Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Muse of Losing Mother

Mother in the surf with two of her sisters. She is in the middle

I lost my mother, Gretel Lowinsky, on January 11th 2018. She was 97 years old. Actually, I’ve been losing her for many years, to Alzheimer’s Disease, in an agonizing decline, which I have rendered into a series of poems. I visited her in her Chicago retirement home, and later in my brother and sister–in–law’s home in Indianapolis. They, bless them, provided her with sanctuary in her last years. Mother would sit in the living room, watching the parade of life around her, visited by the family dogs, by her grandchildren and their friends, tended by loving caregivers and by her son and daughter–in–law when they came back from their long days at work. She would forget where the bathroom was. She would tell me, often, that she didn’t know who she was, or where. The spacious home in Indianapolis would morph into her childhood home.

Mother in Indianapolis in 2012 with me,
her grandchildren Ari and Shoshana, and the dogs

My mother was a German Jew who fled Europe as a young woman with her family and found sanctuary in America. She was sturdy, hard working, good hearted, emotionally intelligent, and much beloved by those who knew her. She lived in Chicago for much of her life. She loved young children. For almost twenty years she worked for the Chicago Childcare Society, supporting bonding between preschoolers and their young, mostly African American mothers, teaching them about child development. She did home visits and, because she was so unassuming, humorous and kind, I imagine her visits were a welcome break for the families. She was also a fine violinist and violist. She took great pride in bringing “The Messiah” to black churches all over Chicago.

Mother with her grandson Daniel
Mother playing the viola

Elegy is a powerful muse, and one that helped me work with the excruciating experiences of losing mother, bit by bit. In the end, there was nothing left of her radiant spirit, her contagious laughter, her love of life. She was a huddled mass in a wheelchair. Where was my mother? Her mind was long gone, but her body plodded on. I prayed she would let go, and finally, she did.

Mother woke me in the wee hours of Jan. 11th, ripping her roots out of my heart. I can still feel the pain of that rip. And then she transformed herself into a cascade of memories, as though her spirit, freed of the tangled knots in her brain, took flight over her long, complex life and poured the riches of her being into my soul.

One memory is pivotal. Twenty years ago, Dan and I were in Florence, at an International Jungian conference. Dan had found a charming apartment for us to rent, overlooking the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. Mother came to stay with us there. In those years she travelled the world with enthusiasm and energy.

Our family had lived in Florence when I was a child of five. My father had a Guggenheim fellowship to do musicological research in the Bibliotheca. It was 1948, just after the war. Italy, like much of Europe, was devastated and impoverished. I remember that our apartment was always cold. I would sit on my hands to keep them warm. I remember eating dried bananas, because there was no fresh fruit. Mother had not been back in Florence for fifty years. This was a very different Florence, full of fresh fruits and vegetables, radiant with artwork and sacred spaces. Mother was delighted, full of stories. She showed us where the family had lived on the outskirts of the city. She spoke of Lydia, a friend or a nanny, who had grown attached to me and I to her. Lydia took me to church and had me baptized, because she didn’t want me to go to hell. When I proudly told my father about this, he hit the ceiling. But I have always felt deeply at home in Italian churches, especially in the Duomo of Florence.

Simon, Benjamin and Naomi in Florence, 1948

We traced the long walk she took to the hospital, alone, in labor with her third child. My father was too busy with his Medici Codex to accompany her. My brother Ben was born there. Mother told us she had slept on straw with the Romany women. She told us she feared for her newborn’s life. He had a hernia that needed repair. I wrote a poem about this:

Reverie in View of the Ponte Vecchio

Lavender chiffon lifts off my shoulders
light wind from the Arno cools
hot flashes

Mother in the front room
came in yesterday by train from Switzerland
summer rain

Such comfort in familiar voices
Mother and Dan discussing pregnancies
Cousins soon to be born
How beautiful the Jungfrau

Mother’s voice meanders down
a labyrinth—fifty years
since she was last here—
I was a child   She pregnant
with her third

It was just after   the war
the Germans had bombed all
the bridges   except
the Ponte Vecchio     Hitler was
fond of it

Mother walked on stones in labor
long way to the Ospedale
Santa Maria di Nuova–Careggi
slept in the straw with the Romany women
separated from her baby
by a sudden flock of white coats
his emergency surgery    She remembers
They kept him in a room with sick twins
First they turned green    then gray   then died
I thought my baby   was next

