The arts, for real.

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Vincent van Gogh, “Wheatfield with Crows” (1890)

So. They want to cut the arts. Just something else for the talking heads to get worked up about. Just another aspect of someone else’s lifestyle luxuries you’re being expected to support.

Except it’s not.

You’re driving home at the end of the day, punching the seek button because you are tired of the commercials, tired of the whole damn world asking you for money. And you run past the 107s into the 88s and 89s, down at the other end of the dial. Suddenly this swell of chords rises up, a voice threading through like the sap in the heart of the cottonwood tree down by the creek. That music blends somehow — in a way that lifts your heart — the light in the sky and the smell of spring rising from the thawing ground and the freedom you feel as you look at that sunset, all streaked with platinum and raw gold. You pass the cut-over cornfield and something about the way a flock of red-wing blackbirds with their two-note springtime song rises up out of those stalks, bristly and bleached beige, reminds you of a painting you saw a picture of one time, the brushstrokes thick as butter on good homemade bread.  What is that painting, why can’t you remember it? But its intensity is in you now, held and upswirled and caught.

Here you are at your house but you don’t want to get out of the car because you want to hold this feeling inside of you just a little bit longer, whatever it is. So you switch off the engine to save the gas and click the key back to one notch for the battery.  And the music carries on.  Just beyond your front bumper is your little girl’s plastic tricycle, faded red and yellow and blue, nosed into the shrubbery.  Ordinarily you’d let the familiar swell of irritation rise: I told her to put that away.  But with such feeling in your heart, all through your body, there’s no room for irritation now.

Last week you watched your little girl wobbling across the stage in her dance class, like the ballerinas she has seen on TV. She loves Misty Copeland, who rode the bus around the LA suburbs every day to go to school and then to lessons, who was told you don’t have the right look for ballet but did it anyway.  You found her this little class at your small town’s local arts center because PE has been cut in her school.  So have the painting classes and the music classes you remember yourself (line up, boys and girls, play “Hot Cross Buns” on your recorders, put your fingers here, then here.) A bittersweet regret flashes through you. When did it get so hard to give your children what you had? The things they need but also the things the world calls useless but that in your heart you recognize as, well, beautiful?

This is art, that beautiful thing, right here.  This is the half-remembered wheatfield and that choir of voices holding you behind your steering wheel in your very own driveway and the light in the sky in spring that makes your heart lift right out of your chest in the way it does when you look at the people you love and wonder how you came to be together with them, here on this earth right now. Art is everything that keeps that spirit alive and keeps it available for human beings, including you, to use. It is that spirit in you that confirms your own suspicion – which the world tries so hard to crush – that you are more than a machine for work and money-spending, more than a pair of hands attached to a wallet. It confirms the voice that whispers in you in defiance of everything the world calls common sense that not everything in life has a dollar value.

Because not everything in life does have a dollar value. That bobcat that dashes across the road in front of you, all tufted ears and speed, marvelous and rare. The whir of wild quail rising up. The feeling that comes on you when you pray, when you remember the loved ones who have died: the sting of tears, the tightening in your throat that hurts but that you welcome because it also opens you up to the knowledge that you need at a level deeper than air, even, than oxygen: you and your own small self are not all there is to this world, and not all there will ever be. Greater mysteries exist.

And it is the great, dirty successful trick of rich men and the politicians they have bought to make you believe they do not. That putting a dollar value on every damn thing about human and nonhuman life in this world is only realism, is only good business. I could throw numbers at you here — including the fact that arts cost an infinitesimal amount compared to everything else in the budget — but I’m not going to. Because dollars do not explain everything good and worthy in this world. Make it pay for itself! Apply that logic to your child, your church, the beef operation you are trying to keep going even as prices drop because the rich men have decided it’s more profitable to fly those slabs of cheap steak in from Argentina, the plant that provided a good living for your grandaddy and your great uncles and your daddy as a young man until we opened up the global markets and suddenly those plants closed and those jobs were gone.  It’s a lot easier to tear down than it is to rebuild, especially things that take time to build over time.

