Little bitty Christmas trees.

A rerun from 2011 that’s been on my mind. 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.

Posted in community, mystery, seasons, spirit, the South | Leave a comment

Greed, hubris, and cramming-through.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren sits at her desk, coffee cup and phone nearby, holding a 500-page chunk of paper — the Republican tax bill — she was given an hour to read before the vote. “So,” she begins, “here it is Friday night, and I just want to give you an idea of how the Republican leadership thinks we are supposed to make laws in the United States Senate.” In an extended discussion that would be funny if it weren’t so painful – particularly for the legislative branch of the country that at least some people are still calling the leader of the free world — she walks us through the semi-legible, hand-scribbled marginal annotation (cut off at the edges by some hapless intern who hasn’t found the “93%” button on the copier?) that is passing for the text of actual, votable-upon, properly-considered legislation. “This isn’t right,” she concludes, “and this is not how America should be making laws. Shame on the Republicans.”

And yet, as of this morning, it passed. In the words of the New York Times, “The Senate passed the most sweeping tax rewrite in decades early Saturday, with Republicans lining up to approve an overhaul that will touch almost every corner of the United States economy, affecting families, small business owners and multinational corporations, with the biggest benefits flowing to the highest-earning Americans. Senators voted 51-49, as Republicans approved the nearly 500-page bill in the early morning hours after lawmakers received a rewritten version, which contained significant changes from the original bill that passed two Senate panels last month along party lines.” The bill is also going to open the Alaska National Wildlife to drilling and our educational system to further erosion as we continue, actively, as a country, to pursue climate denial and intellectual mediocrity, giving free rein to greed in the apparent belief that its wild gallop will carry along — not just trample — those of us living what the technology philosopher Jaron Lanier calls “real-time economic lives.”

The wealthy and the big corporations will love this. Few others will, especially considering its continued and systematic destruction of the environment, of health care access, and of higher education. Last I checked, this bill will open to taxation the already-laughably-small stipends of graduate students — just like the ones teaching your kid’s freshman comp class at the nearest Big State U and hoping to pursue the vanishing dream of tenure-track teaching and intellectual nourishment of the next generation. Student loan interest deductions — like those claimed by almost every human being under 60 that I know — go away as well. Remember all that controversy over limiting 401(k) and 403(b) contributions a few weeks back, which had me staring at my radio in disbelief: is this really the “conservative” party, endangering retirement savings? Retirement savings? And I quail before the disaster that this will wreak upon health care. By every measure, the poor and the precariat — that clinging-on-class to which more and more of us belong — are getting poorer, more precarious, separated from disaster by vanishingly thinner margins. And this bill promised only to continue that. Lots of us from all walks of life saw and spoke and wrote and phone-called our “elected representatives” against this. And yet it went through anyway. A clearer gesture of contempt for ordinary non-billionaires and what used to be thought of, optimistically, as our common good — clean environment, access to health care, educational opportunity, and, therefore, the opportunity to leverage ourselves up into something better than what we are right now — could hardly be imagined.


Reading this news, as I set aside a stack of papers by first-year students (not a one of whom, by the way, would’ve submitted pages that look like this for a grade), one phrase of Sen. Warren’s lingered in my mind: cram through. Unwillingly, dismally, I thought of the other shameful farce making its way through our public life: the sexual greed and power-abuse of women by powerful men. Is it any accident that such an approach to force — cram through, intimidate — is surfacing in public life from Hollywood to Google to the Harasser-in-Chief? Isn’t this the common thread in the bankrupt toxic-masculinity play staining screens and attention spans everywhere? Force your rampant greed on others. Slap a dollar value on everything, whether it belongs there or not. Impress-upon, break, fracture the bodies of women, children, the vulnerable, the Earth, the thawing tundra of Alaska whose very thaw, I read, now ironically makes it easier to lay in broadband cable. (Just what we need: more Internet, more social media portals through which our short-sightedness and credulity can be turned to someone else’s advantage.) Behold our republic as 2017 hurtles to a close: borne along by greed, hubris, and hucksterism to — where?

What’s wretchedly infuriating and sad about the trickle-down myth still parroted by supporters of this bill — give corporations a break and they’ll help the rest of us out! — is that it’s so obviously at odds with reality. Look around, y’all. You really still think that corporations care about us? Especially the “small businesses” driven out by big-box stores in your town and mine? Look around at the threadbare, warming world in which we non-billionaires live: potholed highways, collapsing bridges, paycheck-to-paycheck scrimping, and, as I write, a 50-degree afternoon on the second of December in the upper Midwest. You really think that trickle-down dream is going to work if it hasn’t by now? You really think corporations love us and want us to be happy? (Maybe that question needs a period, like the similar reality-confrontation from the girl in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”) You really think you can continue to build your own life in a bubble, untouched by what makes All Those Others Less Fortunate? How many more decades do you want to give these people to do the right thing? How far into your children’s, then your grandchildren’s, lives do you really want to wait for them to accept what it is not in their interest to see?

