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Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Yiaaaacckkk!!! I did it again! Ran into that big spider web hanging from the canopy out back.  The spider had closed down for the day, but she left her web, and now she'll have to spend half of this evening reconstructing it.  She is like the spider that stung my colleague on his head, hitting a neural path and causing extreme pain for a considerable length of time.  I don't want to run into one of those!

I actually have a strange sort of affection, or loyalty to smaller spiders.  The kind who build small webs in corners of rooms, for example.  There is the absolute teeniest of spiders in our bath, just outside the walk-in shower, in the corner where the door joins the wall.  She measures about 1.1 mm I'm guessing.  Every time I'm in there I check to see if Carlotta is still there.  I've named her that because back in Madison my spider's name was Charlotte, as in the book about Charlotte's web and the pig by E.B. White.  Charlotte was a bit larger, maybe 1.8 mm.  Actually, there was Charlotte I and Charlotte II.  The first Charlotte met a tragic end when I unintentionally sucked her into the vacuum cleaner one day.  But fortunately another one claimed squatter's rights and moved into her spot.  This spot was better protected than Carlotta's, being in a corner of the kitchen near our breakfast table, where we seldom went.  The family thought I had some strange leanings toward spiders, but humored me.  My thought was that house spiders kept down the insect population, and were very useful, besides savings exterminator bills.  I feel a certain affection for them because they seem very brave to me, settling into places where at any moment they may be obliterated.  I'm always cautioning Charlie to watch where he drops the bath mat down before getting into the shower.  It could create just enough breeze to unsettle Carlotta from her little space.

This spider commentary is not meant to be a crusade for noble causes, but simply musings on the value of house spiders.  I do have mixed feelings about the larger ones who weave big webs outside our back door.  The courage to share indoor house space with humans is admirable, and I often encourage Carlotta to go get'em.  . the ants, I mean.  She has what looks like the corpses of three ants on the floor just below her and I haven't the heart to vacuum them up.  Besides, that would risk taking up Carlotta as well.

We also have a spider near our front door, there in the hallway.  She does not have a name, and I really don't have any particular fondness for her as yet.  Some times I think rationing out affection to a select few has its pluses, so Carlotta will remain my only indoor favorite spider.  I just hope our dog Katie leaves her alone.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What Do I See?

The faces . . .  I can't get them out of my mind's eye . . . the faces of starvation: the infants and children, the elderly and the old-before-their-time.  This time the camera frames Somalia's hunger.  Last time it was . . . Sudan? or some other place?  Water and food in scarce supply.  Yet I find in the statistics that there is enough food in the world today for every human inhabitant to have 4.5 lbs. daily!  So what's the problem?  Access!!

Yet access remains forever the inhibiting factor, and now we add to that the lack of clean water.  Or the lack of water, period.  And why must this be?  You and I know the answer, the one we pretend ignorance to, the one we push into the recesses of our thoughts where it can't interfere with our comfort.  The unequal distribution of wealth, that ogre of our nightmares, makes its way around this planet.  This planet.  We live in the garden of God.  All we need to sustain life is present.  Yet distribution of food, availability of water, a freely contributing marketplace . . . they present their absent faces to us, blotted out by the offensive ogre of Greed.

Compassion has been erased from the face of Greed so that those who have, get, and those who haven't . . . well they die.  Soon all the ones left behind will be those who have all they want, more than they need, and they continue to reach for more, creating more who have nothing.  Rich African soil for farming eventually turns into desert as trees are cut down for heat, or for a place to live.  The desert grows.  And so does hunger grow, moving more rapidly than the dying of part of our Earth.  It would take such small effort to halt this pattern of hunger, of more desert lands, more poverty, more death.  It would be simple.  Yet the likelihood moves farther and farther from our grasp.  We cannot hold onto the hope much longer.

God's garden is dying.  Not only in Africa but across our world.  And we who have so much, can stop this danger.  It is within our power to do so.  How?  Well, we begin by sharing the wealth.  Yes, distribution of wealth so that all have enough and no one has too little.  We distribute the sense of compassion, of holy calling to serve the Creator by serving the creation.  The wealthy areas of the planet have no need of all that we have, without our sharing it with the areas where there is nothing, or where the least of these, the children of the Creator, eke out ways of life.

