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Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Essays

June 5, 2019


Braking for Squirrels

It was a young squirrel, scampering out from the overgrown dandelion shrubbery lining the country road below the turn-off to my street in Monroe. I was on my way to work, adjusting the radio dial, checking the rearview mirror to be sure no one was right on my tail -- when there it went -- tail a-quiver, making a dash across the pavement right in front of me.

In a split-second I took in the chance of missing it if I hit the brake. I bore down, coming almost to a stop, and saw the critter disappear into the brush on the passenger side of my car. With relief, I drove on, glad not to see its mangled corpse behind me in the mirror.

How little it took to avoid desecrating the beautiful spring morning with the spilled guts of a fellow creature. Just some presence of mind, but even more, some presence of heart. My own heart, by nature and upbringing, is a tender one. Yet within the privilege of my human form, I can, if I choose, ignore my impact on the world around me. I didn't have to lift my foot to the brake, didn't have to care, or even to notice that questing small forager about to cross paths with a monster beyond its power to conceive.

When it comes to life on Earth, humans are the 1%. We live in splendid ignorance of our advantages, our power, and our potential for harm or good. Like the old mock mantra of Bell Telephone: "We don't care; we don't have to..." We don't have to care about the creatures and creation around us -- or so we thought.

Turns out, we just might. Recent estimates of the current extinction rate are between 1,000 and 10,000 times faster than the normal "background rate" -- the rate at which species naturally die off without human-caused decline (wwf). Lack of regard for the consequences of human action on the natural world, combined with exponential population growth and technological advances that enable exponentially more widespread impact on natural ecosystems, are wreaking havoc on the life of our planet. We are part of that life, vulnerable in our own way; global ecological collapse beyond our power to conceive is a monster bearing down on us like my car on a country road. When it hits, there will be no one left to look in the rear-view mirror and mourn the shattered corpse that was humanity.

Before humans can be moved to act even in small ways to alter their behavior, like lifting a foot to the brake pedal, they have to care. And we largely don't, or not enough.

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/monarch-butterfly
What is it to be a non-human creature on this planet? Consider the humble butterfly, a worm in a blanket of silk (good metaphor for many a human, I suspect). What is its life?

A dim, warm nestling; a growing constriction; an urge to spread and grow; sudden liberation, and then -- oh glory! Sunshine and roses, color and movement, endless space of light and shadow, colors beckoning with sweet fragrances and tastes; others of its own kind, flickering bodies of color mirroring the steady beat of life pulsing invisibly and unknowingly in the lightest of wings. And yet, it's a battle with the ever-changing, invisible forces of breeze and gust; a drive to dart and flit and perhaps evade the snapping beak of death or the clinging entanglement of web and piercing bite. To say nothing of the slap of glass at 60 mph, or sudden capture in a collector's net, to be pinned to a velvet bier for all eternity.

If butterflies don't move you, look at the Orca, popularly known as "killer whales," a moniker that does disservice to their kind -- it might be more accurate to describe humans as "killer apes."

Birthed from womb into water, light, and sound; physical connections of bumping, sliding, slapping; language of chirps and clicks and whistles from mother and family as you are carried upward and held aloft into sun and wind and new sounds, dreamlike in clarity and vividness; your first breaths of air with semi-emergence from the weight of water into the lightness of an outer world, then back into the dim underworld of waking, singing, surging movement, snatch of food, the rhythm of movement between the two worlds: the world of breath and mystery and brilliant skies, warming sun, glimpses of infinity, and the dive back to family, the bonds of language and contact and shared experience.

Over time, you understand the concept of clan, the sharing of food, the practice of hunting and evasion. You discover the danger and wonder of the overworld creatures: noise-makers, trappers, poisoners, those who steal and hurt and kill your kind. You grow to understand that this outer world, like dreamscapes, holds meaning and intelligence unlike your own, power beyond your understanding, actions and consequences that to you are arbitrary, unthinkable, impossible to predict. That world of light and air: forever beckoning, necessary, fascinating; forever dangerous, and somehow responsible for most of the incomprehensible tragedy of your otherwise rhythmical, cyclical, peaceful existence beneath the waves, suspended in the rich layer of livable space between the warm emptiness of the upper world and the cold, dark, impossibly heavy underworld from which most who descend never return.

Consider the recent case in Washington State of the mother Orca who, upon losing her new-born calf to starvation despite her own sacrifices, carried the dead calf aloft in the air for more than two weeks, perhaps hoping against hope that the calf would take that first breath that ushers in the mammalian life cycle.

https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/12/us/orca-whale-not-carrying-dead-baby-trnd/index.html

https://www.humanesociety.org/
https://earthjustice.org/
Can we care enough about whatever this orca mother and her pod were experiencing, however we interpret her behavior, to take some action on her behalf? To lift our foot to the brake pedal, as it were? Make a donation to an organization that is professionally working to protect and preserve the ecosystems of the ocean on which orcas and so much other life depends -- not least our own lives? Boycott salmon industries that over-fish, or reduce our appetite for salmon and other fish needed in greater numbers in their ecosystem? Mobilize friends and neighbors to pressure representatives to sponsor legislation in defense of ocean ecosystems and the lives within them, making this a priority above commercial interests like fishing, oil exploitation and transport, and coal shipping; military activities like undersea sonic testing; and systemic ills like the mountains of trash and debris expelled purposely or accidentally into the oceans every minute of the day?

"Braking for squirrels" is not a joke. Learning to love the world around us and treat it and its life with compassion and respect, even at sacrifice to our own comforts, luxuries and privileges, is an evolutionary step that the human race needs to make, and make soon. Evolution produces winners and losers; we have won the power and skill to fly to the moon and other planets, to build machines of colossal power and intelligence, and to reshape Earth. Have we the wisdom to see that winning isn't everything? Or will we succumb to the "Darwin effect" as we wreak irreparable damage on our complex, beautiful ecosystem of a world, so full of life and purpose and sentience beyond our imagination? Will we brake for life, or just break it?


A few organizations to learn about and support:

https://www.orcaconservancy.org/

https://earthjustice.org/

https://www.humanesociety.org/

https://butterflywebsite.com/butterfly-conservation.cfm

https://www.forestsformonarchs.org/




March, 2019


The delight of reading Patrick Leigh Fermor


Several years ago my sister Debbie gave me a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Between the Woods and the Water,” the second half of his two-part memoir of walking across most of Europe, from Holland to Constantinople, between Christmas 1933 and January 1937. Why Deb gave me the second of the two books to start with I don’t recall; it may be that she considered the second one a better book, or one that I would especially enjoy because much of it takes place in terrain I had explored to some extent during travels in central Europe in 1989-1990. I only know that I was quickly drawn into Fermor's journey, and traveled gladly with him across central Europe.

