Not enough

The fall semester is about to begin, a very busy time for me and my colleagues. I need to be nose-to-the-grindstone, yet I have some deep and worrying concerns that distract me from the evaluations, curriculum preparation, scheduling, and staff meetings. Among the 40+ students who attended our university’s summer “bridge” program for college transitions, at least six openly expressed fears about being accepted and wondered how to deal with prejudice on and off campus. I am pretty sure they spoke for others who kept such fears to themselves.

We do not have answers for them. We can only say: Be yourselves, and be that well; say what matters, and say it forcefully but non-violently; and tell us if you feel afraid or need support–we promise we will stand with you.

That promise I take as seriously as any promise I make to my family members or best-beloveds–even though my students are “strangers” to me. I will intervene if I notice that they are threatened in any way. I’m a writer; I know that words, too, can cause harm.

And maybe that promise is not enough.

And maybe marching is not enough (read about marching here and here).

I am by nature a quiet person. But being quiet is not enough.

hate has no home

It is not enough. It is, however, a start.

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Language & violence

“To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” Elaine Scarry

~

I have finally finished reading Elaine Scarry‘s difficult book The Body in Pain. The subtitle is “The Making and Unmaking of the World,” which offers some idea of how large a topic is under consideration in her text. She examines torture, war, sports as metaphor for war, the creation of god(s), the interiority of and thus the difficulty of assessing pain, the Marxist and Judeo-Christian structures of imagining the world (“making” through art, government, the creation of objects, religions, and concepts), to name a few of her subjects. She considers the utter “unmaking” of torture and war as world-destroying and, ultimately, word-destroying; when the human is in deep pain, the utterances are essentially word-less–moans, grunts, screams–and the experience remains internal and unique to each individual:

“Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. ‘English,’ writes Virginia Woolf, ‘which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache.’ … Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

I love her theories (are they theories? explorations?) of imagination/imagining and creation/creativity. She develops this set of concepts in the transitional chapter “Pain and Imagining,” then applies her ideas to huge social constructs, not just to objects or individuals. I found it difficult to get my mind around the philosophical aspects of her argument–the denseness of her prose can  be tough, though never impenetrable. pain

What sprang to mind for me, among many other thoughts to mull over, is the pang I feel about recognizing that tools that change or make can also, almost always, be weapons as well. The hand or the fist. The sculptor’s knife or the assassin’s dirk. The stone that grinds corn or the projectile hurled at the opponent. The words that comfort, the words that wound. For a writer–a poet (“maker”)–that awareness hovers, always, in the background.

~

Also, Scarry’s book made me mindful of how pain and sorrow employ the language of war and torture. This is irrefutable, and it saddens me. I wonder: is there any way around that fact?

If I could rephrase my pain into words that were not violence-based, could I re-frame my pain? Certainly language has a relationship with consciousness; could there be a placebo effect on my interior sensations if I were to re-name my “pain sensations” as something other than burning, stabbing, numbing, sharp?

Could I unmake the world of pain through a mindful habit of personal language?

[Note: this speculation is not where Scarry goes in her text; it’s just a thought experiment that I have considered based upon some of her observations.]

 

 

 

 

 

Wasp redux & reading

Last year, I had my first encounter with a grass-carrying wasp.

Today, I noticed some waxy, crumbly, yellowish bits around the post in which last year’s wasp had built its nest. Then I saw an adult grass-carrying wasp hovering to and fro with a stem of grass grasped in its legs, which led me to this year’s nest–in a different hole in our post-and-beam porch. Who knew the wood had so many little holes in it? The wasps sure found them! Today’s wasp has built in a much harder place to photograph, a vertical spot, behind a post. So last year’s photo will have to suffice.

nest of the wasp

Isodontia: nest construction in progress

~

I am not quick at writing poems in response to events, personal or public; generally I need time to consider deeply, to process. I am glad to participate in an upcoming event, however, taking place in Bethlehem PA as a public response to the Orlando Pulse shooting. LGBT citizens of the region, and families, friends and supporters of compassion and awareness, are gathering for a memorial and celebration of support for everyday Americans, which includes–we must recognize, and it would be wise and sane to accept–people who are LGBT/gender fluid & who are just human beings notwithstanding, as are we all.

For those in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, the poetry reading is at Sun Inn’s courtyard on Friday July 1. I may not have a poem of my own to read, but I have been reading through my library and have already located several poems by other writers that will serve well as responses to tragedy, personal or national, or which speak to the human-ness of all of us.

