Sunday, December 10, 2017

Saturday with Mom

I travel to my mother’s house on a curving country road, past well-tended farms with driveway signs that quote the Old Testament.

Create in me a clean heart, O God

Sin is a reproach to any people

A soft answer turneth away wrath

Early morning light graces the trees and pastures, and I think, as always, of stopping to use the camera I’ve brought along. But I don’t stop today. I hardly ever stop. Mom is waiting.

When I get to her house, she’s all dressed in her purple outfit, a strand of costume pearls around her neck today instead of the rose quartz necklace she’s been wearing lately.

I have a tiny plush dog with oversized, sparkly blue eyes to give her. Its fur is gray with white markings, and I hope it will remind her of her long-dead Malamute named Bear. She's delighted with the toy. “Oh, how cute!”

“I think it looks like Bear,” I say. “Do you remember Bear?”

“Of course,” she says, caressing her new baby. It’s impossible to know whether she really remembers Bear, and I have no idea why I still feel the need to invoke the past with her.

Mom’s current dog comes up to say hello. Katie, a fluffy black mutt with spotted feet, is so fat she breathes heavily and waddles when she walks. Mom will not be discouraged from constantly giving her “treats” — whole slices of cheese and ham, sweet rolls, leftovers of all kinds. Sometimes I can convince her to refrain while I'm present, but I know she'll forget as soon as I'm gone. In her mind, Katie seems to represent every dog and child she ever cared for. She often talks as if she has a whole houseful of creatures to look after. I hate to see what's happening to Katie, but the only remedy would be to take her away from Mom. None of us is prepared to be that cruel. So I just pet the dog and feel guilty.

Mom’s partner helps her get her jacket on, and she and I head out to Southernaire, a restaurant near Kentucky Lake. Our family’s been eating there for years, and my eldest brother and I take Mom there most Saturdays for breakfast. His absence today makes Mom anxious.

"Is somebody coming with us?"

"No, Jeff can't come today. He's tied up with work. He's gonna come next week."

"Oh." A long pause. "He seems like a really good guy."

"He is a really good guy."

We repeat this exchange at least four times in the 15 minutes it takes to drive to the restaurant. It's not entirely clear whether she knows we're talking about her son. She seems to understand who I am, but I know that when I'm not around she refers to me as "my friend."


Southernaire is homey and charming and odd. The lobby features a big screen TV, video games, and a taxidermied beaver sporting seasonal headgear. The dining room, by contrast, is like a genteel tea room, all lace curtains and aquamarine walls.

While Mom slowly works on her heaped-up plate of eggs and bacon, the usual cast of characters cycles through —local families, couples, a pair of 60+ pilots who've just flown in on the air strip across the road. Three huge young men lumber in and take up a table. They look like brothers, or maybe cousins. They strike me as farm boys, though I can't quite put my finger on why. Two of them are decked out in Vol orange.  I half expect the room to list in their direction, they're so big. "You got a pork chop back there?" one of them asks the waitress. "Fry me up a pork chop."

While I'm studying the farm boys, Mom is fixated on a little blond girl at the next table. She keeps trying, without success, to get the child to smile back at her.  Mom has always loved kids, and whenever we're out in public she invariably zeros in on young children, especially girls. It's sweet to see, but it's also a little intense. She looks at them the way a 4-year-old looks at a puppy — fascinated, delighted, covetous. She'll often speak to the parents if she gets a chance, usually saying something admiring and innocuous like “That's a beautiful child.” Out here in the country, people always respond in a friendly way, and I'm grateful for that. I've often wondered whether an elderly man with a similar fixation on kids would be treated so tolerantly.

We box up Mom's leftovers to take home, where she'll likely feed them to Katie. I've only had to stop her a couple of times today from putting salt in her coffee or sugar on her eggs, and she was easily persuaded to leave the little tubs of half & half on the table. She offers to pay, pulling bills out of her purse and trying to hand them to me. We never let her pay, but I don't think she'll ever stop trying. She grew up poor and has a deeply ingrained sense of the importance of money.

Out in the parking lot, there's a vintage El Camino, fire engine red, with an unopened sack of something — maybe horse feed — lying in the middle of the pristine bed. I like to think it belongs to the large young men, though the cab looks like a tight fit for even one of them.