I only got around to starting volume one, “A Time of Gifts,” during my current visit to Australia where I attended a commemoration of the life of my sister Debbie, following her death in December from multiple myeloma. As I threw together my suitcase the morning of my departure, I considered and discarded several reading possibilities: too bulky, too dry, too familiar; I wanted something that would be just the right mix of narration and information. 

I hastily scanned my bedroom bookshelf's eclectic collection, and my eye settled with joy on the shelf devoted to Fermor. My untouched paperback edition of “A Time of Gifts” suddenly seemed the perfect choice. And so it has been proven to be.

Myself working in France around 1972, at 18

In the book’s introduction, a long letter to his friend Xan Fielding whom he met during World War 2 as they served as fellow soldiers in Greece, Fermor describes his upbringing and early education, all of it marked by periods of instability, disaster and recovery. He’s 19 when the idea occurs to him to walk across Europe, and his descriptions of himself and his thought process, his attitude toward the world around him, capture something about a young man of that age that remind me of myself, living semi-independently in France at 17 and 18, working in a French village, hitchhiking from Paris to Holland at Christmas, 1971, to visit a Dutch friend from the summer camp in southern France that started my two-year adolescent adventure in European living. 

It’s easy to fall in love with Patrick Fermor as a writer and as a person. His evocations of places and times, settings and people, states of mind and states of the world, are incredibly precise, colorful, lively, and specific. His style is both fluid and dense, written with a quality of graciousness that seems to my American ear distinctly English, and proper to an earlier era of eloquence and literacy. Only rarely might his writing feel ponderous; almost always, he hits the canvas of his page with the deft flecks and precise lines of a master. Consider this excerpt, from early in his journey:

"It was still a couple of hours till dawn when we dropped anchor in the Hook of Holland. Snow covered everything and the flakes blew in a slant across the cones of the lamps and confused the glowing discs that spaced out the untrodden quay. I hadn’t known that Rotterdam was a few miles inland. I was still the only passenger in the train and this solitary entry, under cover of night and hushed by snow, completed the illusion that I was slipping into Rotterdam, and into Europe, through a secret door. I wandered about the silent lanes in exultation. The beetling storeys were nearly joining overhead; then the eaves drew away from each other and frozen canals threaded their way through a succession of hump-backed bridges. Snow was piling up on the shoulders of a statue of Erasmus. Trees and masts were dispersed in clumps and the polygonal tiers of an enormous and elaborate gothic belfry soared above the steep roofs. As I was gazing, it slowly tolled five.
The lanes opened on the Boomjes, a long quay lined with trees and capstans, and this in its turn gave on a wide arm of the Maas and an infinity of dim ships. Gulls mewed and wheeled overhead and dipped into the lamplight, scattering their small footprints on the muffied cobblestones, and settled in the rigging of the anchored boats in little explosions of snow. The cafes and seamen’s taverns which lay back from the quay were all closed except one which showed a promising line of light. A shutter went up and a stout man in clogs opened a glass door, deposited a tabby on the snow and, turning back, began lighting a stove inside. The cat went in again at once; I followed it and the ensuing fried eggs and coffee, ordered by signs, were the best I had ever eaten. I made a second long entry in my journal – it was becoming a passion – and while the landlord polished his glasses and cups and arranged them in glittering ranks, dawn broke, with the snow still coming down against the lightening sky. I put on my greatcoat, slung the rucksack, grasped my stick and headed for the door. The landlord asked where I was going: I said: ‘Constantinople.’ His brows went up and he signaled to me to wait: then he set out two small glasses and filled them with transparent liquid from a long stone bottle. We clinked them; he emptied his at one gulp and I did the same. With his wishes for godspeed in my ears and an internal bonfire of Bols and a hand smarting from his valedictory shake, I set off. It was the formal start of my journey."




This strikes me as quintessential journal work. My own journal writing tends toward the descriptive at times, not here on this relatively infrequent public platform, but in my book journals which fill another shelf in addition to the current volume always with me and to which I return, in the best of times, several times a week or month. I often start an entry stating where I am, what I’ve just been doing, who I’ve been with, and what has been or is at that moment on my mind. Unlike Fermor, though, I generally make a jump from these concrete accounts to something more internal and reflective: observations on my mood and its current source; concerns about my future or my state of mind; complaints about this or that unfulfilled dream or wish; and often, what I take to be thoughtful, perhaps insightful musings on the nature of time and space, consciousness, mystery, magic, dreams. And at times, as now, I write about journaling itself, which Fermor seems rarely to do.

Fermor tends to place landscape and portraiture in the foreground. He rarely soliloquizes on his own state of mind or proffers introspective glimpses of his soul. Rather, he allows the reader to perch like a raven on the shoulder of his wandering youthful self. We see the frosty canals and misty belfries across flatlands, and the jarringly surreal sight of a full-masted ship on the Maas that from ground level seems to gliding across fallow winter fields; hear the voices and shifting regionalisms of those he encounters along the way; taste the beer of northern Germany and the wine of the Rhine valley; sense the kindness and the hospitality of inn owners and humble farming families he encounters, and enjoy the easy friendships that spring up between himself and other young men of his age along the way (to say nothing of the discreetly fleeting encounters with certain young women.)

