Friday, May 22, 2015

Musing on Thomas Merton, Self-Actualization, and Women's History

Thomas Merton, wiki image
It was another full house at Lourdes University's Franciscan Center to hear Fr. Jim Bacik speak on Thomas Merton, the Catholic theologian, Franciscan, and Trappist monk.

First edition, 1948
wikipedia image
As Bacik talked about the influences on Merton's thinking, I found myself floating back to my undergraduate days at Wheaton College in Norton, MA, then an all-women's college, now co-educational.   I was in professor Jane Ruby's Medieval History class, an era I came to love and appreciate, to this day. It was NOT the dark ages I thought it was.  Ruby shared new scholarship with us, and it was thrilling. I also took classes in English literature. My readings, which I now realize were incredibly thoughtful, included Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, or parts of it, along with the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, St. Augustine's Confessions, and Dante's Divine Comedy.  All classics of the grand Western tradition, the focus of my education from high school through college and graduate school.

I turned back to Fr. Bacik's lecture. Turns out the books I had read so long ago composed a circle of literature and history that encompassed Merton's spiritual journey. They are connected. Nor did I know then what I know now: that my education itself was a spiritual journey. For me at the time, it was all intellectual.

"The world is charged with the grandeur of God," Hopkins the Catholic poet wrote, a reverence Merton shared. According to Fr. Bacik, Merton would add to this idea the notion that "every human being is charged with the grandeur of God."  We need only to recognize it.

Thomas Merton was born on January 31, 1915, and died by an accidental electrocution while visiting Bangkok in 1968.  I vaguely remember the news; we had recently left Madison to begin a new chapter in Toledo.  Merton was exploring eastern mysticism, especially Zen Buddhism.  It was a time when many of us were learning that the world was more than the Western tradition in which we had been steeped. West meets East.

Yet, how strange Merton's death seems. Electrocuted. An accident. In Thailand. A man of God zapped in his prime. The life of a monk exploring a larger world cut short.  On the other hand, Merton's journey in search of his "true self," which became a core of his theology, had many twists and turns, Bacik noted. A kind of electrical charge flowed through it. That's the Merton that Fr. Bacik focused on in this lecture, the first of three he will give in honor of Merton's centenary.

The journey from  the "false self" to the "true self" is never ending, Merton believed. What is the "true self?"  Bacik elucidated: it embodies authenticity and faith, brutal self-honesty, being true to one's self, shedding false defenses, discovering the God within us, the temple where God dwells.  In practical terms, Bacik explained in a series of real-life illustrations, it's about doing what you really want to do, being who you truly are, getting out of "comparative mode," beyond critical, judgmental, edgy mode, moving beyond feelings of self-sacrifice to self-fulfillment.  All this sounded alot like my high school motto, simple yet sometimes elusive: "To thine own self be true."

I swirled these ideas around in my mind, thinking about the concept of "self-actualization."  That was the major theme of the Women's History courses I taught for many years.  Merton's idea of the "true self" was precisely what the 19th-century Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, had in mind when she said that people, men and women, must love others "from the fullness, not the poverty, of being."

Wow, I thought to myself.  Before Merton, before modern psychology and popularizers such as Alice Miller, before the civil rights movements, there were women pioneers, pondering their own status, who led the way in embarking on and talking about this journey.  The Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Catt. Fearless in the realm of thought. Ahead of their times. These women created an American philosophy of freedom and autonomy that constitutes a powerful legacy.  Unfortunately, they are seldom if ever acknowledged. Many Mertons existed among them.

So I find myself musing about Merton, self-actualization and women's history. How amazing to discover the same universal truths over and over, to realize how certain things re-emerge in our lives in new form, with new meaning. To realize how everything is connected.  A "shock of recognition."  An "awakening."

Hearing Fr. Bacik on Merton felt like this, another coming full circle.  Like my returning to Toledo to be close to my kids and grandkids after living in DC, Florida and Ukraine.  Of course Merton the Monk had a faith in God that many of us cannot claim. Still, I admit to paying homage to some mystical higher power. Perhaps it is the higher power that Merton believed resided not out there, not out in cosmic space, not above us, but within us, within us all. The God within. In that case, I hear my brother Loren saying, we have to talk as well about "the Goddess within."  Ah, Loren, you are looking over my shoulder in so many ways!  It must be you. Here I am thinking and writing and you emerge, on the very day of your last hike five years ago.  I'm with you.

