“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
they have to take you in” from Frost’s Death of a Hired Man
I’ve been fortunate, and perhaps not grateful enough, to have amassed 49 years of Thanksgiving feasts without the uncomfortable family drama staged in a living room
I couldn’t flee. Which means to say there hasn’t been drama I wanted to flee. There have been hard feelings from lingering disagreements. Sure. But a holiday feast has always meant placing our desire that the other person is well, and that we get to see them another year, over any desire to win an argument or to make someone feel slighted for choosing the wrong side of an issue.
I thought it might be a result of years on the road, living in a new place every other year, deployment, hardship tour, etc. But that only comes from hindsight and doesn’t explain the years living on the same farm. Politics did not come up, or an opinion was put forth, heard, and then the tableful of family moved on to the next thought. There were many other nights when a tense topic would come up, when as children we would question whether this belief was inherited or whether we were free, with maturity, to decide for ourselves.
There were also holiday feasts when an issue hung like a dark cloud – the year or two I got arrested and spent a night in jail, the time a family member arrived noticeably pregnant out of wedlock, the time I swore ‘I’m never going back to that **** ing church, shaved my head and changed religions, the times we argued, or more often, grew silent on the subject of racism.
The ability to get along never constituted agreement, or a solution. More of an uneasy truce and an acknowledgement that the relationships came first. And unlike Warren, from Frost’s ‘Death of a Hired Man’ that never felt like it was given grudgingly.
“I should have called it
Something you somehow shouldn’t have to deserve.”
from the next line
Maybe that’s because, while we remembered Warren’s line, quoted often out of context a hundred and two years later, we lived Mary’s line, a statement of grace. Mistake riddled teenagers that we were we didn’t have to earn the spot at the Thanksgiving table. In fact we walked up the stone steps to our back door, knowing what was shared with us we could never fully earn.
Still, that did not constitute agreement. Nor would it ever.
I’m thinking of it more as we grow older – the time to put our arms around each other gets shorter. The time to decide which beliefs we’re going to take with us and which we’re not going to inherit – it gets shorter. I read recently from Contested Terrain about farming and fishing and the spectre of racism hovering over each, something that gets more vivid as the culture of fear and hatred grows, only to have someone speak to me afterward of difficult relationships and uncomfortable visits – which hasn’t been true for me – perhaps because of an education that involved setting it aside over food, and when someone traveled 900 or more miles to say hello.
We are still learning to balance the beliefs we know are worth fighting over and the need to put an arm around family. We are still learning not to make the person we grew up with a two-dimensional character in the allegory of our imagination.
We are still, after all this time, learning to be human – which is an identity we already own, not something we’re still trying to earn.
What the Revelator Said
(An Unfinished Idea)
The danger of focusing all your outrage on one person
is in drawing attention from the conditions that allowed
them to do their damage. If multiple sources say it
was common knowledge that an attorney cruised
the mall for underage girls, an entire community
was ok with predators as long as it wasn’t too
embarrassing. Just like sixty two million people
were ok with giving the rantings of a white supremacist
a chance – yet angry that they are publicly identified
with white supremacy. It’s the crimes that are
allowed in one’s home and shared from generation
to generation across the dinner table that
have always been poisoning our communities –
it’s just now the poison has found a faster way to spread.
The marchers in this morning’s parade are assembling on a stretch of road from the elementary school to the VFW. Vehicles, trailers, horses being soothed by their riders, and plenty of flags. Men in their 20s, men in their 90s, gathered.
I’m in a military town so I know less about any civilian military gap. Even growing up where soldiers were not a daily sight, most everyone through their past or through their relatives, were affected by war.
It seems way too simple to assume that those who don’t serve don’t understand the warriors, just as it’s too simple to assume that everyone who has worn the uniform does understand sacrifice. We have courageous warriors, cowards, and various shades of grey in between – in both cultures.