Fermor certainly does go well beyond the concrete world of things, but his reflections turn toward the philosophical: the nature of art and the role of the artist, the permeability of the present infused with the weight of the past. Take this excerpt, for example, where he describes the familiarity of landscapes in Holland that he has seen in great paintings, and how they differ from those of Italy:

“Imaginary interiors… no wonder they took shape in painting terms! Ever since those first hours in Rotterdam a three-dimensional Holland had been springing up all around me and expanding into the distance in conformity with another Holland which was already in existence and in every detail complete. For, if there is a foreign landscape available to English eyes by proxy, it is this one; by the time they see the original, a hundred mornings and afternoons in museums and picture galleries and country houses have done their work. These confrontations and recognition-scenes filled the journey with excitement and delight. The nature of the landscape itself, the colour, the light, the sky, the openness, the expanse and the details of the towns and the villages are leagued together in the weaving of a miraculously consoling and healing spell. Melancholy is exorcised, chaos chased away and wellbeing, alacrity of spirit and a thoughtful calm take their place. In my case, the relationship between the familiar landscape and reality led to a further train of thought. 
 A second kind of scenery – the Italian – is almost as well known in England as the Dutch, and for the same gallery-haunting reasons. How familiar, at one remove, are those piazzas and arcades! The towers and ribbed cupolas give way to the bridged loops of a river, and the rivers coil into umbered distances between castled hills and walled cities; there are shepherds’ hovels and caverns; the fleece of woods succeeds them and the panorama dies away in fluted mountains that are dim or gleaming under skies with no more clouds than a decorative wreath of white vapour. But this scenery is a backdrop, merely, for lily-bearing angels who flutter to earth or play violins and lutes at Nativities; martyrdoms are enacted in front of it, miracles take place, and mystic marriages, scenes of torture, crucifixions, funerals and resurrections; processions wend, rival armies close in a deadlock of striped lances, an ascetic greybeard strikes his breast with stones or writes at a lectern while a lion slumbers at his feet; a sainted stripling is riddled with crossbow bolts and gloved prelates collapse with upcast eyes and swords embedded across their tonsures. Now, all these transactions strike the eye with a monopolizing impact; for five centuries and more, in many thousands of frames, they have been stealing the scene; and when the strange deeds are absent, recognition is much slower than it is in the Low Countries, where the precedence is reversed. In Holland the landscape is the protagonist, and merely human events – even one so extraordinary as Icarus falling head first into the sea because the wax in his artificial wings has melted – are secondary details: next to Bruegel’s ploughed field and trees and sailing ship and ploughman, the falling aeronaut is insignificant.  So compelling is the identity of picture and reality that all along my path numberless dawdling afternoons in museums were summoned back to life and set in motion. Every pace confirmed them. Each scene conjured up its echo. The masts and quays and gables of a river port, the backyard with a besom leaning against a brick wall, the chequer-board floors of churches – there they all were, the entire range of Dutch themes, ending in taverns where I expected to find boors carousing, and found them; and in every case, like magic, the painter’s name would simultaneously impinge. The willows, the roofs and the bell-towers, the cows grazing self-consciously in the foreground meadows – there was no need to ask whose easels they were waiting for as they munched.”

Landscape with the fall of Icarus, attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder


 We come to know the young Fermor by the care he takes to paint for us what he remembers and what strikes him as worthy of note. The details are the characters, the protagonists; he, the journeying youth and the writer, is the artist standing outside, facing the easel of the page, immersed in resurrecting and reliving long ago events and places, at least the bones of which he preserved in his journal at the time -- forty years before the publication of the book -- but much more, one presumes, held in memory or painted in from later visits and research.

For example, walking through Germany in "A Time of Gifts," he observes with implicit alarm the signs of rising Nazism and the threat of nationalism. He devotes considerable space to the innkeeper family he befriends, the Spengals of The Red Ox, among them young Fritz, a youth his age with whom he explores some of the countryside, and who in a pub rescues him from a confrontation with a belligerent drunk: 

'That night at the Inn, I noticed that a lint-haired young man at the next table was fixing me with an icy gleam. Except for pale blue eyes set flush with his head like a hare’s, he might have been an albino. He suddenly rose with a stumble, came over, and said: ‘So? Ein Engländer?’ with a sardonic smile. “Wunderbar!” Then his face changed to a mask of hate. Why had we stolen Germany’s colonies? Why shouldn’t Germany have a fleet and a proper army? Did I think Germany was going to take orders from a country that was run by the Jews? A catalogue of accusation followed, not very loud, but clearly and intensely articulated. His face, which was almost touching mine, raked me with long blasts of schnapps-breath. ‘Adolph Hitler will change all that,’ he ended. ‘Perhaps you’ve heard the name?’ Fritz shut his eyes with a bored groan and murmured ‘Um Gottes willen!’ Then he took him by the elbow with the words, ‘Komm, Franzi!’ and, rather surprisingly, my accuser allowed himself to be led to the door. Fritz sat down again, saying: ‘I’m so sorry. You see what it’s like.’

Indeed, yes. We see what it’s like. Extremist, intolerant, resentful young men, drunk with the headiness of myths that would  “make ____________________ great again,” wear similar garb, whether brown or black-shirted, white robed or black-hooded, red-arm-banded or red-hatted. They say the same things, choose the same targets, and are generally just as amenable and harmless as “Franzi” until their numbers grow and the fever swells, the demons are released en masse, and the world falls into another fever of murderous fury and aggression. Writing from his journals and memory well after the end of World War  2 ("A Time of Gifts" was first published in 1977), Fermor chillingly but unemotionally conveys the sense of a country still at a stage of its history when it might have turned back from the abyss -- but didn't.

Photo courtesy NY Review of Books

Fermor’s footnotes occasionally show the hand of the author returning in the role of editor to fill in details or make an observation. Slightly lower on the same page (73 of my paperback edition), is a poignant example: 

“After writing these words and wondering whether I had spelt the name Spengel right – also to discover what had happened to the family – on a sudden impulse I sent a letter to the Red Ox, addressed ‘to the proprietor.’ A very nice letter from Fritz’s son – he was born in 1939 – tells me that not only my host and hostess are dead, but that Fritz was killed in Norway (where the first battalion of my own regiment at the time was heavily engaged) and buried at Trondheim in 1940, six years after we met. The present Herr Spengel is the sixth generation of the same family to own and run this delightful inn."

Even here, Fermor refrains from sentimentality or reflection. The fact that he was curious enough to write that letter, await its response, and include the gleaned news as a footnote says more about him than any description of his feelings perhaps could. Or maybe they show a man of his time and nationality -- “stiff upper lip and all that” – who leaves it to the reader to form his own conclusions and indulge, or not, in his own feelings. In any case, one can't ignore or be untouched by the fact that his wayside friend Fritz was killed battling Fermor's own regiment six years later, at the very onset of the horrific war foreshadowed by that sharply observed confrontation with the drunken Franz at the Red Ox.