I’ve got two books coming out this spring, both of which argue, in various ways, the importance and power of living a good life where you are. Yet I also think a lot about how to keep that belief from slipping into the moral and intellectual flaw marking this tax bill and this President’s approach to “governing” and life: there is no common good, only what you can grab and secure for yourself, only what you can fashion and pay for as your own boutique retreat from any aspect of reality you prefer to avoid. Look at the phenomenon of “billionaire bunkers.” Look at the exemption in this tax bill, brainchild of Ted Cruz and Mike Pence, to allow tax-exempt 529 plan funds — formerly only for higher education — to pay for costs of “private religious schools” and homeschooling. Little encampments, fiefdoms, public sphere shrinking around homes in which tyrannical men and the women still determined, despite all evidence, to prop them up can nurture fantasies and fears — and prey upon the vulnerable, which, we now know, happens more often within families and homes than as a result of “outside” threats.  “The good we secure for ourselves,” wrote the great social reformer Jane Addams, “is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Behind all this is the same fallacy Laura Kipnis has identified as fueling the sexual harasser preying on his underlings: the fantasy of self-determination and power in a world in which we are interdependent, whether we like it or not. Sen Warren famously busted the frontier-hero myth a little while back: “you didn’t build that.” Flannery O’Connnor busted the Misfit’s belief, too: I don’t need no hep, I’m doin all right by myself. Sure, we’ve all got to work hard, be self-sufficient, push ourselves to do and be better. I’m a single 43-year-old woman who knows this as well as anyone, and teaches my students the same: if you don’t make it happen for yourself, nobody else will. But the spiking anxiety I see in them is no accident. We have made the world they are living in, in which we are all one natural disaster or health emergency away from ruin. Those of us GenXers in our late 30s and early 40s, raised on the work-hard-get-a-degree rules beginning to crumble as we entered graduate and professional school, are now finding these ostensibly stable degree-requiring careers (medicine, law, the professoriate) eroded as we also witness the erosion of once-stable values: Expertise matters. Facts matter. Reality is…you know, a thing. Not everything in a worthwhile human life, or in the nonhuman world granted to us to share, can or should be measured by dollars and cents. When, exactly, did these become controversial?

“By their works shall ye know them.” What you do, not what you say, tells me who you are. So it’s time to hold these people accountable. Here’s who voted and how. And let’s push them — and ourselves — to do and think better. What does “pro-life” really mean if not respect for the dignity and ability to thrive of living children on a living planet? What does “small business” really mean if the rules are different for a billionaire than they are for you? What does “personal health and wellness” really mean if a corporation can poison aquifers and we let them do it? What does “faith” really mean if if doesn’t push us past regarding our selves and our present needs as if that’s all there is to reality?

We can do better than this, y’all. We don’t have a choice anymore.

Posted in community, corporations, higher education, money, politics, teaching, women | 2 Comments

The teaching tree.

Cross-posted from Luther’s “Ideas and Creations” community blog.

Main 218 is my favorite classroom for several reasons: like my campus office and my dining room at home, it has red walls. I’ve added some National Poetry Month posters to the walls over time, so the décor feels a little personalized. But most of all, it’s the closest indoor space to my great, nonhuman teaching partner: the giant cottonwood tree in front of Main Building, which is more than 100 years old. With its bank of windows facing east – straight into the branches of the cottonwood and the smaller maple next to it – Main 218 is a pedagogical treehouse, and when the weather allows, my first action on walking in is to open the windows and release the voices of leaf, branch and wind into the room.

Luther’s mission statement speaks of the college’s placement at the intersection where river, woodland and prairie meet, and its founders and its great landscape architect, Jens Jensen, sited and landscaped it carefully to provide a place – in multiple senses of that word – for learning, for thought and for consideration of how the emotions within our minds may be met, shaped and led forward, gently, on further journeys by the natural world. I am grateful to have, right outside my classroom window, a living thing whose presence invites me to consideration of all of this and more. The German forester Peter Wohlleben, in his recent book “The Hidden Life of Trees,” relates that clusters of birches in old-growth forests may be able to communicate with and support one another, passing information and nutrients back and forth through roots and ground in voices and through processes only trees understand. Here is yet another reason to restrain, as humans, our hubris and arrogance and consider: what other voices, realities, consciousnesses, lives are always speaking and moving around us, ignored or drowned out by our internal and external noise?

