May Day–what does it stand for?

21 Apr


When I was a boy, on May First, May Day, my mother passed out baskets of home-baked goodies, candies, flowers, and fruit. She made the baskets herself and put them on our nearest neighbors’ doorsteps. Mother was cheerful, the baskets were colorful, and kindness flowed. Spring was breaking out all over, and May baskets were its pleasant signs. For many years, this was the extent of my experience of May Day.

When I studied in Germany in the mid-fifties, May Day was celebrated throughout Europe as International Workers Day–with big parades and speeches. It’s akin to our American Labor Day on the first Monday in September, but not exactly the same.

Europe was swept by socialist revolutions in the 1840s and 1850s, which aimed at overturning the aristocratic and bourgeois classes that dominated society. To be a worker is more a matter of social class conflict–lending a militancy to May Day that isn’t present in the United States. In most European countries, after all, workers receive education from middle school on that leads to the trades–quite different from the academic stream that leads to the professions and higher corporate positions.

I’ll never forget my conversation with a British laboring man, who told me how important it was for him to be working class. He hoped his children would follow in his steps rather than pursuing a university education.

This social class situation infuses International Workers Day celebrations. There have been efforts to move our American Labor Day to May First, but they have never succeeded.

Moving to Chicago in the late fifties, I learned about the Haymarket Affair. Haymarket Square is located at Randolph Street and Desplaines Street–visible from the Kennedy Expressway. May 1 was chosen to be International Workers’ Day to commemorate the riot that took place in this square on May 4, 1886. The police were trying to disperse a public assembly during a general strike for an eight-hour workday when an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police. The police responded by firing on the workers, killing four demonstrators. Five men were convicted of staging the riot and hanged.

The statue commemorating this event was vandalized many times, especially during Vietnam War protests. After being rebuilt several times, the first Mayor Daley posted a 24‑hour police guard at the statue at a cost of $67,000 per year. In 1972, the statue was taken down and has been relocated twice in police department buildings. The men who were hung are buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Jewish Cemetery–located in suburban Forest Park. A number of other labor and social activists are buried in this cemetery, including the radical anarchist, Emma Goldman.

In the late 1970s, when we lived in Cambridge, England, we saw Morris dancers performing on the first of May and for a week or more afterwards.  In the yard in front of King’s College, they set up their maypole and danced around it. The maypole represents a living tree, and the dances have their origins in older fertility rites. The dancers wear colorful costumes, with bells around their waists, waving ribbons or batons as they go through their routines. In Cambridgeshire, these dances are also known as the Plough dances that mark the beginning of the farmers’ season of plowing and planting.

I’ve experienced May Day as a celebration of nature’s coming back to life in Spring–joyful and lighthearted–and also as a remembrance of the social turmoil that has marked the struggle of workers for decent pay and conditions. To the maypole graphic shown here, I would add the raised fist of the international workers movement. It’s a complex combination–bringing in concerns for both the environment and for social justice Much to think about as May approaches.

(c) Phil Hefner–4/21/2017

 

 

Truth as hard and tough as nails

22 Mar

 

I am surrounded by public art. Just across the street, on a hill in Jackson Park are seven half-sunken Buddha heads in a circle–Indria Freitas Johnson’s, “10,000 Ripples.” The heads, which were put in place on World Peace Day, September 21, 2016, symbolize peace; “We need to be reminded that peace is possible,” the artist says.

A half mile to the south, behind the Museum of Science and Industry, adjacent to the Wooded Isle with its lovely Japanese Garden of the Phoenix , Yoko Ono’s “Skylanding” was recently installed. Giant lotus petals rise out of the green turf, turning our eyes upward in welcoming gesture. The installation ceremony, which included dancers and special music, is pictured above.

Yoko Ono is a respected, if controversial, avant-garde artist and musician. When she married John Lennon, the couple became strong activists against the Vietnam War. “Skylanding” takes its meaning from her early life in Japan. She lived in Tokyo, her life disrupted by the firebombing and atomic bombs of World War II. In those days, the sky was a fearsome place–bombs rained down death, suffering, and destruction. Her family fled the city and scratched out an existence in the countryside. “Skylanding” welcomes the sky, its lotus leaves reaching upwards. The scene is one of peace, dancing, and song.