Explaining things in terms of money only works for some people some of the time and cuts a lot of other people out while still not touching the essential things. Love. That sense you get when you’re outdoors in winter and the smell of the air and the light in the sky thicken something in your chest you are half-embarrassed to call beauty. What happens on someone’s face, in someone’s eyes, when they are dying, when that dignity and life in them is crossing over to the other side. Go ahead, put a dollar value on that. See how dirty that feels, how something in you turns away from it? That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what the billionaires and their pet politicians driving cut after cut to the budgets that will affect you where you are in ways you can’t immediately see and do not want you to think about. That’s what they do not want you to feel. Because you are more useful to them if you do not feel these things at all. If you are just a working pair of hands and a wallet. No heart. No mind. No soul.

When the music ends, you get out of your truck and slam the door and go in the house and there’s your little girl, her face upturned to you. Just before your arms close around her — so fragile, this beloved child, this creature you have given to the world — you wonder if maybe this is what art is. This lovely thing that needs your care and your attention to survive. This thing without which nothing in the world would be the same.

Posted in art, culture, spirit | 1 Comment

The Women’s March: here, there, and everywhere.

img_2410Saturday, January 21, 2017

It felt good to be out on our little town’s main street with a sign in my hand again, surrounded by my friends and students and – despite the chilly fog – determination and hope. As I describe in my forthcoming book, The Hands-On Life: How to Wake Yourself Up and Save The World, this is the town that taught me how to get out there and ask, peacefully, for the rights my Constitution guarantees.  Since I’ve lived here, I’ve participated in public gatherings and city-council meetings connected to anti-frac-sand-mining work, bipartisan work to strengthen our local economy in the wake of the global financial crisis, and an interfaith march in support of the victims of the Postville raid. Retreating from the public sphere into our private homes and “letting ‘them’ take care of it” means ceding the power of the people to corporations and the lobbyists and politicians they’ve bought, all of whom will assume, unless they hear otherwise, that their actions are OK with us. As the great political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) wrote, “Politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same.”

Organizers of our local march told me they hoped for 50 people, maybe 100.  Instead, more than a thousand showed up, echoing the pattern of women’s marches across the country: turnout was enormous.  But the Women’s March was, and is, not only about women.  And it’s not the “radical” movement that those who think they’re unaffected by our concerns, or those who are unused to exercising their rights in public, like to assume.  Such movements seldom are.  In that crowd in our town were people of all ages, genders, races, and walks of life: men and women and transgender people and everyone from infants to 80-year-olds, including distinguished emerita colleagues who have inspired me throughout my entire career with their dignity and grace, teachers and ministers and small business owners and waitresses and entrepreneurs and farmers and doctors and nurses and biologists and ministers and many of my own dear students. And many, many, many little girls. (What will our world look like by the time they’re my age? What am I doing to make it a better one? These are the unignorable questions for all of us now.)  People of many faiths were there, including fellow Christians who, like me, have taken the Matthew 25 pledge.  We are concerned about a network of interconnected issues, including health care, fair wages, violence, bigotry, the climate degradation that damages all our lives, and the shameful misogyny that, like so many other forms of shameful behavior being demonstrated right now, we are determined never to help to normalize. And we are trying to help our fellow Americans see that interconnection of all those things. This is not normal, y’all.  And it’s not okay.

When we look at our national political stage at this historical moment, we’re stunned at the Alice-in-Wonderland-ish upending of the standards of decency, interpersonal respect, factuality, and legality that we the people uphold in our lives every day. We object to the lack of character and judgment signaled by these. We worry about this. We wonder why such glaring contradictions as this seem not to bother anyone in power. We would laugh in disbelief at this and this if they did not make us so sad. We grieve at those who cling to mockery of “the left” in defiance of newly vigorous realities that should bother everyone: the glorification of robber-baron arrogance, narcissism, and greed; the ignorance of the Constitution and the rights it gives, including peaceful protest and the right to vote for which our ancestresses fought so hard; the harassment and access-limitation of that democratic necessity, a free press; the willful contempt for learning, for science, for intellectual honesty, and for fact, which can never be erased by any “post-truth” cliché; the social, economic, educational, and historical naivete and ignorance; and the climate-science-denial and contravention of fossil-fuel reality more unaffordable for our planet, as we’ve passed 400 ppm, than it’s ever been. In so many ways, the president’s house is empty.