One of my three classes in Main 218 this semester is British Romanticism, where students and I have been engaging with the great poet of the reciprocal relationship between mind, spirit and nature – William Wordsworth (1770-1850.) If you only know Wordsworth’s greatest hits – like “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” in which the speaker encounters “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils” – you might be forgiven for dismissing him as a twee old man in a twee old dream of Nature with a capital N, interested only in what’s pretty. But Wordsworth’s real subject is the complex and often unpretty relationship between the mind and the world. Is what we think we see really there, or is our own mind only telling us (in the positive and negative senses of this word) stories? Does the natural world contain some meaning that can sustain our imaginations and spirits, if we look for it closely enough? Or is that only wishful thinking? What happens when we find ways, spiritual or intellectual or emotional, to fall silent before the presence of all that is around us but is not us? “Come forth into the light of things,” he suggests elsewhere, “and let nature be your teacher.” In “Expostulation and Reply,” Wordsworth asks, pointedly, “Think you, mid all this mighty sum / Of things for ever speaking, / That nothing of itself will come / But we must still be seeking?” Quit straining, he suggests, and stop trying to fill the silence. Listen and see what mysteries you touch. I will never forget the moment, in Main 218, when we did just that – and a billowing rush of wind through the cottonwood and maple leaves rose and filled the room and we all turned our heads to the music at once. No one spoke. No one needed to. Listen. Listen.

Gathered at the foot of that tree, Paideia students also test our texts with their own hands, eyes and ears. In Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Janie Crawford lies back under a blossoming pear tree and feels her own soul expand to meet it: “[The tree] had called her to come and gaze on a mystery…It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again…This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears.” Lying back in the grass under the cottonwood and staring up into its thousands of leaves, twirling back and forth in the wind against a bright blue fall sky, we feel just what Janie felt, and we can see why Hurston chose this concrete creature – a tree – to illustrate this sort of emotion. Later, we read Charles Darwin’s description of the “tree of life” in Chapter Four of “On the Origin of Species:”

The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was small, budding twigs; and this connexion of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear all the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few now have living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these lost branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only from having been found in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved by fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.

Wonder and humility shimmer around Darwin’s descriptions of the living world he so closely observed and so well loved that he calls it “beautiful,” and they shape his diligent investigations toward the form “into which life was first breathed.” As a mature thinker, Darwin learned to live with uncertainty – “the origin of species,” he wrote in his introduction to the book, “that mystery of mysteries” – and even to thrive on it, since it propelled him forward into all he had yet to discover and into the living world that brought him such joy. This spoke powerfully to my students and to me. How can this openness shape our own educations and personal quests? How can we discern meaning, even beauty, amid the confusion of our changing ideas and changing lives, and how we can remain open to, accepting of and curious about that change? Perhaps this is a great place to start: lie down in the grass and listen to the voice of the wind in the leaves of a tree whose life touches but is nevertheless carried on independent of yours, whose leaves express a wind that otherwise would not have a voice – the force of something moving in the world, greater than your own mind or your speech can immediately know.

Posted in community, higher education, Romanticism, teaching | 1 Comment

IPhone consciousness.

The monolith. From Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Longtime Cheapskate readers, brace yourselves (or y’all’s selves) and check the temperature in hell: I’ve got a smartphone. An IPhone 7, safely encased in a red LifeProof jacket with a dorsal stripe of turquoise (exactly like my front door; the flash of haint blue, I hope, similarly protecting my goings out and comings in.) I’ve owned it now for a month and a half. And while my beliefs about smartphones are fundamentally unchanged — they’re fiendishly insidious, and will bend your awareness around themselves until they have altered the temperature inside your brain, and talking on the thing means braving that icky, sticky screen-to-cheek contact — I can’t deny it’s eased my life more than a bit. While I’ve not become a creature of the phone as much as I feared (and don’t see Twitter or Instagram in my future), I can detect distinctly pre- and post-iPhone varieties of consciousness. And that feels significant.

The spark? Two big study-abroad teaching assignments coming up in the next couple years and the shorter trip last month to prepare for them. I stalled and stalled and kept relying on my trusty old pay-as-you-go flipphone and finally made the decision late this April. In three days, I had my new phone in my hand, sleek and black and mysterious as the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with me as the curious beast poking at it and hurling legbones in the air.

