Tuesday, August 31, 2010

About Things Standing and Not Standing

It seems that the 150-year-old chestnut tree that once offered solace and hope to Anne Frank while she was in hiding from the Nazis, was recently toppled by wind and heavy rain. The fungus-ridden trunk was badly diseased and snapped 3 feet above the ground. Fortunately no one was injured when the tree fell, but the symbolism of the stricken tree did not escape me. I began to think about things standing and not standing.

Last winter, in the town where I live, the roof of the local high school gymnasium collapsed from the weight of a heavy snowfall. Luckily, it too hurt no one when it fell, but the accident did lead to the entire building being condemned. By some politically unfortunate algorithm, the displaced high schoolers have, this fall, been directed to occupy the site of the middle school building--thereby displacing, in a kind of domino effect, the middle schoolers--who are now having to commute to an old and abandoned campus in the next town. The main building there dates from 1905, and is considered to be haunted.

I learned this from my friend Jane Vance, who is a special aids teacher for the middle school, and is quite put out of joint about having to add half an hour (each way) to her daily commute. Meanwhile, intrigued by the weird history of the place, Jane did some research via Google. The story which she discovered involves two "Black Sisters," so-called because they always wore black, who ran a boarding school in the main building and had an infamous reputation as murderers. "Two people died in the building," she wrote me, "and a third--a child--was drowned in a well out back, which is now covered over. The deaths were all violent, and...Google will regale you with scary stories about the Sisters and the flickering lights, whispers, and weird shadows in the old main building."

In a subsequent conversation with the current building inspector, who has been inspecting the old place for thirty years, Jane learned that the Black Sisters still play their tricks with brooms. Janitors leave the brooms leaning against the wall, but when they come back, one broom is always standing, unsupported, in the middle of the room. Somewhat skeptical, Jane decided to check out the downstairs boiler room on her own, and sure enough, she found a broom standing by itself in the middle of the room. She took the photo above, and sent it to me from her iPhone. "'Haunted seems a good word for the boiler room," she wrote, "not because a broom stands there, but because the place FEELS humid with the residue of the past...or the wrong mix of carbon dioxide and oxygen. You'll absolutely notice the strange feeling when you are down there."

"In south Asia," she adds, "there is a word--geomantic--which means that some places are charged, as if ionically, with the residue of long years of what people's intentions there have been. So some shrines are believed to be potent--able to make you more serene, for example, by virtue of mere proximity to them, because of the effects of so many people who have been there before you, refining their intentions, trying to be good, in that space."

Which leads me, in a rather neat segue, to the symbology of Glenn Beck, standing geomantically on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, in the very place where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Crowning himself with the good vibes of all the people who have been there before him (including Barack Obama), Beck implored the gathered crowds to "turn back to God" and return America to the values on which it was founded.

"We are so honored to stand here today," declared his distinguished guest speaker, Sarah Palin, the self-appointed leader of the Mama Grizzlies. "We feel the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," she said--as spooky in her way as Jane's stand-alone broom.

It is claimed that in ancient times, certain trees were oracular. They could speak and deliver messages. I can't help wondering if the toppling of Anne Frank's beloved tree does not contain an oracular message for our times--signaling that a whole way of life is no longer standing, along with its heady promise of better tomorrows. Arianna Huffington wrote a blog about Beck's rally, in which she said: "What were thought by many to be the ingredients of the good life just a short time ago--a job, a home, a secure retirement, a college education for your kids, and prospects for a brighter future for them--are no longer attainable simply by hard work and playing by the rules. And it doesn't appear that this will change any time soon."

It seems like we will all need to collectively redefine what we mean by the good life in going forward. These are indeed heady days. Can we learn to navigate without the pole stars--and the bourgeois goal--of better times ahead which we have for so long set for ourselves?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sitting on the Fence

I'm not just a fan, it's worse than that: i'm pretty much addicted to Charlie Rose. His program of masterful nightly conversations on TV--with everyone in the wide world who is, as the police like to put it, "a person of interest"--normally airs right across the midnight hour, a time when I am most definitely asleep, all being well. However, I do watch reruns from the night before at 5 o'clock on the following afternoon--that is, until they vanished quite suddenly this summer from their usual slot on the airwaves. I was distraught. Charlie Rose keeps me savvy and sane. Because of him, I always have a handle on whatever matters most, whether it is the latest state of the Middle East peace process, the cultural import of "Avatar," President Ahmadinejad's current antics, what the guys from Politico think about the Obama administration, the significance of the new iPad, the death of John Updike, or the government bailout of the auto industry. Whatever is going on, Charlie is on it, and I get educated.

With the help of a friend, I recently discovered that reruns were still being broadcast, but at a new, ungodly time: 6 a.m. Now, most mornings during the week, you can find me glued to the TV between the hours of 6 and 7. No one in their right mind watches TV at 6 a.m. But what's a besotted girl to do?

