Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Spirit

Christmas is a time of joy and giving. From our first Christmas to our last, we are bombarded with the message of joy and good cheer. Christmas is a time for family, a time for giving and getting, a time for laughter and celebration.

And it is.

But Christmas is also a time that brings out sorrow and old wounds. For many people, it is a time where the gaps in their lives fail to shine with Christmas cheer. Empty chairs echo tears not Christmas carols, and bank ledger red ink fails to flow into ribbons and gift tags.

In my world, this Christmas has not been an easy one. My mother loved Christmas; she put up decorations, went to theme parks, and cooked Christmas dinner even when she didn’t feel well enough to do so because she loved the wonder and joy of the holiday. I miss her. It is hard to relax and enjoy the wonder of the season when I am so painfully aware of my father’s empty home and my responsibility as his only surviving child to be his family.

And it is not just me. As I listen to the other people in my world, it seems that the elusive mystery of “Christmas spirit” is increasingly difficult to find. The problems of life seem to overshadow the joy of the holidays for far too many people this year, and even those who are celebrating seem to be making a conscious choice rather than enjoying a spirit induced by the season.

Is this a consequence of the world, a sign of the times, an inevitable slide into trouble, or a loss of the “meaning of the season”? Hardly. Hardship and trouble is hardly anything new at Christmas.

Take, for example the “first Christmas” – the birth of Christ commemorated during our winter holiday. The occasion was hardly a warm, joyous celebration of home and wonder. It was an ordinary birth, with pain and blood, taking place in a location not intended for human habitation, much less childbirth, under the shadow of bureaucratic law.

Really, if one wanted to find the spirit we so commonly associate with Christmas, we should celebrate the annunciation and Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth. There is wonder and joy. The fulfillment of a millennia old promise of a savior, the wonder of being special, chosen from among millions of Jewish women to have an honor that her culture had taught about her entire life – those things echo through Mary’s song. In meeting with Elizabeth, Mary is celebrating family. She is celebrating God’s love. She is celebrating goodness and joy.

But that’s not the Christmas story. The Christmas story is the story of a carpenter and his pregnant fiancĂ©, required to leave their home and the business that brought them income, and make a trip which, for a very pregnant young woman could not have been an easy one. It is not a story of wonder, human kindness, and the affirmation of Mary’s earlier cry that she is “the most fortunate woman on earth.” Instead, there is no room for them in the inn and no family to ease her through her delivery. The first Christmas is not a time of family, gifts, and wonder; it is a time of hardship, difficulty, and rejection.

But the Christmas story remains far more familiar than the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. Children fingering the family nativity scene know about the manger rather than the magnificat because the story is not just a tale of hope and wonder. It is the story of a light in the darkness, a birth that promises a home to all who believe yet that nativity takes place in homelessness. It is the contrast that brings focus to the story and imbeds it into hearts and minds.

Christmas is a winter holiday, a conglomeration of celebrations paired with the Christian honoring of Christ’s birth. It seems odd, thinking of the great celebration of messiah’s birth being paired with the long darkness of winter nights. And yet there is a deep logic to the choice. Christ’s birth did not come in warmth and comfort. It was not celebrated in the warmth of home and family. Its wonder arises because, like the bright stars in the long nights of winter, it was the darkness and difficulty around it that made the gift at its heart so precious.

This Christmas is difficult; it’s hard to find the spirit of family, merriment, and joy in the midst of the long winter darkness. I don’t know if I’m going to find the Christmas Spirit this year, at least not the Christmas spirit espoused by media and culture. But I do know that I have a different Christmas spirit, a deep appreciation of the important of the gift that lies at the heart of the season – the gift of hope that gives joy, a promise that goes beyond happiness and promises shorter nights and longer days and, ultimately, promises home. Perhaps it is the darkness that makes the light seem brighter and lets us focus on what beauty and promise truly mean in this season.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Creating and consuming

In the past few weeks, we, the public, have been told that the personal computer and all its iterations are dead – we just don’t know it yet. A bright new era looms on the horizon – the era of the tablet computer.  At this juncture in the grand scheme of things that is, to say the least, a matter of minor import.  Technology prognosticators have accuracy rates in the same range as weathermen and psychic advisors.  Overall, it doesn’t really seem to matter – except for one minor detail. 

In the hue and cry over the advent of the “tablet PC,” I kept hearing one phrase repeated over and over in reviews and media outlets, and it is that phrase that keeps echoing back to me in the wake of the foretelling of the PC’s demise, sending shivers down my virtual spine.  The tablet, pundits and reviewers declared over and over, is a media consumption device.

A media consumption device.

