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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.
 

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

The truth is. . .

28 Nov

I reflected on a news item, which in turn prompted these three poems:

“The booth, the size of a small house trailer, in the shape of a cartoon word bubble with “TRUTH” in bold letters on its side, serves as a video confessional. It will be set up at several locations, including at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Visitors are asked to sit inside and finish the politically and metaphysically loaded sentence that begins, “The truth is …” (New York Times, July 18, 2016). I thought of three ways people seem to think of truth.

I.
The truth is …: Word

A word. . .

in sacred language,
we do not understand

requires learning
translation

we speak those words aloud
understood or not

by ourselves
and together

Sanskrit Hebrew Greek
Latin Arabic King James English
the constitution’s colonial rhetoric

our accents as variable
as we are

the truth they say
is in the recitation

words require interpretation
that’s what rabbis are for

never just one rendering
of truth

we must choose
which words persuade us

which rabbinic eloquence
or logic

the truth is. . .


II.
The truth is …: Place

A place

for the solitary monks
two millennia back in time

empty desert wastes
were truth-bearers

resonating to
lives emptied of things
and fancies

the great western plain
is such an empty vastness
like the sea when the shore is
left behind

emptiness is overflowing fullness

when I’m alone
my vessel
small barely visible
against the wastes
that have no boundary
is filled by a vastness
not mine

for me
this place is both
beginning and end
where arrival and starting out

are one


III.
The truth is …: A Person

Her eyes,
that’s what it is,
Piercing, yes–
but even more,
the world that lies behind her gaze
and projects outward.

Her voice
echoes with the resonance
of God.
Pulling me into her world,
I know that she
is truth for me.

She sees straight into my heart,
tells me who I am
who I can be
and who I must be.
She gives me my direction
and my mission.

She bodies forth the truth
and my truth,
not from afar
nor from a higher place,
but here, before me
at eye level.

Eye-to-eye, I can see
she’s more, better, than
I could ever be, but she is
very like me. I say fully like me.
She eats and drinks,
loves and struggles

to a degree that surpasses me.
But she cries,
fears death–
shouts out her abandonment.
So fully me I ask myself:
Can this be truth?


I considered writing a fourth poem about how all forms of truth are filtered through us–our vision, our minds, our judgments. No matter how we anchor truth in something objective outside us, we judge what is true. I would not say the truth is me and my judgment, but there is no truth for me apart from me.

Query: would it make a difference if the Person were male?

(c) Phil Hefner 11/27/2016

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