 
Prayer of Thomas Merton
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so./But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it./
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and will never leave me to face my perils alone. http://kathwilliamson.blogspot.com/2009/03/famous-prayers-thomas-erton.html#sthash.oZVBSyaD.dpuf)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Solitude of Self," Address before U. S. Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage, February 20, 1892

     The point I wish plainly to bring before you on this occasion is the individuality of each human soul-our Protestant idea. the right of individual conscience and judgement - our republican idea, individual citizenship. In discussing the rights of woman, we are to consider, first, what belongs to her as an individual, in a world of her own, the arbiter of her own destiny, an imaginary Robinson Crusoe with her woman Friday on a solitary island . Her rights under such circumstances are to use all her faculties for her own safety and happiness. /Secondly, if we consider her as a citizen, as a member of a great nation, she must have the same rights as all other members, according to the fundamental principles of our Government./Thirdly, viewed as a woman, an equal factor in civilization, her rights and duties are still the same-individual happiness and development./Fourthly, it is only the incidental relations of life, such as mother wife, sister, daughter, which may involve some special duties and training. 

      In the usual discussion in regard to woman's sphere, such men as Herbert Spencer, Frederick Harrison and Grant Allen uniformly subordinate her rights and duties as an individual, as a citizen, as a woman, to the necessities of these incidental relations, some of which a large class of women never assume. In discussing the sphere of man we do not decide his rights as an individual, as a citizen, as a man, by his duties as a father, a husband, a brother or a son, some of which he may never undertake. Moreover he would be better fitted for these very relations, and whatever special work he might choose to do to earn his bread, by the complete development of all his faculties as an individual. just so with woman. The education which will fit her to discharge the duties in the largest sphere of human usefulness, will best fit her for whatever special work she may be compelled to do.

      The isolation of every human soul and the necessity of self-dependence must give each individual the right to choose his own surroundings. The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, her forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear-is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life. The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives; in the religion she is asked to believe; equality in social life, where she is the chief factor; a place in the trades and professions, where she may earn her bread, is because of her birthright to self -sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself.
      To throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes ; to deny the rights of property is like cutting off the hands. To refuse political equality is to rob 'the ostracized of all self-respect, of credit in the market place, of recompense in the world of work, of a voice in choosing those who make and administer the law, a choice in the jury before whom they are tried, and in the judge who decides their punishment. Shakespeare's play of Titus and Andronicus contains a terrible satire on woman's position in the nineteenth century - "Rude men seized the king's daughter, cut out her tongue, cut off her hands, and then bade her go call for water and wash her hands." What a picture of woman's position! Robbed of her natural rights, handicapped by law and custom at every turn, yet compelled to fight her own battles, and in the emergencies of life to fall back on herself for protection . . . . .
      How the little courtesies of life on the surface of society, deemed so important from man towards woman, fade into utter insignificance in view of the deeper tragedies in which she must play her part alone, where no human aid is possible!
      Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility. Nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one's self -sovereignty; the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded-a place earned by personal merit, not an artificial attainment by inheritance, wealth, family and position. Conceding then that the responsibilities of life rest equally on man and woman, that their destiny is the same, they need the same preparation for time and eternity. The talk of sheltering woman from the fierce storms of life is the sheerest mockery, for they beat on her from every point of the compass, just as they do on man, and with more fatal results, for he has been trained to protect himself, to resist, to conquer . . . . .
      In music women speak again the language of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and are worthy interpreters of their great thoughts. The poetry and novels of the century are theirs, and they have touched the keynote of reform in religion, politics and social life. They fill the editor's and professor's chair, plead at the bar of justice, walk the wards of the hospital, speak from the pulpit and the platform. Such is the type of womanhood that an enlightened public sentiment welcomes to-day, and such the triumph of the facts of life over the false theories of the past.
Is it, then, consistent to hold the developed woman of this day within the same narrow political limits as the dame with the spinning wheel and knitting needle occupied in the past? No, no! Machinery has taken the labors of woman as well as man on its tireless shoulders; the loom and the spinning wheel are but dreams of the past; the pen, the brush, the ease], the chisel, have taken their places, while the hopes and ambitions of women are essentially changed.
      We see reason sufficient in the outer conditions of human beings for individual liberty and development, but when we consider the self-dependence of every human soul, we see the need of courage, judgment and the exercise of every faculty of mind and body, strengthened and developed by use, in woman as well as man....


