Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

Wow. I found this post by Lesley Wheeler worth re-blogging. It hurts my heart that she found so many of her students had experienced this kind of fear and violence in their schools. But it makes me pleased to be a writer if I can be in the company of people like Lesley and her students, facing what is horrible and difficult and discussing and writing about it. And reading, too–reading poems that face the “dark” in human beings can be as liberating and enlightening as reading poems that offer “hope” or balance. The heart does need rest now and then; thoughtful reflection offers more rest than many folks realize. Thank you, Lesley, for being a teacher.

LESLEY WHEELER

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a…

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Haiku, moon, peony

During busy times, we may need a few moments of solitary reflection.

~

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Full moon moonlight
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-V1
10/800s, f 2.8, ISO 100, 7 mm

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~
flower moon
fireflies enlighten
the pear tree
~

I’m currently reading David Bayles’ and Ted Orland’s encouraging little book, Art & Fear. Nice reading to tuck around the edges of a few full weeks.

 

Equinox, different

ann e. michael poet

Autumn

Translated by Renata Gorczynski

 

Autumn is always too early.
The peonies are still blooming, bees
are still working out ideal states,
and the cold bayonets of autumn
suddenly glint in the fields and the wind
rages.

What is its origin? Why should it destroy
dreams, arbors, memories?
The alien enters the hushed woods,
anger advancing, insinuating plague;
woodsmoke, the raucous howls
of Tatars.

Autumn rips away leaves, names,
fruit, it covers the borders and paths,
extinguishes lamps and tapers; young
autumn, lips purpled, embraces
mortal creatures, stealing
their existence.

Sap flows, sacrificed blood,
wine, oil, wild rivers,
yellow rivers swollen with corpses,
the curse flowing on: mud, lava, avalanche,
gush.

Breathless autumn, racing, blue
knives glinting in her glance.
She scythes names like herbs with her keen
sickle, merciless in her blaze
and her breath. Anonymous letter, terror,
Red Army.

~~

If the autumn of 2017 seems a bit more menacing than usual to some of us, there is reason for it. In Zagajewski’s poem, the season rips, extinguishes, and is merciless, personified as a raging “she,” hoisting bayonets, who embraces creatures and steals away their very breath. The imagery in this piece hurts–that penultimate stanza–and the anonymity of the letter, terror, that closes the poem leaves me rattled and uneasy.

Just for the record, I do not usually think of Fall in this way. I like the season’s inconsistent path toward Winter, its occasional tarrying, its rain, its oddly warm days, its early-morning frosts. Into every lifetime there come little eras of discomfort and fear, however; and it has been a challenge to see this autumn in quite the diffused and orange-tinted light of certain delightful autumns past. Today, I went searching for a poem to recognize the season, perhaps to comfort myself. I found this one, and despite its harrowing tone (or perhaps because of its attitude), I felt spoken to.

Much has been claimed about the healing power of poetry. Not all poems are healing sorts, however. Sometimes what speaks to the reader is not a small miracle of personal spiritual healing but a set of words and images that embody an internal understanding of an entirely different kind–a poem that acknowledges the fears we have, or that captures our rage, or our sorrow–a poem that says to the reader: “You, too, are human, and this may be a shared feeling between us, strangers that we are.”

In my little valley, Fall 2017 has not been early in the meteorological sense; the days have been summer-hot and often humid. Even the nights have been warm. Despite the lack of cold glancing scythes, I do find myself asking questions not unlike those the poet poses in his second stanza. Why should it, or we, or one among us, destroy and scatter and spread metaphorical or actual plague?

I do not have an answer, nor does Zagajewski. But I have this poem, which touches me with its humanity, its recognition that crying children everywhere ask “why?” And I know the poem is not “about” autumn, despite the title.

~~

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Also for the record, this poem can be found here and also in Zagajewski’s book, Without End: New and Selected Poems. [Copyright © 2002 by Adam Zagajewski. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.]

