,
The clockworks of our lives
Spinning around in the dry arctic silence.

Flame is good.
Candles at dinner; a fireplace, a bonfire.
Hot coffee, chocolate, whiskey.
Hearthed or cupped, held clasped
As if it might run off into the darkness without us.

And in the dark bed, a warm body,
All the warm bodies, lying in wait for the air to warm between them.