On the way home, we stop at a dollar store to look at the Christmas stuff. Mom has no Christmas decorations of any kind at her house, and she doesn't really understand the holiday anymore. She wouldn't refuse a present, and she thinks the lights are pretty, but it's not at all clear that she registers what any of it means. Nevertheless, I'm suddenly determined that she'll have something in her house to mark the season. As with the little plush dog, this is more about my needs than hers, and as we paw through the snow globes and reindeer ornaments, I'm painfully aware of the source of all these cheap gewgaws.

I find a little aluminum tabletop tree covered in gold glitter. $3.00. “This is pretty, Mom, don't you think?”

“Oh, it is pretty. And just $3.00.”

I get the feeling she's humoring me, but it's hard to tell. She might actually like it. And she regards all gifts as expressions of love, always has.

When I pay, the young woman behind the counter hands me a slip of paper along with my receipt. It's a note, handwritten on a piece of register tape. It says, “God Bless + Merry Christmas,” with a little 😊

A blast of cold wind hits us as we head to the car. Mom clutches her jacket and grimaces. She seems so frail, as brittle as the brown leaves blowing across the asphalt. While I drive, she lifts the little tree out of the plastic bag and admires it. “This is something I can treasure forever,” she says, and repeats it a few more times before we turn down the dirt road to her house.

*Photo by BitterGrace

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Looking at the sea, Veloso Salgado (1864-1945)

My birthday is here. Again. I've reached the age when it seems to roll around with startling frequency. This doesn't particularly distress me, but I'm amazed every day by the way life just keeps hurtling on toward its conclusion without consulting my preferences or accommodating my uncertainties. I'm kinda glad it does. If I were actually allowed to be in charge of things, my existence would be one long, dull wait for perfect conditions and my own sense of readiness. Instead, shit just happens and I struggle to keep up. That's way more interesting than living life according to plan, though it's not always 100% fun. Most of the time, I feel like that lady up there at the top of the post—looking toward the horizon with a shifting mixture of curiosity, bewilderment, hope, and dread, wondering what's to come.

The world has had an eventful year, as usual. So much sadness, so much suffering. And don't even get me started on human villainy. My tiny corner of the planet, however, has been blessedly steady. Almost everything that was true on my last birthday is still true. I still have that awesome dog the stupid people threw away, and now I have a second, equally awesome dog. Her old humans didn't want her either. SMDH, as the kids say. 

Miraculously, everything that was good is still good. There have been losses and continuing sorrows, and I'll confess to wasting some time mourning wasted time. But for the most part I have enjoyed twelve solid months of luck, love, generosity, and beauty. Abundant beauty.

Photo by BitterGrace

To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things—earth,
          stone and water,
Beast, man and woman, sun, moon and stars—
The blood-shot beauty of human nature, its thoughts,
          frenzies and passions,
And unhuman nature its towering reality—
For man’s half dream; man, you might say, is nature
          dreaming, but rock
And water and sky are constant—to feel
Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the
Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
The rest’s diversion: those holy or noble sentiments, the
          intricate ideas,
The love, lust, longing: reasons, but not the reason.

~ Robinson Jeffers, "The Beauty of Things"

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Purely sentimental

Maybe it's age catching up with me, but I'm feeling tender and nostalgic as the holidays approach. I was lucky enough to enjoy some wonderful Christmases when I was a kid, and even though I haven't done much celebrating in recent years, there's still a soft spot in my heart for memory-stirring art and kitsch. Here's a little collection of seasonal images that make me smile. 

 Christmas card of unknown vintage

 Vogue cover, 1921

Russian postcard c. 1914-1917

Mela Koehler (1885-1960)

Christmas Eve, 1959Guy Wiggins (1883-1962)

Christmas card of unknown vintage

Resurrection of the Magi, David Derr (born 1954)

Street Scene, Christmas Morning, Childe Hassam, 1892

One of literary critic Fanny Butcher's Christmas cards

Bird on Snow Covered Berry Branch, Takahashi Biho (1873-?)

Thursday, November 23, 2017

"...the lewd perfume that laughs along innocent limbs"

The Dawn of Love, William Etty, 1828

O maternal love,
heartbreaking for the gold
of bodies suffused
with the secret of wombs.

