Fantasy Adventure, an Aid to Hiking

Bilbo and the Dwarfs cross the Misty Mountains


Literary Hub has alerted me to an article on the importance of Lord of the Rings to long-distance hikers. According to a Rebecca Booroojian Outsider essay, many people have Lord of the Rings trail names (especially Gandalf), and inscriptions from the trilogy can be found in abundance.

For instance, one will find everywhere Bilbo’s lines about Aragorn, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Just as Frodo and Sam set out on an epic journey, so Appalachian Trail hikers like to think of themselves as epic. Booroojian reports meeting one hiker who explained,

The obvious connection is a fascination with adventure and the unknown. We want to picture ourselves as Frodo or Bilbo, stepping out our front door on a journey to the ends of the earth.

And another hiker:

It makes sense that people who enjoy epic tales of fantasy would be magnetized to do something epic of their own. Someone drawn to these types of stories might be drawn to finding the magic in their lives and dreaming big.

And a third:

The idea of having my own adventure in the woods helped romanticize the sufferfest of the trail. Climbing Clingmans Dome in a whirling snowstorm? Yeah, no—this is Narnia. Where is the lamppost?

Booroojian concludes,

And in a weird sort of way, thru-hikers are dealing with things more akin to a character in a fantasy novel than anything else. They’re facing low odds of success, adapting to unforeseen scenarios, and picking themselves up after various obstacles knock them down again and again. They grow weary and run-down over the course of the journey. They also get tougher, wiser, and sometimes grow long beards. And when it’s over, they have the deep-seated need to do it all again—I just set out on my second thru-hike, this time on the Pacific Crest Trail. In general, relatable is not a word that first comes to mind when thinking about the fantasy genre, but thru-hikers can relate. After all, when you boil it down, The Lord of the Rings really tells the story of an awful lot of walking.

I am not a long-distance hiker, but my own 3-4 hour hikes in Maine and Slovenia. support what Booroojian reports. A literary allusion serves to put a narrative context around the journey. When I got lost in the snowy Alps and it began getting dark, I thought of Caradhras, which the Fellowship of the Rings unsuccessfully tries to cross. (I found footprints that led me out.) When I was threading my way through rocky tunnels while climbing Maine’s Tumbledown, I thought of Bilbo and Smaug’s mountain.

Booroojian reports that, before setting off on the Appalachian Trail, she

marked in my guidebook where I would pass Frodo and Sam’s mileage to get to Mount Doom (about 1,350 miles—it’s toward the northern end of New Jersey, in case you’re wondering).

That would make Mount Katahdin the equivalent of Mount Doom. Imagine eagles eagles awaiting you to fly you down.

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Dig into Yourself for a Deep Answer

Vasilij Surikov, Young Woman at Prayer

Spiritual Sunday

Former Sewanee chaplain Tom Ward has given me permission to share a wonderful sermon that he delivered recently at Otey Parish. A former English major, Tom compared the disciples asking Jesus how to pray (Luke 11:1-13) to the young aspiring poet who asked Rainer Maria Rilke for advice. The resultant letters, published as Letters to a Young Poet, reveal that Jesus and Rilke thought along similar lines. Indeed, Rilke sometimes resorts to religious imagery, declaring that a true poet responds to an inner call and his life becomes one of witness.

Tom has given a lot of thought to prayer and currently leads a centering prayer group that meets weekly. I attended it this past week and can testify to its power. In the passage that led to Tom’s reflections, Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord’s Prayer in response to their request, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Then he tells them to imagine themselves as a persistent individual who needs something at an inconvenient hour:

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

In his reflection, Tom alludes as well to a passage comparing God to a judge who is so worn down by a persistent petitioner than he finally agrees to grant her justice. After the sermon, Tom noted to me that Jesus could have a sense of humor when describing God. “All right, already,” one imagines an exasperated God saying.

I have edited the sermon slightly to shift it from an oral to a written presentation.

By Tom Ward, Former University Chaplain at Sewanee

One day almost 120 years ago, in the fall of 1902, a 19-year-old student at a German military academy named Franz Xaver Kappus sat under a chestnut tree reading the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and thinking about what he was going to do with his life. As he did, the chaplain of the school happened to walk by and mentioned that Rilke had been a student at the school some 15 years before.

