Fresh Thinking for a New Year?


It’s the fifth day of Christmas as I post this, and, supposedly, three days before we all go over the “fiscal cliff,” although there are a number of efforts in place to forestall or minimize the impact.  It is both amazing and distressing to see how real and persistent ills, such as hunger, homelessness and killings, take second place to an economic tangle beyond the comprehension of most of us unless over simplified to single issues, like taxes or entitlements.

Isn’t it hubris to believe, or act as if, a problem this big can be solved by one decision, one agreement?

On the blog for the One Earth Project, Lee Van Ham has been examining our economic structure as a religion.  He makes a very good argument for this.  The following translation of getting, spending, consuming and anxiety into religious language seems to fit the case quite well.

The path to wholeness and salvation in market logic is wealth accumulation. Without accumulating enough to participate in The Market’s activities, one is doomed. To follow any path other than wealth accumulation is heresy, and inevitably, means falling into sin. One testifies to their salvation through their assets and habits such as car, home, smart phone, clothing, investments, and up-to-date technologies; also where we travel, vacation, eat out and with whom. All of these bear witness to being saved. Nevertheless, the path is an anxious one because, unless one has accumulated a lot, working for more is unending. Even after one has been to the altar and been saved, the feelings of insufficiency return. Salvation becomes an unending quest, heavy in effort, light in grace.

I think “light in grace” is an understatement.    Grace means “gift”: there is no grace as long as we think it is we who must do something to be saved.  Grace comes with the idea that our very life is a gift.  Then what we do with our life can be understood as our thank-you gift in return.

The primary purpose of the One Earth Project blog is to demonstrate that we in the developed world are consuming more resources than our planet can provide.  We live as if we had five earths to draw on. This is different from the charge I remember from thirty years ago, when we in America were accused of using more than our “fair share.”  “Fairness” has never sold well as an idea in capitalist economies.  Now we are up against the more serious matter of sustainability, survival.

The call to one-earth thinking is no easier to hear in the noise of our economics than the call to fairness was.  New Year’s resolutions to spend less, or recycle more, are not enough.  A friend of mine has pointed out that recycling may be only an effort to maintain our “culture of things” a little longer, to avoid any major changes that might really affect the one earth “deficit.”  As with the national debt, we’ve gotten ourselves into a situation with no quick fix.  But I invite you to start thinking about the issue by reading the blog: click on One Earth Project in the blog roll.

Poetry and History: A Recommendation

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Eve Rifkah’s book Outcasts is a book of poetry which doubles as a history lesson.  The subtitle describes what the book is about: The Penikese Island Leper Hospital 1905-1921.  This hospital, really a kind of imprisonment on a deserted island, was an effort of the State of Massachusetts to deal with the problem of leprosy.  It involved a total of 36 patients in its sixteen years of existence, fourteen of whom died and were buried there.  Rifkah recreates twenty of the patients, who were of many different cultures and ethnicities.

Rifkah uses historical documents, including the journal of Dr. Parker, who ran the institution, as well as newspaper clippings and other records collected by Mrs. Parker.  To these she adds a large dose of sympathetic imagination.  The desolate island, the smallest of the Elizabeth Islands south of Cape Cod, is vividly portrayed, echoing the desolation of the residents.

Each of the characters has a history and a role on the island.  Willie does the laundry, Archie runs the wireless telegraph, and so on.  Some are characterized further by their religion: Isabelle and Flavia pray to Mary, Solomon laments in verses from the Psalms, Iwa speaks to the Buddha, whose statue is his one possession.

The title page, below the subtitle, describes this collection as “A docu-drama in verse” and the sections are called Acts.  This is misleading, there is very little drama.  The poems are mostly soliloquies or descriptions of an individual.  The sort of tensions that would surely exist in such a situation are scarcely referred to.  Those few interactions which are portrayed  are largely between a patient and Dr. or Mrs. Parker, who are presented as loving, highly competent and inventive people.  I would describe this book as elegy, not drama.  One moment of group activity is portrayed in the following poem:

Here We Are Safe

huddled around Lucy reading the news
between songs on the Victrola
Till We Meet Again
our eyes look away
at the floor      the windows   nowhere
goodbye means the birth of a tear drop
and the singer talks about love
in A-flat

I remember hearing how the Shakers
called all outside their home the World
wind-up songs and newsprint all we have from that

the farther shores

out there          war      the reporters now call
the Great War             the war to end
we look at each other              imagine
exploding buildings                men ripped apart
in the World                the place we left
as though waking or entering dreams

Rifkah does not tell us who the “I” in this poem is.  The lack of punctuation and irregular line lengths are typical of most of the poems in the collection.