So we came out on the day of the Women’s March to stand up for the country – and the standards of normality and decency – we love.  For ourselves as women, and for everyone.  Nobody knows what’s ahead. But out there on that foggy, chilly day, talking to one another and hugging friends found in the crowd and meeting strangers and replanting our feet on our common ground, we were reminded that our common life, and our voices, and our art, and our truth, and our care for one another and our planet, are the sources of our power as citizens.  This is what democracy looks like.

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Posted in community, Driftless region, politics, resilience, spirit, women | 6 Comments

Life in the word.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. …. 14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1, KJV)

 I believe the bond [between humans and nature] is at the very heart of what it means to be human; that the natural world where we evolved is no mere neutral background, but at the deepest psychological level it remains our home, with all the intense emotional attachment which that implies – passionate feelings of belonging, of yearning, and of love. – Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy

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Alabama, Christmas 2016.

Back in Alabama, in my beloved winter landscape of brown and gray and green, Christmas Day was warm this year – 75 degrees by midafternoon.  Out for a walk, a pointer birddog swept in circles around me, splashed through the shallow creek, then leaned against my leg and panted.  Ranks of pecan trees stood crowned with mistletoe against a china-blue sky: the old folks call this a bluebird day.  In my favorite story of a Southern winter, “A Worn Path” (1941), Eudora Welty describes “a bright frozen day” on the Mississippi Delta at this time of year, with longleaf pine needles shining, “up high where the wind rocked,” and, in a deserted wagon track, “the quail walking like pullets, all dainty and unseen.”  Out with horses and dogs the day before, we’d found no quail, only grass birds, songbirds, and in the woods a sudden clamor of crows harrying a hawk, its cry keen and heart-stabbing in the babble.  Years ago, riding up over this hill, we startled up a big steel-gray bobcat from the grass.  It’s mostly deer that flourish now.  So do armadilloes, bold and dumb and blind, digging their horse-endangering holes all over pastures and up under the foundations of the house. Putting on my boots, I could have sworn I heard a hummingbird’s familiar summertime drone.  Surely there must still be stray migrants.  Surely that noise could still be placed within the bounds of normal. Or maybe I was mistaken. I hope I was.

“A Worn Path,” written before the world turned so warm, evokes a quality to the landscape that the British nature writer Michael McCarthy, in his wonderful book The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, names plenitude.  At the heart of McCarthy’s book is a phenomenon he calls “the moth snowstorm,” or “the blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars” on summer nights of his childhood, so profuse drivers had to stop a few times to wipe the windshield clean.  “That has been my fate as a baby boomer,” he writes, “not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.”

These days, there’s something barren and erratic about the places we love that even love can’t hide from us.  A year ago that creek that barely reached a birddog’s dewclaws was a raging torrent that came up twenty-five-foot banks into the fields.  This year the winter’s been marked by forty-five days without rain.  Absent were the crawfish towers I saw in every ditch as a child – marvelous mud-daub castles sloping up to a perfectly round entrance-hole, in which, if you were lucky, you could spot the beady eyes and claw-tips of a crawfish taking the air like a little old man on his porch.  The doodlebugs in their conical burrows, the swarms of creatures in vernal ponds and watering-trough-seepage puddles, even the terrifying but (I see now) largely innocent snakes – this was only one category of abundance that blooms all around me in my memories of childhood here, rich as the distinctive smell of the air and the ground, rain and leafmould and grass and sun.  I don’t feel that abundance around me as I once did, anywhere.  Most of us don’t, even assuming – as I’m blessed beyond measure to be able to say – that the places we love still exist at all.  That particular loss opens into a chamber of grief that’s been named solastalgia – the feeling for a vanished, beloved place that remains in you, twisting itself deeper – and it’s making elegy a dominant mode in modern environmental writing.

All this was in my mind as I sat on Christmas morning in my childhood church, where our good preacher spoke on the passage from John above: Christ as the word which was also life.  The word is life.  That phrase struck and rung me like a bell.  I’m a writer and a teacher; like the little drummer boy, like the widow with her mite, the word is what I bring to offer, the word is what I do. Like any writer I worry that words do no good. Like any teacher I wonder how much my students will carry away and what they’ll do with it, what will survive of me and the words I try to pass on, how I can be of use. But in church, reverberating with these lines from John, I realized that in word is creation and salvation, because in word – which brings self, spirit, fellow creature, and world alive in our hearts – is love.  And love is the thing that survives of us, the thing that saves.