And beloved unconscious
attitudes of the lewd
perfume that laughs

along innocent limbs.

~ Pier Paolo Pasolini, from "Flesh and Sky"
translated by David Stivender and J.D. McClatchy

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"...teach him to study the trees"

Olive Trees against a Mountainous Background, Edgar Degas, c. 1890-92


Now that you are leaving, take the boy with you as well,
the boy who saw the light under the plane tree,
one day when trumpets resounded and weapons shone
and the sweating horses
bent to the trough to touch with wet nostrils
the green surface of the water.

The olive trees with the wrinkles of our fathers
the rocks with the wisdom of our fathers
and our brother’s blood alive on the earth
were a vital joy, a rich pattern
for the souls who knew their prayer.

Now that you are leaving, now that the day of payment
dawns, now that no one knows
whom he will kill and how he will die,
take with you the boy who saw the light
under the leaves of that plane tree
and teach him to study the trees.

~ George Seferis, from "Mythistorema"
translated by Edmund Keeley

Listen to David Haskell read a wonderful passage from his book, The Songs of Trees, at Soundcloud

Haskell's website

Seferis interviewed by Keeley for the Paris Review

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A thought for Thanksgiving

Small boys watching the Woodrow Wilson high school cadets, 1943*
Photo by Esther Bubley

"Perhaps the community you have in view is dysfunctional, broken, embarrassing. Perhaps you have a proposal for it? A word of criticism? Come forth with your critique, but you should know, you can't fix what you won't join. There's no healing a community of which you in no way see yourself a part. Maybe criticism and hospitality can be joined at the hip. Maybe they have to be for a conversation to occur. There are so many ways to weave a common life, to hold together that which is in danger of being dismembered. To remember, in this sense, is to no longer stand alone and to aid others in no longer doing so. A critique can be a gift, but it need never be confused for a call to abandon the human circle. Are you bewildered? Others have been here before. And at the heart of bewilderment there can be a seed of compassion." 

Monday, November 20, 2017


Girl with a lizard, Gustave Jacquet (1846-1909)

A lizard does not make a sound,
it has no song,
it does not share my love affairs
with flannel sheets,
bearded men, interlocking
silver rings, the moon, 
the sea, or ink.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


Brooding, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Prompted by a mention of it in a very fine memoir, I tried twice in the past few days to watch Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), but I just couldn't do it. I could not force myself to keep watching past the first few minutes of that awful scene with Rusk and Brenda Blaney. The moment when she reaches for the phone and he stops her made me feel physically ill, and I had to abandon the film both times. This squeamishness is new. I sat through Frenzy years ago, and while I remember thinking the movie was misogynistic trash, I don't recall being particularly disturbed by it. Now it's suddenly unbearable. Why?

I'm sure it's partly to do with the incessant post-Weinstein conversation about sexual harassment and assault. I've contributed to that chatter myself, and I think the discussion is important, but there's no question that it has stirred up a lot of buried rage and fear for many of us. I've relived experiences over the past few weeks that I would have gladly forgotten forever. Is this healing? I can't say. All I know is it's painful and maddening.

I really think it's part of a much larger sorrow, though. I feel like I'm grieving for the world these days, trying to reconcile myself to my "feast of losses" and not succeeding. Not sure anyone does. What surprises me is that age seems to heighten the capacity to grieve, not lessen it. I feel it all more deeply now than I once did—more deeply than I could have imagined when I was young. Probably because I understand now that none of it is fixable.

You can see the book trailer for Kelly Grey Carlisle's memoir, We Are All Shipwrecks, here.

If you have the stomach for Frenzy, the full movie is currently up on Youtube.

Monday, October 9, 2017


Photo by BitterGrace, taken in October 2016

I looked out my kitchen window today and smiled as I watched a tiny bird hover uncertainly below a bottle of sugar water. There is reliable, instant joy in seeing a migrating hummingbird discover a feeder and commence feasting. It's a sacred moment.

An article is making the rounds right now about how the lack of childhood play and friendship helps create the angry, alienated men who commit mass killings. I have no doubt that the writer's theory is true. It feels true. Loneliness is everywhere.

But I also wonder whether kids get enough opportunity to nurture, and specifically to nurture the earth—to feed and protect living things that won't repay them in any way except through the miracle of their continued existence. How many children, especially boys, never get to know that pure pleasure of the spirit?