The language of most of the poems is tight, often fragmented, and does not rely on images outside the barren landscape and experience of the people.  This helps to build the feeling of lament which runs through the collection.  An example of such lament is “Frank Counts the Waves”.  Frank had been a fisherman.  Rifkah uses this history to inform the poem.

Frank Counts the Waves

high tides follow a blind moon
storm from the west blows
spray to walls              salt
seasoned crust on my lips
shattered shuttered shake

white roughed waves
roll and heave              break and break
one two three four
daylong nightlong

I sit back to cabin wall
hear Iwa praying to his Buddha
his language hard as the wind
I look to the cross my wife sent with me
hanging over my narrow bed
Why hast thou forsaken me
who am I to turn to.

all the world comes in goes out

no return passage
I said when leaving Cabo Verde,
the flowering islands,
in New Bedford fished cold water
fed my laughing children
named my first born Isaac, to laugh
I have passed into uncharted seas
breath in out as waves counting

years roll the sun summer high winter low
still counting
one two three four
ready or not.

As here, the other patients are usually peripheral to each person’s personal laments. It is a sad world, yet only rarely an ugly one.  Rifkah’s compassion permeates the book.

A listing of the actual patients whom she has lovingly brought to life is included in the back of the book; the summaries look oddly like contributors’ biographies in the back of a journal.  Rifkah has also written an Author’s Note giving the historical background.  Those who still lived when the institution was closed in 1921 were transferred to a federal leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana.  There, she writes “they experienced conditions even more horrific than those on the barren island.”

Overall, a harsh history has been softened by carefully chosen, crisp language.  It is an excellent way to tell the story.  It is a story worth knowing.

Outcasts was published by Little Pear Press in 2010.  It is available on Amazon.com.

A Different Kind of Christmas Poem


George Washington Crossing the Delaware

by Wayne Crawford

I have never crossed the Delaware River nor stood in a row-boat. while crossing any other river. If I were crossing a river in a rowboat, I would never stand with one foot propped on the edge of the boat, especially an overcrowded boat. I imag- ine that if I were to cross a river in a boat, I might cross the Delaware River, and the waves of the river would rise and chop against my boat like those in this painting of “George Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze. In this painting, General Washington is crossing the Delaware on Christmas day. It is a windy, overcast day. Clumps of ice, the height of many of the people in the overcrowded boat, float on the surface of the river. A couple of men must use their oars to push these islands of ice out of the way so that the boat can move forward, so that the Colonists can surprise the English and Hessians and win the Battle of Trenton. It is Wednesday, almost 69 degrees where I live in New Mexico. On Wednesdays, I don’t cross rivers, not even the Rio Grande, which is a mile away and mostly dry this time of year. It’s the Christmas season here too. I’ve been looking in an art book, viewing all these paintings with water in them-slots of seaside scenes, picnics along the river, lovers caught in a rain shower, couples silhouetted against the ocean or dangling their legs in a pond. Today, I crossed the Delaware River. I could drown on a Wednesday afternoon and never leave my study.

Wayne Crawford was a poet and promoter of poetry in Las Cruces for many years until his death in 2011.  He worked to bring young poets and older poets together and was encouraging to all.  I feel that I made significant advances in my work due to the confidence I gained from his enthusiasm and support.

This prose poem, “George Washington Crossing the Delaware,” is from Wayne’s last book, Sugar Trail, published by Sin Fronteras/Writers Without Borders Press in 2007.  It is available on amazon.com

Advent Hope: Images of Emmanuel

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The most popular advent hymn is probably “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  I wish we would sing it every Sunday in Advent, since it is only appropriate on those four Sundays.  There are as many as eight verses, depending on your tradition.  These verses are a compendium of metaphors, different images added one to another to try to convey the qualities and importance of the Awaited One, the savior and healer who is to come.

To emphasize this abundance I am numbering the themes, although they do not appear in all versions in the same order.

1.  In the first verse, also often sung at the end, Emmanual will ransom Israel, which mourns in lonely exile.  This echoes both the Exodus from Egypt and the return of the Israelites from Babylon.  It can also remind us, in our present time, that mourning feels like exile.

2.  Emmanuel is “Wisdom from on high.”  Wisdom is sometimes presented as an assistant to God.  Here Wisdom will teach us.

3.  Emmanuel is the mighty Lord who gave Israel the law.  He is thus the God who will judge all.

4. Emmanuel is the Branch (or Rod depending on the version) of Jesse.  Jesse is the father of David and therefore Emmanuel is in the line of Israelite kings.  This Branch will rescue people and “give them victory over the grave.”