 As in the Dutch Renaissance Bruegel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," in "A Time of Gifts" Fermor's inner experience is almost incidental. The landscape is the vessel in which other stories unfold, through which his protagonist moves like a camera. In the painting, the tiny splash of Icarus hitting the water in one corner of the bustling, busy world is almost lost, and intentionally minimized. And yet, it’s needed. Without Icarus’ wild flight and over-reaching desire to reach the highest zenith of the sky, there is no narrative. Humans need a story with a flight to it, a rise into some sky or another of imagination and wonder, some danger and escape, or climactic fall to destruction and possible redemption. Fermor – Old Master that he is – paints the great picture within the frame, and places himself and by extension us peering over his shoulder, in a corner: a point of consciousness, a curious, observing eye all but lost, yet essential in the midst of the wonder - and tragedy - of creation.





Three memories

Flying


When I was a little boy, maybe five or six, in Salem, Oregon, there was a swing-set across the street where I and my friend Jerry used to play. The seats were canvas straps, wide enough to sit in comfortably and delight in the wild excitement of flying up toward the treetops, up among the branches like a bird; then plummeting back toward the ground; then rising, face to the sky, and hovering for that magic moment of weightlessness somewhere up in the clouds.

We also played “Superman” by lying with our stomachs down across the straps, arms outstretched, legs dangling, reaching out toward the oncoming earth and sky, trying to hold onto the air and leap over tall buildings with a single bound.



At some point I acquired a distinct memory impression, and belief, that I had once, while playing there alone, flown without the help of the swing. Following a similar up and down oscillation, I flew up, arms outstretched, and back, and up again, and again, with the certain knowledge that I had no swing under me, but did this simply on the air, by magic.
At the age of living dreams
The memory itself of this remains fairly clear; more muddled is the memory of how I retained this memory and the belief that it had actually happened, for so long. Surely in the following few years I must have learned that such things do not happen; I became more familiar with dreams and able to distinguish between waking and dreaming memories. Yet somehow this one lived on, I don’t know how. But it did.

I recall that much later, when we lived in Cummington, Massachusetts, there came a moment in time when I confronted this memory with certainty that it could not have happened: I must have been deluding myself all these years! I was upstairs in my bedroom in the far back of the house, perhaps in the dark, thinking... half-dreaming, when it hit me: that can't have been true!

Still seeing magic everywhere


In other ways I was leaving the world of childhood behind and coming to terms with a world in which not all magic was possible. I believe this long-held belief that I had accomplished the magic of flying in my earlier years must have had an effect on my psyche, rendering me open from my earliest years to belief in magic and the supernatural; this receptivity matured with me into first religious convictions of various kinds, along with a strong mystical streak, which has persisted even after having shed most specific affinity with religious doctrines per se. If once you have felt magic, after a certain age, you can't forget. It's just something you know.

Arachnophobia


Another association with the big house in Cummington is spiders. This where I acquired my fear – let’s come right out with it: phobia – of spiders. I had bad experiences with them – large ones in my bed on several occasions, and ensuing nightmares featuring them. I don’t recall ever being bitten by one: wasps and hornets were the culprits in that department, in bed as well as other places. But the terror of spiders grew into a real phobia that would drive me from a room. I ran screaming to my parents’ room when I was ten or so and found one, as it seemed, sprawled across my pillow. In France, as a teenager of seventeen or eighteen, I recall jumping from chair to chair to escape from my bedroom where a moderate house spider was crawling across the floor.


How I got over this phobia is worth relating. I overcame my spider phobia in the summer of 1976, at the end of my sophomore year in college. I was at Pomona College, and stayed on campus for a month, doing some work for my German professor, Karen Kossuth. I had to move out of the dorm, and asked Karen if I could convert the garden shed behind her house into a temporary abode. She was skeptical, but said I was welcome to try. It was overhung with ivy and clematis, stuffed with dusty old tools, boards, plywood sheets, everything else you might expect, all dusty and cobwebby.

The place was was infested with earwigs, which I found easy enough to remove with a broom, after having removed or repositioned a great deal of clutter. Under the eaves outside, and up among the roof rafters, I discovered a high number of small, evil-looking black spiders, with a tell-tale red mark on their underside: black widows, not only biters, but poisonous. I was determined to conquer them. I systematically swept all the webs and nests away from the outside, and then tracked down and killed every one I could find inside and out. I was Hercules, cleaning the Augean stables; I had the power of the gods and of my own conviction deep inside me. Nothing would stop me.



College age - maybe around 1975

By the end of a long and dirty day the place was clean, swept, arranged, livable. Even the small-paned windows had been cleaned for the first time ever. I laid out my sleeping bag and pillow on my bed, a self-built contraption of beams and plywood. I proudly showed off my work to Karen, and joined her for dinner in the house. Later, after dark, I returned for the night, lit a candle, and turned back my sleeping bag, checking to make sure no errant or defiant spider might have crawled in there for revenge.


To my dismay, that’s exactly what I found: a Black Widow, glaring at me. I chased it, but it was too quick and scurried over the side of the bed and underneath. I knew I had to destroy this spider, or never sleep a wink that night. With my candle, I knelt and peered under the bed frame; she hung on the underside of the mattress, brandishing her legs. I swear I could see the candlelight glinting in her angry, vengeful eyes. I took a swat, but she evaded me; I chased her into a corner, then out again and back under the bed. Determined, I brought the candle down and moved it toward the creature. She seemed to take a final stand, as if sensing the battle was over and self-immolation was the honorable way out. With a swift movement I brought the candle flame under it and saw it frizzle and drop to the floor.

The battle was over. I never saw another spider during the month I lived there, and while I have never wanted to share a close space with a spider since then, neither have I ever run from one again, and have spent, indeed, many minutes studying their web-making and insect-devouring with interest and sympathy. Somehow, a peace was made between us in that garden shed. I slew my fear with the light of human reason, determination, and ruthlessness.

Birches


I loved to climb trees as a youth. The earliest memories of focused, intentional climbing are from about age ten, in Cummington, again – a town of 600 souls in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where my father was the minister from 1963 to 1967. Down near the river were meadows, then a drop-off down a grassy bank to a lower floodplain, well overgrown with young trees. My friends and I would follow paths through these woods, along the river and down to the Green Bridge at the far eastern end of the village. In those woods were some great climbing trees, and saplings, or at least young enough trees of a certain variety that we could climb them, shinnying up the thin trunks, until our weight would cause the tree to bend and lower us to the ground. We could hold onto the trunk and be lifted up, bouncing skyward as if on a natural spring offered from the earth as our plaything. 