At one level, I’m very much safer, able to get maps and have a disembodied voice read directions to me on the admittedly rare occasions I drive somewhere I don’t already know. (And of course students overseas will be able to contact me more easily.) But much of that safety is really the great Let Me Float on My Assumptions button we are always hoping the world will hit, a portal to a kind of Huxleyan corporate/intellectual soma. Everything about its design is designed to slide us thoughtlessly into its mental and commercial world. A brand-new iPhone comes with no instruction manual. Turn it on and it sets itself up. Google setup and it takes you right to Apple’s own site, where you still can’t find exactly what you need. But that doesn’t matter. You are in the grip of that faintly dry-mouthed, itchy-palmed consumer excitement that switches off any common-sense tech-skepticism you might ever have possessed or (ahem) written about in your (ahem) forthcoming book.  “Recognize my location/upload to the cloud?” Sure! Buy a new waterproof case? Absolutely! (How like a small fragile animal this thing is, how slippery, how costly if I drop it.)

And, just in that one flash, and thankfully only for that instant, how weird — even to me, who wrote about them and lived within them until a month and a half ago — the anti-smartphone, data-wary viewpoints of tech-skeptics seem. Now I understand as never before what my students, digital natives (just less than) half my age, are up against.  In their lives as reasonably aware persons, and now as young adults, they have never been without this constant, vaguely self-monitoring presence, like a parent, like a personal shopper, like a security camera you could train on others or that could be trained on you, usually both. Immediately I noticed my eyes were having trouble adjusting to my new toy, as they never had to, say, a new laptop, although they’ve added this new lens calibration to their repertoire now.  When you look up from the screen, something has changed. A level of freshness and immediacy is gone. (Where is it fled, the glory and the dream?). The thing that chases it away follows you, lives in your pocket or bag, nestles smugly, and snugly, against the surface of your attention. You have it. It has you.

It is good for a few big things.  Photos, videos, the text systems by which you can share those photos instantly with someone you wish was with you.  Capturing 30 seconds in the woods around my favorite writers conference. (Alongside the words in my notebook, those images and sounds will always take me there.) Dialing up music while unpacking in a hotel (I still hate television, especially in hotels). London Review of Books podcasts. The pedometer, which has tilted me down a dismal slide toward the purchase of one of those watches that tracks and barks commands at you like the wiry woman on Winston Smith’s telescreen in Nineteen Eighty-four. But I am walking more since I’ve had this thing, even bought one of those armholders like a blood-pressure cuff. The screen showers green confetti when you surpass 10,000 steps! How small our rewards with which we are content. How weirdly accountable to a machine. And yet. I’ll still strive to keep myself in control of this experiment, swimming warily in this estuarial zone of consciousness and technology, listening through skin and brain for the undertow.

Posted in attention, technology | 1 Comment

Doing justice.

Delivered as a guest sermon at First United Methodist Church, June 11, 2017, for Peace and Justice Sunday.

Psalm 8: “When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou has established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou has made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. Thou has given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea. O Lord, O Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!”

The moon is getting farther from the earth. One sign of this is corals, those miraculous undersea formations now bleaching and dying as climate change warms and sours oceans. The tiny creatures that live in corals move in and out over millions of years, making tiny paths, striations whose distance charts the motion from the earth to the moon over time. One thing it shows: a year is now shorter by forty days. Some of these corals are 450 million years old. Stop and take all this in, or listen to the episode of Radiolab that describes it, and you’ll feel a familiar combination of emotions: wonder at the intricate handiwork of our world, grief at how little humans have done to deserve and how much to destroy such bounty.

Corals and the moon; homeless men sleeping on church pews as they chase the fracking boom in Willesden, ND; brothers and sisters (because we are all brothers and sisters and fellow humans, aren’t we?) experiencing economic and environmental and physical violence because the color of their skin sets off something inside a different-colored person’s head. At Luther College, where I teach, we’re fond of saying We are God’s hands and feet. Yet so much suffering among the humans and nonhumans all around us can freeze us in place. So here on “Peace and Justice Sunday,” let’s think together about the ways we make redemption real. What is it we are called upon to do?

The first layer of answer is simple. What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.  But like so many spiritual truths, there is such complexity and even difficulty hidden in this statement. I’m an English professor, so I start with that one verb, do. Recently I ran across a book on medieval herbs, which quotes a 1390 recipe from English King Richard III’s cooks for something called “Douce Ame:” “Take good cow milk and do it in a pot. Take parsley, sage, hyssop, savoury, and other good herbs and hew them and do them in the milk and seethe them. Take capons half roasted and smite them in pieces and do thereto pyn [which a quick OED run leads me to think may be pine nuts] and honey clarified. Salt it and color it with saffron and serve it forth.” I’d never seen this use of the verb before but warmed to it instantly, so to speak. This is after all a verb of action, of the millions of tiny stirrings within a thing produced by heat or conviction or other irresistible forces. Cooking, heating, transferring energy, making the thing that feeds, altering the state of something so our bodies can receive it and transform it into more energy are all governed by that verb: do.