There are good cognitive reasons why word contains life.  As George Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language,” good writing keeps us morally responsible to the things we’re writing about because it starts with bringing pictures of those things to life in our heads, and then describing those pictures.  (This writing is speaking to us in our common human language – the language of the senses – which brings writing to life across any expanse of space and time.) Reading runs that process in reverse, “potentiating,” as Peter Mendelsund says, the memories we carry within ourselves of the things and places and people that have been present to our senses and built a body of knowledge we bear in our literal bodies.  Emotion suffuses those mental images like water in a sponge, so that, when we touch them, they well up with feeling and we re-experience them in moments of startling immediacy (called “Proustian” after the writer who described them best.)  It all starts with sensory experiences in a beloved place which bind us to that place even as they weave our souls and our bodies and our imaginations together in a mysterious, ragged, luminous unit of life. Like literature, faith also ignites imagination, inciting occasions of confrontation and realization with the word and the world and the self; therefore it’s no accident to me that John, that most cryptic and rapt gospeller, says Christ is the word. And that word-as-Christ-as-word is not just noun but verb – it’s some state, too, beyond syntax that is a pure embodiment and unity of being, of thing, of thought, of action. Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters” describes it well:

“And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.”

“Quicken” is a marvelous word born in just this nexus of language and memory and bodily life.  Its history is rich: a child quickening in the womb; quicksilver, the beads of mercury that roll inside a school laboratory dish with a life of their own; and the familiar words of the Apostle’s Creed, which I learned by reciting in this church: From whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.  Yet it also bears a sense, at least to me, of “coming to life to do something,” being moved into motion and purpose for some reason that creates and sustains life in its richest and most positive sense.

To be quickened into verb, in Heaney’s words, is exactly what art and writing can do to and for us in our current climate emergency.  That is what we need them for. The facts are in. There is no doubt. We can’t go on as we are. All of life around us is calling us, pleading with us, to change our ways.  When we run out of resources (sooner than we think), our  dream of limitless, penaltyless “growth” – sprawling suburbs, robber-baron-enriching economies, moral horizons no longer than the next cycle of shareholder rewards – will be exposed as the fiction it is and has always been. There is no such thing as post-truth, no matter how cynically we label it here at the dawn of 2017, no matter how we kid ourselves that cynically labelling something minimizes its destructiveness – because isn’t that the point of a cynical label, anyway, write it off, relegate it, pay it less attention, feel less grief?  Yet isn’t grief also a wake-up call? The world is warming and climate is spiraling out of control and oceans are souring and rising and humans have caused it. The facts are in. There is no doubt.

At Christmas the question is asked in a million ways: what do you have to give? What did you buy for them, what are you bringing them, or, in the words of Christina Rossetti’s hymn, what can I give him, poor as I am? What are you doing or making (or, in our usual Christmas-logic, purchasing) to create a change in a relationship that wasn’t there before?  For me this is a heightening of the question I live with always: given this knowledge of climate emergency and its threat to the places you love, what can you do? What are you doing? What do you have to give? And how are you wasting precious time?  In Matthew 23, Christ rebukes the Pharisees for squabbling over trifles and ignoring “the weightier matters of the law.” What are those weighty things on which we are called to attend, from which the forms of bullshit offered through our screens are criminally trival distractions?  My Midwestern students smile about how, when I talk with them (regarding Michelangelo, Milton, and others) about Genesis, God has a Southern accent. Jesus does too.  Listen, y’all, what on earth makes y’all think you’ve got that kind of time? Wake up. Do unto the least of these.  There’s a world beyond yourself. Do right by it.

 Faith and the word are with me and in me together as I think about work and writing and the places I love in the year ahead.  Working and writing for the life of this planet takes a certain sturdy practicality, an earthbound eye still willing to be taken up into wonder.  It takes a humility and grace that’s the essence of this faith, that I first glimpsed in this sanctuary and then out in the winter fields on many a post-church afternoon, pausing to spy a bird’s nest roosting in the high grass or the gleam of longleaf pine needles in the sun.  Well, I’ll be. Look at that. Isn’t that a beautiful thing.  And we Christians must hearken to and share the humility and wonder at the heart of what we profess.  The word became flesh and dwelt among us. Chose here. Belongs here. So does the love he inspires in us, at our best, because this is the world in need of it.