Before the day was out, Kappus had determined to write Rilke and seek his counsel about his vocational decision. Should he follow the path of least resistance and enter the military? Or should he be led by his heart’s desire to be a poet.

Kappus’s initial letter led to a seven-year correspondence between the two, which in turn became Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In the first of these letters, Rilke writes,

You have asked me if your verses are any good. You have asked me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work

Now (since you have asked my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you. No one.

Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign of witness to this impulse.

In the gospel for today, Jesus is praying.

The gospels show Jesus at prayer many different times and on many different occasions. Mark tells us that Jesus went out to pray in a deserted place while it was still dark. Luke shows us Jesus at prayer before every major event in his life—from his baptism, to his transfiguration, to the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion.

As we can imagine, the disciples observed all of this and wondered what Jesus’s prayer was like. Did he pray the prayers of the synagogue when he was all alone this way? Or did he have some special way of praying that was unknown to them. They wanted to know.

Also, they had heard that John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray. So they asked Jesus to teach them.

Jesus gave them the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer, which most of us pray more than we do any other prayer.

Scholars tell us that the word that Jesus used in reference to the God of Israel was the Aramaic word “Abba,” which is best translated not as “Father” but as “Daddy” or “Papa” or some other more informal word that denotes intimacy. In teaching them this prayer, Jesus was inviting the disciples into that intimate relation with the transcendent God that he had.

In turn, you and I were baptized into this same intimate relationship with Abba. The Spirit descended upon us at our baptisms as it descended on Jesus in his baptism The Spirit, as it did with Jesus, dwells within us and stirs us to prayer.

That is the first and most important point. Prayer is our relationship with God, a relationship in which we respond to God’s initiative. It is our intimate response to Jesus’s invitation to intimacy with his Abba and ours.

If your spiritual journey is anything like mine, you can look back to a time when your prayer life was like Franz Kappus’s relation to writing poetry. You were attracted but unsure. In other words, you were like the disciples observing other people at prayer and wondering was was going on with them. You compared your spiritual journey with that of others.

Then, perhaps, you became aware that there was a different dimension to this relation with God—that it could be intimate and personal and meaningful, the way that Rilke describes the inner life of the poet. “Go into yourself…Dig into your life….Build your life in accordance with this inner necessity.”

Something like this is what Jesus was teaching the disciples with today’s parable. If we really want prayer, we’re going to have to go beyond the conventional, formal norms.

We going to have to go beyond the words to the personal reality the words represent.

We’re going to have to pray as if we are waking God up.

We’re going to have to pray as if our very life depends on it.

We’re going to have to become persistent. Shameless.

Lest we think that this teaching was not at the heart of Jesus’s message about prayer, we might remember another of Luke’s parables.  In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a story so that the disciples would not lose heart while praying.

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was also a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”

For a while the judge refused, but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she will not wear me out.”

Jesus’s point: Be like this widow. Be persistent. Shameless. Keep on keeping on.

After hearing these parables about persistence in prayer, we might get discouraged and begin to think our elation with God depends on us and our effort. The good news is that Abba initiates this relationship with us. He wants this relationship more than we do. He wants to fill us with God’s love. “Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

As Paul tells us, “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

It is Abba’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, so let us ask, seek, knock. Let us pray without ceasing.

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Reluctance to Go to School


School has already opened in some states (Tennessee) and has yet to open in others (Maryland) so I’ve split the difference by choosing today to honor the occasion. Jonathan Swift’s mention of a laggard schoolbody in “A Description of the Morning” has always fascinated me.

“Description of the Morning” gives an account of the early hours when the day is starting to rev up. To be sure, in some instances activity is ending rather than beginning: a few gentlemen are returning home after a night of debauchery, the maid Betty is stealing from her master’s bed, and thieves working for the jailer sneak back to prison. But in other areas, the servants are up and about, the chimney sweep is looking for a work (Blake undoubtedly knew this poem), and a homeless woman is screeching.