I keep thinking about what we know of the Las Vegas killer—his empty existence, drinking and popping Valium and spending countless hours in the heartless and utterly unnatural environment of casinos. It sounds like an excellent way to stifle a human soul. How many decades ago did that man last feel anything resembling joy? 

There's joy in nurturing wild things, and there's humility, too—true humility, which has nothing to do with shame or thinking poorly of oneself. You feel like a tiny, essential part of a great whole, which of course you are. And you know your fundamental powerlessness.

All these feelings work against the isolation and shame and twisted grandiosity that make violence look like release.

I don't mean to be facile. There's no simple answer, and it doesn't escape me that the impulse to kill is itself a part of the natural order. We are predators, and we've always killed our own kind. But we're also natural caregivers, hardwired to nurture and to take joy in beauty as well. We should foster those gifts in our children.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Books, Art, etc.

I long ago fell out of the habit of posting my book reviews here, but I just took a notion to link to some recent ones and accompany them with a little vaguely related art I like. (You'll find some links amongst the images, too.) Cheers.

Franz Marc, The Fox 1913

Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939), Fox and Black Grouse


John Biggers, Shotgun, Third Ward #1, 1966

Yoshey Horishito, cover art for The Great Gatsby, 2014

*I found this painting by LWW posted all over the web, but the only title I found attributed to it was "self portrait," and that strikes me as doubtful. If anyone knows the subject of the painting, please tell me.


Joseph Wright of Derby, Virgil's Tomb by Moonlight with Silius Italicus Declaiming, 1779

Friday, September 1, 2017

"We are solitary"

We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all. But how much better it is to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization. It will, of course, make us dizzy; for all points that our eyes used to rest on are taken away from us, there is no longer anything near us, and everything far away is infinitely far. A man taken out of his room and, almost without preparation or transition, placed on the heights of a great mountain range, would feel something like that: an unequalled insecurity, an abandonment to the nameless, would almost annihilate him. He would feel he was falling or think he was being catapulted out into space or exploded into a thousand pieces: what a colossal lie his brain would have to invent in order to catch up with and explain the situation of his senses. That is how all distances, all measures, change for the person who becomes solitary; many of these changes occur suddenly and then, as with the man on the mountaintop, unusual fantasies and strange feelings arise, which seem to grow out beyond all that is bearable. But it is necessary for us to experience that too. We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us. 

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet 

Nu, Jean Metzinger, 1911

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Judith and Holofernes

Judith by Franz Stuck (1928)

Then, the barons quickly brought her to his bed,
that wise maiden. The stouthearted warriors went
to tell their high lord that the holy lady
was brought to his pavilion. The famous prince
became blissful then; he thought of the bright maid,
to defile with impurity and disgrace.

The Almighty Lord God would not allow that,
and so, the Ruler of Heaven restrained him.
Then that fiercest warrior, wanton and fiendish,
left to go to lie where he would lose his life,
with a crowd of men, where he'd meet his cruel end,
an end as he had always striven after,
that dire prince of men, while he dwelled in this world
’neath roof of clouds. There that ruler fell so drunk
onto his mattress, that he might know nothing.

His warriors, sated with sweet wine, went from there,
out of that tall tent, quickly turning away,
the troop of men, who had led the troth-breaker,
that hostile persecutor, that earthly prince,
to his large bed for the last time. The lady,
the strong servant of the Savior, was mindful
of how she most easily might make attempt
to take old age from that most terrible one,
to deprive him, that dark lord, of a long life,
ere that wicked man awoke.

Then the wise maid, with silken hair,
sought a sharp sword from its sheath
to hew hard blows, and drew it with her right hand.
Then she called on the Creator of Heaven,
Savior of all Earth-dwellers, and said these words:
"I do pray to you, Lord Prince of Creation,
Holy Son of Heaven and Spirit of Hope,
for mercy, Mighty Majesty, in my need.

Truly, I am greatly troubled with sorrows,
my soul is now inflamed and my mind made sad.
Great Guardian of the Heavens, give to me
triumph and true faith, so I might take this sword
and deal death to this dispenser of murder.