This past week Charlie had two incredible interviews, one with NBC newscaster Brian Williams, and another with Thad Allen, the administration's point man for the BP oil spill. To my astonishment in each case, I found myself thinking the same thought: I wish this guy was our president. Maybe the country would be rendered sane again, if somebody other than Obama was running it.

I just couldn't imagine either of these men being subject to the insane levels of disrespect and abuse that Obama is subject to, every single day. I've thought about this a lot. Why is he becoming ever more misunderstood and, yes, villified? Finding the answer to this has become, in a way, my private Zen koan. How much of the prejudice and confusion has been stoked by poisonous Republican lies and the disgusting misinformation campaign spread by the media, and how much has been triggered by Obama himself, through his own, sometimes odd, responses and behaviors in the public arena?

Last week Obama announced his support for the constitutional right of any American to practice their faith freely--including the construction of the "Ground Zero mosque" at the site of the old Burlington Coat factory store in lower Manhattan. The "mosque," it should be pointed out, is not actually a mosque, but an Islamic cultural center containing a prayer room upstairs. Nevertheless, intense feelings have been stirred up across the public and political spectrums, from hard-right Republican Newt Gingrich, who declared that building a "mosque" two blocks from Ground Zero would be like putting a swastika outside the Holocaust Museum, all the way to left-of-center Democrat Howard Dean. who considers the building of the mosque as "an affront," not to forget Rush Limbaugh, who now refers to the president as "Imam Obama." Obama, it must be said, only added to the spectacle of disarray when he backpedaled the following day, claiming, after his initial show of support, "i was not, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about." So, to be more precise, it's constitutionally legitimate to do it, but maybe, on second thought, it's not such a good idea.

For me, that was a revelatory moment. I finally understood how Obama speaks freely when in defense of the constitution, and the constitutional rights it bestows on all citizens, but he seems much more constrained when it is a matter of sharing his personal views. It's almost as if he believes his personal views don't really matter. The constitution matters, and upholding it. After many repeats of this approach, on issues like the rights of gays to serve openly in the military, or to get married, or even his view of the public option during the health-care debate, a pattern of contrived impartiality has finally emerged: in controversial matters, it would appear that Obama prefers sitting on the fence. That is why, I think, people constantly criticize him for not standing up for things--for not being clear about what he really believes, and thus, for not being a good leader.

However, as my friend Ray Kass cogently pointed out to me, when you sit on the fence, you tend to lose both sides--which is exactly what is now happening to Obama. Definition of a fence-sitter: a person who won't take sides in a controversy. One who takes a position of neutrality or indecision. Out of this confusion, Republicans make merry. One in five Americans now believes that Obama is a Muslim. And that he was born in Kenya. How can this be? "You can have an opinion on the New York mosque, for or against," as Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times last week. "But there aren't two sides to the question of whether Obama is a Muslim." Many people have a confused view of Muslims, she adds, and the president seems unable to help navigate the country through its Islamophobia.

Ray says that Dems and liberals need to band together to beat the Republicans at their own game. They need to launch a counter-campaign of their own, gleefully spreading fear and disinformation about Republicans. I love the idea, for instance, of convincing 20 percent of the population that Mitch McConnell is really a closet Hindu. Or maybe a lesbian in drag. Or, dare I say it, a racist?

Please understand that I am not actually stating that the president is a fence-sitter, merely that it appears that way, in his understandable efforts to make himself less of a moving target. I believe that he does have strong convictions; but it also seems natural for him to acknowledge all sides of an issue, to give everyone an equal voice, and not to insist on only one opinion--his own--by coming down hard on one side or the other. Somehow, however, he has managed to miss the point here, which is that as the president, people expect and want to know what he thinks. Fence-sitting is ultimately working against him. Nobody much cares, for instance, what I think, except maybe a few friends. But then, I am not president of the United States--if I was, everyone would.

At this point, I think Obama needs to revisit the words of his mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke about his opposition to the Vietnam war and the role of moral leadership in times of controversy:

"I'm not a consensus leader... I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of my organization or by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. On some positions a coward has asked the question is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right, and that is where I find myself today."

PersonaIly I believe Obama is quite capable of this. The question remains, however, as to when he will decide to get off the fence and just go for it. The crucial sentence here is that a real leader doesn't search for consensus; he molds it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

When It's Already Beyond Repair, You Wear it Broken

Even as the deadly threat of oil Armageddon in the Gulf recedes, along with my own self-appointed role as its Anne Frank-style diarist, new nightmare scenarios arrive in rapid succession to take the spill's place: the hundred-mile chunk of ice more than four times the size of Manhattan, for instance, which has broken loose from the southeast side of the Petermann glacier in Greenland, that is now drifting across the Arctic Ocean. Should it collapse, it would raise global sea levels by a devastating twenty feet. Should it follow a certain trajectory, it could pose a serious threat to waters busy with shipping activities and off-shore oil rigs along the Newfoundland coast. The same waters in which, years ago, the Titanic was struck by an iceberg.

