"Beauty confronts us with the requirement that we place ourselves among...the redeemers, the leaders in the protection of life. Once you have seen the bush on fire, you are not going to get out of the assignment unless you close your eyes to the beauty.... [You] either have to close your eyes or go back to Egypt and set the people free." - Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, "Rising to the Challenge of Our Times"

Monday, December 12, 2011

"No more masks!"

This week on December 15th is the birthday of the late Muriel Rukeyser, who Adrienne Rich described as one of the 20th-century's greatest integrators of personal and social themes in poetry (from the Introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, Jan Heller Levi, ed., Norton, 1994). If she is not as well known to readers as that commendation ought to suggest, it may be partly because her work was not only controversial, inviting scathing hostility and huge appreciation during her lifetime, but also (as Rich points out) extremely difficult to categorize. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Meg Schoerke at San Francisco State University for my introduction to Rukeyser when I took her 20th-century American poets course in 1998.  I owe another debt of gratitude to the universe for the excellent coincidence of later having Muriel's grandson Jacob Rukeyser as a law school classmate.

I have to forego my impulse to speak with formality to and of my elders (and to Jacob's, in this case) and give in to the deeper urge to just call her Muriel. I don't think this indulgence is unjustified. In the introduction to her Reader, editor Jan Heller Levi says everyone (with the exception of Levi herself) - friends, strangers, former students - called her Muriel. It is impossible to read Muriel's work and not be pulled into a kind of intimacy with her and her subjects.  She insists.  For example:

The Poem as Mask
by Muriel Rukeyser

When I wrote of the women in their dances and 
      wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone
      down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from
There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,
the fragments join in me with their own music.

So you get the idea, hopefully, of what I mean by 'insisting.'

Happy (what would be 98th) birthday, Muriel, with love and gratitude for your fearless, insistent voice.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

no satisfaction.

Sometimes I worry that my liberal cred is in jeopardy. Really. Let us count the ways:

I was at a Starbucks yesterday and they had a wreath on their community bulletin board, on which were hung tags with gift requests from needy children. The idea was you take a tag, buy the gift(s), bring it back, and volunteers wrap and deliver it on Santa's behalf.

I looked at some of the requests. Things that probably any American/Westernized kid would ask for given the opportunity to ask. Things they (and their parents, and their aunts and uncles) been successfully conditioned to want. I was about to write "I remember wanting" particular toys for Christmas but that would be a joke, I want things all the time. Getting can temporarily appease the wanting but it always comes back, as if it has a life of its own and has very little to do with the objects supposedly 'wanted.'  So there's no past tense about it.

I'm sure that some of my Christmases growing up must have been more spartan than others; but I don't remember ever feeling or noticing that I was having a less-than-fabulous Christmas morning. I don't remember any years in which Santa hadn't obviously unloaded a bounty in our living room. Our Santa always had a practical streak too - our stockings always contained a new toothbrush, socks, and scotch tape along with a can of mandarin oranges, a can of black olives, an orange, an apple, and, of course, candy. They were like mini urban survival kits.

So what does it mean that I felt irritated and judgmental about the fact that the kids on the wreath were asking for 'luxury' items? Electronic gadgets, Wii games, all the related accoutrements? I, who grew up with plenty?  I have enough trouble with the conservative attitude "I worked hard for everything I have, so everyone else should too," but the attitude "My parents worked hard to buy my toys and candy, yours should too" is even worse. WTF, Emily?  I've read King Lear:
"O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's."
 I bet even the mean daughters of Lear would have at least let him keep his Wii gaming system; it's good exercise for the elderly. I'm trying to 'unwrap' my reaction, lest I be turned into a Newt.

Driving home last night I was too fidgety to listen to the jazz that plays on the NPR station after 7:00 p.m.  Nor could I hang in with Jimmy Durante singing "Frosty the Snowman" with a kids' chorus for more than three minutes. The glaciers are melting faster than that, for hellsakes. I turned to "92.1 - CLASSIC HITS of the 60s, 70s, and 80s" and there was Mick.
When I'm driving in my car.
When I'm watching my TV.
I can't get no.
Even Mick was not satisfactory. I changed stations to "The EAGLE 96.9, Sacramento's Classic Rock!" - and there was Mick again.
Trailing himself by less than a minute. It's not that this phenomenon is terribly rare, nor is it surprising considering that one company owns most of the radio stations, but come to think of it, when is this song NOT playing in the background, somewhere? It is the multinational anthem.

I don't have the surplus funds to buy someone else's kid an iPod. In fact, I recently gave one away involuntarily when I left one of my truck doors unlocked overnight. But I have no right to condemn the earnest materialism of any American child. With few exceptions we are all convinced that we should have stuff, whether or not it is stuff we need or 'deserve.' We dream, hope, and pray for stuff even if we use St. Nicholas as an intermediary because we are reluctant to flat-out ask the Lord for a Mercedes Benz. O reason not the need.

May I discern my needs from my wants. May I cast the iPad from my own eye before presuming to removing the Nano from my neighbors. May we have a few quiet moments of peaceful enough already this season and share the surplus with someone else. <3

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

What happens next?

For some time following my last post eight months ago, I meant to post my 50-mile playlist. But I never did.  I have thought of reconfiguring this forum in various ways for various purposes and did not do that either. Do I want a consistent narrative thread? An underlying theme? A greater agenda? A semi-public diary? A window? An audience? I am looking for a point, but there are so many points. I have sung this Yusuf/Cat Stevens song I don't know how many times and I wonder if I've ever done what "I" say I'm doing when I sing it. I can't say for him whether it was just a pretty lyric or if he really did what he says he is doing in the song, either. What if listening to "The Wind" of your soul actually blows you away to a place where people think you have lost your mind? What if you are carried off by the wind to change your name and nobody recognizes you, and people speak of you as if you had died, and resent you for ceasing to give them what you gave them before and they want more of, as if it were a debt you had to pay to society all the rest of your days?

I talked to a Zen priest some months ago. I was not presenting myself that day in the kind of package I would have wanted to present to someone I'd never met, let alone a Zen priest. I was all over the place, running ahead and falling behind and explaining everything in the wrong order. I told her I wanted to go to seminary to be a Unitarian Universalist minister and she said 'do you believe in God?' and I was startled because that is not a question I expected a Zen priest to ask. She said 'how do you know you want to be a Unitarian minister. Maybe you want to be a Zen priest. You should sit with this for a year.'

I have thought about that meeting a lot. I didn't take the advice. I have a patience paradox - some difficult situations and people I can sit with for a long, long time. I ran for 11 hours and 14 minutes last April 9th and finished the course without even throwing up at the end. But ask me to sit on an impulse for more than a week and I am like the rich young man who went away sorrowing after Jesus told him all he needed to do to enter the kingdom of heaven was give away everything he had to the poor. What kind of messed up thing was that to say to a rich kid?

Dear God, please don't ask me to sit. Unless you have a cookie. 

Maybe there is more to that story, though.  The rich young man went away sad because he ostensibly was too attached to his wealth. But what if, later, he thought more about that advice he couldn't take, and the impulse that led him to ask in the first place returned, and his curiosity increased proportionately to a weariness of his burdensome status quo, and he started giving his wealth away, here and there...until eventually he could see through to the other side of it. And lo, the kingdom of heaven was at hand, not anywhere else. Not after graduation, not after parole, not after retirement, not after finding true love (in no particular order of importance).