Grant to me my welfare, Great Father of Men.
I never have had more need of your mercy.
Avenge me, Almighty Lord, give me anger
in my heart, heat in my mind." Then the High Judge
filled her completely with courage, as he does
for all who look for his loving help with faith.

Her heart was unbound, trust in Holy God reborn.
Then she grabbed that heathen man hard by his hair,
dragged him toward her with her hands, drew him nearer,
took him shamefully, and placed that sinful man
so she easily had control over him.

Then, she struck her enemy with shining sword,
swung that sharp blade straight down upon his stiff neck,
his trusted weapon falling toward his bare throat,
so that she notched halfway through his naked neck;
he lie there in a swoon, still breathing softly,
drunk and sorely wounded. He was not yet dead,
completely lifeless. Then courageous lady
earnestly struck that heathen hound one more time
so that his head rolled forth to the floor below.

The body stayed behind, as his baleful soul
wandered under the wide abyss, wrapped with pain.
The spirit now roamed elsewhere and it survived
and there below was bound tight with base torments,
surrounded by serpents, sought out for tortures,
damned and detained in hell-fire after death.

He need not hope, enveloped in that hot night,
that he might go forth from the burning furnace,
from that serpents’ hall, but he should stay trapped there,
always remain, forever and evermore,
in that dreary homestead, with deepest despair.

Then Judith, wise maid, did win worldwide renown
in battle, as granted by Bountiful God,
the Sovereign of Heaven, who gave her success.
That holy widow put the dead warrior’s head,
so bloody, into the bag in which her maid,
a lady with light skin, well-mannered servant,
had brought thither some baked bread for them both,
tightly wrapped up the trophy inside the pouch;
then, Judith gave it, so gory, to the girl,
back again to the same young, thoughtful servant
to bear it home.

Then both ladies hurried forth,
went directly from that place, bold and daring,
until the triumphant, brave maids traveled
away from the army’s camp, so they clearly
could see Bethulia’s brightly shining walls.
Then, radiant, adorned with rings, they hurried
and continued forth on the familiar course
away from the sleeping Assyrian force
until the rampart gate they joyfully gained.*

Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori (1613)

*From Mary Savelli's translation of Judith, the Old English poem (with apologies for reformatting).

You can read another translation of Judith here. To read various versions of The Book of Judith, go here.  Another dozen or so depictions of Judith and Holofernes can be found here. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


As all good con artists know, a compelling lie is a powerful and resilient beast. My great-great grandfather’s obituary noted his “splendid soldier record” in service to the Confederacy, even though he died almost 60 years after the war, in 1924. Forty years after that, when I was a little girl, play Confederate money was still a prize in gumball machines, and I had a grade school teacher who talked of kind slave owners and the cruelty of emancipation. I like to think of myself as a fairly smart and empathetic person, but without some excellent high school and college history teachers, I might still be attached to some vaguely romantic notion of the Lost Cause. I know plenty of people who are. Humans are hungry for myth—we need myth—and once we latch onto a gratifying story, we don't readily let go of it, no matter how empty or false or toxic it may be. It seems like a terrible weakness of the species. And would we survive without our gift for stories that nourish and sustain, stories that reconcile us to life and each other?

by Muriel Rukeyser

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the Roads.
He smelled a familiar smell.
It was the Sphinx
Oedipus said, "I want to ask one question.
Why didn't I recognize my mother?"
"You gave the wrong answer," said the Sphinx.
"But that was what made everything possible," said Oedipus.
"No," she said. When I asked, what walks on four legs in the morning,
Two at noon and three in the evening, you answered,
You didn't say anything about woman."
"When you say Man," said Oedipus,
"You include women too.
Everyone knows that."
She said, "That's what you think."

*See the poem in its proper form here.

1. Portrait of Pvt. Edwin Francis Jemison, 2nd Louisiana Infantry Regiment. He served in the Peninsula campaign under General J.B. Magruder and was killed in the battle of Malvern Hill, July, 1862. From Wikimedia Commons.