The modern world, and America in particular has been chastised in recent years for being addicted to consumption.  We are born and raised to be consumers, and, to some degree, I think consumption can be argued as a part of our nature.  But we are not only consumers; we are also creators.  From the dawn of time, humans have felt a need to communicate, to share their experience and leave a record of their thoughts, their feelings, their passions, and their dreams.  We long for connection, the sense that someone else understands us; we feel intuitively that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, and we ache to be assured that our small grasp of what it means to live will pass on and will not be extinguished with our own deaths.

If anything, the information age has only amplified that need to create.  And, interestingly , the advent of the internet has broken down the barriers of status and acceptance that historically limited creation.  As the great equalizer, the internet accepts creation with a voracious appetite, offering equal opportunities to be heard and seen to all comers. It has, in some measure, completed the cycle of creation and consumption.  A million users create; a million users consume. We form new ecosystems, create new trends, throw words into a digital void having faith that someone “out there” will hear that virtual voice, see our creation, and be drawn to it by a link of commonality.  Like our stone age ancestors, we create to commune; we just do it in zeros and ones rather than stone and soil.

But now we are being told that the age of creation is falling out of favor.  No one, it seems, wants to do that anymore.  We are instead being moved toward consumption devices.  Keyboards for interactions longer than 140 characters are unneeded.  Creation is out of vogue; consumption is in.  Everything we need is controlled by a finger swipe or a click. The information age is overloaded as it is, why add to the noise? Why put forth the effort to learn the skills required for creation? The pendulum is swinging back again.

When I hear the pundit’s prophecy of a tablet for every table and a smartphone in the spot where a computer used to be, I am unsettled.  I am not ready for the return to a world where content is provided only by the powerful, the wealthy, and the popular.  I do not believe that the madcap democratization of media is ready to be extinct; the exotic safari of strangely bred content that is the internet is still an adventure; it still contains wonders waiting to be found.  I am not ready to relinquish my keyboard, my mouse, and my virtual voice. 
Perhaps the confidence in consumption is correct. Perhaps fueled by the social networking frenzy, the ability to have visible lists of friends purportedly hanging on status updates and waiting with bated breath for Farmville gifts is enough connection for society.  But to me it seems disturbingly hollow.  It is, to bastardize one of my favorite terms, automononarcissistic.  The connections so generated are spurious at the least; they are based on casual acquaintance or past memory.  Certainly, they have value, but they are not capable of generating the connection nurtured by the shared cycle of individual creation and consumption.  Certainly, creation will occur, but the shading offered by the creations of a media giant is far different than the discovery of a lone voice singing a familiar, beautiful song.

If the pundits are right, I fear that I will feel out of place in that brave new world in which the stream of information flows downward rather than outward and connections are limited by the size of our virtual keyboards.  Perhaps that new limitation will push us back into creation in physical space and human creativity will triumph again.  Perhaps we will simply be content to consume videos and produced media, abandoning the realm of the written word to the “experts” and restoring the  balance of creative control to a system with greater gatekeepers.  I don’t pretend to know what tomorrow holds, but I do know that I will cling to my keyboard and to the voice it gives me, typing into the void in the cause of creation and the undying hope that perhaps that voice will echo back again.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The flight of the dragons

Butterflies are such beautiful creatures, bits of dancing color against the green of foliage. From childhood to old age, we are attracted to them, snapping pictures of their brightly colored wings and gasping with delight if one lands on a hand, arm, or head. Entire concessions have opened – “butterfly gardens” or “butterfly encounters” – that rely in the draw of these tiny insects with their brilliant wings.

I always loved butterflies too – heck, a butterfly was one of the primary things to blame for that back flip off the swingset that broke my wrist when I was about four. But recently, in my decade here in Florida, I have found myself less in love with the butterfly than with its insect neighbor the dragonfly.

When I first arrived here in Florida, I failed to grasp one of the cardinal facts of the state. Things are bigger here. With the primal heritage of the young state and the lack of harsh winters to push things back to what Northerners would consider their normal size, things are bigger here. The first time I spotted one of those fake rubber flies dispensed from K-mart vending machines on the sidewalk…and it flew away, I began to get some idea of the difference in Florida fauna, but it wasn’t until my first real summer here that I fully understood.

The air of a Florida summer is like nothing else I’ve encountered. It is a tangible force, a part of the landscape. It lies thick, hot, a weight pressing the heat of the sun against your skin, resisting your efforts to draw it in to steal its oxygen. It blankets the landscape, magnifying the brightness, a shimmering blanket beneath the pale blue of a sky already faded by the merciless sun. I remember standing out under the awning of my workplace in that heat, unsure which was more desirable to escape – the air-conditioned drudgery of the workplace behind me or the suffocating heat of the outdoors – when I saw them.

