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

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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

A King’s College Christmas Eve: Rumor of Transcendence

10 Dec

Our daughters, Sarah and Martha, then in high school, count December 24, 1977, as a high point of our year in Cambridge, England, because it was their chance to attend the celebrated King’s College Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. King’s College boys’ choir is a musical piece de resistance in Cambridge (although there are those who count the Saint John’s boys’ choir to be superior). The choir is composed three fourths of boys from the choir school (which is a regular private school) and the rest undergraduate men from the college. Everything in King’s College chapel is monumental in size. Its imposing interior contains more square feet of stained glass than any other church in Britain–truly a fitting place for this great service. A huge ebony-colored wooden screen divides the chancel and choir pews from the rest of the chapel. In the center of the choir is a huge lectern, of wrought iron and brass. The reader mounts the step to read the large lectern Bible, which is held in metal brackets, lighted by a candle on either side. The first lesson being finished, the lectern is rotated until it moves a full half circle, and in front of the reader stands another Bible, open to the second lesson.

The Christmas Eve service is a major event in Cambridge. (It is broadcast every year in Chicago on WFMT). Since it is intended to be a community event, only a fraction of the seats are reserved for college dignitaries and their guests. People stand in line (they “queue up” as the English say), to get their seats on a first come, first serve basis. Our daughter’s classmates suggested that they begin queuing at 3:30 a.m. for the 3:30 p.m. service. We bundled them up with sleeping bags, a thermos bottle of hot drink, sandwiches, blankets and other gear for their wait in the 30-degree weather. They had originally intended to ride their bicycles the three miles from our house to King’s Chapel, but a terrible windstorm had arisen during the night, so father had the privilege of driving them into town. At that hour, they were only 15th or 16th in line! At noon the rest of the family drove back to the chapel to bring the girls more to drink and eat, and to collect the sleeping equipment. To my surprise, by that time the college quadrangle was filled with people. Around the periphery of the huge quad, on all four sides, were the people waiting for the doors of the chapel to open. There were others there, however–friends and-relatives who had come, as we had, to bring fresh supplies to the queuers and to chat. My first thought was that this might be a typical tourist gambit, but as I looked around, I saw familiar faces of University dons and other families that I recognized as Cambridge residents. This was a community custom! Even those, like my wife and I, who had no intention of going to the service ourselves, could be part of the festivities. The rituals have changed since we were there–for example, now singers in the quadrangle entertain the queuers while they wait.

The music was grand. Sarah and Martha confess that they dozed only a few times. That might be a good measure for judging any choir: Can it keep its audience awake, when they have been standing (lying down, sleeping) in line for 12 hours?

(c) Phil Hefner. 12/10/2016
(Based on my diary )

Photo: King’s College quad, Cambridge

The truth is. . . Poetry explained

2 Dec

My last blog included three poems on the theme, “The Truth Is. . .,” which in turn was inspired by a news item reporting a survey taken during last summer’s political conventions in which people were asked to complete that sentence about what is truth.

I received more response than usual, and I delight in the widely differing interpretations from readers. Some readers are wondering just what the three poems are up to, so I’m taking an unusual step to clarify, briefly, what was in my mind.

What is truth? My starting-point was my own religious tradition, which I think has meaning beyond its own boundaries. Truth is in words, the theme of the first poem–sacred scriptures are vessels of truth for many religions: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, as well as Christianity. There are many non-religious approaches to truth as words, as well: our American constitution and constitutions in other countries, laws, contracts and legal traditions, literature, especially poetry. One thing all these hold in common is that they often need interpreters. Rabbis, biblical scholars, and lawyers. Words cannot exist without interpreters, even though the words are the base, the “scriptures.” The question arises whether we find truth in the original words or in the interpreters. And of course, this means which interpreter persuades us. My relation to the words of truth is triangular–me, the words, and the interpreter.

Truth is also associated with places, sometimes called sacred space. Jews refer to the Holy Land; Yahweh dwells in Jerusalem. A Catholic theologian once said, “However you think of the Church, for Catholics, it passes through Rome.” The Desert Fathers and Mothers, from the third century onwards, considered the desert to be a place where the Holy is present. As I write, Native American Indians are defending with their lives what they consider to be the sacred lands of North Dakota–against intrusion by an oil pipe line. For Hindus, the Ganges River in India is sacred and hence the place for their bodies to be cremated after death. The list goes on and on.

In the second poem, I reveal the land of my own spiritual home–the Great Western Plains and the mesas of New Mexico. This is the only truly personal disclosure in the poems.

The third poem takes note of truth embodied in individual persons. Many religious figures come to mind: Gautama Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus Christ. Other persons have elicited a kind of religious status, because they embody truth–think of Che Guevara, Mother Teresa (and indeed all saints), Vladimir Lenin, Abraham Lincoln. My own particular Lutheran tradition emphasizes that God’s Word of truth is Jesus Christ. The dogma known as the Two Natures of Christ and the tradition of the theology of the “communication of attributes” (in plainer English, “the co-existence of divinity and humanity”) are centuries-long discussions of how Jesus can be God’s truth.

I wrote the first draft of the poem with a male “person”–you’ll note the names I listed above are mostly male). However, the “Christa” tradition was also in my mind–the effort of some artists to represent Christ as a woman–Edwina Sandys’ 1975 painting is an example (See above). So, I decided to add this nuance.

I asked for comments as to whether the poem’s gender would make a difference. Interestingly, readers were not clear on this, but several suggested it was a personal matter for me. 

My relation to all three sources of truth–not just words–may be dependent on interpreters and tradition. There are dozens–perhaps hundreds–of interpretations of Jesus, for example. Even if living persons, or direct acquaintances are treated as truth-bearers, there is often–though not always–interpretation through media, staged performances, and the like. Similarly, people have to be taught about the community’s holy places. There are personal holy places, like mine, that we have direct experience of. Perhaps that is why I expressed my personal experience only in the second poem.

There is a profound and complex relation between what we experience as truth and what we are taught about truth. One reader asked, “What about the situations in which we ourselves feel prompted to speak ” truth”? We are the truth-bearers?

“The truth is . . .” Each of us has to complete the sentence for ourselves. And the same with my poems–what I had in mind as I wrote them is not necessarily the “correct” interpretation. As Paul Ricoeur wrote, they mean whatever they can mean–in anyone’s mind.

(c) Phil Hefner 12/2/2016