The final couplet captures my attention because of how it joins bailiffs and schoolboys. It’s as though the guardians of law and order are judging those who are late for school:

hardly here and there a hackney-coach 
Appearing, show'd the ruddy morn's approach. 
Now Betty from her master's bed had flown, 
And softly stole to discompose her own. 
The slip-shod 'prentice from his master's door 
Had par'd the dirt, and sprinkled round the floor. 
Now Moll had whirl'd her mop with dext'rous airs, 
Prepar'd to scrub the entry and the stairs. 
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace 
The kennel-edge, where wheels had worn the place. 
The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep; 
Till drown'd in shriller notes of "chimney-sweep." 
Duns at his lordship's gate began to meet; 
And brickdust Moll had scream'd through half a street. 
The turnkey now his flock returning sees, 
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees. 
The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands; 
And schoolboys lag with satchels in their hands. 

The schoolboys  bring to mind the sarcastic teacher in the Mother Goose rhyme “A Dillar, A Dollar”:

A dillar, a dollar, 
A ten o'clock scholar, 
What makes you come so soon? 
You used to come at ten o'clock, 
And now you come at noon.

I’ve mentioned Blake, and just as he has poems about abused sweeps, so he has a poem about miserable scholars, with stanzas such as the following:

But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

In Swift’s view of the world, anarchy is unleashed upon the world at night, leading to overly stringent watchfulness during the day. To the satirist Swift, humans never get the right balance.

The good news is that schools have improved so that my grandchildren are actually excited about attending. It helps that, to invoke a song I remember from first grade, kids are no longer “taught to the tune of the hickory stick.”

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Yes, Liberty Statue Means What We Think


Because the Trump administration periodically attempts to redefine the Statue of Liberty and reframe Emma Lazarus’s accompanying lyric, I am reposting a very smart essay that a former colleague wrote about the statue and the poem. Donna Richardson establishes that the two together create a special synergy that has defined us as a nation.

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is the latest to enter the fray. I’ll let Washington Post columnist Max Boot sum up what he said:

When asked on NPR whether the words inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”) are “part of the American ethos,” Cuccinelli replied, “They certainly are — give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” Later that day, on CNN, he said, “Of course, that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”

That’s two rewrites in one day of a poem that for more than a century has defined the United States as a nation of immigrants, open to all. Not just European immigrants. Not just wealthy immigrants. All immigrants.

Cuccinelli is not the first. Two years ago, senior White House aide and Jewish white nationalist Stephen Miller said in a press conference,

I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty lighting the world, it’s a symbol of liberty lighting the world. The poem you are referring to, which was added later, is not part of the original Statue of Liberty. 

With its silence about the Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong protesters and its support for autocrats around the world, the Trump administration isn’t even supporting liberty. But that aside, attempting to exclude certain immigrants from the light of the statue’s torch ignores history.

Richardson acknowledges that initially the statue and the poem had different points of emphasis. The statue was designed by the French as a testimony to Enlightenment ideals whereas the poem focuses on America’s status as a nation built by and sustained by immigrants.

But this distinction quickly proves to be no distinction. After all, one of the triumphs of the Enlightenment was the Declaration of Independence, which riveted the world with its assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This belief is consonant with Lazarus’s poem and entirely at odds with Trump’s anti-immigration measures. The White House is fooling only those who want to be fooled. Here’s the poem and Richardson’s analysis. 

By Donna Richardson, English, St. Mary’s College of MD

The New Colossus 
By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” is a cultural icon, so popular when originally written that it redefined the Statue of Liberty as a celebration of immigration. Yet while the sestet (or at least its last five lines) used to be a cliché memorized by every schoolchild, most Americans are completely unfamiliar with the title and the first eight lines (the octave), which more broadly redefine American culture.

The poet initially structures her poem as a comparison between the “New Colossus” and the original Colossus of Rhodes.  The details of this comparison imply that America is a new kind of nation, a less patriarchal, more inclusive culture that values the worth of every human, even the most “wretched refuse,” rather than only the “storied pomp” of powerful elites in “ancient lands.”  Although many of these details are evoked by the language of the poem, a visual comparison of the Statue of Liberty with recreations of the Colossus of Rhodes reinforces this cultural difference, especially the features of geography that made America less self-protective and more welcoming.