Back in Pennsylvania, we had had dragonflies – snakefeeders my dad always called them. They were delicate bodied little creatures, wisps of metallic color and iridescent wings that lit on fishing rods and blades of grass. Here, in Florida, I discovered that those weren’t dragonflies. They may have been damselflies or something else, but dragonflies…no. I can still remember the stillness of that hot afternoon, standing outside my job when I heard a deep thrumming. Looking down over the second story balcony, I saw them, dark bodies hanging in the air, round barreled extensions on both sides of their bodies, assumedly to support the muscles controlling the massive, flickering wings that moved faster than the eye could see. The dragonflies hovered in the air, dozens strong. They moved through the weight of the heat with strange, slow dignity, dancing a gravity-defying ritual with aeons old dignity. I forgot the heat as I watched them, fascinated as they spiraled through the heat, moving past each other only to turn and change places.

I never fell out of love with those dragonflies. I stop to watch them whenever I glimpse their slow dance or hear the impossible thrum of their wings. But I could never quite put my finger on what it was about them that drew me to them, more so even than to the bright splash of butterfly wings. And then, one day, watching the magical dance of dragonfly on the still Florida air, I realized why they fascinate me.

It’s the way they move.

Watch a butterfly. It flutters, flits, its path a wavering field of color and movement. Even in landing, the butterfly is not still; it fans its lovely wings; it is uncertain, delicate. It calls out the wonder within the human heart, reminding us to treasure beauty, for it Is a delicate commodity.

Watch a dragonfly. It hovers. It darts. It makes smooth, impossible arcs in the air, dancing in some mysterious pattern which, although I may not see it, seems to have purpose. It is smooth. It is sure, the impossible drums of its wing muscles buoying it up with seemingly effortless power in the still air. A dragonfly does not have the beauty of a butterfly – it is awkward, narrow with massive barrels of muscle, impossibly insectoid. Yet it moves so beautifully. Dragonflies do not flutter; they do not reveal their delicacy. They are impossible, gravity defying messengers of a lost world, reminders of nature’s mystery and the inadequacy of our understanding.

I know butterflies are beautiful. Their color and variety is breathtaking, but I would rather skip the butterfly garden to watch the humble dragonflies circle free against the pale shimmer of the Florida air. The butterfly charms me, thrills me when it lights on me as though I have been granted a privilege. The dragonfly blesses me with the wonderful impossibility of its movement and the certainty of its flight.

It is not its appearance, its physical beauty that calls me – it is its freedom to move with impossible grace through the unseen. It speaks to something primal within me, something that wants to leave gravity behind and move with ancient confidence on the unseen air, dancing beauty that transcends my awkwardness.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


I always believed there was a world just to the left of ours. It was a place populated by all the characters of books and television, a place of heroes, villains, and wonders. I told myself stories about it as a child, dreaming that I would be one of the select group who could bring a character from there to here. I peered through the windows of books, consuming text and composing the vision in my mind's eye, always standing on intellectual tip-toe to catch a glimpse of that other world. Over the years, I stopped telling myself those stories, but I never stopped believing in that other place, glimpsed just out of the corner of your eye, never stopped standing on the tip toes of my imagination to peer through into a different world.

And sitting there, in the movie theatre, 3D glasses digging into my nose, catching a glimpse of the texture of the screen beneath the images of the film, I smile to myself. I know so many people who object to the modern rebirth of 3D, and while I too am painfully familiar with the ill fated fads of the 50s and 60s matinee, I am thoroughly enjoying this new variation of film in the illusion of the third dimension. It raises the blinds on a new frame around an old, familiar window.

The new spate of films presented in digital 3D fascinates me because, for those directors who understand their medium, the dimensionality of the media is treated far differently from earlier 3D. Gone are the cheap gags and the notion of objects hurtling into the audience's field of vision. Such images are reserved for theme park shows and remakes of unspeakable James Cameron films (I have still not recovered from the trailer for Piranha). In their place is a strange new artistic convention - a conscious framing of mise en scene in a way that gives the illusion that the movie screen has become a window - a view into another place populated with heroes, villains, and wonders. We, as the audience, are not thrust into that place; there is no attempt to create the illusion that the two worlds are invading one another's space; rationality tells us that the wonders of the world beyond the screen have little place in our reality, and, much as we may regret it, we have little place in theirs. Instead, these films create a breach between the worlds, a way of seeing what lies on the other side of the wall between story and reality. They are windows, and we are given the opportunity to peer through into a place newly given dimension and depth.

Certainly, not all these new films are created equal. Some are merely films rendered into 3D - a simple window into another time and place. Others are conscious of their role, framing their images within windows and clouds, creating a deliciously voyeuristic sense of peering through into another world, of stealing a story through reflected spaces and from unsuspected corners. In those films, there is a sense of the furtive wonder and belief in story that I held so fervently in the green and brown world of my childhood. There is a sense of opening a door and finding a place of wonder just beyond its sill.