I don't know if we can do so.  I don't know the outcome.  I don't know if enough have enough to share with those who so far never have enough.  What is it you would do to change the picture?  What is it I can do to erase those faces I see when I close my eyes?  Is it too late to refresh the Garden?  Not yet. Go.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Perspective on Kathryn Stockett's The Help

In reading articles and overhearing comments about the best seller The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and now also the movie, I find a variety of views.  Some see the book and movie as the best to come along while reviews and critiques often see the story as carrying on the stereotypical figures of Southern blacks and whites without distinction between fantasy and reality.  Some claim the book and movie portray a racist attitude by having the young white woman who collects the stories of the maids continue a practice of white heroes being catalysts for "rescuing" blacks from racist societies.  So how are we to read this story, or see the film?

I have read the book but not yet seen the movie.  Even so, I believe that one can see all these characters as stereotypes rather than as flesh and blood human beings.  There is truth in such a view.  Yet I would note that the stereotypes draw upon a certain degree of reality.  This was Jackson, Mississippi during the 60's.  I lived in a different Southern state during that time and earlier attended college in a more northern state of the South, yet some scenes in the book are familiar to me.  I know these characters.  I experienced circumstances very similar in nature.  And at that time I tended to accept such attitudes as normal even though I was critical of what I saw.  I even held fantasies of doing something heroic, not unlike Skeeter's act of telling the stories of the maids in her area.  I never had the gumption to carry out my ideas, although I learned many years later that some of my classmates made a mild attempt at protest of segregated buses by riding in the back of the bus from the college into town, doing so every Friday as a routine statement.  A few years later some students staged a sit-in at a nearby drugstore, only to spend a few days in the local jail for their actions.  And yes, again it was whites gaining notoriety in attempts to liberate blacks from Jim Crow.

For Stockett to develop the character of Skeeter and describe her efforts to do something similar to that on a larger scale is not an unreasonable depiction of that time, in an effort to banish legal and social racism.  It should not be seen as a picture of whites acting bravely while the subservient blacks dared not make public protests because of cowardice.  Many elements played a part in those days, many of them with economic consequences.  It was only later, during the Civil Rights movement in full public display was there opportunity for black protests in large numbers.  And even so, the white backlash could be brutal at times.

For the reading public, or for those who see the movie,  to expect more of Stockett's story than possible in the writing of her novel, is unfair.  This is a story.  It does indeed have social and political overtones.  But in the final analysis, this is a story.  The characters have been given some stereotypical traits, but don't ask more of a story than it can offer.  And I believe that all novels and movies these days have a certain life span, in the spotlight until the next sensation appears.  The Help need not be a sensation.  It has its own right to be simply a story well told.  Whether every human rights aspect is covered, whether every character needs fleshing out, is not necessarily the purpose of any novel.  I have read many many books with characters who would never be encountered in the public arena, because they are no more real than a spectre.  Yet the quality of the story-telling may be excellent.  No doubt Stockett's book will last on the best seller lists for awhile, the movie may be nominated for an Oscar, but there will come a time, inevitably, when it too will be gone with the wind.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Randall Jarrell: poetry in "plain American which cats and dogs can understand"

I've been leading a study at a local retirement home on the work of the poet Randall Jarrell.  We are looking at his unpublished poems that finally have been published by including them in The Complete Poems, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.  Jarrell's last teaching post was at Woman's College, which later became UNC Greensboro.  His students went on to publishing successes of their own, under the foundational tutorage of this fine poet and critic, and author of one novel about the foibles of faculty in a college setting.

His poems speak in our own vernacular, that we can understand the way the poet Marianne Moore describes clear writing, as seen in the title of this blog.  Yet very few of us can use the language with the skill that Jarrell brings to it.  Even his prose is rhythmic, so that whether he is writing poetry or prose it resembles unmetered poetry.

I was attracted to his writing because of the poignant recall of moments, the recollections and the musings, in a tone that not only could speak in upbeat tones but could also pull from me my own feelings of sadness and loss.  And so I chose to work with his unpublished poetry for my Master's thesis at what is now UNC Greensboro.  Jarrell didn't invent this language of the commonplace in poetic form.  Wordsworth was one of the forerunners of such, and no doubt many lesser English poets of his day.  He simply polished the poetry he offered to a higher state.  Others who have written like this are Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.  So I can't claim Jarrell to be original in this common language usage.  I can simply offer his work as one exemplary collection in the extraordinary use of words.

Another characteristic of Jarrell's poetry is that it speaks not only to the modern American, but with the understanding of the educated middle-class.  Yet he emphasizes simplicity of life, as he expresses it in one poem by the phrase "the dailiness of life."  Nothing fancy, nothing high-falutin' about the poems, unless possibly some of his translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's poems which speak from the upper class perspective.  He was also uncanny in his ability to speak in the voices of women.  Very few male writers can do that well.  He does this in poems on women who have passed their prime, some regrettably, others simply accepting their changes from the young brides they once were.   