What is the kernel of this moment?
I want to crack it open    eat it
make it a part of my body forever
My brother   in his brick row house
in Toronto      surrounded
by history books    The old bridge
                                    dreaming of itself
                                    in green waters
Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy

I have another memory of my mother in Florence. We were in a jewelry store. Everything was aglow. She bought me an amethyst necklace. I bought her amethyst earrings. My mother seldom indulged in such “girlie” pleasures. Finery was not her thing. “Too fancy” she would say. I treasure that necklace still. Earlier in the day we stood before the Lippi Madonna in Santo Spirito. Mother kept gazing at the beautiful young mother with the inward eyes, her haloed son leaning out of her lap to play with his cousin. She kept putting more money into the light machine.

At dinner in a rare confessional moment, she spoke of approaching her eightieth year. “I am mostly in harmony with myself,” she told us. “Not always. That would be boring.” I remember how beautiful she looked in her many colored Indonesian shawl, her amethysts glowing in the candlelight. Later we went to hear a concert of Gregorian chant. Our shadows loomed large on the wall of what had once been a church, was now a military recruiting center. I hold onto that jewel of a memory. She would have a few more good years, and then the terrible decline. Here are three poems inspired by the muse of losing mother.

Posthumous portrait of JFK

Root Canal

1. Security Line

We are pilgrims on our way to see Mother   among travelers
in flip flops    with bluetooths     carrying babies      We walk
in our radiant bodies    One of us is about to crack

a tooth     Only the babies can see    old light
from past lives     Only the babies can hear
the song lines     We are pilgrims passing through

the metal detector     We remove our shoes     remove
our coats and shawls     Some of us will be hand wanded
silver bracelets    seven quarters     three dimes provoke

the security gods     The Kennedy who just died
is speaking thirty years ago on TV     His assassinated
brothers still bleed into our lives

2. Retirement Living

In Mother’s eighty-eighth year she got scammed     Sweet talkers
from the islands poured delirium into her ears      drained her purse
A Great Lake swimmer lost face      A late Beethoven violin

bowed to the gods of security      We’ve come
to see her new place among the formerly eminent
Hyde Park intellectuals      We walk the round of her days      She

gets lost      forgets her song lines      wants to sort through
scores of Mozart Bartok Bach.   What goes where?    The Kennedy who died
is talking on TV     It’s his funeral     His widow pushes back her dark

hair     She’s known him on her belly     in her thighs     She knows
his secret smell     When is it my tooth cracks?
When does that big bully nerve take over?

3. Roots

Oma’s paintings dominate this place     She painted
herself painting all her ages      painted herself losing
her grip     She looked straight into her own mirrored eyes

and painted the edge of her nerve     We make a pilgrimage
to see her painting of German snow on roofs in 1931
The naked larches scrape the sky     Her sons are dead

Her sons are dead     Her sons are dead     Trees
save her     Trees leave     Trees bud     Trees flower
Trees know her secret smell     They cleanse her dreams

Trees grow by rivers     by canals    by lakes     They reflect
on themselves in oils     in watercolors     They burn orange
in the deep wood     They burn gold under water     Mother loses track

of the song lines of her Mother     Her brothers bleed
into brothers not yet born     Mother says we live
too far away     that we’ve been swallowed by the State of California

4. Going Home

I am losing my own grip     My finger prints fade     I forget
your name     All I know is the scream of a nerve     I’ve no idea
how the widow got into Mother’s TV     no idea

how an endodontist removes a dying nerve     no idea
how a plane leaves this earth     no idea
how I’ll live in the State of California
                                                               while Mother loses track of herself
                                                               (first published in Sierra Nevada Review)

When Trees Go Wild -painting by Emma Hoffman

Mother Approaches the Border

Mother is leaving us
slow step by slow
                          lingering step

She’s ascending the winter trees
                          without bud
                          without leaf

She looks back
                          a runaway child
                          without overcoat

Time is a broken necklace
She’s given up gathering
                          spilt beads

is a clanging
in the basement pipes

Tomorrow chugs down the track
blowing its horn      Where
                        are her sisters?

Who has the passports?
Must she cross
                         the border alone?