Perhaps, once again, rendering film in three dimensions is no more than a fad, a desperate attempt by a film industry that is again feeling threatened - this time by digital media rather than the advent of television, but threatened nonetheless. Perhaps it is no more than a last ditch attempt to offer audiences something, anything, that they cannot find on personal screens. But I do not view it in quite that way. Regardless of its origins, I find myself enjoying the new interpretation of an old medium. I find myself again a child, face plastered to the glass of reality, peering into a place of dreams. And when I catch a glimpse of the screen, I cannot help but smile, because to me, it is just the light glinting off the glass of imagination, reminding me that the blinds are open, and I can see through that window into the world I have so long dreamed.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dreams Come True

I stood there in the morning sunlight, tears running down my face, feeling the fool, yet at the same time filled with the fierce joy that made my cheeks wet. Around me the crowd chanted along, and I joined them, words strong in spite of the tightness in my throat; “Dreams come true.”

In front of me, the stage erupted in pyrotechnics and the final number of the show kicked into high gear. I wiped away the tears, feeling foolish. It was just a kids’ show at the Magic Kingdom. Yet for all the ridiculous costuming and simplistic story, there was something there that touched deep. I believed, have always believed, in the power and importance of dreams. Audience participation gimmick it may have been, but the sound of hundreds of voices raised, chanting “Dreams Come True” with the conviction needed to vanquish a character whose villainy rose from the assertion that the world no longer believes in the power of dreams, struck me as a beautiful metaphor.

In my composition class, I assign an in-class essay as part of a student exam. The students may write an essay inspired by an image or a poem, and one of the poetry choices is Langston Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred.” The simple, vivid language of the piece, combined with its human and cultural messages seems a powerful inspiration to me. Every semester, students write about the psychological consequences of forgetting what our minds create while we sleep and ponder the question of what happens to those dream images when we wake up. And every semester I am horrified. “It’s not that kind of dream,” I think. And yet I am forced to face the reality that for some people, those are the only dreams of which they are consciously aware.

We all dream. As children, we choose careers on the basis of heroism, excitement, and service to others. We spend long hours playing out what we think our futures will bring, or at least imagining that our future will be what we desire – empowered, like our parents, nothing like our parents, shaped by hopes and by greatness. But years roll by, and reality intrudes. Responsibility rings us in, and we become habituated to the rolling cycle of busy-ness that fills our time. Our dreams get buried.

I do believe that is villainy. Perhaps not as tangible as a green-skinned Malificent rising from a Disney World stage in a puff of green smoke, but something far more insidious. We give up; we forget; we relegate dreams to the realm of childhood and fools. But by doing so, we lose our chance at greatness. We lose our chance at completeness and at a better world. We give up our greatest power and isolate ourselves from our fellow humans and from our own potential.

Dreams are the things that have shaped our world. From the ancients who dreamed the shapes of the stars into legends that revealed human nature to the ragtag assembly of farmers and lawyers who proposed a new country in the British colonies to Martin Luther King Jr to Shakespeare to his queen and her armada. Those men and women doubtless had night visions like the rest of us, but those were not the dreams that they paid a personal price to pursue; those were not the dreams that changed the world.

But those were great men and great women, destined for great things. Perhaps, but they were great because they were dreamers and doers. They believed strongly enough that dreams come true to pursue what they believed in, to push beyond the mundane into the places that societal common sense tells us are the realm of children and madmen. They refused to put childish visions behind them and “face reality.” Instead, they believed that human dreams could make reality. They believed in their dreams, and the world, sometimes hesitantly, sometimes violently, sometimes joyously submitted the power of those dreams.

Standing there, in a make-believe land where adults feel separated enough from reality to chant along with a person wearing a mouse costume, I felt a shiver of an arcane truth. I wondered how many of those gathered in front of a forced perspective castle in the Florida sun took a second to think about the words they tossed out into the clear morning air. How many of them really did believe, even for a moment, that dreams come true and that they have the power to overcome skepticism and apathy? Did they recognize the metaphor behind the power of their voices, raised in faith in an ideal, to vanquish an idea that has been dragging mankind to a lower denominator for millennia? Or did they merely parrot what they were told for the sake of conformity and the happiness of their children?

I’ll never know, but I do know that I choose to believe in dreams. I refuse to stop believing in possibility and heroism. I refuse to give up being a heroine in my own fantasy world. I do not believe that docile acceptance of our circumstances and the adoption of behavior that allows us to get by is the only way to live our lives. Certainly, I live a life filled with the mundane and with responsibility, and those small things fill my days. But I believe that cover of the ordinary stretches over a mighty framework of dream and possibility, and even though I cannot always see the frame, I have faith it is there, waiting to burst through, waiting for humanity to be ready for it. I do believe that dreams come true, not free, but True, and that faith is what carries me past the mundane and into the morning sunlight.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


We are creatures of habit. We adhere to schedules, both because they comfort us and because they are necessary, but sometimes those schedules bind us. They dull our vision and let us settle into the stupor of familiarity. It takes something...different to get us to pay attention and begin thinking once again.