Dementia, fears, & mirrors

Dementia: the very idea raises fears about the loss of control, loss of beloved memories, loss of self. Is a person who is deep into dementia still sentient, still conscious? If we lose our ability to connect with who we are–let alone with other people–have we misplaced whatever it is we call consciousness, or mind?

Yet no one who has interacted with a person who has dementia would say the person has no consciousness. It is, instead, an altered consciousness: sometimes a loss of ego or sense of self in the world, or the disintegration of social or emotional “filters,” or a series of cognitive gaps that collapse into fugue, fears, or blankness. There are people who lose everything but the distant past, and people who lose everything but the present moment. Dementia has many causes and takes many forms. We do not understand it, and that creates fear.

Of the things I fear that are actually not unlikely to occur, dementia–more than death–unsettles my equilibrium. I have watched it unfold among a number of people, uniquely and inexorably each time, devastating to the loved ones of the person who has become ill and frustrating beyond measure to the victim.

I try to avoid the word victim when describing illness, but there it appears.

Personhood, consciousness, rationality, emotionality, familiarity, habits and the framework of the person’s life erode while the person goes through the usual day; nothing stays usual. Sometimes all that remains are useless habits, physical tics, fragmented phrases that no longer convey social information.

Because I struggle with the concept of mind, because I read philosophy concerning mind and neuro-psychological texts about human consciousness, because I am a writer and feel passionate about human expression and interconnectedness and how we originated the tools of speech, metaphor, storytelling narrative and writing, the loss of sentience that dementia seems to bring represents the deepest kind of loss.

How do you face your fear?

~

How about in a mirror? Through a glass, darkly…*

Through some sort of glass–of which there are so many varieties, a huge number of which I encountered recently at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY. It is worth the trip to western New York state to experience this gallery of art glass, collection of glassware spanning 35 centuries, interactive exhibits on the development of such commercial and scientific glass innovations such as Pyrex, tempered glass, shatterproof and mirrored and flexible glass, fiber-optic glass, telescope mirrors and lenses, silicon chips, and bottle-making equipment. The huge museum, established as an in-house exhibit in the Corning Glass headquarters in 1951, has had several major architectural upgrades and expansions from 1980 to 2015 (and suffered a disastrous flood in 1972).

We can face fear through changes in our perspective, I think.

inverted

photo by David Sloan

~

*1 Corinthians 13:12, King James Version:For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

 

Generation Anxious

In the shorthand of age demographics, I am marginally a Baby Boomer. I think there were earlier tag-names (Jazz Baby, for example) but the Boomer generation began a spate of efforts to define millions of people randomly born within a few years of one another by some generational attribute that caught on with media. I am not sure that I fit the conventional Boomer stereotype, but naturally at least some of the generalizations of that era apply to me. That’s why people use stereotypes. It is an easy way to categorize (thanks, Aristotle).

Of course, each so-determined generation feels certain that the antecedent generations are out of touch and misconstrue the attributes and the attitudes of those younger than they–and they are justified in this conclusion.

Often, though, we understand young people’s circumstances better than they realize because yes times have changed, but people haven’t. Not that much.

~

I do not have any idea for how long the media and demographers will go on calling young people Millennials; but the young adults I meet seem to more anxiety-ridden than millennial, whatever that means (actual millennials are only 16 years old now). They have grown up with parents who worried about keeping them safe in a society obsessed with security after 9/11. My guess is that in the USA, society’s insecurity entered young lives insidiously through toys, media, the internet, parental conversations, games and gaming, you name it. Parents’ main goal–any tribe or nation’s goal–basic to survival instincts, is to keep the offspring safe. That has felt challenging in the last 20 years or so.

I am not blaming parents. I am not blaming young adults.

~

I do observe a tendency away from risk-taking among many young adults and an accompanying fear of the future; among the risk-taking proportion of young adults, I notice that they engage in risks often because they feel there is no future for them.

Far too many of them believe dystopia awaits: climate warming, floods, polluted waters, chaotic capitalist oligarchies as government, spying and infiltration, loss of the ozone layer, terrorists everywhere. They don’t want to believe this is their future, but they are afraid.