The lake’s in a bad
                         weather mood
Snowflakes lick her cheeks

Mother laughs at the ducks
how they dive into what
                         we can’t see

She has nowhere to go
                         but up
tending the business of sky

She has nowhere to go
                          but down
having settled
the questions
                          of dust
                          of ashes

She doesn’t belong to us anymore
She belongs to the naked trees
to the lake and its bad weather mood

to the ducks diving into what
                              we can’t see

                              (first published in Blue Lake Review)

Brown on Brown, painting by Emma Hoffman

Mother      Between Now and the Dark

Those Sisters with Scissors poke holes in you
Cut out tomorrow     Dismember yesterday
Entangle your yarn ‘til you don’t know who
                                          you are or where

You lose the bathroom or it loses you
as if you hadn’t just been there
I show you down my brother’s
                                          long corridor

past your mother’s final
self portrait     You wheel
your walker back to me   your daughter
                                          from California

            I see me on the potty chair
            you perched on the bathtub chanting
                                             “sass  sass  sass   spss”

You sit at table     Refuse your juice     Refuse
your tuna salad     I hear your voice in my childhood
“Eat a little drink a little”     “My voice?”  you marvel
                                       A sudden shift of light

Your gaze meets mine
“I wonder what you’ll write about me now?”
For this moment you know me    even here in Indiana

till the Shadow Sisters steal
your face from me     O I regret
the half a continent between us     I regret

I must leave you again     You point
out the window into late autumn
Red leaves flame on the backyard maple
                                        “Look how beautiful”

As if you hadn’t said that minutes ago
A sudden shift of light   and I too
can see the tree     As if

the Mother Daughter circle   still spins
As if those Scissor Sisters   aren’t forever

                                                               (first published in Stickman Review)

The Moirrae, from the Aeneid, Part I by Virgil

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Muse of Endurance

The Poetry of Resistance V

Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the
—Gwendolyn Brooks
“The Second Sermon on the Warpland”

Bear's Ears

Living in the Warpland
all about are the pushmen and jeapardy, theft—
all about are the stormers and scramblers but
what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?

          —Gwendolyn Brooks
          “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”

Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz
We live in a strange dissociated time, in a warped land. We’ve spent a year in fear—demonstrating, raging at the TV, looking for saviors. I see none on the horizon. We’ve had some victories, in Virginia and in Alabama. The Russia Investigation grinds on. But we’ve had to watch so much we value slashed, decimated—Bear’s Ears, The Arctic National Refuge, Obamacare, DACA, Civil Rights, abortion rights, the Paris Climate agreement. We’ve seen extreme weather events. Texas has never seen as much rain as Harvey dumped on it. California has never seen a wildfire as huge and unstoppable as the Thomas fire in Ventura. The coast of Louisiana is washing away. Puerto Rico suffered two hurricanes in a row—Irma and Maria—which knocked out the power grid for months. Hospitals couldn’t function, water and food was scarce. Pleas for help from Puerto Rican officials like Carmen Yulín Cruz—the feisty mayor of San Juan—were met with disdain and insults by our berserker president, throwing paper towels and blaming the people of the island for their troubles. Cruz responded: “You can’t handle the truth.”

The truth is—the intensity of these catastrophes is symptomatic of climate change; we can expect more. The truth is—he whom we prefer not to name is a master of hocus-pocus and deceit. He manipulates the news with incessant provocative tweeting, causing political storms and wildfires as he shamelessly exults in public about how rich the Wall Street tax cut will make his cronies, and of course, himself. We are at risk for burning ourselves out with outrage. The greed that stalks the land is mind boggling. What has become of caring for the poor, the homeless, the sick, the stranger? What has become of Dr. King’s arc toward justice? What about our souls?

In this dark time of the year I see a sea change in myself and in those I know. We are withdrawing into ourselves, connecting with our deep roots, our souls—not in defeat—but in order to endure. We are remembering how essential it is to tend our intimate lives, our families, our friends and our dreams. Dan and I take walks, watch “Stranger Things,” see children and grandchildren, make soup with root vegetables. Dan spends time texting “Rapid Resist” messages to organize the resistance. I spend time reading, writing and teaching “poems of resistance.” But I can feel how the center of our lives has dropped down to the vital and the eternal, far below the “noise and whip of the whirlwind.”