The stoplight was part of my routine. At an intersection less than 15 minutes from home, it is a light that I have been waiting at for the past 14 years. Familiar territory, a space where my primary thought is safely navigating the snarl of traffic on its way to the K-12 school down the road. I don't pay much attention - it's a similar scene day in and day out.

This morning I sat there, nursing my travel mug of coffee and waiting for the light to change, sparing an occasional habitual glance to ensure the hood behind me didn't come too close to my bumper. And then I heard the sound of music from another vehicle nearby. Really, at an intersection less than a block from a high school, that's not unusual. I'm quite accustomed to being jarred by the vibrating bass of someone's car system blasting out rap. But this shared musical selection stopped me in the middle of a sip of coffee. Someone, in the immediate area, was blasting opera loud enough that I could actually make out the words. In Italian.

Jarred out of ritual, I began, circumspectly of course, craning my head in an attempt to find out who on earth was blasting...opera. It took only a moment to determine it was a blandly beige Toyota behind me to the right. The windows were tinted, preventing me from glimpsing more of the driver than a lightly conducting hand in the window.

The light turned, and I watched with considerable amusement as, to the applause following the aria (still audible in my car), the Toyota peeled out of its spot, speeding past two cars and pulling in a few spaces ahead of me, cutting off a high-school driver. I followed more slowly, eventually finding myself behind the car again, drifting along in the wake of a rousing choral number until the driver again sped ahead, this time on his way to tailgate a school bus.

Sometimes I forget, in the ritual of habit, what amazing creatures we humans are, how quirky and how diverse, not merely in skin tone or culture or physical characteristic, but in who we are and how we choose to express ourselves. I wish all the best to the Operatic Kamikaze, and I thank him for starting my day, instead of with ritual, with a smile.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Death of Responsibility

It’s bubbling up again. The questions of health care and the debate over its reform is once again finding its way onto the air waves and into the “top headlines” on my Google homepage. The debate has thundered on for months, each side seemingly believing that volume rather than substance will win support. Yet in all of the voices I’ve heard promising plenty and predicting pogroms, only one has made perfect sense to me.

The person interviewed was, surprisingly enough, a doctor. Questioned about the practicality of the lumbering behemoth of a bill that was, at the time, working its way through the legislature, he gave his interviewer a single, simple answer: nothing will fix the problem as long as demand is so outrageously high. He went on to explain that, in his opinion, much of the difficulty with healthcare, and the reason that American healthcare is proportionately outrageously priced and overloaded is that Americans expect healthcare to take care of every problem they or their family might have, and doctors want to make money, so they meet demand with supply. He also pointed out that doctors feel the need to meet demand because they fear legal repercussions from failing to test everything and provide the medication results promised in a pithy television advertisement.

I remember the doctor’s words because he reached beyond political partisanship to point out a deeper, simpler truth. Part of the problem with healthcare is cultural, not financial. We can legislate the hell out of our system, but until we can change cultural attitudes, costs are not going to drop.

The cultural attitude that costs us so much in medical bills is one that frightens me. It is an attitude of entitlement; a slide of responsibility out of individual hands and into the hands of some, not quite defined beneficent power that has, despite its human origin, risen above human concerns to absolute altruism.

Practically, such an idea sounds ridiculous. Ask just about anyone, regardless of political leanings, whether they trust the government, and you’ll get a hoarse laugh and an incredulous look. Trust the government? Of course not. Yet many of those same people are more than willing to allow the government to assume responsibility for their safety, their medical care, and their job security. That rising gap between practical understanding and government responsibility is chillingly visible to me. Every semester my students tell me that the constitution guarantees them the right to happiness; they justify everything from gay marriage to carrying a gun under that promise. You can chalk that up to the failure of our education system; you can laugh at student ignorance, but in the end, I believe that the mistake is the highest form of Freudian slip. It represents an increasingly prevalent attitude in American society; we have the right to be happy, and someone needs to make it so. Whether that happiness is the result of financial disbursements of money, the guarantee of safety for a small price of privacy, or pills to make us happy and well behaved, more and more people believe that happiness is a right, not a responsibility.

In those three small words, “the pursuit of,” the founding fathers definitively put happiness in the hands of individuals. They guaranteed us the right to chase our dreams, to pursue happiness with all of our substance, but they did not guarantee we would get it. Obtaining happiness is, in the end, up to us. It is our individual responsibility and choice – and in the grander scheme of things, history teaches us that it is often the pursuit, not the obtaining, that makes men great.

