Wednesday, March 25, 2015

EIGHT MINUTES

Such a dreadful event, yesterday's plane crash in the French Alps.  So many young lives lost...  Images from the site show nothing but small fragments left of what was once a jetliner.  The impact must have been one of unimaginable force.

I find myself fixating on those last eight minutes, from the time the plane started its "controlled descent" from 38,000 feet.  No word from the pilots.  No distress call.  What could have been happening in that cockpit?  And were the passengers aware, for those eight minutes, that their plane was headed for destruction?  They must have been wondering, at the very least, why they were headed so soon toward the ground.

Impossible to imagine how much they knew and what they felt as those 150 human beings hurtled toward their death.  I try to place myself in one of their seats, with full awareness, and use those minutes in meditation to prepare myself for the end of my own life on earth...

But it's a fantasy, of course.  Easy for me, sitting quietly, out of harm's way, in my living room.  Well, not easy, even so.  But relatively benign, without the terror I would surely have experienced in that circumstance, had I been aware of what was happening.

To say "my heart goes out" to the victims and their families seems an inadequate expression, but we have little more than this cliché.  To empathize, as I try to do in meditation, feels equally inadequate.  To try to rationalize... impossible.  There is no sense, no justice to be found in disasters of this kind.  Just human tragedy.

Monday, March 23, 2015

ON NOT-KNOWING


I hear myself
speak these words
so often:

I don't know.

The immensity
of my not-knowing
is boundless.

I marvel at it
as I marvel
at the restless
surface of the ocean
beyond the shift
of all horizons;

or at the great,
ever-expanding
and bewildering
mystery of the universe
escaping its own
limitless boundaries
at light-speed
on a starlit night.

On tiny Earth,
this speck of dust,
I contemplate
the endless reach
of my not-knowing,
repeating to myself
that one thing that
I know I know:

I don't know.



Saturday, March 21, 2015

POEM



A GRIM VIGIL

I dreamt the brother
(I don't have)
was to be executed.
It was a grim vigil.
I held his hand
and wept.

Friday, March 20, 2015

TWO QUESTIONS FOR NETANYAHU

The questions for Benjamin Netanyahu, now that his policies and his rhetoric have reduced Israel to a bitter and truculent defensive crouch, are these: how does he envision the future of his country, and how does he intend to get there?  For all his settlements, his walls, his powerful military, he has succeeded only in isolating Israel increasingly from the community of nations, in alienating not only the American President but growing numbers of the American people--his country's best among its dwindling supply of friends--and in feeding the hostility of neighbors who would gang up on him at a moment's notice, as they have done in the past, if they foresaw the possibility of driving Israel into the sea.

I don't get it.  Unlike what I now take to be the vast majority of leftist thinkers, I would want to support this tiny nation.  I support the idea of a homeland for the Jews.  I remember the second World War.  I know enough of European history, for the past two thousand years, to acknowledge their claim to a place of commonality and safety.  Israeli's legitimacy was endorsed by a majority of the other countries of the world.  It needs to be respected and protected.  I get that it's impossible to live in peace under a hail of rockets, and there's a sacred right to self-defense.

Still, I fail to see how it can be argued that Netanyahu's policies are functional as self-defense.  The growing numbers of Palestinians proportionate to Israel's population, within the nation of Israel and without, suggest a future in which it will become increasingly difficult to contain their anger and resentment, and to defend against their assaults.  Provocative territorial actions and repression can succeed only so long, before their negative effects accumulate into a situation that is uncontrollable by military force.

So those questions are the vital ones: how does Israel envision its own future, and how does it intend to get there?  My wish for the country is that it fulfill its original--may I say "leftist"?--vision, to be an island of democratic sanity where the Jewish people could live in the spirit of peace, justice and harmony amongst themselves and with the world around them.  It will soon be Passover again.  Since allying myself with a Jewish family, I have attended the annual seder, the celebration of the Exodus, for the past forty years and more.  I have joined in the saying of many prayers and the singing of many songs extolling freedom, peace, and harmony not only for Jews, but amongst the nations of the world.  These are heartfelt aspirations.