All very nice, we say, but what do these sculptures really amount to? Life is hard, not soft and beautiful. Hard here on the south side of Chicago, with its guns and gangs, as well as the unflinching dollars-and-sense calculation of urban developers. The artists seem to be engaging in out-of-touch soft power, while life around us operates on hard power.

This is where Ute Lemper enters. She is one of the great cabaret singers and composers of our time, a matchless interpreter of Kurt Weill’s songs and the Brecht/Weill classic Threepenny Opera. Fans of the movie, “Cabaret,” recall that the classic era of cabarets and their singing was early twentieth century Germany, and that they waged cutting satire of their society and its politics. Imagine a much more sardonic version of “Saturday Night Live.” Hitler shut them down–fascists don’t tolerate satire.

Lemper entitles one of her songs, “Munchhausen”–named after a sixteenth century German baron, who was notorious for his habit of lying. Its refrain:

I’m sick and tired of lies from you
But how I wish your lies were true
Liar, liar, liar, liar, liar, liar
Truth is as hard and tough as nails
That’s why we need fairy tales
I’m all through with logical conclusions
Why should I deny myself illusions

Hard power can banish soft power to the sidelines, even into obscurity. But soft power cannot be eradicated. It lives on–in the form of stories, fairy tales, songs, hopes, myths, and dreams. In a brilliant turn of phrase, our truth is tough as nails and fairy tales house their toughness.

Political figures, barons of business, dictators–these pass away, but dreams, hopes, and fairy tales live on and on. We remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, who lived at the time of the Babylonian oppression of Israel–“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” But who recalls the names of the oppressor Babylonian kings?

It has been said that the fairy tales and dreams are the opiate of the masses, intended to sedate their senses. I prefer to think of them as the sigh, deep in our hearts, that lives below the surface of events. Fairy tales are not only tough as nails, they are subversive of the existing order. They undercut human pretensions.

Lemper includes fairy tales in her song:

I saw a film the other day
That really varied from the norm
There were no soldiers on parade
And no one marched in uniform
Its heroes were not supermen
And no one even shot a gun
The audience still loved the film
Though not a single war was won
But I was really shocked to see
This film was made in Germany

I saw a land that hated war
And melted all its weapons down
To build a boat of love for kids
Who planned to sail from town to town
Declaring peace for all the world
Let killing now come to an end
Embrace your enemies instead
Your former foe is now your friend
Ev’ry conflict now will cease
And all of us will live in peace

These kinds of fairy tales are subversive–little wonder that Hitler closed them down.

Yoko Ono’s “Skylanding” expresses such a subversive dream. Our skies are not so friendly today–bombers and drones in the Middle East, lung-eating pollution around the world, amid moves to increase military forces. It is a dreamy fairy tale, but it advances a truth that is hard and tough as nails. If it were a policy proposal, it could be scrapped; as proposed legislation, it could be tabled. As hope and dream, as fairy tale, it will live on as long as human beings exist on this planet.

(c) Phil Hefner 3/22/2017

Something more than politics

7 Mar

Something “more” than politics–

Patricia’s poem

“Listen
after I have set the table
folded the scottowel into napkins cooked
this delicious eggplant stuffed with bulghur wheat
then baked the whole thing under careful
covering of mozzarella cheese
and
said my grace

don’t you bring Anita Bryant/Richard
Pryor/the Justices of the Supreme Court/don’t
you bring any of those people in here
to spoil my digestive processes
and ruin
my dinner

You hear?”

June Jordan wrote this poem in the late 1970s. If you substitute different names for Anita Bryant (singer and anti-Gay/lesbian spokeswoman) and Richard Pryor, it expresses what I have felt many times in the last six months. Miroslav Volf wrote, “Politics touches everything, but politics isn’t everything, not by a long shot.”