2.  A former slave of U.S. President Andrew Jackson (probably Betty Jackson) and two of her great-grandchildren, 1867. From Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A brief taste of happiness

Dessert Still-life, Georg Flegel (1566-1638)

I've been thinking a lot about happiness lately. Not deep, enduring, TED Talk happiness, but shallow, ephemeral happiness—the kind that rescues you from irritation and drudgery for an hour and then departs as if it had pressing business elsewhere. I'm pretty sure this is the only kind of happiness I'll ever really know, and I hold it in high regard. I don't understand why it never gets a TED Talk. There are lots of ways to court fleeting bliss but none better than music. So here's my own  random and shamelessly cheesy happiness hit parade, good for today only. Tomorrow I'd have a completely different list. Cheers.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


The little boy in this picture is my maternal grandfather. (I wrote about him a while back in Still.) He was born in 1906. His older sister here was born in 1905, and the baby entered the world in June 1908, so judging from their apparent ages, the photo was most likely taken in the late summer or early fall of 1909. William Howard Taft was sworn in as President that year. Joan of Arc was beatified and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now known as BP) was incorporated. Nelson Algren and Eudora Welty were born. Geronimo died, and so did vile Leopold II. And speaking of vile things, if you'd like to see a reminder of the deep roots of our present crisis, check out Taft's inaugural address. It's all there. Pay special attention to the remarks about immigrants and voting rights. Taft lacked 45's flare for the apocalyptic and was much better at doublespeak, but they share some favorite themes.

I hide myself behind simple objects so you may find me,
if you do not find me, you will find the objects,
you will touch those objects my hand has touched
the traces of our hands will mingle.

~ From "The Meaning of Simplicity" by Yannis Ritsos, who was born in 1909. See the rest of this translation by Rae Dalven at Poetry Foundation.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A woman for our time

I volunteered to participate in one of those Facebook art memes, and my good friend Jennifer (an awesome fiddler) assigned me the work of Paolo Uccello. I dutifully spent part of my afternoon googling around for a suitable choice from his oeuvre, but for some reason I just wasn't feeling it. Late Gothic portraits and religious subjects do not speak to my present mood.

But I kept googling and—after dipping briefly into many wonderful rabbit holes—was rewarded with the image above: Lady Godiva by Remedios Varo, 1959. It really hits the spot, and no wonder. Our girl looks exceptionally badass, riding along on her own hair, breasts on full display, making like Diogenes with that lamp perched in front of her. There's not an honest man in sight, but notice that Peeping Tom is lurking in the window. I'm not sure what that fish is doing down there at her feet. Perhaps it's a bit of Christian symbolism, along with the cross LG is holding. And the crescent-moon morphing of her face? Your guess is as good as mine. But all interpretation aside, Varo's Lady speaks to me in all her ferocious, vulnerable, sexually-charged weirdness. She's an ideal woman for this menacing, surreal time.

*Read about Remedios Varo here, and reacquaint yourself with the legend of Lady Godiva here.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Random notes to self and others, re resisting the Creep

Political movements worthy of the name are invariably messy and burdened by conflict. There’s never been one yet that didn’t have to grapple with serious ethical, tactical, and ideological disputes. Internal argument is part of the process. Try to keep that in mind when you see people doing or saying stuff that strikes you as wrongheaded or counterproductive. Unity isn’t everything, and perfect unity isn’t possible. Speak up, but resist the urge to attack allies or accuse them of bad faith. Likewise, don’t take disagreement personally. We are all on the same side, at least in this cause. Forest, trees, etc.

That said, agents provocateurs and appeals to extremism are real concerns for any political movement, and it’s important to be wary of them. You can certainly justify breaking a bad law, but rhetoric that encourages unethical or malicious behavior in the name of a higher good is suspect, always. Gut check everything.

Don't let the Creep or his apologists silence you by saying one of his outrages is “just temporary.” Softening resistance to repressive edicts by claiming they’re temporary is one of the oldest tricks in the authoritarian handbook. Egypt declared a state of emergency after Sadat’s assassination in 1981, legalizing censorship and indefinite detention, among other things. That state of emergency remained in effect for 31 years. Closer to home, the most intrusive and controversial elements of the Patriot Act were originally supposed to expire in 2005, but they were first reauthorized under Bush the Younger and then replaced in modified form in the Freedom Act, with the support of President Obama. Nothing is more permanent than the temporary, as the poet said.

Never forget the humanity of the ordinary people on the other side. This is the hardest task. There are no monsters. Demonizing fellow citizens is a good way to win battles while losing the war.