Perhaps the gap is in those who’ve grown from their experience and those who’ve been hardened by it. Something Whitman saw in four years of serving as a civilian volunteer during the Civil War. His writing during this time began with the broadest patriotic calls to ‘do one’s duty’ and ended with a narrow focus, altered by the experience of tending the wounded, burying the dead, and family who became institutionalized from what was then called ‘shell-shock.’
His poem ‘Reconciliation’ in a few short lines travels this path from abstract patriotism to human empathy – a journey many of us are still trying to complete:
WORD over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly
wash again, and ever again, this solid world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin- I draw
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the
The word ‘beautiful’ can only be expressed from great distance has he imagines invisible forces of Death and Night doing repairs. This is unsatisfactory when faced with a human face up close.
Reconciliation becomes the job of each of us, not only to reach out to the family member but to see the humanity in our enemy, who was also doing his patriotic duty, who also dreamed of returning to his family.
The people we see today, the marchers and those gathered roadside, probably did not think about the abstractions politicians use to drum up support for war. In fact, realizing the thoughts run from returning to family, to not losing a battle buddy, to filling the long moments of boredom between action – it’s a wonder anyone is inspired by abstract talk at all.
Today is a day of reconciliation. I’m thinking about the handful I know didn’t make it back but also about an Iraqi Lieutenant and Captain who each wanted to help set up a hospital with western equipment that would last long after the war, and an advisor who had blind faith his country would be safe for him and his family even though he had supported the Americans, and I’m thinking of one hundred twenty thousand I did not meet whose lives were ended, who are not remembered in American parades, who are ‘divine as myself.’
Two Thoughts on Gratitude
1. One of the best parts of bringing a book to completion – it temporarily assuaged the fear of ‘will anyone bother to read it’ – was the chance to send copies to a couple of professors a couple of decades in the past. Two professors who managed to tolerate my flaws, lazy on the editing, tardy, too stuck in my own head (and depression) to write meaningfully about the world outside it.
Somehow in the waves of hurriedly written first drafts and poorly researched ideas they managed to find the positive. I remember one particular morning when the cloud seemed so heavy I struggled to pull myself out of bed. There was a knock on the door of my dorm room. My professor had decided if Muhammad couldn’t come to the mountain, she would bring the mountain. In the form of my entire class standing outside the door. I don’t remember the words but she ended with, ‘and we’ll be at the cafeteria having coffee and waiting for you to join us.’ An event both humorous and effective.
My other professor welcomed me into a class that I’d failed to register for in time. Didn’t know much about my ability but welcomed me to participate rather than just be an auditor in the back of the room. Which was a stroke of luck since I ended up learning more about the craft of poetry than I had in the previous years.
I had no illusions and wondered briefly if there were a stack of books by former students sitting in an office corner like refrigerator art. Until getting letters back with responses to the poems.
Long story short (or less long), gratitude has such an important role both for the sender and the recipient. There’s no expectation when you send it out, yet there’s a healing process in sending it, if only from the realization that we haven’t been alone.
I remember a football coach who started his career in my hometown and made it to the NFL eventually, who made a name for himself by leaving tickets for Elvis at the box office window of every home game. While there’s no expectation it still registered high in importance for him to leave the tickets. And yes, Dr. Barbour and Professor Miller there will always be a copy with your name on it.
2. ‘Listen /with the night falling we are saying thank you’
There is a kind of gratitude that has little to do with receiving some good fortune, that is more of a way in which we conduct ourselves than in relation to some event. Even in the approaching darkness, if we’re practiced in gratitude, the mindset can carry us through. This is not something so trite as ‘it could always be worse.’ Rather, a realization that the world doesn’t revolve around us.
‘after funerals we are saying thank you / after the news of the dead /whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you’
Which can come to seem crazy to a person looking at us from the outside. ‘Why,’ someone might ask, ‘would you be grateful for that misfortune, or for that person who did you harm?’ However, living in a tit for tat world only acts as an accelerant for whatever combustible waste is lying around in our mental attic. Laughter may get increased with more laughter but certainly hate gets amplified with more of the same. Responding in kind often fails to lift anything.