Lazarus redefines the original meaning of the Statue of Liberty, which was intended by its creator as a monument to the spirit of revolution shared by France and America.  According to Wikipedia, the original name of the statue is “Enlightening the World”; she represents the Roman goddess Libertas, she carries a tablet of law on which is written “July 4, 1776,” and a broken chain lies at her feet.  These details imply that the torch is intended to represent the truths of the Enlightenment, especially the legal and political writings, which inspired both the American and the French Revolutions.

But Lazarus interprets the torch as a “lamp” lighting the path of “exiles” from political oppression in the old world; echoing the word “beckon,” Liberty’s “beacon hand/ Glows” with “world-wide welcome.” The Statue is particularly welcoming of the “poor” and “homeless” who can expect no social or political future in an overpopulated Europe which has rejected them (they are the “wretched refuse” of a “teeming shore”). These refugees are “tempest-tossed” literally and figuratively; the Statue is a welcoming sight after crossing the stormy Atlantic, but more welcoming as a sign of peace after political storms which have made them “homeless.”

The poet broadens her interpretation into a general cultural contrast between old and new worlds by focusing on the visual comparison and contrast between the Statue of Liberty and another statue that stood at the entrance to a city harbor, the Colossus of Rhodes.  One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes was built in the early third century B.C. to commemorate the repulsion of an invasion from Cyprus.

The statue represents the god Helios, wearing a crown of light beams, carrying a torch, and armed with a bow and arrow. Since the Colossus lasted only about 60 years before it was destroyed by an earthquake, there are no known accurate representations of it that survive.  But later recreations of what the Colossus may have looked like suggest two major similarities with the Statue of Liberty: both wear visually-similar crowns of light, and both carry torches.  More important, both statues stand at harbor mouths to announce the victorious independence of their countries and the cultural values that made such independence possible.

Liberty, however, represents very different values.  To begin with, the statue is female rather than male.  Lazarus emphasizes several qualities that are traditionally-gendered female ideals connected with patron goddesses or female symbols for a culture.  Liberty is a “mighty woman” and her eyes “command” the harbor, but their gaze is “mild” and her power is that of a mother—the “Mother of Exiles.”

The Colossus of Rhodes, by contrast, is a “brazen giant”—“brazen” means “contemptuous boldness” in addition to “made of bronze.”  He also stands “with conquering limbs,” symbolizing the military victory of Rhodes over its neighbor Cyprus. Whereas the old Colossus literally stands for physical power and intimidation, Lazarus wants to interpret Liberty as representing a less tangible, more gentle, but even more powerful new female principle of welcoming and inclusion of all in freedom and equality before the law.

Lazarus uses a spatial description of Liberty to enhance the contrast between the values of the old Colossus and the “New.” The fact that there are no known accurate portrayals of its appearance led for hundreds of years to creative and unrealistic interpretations of its appearance.  Lazarus would have been familiar with the most flamboyant version, the one referred to in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1.2.136-139):

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

In this version, one interpretation of which is pictured here, the Colossus bestrides the harbor with one foot on each side, armed with bow and arrow, while tiny ships sail between his legs.  Such a giant statue would have been impossible to construct in that era, but the recreation emphasizes several ideas, including aggressive power and defensiveness, appropriate for guarding and controlling traffic into the entrance to a small enclosed harbor on an island.

Lazarus specifically invokes features of this visual conception of the old Colossus to emphasize that, by contrast, the New World is spatially as well as culturally welcoming and open (in fact, welcoming because open).  Rather than having “conquering limbs astride from land to land,” the New Colossus “gives world-wide welcome” to those who come to her harbor.  Visually, she is not “astride” either the harbor or other lands, but instead stands with her beacon on an island between the “twin cities” of Brooklyn and Manhattan (which in the late 19thcentury were still considered separate cities). The connection between these closely-related “twins” is not her physically conquering stride but her “mild eyes” that “command” the “air-bridged harbor.”

It is almost impossible to get the full scope of Lazarus’ description, including both cities that “frame” the harbor, into a photograph.  The broad, open vista her words evoke, along with placing her at a “sea-washed, sunset gate” relative to Europe, visually enhances Lazarus’ vision of what makes this New Colossus new and even more powerful than the sun-god of Rhodes.  She welcomes the “teeming masses” of Europe to the “open door” of a vast, apparently endless continent that dwarfs her physically in size, and whose airy openness is a metaphor for the intangibility of law, equality, and welcome which has superseded the glory of “Greek fame” with a greater moral as well as physical scope.