5.  Some traditions also have a verse describing Emmanuel as the Root of Jesse’s tree.  This suggests that the Awaited One is in the lineage of David and at the same time was before David. (As described in one of Jesus’ discussions with the Pharisees in the gospels.)

6.  As Key of David, Emmanuel opens the way to heaven and closes the path to misery. Though no door is mentioned, the image is of an actual key which can lock and unlock.

7.  Emmanuel is the Dayspring, which is to say the sun, which disperses the clouds of night.  This is in turn a metaphor for removing the dark shadow of death.

8.  As King of nations, Emmanuel will restore what is broken, bringing peace.

9.  This King is also called Cornerstone, the stone which binds a building into one.

The original combiner of these metaphors, back in the eleventh or twelfth century, knew the scriptures well.  All of these images circle around the hope for healing, for safety and for peace, that very human longing which is the underlying theme of Advent.

What is Nature? (From the Biography)

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In November 1900, John Emerson Roberts had begun his fourth year as an independent freethought preacher, speaking on Sunday mornings in theaters.  He was beginning to be noticed beyond Kansas City.  A nationwide network, the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation, invited him to speak at their conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This was a great opportunity to make his views widely known.

            Roberts chose for his topic “This Natural World of Ours.” As reported the following month in The Truth Seeker, this speech shows that Roberts is still as reverent as any minister. He has transferred his reverence to nature, the “sublime” discoveries of astronomy, and the gradual revelation of the universe as an “ordered whole.” As he has done before, Roberts faults Christianity for condemning the world as evil. If God lost the world to the devil, he argues, this makes God the creator a failure. He speaks harshly of medieval piety:

“Within the cloister, the sanctuary and the cell, with bleeding knees on floors of stone, crouched and cowed the saints in terror. With aching bones, exhausted bodies, tortured nerves and disordered brains, they were visited by visions of horror. Those hideous dreams were called revelations from God, and have come down to us as theology.”

The true secularists among the audience would have enjoyed this immensely. It is not clear whether all would have agreed with where Roberts goes next. He makes a general argument that the world is divine. He sees only two possibilities: either the world was created, in which case it must reflect its creator and that creator’s divinity, or it was not. If it was not created, then the natural world “is eternal, self-existent, intelligent and self-sufficient. Can God be more than that?” Either way, he asserts, the world is divine.

After some additional arguments against old Christian views, Roberts personifies the natural world as mother:

“The faithful world pays the strictest and most minute attention to the least and humblest thing, and treats it with the same dignity that she does the largest and greatest things, the worm, the bird, is as much provided for in the intelligent plan of nature as is any rational being . . . Moreover the laws of nature are moral. They exist in the interest of the health and well-being of man.”

Having lifted up nature, Roberts goes on to challenge the Christian view of heaven.   He asks, “Can it be that the dream of the beautiful world beyond was the gambler’s dream of something for nothing, or the visionary’s dream of sudden wealth?” A world that was not earned would be immoral. He concludes:

“There is an eternal law of exactness and compensation whereby the great world gives back to every one in equal measure and undiminished what each one gives to the world. If we knew this world and kept its laws we should find that sickness and disease, deformity, weakness of will, and poverty were unnecessary, and we should look upon them as disgraceful just as we look upon crime. If we knew this world and kept faith with it we should make our heaven here and ask for none here or anywhere that we did not make.”

Another speaker at this conference was Clarence Darrow.  Both men were paid $25 for their efforts.  Roberts and Darrow began an acquaintance that lasted for decades.  That is another part of the story told in the biography.

Excerpts are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date’ Freethought Preacher, which is available from Amazon, through ERYBooks.  Or use the contact page to order directly from the author.

A Freethinker’s View of Women: From the Biography

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John Emerson Roberts was “Kansas City’s up-to-date freethought preacher” partly because he was an avid reader.  He readily absorbed new ideas and included them in his lectures.  One example of this is a lecture he gave in 1900 was called “Woman and Modern Religion.”

            The lecture claims that the Bible and Christianity have been the cause of the debasement of women.  Like many of Roberts’s lectures, this is arranged as a historical progression.  He begins with recent theories about the power of women in ancient societies, citing stories about Egypt, Rome, China and Zuni tribes as fact.  In each he finds a queen or a priestess with significant power.  He summarizes his view of the ancient past:

“The pagan philosophy that recognized the natural superiority of woman must have proceeded in the most rational way.  It looked upon her as the mother, the creator, and the preserver of man and of his world.  Man knew then as we know now that civilization began with the mother. All progress in this world is led forward by the divine guide, love.  Woman was the lover first; man was the fighter.”