Upcoming Father Bacik Lectures:
Tuesday July 31, Thomas Merton: Dialogue with Eastern Religions
Tuesday, August 18,  Pope Francis on the Environment
Monday, Sept.  21, Thomas Merton on Peace-Making 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Cautionary Tale: Check Your Blood Pressure

For my children
Rumi quote, yahoo 

www.mdprevent.blogspot.com
I mentioned to daughter Elissa that I was having some shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness and pesky acid reflux, and it was a pain in the neck.

"Doesn't sound like a pain in the neck to me," Elissa responded.  "Sounds more like the symptoms of a heart attack."

"A heart attack?'   We were walking together to pick up Philip from school. Elissa had decided at the last minute to join me, a rare occurence.

"Yeah, a heart attack or a stroke. I was just reading about it."

"No way, Elisaa.  I feel fine. No pain in my chest, or down my left arm or  numbess or anything like that!"

"Well, mom. It's different sometimes for women. They have these little symptoms they don't pay attention to, and then whammy.  That's why it's called the silent killer."  

Good grief, I thought to myself, this is getting serious.

We walked on in silence. Philip's hands felt warm and soft in ours. I could tell Elissa was mulling it over.  It wasn't long after I got home that I got the message: "Mom, it's Elissa.  I talked to Michelle, and I'm picking you up to take you to the ER at Toledo Hospital."

"No way, Elissa!"
"Yes, I'm on my way over." She hung up.  Really?  As soon as I sat down to absorb this unconditional order, Michelle called. "You ARE going with Elissa or I WILL call 911 now and get an ambulance to take you. NOW!"  She hung up.

Holy cow. All of a sudden my options were limited to ride with Elissa or go in an ambulance to the ER.  Against my grain, I gave in. I went out the door with Elissa, kind of in shock but with hardly a whimper.

"Hardly a whimper?!  Baloney mom, you're stubborn as an ox."

As we drove to the ER, we pondered the accidental way she got the news. Elissa was as cool and calm as could be, while I grew more and more anxious.  "If we hadn't been walking together, you never would have said anything," she said with a half-smile.  That's true. She knew her mom.  I wouldn't have called her about it. But I actually had done something out of character that very afternoon. I had called my doctor. I told whoever answered the phone about my symptoms, and they made an appointment for next week for me to "talk about my meds."

"To talk about my meds?"
"Yes, we have to put down something."
"Well, I'm calling about these other things,too, so will you please have the doctor call me." That never happened.  I must say I don't even know what made me call in the first place, except that I had been working hard in the garden and feeling this shortness of breath for a few weeks, just not my usual self, and I was wiped out after my fitness workout a few hours earlier.

A simple little mention on that rare walk with Elissa, and I suddenly found myself totally in the hands of my children, going to the ER when I wasn't sick.

"I'll be embarrassed when they see nothing is wrong," I confessed to Elissa. "Too bad, mom, better safe than sorry."

www.MDprevent.blogspot.com
Well, by God, that's what it turned out to be.  I soon learned the not-so-pleasamt news that my blood pressure was 256/78, and going up as I was wheeled into an emergency examination room.  A nice nurse, Jeremy, took my blood pressure again and hooked me up to an IV.  My blood pressure was then 260/147. I heard Michelle gasp, bless her heart, as the nurse immediately left the room and returned 2 seconds later with something to put into that IV, meant to lower my blood pressure asap.

By then I was in tears, my girls were in tears, and we were all thankful I was where I was supposed to be.  The doctors came in and I got lots of talking to about the danger I was in.