~

I am doing a little nesting of my own this week, retreating into a metaphorical burrow for a couple of days, I hope. And with any luck, I will emerge with some new drafts of poems.

 

 

 

Guest blogger: memoir

Today, I introduce a guest blogger dear to my heart, my 81-year-old father, Tom Michael.

Tom Michael as a young minister in New York.

Tom Michael as a young minister in New York.

The March to Montgomery, 1965

by Tom Michael

A memorable experience I want to relate to you happened in 1965, when I was a 32-year-old co-pastor of a tall steeple church, First Westminster Presbyterian Church in Yonkers, New York. The United Presbyterian denomination was committed to the civil rights struggle, even though, as Martin Luther King said, the most segregated hour in the week was 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.

The call had come out from our denominational national committee on religion and race to ask clergy and laymen to participate in demonstrations throughout the South supporting voting rights for Black citizens. Small groups of ministers were asked to march around the courthouse in Philadelphia, Mississippi. My colleague and I flipped a coin and my colleague went down there. It was a potentially dangerous task, but he was able to return home safely.

First Presbyterian Church of Yonkers NY, 1964

First Westminster Presbyterian Church of Yonkers NY, 1964

After the first march from Selma was halted by police on the Pettus Bridge, they asked for volunteers to join the Freedom Marchers who had started out from Selma, Alabama on the way to the State capitol in Montgomery. It was my turn to go. So I had the rare privilege of participating in the March on Montgomery for voting rights. While I had very little influence on what happened there, it had an enormous influence on me. It was both an exciting and learning experience for me.

I first had to raise the money to go, so I asked members of the congregation to contribute to my trip. One member, a president of a savings and loan bank, disapproved and spent a long time on the telephone angrily telling Bonnie that I should not go. His wife quietly slipped me some money. That was something I learned about my congregation.

I carried along a change of underwear and some toiletries in an overnight case. That was the second thing I learned: don’t carry a suitcase on a civil rights march. This March I suspect that you will see newsreels of that event as we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the march. If you spot a skinny young man with big ears carrying a small suitcase, that will be me.

I don’t recall much of how I managed to get on an airplane, but soon I found myself on Delta Airlines. The stewardesses (remember when there were stewardesses in airplanes?) were lovely young women with southern accents. The pilot came on the intercom to tell us about the flight. He also had a southern accent. I thought, “Thank heavens, the pilot is in the plane.”

When we reached Montgomery we were taken to the campus of a school for colored girls on the East side of the city. There were, I’m told, twenty-five thousand of us milling about. Darkness came. There were two points of light: one, to my right, was a communications stand manned by Gary Collins, a movie actor who at that time was married to Lucille Ball. The other, directly in front, was a stage. We were entertained through the night by an all-star cast: Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine (he sang “Mule Train,” “clippety clopping through the wind and rain,”), Sammy Davis, Jr., Joan Baez, Nina Simone; and we sang, with Peter, Paul, and Mary, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day.”

Late at night we were assigned places to sleep. Mine was in the balcony of a one-room Baptist Church. At the other end of the pew was a man who snored all night long. In the morning I sat up and waited my turn to use the single bathroom. As I waited, I watched in fascination from my balcony perch as a coed with a Purdue University sweatshirt combed her blond hair into a beehive hairdo. That was the third thing I learned, though I don’t believe it has done me much good.

After breakfast we waited around the grounds for the march to begin. I happened to meet up with Dr. Gayraud Wilmore, whom I had met when he attended a Presbytery meeting to inform us of his work as executive secretary of the United Presbyterian Commission on Religion and Race. He was accompanied by the Rev. Metz Rollins, who was a field director for the United Presbyterian Board of Christian Education. As we were chatting, a white southerner walked up and was greeted by these two. They introduced me to him. His name was Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. This school was responsible for training Rosa Parks, James Abernathy, John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others in the skills and tactics of non-violent resistance. While we were talking, a man joined us, and he was introduced to me as Charles Evers, brother of the slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers. As I shook his hand I said, “It is an honor to meet you.” He acted as if he didn’t believe he deserved that, and I learned later that he had spent time in Chicago engaging in criminal activities. Then a Union Theological Seminary classmate of mine, who was there from his home in Minneapolis, came by.

AP photo 1965

AP photo 1965

At long last the march began. We walked into the city on a main street that was lined with houses. Many of the locals were sitting on their front porches looking rather grim as thousands of us so-called outside agitators filed past. I caught the eye of one woman on her front porch and motioned to her to join us. I received a most hateful response.