A New England boy


Later, I sought refuge in trees as an alienated, unhappy teenager, and discovered many secrets among the boughs. Birds would come and sit all around me sometimes; they seemed less afraid of me in the tree than on the ground. Also, people walking below would almost never notice me. It was a rule I was elated to discover: it was human nature not to pay much attention to what went on up in trees. I loved to watch and listen to people walking past on park walkways, in the Boston Public Garden, for example. 



When I was at boarding school in Connecticut, happier after my year and a half of purgatory in a public junior high school in Needham, Massachusetts, one day I was not in class; I don’t now know why, but I was apparently skipping. Up on a bluff behind the main school building was a birch forest, and on this particular spring or fall day, I found my way there and tried swinging on birches: it worked perfectly, just as the other trees had done so well back in Cummington, four or five years earlier. I climbed up the slender white birch trunks, pulling myself gently upwards by the delicate branches, careful not to damage anything; once at a certain height, I would institute a gentle swaying motion, and at some point the weight displacement was such that I would be carried down to the ground, hanging suspended from the branch, weightless; then, landing, would feel like a moon-walker, bouncing up with a kick from one leg, descending back to earth, then kicking up with the other. It was great fun; all the more so because through the tree trunks I could see the long rows of windows of the school building, with students at their desks, teachers at the blackboards. 

Teen spirits (with Alec Stevens)


Later in the morning, at lunch, Mr. Grover, the Junior English teacher and Dean of Students, came up to me and said: “Whatever possessed you to skip class and go swinging on birches?”


“I don’t know. It just felt like that kind of day,” may have been my response. I cared little for rules when they didn’t suit me in those days.


“Well, it made my lesson today with the fifth formers. We’re reading Robert Frost’s “Birches," about a boy birch swinging. And right outside our classroom window was a boy swinging on birches. I forgive you the skipped class. Now go read the poem.”


I’ve never forgotten that. And it is a lovely poem, which invariably takes me back to a fall day in Danbury, Connecticut, when I was “a swinger of birches.”



See below:



Birches, by Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.




November, 2015


An Experiment with Time and J.W. Dunne 

I have been reflecting on and intuiting some further understanding of the mystery of Time.


It has been of interest to me for a very long time, if 60 years can be considered a "very long time" by any objective standard of reckoning. Even before stumbling on J.W. Dunne's fascinating and timeless book, "An Experiment with Time" in my adolescence, when quests for metaphysical understanding led me into bookstores and the rich assortment of psychotropic substances then at the disposal of young seekers of enlightenment like myself, I had an active interest in the subject of time, and experiences enough to already set me questioning its nature.

One of these was a dream that made an indelible and momentous impression on me, probably around the age of 10, during the years we lived in Cummington, Massachusetts (1963-1967). Dreams were already an active and not infrequently terrifying complement to my waking life. I often awoke with a head full of images of the night, memories slippery as the minnows I enjoyed chasing in the Westfield River that ran through Cummington, just a field away from the back door of the parsonage on Main Street where the seven of us lived. So I was alert to dreams, and to their insubstantiality in the waking world -- their utter lack of willingness to be caught and held. Even this was a mystery -- why must they flee so?

On a particular morning I awoke with the most intense and desperate feeling of having just stepped from an entire life lived -- my own life, the life into which I was just then reawakening at a point much nearer its beginning than where the dream had left me: forward near the very end of my life and my family's. I felt I had lived a whole life in the dream. Either it had sped by in fast motion, or I had passed into some realm in which time moved at a different pace, but in any event, I awoke filled not only with horror at what we had all become, we children, old and bickering and ruined by the world, but, above all with the conviction that it had all been real, had transpired, indeed, that I had lived and seen my whole life unfold in that dream.

I remember excitedly telling my mother, my sisters, even my father, whom I do not think I was in the habit of sharing much with even then, about this dream; and how frustrating their responses: "That's nice," or "Oh, how interesting..." Their interest in no way acknowledged my desperate sense of having had the most remarkable experience possible. I longed to share how REAL it had been. I couldn't. I held in my own soul the secret of that wonder, and also the fearful, tragic ending where we children had become sour and mean with no loving parents to hold us together.

That was one of many dreams that left deep impressions on me, and one that to this day makes me wonder if indeed I had somehow sped along a thread of time and back again in a night -- in a few seconds even, or in some kind of space/time that defies measurement. Perhaps I did see my whole life, but only remember the final moments, seeing with a child's eyes the tragedy of old age and separation from the idylls of family, safety, and parental love.

"An Experiment with Time" also treats on the subject of dreams, and the author devotes much of the book to describing his own experiences in which future events seem to have been foretold. Having started with descriptions of experiences, he develops a theoretical analysis of how such "extrasensory" experiences might be explained by contemporary (in 1927) theories about the nature of time and dimensionality of the universe. I'm not attempting here to give a full overview of the book or of how science has since developed to further corroborate (and doubtless outdate) some of his thinking. I just intend to reflect on my own experiences of "time-watching."

First: an interesting experience in reading my current copy of Dunne's book. As I said, I first came across the work about 45 years ago, probably in a Harvard Square bookstore, and read it with great interest; it was one of those books that completely captivated me at the time, as did later books such as "The Dancing Wu-Li Masters," "Seth Speaks," "Science and the Evolution of Consciousness," "Tertium Organum," and some of the Castenada books, notably "Journey to Ixtlan."

The copy I had was the 1927 edition, hardcover, with no dust jacket -- a dark blue, plain-looking book with the title only on the spine in faded and unassuming square gilt letters, with the author's last name. No other ornamentation graced the book cover but two sets of parallel lines traversing the top and bottom of the front cover from left to right (or right to left), slightly inset so as to create a palpable imprint.

Sometime in the past ten years or so, as I have hunted down on the internet one book or another from my past, I found a copy of the same edition, ordered it, and have had it since (my early copy was lost somewhere in my peregrinations.) After some browsing, it stayed on my shelf a long time, despite ongoing readings in other contemporary books on the subject of the universe, time, and the nature of reality -- books such as "A Brief History of Time," "The Elegant Universe," "The View from the Center of the Universe," "The Arrow of Time," and others such as "Lucid Dreaming" and "Dreams and Spiritual Life."