Femme écrivant, Ferdinand Lepcke (1866-1909)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Some things never change

You poor malign narcissist
I fear you and pity you
I am determined to escape you
I cannot allow you to destroy
        my sanity, my career, my
        capacity of service, my decency
I am in control
I control myself
I am in control of the situation
I will avoid you tomorrow—
        somehow, or resist you
        or slip away from you
you are dangerous, destructive
vindictive, mean, cruel,
cunning and wholly solipsistic
inhabiting a false private
narcissistic world, destructive
of this real world of me.

~ An undated, untitled poem* by Dennis Brutus, a South African poet who was imprisoned and banned from publishing because of his anti-apartheid activities. He came to the U.S. in 1970 and was granted asylum as a political refugee after he successfully fought an attempt by the Reagan administration to deport him.

* This poem can be found in Poetry and Human Rights: Poems by Dennis Brutus, a collection gathered from his papers at Worcester State University in Massachusetts. Since Brutus died in 2009, the malign narcissist in question is not our current Creep-in-Chief. I like to think it's the Gipper, but the possibilities, of course, are endless.

Photo from South African History Online.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A rambling proposal

I was born in November 1961, so some of my earliest impressions of the world beyond my little hometown were shaped by the tumult of the late 60s/early 70s. The war in Vietnam, the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the Kent State shootings, Watergate — I was very aware of all those things as they were happening. Our TV was always on, and in between the soap operas, variety shows, and sitcoms came regular doses of real-world political upheaval. Those reports scared me pretty badly, though I don’t think I ever said so to my parents. I had a strong sense that the country I lived in was in crisis. It seemed as if we were on the verge of catastrophe, and my comfy existence might change for the worse at any moment.

By the time I was into my teens, those deep fears had fallen away. I was fully aware that bad things still went on, of course, but I had moved quite unconsciously into the psychic bubble of safety most white Americans inhabit. I stopped thinking catastrophe was imminent. My grandmother had insisted I watch the Watergate hearings with her, and the outcome of that scandal seemed to me to offer proof that we had a kind of bedrock stability in this country that almost nothing — certainly no sorry-ass politician or political dispute — could destroy. Not that I trusted or admired the government. No, my default position was always distrust, leaning toward outright opposition, and there’ve been plenty of things worth opposing in every political era in my lifetime. But no matter how much ugliness invaded Washington, a better day seemed eternally possible, even likely.

How incredibly stupid and naive that idea seems now.

These days I’m back to being that kid glued to the TV, watching the news footage from Vietnam and envisioning the end of the United States as I know it. This mindset has been slowly overtaking me since the election, but the news this weekend of Bannon’s appointment to the NSC erased all lingering hope that we might get through this without irreparable damage to the country and the world. That sounds overwrought even to me, but my heart and head tell me it’s true.

Which brings me to my proposal: I’ve decided to keep a private record of my impressions and experiences in this new, unlovely political era, and I hope some of you will do the same. Essays, op-eds, blog posts, Facebook rants, and Twitter zingers are all great, but I want the freedom to write words that are safe from the eyes of strangers, at least for now. I don’t want to debate my thoughts away or tweak them to attract a wider audience. I want to be both thoughtful and unfiltered. Most of us do very little writing of that sort anymore. We no longer write long, reflective letters to each other, since it’s so easy to pick up the phone or get the instant gratification of texting. The few people I know who keep journals write about themselves, not the world. I suspect most people feel they haven’t anything important to say, but I believe just the opposite is true. The more powerless and insignificant you feel yourself to be, the more we need a record of how this time looks to you. History is what happens to ordinary people. History is happening to us, right now, and we will do the future a favor if we keep a record of it.

One more thing: I’m writing my record by hand in a simple bound notebook. For now, I won’t digitize it in any way. I encourage you to do likewise. That’s partly paranoia. No electronic medium seems safe to me these days. But it’s also a practical, cheap hedge against changing technology, and there’s something mood- and mind-altering about the physical process of putting pen to paper. It’s calming, and it makes me feel focused and fully human in a way I never do before a keyboard.