"Damn mom, you could have had a heart attack or a stroke."  A heart attack might not be so bad, but a stroke? No way. Anything to avoid that. We had a kind of hospice farewell moment, like a dress rehearsal for the real thing.   I told the kids I loved them, had a good life, was ready to go, only wanted them to be happy, no guilt, no remorse, just remember the happy times we shared.

"Well, you're not going anywhere," Elissa whispered.  "I'm not ready for you to go," Michelle said emphatically.  I found myself thanking God for my dear children.  A brief image of my brother Loren came over me, a voice without words settled on me.  Loren died of a sudden heart attack while on a hike five years ago in May, when I was in Ukraine.  Loren was near, I thought to mysef in awe.

"I swear it was Uncle Loren," Elissa said just then. "He gave us a message, Mom."

I must admit, for the first time since he died, I felt his presence.  I think he got through to Elissa, if not to me, gently but persistently.   "Divine intervention," Elissa  said.  A Rumi quote came to me: "There is a voice that doesn't use words. Listen."  My girls had heard that voice and made a decision and wouldn't take "no" for an answer. It probably saved my life.

Now I know better.  The symptons of high blood pressure, or hypertension, are not obvious.  You have to keep track of your own numbers.  I bought a new blood pressure monitor to do just that. My girls are on me, but I know I have to take charge.  It's a hard way to learn an important health lesson. And yes, it pays to listen to that voice that has no words.

What the Body Says, by Mary Oliver
I was born here, and 
I belong here, and
I will never leave.
The blue heron's

gray smoke will flow over me
for years
and the wind will decide 
all directions

until I am safely and entirely
something else.
I am thinking of this
this winter morning

as I sit by the fire
and the fire in its red rack
keeps singing
its crackling song

of transformation.
Of course
I wonder about
the mystery

that is surely up there
in starry space
and how some part of me
will go there at last.

But I am talking now
of the way the body speaks,
and the wind, that keeps saying, 
firmly, lovingly:

a little while and then this body
will be stone; then
it will be water; then
it will be air.


For some information:
http://www.webmdcom/hypertension-high-blood-pressure

http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/SymptomsDiagnosisMonitoringofHighBloodPressure/What-are-the-Symptoms-of-High-Blood-Pressure_UCM_301871_Article.jsp  (American Heart Association)

http://www.aplaceformom   www.aplaceformom.com/senior-care-resources/articles/high-blood-pressure

http://www.mayoclinic. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/expert-answers/hypertension/faq-20058527











Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day Thoughts

I picked some lilacs today, so sweet and lovely, to make a little centerpiece for  my Mother's Day table. The kids were here and most of the grandkids. What a beautiful day.     
It's great that Mother's Day is celebrated in May, when the trees are greening, the flowers blooming, the lilacs scenting the air.   Spring means birth and rebirth, a perfect season for remembering moms.

I've done lots of things in my life but I think parenting is the most challenging job on earth. It would probably be helpful if all new moms had to take some kind of required parenting classes that teach the basics; the stages of children's development, how to nourish their spirits, encourage them to become confident adults. Considering how important this job is, and how inexperienced we are when we begin the parenting journey, there's not much hands-on guidance out there (although there are books and now online resources to check out).

Mother's Day 2015 at Casa de Mama's. 
Most of us parent by the seat of our pants, doing the best we can with the skills we have, mostly imbibed from our own mothers, or as a reaction to our own mothers.  Mom was so strict we'll be more lenient. Mom was too lenient, we'll be more strict. We are young, too, still kids ourselves in many ways, still tight in the bud.

The phrase "I wish I knew then what I know now" was probably coined by a mother looking back.

I ponder these things when I work in my garden, planting seeds, enriching the soil, filling pots with petunias, geraniums. marigolds, adding basil and other spices, nourishing their growth. Kids are like the flowers and spices in our gardens, I think to myself. We want them to grow and thrive.

We hope the tulips and daffodils we planted in the fall, bloom in the spring; that the daisies and roses and day lillies bloom year after year;  that the chrysanthemum build up their strength to color autumn.  We hope the winter is not too hard on them; that they weather the storms; glory in the sunshine; reach their full potential.