Just recently, after moving from my apartment in Seattle to a house in a small town outside of the city and unpacking and reshelving my fairly voluminous library, I became interested again in "An Experiment with Time," and had been reading it off and on for a few weeks before bringing it with me this weekend up to a little cabin retreat I am able to enjoy from time to time, thanks to the generosity of some friends. As I read, I became more and more aware of the thoughtful notes written in the margins by the book's previous owner. I found them worth reading, neatly written in fine ink by a person who evidently took the book seriously and was exploring the ideas with interest and a scholarly, even scientific interest.

I remembered that the owner's name appeared inside the front flyleaf, and I looked at it again: J.K.W. Ferguson was the name, also in ink and an old-fashioned style that could have been almost contemporaneous with the book's publication.

I reflected on this person -- I assumed it to be a man, both by the subject matter and the nature of the handwriting, I suppose -- and was intrigued to project myself in my imagination into his long-gone experience of reading this same book, even holding the very volume in his hands that I now hold. I had been reading in Chapters 17 and 18, and following a train of thought about objects in three dimensions moving in unison at all points of their being at a given instant forward together along the dimension of duration. The author credits H.G. Wells with a most concise and perfect statement of this concept through the voice of the Time Traveler in "The Time Machine," who presents the logical case that one mustconceive of time as a fourth dimension: "There can be no such thing as an instantaneous cube..." he says. "...any real body must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and ... Duration.





So, where is this dimension of duration? A diagram in the book presents it rather the way the author of "Flatland" (another book that impacted me in my early adolescence) does with his logical series of steps from one dimension to two to three and on. Dunne's representation shows a pattern of lines of various shapes that represent distinct objects in space, on a vertical axis representing space. The horizontal axis represents time. A vertical dotted line at center represents an instant of time cutting across all of the objects in 3-D space, and one can imagine this dotted line moving at a constant rate toward the right side of the page (or the left, for that matter) as time progresses; the various lines of 3-D space may move closer or further from one another in space as time passes or they pass through time, but only the moment on which the dotted line rests is visible or real to the objects in space.

Unless those objects are sentient of themselves. Our brains can imagine a time yet to come, and we experience a memory of times past -- an imprint, as it were. But a common object, such as a book, for example, has no consciousness of itself. Time does not appear to depend on consciousness or awareness of itself to fulfill its inexorable progression. Dunne explores the idea of human life, as well as all physical matter, moving along threads of permanent existence which we experience as time, and this intrigued me as I thought of Mr. Ferguson, whom I imagined sitting at a wooden desk that gleamed dully in the pale light of a green-shaded brass table lamp, writing his spidery notes in the margins of his book, underlining key sentences and paragraphs -- a defacing of a good book that I tend to dislike, but in this case found the remarks of interest and their connection to the unseen and presumably long-dead hand that wrote them, and the mind behind them, intriguing and even touching.

Having more time than usual on my hands, I thought to search out Mr. J.K.W. Ferguson on the internet, and my first search turned up this. I have inserted the picture here for easy reference.

What a find! Given the paucity of other information about him, I feel lucky to have not only a picture of him, but one that is so particularly engaging, present, and thoughtful;  that seems to capture a spontaneous slice of time from the life of an intelligent, likable scholar or writer.

Further research has turned up that he was a Canadian scientist who worked in the area of blood diseases. A Facebook search also yielded results, with four entries on a site celebrating the centenary of Sanofi Pasteur Canada, and the fact that he served as Director of Connaught Laboratories, Dufferin Division, from 1955-1972.

I love knowing that this meticulous hematologist and scientific researcher was also fascinated by Dunne's ideas about the nature of time and the interface of consciousness in and through time. I am aware of the thread that binds me to him through the book that left his hands, perhaps to be sold in an estate sale, or passed to a relative, who in turn perhaps died, or sold it to someone else, who maybe held it for years before putting it up on eBay or Amazon where I found it. Who will have it after me? Where does the thread end? What part of it continues? What defines the end of a thing, or a person?

In any case, it's fascinating to reflect on the ways we move through life, through time, ever in that instantaneous slit of transection with the dimension or direction of duration. I practice a sort of recurrent meditation where I pause in activities and regard the world around me and myself in it and try to conceive of how these seconds pass away and new seconds come, all filled with the material stuff of the world and ourselves, all moving with constancy and duration and dependability, at least insofar as being where they were a moment ago or moving in a way that can be explained rationally -- except in the case of reading glasses, which have a way of disappearing and reappearing in impossible places that is quite annoying and utterly mysterious to me!

Watching sunset tonight, for example, and reflecting on the shape of the earth and its relationship to the distant sun and the angle of the rays slanting through our northern climes and dragging out the day, the twilight; and the moon, too, just over a quarter of the way through its four-part cycle, circling the earth under the mysterious pull of gravity, the heavy heart of the earth so powerful as to hold that dead orb in its living orbit for millennia past and yet to come; yet so gentle as to let an autumn leaf spiral gently and noiselessly to earth under the same spell; and to allow us frail, liquid sea-born sentiences to rise and shine each morning, walk the Earth and do all sorts of unspeakably cruel things to one another without being crushed flat to the ground or hurled into space, as so many of us amply deserve.

Photo: Will Rose, San Juan Islands, Nov 22, 2015

I wonder, then, how the curvature of space/time proven by Einstein plays its part in this. As I think of the sun, fusion explosion held in check by its own sheer weight, a sink of gravity that tugs the fabric of space toward itself and causes, perhaps, the planets to roll around it like balls inside a cone, and these planets in turn spinning, some holding further sway over satellite bodies spinning, spiraling -- what a dance! What forces of immense size and power in which we lead our little lives, and in the shadows or residue of which all of history and prehistory has unfolded, second by second.... 

Block print by Will Rose
instantaneous slice by slice, our lines intersecting, moving in relation to one another, sometimes with disastrous consequences like an asteroid colliding and wiping out most of life, or with little delights like birthday parties and orgasms and flashes of understanding that, like certain dreams, hold us in thrall for longer moments, tantalizing and beckoning toward some further understanding of the totality of time and space, before they, too, fade and slip away, and despite our desperate attempts to capture and convey them in the threads through time and space we call words, elicit little more from others or our future selves than polite or nostalgic comments like "That's nice. How interesting!"

Please share your comments below!