‘with the cities growing over us /we are saying thank you faster and faster’
And I doubt Merwin intended for us to ignore harm being done, or to passively accept it, just not to get bogged down in treating everyone as an abstract idea or as a threat. Try being human. Which is coming to look insane in a world judged by clicks and likes and frowning red emoticons.
‘we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is’
Yet this is perhaps the two pictures of faith. Viewed from the outside it looks like a clueless reaction to events that do not deserve a kind word. It’s incomprehensible to smile in the face of a collapsing world. Viewed from the inside it’s a profound experience of grace, one in which we keep walking forward courageously because that may be the only way to walk forward.
The entire poem, by WS Merwin, © 1988, is here:
An associate sends a message to inform me my post stating my belief - that religion, that medical care, that marriage, that patriotism are each personal relationships that one develops – be it with a higher power, a professional, loved one, or a community – is ill informed and a contributing factor to the decline of civilization – in so many words.
A driver of a pickup truck maintains a distance of inches from my rear bumper. The driver is a person I cannot see through the tinted windows – I can only make out the Chevrolet logo close to my rear window (though as he (assuming a gender) sped closer I could make out the American flag whipping in the wind from the bed of the truck). I assume the driver has a problem with my car’s speed, which is at the speed limit and on cruise control.
Those are the most recent examples.
On another day the report of a terrorist attack was broadcast over the radio into a car whose driver accelerated toward a pedestrian – a woman in a hijab forced to dive into the grass. On many days a crowd on a corner in Waco held anti-abortion banners and yelled the act was ‘murder’ to the passing cars. They yelled to anyone who would listen and to those who did not want to listen. Banners said things like ‘protect the innocent’ to imply that any act on behalf of ‘the innocent’ must be the equivalent of self-defense. All with the passion that one’s salvation and everyone else’s salvation depends on it. About the time I noticed the Waco protesters (about 2 years ago) a man walked up to a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, in hunting gear and shooting a semi-automatic rifle – killing three and wounding nine – to 'protect the innocent.'
There are other times when the rage has no event to trigger it. A week ago , in a nearby town, a man angered by slow traffic in a construction zone drove off the highway slinging mud from an established dirt trail, toward the side road – where two drivers were forced to slam on the brakes has he ‘merged.’ A teacher, feeling the stress of low test scores and coming teacher evaluations in a nearby district, shouted at a peer who delayed taking roll in order to handle a ‘teachable moment’ between students arguing as they entered the room. Another student cursed when directed to turn off a cellphone, cursed again when given detention, and a third time when sent to the principal’s office.
Inside these tunnels of rage, it seems the faces around the angry person have no interior life. It is a solipsistic world. And in such a world, thoughts of violence become acceptable. This is not new. But in our closer proximity to each other it sounds an alarm bell because it is a precondition to the act.
Which seems to give urgency to the decision whether we soak ourselves in an ocean of returning (or even pre-emptive) meanness or we find a more deliberate way to realize the hurt and motivation staring back at us through a set of angry eyes that are familiar, that are us.
Else we become a circling Fury:
“disinherited, suffering, heavy with anger
. . . let loose on the land
the vindictive poison
dripping out of the heart upon the ground” (Aeschylus, The Eumenides)
The stakes for the choice grow when we realize that wise Athena will probably not descend from the sky to stop the cycle of rage returned for rage, to correct the course.
Orestes, Clytemnestra, Hamlet, Jax Teller, Lucious and Cookie Lyon keep creeping into the imagination as cautionary tales. However they are only cautionary tales when we have a background that prepares us for the reality that these are not lives to emulate. We hopefully read these cautions in public and discuss them.
In private the revenge tales can seem delicious and rage can seem empowering. It is however, a force that can be sent in any direction with no moral of its own. It can make the world seem like the one witnessed by Lady MacDuff where ‘to do harm/is often laudable, to do good sometime/accounted dangerous folly.’
We have to remind ourselves that the crime against Lady MacDuff meets with justice, the Furies find their place in the underworld, and our urge to react does nothing to create the world we want to live in. Reading gives our minds the space to heal, takes us from an existence of being controlled by a force beyond our control and connects us to each other in a way that removes the violence against ourselves as an option.