Yet that greatness is increasingly lost. Many authors have speculated on the impact of antidepressants on creativity and suggested that many of the great artists in history, had they lived today, would have been medicated out of their misery and, along with it, their creativity. More and more often, our culture focuses on a top heavy structure of responsibility that promises the right to happiness guaranteed by a well organized social system that increasingly combines with science to take the place of religion. Individual greatness and heroism is good, for what it is, but such greatness (particularly when based on actual actions rather than media creation) is damaging, for it makes others more responsible and less happy, wishing for something they may not have. Take, for example, the attempted bombing at Christmas this past year. The bombing was foiled by individuals on the plane, individuals who took responsibility for their lives and that of their fellow passengers. Those women and men acted heroically. Yet I do not know the name of a single one of those people. Instead, modern culture immediately sought a hierarchical response. Rather than focusing on the heroism of the individuals who stopped the bomber, cultural media immediately began contemplating what part of the machinery of airport security had failed and how the government could step in to guarantee safety. It was not enough to honor the idea that individual responsibility saved lives. It was the job of some great benevolent machine to prevent the need for individual heroics because, of course, individuals cannot always be counted upon to be heroic.

On the radio several weeks ago, I heard a commentator discussing an article which examined the overall negativity of American culture. “I don’t see a difference,” he declared, “being critical of the country and its leadership is a healthy part of our culture. We’ve always done that.” Indeed, we have, but as I told my uncaring radio, the sense of helplessness, of loss of ownership, has never been so intense. As we lose individual responsibility as a cultural value, we also lose our sense of cultural empowerment. The idea that the government actually represents the people in any meaningful way is fading, replaced by a sense that there is an inevitable power structure, having very little immediate connection with the people, whose purpose is to enable the individual right to happiness. There is a rising sense of fate, a notion that the leviathan of government is far too massive for individuals to influence, and that notion of accepting the inevitable seems to be rapidly tumbling into nationwide depression and the evolution of a culture of systemic, rather than individual, responsibility.

Ironically, that loss of responsibility finds expression in practical terms as well. We find ourselves in the grip of structural responsibility, in a place not unlike that created by Soviet authority. In his book The Unquiet Ghost, Adam Hochschild tours a Russia emerging from the shadow of Stalin, and he notes the general state of collapse of the cities and even the public areas of the apartment buildings. He writes that in stark contrast to the squalid public areas, Russian homes are immaculate; those spaces are theirs. It is their “feeling about public property that was the problem. Until this changes, real democracy in Russia, a democracy that does not just go through the motions of holding elections but is built on people’s confidence that they themselves control the state, and not somebody else, is far off” (187). Sadly enough, the same could be said of modern America. We have lost the confidence that the people control the state. Instead, we feel impotent, coddled in the promise of happiness provided by the state, yet frustrated by the endless ineptitude of a bureaucratic dragon we feel we cannot slay. We are not emerging from the shadow of some tangible regime; we are sliding into the shade of cultural irresponsibility, seeking happiness that we view as a right, yet have no desire to pursue and make our own.

So when the radio begins to tell me about the impact of healthcare reform, I switch to the 80s station. It is not that I don’t care – quite the opposite. It is simply that I do not believe that healthcare, or much of anything else, can be meaningfully reformed until someone has the courage to face up to the cultural illiteracy that lies beneath the partisan dog and pony show. Until Americans realize that they are responsible for their own health and that their time is better spent in pursuit of happiness than pursuit of populism, legislation isn’t going to change a thing. People will continue to demand pills to solve everything and social safeguards to protect them from failure – and from spectacular success. As long as we live in fear of the effort and risk it takes to pursue happiness, we’re never going to catch it, and we’re never going to be mentally or emotionally healthy from the effort of the pursuit – no matter what they legislate.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


It juts up out of the earth, silent, stark. No one heeds it; it is part of a forgotten landscape, a footnote in a cow pasture along a side road. A palm tree grows along its base, crowding against the thick swell of its emergence from the sandy soil. Cows graze around it, oblivious to “might have been” in their essential animal concern with sustenance. Yet it remains.

It stretches out of the ground, gnarled swells like arthritic joints, curving upward at an unlikely angle, its tip shattered, stretching toward the pale blue of the Florida sky. In this primal place, it feels as though the past is not so far gone. Its magic still clings to the saw edged leaves of the plants and the thick morning mist. The spirit of the land still moves here, barely lulled to sleep by the encroaching anesthetic of car exhaust and chemlawn, and sometimes one is reminded of the magic below the surface, the magic that the modern world reminds us not to see.

I call it the giant’s finger, the broken twist of tree bone, jutting harshly out of the open pasture behind barbed wire and road shoulder. It curves upward, forever caught in some final rigor, reaching for the sky. I know that its owner is long dead, claimed by the triumph of rationality, the glory of Lilliputian man over the primal giants of the land. Yet there remains a chilling vitality to it, a stretching of the gnarled, arthritic finger joints, an appeal to the pale sky above and the live oak behind. There is memory there, in the last remnant of the fallen titan, silhouetted against the sky. There is determination, still stretching from the ground, reaching for the stars it could once almost touch. I look at it in awe, remembering that there are things beyond our ken, things greater than mere human logic.