There is something more than politics–what is this “more”?

The more–family, faith, religion, personal integrity, the recovery of loved ones from cancer, art, cookouts in the backyard, the Cubs, the Packers–we all can names places in our lives that are “more” than politics–even though they may well be touched by politics.

In these comments, I’m focusing on art. When his novel, Underground Railroad, received the National Book Award, Colson Whitehead responded, with his eye on the current political situation, “Be Kind to everyone, make art, and fight the power.”

Why should we make art? The poet, Joy Harjo, gave an answer to this question when she bestowed the National Book Award for poetry: “Poetry carries the spirit of the people and is necessary at the doorways of transition and transformation.”

The words of George Steiner have stuck in my mind: Journalists insist the present moment has the most urgent claim on us–it is the hub of our universe; for artists, to the contrary, it is the longer view that counts, and the deeper view.

The politics of the day is mean and cheap. June Jordan’s Patricia has worked carefully and lovingly to prepare the meal for her guests–and she wants to contrast sharply with “mean and cheap.” Her mozzarella and eggplant transcends politics, and she means for her guests to share that transcendence–at the same time, the poem opens up other possibilities for transcending politics.


Consider Pablo Picasso’s painting, “Guernica” (see above). Rooted in a current event, it probes deeply to portray the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Nazi German Air Force in April 1937. Picasso cries out that bombing was the rending of creation. And not just bombing that town, but also Srebinica in 1995 and Aleppo from 2012 until the present and Palmyra in 2016–all war, in other words. The list of “Guernicas” is endless.

Even the best journalistic treatment cannot convey the depth and breadth of Picasso’s painting. Wilfred Owen did the same in his poems from World War I. In “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and right to die for your country”–in other words, it is a wonderful and great honor to fight and die for your country), written in 1917, he foreshadows the bombing of Guernica in his description of a soldier dying of a mustard gas attack:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

Dripping with irony and sarcasm, Owen calls irrevocably into question the “old lie.” The journalist’s task is to report the soldier’s suffering and death in vivid terms, as TV news brought the Vietnam casualties to our dinner tables in the ’60s and ’70s. The artist’s message is a different one: war is a violation of the created order, and smoothing it over as noble sacrifice is a lie. This is not a condemnation of the soldiers who fight and die, but of the societies and their leaders who send soldiers into war.

It’s not a matter of escaping politics, but nourishing the deep places of our lives. I have tried to cultivate these deep places in my own life. I visit friends in our second-floor rehab unit. I read newspapers, but watch little TV news. I bought a small volume of Christian Wiman’s poems, “Once in the West,” and found these wonderful lines:

“Too many elegies elevating sadness
to a kind of sad religion:

one wants in the end just once to befriend
one’s own loneliness,

to make of the ache of inwardness–

something,
music maybe. . .”

Make the decision now to befriend the deep places of your life and make them into music. Share your music with us.

(c) Phil Hefner. March 7, 2017

Your life is a poem–part 2

19 Feb

A poem is made up of words and lines–some rhyme, some don’t. Some poetic forms are very tight, like villanelles and sonnets. On occasion, these poems are uptight and awkward, while other times they sing so melodically that we scarcely notice the complex structure.

Poems come in stanzas–think of them as chapters in a book. The last stanza of a sonnet or a limerick can take a surprising or ironic twist.

Our lives are like this, too. They have forms and shapes, they flow melodically, singing songs of exultation and also stalling at times, dipping into sadness, even tragedy.

There are angry poems and protest poems that continue to ring out long after their poets have gone.

When I think of life as a poem–my own life and the lives of those around me, it changes my perspective. I see the people around me as a community of poets.

Our life-poems are spelled out for all to read. Your poem embodies the rhythms of where you’ve been and what you’ve done, what you’ve fought against, how you’ve loved and where you’ve been disappointed. You have to help us interpret, to discover how the stanzas have unfolded, to learn how simple rhymes rest on deeper feelings, how inscrutable verse unlocks a world only you have seen.