Sacred & Profane
Memory shoves the random experience in your face sometimes, perhaps as an act of chaotic creation. Many memories from earlier times I’m not sure about, the objective truth of them or if they are the same each time they reveal themselves. What I am sure about is that the present and future change whenever these memories race back to the front of the line and collide with whatever is in the process of happening.
A professor criticizes a story that the class is discussing by calling the profanity-laced dialogue ‘gratuitous.’ It is the first time I hear the words, cursing indicates a failure of imagination.
A preacher shuts off a movie being played in a parishioner’s house because the profanity is too much. It is not his house or his movie but his kids, playing in the next room, might run out at an inopportune time. Most agree this could be a problem.
A teacher picks up a young student and shakes him by the shoulders. His head rocks back and forth. The child is silent. The teacher explains that no one curses in her class.
A theologian speaks about misplaced priorities, saying people are starving, no one gives a shit and too many are more concerned about the word ‘shit’ than the starving.
Each comes to mind as I look at a book I am about to read from, as I decide whether to read a response to Etheridge Knight, a poem about missing the point, a poem about growing out of an environment of racism. Each memory comes back and the thought occurs that reading a poem when I’m sure certain words are going to send the audience on a tangent, that it’s not simply a failure of the reader. I flip forward to another poem and proceed to read.
The idea of the profane as a failure of imagination never quite goes away. Yet in a diverse room the idea of one mind containing both profane and spiritual thoughts never goes away either. Those of us who’ve studied literature know the time discussions devote to a character’s complexity, the onion-like layers of motivations and experiences. We also know the tendency to reduce a real flesh and blood person to a simple definition – that person was a lone wolf, that person was uneducated, another person was set up for success, this one has a good heart, this one doesn’t care. It seems our crime of treating our neighbor like a cardboard cutout has infected our ability to hear the words, to understand that a person can in one moment hold The Beatitudes in one part of the brain and in a rage-filled thought about an injustice that makes him or her want to curse the author of those same Beatitudes.
It’s being human – something that seems to get lost in our desire to simplify, to work with a set of rules that is easy to predict, easy to explain and easy to apply across the board – with a consistency far from human.
There’s a scene in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five where Vonnegut’s narrator, writing about his story from outside it, says to a reader, “It is short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Indeed. Time seems to make less sense the more honest a story of war or atrocity is told. Homer would say it in his Homeric Similes to those who hadn’t witnessed the Trojan War. And Time O’Brien would write it later in ‘How to Tell a True War Story,’ that ‘often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t.’
We now have enough tellings of real truth versus the spewing of facts that we should be inoculated against the misuse of numbers and details arranged to manipulate rather than inform.
Yet, here we are.
We’re often stuck trying to satisfy cries for writing that is straightforward and linear when the truth is anything but. ‘Why can’t you just tell a nice story,’ someone will ask. Or, ‘Why does your poem jump around,’ another will ask. And I’ll find myself walking a tightrope between the ‘true war story’ (I’m counting life in the Culture of Fear as a war story of its own) and the war story an audience wants to read.
Honest writing resists the desire to alter its picture for the desire of an audience.
It’s a tenuous situation these days, in a time when the audience can shop for its facts on the open market as if they are commodities. But it raises the stakes of the story that needs to be written and of the discipline needed for readers to open stories outside their comfort zone.
It is that – or we soon find ourselves walking out of our own self-contained bomb shelter that we’ve bunkered in for decades as a defense against ideas, only to find a world that looks nothing like the facts and stories we’ve been telling ourselves.
I. Driving to the gym, I caught the red light at the busy intersection in the middle of town. This time of morning the main drag filled with traffic heading toward Fort Hood and the light favored the East West traffic. A long pause for those of us driving North. I looked around, at the still dark storefronts, the sunless sky lightening like a movie screen, at the trees coming into view, and up at the power lines now covered in the bodies of blackbirds, appearing like stitches in the screen’s fabric.
