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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

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
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–

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.


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

More than politics

5 Nov

This week, Chicago–the quintessential “political” town–was a good place to be if you needed to be reminded that life is more than politics. I’m talking about Chicago Cubs, of course, and their triumph in the World Series last Wednesday. Chicago went berserk–5 million people at the parade and rally on Friday, reported by the Chicago Tribune to be the “seventh largest crowd of human beings in the history of the world.” (Disclaimer: the Tribune is part-owner of the team). It was a shout out to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: “Move over, give us a break. We love the Cubbies more than either of you!” Here at Montgomery Place, music events were cancelled for the games. Believe me, that is a very big deal here.

A much-appreciated reminder that as important politics is, it’s not the end-all and be-all. But there’s more–I’m a White Sox fan. I empathize with the woman quoted in John Kass’s Tribune column: “If this becomes a thing with the Cubs and it happens every year for the next three years, then I’m leaving town,” said Sox fan Wendy. “I won’t be able to take it.”

My wife, Neva, is a Cubs fan. I’m reminded that you can be on the wrong side of history and still love the “misguided” people on the other side. So the Cubs had 5 million people at their parade. We had 2 million at ours in 2005, and that ain’t hay, as they say. Chicago is a Cubs town, to be sure, and a Bears and a Bulls and a Blackhawks town–never a Sox town, but 2 million of of us redefine the concept of “outsiders.”

There was more than baseball this week that put politics into perspectives. Good news: a granddaughter selected for the Association of Choir Directors of America National Choir, to perform in the Minneapolis Symphony Hall on March 11. A friend has emergency surgery to deal with a heart rate issue; a pacemaker solves the problem, and she goes home the next day.

Bad news: my sister’s cancer has returned, and she faces drastic surgery. An old friend who fell and broke her shoulder in four places now undergoes fusion of her cervical vertebrae.

Politics is important and even decisive in some respects, an essential dimension of our world. But it’s not the whole. We’ll be rooting for the Cubs–or not–no matter who is elected president or senator, or local dog-catcher. The Inauguration will pass, and sister and my friend will be living with the results of their surgeries and rehabbing themselves back to recovery. The world we live in has many dimensions–not parts that we can separate from one another, but interweaving dimensions that in fact permeate each other.

Personal life has been in tension with politics for millennia. In Sophocles’ play, Antigone, (written 2,500 years ago), tragedy results when Antigone clings to family values. She buries her brother, against the wishes of the king, who executed the brother for treason. President Obama (reputed to be a Sox fan) went a different route when he called John Madden, the Cubs’ manager, to invite the team to the White House, before Obama leaves office.

On the other hand, no one cares who the surgeons and nurses vote for–we just want them to do their personal and professional best. And we pray.

Only three days until the election. Between now and then, my TV will be tuned to Masterpiece Theater and re-runs of “Murder, She Wrote,” “Gunsmoke,” and “NCIS.”

Sorry, pundits. Sorry, Donald. Sorry Hillary. But you see, there’s a murder every day in Cabot Cove, and Angela Lansbury is a charming sleuth.

(c) Phil Hefner 11/5/2016

Jacob wrestles in the shopping center

24 Aug

Sometimes deep contrasts–even direct opposites–show themselves at the same time, in the same place. Take the Hyde Park Shopping Center as an example. It’s a delightful urban oasis–for me especially because the Bon Jour French cafe graces its central courtyard. I’ve spent many pleasant hours there.

Children laugh and play as they run and skip around the court yard fountain. Watchful mothers chat over coffee under the shade trees. At the tables are those who read their daily paper. Earnest students read and write for their projects, while still others are writing letters or engrossed in a novel. Jazz musicians come in the summer, filling the courtyard with their music. Annual crafts fairs and garden shows dot the calendar, as well. Most, like me, simply enjoy the ambience on a summer day, the coffee and the bakery’s output of tasty goods.

But if those of us who enjoy the delights of this space look carefully at our surroundings, we see a small sculpted figure perched above the fountain in the center of the courtyard (see photo above). Entitled “Jacob and the Angel,” it refers to the story found in the Bible, Genesis 32:22-31. In this story, Jacob wrestles through the night with a strange man. Although the man refuses to reveal his name, Jacob believes he has been wrestling with God. This encounter changed Jacob–he received a new name and a permanent limp.