The field was empty on the frosted morning when I crept out of my car, braving the strange looks of the drivers whizzing along the narrow strip of pavement in the middle of nowhere. The iced weeds along the road fringe crunched under my boots, and I shivered. Leaning low, I pushed the button on my camera, the click of the shutter loud in the still, cold air of the morning. Practically, there was no reason to stop, no reason to shiver in the cold air, but I needed to take the picture, to remember the honored dead. And I needed to remember that for the giant, even in defeat and death…it was still important to reach for the sky.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


People tell me that we have no seasons in Florida, and I smile silently. I know, when they say that they do not live here. We have seasons. Certainly, they are not the cycles of my childhood, and I do sometimes miss the classical turn of the year. I miss the smell of fallen leaves and the spice of false death as the plants withdraw to wait out the winter. I miss the crisp, shivering smell that heralds new snow. I miss the shimmering green and white of snowdrops braving the cold to whisper the promise of summer. But the turning of the year is not gone here, far from it. It is, like so many things in this wild, young place, simply different, unsympathetic to the puny creatures that reside on the primal land, so desperately trying to tame what is not so easily dominated. Here the year turns from unbearable jungle green, bathed in shimmering, tangible air supporting the almost invisible wings of the dragonflies as their heavy bodies hang beneath a sky bleached from blue to white in the heat, to a muted carpet of browns and grays, pitifully unclothed without a forgiving blanket of snow – a denuded land waiting beneath barren tree branches with Spanish moss waving like grave clothes in the wind.

The seasons are less dramatic here, one of the few things that is less dramatic in this wild landscape. They turn quietly, shifting hue without the breathtaking show of leafy color or dazzling snow. I often think that people claim there are no seasons here because their turning is so quiet, and in our day to day lives we are so distracted that it takes the excitement, and sometimes the inconvenience, of dramatic season shift to make us notice them. Yet sometimes there are reminders we cannot ignore; sometimes the inevitable cycle of nature presents us with something so simple, so primal that we cannot ignore it, even in the grip of modern hustle and bustle.

Take the color green. In Florida, green is inevitable. In a “land of perpetual summer” (whoever said that wasn’t here this January), green is stock in trade for attracting tourists and setting social standards for suburban lawns. Mid-range golf courses trying to be upper crust paint their greens…well…green. It’s a part of life here. Florida is green. Until winter at least, when the greens fade into brown and olive, their gradual transition barely noted by those of us who live here; for us, the landscape is familiar, habitual, and we tend to let it blur past our car windows, not really considering its subtle shifts in color.

But spring is upon us. I hurried home yesterday, piloting my metal chariot past acres of Florida countryside, my mind already miles ahead of my spinning wheels, considering all the minutiae that seem to fill our every waking moment. I was planning dinner, television viewing, class material for the next week, and suddenly I was confronted with green.

Along the side of the road, an early crop had been planted; the huge chunk of farm equipment that had done the sowing was still resting in the corner of the field. Behind the machinery, the field stretched back from the roadside, redolent in fresh growth that spurted up from the dull ground in a defiant riot of color. I have no idea what the plants were, and I have no need to know. What I do know is that they were green as only new life can be, riotous with the color that allowed them to live and grow in the light of the sun, jostling for its rays, competing with every ounce of chlorophyll to take and use more of the light to thrive. The color was breathtaking, standing out like neon against the suddenly noticeable brown and grey world around it, reminding me how beautiful life is and whispering the promise of new life that sometimes seems a cliché part of the spring.

That green stayed with me through the barren branches and brown woods of the trip home, reminding me of hope, of the desperate joy of reaching for the light and soaking it in – the need to grow. It was green, not in the painted status-conscious perfection of manicured lawns and golf tees, but in the wild, true way that only the hand of nature colors the world around us. It was the promise of spring and the reminder that life, even just for a moment, can be green.

Friday, February 5, 2010

My God Speaks in Poetry

My God speaks in poetry.

He whispers in the rhythm and meter, telling wonders in rich images woven together into a glorious pattern of order. He does not merely fling color onto a canvas expressing some inner truth about Himself that I need to divine by searching my inner soul for some meaning or reflection. He does not present himself in definitive, exegetical prose that starkly outlines fact to be assimilated. He dances in metaphor and ripples in simile, reaching out to me in the terms of human familiarity, yet reminding me that his images are not like ours, not as comprehensible as we might like to think.