Other sites to explore on this topic:

https://themidnightwritereditorialservices.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/j-w-dunne-dreaming-the-future/

https://cassiopaea.org/forum/index.php?topic=29755.0

https://consciousnessandstuff.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/j-w-dunne-and-the-infinite-regress/

http://www.coroflot.com/83/jw-dunne-dinner-party

http://www.upscale.utoronto.ca/PVB/Harrison/SpecRel/SpecRel.html




April, 2011

Flying Dreams 

All my life I've been fortunate to have dreams of flying, beginning with the mystery dream when I was four or five, when the difference between dreaming and waking must have been still working itself out in my budding understanding. Across the street from our house on Church Street in Salem, Oregon was a school for the blind; my best friend was the son of the director, a boy named Jerry. We played on a swing-set under some trees on the lawn, a set with chains from which canvas straps were strung, making a flexible seat. I loved swinging there, up and down, high into the trees, back to the ground, that childhood joy of danger and daring and flight.

The whole experience is somewhat lost in the haze of time now; I recall the recollection more than the experience itself. I know that for a long time I believed, without questioning, that I had actually flown at one point, while swinging: the straps were gone, maybe even the chains; I just swung up into the air as if lying on my stomach, gliding, soaring upward, weightless and unattached, in a golden light, sky-blue world of puff clouds, dancing leaves, breeze and beauty, flying like a bird.

Further recollection is that years later, eons in childhood time, perhaps when I was 9 or 10, this long-held memory of flight suddenly dawned on me as an impossibility. It had been there in the background of my mind as a sort of a priori; unremarkable, though lovely, no more questioned or pondered than the presence of the sky. In one of a series of gradual "falls from grace" with the onset of puberty and growing consciousness of the world around me, it hit me that that experience could only have been a dream. Again, what I remember is the memory of how that realization shocked and puzzled me, as if I had learned that gravity, a given my whole life, only worked with your eyes open.

The discovery reshaped my whole concept of who I was in the world and how things worked. Magic, ingrained in me deeply from an endless supply of books treating that subject (more about that in other posts!), was an essential and continually elusive aspect of the real world, and only gradually, over many more years, did I release my belief that it was as true as any other law of nature, just harder to pin down. I'm not sure I have released that belief to this day -- just reshaped it, really.

Helping to keep belief alive is the steady flow of flying dreams through my complex and vivid dream life. The flying dreams come again and again, in all kinds of permutations; they are one set in a catalogue of magic dreams: the ones where I can breathe underwater and explore the bottom of an ocean or stream bed (these have become much more rare); where I can talk to animals and befriend them in their languages; where I explore underground worlds; where I fly or leap or float, sometimes with control, often losing control in some way, either to fall, or drift, or fail to fly high enough or far enough to escape an approaching danger.

For a while, not long ago, I was wondering if I was losing the gift of flying in dreams; it seemed I hadn't had one for quite a while, and I speculated as to the cause. Maybe becoming a public school teacher, I thought, had taken away the magic. It seemed like a logical association of ideas. The dreams have returned, though.

Less than a week ago I had a most elaborate one, starting in a park in Manhattan, pedaling upward as if on a magic, invisible bike, laughing down as people stared at me in wonderment. I sped westward, ending up at a castle where the skyline of the city was barely visible in the distance. Several adventures there involving climbing over rooftops and discovering mouldering cadavers under the shingles, then creeping along a window ledge back toward the gate and an open terrace, a perfect and much-needed launching ground for my return to the city. I stood there, amazed at how far the city was; summoning my strength, determined, I finally launched down a steep hillside, airborne, and headed homeward. Once aloft, though, I realized I had forgotten something -- I wish I could remember what -- and would have to fly back. Of course, this proved virtually impossible; my intuitive, invisible directional instruments were off-kilter; it was a huge effort to describe a long, slow circle back to where I had started, with a deepening sense of gloom about ever succeeding of reaching either of my destinations: the city in the distance, or the castle from which I had just escaped.

More dreams of this kind than I can ever count or remember have leavened my night life, filled me with hope, wonder, terror, and elation. Thank you, o Muse. All my life I have been lifted, warned, deceived and tantalized by the invisible trick of flight. What it has meant to me as a waking creature is not fully knowable, except to say, perhaps, that without those dreams I should have been confined to a flatland of my imagination, rather than a recurring and inspiring realm of air and sky.






March, 2014


A Message from Oso 



The Stillaguamish River looking downstream toward Oso, 2013


When 15 million cubic yards of earth, rock and forested mountainside came crashing down on Oso, Washington, sweeping away the lives and homes of dozens of victims, horror and disbelief quickly gave way to an all-out rescue effort by volunteers and relief workers from across the state and beyond.

There is a global message from this local tragedy.

For years before the most recent landslide, the mountainside was identified as a risk. A smaller slide less than a decade ago sent a loud signal that even an unmovable mountain could alter its character in a flash. Despite warnings from scientists and documentation of the looming danger, homes were built and lives lived in the shadow of impending crisis.

For decades scientists worldwide have been piecing together the global disaster awaiting us: glaciers crumbling into the sea and surging from mountains; snow-packs evaporating to be seen no more; sea currents and air disrupted and turbulent. Global warming is documented, and projected to become worse than we can imagine.

Yet we live our lives, drive cars and trucks, fly in planes, heat our homes and light our cities, burning, burning, burning age old carbon in a worldwide bacchanal of fire.

The dozens killed in Oso, and the many more displaced and grief-struck, are real and near and need our compassion and support. They are a tiny fraction, however, of the ongoing greater tragedy worldwide, as sea levels rise and the earth, our only home, undergoes a momentous and calamitous shift we have triggered and accelerated. Multitudes will be displaced, drowned, lost. There will be no bystanders.

The warnings have been sounded. Where are the leaders to exhort and mobilize us to prevent the unimaginable? Where the throngs of willing hands and hearts to avert it? We can wait, as Oso did, for disaster to sweep away all that we have built and love, or we can take action. Now.

Earth as we know it



November 22, 2013


Why Kennedy still hurts (essay)


With my sister Martha, maybe early spring after Kennedy's death


John F. Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago today stimulates a new blog post after a long hiatus. Like many people my age and older, I am emotionally affected by this day.

My own story, briefly: I was 9 years old, making little "Pilgrim villages" out of construction paper in the week before Thanksgiving, which fell on the same calendar day as this year -- the 28th. The principal of my little village school in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts stuck his head in the room and said to our teacher -- and I quote -- "The President has been shot in the head. We're sending the kids home and closing school." I recall him as smiling as he delivered this news. It seems implausible, even if he was a right wing bigot in almost every way, but still... that's what I remember; I thought it must be a joke, since he was smiling.