II. A policeman, weeks ago, in a casual lunchtime conversation, said public safety cannot rely on having the police stop everyone – if everyone wants to commit a crime. We depend upon a public that chooses not to commit crime, by holding a belief that lives are better by not veering left of center, not driving out of turn at the intersection, not invading the boundaries of the neighbor’s house – all for the sake of reaching our destination.
There are institutions that reinforce these images. The media illustrates citizenship through its human interest stories and fear through the crime coverage. Schools reinforce lessons on consequences and the idea of empathy for fellow citizens. Families keep an eye on each other’s kids. Or perhaps this is the way it used to be. Distrust creeps in when an officer crosses the line or when the community feels wronged. Talk radio vilifies teachers or vilifies the media for its perceived bias. The institutions that keep things predictable if not right show their cracks. People begin to wonder what other lessons they’ve learned are wrong. The stitching begins to unravel.
III. Rereading Woodrell’s masterpiece Winter’s Bone, which is a great lesson in what happens when the marginalized realize that the shared culture does not seem to include them and, as a result, create their own shared cultural values. There is a scene (one that John Hawkes plays masterfully in the movie) in which Uncle Teardrop and Ree Dolly are pulled over by Sheriff Baskin. Woodrell has been building his own sense of the sacred, where ‘not telling’ becomes a value greater than law enforcement, greater than religion. ‘Not telling’ keeps a person alive, and provides for the family. Woodrell drives the point home through the actions of Teardrop who responds to Baskin’s order to get out of the truck by pointing a rifle back and asking ‘Is this going to be our time?’ He is sure by now that the talking of law enforcement got his brother killed and obeying this command seems trivial by comparison.
More than simple action movie bravado. The old rules of the tribe offer nothing. The values from church and school of respect for elders, respect for the institutions offer nothing. The sacred becomes something the marginalized community creates from the world they know.
The stitches unravel. This new sacred knows nothing about a social contract or a common good – perhaps because the common good was not truly believed by those in power to begin with.
This is where we are, in a side of the road staredown with a society that should have been looking out of the common good. Is it going to end with the collateral damage of the things that do work or do we figure out how to talk again about the common good?
IV. The blackbirds are still gripping the wires, hanging out above the intersection in our small town. It’s migration season. Blackbirds in myth are considered directional guardians pointing to the mysteries concealed in the Underworld, mysteries often missed as we drive by self-absorbed, indulging conspiracy theories on the radio. Here’s hoping we learn to pay attention, to learn how to stitch.
For 22 years I assembled at my workplace before 0630 and again before 1700. Many brave men and women in those units, and I, rendered honors to a symbol of our national experiment (the one that’s still trying to find out if a set of ideals and rule of law rather than religion and skin color can unite us as a country).
We had each, for our own reasons, signed on to protect our nation’s borders, to defend the constitution, and to give the last measure of our life if it were required. Our occupation was (and is) filled with symbolism. And it was often in that moment of silence before the bugle played Reveille or Retreat that I thought about the symbols. Watching the flag raised and lowered reminded me there were ideals worth defending that were greater than my self interest.
Being united rather than divided in our particular profession enabled successes that didn’t seem possible and brought many of us back alive from challenging situations.
I’m reminded now that not everyone needs this cloth to serve such an ideal. First responders run into danger daily with less symbolism. Seeing a fellow citizen, or family member, in peril brings many to that conclusion. And protecting those we care about many would agree is an ideal worth fighting over.
Sometimes though we appear to be blind to the idea that a stranger may have a family whose safety, whose right to live, is also worth fighting for. Focusing on abstraction sometimes takes that attention from where it needs to be.
If you read war poetry (or war fiction, or war essays) you rarely find abstraction. The words ‘freedom’ or ‘commies’ doesn’t appear unless it’s in a quote by a politician.