My God speaks in poetry,

stanzas formed with the power or rhyme and meter, following traditional measures even as He reshapes them with the power of message. The wonder is communicated more strongly within the form, shaped and shaping in the flow of metrical feet, speaking to the beat of breath and heart, echoing the form of life itself. He spurns free form verse – there is no need to defy order when it is beautiful, shaping, making. It speaks to my need for order and my need for intimate transaction in the same flow.

My God speaks in poetry,

giving images rather than rules, inviting me to bring my own dreams, my own memories, and my own experience to the milieu, meeting the imagery half way, letting it speak to me and speaking back. There is an individualism of experience, a transaction between being shaped by the verse and shaping it that reforms the form or rhyme and meter into something that is mine, something that calls out the soul beyond the every day and elevates it. Poetry transcends prose, for it demands more of its reader, speaking truth and beauty and demanding the same in return.

My God speaks in poetry,

saying things that cannot be expressed so directly, pulling in nuance and image, drawing out tears and truth. The music and the images say all the things words cannot, a dance of creating language, drawing nothing into something, formed, yet demanding participation. The music of words, the Logos that undergirds the universe swells around me, and the stanzas stretch on ahead.

My God speaks in poetry.

Monday, January 25, 2010

We Sing

We sing because we are happy beyond words. We sing because there is no other voice to express our pain. We sing because only song affirms our existence in the void of silence. We sing because it brings us release; it brings us comfort; it brings us joy.

There is power in song. It arrives in human existence where words fail, bridging the gap between the spoken and the unspeakable, carrying something beyond self, something more akin to soul. Song breaks down the barriers of erudition and sophistication we build around ourselves and reminds us of our humanity, of the simple children we all carry within ourselves.

In Touch Magic, Jane Yolen writes of the "big words" so often found in myth and fairytale, words like "sad," "true," "love," and "hero." She says that as adults we fear those words; we avoid using them to talk about our feelings and our world because they are too powerful, too pure. We pride ourselves on understanding more of the nuances and complexity of the "real" world than those words encompass; we relegate them to the realms of childhood and fantasy because those words are too big for our world. They have too much power, too much faith behind them. Those are the words that emerge in song, if not in semantic form, then in the power of sound. Love. Heroism. Sadness. Words that hold the power of childhood wonder, hope, and broken innocence; words that tap into the power of the human soul.

Those are the voices that came from Haiti last week, wafted over the radio waves as the women, eking out some form of existence in the wake of the earthquake, began to sing; one voice joined to another, drawing a crowd into a chorus that the commentator described as an "impromptu revival." That was the voice that sawed through the crackle of static as one elderly woman, described as "almost hidden in the leaves of a bush," sang to herself to try to calm her own fears. That song transcended language; the words were in Haitian, but the song came through – the stab against the insurmountable, crushing weight of disaster and the affirmation of self in sound against the backdrop of silence and non-being. Those voices, those songs, said far more than any commentary or translated speech. They touched the big things. They touched magic – the magic of humanity within us.

Song expresses more than words. Like poetry, it limits the words we use, conscripting elocution into the service of rhythm and song. It reinterprets the meaning with melody and with the rendering of circumstance and singer. It pushes us out of our clipped pragmatic journalism, our text messaging abbreviation, and our elegant elocution. It pushes us into a realm of almost childish emotive power that reaches beyond a moment and into a greater stream of life. This is why the national archives retains recordings of folk song from days long past. Those voices of another time and place are not just an archival curiosity; they tell us as much about the people who made them as any photograph or narrative. And those voices, flattened by archaic recording equipment, call to a primal part of us, telling us about ourselves.

Perhaps that is why spirituals have always been one of my favorite forms of Christian music. They are simple and direct. They use those forbidden "big" words without hesitation or apology. They term things which have elicited volumes of elaborate, erudite commentary in lyrics so elemental a child could understand. They speak of human longing and human triumph in voices innocent, injured, and sincere in ways that the complexity of modern culture might find "folk" or "quaint." I find them powerful. In the Bible, Jesus spoke to children without hesitation, identifying them as the echo of the building blocks of heaven. Those children, like children throughout the centuries, spoke in the big words. They expressed innocence and directness not tempered by pride in complexity. They represented joy, sorrow, the essence of what humanity is, before it is reworked and hidden behind the facades of necessity and the scar tissue of experience. The spirituals return me to that childlike relationship, that awe of something greater than myself, and that enthusiasm to be noticed and affirmed.

Those songs, the simple, genuine ones, come from the soul. Long after the details of the quake in Haiti fade from my mind, when I forget the magnitude or the number of aftershocks, those songs will remain, linking me to their singers in primal human experience. And long after the memory of rhetoric and erudition fade, the simple faith and suffering of spirituals will still bring a tear to my eye. Because we sing when we cannot speak. Because song expresses something from the soul, not merely from the self. Because we sing to affirm that we are.

NPR Story

Touch Magic/

National Folklore Collection