The sculpted figure of Jacob is caught up in intense struggle. All his weight is balanced on a single toe; his other foot seems to be cloven, like a hoofed animal. The sculptor, Paul Granlund (1925-2003), suggests that the struggle is also interior–Jacob is wrestling with himself. Granlund himself observed, “I’m always trying to say two things at once.”

I would like to know how Jacob ever got to the Hyde Park Shopping Center. Curious, too, that the sculptor–son of a Lutheran pastor who spent his entire career in Minnesota, much of it at Gustavus Adolphus college in St. Peter–should place his Jacob in a self-styled secular setting.

His presence at the French cafe does stand in a venerable tradition. As early as the 1700s, the coffee houses of Vienna and London were places of both light hearted joy and serious thinking by artists, philosophers, and musicians. Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore–the two legendary cafes on the Left Bank in Paris– became famous for their glittering array of deep-thinking patrons over the decades, including Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, Julia Child, and James Baldwin. You might say that it’s the rule, not the exception for cafes to be venues of seriousness, along with their pastries and coffee.

Popular philosophy might think that we build pleasant places as safe spaces where we can be free from wrestling with angels, ourselves included. In reality, the wrestling takes place anywhere, perhaps especially in the pleasant spaces, when our antagonist is least expected.

You might call this a serious everyday spirituality. Are the denizens of the cafe so self-aware?

(c). Phil Hefner. August 23, 2016

For more on the sculptor, see:

Walking on water with Christo

8 Jul

Christo’s art is “wrapping” things–buildings, coast lines, monuments, and more. In 1969, he wrapped the two-story Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and its lower-level gallery. My wife and I and our three daughters (ages 8, 6, 2) accepted the invitation to lie on the floor wrapped in canvas and roll around on it. We connected with this work of art. We’ve followed him ever since. You can see this at:

On June 18, almost fifty years later, people walked on Christo’s monumental installation on Iseo Lake, 60 miles from Milan, Italy. Some 200,000 floating cubes create a runway nearly two miles long, connecting the village of Sulzano to the small island of Monte Isola on the lake, for a 16-day outdoor installation–entitled “Floating Piers.” See the photo above.

For me, the brilliance of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude (the art is a collaboration until her death in 2009) is the way they bring earthiness and transcendence together. What’s earthier than rolling around on a canvas covered floor? You feel the floor. You “see” the work of art with your whole body. The artists deny any deeper meaning to their work. They simply create for joy and beauty and offer new ways of seeing. But at the Museum, it wasn’t just a floor–it was a work of art. Artists invited us to roll on their creation! Ever after, I realized that a museum is not just a place where we view art; the museum can itself be a work of art. The total experience transcends the act of viewing a canvas-covered floor, but the transcendence requires the rolling, the participation. And the 2 year-old participated as much as 40 year-old adults.

Art critic David Bourdon says that Christo’s wrappings are “revelation through concealment.” We have to discover what things really are–first encounters are not enough. Scientists know this very well. Meticulous, time-consuming experiments and observations pry open natural phenomena. Poets and novelists say the same thing: that they have to twist and squeeze words to discover their possibilities. Ursula Le Guin speaks of words as stones that the poet must chip away at in order to crack open their meaning.

When was the last time that you examined a building by physically rolling on its basement floor? Christo talks about the people walking on his floating piers–they will experience the actual surface of the lake, walking on the cubes as they float with the movements of the water. They are discovering the water.

Just as the canvas reveals the museum floor, though it appears to cover it up, the floating piers do not cover the water so much as reveal the water in ways quite different than it is revealed in swimming or by walking over it on a pier or a bridge.

Christo speaks of the art as a journey. “The journey is the work of art. And the most beautiful part of the floating pier is to see that the entire project is about the people walking nowhere. About the feeling of the surface of the land or the water. And your feet actually–many people walk barefoot. And they walk, they walk. It’s not like going to shop, not going to see your friends. It’s going really nowhere.”

In that nowhere the revelation takes place. Religion often works in this same way. When you get right down to it, there is no “nowhere” for Christo. Artistic experience can be everywhere–even on basement floors. Religions know as well that there is no fundamental “nowhere.” Martin Luther, who stands tall in my tradition, taught that God is both hidden (“absconditus” in Latin, the absconded God) and revealed. But God only seems to be “hidden”–God is actually present everywhere, but in ways we do not see at first–we must discover the presence of God.