That's what we wish for our kids on Mother's Day, too, and every day, year after year.



Saturday, May 9, 2015

Reflections on May 9

"History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable "truth" about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, "revisionism"—is what makes history vital and meaningful." 
Award-winning historian James MacPherson

In retrospect, in the long view, the "victory" of the Allies over Nazism that ended WWII is starting to look like a mixed bag. The capitulation of the Nazis to the Soviet Union on May 9 even more so.  Yes, it was a triumph of good over evil. Hitler was defeated. The concentration camps were freed.  But the course of the war itself, the aftermath of the "victory,"  the ongoing anti-semitism, the turmoil in the world today, raise new questions about what was won and what was lost.

It didn't take long for another form of war, the Cold War, to emerge from the ashes of death on battlefields and from a nuclear explosion.  It didn't take long for new superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, to start duking it out.  It didn't take long, after so many millions dead, to begin a new arms race, including building nuclear weapons that could annihilate the planet.

Now, with Putin's war of aggression in Ukraine, the old fears have arisen again, the old ideologies, the ramped up propaganda, the old icons of a "victory" gone sour.  More than ever, what stands out is the triumph of Stalinism, the brutally enforced Russification and ongoing destruction of eastern Europe's cultural fabric, the "spheres of influence" mentality of two new super powers that went ballistic, the celebration of military weapons and military force.

I saw the consequences of Stalinism in Ukraine. I see it in all the countries bordering Russia that after the war came under the Soviet "sphere of influence." The Eastern Bloc.

These countries were caught in a vicious vise between the Nazis under Hitler on one hand, and the Soviets under dictator Joseph Stalin, on the other. This map of Poland illustrates the ugly struggle.  It continued, fiercely, after the war.


I am gathering the story of Elizabeth Frankowski, a 90-year-old woman from eastern Poland. She tells how World War II severed Poland. She talks about 1939. While the Nazis rounded up the terrified Jewish population and sent them to Aushwitz and other concentration camps, the Soviets rounded up thousands of ordinary Poles and sent them to the Gulags.

For Elizabeth, the Soviets became the more fearsome and loathsome enemy. To this day.  The Red Army invaded Poland, killed her father, rounded up her family at gunpoint, along with thousands of others, put them on cattle-car trains in the dead of night, and transported them to a vicious Gulag in Siberia. It changed her world forever.  She remembers it in detail, the grief and fear, the hard labor, the cold, the hunger, the diseases, the deaths.  Her mother was pregnant with her seventh child, who didn't survive. Elizabeth, then 12 or 13 years old, lost more siblings, a brother and sister, almost lost her mother, whom she tried to keep alive through the depths of hard labor, sickness, and despair. Her mother died a broken woman after the war.

The Soviet flag is hoisted over the Reichstat in Berlin, 9 May1945 (avaxnewsnet). This is the victory Russia celebrates today, as Putin displays his new tanks and weapons. 
Elizabeth's story can be multiplied several fold. I heard it in Ukraine.  I've spoken with people from Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania and the Baltic countries who tell similar stories.   Here's a story from Lithuania, in Yahoo news today, about murder, the Gulags, the resistance to Soviet aggression. http://news.yahoo.com/lithuania.


In Budapest, these stories are enshrined in the Terror Museum: photos, documentation, oral histories and videos, somber funereal music in the background, cellos moaning, the sounds of horror, torture and terror. Chilling. It stunned me.  The Terror Museum, in fact, is housed in the very same building that was the headquarters for the German SS during the war and for the Soviet KGB after the war. Imagine. 60 Andrassy ut. You went in, and you never left.

When I was in Lviv, in far western Ukraine, I befriended an aging but handsome officer of the Ukrainian National Army and his wife. He could still fit in his uniform, and displayed it proudly.  Bogdan and Stefa knew every Ukrainian song, every Ukrainian poem. They regaled us with song and good food. They told incredible tales of how they had fought mightily against the Soviet occupation of western Ukraine. They had fought with Stephan Bandera.  A few of the older women I met in Slavsky and the Carpatheans, respected babuskas like Maria, had survived several years in Soviet Gulags, just like Elizabeth. Every house I visited in western Ukraine featured a picture of Bandera. They had lots of stories to tell. The divide beween western and eastern Ukraine never felt so wide.