©Donna Richardson

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The World Is a Dead Thing for Them

The Endangered Species Act, now under attack, helped save the bald eagle


In recent years, conservatives have at least paid lip service to protecting the environment—after all, isn’t conservatism about conserving?—and Richard Nixon even signed the Endangered Species Act. Now, however, it appears that the Trump administration is unashamedly bent on squeezing every red cent it can out of the earth, consequences for future generations be damned.

His latest move is rolling back Nixon’s act, at least if the courts will allow him to. (Can a president unilaterally reverse an act of Congress?) It’s no surprise that Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, architect of the plan, has worked for some of the country’s largest oil and gas companies. Here’s what the New York Times says about him:

President Trump on Monday announced he would nominate David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist and current deputy chief of the Interior Department, to succeed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid allegations of ethical missteps.

In a message on Twitter, Mr. Trump wrote, “David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!”

While Mr. Zinke had been the public face of some of the largest rollbacks of public-land protections in the nation’s history, Mr. Bernhardt was the one quietly pulling the levers to carry them out, opening millions of acres of land and water to oil, gas and coal companies. He is described by allies and opponents alike as having played a crucial role in advancing what Mr. Trump has described as an “energy dominance” agenda for the country.

Few authors deliver a more stinging indictment of such behavior than the Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko. I’ve written before on the witchery that she sees at work in the world, but it’s worth repeating because it captures the Trump administration’s attitude towards the world so exactly.

In Ceremony, we are told a story about a witches’ convention. The various witches try to outdo each other in evil deeds, but they are bested by one who tells the story of whites invading Indian lands. For these invaders, the earth is a dead object to be exploited:

Caves across the ocean
in caves of dark hills
white skin people
like the belly of a fish
covered with hair.

Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals.
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive
The deer and bear are objects
They see no life

They fear
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.

The wind will blow them across the ocean
thousands of them in giant boats
swarming like larva
out of a crushed ant hill.

They will carry objects
which can shoot death
faster than the eye can see.

They will kill the things they fear
all the animals
the people will starve.

They will poison the water
they will spin the water away
and there will be drought
the people will starve.

They will fear what they find
They will fear the people
They kill what they fear.

Entire villages will be wiped out
They will slaughter whole tribes.

Corpses for us
Blood for us
Killing killing killing killing.

and those they do not kill
will die anyway
at the destruction they see
at the loss
at the loss of the children
the loss will destroy the rest.

Stolen rivers and mountains
the stolen land will eat their hearts
and jerk their mouths from the Mother.
The people will starve.

Evil though they may be, the other witches are horrified by such depravity:

So the other witches said
“Okay you win; you take the prize,
but what you said just now–
it isn’t so funny
It doesn’t sound so good.
We are doing okay without it
we can get along without that kind of thing.
Take it back
Call that story back.”

Once set in motion, however, the story “can’t be called back”:

But the witch just shook its
at the others in their stinking animal skins, fur and feathers.
It’s already turned loose.
It’s already coming
It can’t be called back.

Silko’s novel, written in 1977, played a role in the various rights movements of the time, including Native American and environmental rights, and it ends on a hopeful note. I remember being hopeful when President Jimmy Carter put large swathes of wilderness under government protection.

Now we’re seeing reversals from a party that fears the world and destroys what it fears. The struggle never ends.

Further note: I see that Trump’s buddy in Russia has just exploded a nuclear device, perhaps accidentally. Silko, well aware that uranium was mined on Indian land, includes the atom bomb in the witch’s story:

will take this world from ocean to ocean
they will turn on each other
they will destroy each other
Up here
in these hills
they will find the rocks,
rocks with veins of green and yellow and black.
They will lay the final pattern with these rocks
they will lay it across the world
and explode everything.

Set in motion now
set in motion
To destroy
To kill
Objects to work for us
objects to act for us
Performing the witchery
for suffering
for torment
for the still-born
the deformed
the sterile
the dead.

set into motion now
set into motion

Both Trump and Putin are nuclear weapon fans. Why are we not surprised?