Mary Magdalene writingMaster of the Female Half-Lengths, c.1520

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Our lives no longer feel ground under them"

Osip Mandelstam was born on January 15, 1891 and died in December, 1938, essentially killed by his satirical poem known as "The Stalin Epigram." Mandelstam defiantly recited it at gatherings where informers were present, which led to his imprisonment, exile, and finally death in a transit camp on the way to serving a five year sentence. Stalin, like most tyrants, did not tolerate mockery.

There are many English translations of "The Stalin Epigram." This one by W.S. Merlin and Clarence Brown is probably the most well known:

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.


There's an interesting article about the context of the poem and the challenge of translating it here, and you can read several more translations here. (The Merwin/Brown translation at that second link is slightly different from the one above, which comes from the Academy of American Poets website.)


This short film is almost too reverent toward Mandelstam, but it's moving nonetheless. It's in Russian, and you might need to take it to full screen to read the subtitles.

*Mandelstam's poetry has appeared several times on the blog, including this post and this one and this one.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"on a scale of joy I weigh them"

Hey, what do you deal in – sorrow?
What are you selling there – despair?
I’m a buyer and a dealer,
and I’m dealing and I’m wheeling
days and nights, and even moments:
on a scale of joy I weigh them,
buy them up and then resell them,
half are black
and half in blazes,
at fairs, in markets, and on highways
who should happen in my pathway,
in whoever’s path I happen
I count Mammon!…

I’m a buyer and a dealer
and I’m dealing and I’m wheeling…

What are you selling – corpses? Rags?
Or long-since-departed dads?
Hey, a buyer’s slipped a way,
he’s dying but will be reborn.

~ Peretz Markish, 1917

translated by Amelia Glaser

Markish was one of thirteen members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee who were secretly executed on Stalin's orders, August 12, 1952, an event known as The Night of the Murdered Poets. You can read about it here, and you can see a document with more of the work of Markish and others here.  

The Poet, Egon Schiele, 1911

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Fanatics and the sweetness of God

I was at the grocery store this afternoon when my phone rang. It was a woman from the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, calling to tell me the location of a meeting to organize activism and support for the organization. This meeting is open to anyone, and the date and time are publicly announced, but you have to register with your name and contact info before they tell you where it will be held. Security is a constant concern for Planned Parenthood. There's a cadre of people ever eager to harass them and their patients, and of course there's also the occasional lunatic ready to do much worse.

Driving home, it hit me hard, the way it does more and more lately, how bizarre and infuriating it is that the campaign is still going strong against a woman's right to simple autonomy. And it's becoming stronger. A couple of days ago I saw a screed from one of my neighbors on Facebook in which she called Planned Parenthood clinics "wholesale slaughterhouses." This is a woman who has likely never stepped foot in a PP clinic and never would, but in her mind the people who work and get care there (I've been one of those) are the embodiment of evil. We're not people who disagree with her or have different beliefs. We're not innocently misguided or unenlightened. We're cold-blooded murderers and accessories to murder. And I have to wonder — who really benefits from encouraging this woman to believe that? And why does she want to believe it?

Shortly after I got home, the news came on the radio that Dylann Roof has been sentenced to death. He claims he has no remorse, they said. He thinks he had to do it to save the white race. And again I have the same questions: Whose interests are served when he frames the world this way? Why does he choose this story as his own and not a different one? There are plenty of others to pick from.

While reading some online stories about Roof's sentence, I saw a reference to one of his victims, Ethel Lee Lance, that said she was a perfume enthusiast, and naturally I was intrigued. Google led me to a newspaper article that includes a lovely portrait of Ms. Lance and this sentence:

Her daughter, Sharon Risher, recalled that her mother loved fine perfumes. “After putting on the perfume she would always say, ‘God is sweet.’ ” 

I don't know why, but those words just went all over me, as my mom used to say. Lump in my throat. Tears. She was so alive to me in that moment, this woman I would never know existed if not for her terrible death. If not for Roof's inexplicable choice.


The evaluation of the mysteries by the sons of all
experience. All suffering, if we call the light a thing
all men should know. Or find. Where ever, in the dark folds
of the next second, there is some diminishing beauty we might
  one day
understand, and scream to, in some wild fit of acknowledged

~ Amiri Baraka, from "History as Process"

Allegory of the Sense of Smell, Circle of Bartolomeo Pasarotti (?), c.1620s. There's an interesting article about the painting here.