Discovery is tactile, hands-on. We are familiar with the mental aspects of experiencing the world, the “thinking.” Art is material–pigments put on a canvas, metal shaped in a forge, meaning and beauty painstakingly pried from words. Religion is the same. Deeds, interactions with other people, our own inner emotional life, goodness and evil, faithfulness and betrayal, the lust for power, self-sacrifice and selfishness–these are the concrete materials of everyday life, and also the stuff of religion.

The stuff of the world–whether it’s color, bronze, or emotions–does not bend easily to our dreams. There’s a give-and-take required. Christo and Jeanne-Claude engage the world of buildings and bridges, as well as rivers, coastlines, lakes and canyons. Those who come to the art are part of the give-and take–they’re rolling on floors and walking on water.

If you’re very lucky, you can check out a Christo near you–sometime. In the meantime, travel by Google:

Christo and Jeanne Claude: Prints and Objects. Edited by Joerg Schellmann. New York: The Outlook Press.

(c) Phil Hefner. 7/8/2016

Re-invention: The Wisdom of Sally Field

18 Mar

“My 70th birthday is coming up soon–I’m an old woman,” Sally Field recently told an interviewer.

“No you’re not,” comes the response. “You’re not old.”

“It’s okay to be old–it’s natural,” Field insists. “And I’ve earned my years–there’s a value in those years that wasn’t there when I was younger.”

She follows up with thoughtful reflection on her situation, delivered with a deceptively light touch–this is not Gidget or the Flying Nun talking. The Sally Field who is turning 70 later this year may have done a turn as Gidget when she was just 19, but she went on to win leading actress Oscars in “Norma Rae” (1979) and “Places in the Heart” (1984), and play roles in several other major films. This month she opens in the film, “Hello, My Name is Doris,” as an older woman who romances a younger man.

She is unusual among Hollywood actresses in that she has secured roles through her 60s–in an industry that is known for its discrimination against aging women. She has sixty-three films and television programs to her credit, as well a screenplay and several stints as director and producer. She is sharply critical of the Hollywood system–including the fact that women who dissent receive the worst treatment and are frequently shoved aside. Her mantra: “I kept my head down and found the work wherever it was.”

What attracted me in the interview is Sally Field’s vision of her own life. As we live our lives, we move through stages–childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, maturing, old age. This is familiar territory, set forth by developmental psychologists for many years. I would add, for parents, the empty nest phase and, for many others, the phase in which one occupation disappears and another must be invented.

Field believes that in every stage we must re-invent ourselves–the adolescent into an adult, the mature adult into an aging person moving toward death. Rather than viewing this endless challenge with dismay, she chooses to highlight the excitement of re-invention.

Field closes the interview on a very high note. The interviewer (who, I think, never really got the point) asks, “So, what’s next?”

“This is my challenge. There is something there that I can’t see yet, and I won’t be able to see it unless I am willing to let go of what I have been and move into the future.” This is re-invention.

These words are inspiring, at whatever stage of re-invention we find ourselves. For me, moving into a retirement community is a direct confrontation with the challenges of a new stage of life. There is a strong urge to regret that we cannot resuscitate the bygone phase. Admitting that re-invention is necessary comes hard. What are the guidelines? What resources do I have? Most of us introduce ourselves to others in terms of that bygone phase, and people may respond to us accordingly.

What if I introduce myself, henceforth, in terms of what I have not yet become–a person in the process of re-invention? A person I cannot yet see?

Are you in the midst of re-invention? Or do you have a few years yet before you face that challenge?

If we compiled the stories of our re-inventions, it would make for inspirational reading. What is your story? Share it here. I include portions of a poem in which I pondered my own re-invention.

A Parable

I will turn my mind to a parable. Psalm 49

I asked my self to reveal myself to me:
“Disclose your depths, tell me what you see.”

Whether in the mirror or the eye of my mind,
I see but little; there must be more that I do not find.

Perhaps I am not my self at all
not a self
that could be found.

I may be a parable–
all the pieces of my life
a story to be sung.

Phil Hefner 17 March 2016