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Haunted by Abraham Lincoln


I walked away from Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Museum yesterday thoroughly depressed and had to spend some time figuring out why. I think it’s because, while Lincoln ultimately prevailed in an impossible situation, I don’t see any Lincolns today. Our current polarization, while not as severe as in slave times, often appears beyond the help of either great leaders or our Constitution.

Vachel Lindsay felt the same during the first year of World War I, which is why he wrote a poem longing for Lincoln. How must he have felt in subsequent years when absolute carnage was released upon the world?

We too appear beyond the help of politics as the onrushing forces of climate destruction, gun violence, and authoritarianism threaten to engulf us all. Once again we may be find ourselves dreaming of that “bronze, lank man,” that was “master of us all.”

But perhaps our response to Lindsay’s poem should be a firm resolve to rise to our challenges. Perhaps we are haunted by Lincoln because he knows America has within it the potential to step into a new “spirit dawn” and he won’t allow either himself or us to rest in peace until we have made that happen.

It’s truly remarkable how Lincoln was able to keep the faith in the face of secession, unceasing attacks, war reversals, and family problems. Instead of being depressed, then, I should hold him before me whenever I start surrendering to my doubts. That’s being haunted in a good way.

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight 
(In Springfield, Illinois)

It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free;
The league of sober folk, the Workers' Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain.   And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Crannied Wall

Bock and Wright, “Flower in a Crannied Wall”


On the way back from a family function in Iowa, Julia, my mother and I stopped off in Springfield, Il. Yesterday we visited the spectacular house that Frank Lloyd Wright built for Dana Thomas in 1902-04. Upon entering the structure, we were greeted by a statue bearing the label of a Tennyson poem.

Looking at “Flower in a Crannied Wall” from the vantage point of an architect gave me a new perspective on the lyric. I’ve always focused on the flower but now Wright has me thinking about the wall. Here’s the poem:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

There’s an implied dialogue here between science and religion, with the poet playing momentary botanist but implying that fully understanding God and man requires far more than science. From Wright’s point of view, however, the real drama lies within the intersection between human-built wall and nature-created flower.

In his own architecture, there is a constant play between technology and nature. Fallingwater is the most famous example but there are plenty of instances in the Dana Thomas house, including the use of wood, natural stone, plants, and various decorative nature motifs (especially of butterflies and prairies grasses, which can be found in the iron work in the windows and in the lampshades).The tension appears as well in the reception hall’s Moon Children Fountain, designed by Richard Bock and Marion Mahony, where nymphs pour water from a rounded pot into a stylized basin.

 Thus the importance of the statue that presides over the entrance. The woman represents Nature but she is adding a cube to an architectural column. To those who enter, she signals that nature and architecture have a symbiotic relationship. Although visitors can’t initially see it, Tennyson’s poem is inscribed on her back.

In one way, the statue seems a refutation of the poem. Nature isn’t plucked from the wall but works together with it. But even if Tennyson isn’t as pro-wall as Wright, he nevertheless sees the tension between the two as vital. After all, he doesn’t pluck the flower from a field in order to meditate upon it. For him, the flower grows in spite of the wall, as if resisting human efforts to dominate it. The flower escapes human understanding just as it escapes human technology, reminding us that we will never entirely know what God and man is.

Wright makes a similar point. If architecture is to grow, it must collaborate with nature, not seek to contain it. That helps explain why we feel so alive when we visit one of Wright’s structures.

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Angelic Minds vs. the Human Senses

Lépicié, Conversion of St. Paul (1767)

Spiritual Sunday

I share today a C. S. Lewis poem about the difference between human and angelic perspectives.  If angels represent pure spirit, then they are not impeded from touching the divine. By contrast (to draw on Paul), humans “see through a glass darkly” and miss out on a “face to face” encounter.

In “On Being Human,” however, Lewis finds consolation for our limitations. For instance, while angelic minds may achieve the Platonic ideal of grasping “the Tree-ness of the tree,” having no skin they cannot revel in a tree’s shade. Likewise, while they see the very form of air, having no noses they don’t know what it’s like to

the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.