A conversation with a bunkmate, the cool skin of a dead body, the smell of shit, the sound of artillery, and blood. Those appear. There’s the taste of mom’s fried chicken, the scent of a girl’s perfume. Those also appear. The things we find ourselves fighting for. And sometimes we find ourselves thinking about them while holding our hands canted, arms parallel with the ground and fingertips touching the edge of our eyebrows, rendering honors to a cause greater than our politics and ourselves.
Protesters are doing the same thing when they place their bodies in harm’s way for the idea that their children should be able to live without fear of being shot for the color of their skin.
There’s a poem in the book Phantom Noise titled ‘Illumination Rounds.’ In the poem, Brian Turner’s speaker finds himself in his back yard digging in the middle of the night. He’s seeing the war dead and trying to convey this to his wife who hasn’t seen what he’s seen. However it is the wife, on faith, who understands that what he is seeing is real and that abstraction and stock answers do not help. In fact it is the abstraction, the separation from those in harm’s way that perhaps created the war dead. She says:
‘We should invite them into our home.
We should learn their names, their history.
We should know these people
We bury in the earth.’
This is the beginning of a refusal to accept the idea of collateral damage, and an acknowledgement of what happens when we see the abstraction instead of the people affected whether it’s in our own country or overseas. You often don’t get that from news stories or history books.
Returning from the gym I stop to check my messages, come across a rejection notice for three poems. I’d submitted the set to a journal geared toward social justice. No. More accurately, a conversation being had in verse, in response to world events and the changing landscape.
I don’t mention this to talk about my disappointment. Rejections, often because a piece is not right for a magazine or doesn’t touch the right nerve with the editor, are part of the game. I actually appreciated the candid response by the editor, who wrote (paraphrasing) the reader, a few years from now, might not understand the events that these poems refer to.
While I don’t share the same idea on what events and descriptions are memorable or even understandable, the sentence was one of the best in telling me specifically what the journal aims for. It is that question, what events, what responses and what descriptions will stand the test of time and give insight to a person looking back.
I did not know much about mustard gas attacks when I first read Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est.’ Extracting the full effect of the poem required from me the supplemental reading I was willing to bring to the table. However, the poem can be read and appreciated without the scavenger hunt process of determining whether this or that is a reference and to what.
I’m staring at a silent television screen. Our president is speaking to the United Nations. I know I’ll find the text and read it later. In real time, political speeches feel like being bombarded with agenda masquerading as fact – too fast to refute and almost arm twisted into submission.
For the moment, this is the event that captures our attention and most have determined how they will react before a word has been spoken. But while the event creates the anxiety, we’ve learned for more than a decade that the news is in how people like us respond in living rooms, in diners and other public spaces, or in the workplace talk. Reactions, whether educated or erroneous or prejudiced or thoughtful, affect what happens next.
Afternoon comes and I’m standing in a public kitchen. A man, respected in the community, leans on the door frame having listened to pundits pour over the speech. He starts with small talk while I’m chopping vegetables, focused more on blade and fingertips than events. He says, ‘This is what happens when you’re more concerned about political correctness.” (He never explains whether the you is me or some broader group.)
“How so?” I ask. Then think about it. Then say, “Back up. First define political correctness.”
We argue (but in a low tone) for a while. Which isn’t the point.
Point is this. The event that triggered the discussion has happened. We are not near the end of thinking about what it means. , or how to bridge people rather than becoming more entrenched.
The event is happening in New York City, 1700 miles away, roughly. I can’t write the witness poem. I could write a political, a didactic piece, and probably a bad one.
But there is a news we tend to ignore in our 24 hour news cycle of fact spewing – which is the reaction to it, locally, maybe in our own homes. The reaction becomes news because it is the story of how each person will view the world afterward – a small chance of changing, a greater chance of having that view hardened. What happens next, perhaps an image of political refugees from war torn Myanmar, already has meaning attached. It is in tens of millions of living rooms like this where the tension rises. Somewhere it reaches a crescendo. In which living room does the next Dylan Roof sit glued to the screen, or the next activist for positive change?
Writing about these fault lines provides a glimpse of the movement beneath the surface, the impending collision that makes these words relevant at some unknown place down the road.