I worked very closely with his Rilke translation of "The Widow's Song," where he takes that poem and translates it into his own vernacular yet retains the Rilke language somehow.  This poem may have been chosen because it echoes his poetic treatment of his own themes: loneliness, death, loss or absence, and does so through the persona of a woman.  The feelings of  vulnerability to fate and death define universal feelings of loss, with its emptiness and despair.   Yet in spite of such dark emotions, Jarrell doesn't weigh the reader down through these poems.   We simply appreciate knowing that there is someone who can express our feelings when we are inarticulate.

Randall Jarrell died in 1965 at the age of 51, an untimely death in many ways.  I think of all the poetry we would have enjoyed from him had he lived into his elderly years.  His widow, Mary Jarrell, was able to keep him before the reading public through her own reflections about him, her public readings of his work, and her  published collection of his letters and her memories of him.  Her own death a few years ago has now lost for us any reminders she would have been able to offer us still about this remarkable poet.  But we can find his work and read for ourselves the brilliance of his writings, in his criticisms and his poetry.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Confusion of Age

We've had many dogs and a few cats as members of our household over the years.  Some dogs just showed up in our yard and announced that they planned to stay on with us.  The two cats were gifts, both having rather unpleasant ends.  Several dogs simply breathed their last while we were with them, either in the company of a veterinarian or with family at home.

Winston won the prize for longevity, living about 17 years.  He was a mix of several breeds, about the size of a beagle, with long golden fur and a brushy fox-like tail.  I am convinced that he was the grandson of one of our earlier dogs, but that's another story.  Winston began to get a bit senile near the end, wandering off into the street out of town one night, when he had been let out before bed time, and found by a neighbor, but again, that's another story.

These were the years when Charlie and I both were traveling to distant  parts of the globe, he to Russia and I to China, but seldom at the same time.  All that travel, which necessarily includes a great deal of walking and carrying heavy bags of purchases or pulling heavy suitcases through airports, took its toll on our skeletal structures, until at one time Charlie had some real back problems.  He had to move slowly and deal with pain in spite of good meds.  (Similar results for me took place years later and now plague me.)  So for a time Charlie stayed pretty much at home and limited his physical activity -- at about the same time our Winston was definitely beginning to age noticeably.

In chatting with a friend one day, she asked about Charlie's latest trip to Russia, and I mentioned the toll his traveling was taking on him physically.  Just prior to that I had commented on the change in Winston's condition.  "Well how is he now?"  my friend asked, in reference to Charlie.  I answered, thinking she meant Winston, "Well, the poor old thing.  He's gotten so he can't control himself and yesterday he pooped on our living room rug."   

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ants and Queens

Alert!  Alert!  The ants are back!   My kitchen counter where the sink is and my coffee maker and drain mat are daily the most used portion of the kitchen.  (how about the oven?   well, you just don't know me very well, do you?)      I have turned into the likes of one of the Borgias during the Eye-talian Renaissance when it comes to those teeny infiltrators.   Some mornings I find hundreds, nay thousands, of ants traveling from under the switch plate across the paneling back of the double sink to the edge near the coffee maker.  Thousands.   Legions.  Little invaders.  And so I have placed in strategic position a couple of little cardboard squares with liquid ant poison on them.  The purpose, according to the directions, is a shrewd, cruel one:  the little beings will carry that poison on their tiny feet back to their home, where the entire village will partake as in a weird communion service, and then all die.   The ant version of Kool-Aid delivered by Jim Jones to the multitudes.

As it turns out, the poison is more like an addictive drug, as each day the little rascals return for more of the stuff.  How do I know these aren't a new crew each time?  Well, I'm no amateur.  In the spirit of scientific research, I have tagged a little leg of each ant before they go back home carrying the potion to their compatriots.  I think only the Queen Herself is intelligent enough to stay on the wagon and refuse the offers of the deadly cocktails.  I have not seen her among the hoi poloi. 