The parsonage in Cummington, Mass.
We were sent home, and when a little later the news came on the radio that he was dead, I rolled on the floor and wailed. He was my hero: I had his picture on the wall of my upstairs back bedroom, and had been given a record album of his speeches on my birthday that summer. His death by assassination was unthinkable; assassinations were things of the distant past, the stuff of legend, not something real and present.


It was the end of an era in many ways, an end for which no one was prepared. It ripped open a deep wound in the collective consciousness of the nation, exposing a great and terrible vulnerability. It heightened the paranoia already in play, the suspicion that the world was descending into greater and greater chaos and even anarchy; that powerful forces and enemies were arrayed against us; that no security or safety could be found even in the highest echelons of power and privilege. It was as potent a moment of fear and loss as September 11; if anything so unthinkable could occur, what more horrors might follow?


Remembering Kennedy's death 50 years ago almost to the minute as I write this, tears spring as I read and remember. As a 9-year old, I was already moving from childhood innocence toward a darker understanding of the presence of inextinguishable pain in the world; toward awareness of my own and others' mortality; toward understanding that terrible things could happen, had happened, and would happen again. Kennedy's death confirmed all this, and more, and left me stunned and incredulous.


Today our country remains divided, fearful, and disillusioned. The Presidency, once a pedestal-mounted symbol of power and greatness, has shrunk in stature; the revered, almost god-like image of "The President of the United States of America" of childhood has been humanized to almost pitiable limitations. In my own journey over fifty years, I have come to recognize that my remaining span in which to enjoy and endure the miracle of sentience on this planet is shrinking. The journey from innocence and blind trust toward experience and wise discernment is long.


As an individual, I, and we as a country, have left the first stage long behind. Attaining the second is and will ever be a work in progress. 




December, 2011

An Island of Sorrow (reflection)

Photo by Will Rose, Orcas Island, WA. Nov. 2011 

My father Dave passed away in September at age 95. After his diagnosis with cancer, when we knew his life would last only weeks, our family drew closely together. As the end approached, time compressed. We did many things for the last time with Dave: watching family slides, singing songs, saying grace at table, listening to an old joke. And then he was gone.

Grief remained as an unseen guest, and followed me as I took much-needed leave from my teaching job and rented a small cabin on Orcas Island, alone, hoping to do some writing. Much of the time I ached with depression and sorrow, sleeping, reading, staring at waves lapping a pebbly beach. Grief peopled my solitude, crowding into silent caverns of my heart, holding up memories and mirrors, demanding contemplation. My retreat was a time of convalescence on an island of sorrow.

Eventually I got to some writing, but soon it was time to leave. I wondered if I had wasted my time, mooning around and feeling sorry for myself rather than sticking to my writing goals. As I ferried homeward across the water to the mainland, grief fell behind, somehow rooted to that island shore.

In the following weeks, life gradually shifted to a new "normal." I went back to my teaching with revived enthusiasm, and stayed in close touch with my mother and siblings and other family members. We have comforted and counseled one another as we move on with our lives. Friends, too, have helped in countless ways.

So has my muse. My writing work has had a renaissance. Fitting it in among other commitments, I've been taking risks, trying out new ideas and letting others go, revising and slimming down the manuscript. The novel, and I, are gaining clarity. As a teacher, too, I'm back on my game, learning from the ever-changing challenges of the classroom, which is another kind of mirror. Work and play and family and day-to-day life have achieved a new equilibrium. Perhaps my retreat served a purpose after all.

As Christmas approaches, another milestone "After Dave," I look back with gratitude at that island with its stony shore. Loss lies heavily on a human heart, but time bathes the pain with ever-moving tides and currents. Lightness returns, and as the stone rolls away, new life does spring forth. 

My sisters Debbie (left) and Betsy (right) and me with our dad, Dave, days before he passed away.



April, 2011

Politics: April 4th Revolution (opinion) 

My sister Betsy is visiting from Berkeley, and Debbie is here from Australia -- we've been celebrating my Dad's 95th birthday. Yeah, he was born in 1916. He remembers his grandfather reminiscing about fighting in the Civil War. That's a long generational memory. Too bad our national memory isn't as good as my old Dad's.

Betsy and I wanted to go to one of the April 4th rallies organized all across America on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. We went to MLK Park on MLK Avenue South, on a chilly, rainy afternoon. It was inspiring despite the weather and the turnout of only a few hundred people -- still, a few hundred ain't bad, mainly union members like myself (SEA, WEA, NEA -- a teacher and public employee). Rule of thumb: for every one that shows up, a hundred others share the feelings but haven't yet felt the fever in their bones.

Yes, it was inspiring to hear voices loudspeaking the truth about the poor and middle class getting taxed and cut and told to make sacrifices, while corporations and banks and the super-rich wallow in wealth. "Need is not the crime; greed is the crime!" Can anyone doubt the agenda here -- to roll back the gains made by working people and the middle class over the past 40 years, and ensure the hegemony of the super-rich and the corporations? Could it be any plainer?

There's plenty of money to provide for everyone, but the money is in too many of the wrong places, in too few hands.

It was a modest gathering at MLK Park. It's clear, though, whose side Martin Luther King himself would be on, had he lived; had he not been assassinated. Thankfully, he was not silenced. His voice grows louder with every new injustice.

Wisconsin: an unlikely rallying cry for the new wave of popular power. The attempt to gut unions and the right of public sector employees to bargain collectively has hit a nerve. Hundreds of thousands stood in 15-degree temperatures and a blizzard in Madison, Wisconsin, slept in the State House, would not be moved, to defend their rights. Their action was seen and heard around the world. Seattle: don't let a little rain stop us! Remember the WTO? Remember Egypt? Was Martin Luther King killed defending the rights of corporations to avoid paying taxes? No; he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to help defend the rights of city employees -- garbage collectors -- to form unions and collectively bargain for a livable wage, a decent life, and some respect as human beings.

The powers that be in this country don't give a flying fuck about your wages, your life, or your self-respect. Standing there in the park, in the rain, listening to the speakers and watching the waving signs helped me feel connected to the power we still have as people when we act together and do give a flying fuck what happens to our brothers and sisters.

Next time, don't send an email; don't give the revolution a "thumbs up" on Facebook. Come out and bring your umbrella. The revolution needs all of us.

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