Nor is that all that angels miss by not having noses. They also cannot experience the memories triggered by smells:

 The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang…

To be sure, angelic minds are “far richer.” It’s as though our minds function as surge protectors against celestial overload. Or as Lewis puts it, our senses’ witchery guards us from “heavens too big to see.” We need protection from the dazzling beauty of the divine, which Lewis calls “barb’d sublimity” and compares to the edge of an unsheathed knife.

Yet within this protective cocoon—this “tiny charmed interior,/ This parlor of the brain”–we are granted secrets that are denied angels. We have a special privacy that is “forever ours, not theirs.”

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know-the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth's salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves' fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
-An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang --can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries.
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf's billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges.
—An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses' witchery
Guards us like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb'd sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlor of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.
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The Vanity of Trumpian Wishes

Joshua Reynolds, “Samuel Johnson”


I recently returned to Samuel Johnson’s great poem The Vanity of Human Wishes in search of insights into our present political moment. Johnson is one of the wisest writers I know—wherever I push my thinking, he is always there before me—and Vanity distills the folly of our desires into a series of remarkably compact couplets. Here’s what I found applicable to our current leadership.

The poem, as its title signals, exposes the emptiness of our material desires. Whatever we think will bring us happiness invariably proves illusory. If we were rational, perhaps we would be able to see this clearly, but Johnson emphasizes how small a role Reason plays in our lives:

rarely Reason guides the stubborn choice,
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice…

Our actual guides are far less laudable. Vengeance, for instance, is a factor and (turning to our current situation) we can observe the extent to which it has entered into Donald Trump’s thinking. For instance, he fixates on undoing everything accomplished by his predecessor, whether health care, the climate change agreement, the Iran agreement, or good relations with our European allies. We will pay dearly for years to come for these reversals. Or as Johnson succinctly puts it,

nations sink, by darling schemes oppressed,
When Vengeance listens to the fool’s request…

To accomplish our goals, we desire special powers, but Johnson notes how these can go awry. I think of Trump’s considerable rhetorical skills (sweet elocution, as Johnson puts it) when I read the following pair of couplets. The poet says that wished-for bravery and oratorical brilliance can betray us:

fatal heat impetuous courage flows,
With fatal sweetness elocution flows,
Impeachment stops the speaker’s powerful breath,
And restless fire precipitates on death.

In other words, foolhardy bravery (restless fire) gets you killed and powerful oratory gets you impeached.

If only.

Many have noted that, to understand Trump (especially his foreign policy), follow the money, whether it be Russian money laundering, Moscow real estate deals, or Saudi Arabian bribes. Johnson is all over the “general massacre” caused by love of gold, which applies as well to those in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry, the NRA, and other wealthy lobbyists and billionaires:

But scarce observ’d the knowing and the bold, 
Fall in the gen’ral massacre of gold; 
Wide-wasting pest! that rages unconfin’d, 
And crowds with crimes the records of mankind, 
For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws, 
For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws; 
Wealth heap’d on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys, 
The dangers gather as the treasures rise. 

Having established gold and power’s potential to corrupt, Johnson points out that neither leads to happiness. Along these lines, I think of how some believe Trump would have been happier had Hilary been elected since his finances and other shenanigans might then have escape close examination. Johnson has this covered:

When statutes glean the refuse of the sword,
How much more safe the vassal than the lord;
Low skulks the hind [peasant] beneath the rage of power,
And leaves the wealthy traitor in the Tower,
Untouched the cottager, and his slumbers sound…

Here, however, Johnson must add a “but” since poverty too has its drawbacks:

Confiscation’s vultures hover round.

The warning most applicable to Trump and Trump acolytes occurs a couple of sections later when Johnson once again takes up the issue of ambition. He speaks of those who “crowd Preferment’s gate,” the image being of suppliants begging a monarch for favors. The monarch in this case is Fortune, and those who are fortunate (or perhaps not) will get the positions they desire:

Unnumber’d suppliants crowd Preferment’s gate, 
Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great; 
Delusive Fortune hears th’ incessant call, 
They mount, they shine,…

And then just as quickly

…evaporate and fall.

To make matters worse, at every stage of their fall they are hated and insulted:

every stage the foes of peace attend,
Hate dogs their flight, and Insult mocks their end.