The concluding words of the seder are "Next year in Jerusalem."  For me, this is not, and cannot be, an exclusive vision.  I was brought up singing the Christian hymn created from the William Blake poem, "Jerusalem," which concludes with the words "Till we have built Jerusalem/In England's green and pleasant land."  That Jerusalem, as I see it, is a not a fortress, but an inclusive city, where the ideals of human peace and brotherhood can flourish.  History, as well as current circumstance demonstrate that this cannot be easy.  On the contrary, it is agonizingly hard.  There is a long, war-pitted road ahead.  But Netanyahu will not be able to lead his people to that city with nothing but a bloody sword in hand.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

THE VOICES by Michael Dennis Browne: An Appreciation

I learned two things in personal conversations with Michael Dennis Browne (and probably a lot more, but these two stand out!) for both of which I’m grateful.  The first, many years ago, at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, was the adage that I still repeat quite often when I'm talking or writing about the creative process: “How do I know what I think ‘til I see what I say?”  I follow it in my own process, and I’m always happy to share it with others.  The second, many years later, quite recently in fact, was the notion of not exactly reading, but rather “wandering” in books.  What a perfect idea!

So I’ve been wandering—with all the pleasures of the wanderer, and none of that awful sense of obligation to read from beginning to end—in his fine book of poems, The Voices.  I have talked with him in the past about our mutual love of short poems.  I find them quite lovely, especially when they are as well done as Browne's, because they are so delightfully precise; and because the aging, wandering mind can actually grasp them in a breath.  There are many of them here, and they are beautifully “sufficient unto themselves.” 

I love, too, his title, "The Voices"; it rings true.  I hear many voices as I wander through these pages, and all of them distinctively the poet's.  He has many.  Some of them are raised in anger or in celebration, some are no more than whispers.  Through them, though, I also hear echoes of the voices that he hears, and listens to; those of his family, of friends he loves, the voices of the choirs that sing the many liturgical songs he has written for musical performance, the voices of Shoah survivors, the many voices of the dead.  Amazing, how he manages to give these latter ghostly, resonating voice.  I also hear—because I am the reader; well, the wanderer—certain voices that are familiar to me.  In particular, poignantly, I hear the voice of my father, in poems that have clear Christian intonations; I hear his intense, personal, sometimes difficult struggle with God, along with Browne's; and of course my own, the struggle of both the believer and the non-believer that I am.

In which context, I am particularly moved by the sequence “Seven Last Voices,” reflections on the seven last words from the Cross.  They take me back to those three-hour services on Good Friday, with my father’s church stripped of all decoration and trappings of the usual (“high church”) pomp, with my father in the pulpit or at the lectern reading, ceremoniously and with reverence, those same words to the congregation.  For some reason—I must certainly explore this further—I am especially moved in this sequence by that great, agonized cry: Eli, Eli, lamma sabachtani, (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?) though as I recall, in my father’s voice, the name of God was Eloi, Eloi 

So, there's a great resonance for me in these words.  Is it perhaps my own sense of abandonment?  By God?  By father?  In any event, the words resound at a deep level of consciousness.  “Why, then,” Browne writes, “this heartlessness?”  Yes!  So hard to get past the notion of an all-powerful, all-loving, all-merciful God who “allows” such disasters as the tsunami (the subject of this poem) to happen.  And wars.  And hunger and poverty.  And heartless political systems.  And, in the next poem, thirst: “Cracked the lips of the children; the lips of the mothers, the lips of the fathers.”  It’s this sense of compassion that the poet projects so well—his own compassion for the suffering of others, yes, but also the compassion he elicits compellingly in our response.

I’ll continue to wander amongst "The Voices".  As with all good books of poems, there will always be many places to visit, some of them quite dense and difficult thickets, others—suddenly, surprisingly—quite transparent and clear.  I like when I reach those clearings, places I recognize, where I can feel for a moment totally at peace.  At home.  And say simply, Yes! in recognition of the fact.

I trust that other readers will manage, for one reason or another, to find their way into this book and wander there.  May they be many!  Our species has much yet to learn about compassion, and this is one place where they will be able to hear its many “voices.”