This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.Toni Morrison
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.
I go to a fair number of poetry readings by visiting poets, Open Mics, and poetry festivals (AIPF, Waco WordFest, Georgetown Poetry). Austin gets a modest number of famous poets reading (e.g., Naomi Shihab Nye several times this year). Most just read their poetry (not Naomi). The Spoken Word people are an obvious exception. “The Word That is a Prayer” by Ellery Akers appears in “Healing the Divide” (review coming when I finish it). My wife says it “caught her heart.” Ellery isn’t a poet that’s known to us. I looked her up. On her Website is the poem and Ellery reading it. When a man on a street corner says, “Please”, I can hear his voice. Nice.
I read David Brooks’ column in the New York Times because he brings a new slant to the conversation. I know almost nothing about Marianne Williamson, a Democratic candidate for President. She is not one of the front runners. Just trying to track the top three and have a life is a challenge. Brooks’ recent column entitled “Marianne Williamson Knows How to Beat Trump” got my attention. It’s a take down of Trump for his corrupting influence on traditional American values. His take on the Democrats is they are a party of economics for the middle class and poor, i.e. materialism. They have no clue how to counter Trump’s emotional appeal. “It is no accident that the Democratic candidate with the best grasp of this election is the one running a spiritual crusade, not an economic redistribution effort.”
His solution? “We need an uprising of decency.” I agree.
Poetry has always had a connection to politics. Much of the Hebrew prophets are recorded in poetry. In an interview with poet Michael Astrue, politically conservative, who goes by the pen name “A.M. Juster” he cites “For the Student Strikers” by Richard Wilbur, 60s poet of the left.
For the Student Strikersby Richard Wilbur
Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you,
And whom, it is said, you are so unlike.
Stand on the stoops of their houses and tell them why
You are out on strike.
It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt
Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.
Let the new sound in our streets be the patient sound
Of your discourse.
Doors will be shut in your faces, I do not doubt.
Yet here or there, it may be, there will start,
Much as the lights blink on in a block at evening,
Changes of heart.
They are your houses; the people are not unlike you;
Talk with them, then, and let it be done
Even for the grey wife of your nightmare sheriff
And the guardsman’s son.
We across the political spectrum need to push ourselves and the nation to a return to civility and decency. Democracy requires it. Dictatorship is almost inevitable without it. Read the whole interview here.
It’s not just my daily cup of coffee. In the early days of chemo, I promised my wife I would tell her that I loved her, she was beautiful, that I’d make her coffee, and be silly everyday. The first two promises I have always kept, though not necessarily first thing in the morning. The third promise I kept every day we were at home. While traveling, I brought her coffee from the hotel. Being silly was often beyond me at first. My record has gotten better to the point where neither of us pay much attention to the promise and how I’m doing.
Coffee has gotten more serious. We joke about doing the American Coffee Ceremony, each night being sure the “ritual utensils” are clean, making it a ritual, exactly the same each time so I can “do it in my sleep”. The chemo messed with my adrenal and thyroid hormones, so being fully awake first thing in the morning is a challenge.
Problems with Austin water, bad batches of coffee, have led to us using spring and/or filtered water, changing bean suppliers and roasts. Problems with head aches and stomach upsets have led us to switch from Melitta cones, to the Clever Coffee Dripper, to a DeLonghi espresso machine. Along the way I’ve searched coffee blogs for how hot to steam almond milk which led us to using oat milk for our lattes.
The upshot is thinking a lot about coffee from our end and about the coffee growers, roasters, distributors, and retailers. Most coffee beans we use on a regular basis cost around $1 per ounce (e.g. $11.99 for a 12 ounce bag of whole beans). I tried some Allegro Vienna Roast that was cheaper and it tasted like it. How much of that goes to each link in the chain.
Changing Challenges & Solutions for Guatemalan Coffee Producers gave me an eye-opening look into what it’s like at the other end of the chain. Challenging. There are three areas in the US that grow coffee: Hawai’i, California, and Puerto Rico. I’ve toured a boutique coffee plantation in Hawai’i near where my sister lives. Very good coffee in the tasting room. Never could duplicate it with the bag I bought ($25 for a half pound) at home. The owners kept their hands clean. The workers didn’t have it so good. The coffee in Puerto Rico is fairly good coffee, but doing the dirty work of picking and processing the coffee beans doesn’t pay a living wage. She now sends me a bag of Ka’u varietal every Christmas from a more reputable grower. California is doing super-boutique coffee that can sell for as much as $600 per pound. The production amount is tiny compared even to Hawai’i. Where I can, I buy Fair Trade coffee. I will find more way to do so. Doing Justice.
David Brooks writes a column for the New York Times. He describes himself as a conservative and a Republican. Here in Texas, those labels in the news have been co-opted by small-minded, mean-spirited, xenophobes trying to out do each other in how far they can push on the less privileged. Brooks does the opposite. He is broad minded, inclusive, and thoughtful. I don’t always agree with him, but he gives me new things to think about and new ways to think about them. In a world of polarities trying to shout each other down, he finds a third way. He’s a gentle radical. Like other true radicals, he knows his traditions and history. While being respectful of the spirit of those traditions, he will suggest ways to re-implement them in modern contexts.