In our dining room, entertaining limericks sit beside Shakespearean sonnets; paeans of praise beside tightly framed lamentations. Although it’s clear our poems have been written by diligence and craft, it’s also clear we don’t write our poems by ourselves. We are co-authors–families, co-workers, even our foes have taken their turns writing our lines, giving our poems unexpected twists. At times, death, tragedy, and illness take up the pen and write.

In certain situations we may think we are writing the later stanzas of our poem. But our poem never stops. Our actions and words are carried on in the lives of those we have touched. Consider the dance of the atoms and molecules that make up our bodies–they do not die. They may have originated in the far reaches of space before they took up residence in us, and who knows where they will travel next, what shapes they will take? We don’t even know what our future poems will look like.

I tried to convey this in a poem of my own–

I go back light years–
the dust of stars
floats in my flesh.
Orang and Neanderthal are
my kin.

Primeval stuff
and primate
genes
do not halt their
flow because this pulse
stops.

Shattered in a thousand shards
by earth’s grinding
blows
is not death
but a thousand more
openings–

paths through
cosmos, shapes as
yet unseen,
undreamt.

(c) Phil Hefner 2/18/2017

Your life is a poem–1

1 Feb

The poem in my previous blog was entitled, “The art of dying.” But the basic idea is that our lives are the works of art. Our lives are poetry written in our living day by day. We are the poets.

Our dying is part of the poem–an especially important segment, the end of a stanza, you might say. Our poem goes on after our death, but we are the poets who craft the epic as long as there is breath in us.

I think of this quite a lot since we moved into a retirement community, where everyone, in one way or another, is moving toward death in a relatively short time. Death is a more frequent experience than in other demographic communities. This is not a pessimistic or morose observation–it’s simply factual.
You might say that here we have a concentration of poets working on the final stanzas of their life-poems. Since this idea occurred to me, I have a different perspective on my fellow residents. I tried to express this in my poem:

Waiting in a large room,
And though we’re not alone

We practice our art–
Inwardly and outwardly, both.

We see each other, but
Mostly miss the signs that

Each is creating
An art of dying,

Never knowing when
The project will be complete.

The first response I received was: “I hope you haven’t had bad news that has placed you in the position of focussing on the art of dying.” I thought to myself, “Yes and No.” I consider the poem to be reflective, not morose or depressed. Two other readers, one who is close to my age and the other a former student, thirty years younger, both said they find themselves in the poem.

In response to the first reader, I wrote that I wasn’t prompted by bad news. There is a lot of my philosophy of life embedded in the poem. I have been influenced by Soeren Kierkegaard’s teaching that we “live towards our death”–that in an important way our lives are defined by our death and what we consider worthy to die for–as was the case with Jesus. Kierkegaard was reflecting on how we live our lives–in the awareness that our dying is connected to the way we live.

As I was working on the poem, I was reminded of the anthropologists’ opinion that the ability to reflect on life and death–being aware that we will pass away–is a mark of the human species. Anthropologists sift through pre-historical remains for signs of burial practices, for example.

I’ve also been influenced by Erik Erikson’s discussion of Gandhi and the Hindu understanding of the life cycle. The four stages in this cycle are: growing up, the householder phase, the achiever phase, and the growing old/dying phase. The final stage challenges us to prepare ourselves for finishing our lives in an appropriate way. The final years should be an appropriate capstone.

A major point in my poem is that medical science (“the voice in a white coat”) complicates the final stage, because our lives are extended, often in unexpected ways that render our “art of dying” more complex, but also contribute to the distinctiveness and beauty of our lives:

Like a great cathedral

Altered, added to
In every age,

The beauty of our art lies
Not in what we once conceived

But in the unmistakable
Add-ons time lays upon us.