My seminary classmate had offered to write dispatches for his local newspaper, so as we marched along we caught up with a slightly built older man. My friend decided to interview him. When he asked his name, he replied “Willard Uphaus.” Uphaus, a Methodist lay preacher, led a social action group with summer headquarters at Conway, NH. The New Hampshire Attorney General, empowered by the State Legislature to investigate subversive communists, demanded that he turn over the names of guests at the World Fellowship of Faiths. Dr. Uphaus freely testified about his own activities but refused to provide the names of others. In 1956, he was found in contempt by the Superior Court in Concord, NH. After the conviction was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in a 5-to-4 vote in 1959, Dr. Uphaus spent nearly a year in jail.

I began to think I was in Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” meeting up with stalwarts of the faith as we made our progress toward the Alabama State House. When we arrived there I took up a position in the center of the street in front of the statehouse. At the far end on the right side was an American flag. On the left side near us was the Confederate flag. I found myself resenting that flag. It was a slap in the face of all the descendents of slaves who had been oppressed and humiliated.

It was a hot day. I sat on my little suitcase. I had a headache. I thought “I am here. I am nowhere else.” There were several speeches, of course.

Then Martin Luther King gave the final speech, ending with the stirring words, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?…I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’ How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Then we began the trek to return to our homes. We were told to go to what they called the colored section of the city, to the right of the statehouse. I was struck by the irony that I, a white man, should feel a sense of relief when I crossed into the ghetto. I found Gay Wilmore. He had rented a full sized Buick sedan and was planning to drive to the Atlanta airport with Metz Rollins. I figured that the airport in Montgomery would be chaotic, so I asked to ride with him. My seminary classmate joined us, and a young man from the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee. He looked fierce with a black beard and dreadlocks, but he was in fact a most gentle young man.

So there we were, three Black men and two white men. We struck out on Interstate 85 toward Atlanta. After a while we needed to get gas and make a pit stop. Gay and Metz peered intently at each service station, asking, “Is that one?” This was another thing I learned. It is one thing to hear about segregated facilities in the South, and it was another to actually experience it. Here were two prominent, highly educated clergy reduced to the humiliation of having to bypass facilities that would refuse to serve them because of their race.

Finally, we found a station that would serve us. For my part, I was not able to tell the difference, but they had lived a lifetime of picking up the subtle clues about where they could be served. After we had finished, Gay Wilmore announced that he was sleepy, and would someone else drive. I was the only one who had my driver’s license, so I took the wheel. At that time the speed limit on highways was 55 miles an hour, and I was observing the speed limit. As I drove along, a string of cars passed us by traveling faster. Then an unmarked state trooper whizzed past and pulled over eight or ten speeders. I drove carefully on the outside lane at 55.

Gay Wilmore said to me, “OK, Tom, if a trooper pulls you over for speeding, just tell him ‘I’m just trying to get these (he used the N word) out of here as fast as I can.’” I guess it was a form of gallows humor. After we left the interstate we traveled in the darkness through small towns in Georgia.*

I carefully observed every speed limit sign, I came to full stops at stop signs, and if a traffic light even hinted that it was turning red, I stopped. Since that time I have observed speed limits and stop signs. You will never catch me traveling more than the speed limit anywhere.

At long last, late in the night, we saw the towers of Atlanta glowing in the distance. It reminded me of the experience when Dorothy and her friends first caught sight of the Emerald City of Oz.

At the airport we took our leave of one another as we boarded our airplanes. Gay Wilmore saluted me in the manner of a French general, kissing me on both cheeks. I boarded the plane and sat next to a man who looked very familiar. I believe he was Ralph Bunche, Nobel Peace Prize winner when he was assistant secretary general of the U.N. I did not ask him who he was, since I believe that famous people should be allowed some privacy; and besides, he immediately fell asleep.

When we arrived in New York I shared a taxicab with an editor of Time Magazine. The taxi driver, an African American, asked us where we had come from, and when we told him that we had been on the March on Montgomery, he said he had been watching it on TV. My companion gave the cabby an address on the upper West Side of Manhattan. I said that I wanted to go to Grand Central Station so I could wait there a couple of hours until a train could take me to Yonkers. The cabby said, “I could take you there.” “But,” I said, “I only have five dollars on me,” and I knew that the fare from midtown to Yonkers was at least three or four times that amount.

“Well,” he said, “You did something for me today, so I will do something for you.” And with that he took me all the way to my front door.

=

*Civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was murdered by Klansmen the same day, also while driving African American protesters to the airport and bus stations.

~

For another story of the march and some pictures, see this lovely interview with photographer James Barker (on the Smithsonian’s website).