And the Baby Boomers, who (according to the legend) were going to march forth and change the world for the better, failed the generations that followed. That’s the current story. (The story will change and develop over the coming years with the evidence of hindsight.)

I get it. I understand the fear and I know how fear dampens motivation and fosters, instead, a muttering resentment under the surface and a pervasive feeling of stress and anxiety. Few of my children’s friends are “secure” in their careers, jobs, housing, health, or finances between the ages of 22 and 30. Most of them have education debt and few have savings.

That’s scary for them. And here’s the thing: when I was their age, I was in the same boat but felt less frightened about my situation. I did not have the feeling that the world was dangerous and things might not work out. I was probably wrong about that…

Maybe ignorance is bliss?

~

My parents’ cohort was dubbed “The Silent Generation.” That implies they accomplished nothing, sat back and served roast beef on Sundays while McCarthy and cronies raked through American society looking for communists.

Maya Angelou, Neil Armstrong, Toni Morrison, Harvey Milk, Stephen Sondheim, and Martin Luther King Jr are among the “Silent Generation.”

So here’s the thing: Nomenclature is not destiny.

~

Anxiety requires learning coping skills, whatever works for the individual; the ability to puzzle things out using critical thinking; a sense of independence; development of self confidence and courage. Those are things we attain with maturity and experience as our guides. Millennials–or whatever you call yourselves–you are getting there. It feels slow. It feels scary.

Your elders may forget to tell you about that part, or perhaps wanted somehow to spare you from the realities. Please forgive us.

To millennials, the anxious generation: You got this. You are more educated than any previous generation, more concerned, possibly more compassionate. You know how to tackle complicated problems–you are merely afraid you will make mistakes. Go ahead and make mistakes.

 

 

 

 

Fear & peace

Human beings have a problem with fear.

I guess it is evolutionary, as well as anthropological, cultural, social…all those tribal basics, banding together to protect ourselves from anything that threatens, anything that is not us. From this perspective, how likely is it that we will ever learn compassion or know peace?GFS2

There is a practice among Buddhists called tonglen, a form of meditation to engage in compassion that is not just deep but also wide, spreading to “all sentient beings.” I’ve written a bit about it here, as well. In the past year, I have had personal and social concerns that urge me to confront fear in a loving and accepting manner; otherwise, I think I would despair.

The world offers comfort to its compassionate observers. Sorrow and pain are part of life, but they are not the sum of life; fear shuts us off from curious and open-minded observation.

We may never know peace–not in terms of a constant, steady-state peacefulness; evolution doesn’t operate that way. Physics doesn’t operate that way. Change can be painful, but it is necessary and beautiful in its many unfolding ways. I wonder if it isn’t peace we should be seeking but freedom from a close-minded, intellectual sort of fear.

I am posting this poem (from my book Small Things Rise & Go, available from FootHills Publishing). Readers respond to this piece, I’ve found, in startlingly different ways. It is, among other things, a meditation.

~

Liturgy

We will not know peace.
Hay clogs the thresher,
Snow stoppers thruways.
Starlings haggle out the morning.
Red fox probes her muzzle
Into the voles’ weed bunkers;
Harrier screams over moors.

We will not know peace.
Here, the caterpillar
Tires chew fields into slog;
Here a child’s toy erupts
Into a village of amputees.
Sands shift under an abstraction,
The sea grows warm.

We will not know peace,
During our lifetimes, the tines
Break, the cogs slip,
Polluted slough impedes
Our efforts at contentment.
Our own natures
Bully us down:   Peace—

Peace to those who do not know peace.
To the fieldhand knee-deep in grain.
To the broken doll clasped by a broken child.
To the small-time fisherman far at sea.
To my mother with war scrawled through her
To the empty church, the hill of snow, evening—

That may never know peace.

~

© 2002, 2006 Ann E. Michael

Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way. In my region, for example, wetlands have experienced overruns of phragmites.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

~
Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.

Source:LiveScience