Acknowledging that no one can explain how the matriarchal era was replaced by patriarchy, Roberts goes on to describe the patriarchal attitudes found in the Bible.  He declares it “the charter of masculine tyranny” and “the instrument that has forged chains for the enslavement of woman.”  Because of the Eve story, theology has made woman the cause of all sin.  He mentions the Levitical rules of cleansing after childbirth: 40 days for a son, 80 for a daughter.  He asserts, “The New Testament makes no advance toward the elevation of woman.  Jesus seems to have no regard for woman.”

Roberts continues his history with a tirade against the middle ages, one of his recurring themes:  He calls them “a period of a thousand years that has never been paralleled in the history of mankind for its debauchery, its superstition, its intellectual vagaries, its frightful and nameless criminal practices.”

            The concluding section of this lecture is a paean in praise of motherhood.  Roberts speaks of “the mother” but he is surely drawing from his own recollection, either of his own mother, who died in 1885, or perhaps from the example of other mothers, such as Josephine Parks, his second wife’s mother, who had lived with them:

.” . . .when I remember how all we are we owe to her, how in the glad and happy time she sang as she rocked our cradle, knitting or mending or sewing while under the inspiration of a chaste and holy love; when I remember how in the wayward and unthinking years of childhood and youth it was the mother whose love was never overtaxed, it was the mother whose arms were ever open with forgiveness in her heart; when I remember how she toiled and toiled that we might have a little better chance in this world than had come to her; when I remember how she grew old and white haired and wrinkled and wan and feeble with the patient and uncomplaining toil of many years and how we folded at last her cold hands in peace across the loving breast; how the smile, even after death’s cold touch illuminated her face like a halo from the home of God; when I remember the mother, I can worship the best by paying the homage of my honor, my respect, and my love to the motherhood of this world.”

Motherhood, as described here, was a nineteenth century concept.  It developed alongside the new idea that childhood is a special stage of life..  This idealization had little to do with equality or real power.  Roberts apparently did not see the difference between this admiration of motherhood and the matriarchies which he believed characterized the ancient world.

When Roberts spoke the idea that ancient societies were matriarchal was widely accepted.  Later scholarship has concluded that this idea was a figment of nineteenth century imagination.  The idea appealed to Roberts because it made an excellent contrast to Christian, and especially medieval, patriarchy.  The seriousness of the offense, in his view, would not be called into question by the error in his starting point.


Excerpts are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date’ Freethought Preacher, which is available from Amazon, through ERYBooks.  Or use the contact page to order directly.

Poetry Reflections: Scraps of memory and “The Second Coming”


Have you ever had a scrap of poetry come to mind and been totally blank on where it came from?  That happened to me recently when, in the middle of working on a poem about decay (it started out as a fall poem and went down into dissolution from there) the phrase “the center will not hold” came to mind.  Thank goodness for Google which can turn that into “the centre cannot hold.” and then give me the whole poem it came from, William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”  I didn’t remember Yeats had a poem with that title.  I didn’t remember the rest of the poem when I read it, until I got to the last line, “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”  Then I knew I had read it, but when, where, or how long ago is a mystery.  It was not in school.  I have not had a class in poetry since seventh grade, when we were required to memorize a poem every week.  There were Wordsworth’s daffodils, and “Flanders Field” and some I haven’t seen since, like Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib”:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold
and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.

The object was to memorize, not to understand.

Yeats’s poem is a different matter.  It begins with lovely language about a desperate time.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

There seems to be some dispute as to whether this refers specifically to Irish issues or to the conditions everywhere after World War I.  I think it would fit today, this year, this decade also very well.

Then the poem turns, as the title warned us it would.  “Second Coming”?  Who expects that today?  The Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other such apocalyptic groups still talk of a return of the Savior.  None of them, however, use Yeats’ language.  “A lion body and the head of a man” is Biblical enough, but “slow things” “shadows of indignant desert birds”?

The final scene comes with a shock to one who knows a little Biblical reference and expects a Biblical kind of hope. Yeats is against the religious history altogether.  “twenty centuries of stony sleep/were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.” The church’s history is a nightmare.   Can we get a little comfort in a period of “anarchy” and “blood-doused tide”? Yeats offers none.  There is an end coming, but there is no hope:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Interacting with this powerful piece of writing. I am now so far from the poem I was writing, the one that brought the phrase to mind and sent me to Google, that I cannot find my way back.

The only thing I am sure of about this poem is that I totally failed to understand it when I read it in years past.


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