Archive | Commentary RSS feed for this section

Reflections on life and the joy of Cajun food

16 Oct

This is the 55th installment in this blog—hardly possible, it seems to me.

I begin with two reflective poems, followed by commentary and a poem of pure fun.

* * *

The Philosopher’s Report

 “The truth is so unclear, 
our time on earth so short”—
the philosopher’s report
in brief describes with near
precision what frustrates
the quest that makes us who we 
are—to know with certainty
and properly respect our fates.

Yet along a path we walk,
free in spirit when the way allows,
oft constrained by circumstance.
As if the path itself could talk—
in its own strange way it shows
our life’s a not unpretty dance.

 

Get Ready

Molecules: Get ready, my little ones,
you tiny ones–
you were not together before we met,
you will not be together much longer,
you will find new friends,
you will travel to places you do not know,
and you will be part of something
very big and new.

Memories: Never bound in time and space,
you will be even more on your own,
reaching places never imagined.
You already know how to live in contradiction,
but it will be even more intense as years pass.
You will comfort some and bring strength.
Live with the fact that you will anger others
and disappoint.

Deeds: Etched, incised,
implanted where you really matter,
freeing and imprisoning–
anonymous as you are effective.

Me, I, soul, center, how shall I name you?
You will be carried to terra truly incognita
where your life will be
novel beyond present telling.

All transported,
carried in arms
as real as they are metaphor.

* * *

Writers are advised to write what they know, write their experience. My experience parallels that of the response I recently received to these poems:

“At age 85, I too am beginning to acutely feel the coming end of my life, with all of its accumulated memories and experiences. This awareness adds a new note of urgency to my motivation to contribute as much as I can out of my memories, experiences, reflections, and the like before passing the baton to those who will come after me and those who have shared in my life here. It’s a new phase of life with new kinds of experience. And it is a spur to meditation.”

Some people may say such thoughts are just for older folks, not relevant for younger people. My own experience leads me in another direction. After college, I studied in Germany, where I was attracted to Existentialist thinking. Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus—these were major thinkers. They were convinced that in confronting our death, we begin to understand how to live our lives now—as Kierkegaard put it, in every moment, we live “towards our death,” and how we do so determines our future. In that moment our lives make the existentialist leap, diving into the depths, floating over 20,000 fathoms of water.

Later, I encountered the psychologist Ernest Becker, who characterized our American culture in his term, “denial of death.” Turning Kierkegaard on his head, Becker insisted that many of us live as if we can deny death, and he described the destructive consequences of our denial. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Becker. Also, http://ernestbecker.org/).

* * *

However, lives that are lived toward death also include moments of pleasure, sheer fun—even for 85 year-olds. That can happen for me over a dish of great Cajun cooking.

My favorite Cajun eatery

And on the sixth day
the Lord God said
let there be gumbo
and jambalaya
fried pickles and red beans
and rice
etouffe and blackened
catfish
collard greens and grits–
and Tabasco

Then God turned to
Adam and Eve
and said
there I have kept my promise
your lives will be rich and full—
and zesty

 

(c) Phil Hefner   10/16/2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weltschmerz encounters Psalm 90

6 Oct

There are times when I have to kick back and let the world do its thing without my worrying. The Germans have a word for this feeling of anxiety caused by the ills of the world, Weltschmerz. It is often translated as world-weariness.

At such times, I often take refuge in a piece of literature—let its sounds and ideas flow over me as if anointing me—I see the Old Testament image of Aaron, the oil flowing over his head and beard—for a return to the fray.

Reading the 90th psalm is a good way to reflect on things. It starts out reminding us that we do have a haven, a refuge, that is truly home for us, a God who knows us.

You have been our haven, Lord, 
from generation to generation. 
Before the mountains existed, 
before the earth was born, 
from age to age you are God.

Mainly, the psalm focuses on “passing away” as a basic feature of earthly life, our passing away.

You return us to dust, 
children of earth back to earth.
For in your days a thousand years 
are like a single day: 
they pass with the swiftness of sleep.

 
You sweep away the years 
as sleep passes at dawn, 
like grass that springs up in the day 
and is withered by evening.
 
For we perish at your wrath, 
your anger strikes terror.
You lay bare our sins 
in the piercing light of your presence.
All our days wither beneath your glance, 
our lives vanish like a breath.
 
Our life is a mere seventy years, 
eighty with good health, 
and all it gives us is 
toil and distress, 
then the thread breaks 
and we are gone.

We are transients on this earth, our tenure here is not indefinite, and we are vulnerable while we are here. Furthermore, this is all God’s doing. We are in God’s hands all the while. We may be like grass that springs up in the day and is withered by evening, but we are grass planted by God.

This is the way it is supposed to be—it’s not happenstance that we are given a mere seventy years, eighty with good health, and it gives us is toil and distress, and then the thread breaks and we are gone. We may push back and live way past 70 or 80, but the toil and distress don’t disappear. And sooner or later, the thread does break.

These words bring anger and despair when we don’t accept our conditions and push back against the constraints. Much of human life is lived in rebellion. In fact, such rebellion may be a basic mark of being human. But even though some of our greatest human achievements may be enabled by our efforts to surpass our passing-away-ness, the psalmist reminds us we can never escape our situation. Our massive medical system, for example, works hard to put us past 80 years. It is remarkable, when you think about it, that one-seventh of the American economy, health care, is dedicated to counteracting our very nature, our natural passing-away-ness. Our brilliance is embodied in such efforts, but they are finally unsuccessful.

Who can know the force of your anger?
Your fury matches our fear. 
Teach us to make use of our days 
and bring wisdom to our hearts.
 