I remember thinking that a healthy dose of nationalism wouldn't hurt eastern Ukraine.  Not that Nationalism is good in itself; we've witnessed the extremism and the dangers. But Ukraine has struggled to create a unified identity, struggled to preserve its traditions. When I mentioned Bandera in the English Club, however, I noticed the reticence.  English club members did  not even know the Ukrainian national anthem.  It's how it was in eastern Ukraine.

Now friends in the east say that there is a renewed sense of national identity emerging in Ukraine since Putin annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine.  That's the good part, I suppose. I don't know.

I do know that Putin's current version of May 9 Victory Day, in the present context, smacks of a full-blown propaganda campaign rather than a true commemoration of an Allied victory.  Look at all the new weapons, the Armata tanks, the high tech guns.  Look at how Putin's biker gang is riding roughshod over eastern Europe, unwanted, some of the very mercenaries and Russian soldiers who claim victory in Crimea and in the Donbas region.  The same macho Russians who decimated and now claim pieces of eastern Ukraine as their "trophies."  Laughter. Raise the vodka in salute. Cheer the comaraderie of true fighters. Bigger, stronger, the best. Chafing at the bit to attack again, to destroy and claim Mariupol and the Azov region.

It's as if we have learned nothing from WWII.  It's as if the same old hatreds still exist, fanning the flames of war, the same old noxious nationalism that fueled the rise of Hitler, Stalinsim, and now Putin's aggression against Ukraine and his war mongering in the former Soviet republics.

The meaning of May 9 is wide open.  The day is shrouded in geopolitics. It feels more like a commemoration of the failure of our world to learn lessons from the past, than a victory.

Historians are revising the story, asking new quesstions, studying new documents from the once-closed Soviet archives. Who knows where it will lead. Who knows what our grandchildren will commemorate.


Some sources:
For one revisionist perspective, demonstrating how the events of the present influence the stories of the past:
http://www.valuewalk.com/2015/05/russia-war-with-west/
"We have another case of history repeating itself in Russia today. Genocidal Russian leader Josef Stalin at first used the May 9th Victory Day celebrations of the defeat of Nazi Germany to create solidarity and patriotism, but after two years he decided the celebrations had served their purpose so he cancelled them. Current Russian president Vladimir Putin seems to be taking a page from his historical mentor Stalin as he is using Victory Day to whip up nationalist fervor as he attempts to rewrite history and paint a false picture that Russia is still fighting fascism, but this time it’s Europe and the U.S. who are out to subjugate Mother Russia."  

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/putins-wwii-pomp-aped-east-120527580.html.
http://news.yahoo.com/lithuanian-power-grid-dark-secret-buried-soviet-past-062054101.html

New video (youtube) on the Soviet invasion and occupation of Berlin.  Berlin  was split into two, into East and West,  after the war, just like Poland was split asunder during the war, as were other Eastern bloc countries, torn between the Nazis and the Soviets, then encompassed under the Soviet Union. . 

The Soviets occupied Berlin immediately after the city fell. Ultimately, Berlin would be divided between a Soviet-allied communist regime and West Germany until 1990, when the country was finally reunified.Berlin 1945

(Screenshot/www.youtube.com) 



Monday, May 4, 2015

E.B. White: Poet, Storyteller, Essayist

wikiphoto
"If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy.  If the world were merely challenging, that would be easy.  But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.  This makes it hard to plan the day…”    E.B. White (1899-1987)

In response to the poetry of Ted Kooser and Charles Wright, which I included in my last blog, my genius cousins Leo and Kathy Curro from Canton, NY, sent me this wonderful quote (above) from E.B. White.  That quote says exactly how I feel every day, that's the very conflict: wanting to improve the world and wanting to enjoy it. 