I think of the great Chartres Cathedral. The current cathedral was begun in 1194, and it had to take into account the remnants of four earlier churches that had been built on the site, only to be destroyed by fire and other calamities. Consecrated in 1260, a major addition was built seventy-five yeas later at the east end. In 1506, lightning destroyed the north steeple, only to be replaced by a flamboyant structure totally different from the steeple to the south. The magnificent choir, with its frieze depiction of the life of Mary, was completed in the early 1700s. Yet the whole of the cathedral, six hundred years in the making, is a thing of beauty and inspiration. Our lives are like that.

There is a tradition of reflecting on the art of dying. The ancient Romans, particularly the Stoic philosophers, discussed the theme. Death was a motivation for leading an honorable life, since they believed that our reputation is all that survives–immortality is in what others remember of us after we are gone. Stoics considered suicide to be an option in cases where life is no longer useful.

The Christian tradition of the art of dying goes back at least to the early 1400s. “The Art of Dying” is the title of two writings “which offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death, explaining how to “die well” according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages. They were written within the historical context of the macabre horrors of the Black Death 60 years earlier and consequent social upheavals of the 15th century. Very popular, they were translated into most West European languages and were the first in a western literary tradition of guides to death and dying.”

In contrast to the Stoic emphasis, the Christian tradition reassures us that God’s grace accepts us, whatever our condition, whether useful or not, and urges dying people to intensify their faith in Christ.

This blog installment will be extended into a Part II. As ever, your reactions are eagerly awaited.


(c) Phil Hefner 1/31/2017

.

The art of dying

27 Jan

The art of dying

This art is made
While one is waiting,

Else it’s not art,
Just a falling over dead–

And that’s not ballet,
No pas de deux.

Waiting in a large room,
And though we’re not alone

We practice our art–
Inwardly and outwardly, both.

We see each other, but
Mostly miss the signs that

Each is creating
An art of dying,

Never knowing when
The project will be complete.

It becomes more difficult,
More tangled,

When the voice in a white coat
Rings out, “You’ve been granted

More time.” No matter that
The artistic process is riven–

The time can’t be declined.
Like a great cathedral

Altered, added to
In every age,

The beauty of our art lies
Not in what we once conceived

But in the unmistakable
Add-ons time lays upon us.


When I sent an earlier version of this poem to a group of friends recently, the responses prompted revisions of the poem and further reflection. The discussion that followed will be included in my next installment–coming very soon. I’d like you to read the poem with your mind uncontaminated by after-thoughts!

The discussion raises points that were not in my mind as I wrote. In fact, the poem poured out, and I had no idea where it was going. The discussion enriched me, however, even if it wasn’t part of my original experience.

I’ll appreciate your responses.

(c) Phil Hefner 1/26/2017

More than Wealth

24 Dec

I sometimes try to read the news with a Bible near by. I read these two items during the day yesterday, and the psalm was part of my evening devotional reading.

I’ll put these items side-by-side. They speak for themselves. Nevertheless, I will add a brief commentary.

The amount of wealth possessed by Trump’s cabinet members, at least $9.5 billion, is greater than the 43 million least wealthy households in America.–News report.

Donald Trump defended his selection of millionaires and billionaires to join his administration:
“I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” Trump said.

The amount of wealth possessed by Trump’s cabinet members, at least $9.5 billion, is greater than the 43 million least wealthy households in America.–News report.

Donald Trump defended his selection of millionaires and billionaires to join his administration:
“I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” Trump said.

Psalm 49.
Why should I fear men who trust in their wealth and boast of the vastness of their riches? For no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. He cannot buy life without end, nor avoid coming to the grave. He knows that wise men and fools must both perish and leave their wealth to others. Do not fear when a man grows rich, when the glory of his house increases. He takes nothing with him when he dies, his glory does not follow him below. In his riches, man lacks wisdom: he is like the beasts that are destroyed.

Commentary–

The point that wealthy successful people may find ways to improve living standards for rank-and-file Americans might be true, and I hope it is. However, there is more at stake–a worldview that is projected. Material well being can make lives better in many ways, but there is more to life. That “more” is what America needs most at this moment in our history. Christmas is a message of the “more” we need.


(c) Phil Hefner. 12/23/2016