All in all, it has been the summer from hell, weather-wise, for many countries like Pakistan and China, who have been afflicted with the worst-ever floods in their history. As my local paper expressed it, the whole planet seems to be having a midsummer nervous breakdown. The worst-case scenarios, long predicted by climate-change scientists and environmental experts, are suddenly coming to pass and wreaking havoc. The Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization (WMO) compiled a list of some of these devastating weather-related events:

* The heaviest monsoon rains on record have sent rivers rampaging over huge swaths of countryside in Pakistan, flooding thousands of villages, and leaving twenty million (the latest updated number) of Pakistanis homeless. There is now great concern that hunger and destitution, along with the destruction of roads and bridges, could spark political unrest on a scale that would destabilize the government and make the country even more vulnerable to a takeover by Islamic extremists allied with Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.

* Rains in northwest China have increased by up to thirty-three percent since 1961, and still more frequent flooding is predicted for this century. Similar increased precipitation is also predicted for the U.S.--except in the Southwest--with more extreme rainfalls causing flooding. As the wheels have fallen off of the world, however, the U.S. government remains the only major industrialized nation not to have legislated caps on carbon emissions.

Sometimes an artistic image can be more powerful than words. It must have been Virgil, my missing-in-action alligator muse, who prompted me to look for this painting by Vermeer on the Internet, after I'd read the following short poem in the New York Review of Books:


So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn't earned
the world's end.

[by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from Polish]

What struck me immediately about the Vermeer painting--in contrast to our own era of traumatic disintegration and destruction--is its haunting embodiment of steadiness, containment, and stability. As the poles melt and the forests burn and crops wither and seas heave uncontrollably, we are now having to inhabit a world that, in Bill McKibben's words, is "an inhospitable place." And, we are having to contemplate, for the first time in human history, our own untimely demise in it.

The woman in this painting belonged to a world that was still a hospitable place. But during the several centuries that have passed since then, our propulsive drives toward growth and expansion, excess and destruction, greed and overreach, have destroyed the gentle balance between pitcher and bowl. Somehow we have allowed the waters to escape from their containers--and may well have succeeded, beyond our wildest imaginings, in earning the world's end for ourselves.

"When you return to something you love
it's already beyond repair.
You wear it broken."

[by James L. White, from a poem called "Lying in Sadness"]

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Perhaps I'm looking in al the wrong places, or just stranded in some indefinite shadow realm, but my life at this point seems very short on lightning strikes of insight, otherwise known as inspiration. Nothing I cross paths with seems to light up at my approach or to glow from my touch. Refreshing winds, filled with secret surprises, aren't blowing over the mountain of my heart. It's as if I am living in a space usually reserved for those exposed to holocaust, or to the death of a parent or lover or friend. However, as Robert Jay Lifton once pointed out in "The Life of the Self," such a space can also be inhabited by individuals who have permitted themselves to experience fully the "end of an era," personal or historical. God knows, I have a strong sense of that.

Even though my own front porch remains a safe haven, wherever else one looks there is so much suffering, misery, adversity. Seven million Pakistani lives destroyed by out-sized monsoon floods, with damage and despair everywhere. They can't even get in supplies of food and water. Yesterday on PBS, some of the unemployed in this country were interviewed, and believe me, it was tragic to watch. Their 99 weeks of unemployment benefits have now lapsed. There are no prospects for getting jobs and money has simply run out for many of these folks. How will they survive? They have been physically and emotionally and spiritually broken by the sickening prospect of a future that only promises not to be pretty. On the Gulf Coast, ever since the oil spill, many people have become ghosts in their own lives, wandering around in purgatory.

On the topic of wandering ghosts, I must also include our President, who has also taken to drifting around, from factory to warehouse, desperately trying to defend a stagnant economy without a single winning hand to play. Financial meltdown and personal train wreck have become America's new landscape. Still, you have to admire him for trying to hang something cheery on the wall, but more and more he looks like some wandering stick figure dressed in hospital pajamas.

In a crisis-ridden world, the Buddhists say, if you fall down seven times, you get up eight. But at what point is getting up, dusting off, and starting all over again no longer a realistic possibility? I understand, perhaps all too well, that "chagrin and dismay both siphon energy out of the mind," and so my lurching ambition these days has been to find a way to replace the sense of raw pessimism and devastating failure permeating our world with something more like propulsive inspiration, that will ripple through the larger environment. So far, however, as must be excruciatingly obvious, I am more like a fissure in a fatal crevasse, from which steam is escaping. Instead of climbing the mountain, I feel tied to its side like a flea.