Reading these lines, I think of how many former Trumpists have evaporated and fallen, with Trump himself often hating and insulting them on their way down (“rat” Michael Cohen, “coffee boy” George Papadopolous, “liar” Don McGahn). Those he hasn’t yet hated on or insulted yet owe their temporary reprieve to Trump hoping they won’t incriminate him (Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn).

If Trump loses in 2020, he himself could become the “sinking statesman” abandoned by sycophants. When such a man no longer offers hope to scribblers and dedicators, their love ends and they seek funds elsewhere. Former followers, meanwhile, remove his portrait from their walls, feeding the picture into kitchen flames and auctioning off the gold frames, where people will buy them to hold “better features”:

Love ends with hope, the sinking statesman’s door 
Pours in the morning worshiper no more; 
For growing names the weekly scribbler lies, 
To growing wealth the dedicator flies, 
From every room descends the painted face, 
That hung the bright Palladium [household god] of the place, 
And smok’d in kitchens, or in auctions sold, 
To better features yields the frame of gold;
For now no more we trace in ev’ry line 
Heroic worth, benevolence divine: 
The form distorted justifies the fall, 
And detestation rids th’ indignant wall. 

Although MAGA cultists currently see “heroic worth, benevolence divine” in their leader, they will experience only detestation after he falls. For evidence of this, recall that George W. Bush was once a conservative darling and even immigrant-loving St. Ronald has lost some of his sheen.

Johnson’s best model for Trump may be Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s lord chancellor and (as some viewed him) the “other king” (“alter rex”). As long as he has Henry’s support, all is well, but as soon as the king frowns, “his suppliants scorn him and his followers fly”:

In full-blown dignity, see Wolsey stand
Law in his voice, and fortune in his hand:
To him the church, the realm, their pow'rs consign,
Through him the rays of regal bounty shine,
Turn'd by his nod the stream of honor flows,
His smile alone security bestows:
Still to new heights his restless wishes tow'r,
Claim leads to claim, and pow'r advances pow'r;
Till conquest unresisted ceas'd to please,
And rights submitted, left him none to seize.
At length his sov'reign frowns--the train of state
Mark the keen glance, and watch the sign to hate.
Where-e'er he turns he meets a stranger's eye,
His suppliants scorn him, and his followers fly;
At once is lost the pride of aweful state,
The golden canopy, the glitt'ring plate,
The regal palace, the luxurious board,
The liv'ried army, and the menial lord.
With age, with cares, with maladies oppress'd,
He seeks the refuge of monastic rest.
Grief aids disease, remember'd folly stings,
And his last sighs reproach the faith of kings.

In Trump’s case, the American electorate has but to frown in 2020 for him to live out his final days a bitter man, some of them possibly in jail. Whether he has the sense of shame to lament “remembered folly” is another matter.

Not all of Johnson’s poem focuses on desire for wealth and power. Do you wish to be a famous scientist? Remember what happened to Galileo. Be an exemplary intellectual? Archbishop William Laud was executed during the English Civil War. Live a long life? Well, you’ll either have a painful and cranky old age or, if everything goes perfectly, live to see loved ones die around you. Be beautiful? Two former royal mistresses have something to say about that:

Vane could tell what ills from beauty spring;
And Sedley curs’d the form that pleased a king.

In short, the poem has something for all of us, not only those who sacrifice their souls in pursuit of wealth and power.

But given that power-seekers are making the most noise at the moment, it’s good to remind ourselves that such earthly desires are guaranteed to end in sorrow. Only by turning to God can we find true happiness, Johnson tells us. When we wish, we should wish for a healthful mind, obedient passions, a will resigned, love, patience, and faith:

Pour forth thy fervours for a healthful mind, 
Obedient passions, and a will resign’d; 
For love, which scarce collective man can fill; 
For patience, sov’reign o’er transmuted ill; 
For faith, that panting for a happier seat, 
Counts death kind Nature’s signal of retreat: 
These goods for man the laws of Heav’n ordain, 
These goods he grants, who grants the pow’r to gain; 
With these celestial wisdom calms the mind, 
And makes the happiness she does not find.

To be sure, this means we must take the long view to find consolation. Cardinal Wolsey made people thoroughly miserable for years and years before finally getting his comeuppance.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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