The poet William Carlos Williams wrote that “it is difficult to get the news from poetry, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” More than any other medium – particularly more than television, which flattens and warps what it doesn’t totally ignore – the written and spoken word bears life by bearing that life into and out of our bodies on the raft of our senses and the memories they build and store.  It heightens our lives by deepening them, creating a pool of life like water within us.  No accident that as the suffix –fer means bearer, aquifer means bearer of water.  The word is aquifer, life-bearer.  It asks for a deeper attention and participation than things with screens, which builds an inner capacity we and our world need.  Because for lack of imagination, compassion, a reaching-out-of-oneself, the world dies, and so do the creatures sharing it with us.  Yet I have to believe that as long as we have words we are not without recourse and ways to keep going.  And as our good preacher said, this is the time to keep going, to move forward in faith even when the world seems very dark, very troubled, and very confusing. As it does to me more than any time before.

Returning to the farm late after dark on Christmas night, our headlights caught bright animal eyes, trotting close to the ground.  Coyote?  Nope.  That small canine shape with the elegant, dark-tipped tail was a gray fox. The spirit of my wild beloved place in its childhood plenitude flashed before me once again.  I touched it, and I could breathe.  Hallelujah, I could only pray.  Hallelujah.

Posted in animals, conservation, home, resilience, spirit, the South | 2 Comments

Little bitty Christmas trees.

A rerun from 2011 that’s been on my mind today. Merry Christmas, y’all.

“I’ve been a pastor for more than 15 years, and I am still amazed at folks in nursing homes, many unable to remember the majority of their own lives, who will begin to sing and nod and clap when they hear Christmas carols. O the power of music, on them and on me.” – Amy Busse Perkins

Of course I teared up when I read this, my friend Amy’s Facebook status, in the week before Christmas.  Of course I am tearing up right now, writing it and imagining these old folks, swaying, uplifted by memories dim and soft as shawls, wrapped around them and patted into place.  Of course, this is not the first time, and won’t be the last, that I go to tearing up this holiday.  Readers of this blog know by now that I believe tears are so often a sign of spirit – no other word for it – knocking, very gently, at a self-protective shell you have put between yourself and things that hurt.  Sometimes the shell is necessary for survival: in the wake of a broken heart or a dear one’s death, you have to go on and teach your classes and go to meetings and smile at the teenage grocery-checkers at Fareway without losing it.  But particularly for those of us who prize our independence and our self-control, accepting emotions as they arise and not fearing them can be a very good thing.  Especially now, at the time when the skin of the visible world is cracking to let a mystery through — a mystery embodied and enfleshed and continually challenging.  Our emotions, however riddling and difficult, can keep us open to this mystery in the softest and most welcoming way.  It is these feelings, so often unnameable and unsortable — not the inevitable blatherings about “war on Christmas,” or the garish commercialism — that, no matter what our creed or belief or place in  life, can take us into the heart of what this season, in Charlie Brown’s words, is really all about.

What moves me at Christmas? Things bound up in spirit and in memory.  Lifting from its bubble-wrap nest my late grandmother’s nativity set, which sat on top of her piano and over which I hovered, careful as a child can be, lifting the baby Jesus out of his china manger and putting him back in.  Reading Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and the Gospel of Luke (King James version only, please; Christopher Hitchens, RIP, describes best the reasons why.) Hearing, in Methodist churches in my deep-South hometown, black and white folks singing “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” and listening to Mavis Staples sing it in my own house a thousand miles away.  The world treats You mean, Lord.  Sometimes, it treats me mean, too.  But that’s how things is done down here.  We didn’t know it was you.

But perhaps a central image at the heart of Christmas emotion for me has always been the Christmas tree. Specifically, a little bitty one.  The pathos and sweetness of the tiny, spindly tree transformed by belief in the “Charlie Brown Christmas Carol” — and chosen over the “modern” trees that clank when Linus taps them — is expressed well here:

Near the end of the semester, though, the little Christmas tree came back to me in an entirely different context, as my first-year students and I read Ernest Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying.  Set in 1940s Louisiana, the novel tells the story of a young black man, Jefferson, wrongfully sentenced to death and the teacher, Grant Wiggins, who’s been deputized by the community (specifically his aunt) to “teach him what it means to be a man” before his execution.  At the novel’s heart is a Christmas pageant, seen through Grant’s eyes.  As described over an entire chapter (and unfortunately slighted in the film based on the novel), it’s a beautiful, sturdy, homely invocation of the presence of the divine in a profoundly human place, at a time of great stress and need.  Borrowed bedsheets drape a makeshift stage at the front of the church, which doubles as the school during the week.  The child playing Joseph carries a carpenter’s hammer in his beltloop.  The flashlight serving as the star “moved a little, as if the person holding [it] was getting tired.” When one of the children playing a shepherd asks of the star, “What does it mean?” the second shepherd responds, “Wish I knowed.” A “wise man” looks at the Baby Jesus and nods: “Him, all right.” And at the front of the sanctuary is the tiny Christmas tree,

stuck in the tub of dirt, decorated with strips of red and green crepe paper and bits of lint cotton and streamers of tinsel and a little white cardboard star on its highest branch. And under the tree and propped against the tub was one lone gift, wrapped in red paper and tied with a green ribbon and with a red and green bow.  The children had contributed nickels, dimes, quarters — money they had made from picking pecans — and Irene, Odessa, and Odeal James had gone to Baton Rouge and bought a pair of wool socks. 

The people sitting up front could see the package, and they knew who it was for, and at times I could see their eyes shifting from the choir toward the tree, and I could see the change in their expressions.

The gift is for Jefferson: a pair of socks to care for his body, even in the face of the known fact of his death.  For some time, my students and I pondered the theological implications of this: letting your grief come among you as a community, letting it be part of the weave of humble everydayness lifted, as a community, toward the divine.  Ever so gently.  Ever so small.

One of y’all is going to have to read this passage aloud, I told them.  I can’t do it.  Little bitty Christmas trees break me up.  I was joking, but only partially.  And when I went back into that classroom to give those students their final exam a week later, they had drawn, on the board, a Christmas tree (helpfully labeled “little bitty Christmas tree.”)  A bit of final-exam mercy? they joked, eyes bright.  We laughed, but we also all remembered experiencing that moment in the text together, thinking together about what community means, what incarnation means, how human beings can touch the rough and humble surfaces where our world meets the divine.  It’s just such a moment that Gaines writes into his novel: the stakes are high, a man is going to be put unjustly to death, and this is when we need to look, and need to let ourselves be moved. Not look away.  Not choke back that pity, that anger, that mysterious emotion, whatever it is.

The stakes are pretty high for our world too, and are only going to keep rising.  But when I try to wish peace into this world, and into the lives of my friends and my family and my students, this is the kind of peace I’m hoping for: that in the middle of bewildering and riddling emotion, memory, difficulty that never really goes away, we find that moment of quiet, homely grace in which we may be strengthened, and moved, and encouraged along the path of thinking and caring and acting.  If tears come, let them fall.  They’re a sign of something moving, something real and true, whose presence — however we may experience or think of it — sustains us and moves us forward too.

Merry Christmas, y’all.

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Every creature makes its own tracks.

Windblown leaf in my yard, Dec. 14, 2016.

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Moving the house.

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On the morning of November 9, 2016, I walked out of my front door into a world I wasn’t sure I’d recognize.  It was the warmest November ever, but with just enough nip to the air to remind us it was still November after all. The sky was creamy blue, the air exhilarating, with a tinge of exhaust and gasoline.  A neighbor was walking down the sidewalk and we hugged, wordlessly, shaking our heads.  But then we turned and continued up the street to where a tangle of police cars and power trucks surrounded a giant semi, chugging under its load.  At last, the house was on the move.

“The house” was a blue-gray, three-story Victorian with high ceilings and elegant wooden trim that had sat on its corner since nobody knew when.  Recently purchased by our hometown bank – the same bank whose vice-president, grandson of its founder, can be seen out back cutting the grass on summer afternoons – the house had been sold to a young woman with a young family who’s moving it across town to restore, across the street from her own parents’ house. The windows had been boarded, the walls plastered with happy paper signs (Starting a new life!), the whole structure jacked up and supported by two giant steel beams.