How long, O Lord, before you return?
Pity your servants, 
shine your love on us each dawn, 
and gladden our hearts.

I think of the movie, “Blade Runner”—biological robots have been programmed to self-destruct at a certain age. They threaten the bioengineer who created them, until he re-programs them so they can live longer. He tells them the bad news—in the process of reprogramming, they will die. That applies to us humans, in a metaphorical sense, not literally.

When God finishes the work of creation with the words, “It is good,” that includes our finite, passing-away lives. Understanding this is one of our major spiritual challenges. The psalm ends on this note:

Balance our past sorrows 
with present joys 
and let your servants, young and old, 
see the splendor of your work.
 
Let your loveliness shine on us, 
and bless the work we do, 
bless the work of our hands.

When we reach this point, we are still creatures of passing-away-ness, but we can be at peace. We are ready to re-enter the world that will weary us, again and again. We re-enter as transient conquerors.

(c) Phil Hefner 10/6/2017

Psalm translation, Liturgical Psalter 1974, Liturgical Press.
 

Science, spirituality, and depth

9 Jul

 

Depth” is important for us today. In our present cultural situation, pressures all around tell us that our world is one-dimensional, but we know different; we seek depth. The search for depth today is equivalent to what was called in earlier ages, the quest for God.

Philosophers say our times are marked by “the turn to the natural”: things we can touch are the world for us—surfaces, the skin of things. The empirical, natural world is understood to be all there is. When we want to explain our lives and our world, we turn first to naturalistic explanations— this includes going to doctors, engineers, and scientists to explain what is going on in our bodies and in our natural environment, what kind of cars we should buy, what kind of houses we should build, how to grow our crops, and everything else imaginable. Science enters as the premiere explainer of nature. This outlook dominates in our western societies today.

These thoughts have been nesting in my brain for a long time—this week they took flight. A well-known scientist, astronomer and astrophysicist (who will remain nameless), spoke on National Public Radio: “We don’t have to listen to priests and philosophers to tell us what to believe, because we have scientists to tell us what’s real.”

This statement touches on some thorny issues concerning science today and how it relates to religion. I’ll summarize some aspects:

1—Scientific knowledge and its technological applications are built into contemporary life. Our present world population and our lifestyle are dependent on science and technology—without them, billions of people would die. I’m not saying that I “believe” in science (as in “Do you believe in evolution?”), as if science were a religion, but it’s absurd to be “against” it. I accept science as the most successful method ever devised for gaining knowledge of the physical world—and essential for our lives today.

2—Science is under attack in our country today. Preliminary budget drafts show drastic reductions for research. Scientific knowledge is subjected to political tests and often ridiculed by prominent politicians. Many of us feel an obligation to stand up for science and reject the political attacks on it.

3— But there is more to this world and our lives than science. I take exception to the scientist saying that scientists tell us what is real, with the implication that outside of science nothing is real. Such an outlook leads to a narrowing of our experience and our sensibilities. It ignores that there is a depth to the world that science cannot take the measure of. Scientists cannot tell us what is morally right or wrong; they cannot tell us about the purpose of our lives or what vocation in life will give us the most fulfillment. We need art, music, poetry, and philosophy to help us think these things through. We also need religion and spirituality to help us understand these areas of life. It is worth noting that poetry and spirituality are flourishing right in the midst of science and the turn to the natural.

The sociologist, Peter Berger, who died two weeks ago, reminded us—when “God is Dead” was in fashion—that “except for locales like Western Europe and social groups like intellectuals, most of the world is as religious as ever.” In his younger days, Berger wrote that secularization was squeezing out the sense of transcendence. He was echoing the theory that social scientists have been propounding for two centuries or more: secularization would lead to the demise of religion. This theory has now clearly been disproven on the world scene.

But the turn to the natural is real, and I espouse it myself. What challenges us now is to understand how religion, spirituality, art, music, and poetry point to what is real in the context of the natural world that science describes—the dimension of depth. Many people devote themselves to discovering and nurturing the places of depth in life. I include these efforts in my idea of “spirituality.”

The theologian, Paul Tillich, who was pre-eminent in the 1950s and 60s, wrote about depth—God is not “out there,” but rather “in there.” He also wrote about the “mystery, depth, and greatness” that lives in all of us. “What is your mystery, depth, and greatness?” Ask that question about yourself or the next time you get together with your friends.

The scientist who spoke on public radio seriously misses the mark, she doesn’t really get the point of what is going in our world today. Rejecting priests and philosophers, in the interest of science is simplistic. The challenge is much more complex and much more exciting.

Where is the depth in your life? And how do you talk about it?

In this poem, I sketch some of my own everyday experience of depth:

 

. . . runs very deep

The mountain stream races
madly down the slope
through trees
that go forever.
Clear water,
you can see clear down to its bed,
there’s nothing hidden.
You can cup it in your hands
and have a drink. It
runs very deep.

Her face mirrors concentration
on agendas far away
too much hers to share,
reflecting a side of her
I must not know.
A sudden shaft of smile–
she’s reentered my world.
In that moment, I know
the foundations of her self go
down very deep.

In the making
twelve billion years
unleashed from hot simplicity
that would not be contained.
Random reaches beyond millennia
raised to light years’ pace until
a complex creature
reaches farther still.
Something about random
flows very deep.

I know it’s in there–somewhere–
of that I am convinced.
Hidden, it defies my grasping,
sneaks into a crevice–
in the bony crags of my skull.
It crawls among the folded contours
of my brain. Self eludes me
at every turn. When it does allow
me to look into its eyes, I see–
endless depth.

 

(c) Phil Hefner July 9, 2017

 

 

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

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