In reading about ants, I have learned that the only ones who come to our kitchen are the workers or soldiers.  The nobility, as it were, have short lives if they are male. It's a matriarchal system at its best.  Once these soldier workers complete their tasks of supplying Her Majesty with food and shelter and protection, they are retired from service and go to Florida for the rest of their short lives.  It is a plutocracy of the worst sort, and enough for me to take pity on them and form all of the workers into unions so that they can approach their Queen with demands for better working conditions.  After a few visits to our kitchen gathering the toxic but addictive pool of poison, they have earned retirement.  I have called a meeting of their leaders for this evening in order to see how matters are going for them so far.  So Queenie, if you are reading this, give these loyal followers a cask of the poison drug and passports to the island of their choice to form a new society.  You can afford it.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Absence of News Stories

I have been reading email posts for some years now from Christian Peacemaker Teams, describing their efforts to bring enemies together in peace.  Currently I follow three streams: the CPT efforts in Kurdistan, Colombia, and Palestine, and occasionally the plight of the "First Nation" or aborigines, in Canada.  These accounts are gripping because of the blatant injustices ignored by those in power.  Not only are these places not given the attention they deserve by governments and other influential groups, but news services seem intent upon ignoring these situations, yet similar kinds elsewhere are covered thoroughly.

A short while ago I sent messages to some television news networks and our own government asking why the plights of the Kurds and the Palestinians mistreated by Israeli settlers are never publicly addressed.  Not one response.  Yet each post from CPT members telling of the Palestinian olive trees and other crops being regularly destroyed by Israeli settlers (on the land illegally), of Palestinian children harrassed on their way to school, and of seriously ill patients delayed in their attempted haste to hospitals, speaks of the neglect by authorities.  The stories demonstrate the apparent collusion between settlers living illegally on Palestinian land and Israeli military police.  The latter are seen in videos standing around watching destructive behavior take place by settlers, and making no effort to interfere.  This is merely one example of a lack of news stories.

Another instance of media neglect is taking place in Kurdistan: CPT members have joined Kurdish demonstrators seeking justice from the leaders in scenes very similar to those in Egypt, Libya, and other places in the mid-East. The "Arab Spring" has its counterparts -- yet they are ignored by the media. In addition,  Iranian troops have overrun Kurdistan borders, with military actions against the Kurds.  Yet who in the international systems of justice are addressing these dangerous and violent incidents?

These examples are simply a few among many more where peacemakers risk their lives to bring about non-violent gatherings of those on all sides of serious issues affecting these countries.  The accompanying videos with these stories are powerful witnesses to the injustices being committed daily in important areas, yet which receive little or no media coverage by western news organizations, nor are they addressed by the leaders of western governments.  This non-intervention, lack of acknowledging such events, and ignoring such newsworthy moments is unacceptable.  We must do what we can to bring more light onto the stages where injustice and violence occurs.  If not, we are watching events that have the potential to grow quickly into situations which could dangerously affect attempts to bring peace to an uneasy world.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Is There a Second Coming on the Way?

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."
William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

But if Yeats is right about the state of things, writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where do we in this new century gain hope?  Politically, I would nail a sign over Tea Party headquarters: "... the worst are full of passionate intensity."  Hope is not found in their efforts to control society through their self-serving goals.
       This group of politically-focused individuals are passionately working to undermine the foundations of our government and our society.  But they do so believing they are building a new and better society and country.  I see instead the beginnings of that country described in fearful detail by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale.  May I be wrong in that perception!
      As the narrator in that novel describes herself and others like her, I wonder if they are not like Yeats' description of the best among us, those who "lack all conviction."  We who carry our convictions quietly, afraid to be heard when the vitriol begins against all responsible leaders in our legislatures and executive offices, and merely watch from the background, wringing our hands.  Atwood's narrator comments: "We were the people who were not in the papers.  We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.  It gave us more freedom."   And so we fail to speak as passionately as those who seek our destruction by their ignorance and inexperience.  "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," Yeats affirms from that past world so like what is developing in our time, not only here but around the world.
     I just finished the third in a trilogy by Philip Harris and Brian Doe, Waking God: The Second Coming of Humanity.  In this futuristic clash of the supernatural and real worlds, things have come to such a pass that it is time to start over again and create anew what defines life.  I don't believe that time has arrived yet, but it does stand near the threshold of our future.
     There is still time to find the necessary courage and energy to take our nation back, our lives back, our belief in the possibility of good government back.  We who continue to maintain our faith in humanity, who acknowledge an all-powerful Creator, are called to discard our timid behavior and be heard in the marketplace, in the halls of Congress, in the schools and institutions before they fail completely.
     We can continue to live "in the blank white spaces at the edges of print," or we can rise up, speak out, and demonstrate and remind others what makes for a good society.  If we cannot do that, if we see the rowdiness of bad political manners and let that become the norm, then our question will be:
      And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
      slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?