And now, as the whole town had been anticipating, the big house was underway at last.  People gathered across the street, snapping pictures, as the truck inched into the street and the big house came with it.  Out over the curb, then – with infinite slowness – up to the intersection and a turn onto our main street, past the hair salon and the bike shop, the house moved on.  Past the bank employees standing on the corner in their suits and ties and nametags, past the bar and the music shop, past the chiropractor’s office and the Mexican restaurant whose owners’ son was one of my students on my first study-abroad trip, tracking Mary Shelley and Lord Byron and John Keats through England and Geneva and Italy – with notebook and pen in hand, eyes wide open in wonder, he was the last student out of each museum we visited.  Past them all the big house sailed with the eerie wondrous majesty of a ship, its brown shingled roof-peaks floating higher than the roofs of the earthbound buildings on either side.  An elementary school teacher had walked her class up a couple blocks to watch; the children huddled on the corner, pointing and exclaiming, faces lifted to the sky.  In the face of such a sight even the familiar becomes strange, even magical.  What will their dreams be like, after today?

Like courtiers, the linemen in their ladder trucks surrounded the house on its Elizabethan progress, lifting the power lines out of its way.  Police officers went ahead to make sure the way was clear and signaled traffic along the route the house had just recently traveled, getting the day back to normal even as the great thing eased away from where it had always stood.  I found myself next to the bank’s vice president (the one who cuts the grass) and shook his hand.  Thank you, I blurted, for giving us something to come together around as a community today.  Until I said it I hadn’t realized how deeply I felt it. Politics is not a nursery; Hannah Arendt is right about that.  There will be disagreement.  But there need not be — must not be –vitriol, spitefulness, hate.

My walk to campus that morning took me longer than usual because I kept stopping to talk, to hug, to simply stand with people I knew.  All day long students pressed close to colleagues and to me, nervous and on the verge of tears, all of us semi-wordless, pleading the same silent thing: Be with me. Help me feel by your presence that we will be okay somehow. There were tears. There were meaningful looks, there were pats on the shoulder as we passed wordlessly in the hall.  I felt that power of connection like oxygen: we need other people in the flesh, we need the presence of and in the living world.  Not for the first time I gave thanks that I’m a teacher in this place, with these students.

After dark that night my old cat circled my feet as I entered the usual evening laptop-gyre of Email and Commentary.  I looked down at him.  This is my present moment, in which he is here with me. He won’t always be.  What am I ignoring, locked into pseudo-conversation with a computer?  Life is very long. So is the field of action; so is the necessity of conserving and sustaining energy, especially from this day forward.  More and more these days, I am realizing that for me, social media drains that energy away. This is my one wild and precious life. How am I spending it, on what good, for what purpose? What, in every way that matters, am I actually doing?  Being out on that street in my town, talking to my neighbors, watching that house float away, had felt so good, especially after the burning-eyed incredulity of 3 a.m.  What place was this no-place of the screen?  And would it really nurture real work?  What was I now being asked to understand? What if the thing that we need — at every level, especially now — is community?  What if that is the place where the real work of change begins?

The following day, after more than one conversation with sad and anxious people, especially students, most of whom mentioned Facebook as a deepener of that mood, I decided to let myself say this: it’s OK to release yourself from the notion that posting on / “correcting” other people’s arguments on / ceaselessly monitoring social media is something you have to do.  Sure, social media is a great tool.  It can be vital to represent your point of view, to be heard, to gather your community, to document the ugliness breaking out all over. You might be saying something another person really needs to hear.  You might be finding community you need, especially if you are one of the many people cast into danger, in this post-election world, because of your identity.  I totally get that.  I don’t want to minimize the lifeline and the tool for activism social media can be.  But it can also so easily swallow us, churning us around in breathless, paralyzing spirals of anxiety.  Many of the most powerful community leaders I know (like those in our anti-frac-sand mining work) spend little to no time on social media.  It is not for everyone.  But action can be.