E.B. White. I know that name. I did a little refresher research. Aha! The E.B. White of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, a writer's bible. The E.B. White who wrote "Charlotte's Web," "Stuart Little," and "The Trumpet of the Swan," stories I read over and over to my kids and grandkids. The E.B. White who wrote for The New Yorker, the essayist in the tradition of David Thoreau and Mark Twain. 

I think about this for a while. E.B. White loved to write, in different genres. The poet, storyteller, essayist.  Is this a dying breed? Are these genres disappearing? Old fashioned?No longer speak to us as they once did?   People have thoughts, ideas, stories, comments they want to share, but today we turn to social media, to facebook and Twitter, to blogging and online commentary on the events of the day.  We "google" and "post," usually into a great cosmic silence.  Is this the 21st-century digital equivalent of the 19th  and early 20th-century essayists?  Sure, some of us love reading the New Yorker, the New Republic, magazines and other print sources, even books . But I must admit I find myself saying "I can get it online."  And I do.  

Still, we, our generation, born in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a bit before the Boomers, some of us on the cusp, honor and revere the print tradition, believe with poet laureate Charles Wright that words have power.  They move us, to thought, to action. They inform and clarify our thinking, our conflicts and challenges.  To improve the world or to enjoy the world?   Perhaps, indeed, we are the dying breed. 



Friday, May 1, 2015

The Power of Words: Our Poets Laureate

www.tedkooser.net
My friend Jane Hood, beloved Nebraskan, mentioned poet Ted Kooser in a facebook post, so I went online and looked him up. He was born in Iowa in 1939 and spent most of his life in Nebraska, immersed in the Great Plains. He was in the insurance business when he started writing poetry. James Billington, the eminent long-tme head of the Library of Congress, selected him as the "Poet Laureate of the United States" in 2004. That distinction has been going on for some time; every year the LOC director gets to pick a poet of, by and for the people. Yes, we have a Poet Laureate.

Favorite independent bookstore
still thriving in NW Washington.
Below, poetry books on display.
www.politicsandprose.com

I paid more attention to this special position when I lived in Washington. Gwendolen Brooks and Rita Dove were poets laureate, and Mark Strand, Joseph Brodsky and Robert Haas.  They gave readings, sat with us in bookstores (many independents in those days),went out into our community, in schools and public forums, to share their poetry. How fortunate we were.  


I'm glad Jane reminded me of this glorious tradition.  When I have to turn away from the tragic news of the day, because it winds me up, I seek refuge in poetry.  "Stop watching the news," my sister Andy advises from time to time. In these days of terror and violence, at home and abroad, the poets bring us down to earth, teach us about life's complexities and pleasures, about nature and authentic spirituality that comes from the soul, not from on high, not from extremists.  

These days, I'm drawn to poems about aging, about how life takes us to unexpected places, changes the way we look at the world and at ourselves, inspires faith in a power higher than ourselves. Faith in the power of words. "What once was meant to be a statement...is now just a bruise on a bony old shoulder," Ted Kooser confesses in stunning self-awareness.     

Tattoo 
What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale

with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

(from Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA 2004) 


One thing leads to another.  Who's our current Poet Laureate? I went back online. Turns out he is another voice from my generation:  Charles Wright, born in 1935 in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee.  He began writing poetry while serving in the US Army in Italy. Wright is a retired professor at the University of Virginia.  While Kooser has a Great Plains sensibility, Wright's is southern. Their poetry is infused with regionalism but universal in spirit. It resonates. 
www.Charles Wright.com
I think this so because, inspite of our differences, we share a generation, time and space, an era that is changing faster than the speed of light. We have seen many of the same things, grew up in the 1950s and '60s, encountered similar world experiences, events and traumas, share spiritual and geographic travels, hold the same years in the palms of our hands.  Might this also in part explain James BiIlington's selections? 

As I read the poems of Kooser and Wright, browsing in this gem and that, I'm struck by the fact that I am more in tune with the power of the past than the culture of the present.  In fact, I have to admit that I'm pretty out of touch with our pop culture. For example, I'm totally clueless about the current music scene, the names, the songs, the content, out of touch with the things my grandkids listen to and watch online, noses in their smart phones and ipads.  As much as I want to stay engaged in the present, and I try, I have all these added decades on my bones, all these memories, some I created myself, that make me who I am, an old lady hugging the present for dear life as time slips away. "Spring in its starched bib."  as Wright so beautifully honors it. 