Memorial

Today is the anniversary of my friend David Dunn’s passing into the beyond, (1999).

And yesterday, I attended the memorial service for theologian, professor, writer, social activist, and family friend, Walter Wink. The memorial was held at the James Chapel of Union Theological Seminary, where Walter attended grad school with my dad and where Wink taught for awhile in the 1970s before moving to Auburn Seminary.

Words that stayed with me hours and hours after the services: iconoclast. creativity. non-violence. scholarship. action. impishness. curiosity. reconciliation.

I’ve read three of Walter’s books and some of his articles. He was a brilliant and unusual man, optimistic, forward-thinking, that rare combination of someone who is both a thinker/writer and a doer/person of action. I include here an excerpt of one of his articles on The Sermon on the Mount, well worth reading in its entirely for the force of his rational as well as spiritual argument, a relevant and timely reasoning for cognitive awareness and non-violent action in the lives of human beings who want to value themselves and others as human beings–not as inferiors, not as “other,” not as enemy–with dignity and compassion.

from–  http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm

Excerpt from Wink’s Jesus’ Third Way

“Seize the moral initiative
Find a creative alternative to violence
Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
Meet force with ridicule or humor
Break the cycle of humiliation
Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
Expose the injustice of the system
Take control of the power dynamic
Shame the oppressor into repentance
Stand your ground
Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not   prepared
Recognize your own power
Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force   is effective
Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
Die to fear of the old order and its rules
Seek the oppressor’s transformation

….

Gandhi insisted that no one join him who was not willing to take up arms to fight for independence.  They could not freely renounce what they had not entertained.  One cannot pass directly from “Flight” to “Jesus’ Third Way.”  One needs to pass through the “Fight” stage, if only to discover one’s own inner strength and capacity for violence.  We need to learn to love justice and truth enough to die for them, by violence if nothing else.

Jesus, in short, abhors both passivity and violence.  He articulates, out of the history of his own people’s struggles, a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralized without being destroyed.  Those who have lived by Jesus’ words–Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, César Chavez, Adolpho Pérez Esquivel–point us to a new way of confronting evil whose potential for personal and social transformation we are only beginning to grasp today. Beyond Just War and Pacifism Just war theory was founded in part on a misinterpretation of “Resist not evil” (Matt. 5:39), which Augustine regarded as an absolute command to non-resistance of evil. No Christian, he argued, can take up arms in self-defense, therefore, but must submit passively even to death.  Nor can Christians defend themselves against injustice, but must willingly collaborate in their own ruin.  But what, asked Augustine, if my neighbors are being thus treated?  Then the love commandment requires me to take up arms if necessary to defend them.

But Jesus did not teach non-resistance.  Rather, he disavowed violent resistance in favor of nonviolent resistance.  Of course Christians must resist evil!  No decent human being could conceivably stand by and watch innocents suffer without trying to do, or at least wishing to do, something to save them.  The question is simply one of means.  Likewise Christians are not forbidden by Jesus to engage in self-defense.  But they are to do so nonviolently.  Jesus did not teach supine passivity in the face of evil.  That was precisely what he was attempting to overcome!

Pacifism, in its Christian forms, was often based on the same misinterpretation of Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 5:38-42.  It too understood Jesus to be commanding non-resistance.  Consequently, some pacifists refuse to engage in nonviolent direct action or civil disobedience, on the ground that such actions are coercive.  Non-resistance, they believe, only licenses passive resistance.  Hence the confusion between “pacifism” and “passivism” has not been completely unfounded.

Jesus’ third way is coercive, insofar as it forces oppressors to make choices they would rather not make.  But it is non-lethal, the great advantage of which is that, if we have chosen a mistaken course, our opponents are still alive to benefit from our apologies.  The same exegesis that undermines the Scriptural ground from traditional just war theory also erodes the foundation of non-resistant pacifism.  Jesus’ teaching carries us beyond just war and pacifism, to a militant nonviolence that actualizes already in the present the ethos of God’s domination-free future.

Out of the heart of the prophetic tradition, Jesus engaged the Domination System in both its outer and spiritual manifestations.  His teaching on nonviolence forms the charter for a way of being in the world that breaks the spiral of violence.  Jesus here reveals a way to fight evil with all our power without being transformed into the very evil we fight.  It is a way–the only way possible–of not becoming what we hate. “Do not counter evil in kind”–this insight is the distilled essence, stated with sublime simplicity, of the meaning of the cross.  It is time the church stops limping between just war theory and nonresistant pacifism and follows Jesus on his nonviolent way.”

–Walter Wink