In these days I am finding that doing something breaks up dark, frozen moods, even a little.  There’s a lot to do.  Write or create in a forum not limited to 140 characters or bright images framed by that corporate border of blue and white — a medium, as Zadie Smith reminds us, “designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations.”  Write something that can be read and lingered on, thought about, returned to, in a longer-form article, a book, a magazine.  Talk to somebody, hug them, pat them on the shoulder as you walk past and see that sad look in their eyes: the simple power of this, on the day after the election, was stunning.  Sit down with a group of students who want to talk.  Get a group of people together on the courthouse steps.  Make a donation to a good charity, or volunteer.   Reach out through your church or other organizations to people in need, whatever that looks like; there are so many forms of need out there, and so many churches doing amazing things nobody knows about.  Go to your county Board of Supervisors meetings.  Go to Standing Rock or give money to people who are going.  Plant a tree.  Take a walk. Dig in some leaves to your vegetable patch to get it ready to grow you more food next year.  Take care of your family, your friends, your pets.  If social media is stressing you out rather than actually informing and engaging you – as the best reporting and media can do – you shouldn’t feel guilty about turning it off.  Especially since doing so might enable you to turn more fully toward the world beyond the screen.

One way or another, that living world will move forward like that house down the street. And it will do so best if surrounded by the team of all of us, out there, watching and engaging with it on its way and clearing the obstacles from its path, not sequestered away in what can so quickly become internet silos, hammering away at our keyboards as our blood pressures and anxiety levels spike into the red zone of despair.  That is what our living world cannot afford.

  • P.S., a rerun of a favorite passage. In his book CROSSING THE UNKNOWN SEA: WORK AS A PILGRIMAGE OF IDENTITY (2001), David Whyte writes: “Our work is to make ourselves visible in the world. This is the soul’s individual journey, and the soul would much rather fail at its own life than succeed at someone else’s…. In work as in life, we must contemplate the loss of everything in order to know what we have to give; it is the essence of writing, the essence of working, the essence of living; an essence that we look for by hazarding our best gifts in the world, and in that perspective, all of us are young and have the possibilities of the young until our last breath goes out.”
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John Milton, the morning after.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016: 7:30 a.m.

I have a lot of thoughts but for now, as a college professor, will confine myself to this:

What happens now to education, in a country where everyone claims to value it but our new president-elect, and those who voted for him, have just rejected its actual results? I’m talking about the idea of being qualified. I’m talking about the idea of expertise, learned and practiced through experiences in a field over time.  I’m talking about what happens in the heart and mind of a person who submits herself to learn – really learn – something she does not already know. Most of all I’m talking about a certain practical, humble stance on reality, driven by a deep knowledge that me and my single perspective are not all there is to the world, past, present, or future: the mental and emotional ecosystem of the educated person’s mind and heart.  Which, like any other endangered ecosystem – great forests, the underground layers of the Bakken shale, state universities now endangered in Wisconsin and North Carolina and elsewhere – unfolds and builds itself over time and needs attentiveness to understand but only a few years of reckless arrogance to destroy beyond redemption. And all these ecosystems are threatened in a society that insists that nothing really matters beyond money, beyond greed, beyond what we see on TV, beyond fear.

Yesterday afternoon, my seminar students and I read a passage in Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), the classic defense of free and open ideas in a democracy.  Here, Milton, warrior and intellectual, dreams of the fruits of reform and of peace:

Behold now this vast city, a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with [God’s] protection. The shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed justice in defense of beleaguered Truth, than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching reformation; others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement.

A lump came to all our throats, and I felt the presence of a great unacknowledged hope:  this can still be the dream of our country, of eager minds submitting themselves to learn of reality in conversation with each other and with the dead, speaking in writing and in the legacies we leave to those yet unborn.  Learning and growing from what you learn, opening yourself to wonder at the thing that is not yourself, brings out the best in humans as a species and as individuals.  This is the faith around which I have built my life.

What happens to those million firefly lights now – so reminiscent of a library at night?

What happens to that dream?

For me – and I am clinging to this as hard as I can, for so very many reasons – the answer lies elsewhere in Areopagitica:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.  Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.

This is the star by which I now steer. My writing in the last few years has focused, and will, on how we can protect and save that which we love – places, ideas, ecologies, planets.  As the great Roxane Gay wrote at 2 am – and as I read, sleeplessly refreshing and refreshing my computer screen, the radio blaring from the kitchen – now is not the time to give up.  Now is the time to keep fighting, or, in the peaceful metaphor I strive in my heart to prefer, to keep working.  Trial is by what is contrary.  Time for me, for all of us, to step up, stand up, work together.  It is not, cannot, be too late to save the world we love, and to build the world we need: the million lights of a million minds, eager in their pursuit of truth.

by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1629

John Milton (1608-1674) by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1629

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