Here are two poems by Charles Wright.   

Last Supper
I seem to have come to the end of something, but don’t know what, 
Full moon blood orange just over the top of the redbud tree.
Maundy Thursday tomorrow, 
then Good Friday, then Easter in full drag, 
Dogwood blossoms like little crosses
All down the street, 
lilies and jonquils bowing their mitred heads.

Perhaps it’s a sentimentality about such fey things, 

But I don’t think so. One knows
There is no end to the other world, 
no matter where it is.
In the event, a reliquary evening for sure, 
The bones in their tiny boxes, rosettes under glass.

Or maybe it’s just the way the snow fell 

a couple of days ago, 
So white on the white snowdrops.
As our fathers were bold to tell us, 
it’s either eat or be eaten.
Spring in its starched bib, 
Winter’s cutlery in its hands. Cold grace. Slice and fork.


 Excerpt from BODY AND SOUL (for Coleman Hawkins)

I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
That how we said the world
            was how it was, and how it would be.
I used to imagine that word-sway and word-thunder
Would silence the Silence and all that,
That worlds were the Word,
That language could lead us inexplicably to grace,
As though it were geographical.
I used to think these things when I was young.
            I still do.






Saturday, April 25, 2015

International Exchange Brings Hope for the World


The Hungarian Club hosted Professional Fellows from Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.  A silent auction raised funds for the Great Lakes Consortium (www:gl-consortium.org and also on facebook). I bid on and came home with home-made wine from Slovakia (made by delegation member Monika Jurikova's sister's husband, Andrej Miklusicak) and a popular apricot wine from Hungary called Hiros' Barack Palinka.  
"I hope to learn new ways to help minorities and Roma in my country," said Szilvia Suri, a reporter and activist from Budapest, Hungary.  Cristinela Ionescu, a multi-talented NGO director, journalist and cultural organizer from Petrosani, Romania, and of Roma heritage, repeated this goal in eloquent fashion. Kirilka Angelova, a group dynamics and human rights trainer from Yakoruda, Bulgaria, wants to improve her work with special needs and minority groups. The three women spoke fluent English and drew us into their dreams for the future. They are here to learn about best practices in community organizing, civic participation and advocacy that supports diverse minorities in their countries.

Cristinela, Szilvia, and Kirilka are part of a talented 22-member Professional Fellows delegation from Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.  This international leadership project, "Sustaining Civic Participation in Minority Communities," is funded by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.   The Great Lakes Consortium for International Training and Development, GLC for short, and its dedicated program director Elizabeth Balint, are local sponsors and have organized a comprehensive training program. The delegation will be in the Toledo area, Detroit, Chicago and other cities, and end its visit in Washington, DC.  The six-week program features close collaboration between GLC and NGOs in the east European countries, as well as many US partner organizations that have developed tailored internships and follow-up mentoring activities.  This seems like the best groundwork for creating a powerful network and ensuring positive outcomes.

It's an impressive group, all the more so because each delegate is open to fresh approaches and new ideas and represents the diversity of their countries. They are professional journalists, teachers, NGO workers and volunteers, community development trainers, human rights educators, a college professor, a graphic designer and a program coordinator for LGBT organizations, lawyers and writers.   We have a lot to learn from them.

For most of the delegates, this is their first time in the US, and they are excited to be here. They are enthusiastic learners, open to exploring, adventurous, and wise beyond their years.  I learned so much from them in one evening, as did everyone who shared in this international fellowship.

I spoke with most everyone in the delegation.  They all spoke English, and delighted in doing so, so we were able to have meaningful exchanges, to ask questions, to hear about their work and their countries.  It's such a rare privilege.

I left the Hungarian Club feeling more optimistic than ever about the future of our world for having met these young, articulate and knowledgable leaders from eastern Europe. They enthused and instilled confidence that their visit to America would make a difference in their lives and in the lives of their communities.  They certainly will make a difference in our lives and in our awareness of the changing world.