Do unto the least of these, Christ commands, and you do unto me.

In my favorite story by the great North Carolina author Allan Gurganus, a widow on an ordinary Tuesday catches an angel as he falls to earth, nurses him, receives from him a blessing, and then cheers him on his way again. “Go,” she shouts. “Go. Yeah. Do.”

My Alabama people – all of us – know in our bones the persistence of Jacob: I will not let you go until you bless me. You’ve got to pray hard, work and walk, grab ahold and not let go, keep asking. Do and do again. Link your arms and keep singing as you cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge where it crests, just over the Alabama River, and start down the opposite bank, into the line of policemen waiting, clubs in hand. Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around. Ain’t it wonderful what God can do.

Empathy is something humans can do, and it works. How much of history would be different if we let the presence of one another’s bodies, the reality of their pain, shame us into awareness, knowledge. What happens when human limbs are hung from the limbs of trees. What happens when power gathers up and rends another’s flesh, when the casualness of assumption or greed eats humans like the monster in the great Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, stuffing a living being into its mindless maw. Moloch. The beast. That beast lives in our hearts. That beast is real.

It is easy for me to talk about race and justice and trying to do better, to learn about it. Because I can read the books and talk to people and try to learn – which I am – but I can choose not to know it, too, can choose to put down the book and go about my day. I have that privilege. Other people don’t.

The person who said those rueful words to me was a white man in his seventies, a writer and professor originally from the South, like me. I know their truth is also true for me, and that that truth is not fair, and is not right. If you’re white, you go around in a body that will let you forget things others’ bodies and hearts are never allowed to forget. This is where some of us might start to shift in our seats and murmur doubtfully about political correctness, which, like any human tool, can indeed be used to flatten ourselves and each other. But in the words of at least two Republican senators I heard and read during the 2016 election cycle: “There is political correctness, sure, but there is also common decency.” There is the empathy that shares a common body, the language of the senses in which we speak to one another across place and time about how we do things in this world. I look at black women I know and realize I can see and feel visceral sympathy but ultimately can only touch an edge and shrink back, like snail-horns, to safety inside the shell of a white body. They live in bodies for which the news is telling us, again, there is precious little safety from the world.

Perhaps language can provide not only ways to understand but tools to help in our doing justice and loving mercy and – this seems so important – our walking humbly, with God and one another. The biologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Native American Pottawatomi Nation, says that if we had different pronouns than “it” for nonhuman plants and creatures, we might be more inclined to recognize them as living beings, worthy of respect. She proposes the phoneme ki, which has been used in native languages to mean place (think Milwaukee). In the Pottawatomi language, adding an n to words makes them plural: therefore, adding an N to KI gives you KIN. Think of it: watching a V of geese moving across the sky, their wings making a subtle shiver of sound in the air, you could say, “Kin are moving south.” Studying those miraculous corals, you could say “Look at the paths kin have made, over 450 million years.” This might then enchant the world in a grammar of beholding, helping us see fellow beings as the wonders they are.  Similarly, how would our life together in our world look different if our mental label for another’s face on catching sight of them was sister, brother, you.

Yesterday I read that Arctic ice is approaching its lowest level in 30 years. Studies suggest that every American releases, through our energy use, enough carbon dioxide to melt 645 square feet of arctic ice in a year. That’s 645 feet per person per year. Melted. Not coming back. For which I am responsible. I have erased something rare and built-up over time, carrying within it traces of past eons and times as richly as coral carries the marks of small kin creatures tracking the moon. For my refrigerator, for my air conditioning, for my car and, yes, the plane on which I flew to the conference at which I learned about coral creatures and Arctic ice and how to care for them. This is our moral work and moral duty, to collapse distance between us and them, me and you, it and kin. Think of Christ laying hands on lepers and bleeding women, laying hands on bleeding world. Yet ours is also the world praised by the psalmist, who despite the use of the word disastrously translated into English as dominion soon dissolves into wonder. “When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou has established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou has made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.”  A power which, the conclusion is inescapable – we have not used wisely or well. Doing better is a matter of urgency. And one that leaves us standing in the necessity of grace.

Thanks to Camille Dungy, Robin Wall Kimmerer, John Elder, and the Bread Loaf/Orion Environmental Writers Conference for information and inspiration.

Posted in community, politics, spirit | 2 Comments

The arts, for real.


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.


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