“The Second Mountain” is about what C.G. Jung calls the second half of life problems when success, achievement, positions, and possessions (the first mountain) no longer have the appeal they once did. The second mountain is about the search and embodiment of deeper, more satisfying values that the world’s great spiritual teachers talk about.
You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer the first mountain. You identify the summit, and claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.p. xvi
Between the first and second mountain, there is a valley. The descent can be voluntary, e.g., the rat race no longer seems worth winning. Or involuntary: a divorce, a life threatening illness or accident, or financial (e.g., layoff, bankruptcy). Brooks lays out the terrain of the two mountains, the valley, and ways to navigate them.
The first purpose of this book is to show how individuals move from the first to the second mountain, to show what that kind of deeper and more joyful life looks like, step-by-step and in concrete detail. Everyone says you should serve a cause larger than yourself, but nobody tells you how.
The second purpose is to show how societies can move from the first to the second mountain. This is ultimately a book about renewal, how things that are divided and alienated can find a new wholeness.p. xvii
The section on marriage I found the weakest. The preceding chapters on intimacy, I’m fine with. I’ve known my wife for nearly forty years. We lived together for over 35 years and have been married for 25. As one of our mentors said, “You’ve worked on it.” Much of Brooks’ ideas rang true, but several sections didn’t match up with my experience and Brooks didn’t leave himself much wiggle room or diversity of path. I’m not comfortable recommending his recommendations in the marriage chapters.
In many ways, the most intriguing chapter is “A Most Unusual Turn of Events”. As a child Brooks attended Hebrew school. In college and later, he distanced himself from the Hebrew stories as sacred scripture, but read them as secular stories on how to live life. It is his journey back to a faith that includes the Jewish culture, the Hebrew scriptures. and the New Testament (much of his education was in Episcopal schools) that I find fascinating. As a Buddhist-Christian trying to reconcile contradictions between and within the teachings from two traditions and many teachers far apart in time and space, I’m interested in his process and his conclusions. Also the differing Hebrew and Christian interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures is informative. For example, the Exodus story:
The trek through the wilderness is not only an ordeal that gives them strength. They are living out a narrative that gives them identity. Before long, they are singing. They are crossing the Red Sea, and Miriam and the other women are leading them in song. Soon, they are able to trust again. People who have been betrayed and oppressed cannot trust and therefore cannot have faith. But eventually, the Jews, even with all their constant kvetching and whining, do learn that sometimes promises are kept, that God abides. They become a people capable of faith, capable of receiving law, obeying law, and upholding their end of the covenant.p. 214-215
Not an interpretation I’ve ever heard preached from a Christian pulpit.
After setting the background at the level of the individual, he goes for the larger message, “Community Building”.
On day in the late 1950s, Jane Jacobs was looking out her second-story window at her Greenwich Village street below. She noticed a man struggling with a young girl. The girl went rigid, as if she didn’t want to go wherever the man was leading her. The thought crossed Jacob’s mind the maybe she was witnessing a kidnapping. She was preparing to go downstairs to intervene when she noticed that the couple that owned the butcher shop had emerged from their store. Then the fruit man walked out from behind his stand, as did the locksmith, and a few people from the laundry “That man did not know it, but he was surrounded,” Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
It turned out to be nothing, just a struggle between father and daughter. But from it, Jacobs drew the right conclusion: that safety on the street is an healthy neighborhood not kept mostly by the police. It is kept by the “intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, enforced by the people themselves.”p. 265
I have moved over forty times in my 68 years. As an adult, I’ve lived in apartments all but six of those years. I knew few of my neighbors and none of us stayed very long. That’s unlikely to build the commitment to the neighborhood necessary for the above scenario. Jacobs was probably living in an apartment in the above story. I’m unclear how an apartment complex like I live in can become a neighborhood. The management is trying and not succeeding.
There are physical neighborhoods and there are communities of like-minded people. I’m doing better being a community member: choir at church, part of the Austin area poets community (open mic participant, newsletter editor), and clergy spouse (e.g. pastoral visits).
The last chapter is “The Relationalist Manifesto,” outlining Hyper-Individualism and the problems it solves and how it has overshot its goal and become the problem. One thing that has emerged in my reading in both Christianity and Buddhism is the importance of relationships with other humans, with other life on this planet, and with the sacred (e.g., God, the dharma, Buddha nature). This is challenging material, both to individuals and to Western society.
Initially, I checked this book out of the library without problem. When it was due 3 weeks later, there were 7 people waiting for it. Increasingly, my wife and I are buying the books of living authors to support them, from small, independent book stores to support them. This is a book that is going to take several readings to digest and the rest of our lives to consider and implement. It needs to always be within reach.