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks is good medicine right about now. Her “Sermons on the Warpland” feed my soul and remind me of the importance of tending one’s “blooming.” She wrote these poems 50 years ago, in times which brought civil rights to national attention and in which we suffered the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. She reminds us that we’ve been through terrible times before. She asks a question that is painfully relevant today: “what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?” Not much.

Night Blooming
The time
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed.
          —Gwendolyn Brooks
          “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”

Brooks’ “Sermons on the Warpland” are blunt and truth telling. She is preaching to her own people, to “Big Bessie” whose “feet hurt like nobody’s business,” but who “stands/in the wild weed…a citizen.” In the first “Sermon” Brooks urges her brothers and sisters to “build your church…With love like lion–eyes./ With love like morningrise.” It is a love poem to a people who have not been treated with much love in a land still warped by slavery and Jim Crow. These “Sermons” are poems of direct address, of exhortation; they speak to the power of endurance and seem to me to be especially pertinent in our times.

Endurance takes many forms. My friend and poetry buddy Rich Messer sent me a poem recently that takes a more subtle, slant approach to resistance and to endurance. The word “endure” is related to Old English and Old German word roots for “true, “trust,” “tree” and “Druid.” This linguistic kinship web connects us to our pagan, oak seer roots, to the spirit of the earth, to our animal familiars, and to our ghosts. Messer’s poem is an example of what Jane Hirshfield, borrowing from Emily Dickinson, means with the phrase: “Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant” in the American PoetryReview, Sept/Oct. 2017. Hirshfield writes:
Good poems travel in ways that are strongly or subtly, meandering, askew, counter, extravagant, peculiar, free, and freeing. Their pelts are freckled. They loosen the map lines of the literal, underslip narrowness, and let us see more than would be possible by looking at things directly. They are raids on reality that allow raids on the heart. They are lies whose intention is truth exposed more fully.
That glorious freckled pelt is camouflage. “So it is with poems,” says Hirshfield, arguing that “any good poem has lurking somewhere about it the Houdini–esque energies of the Trickster…”

Here is Messer’s poem:

Night Blooming

The anniversaries fade, waves coast

up the beach and memories retreat

unrecognized. It happened. We went on,

Knowing, uneasy, we opened

the back door, to whistle home the dogs.

There are people who do not begin

and end each day, glued to the screen.

There are people who sit quietly

in their living rooms, doing nothing

before bed. These people did not

follow our leader down to the dark waters.

They speak to each other and know

wisdom and joy. I swear this to you.

We endure and go on like boulders

swallowed by a glacier, nudged farther

south every year, etched with dark furrows.

When I sit late at night

with all my animal familiars and ghosts,

the news whispered around the circle

avoids his name. The things

we love we lose.

Who will take care of the garden?

"Night Blooming" is achingly sad, lyrical, tender, deep. The first stanza casts a calm, meditative spell on us, transports us gently into a realm of fading anniversaries, waves on the beach and memories. Things happened. “We went on.” We are in the world of the aging, watching the cycles of life. What makes us “uneasy” is not named, but it casts a shadow. What feels most vital is “to whistle home the dogs,” our loyal animal familiars.

Messer moves on to a subject more complex than growing old. We are in a political poem about endurance in dreadful times which avoids all political language and reference. The poem’s speaker describes a people who have not lost their way in the “Season…of Fear," a people “who do not begin/and end each day, glued to the screen…/These people did not/follow our leader down to the dark waters." They are not complicit. There is a hint of biblical language in "the dark waters,” a sense of mystery. We are told of a people who continue to live soulful lives with "wisdom and joy." By the end of the second stanza the calm tone of the poem has risen to a passionate oath—"I swear this to you." We, the readers, receive the speaker’s intensity with relief. We are no longer in a warped land. We haven’t blindly “followed the leader” into danger and deception. We want to join this wise and joyful tribe, or rather—through the poem’s magic—we have become part of the tribe.

Here is where Messer’s trickster comes in, and, to borrow from Hirshfield’s language, “punctuate[s] pomposity and shake[s] things up.” 

Our peaceful moment among trustworthy folk is, lest we take ourselves too seriously, unhinged. The wily speaker casts another spell, turning us into "boulders/swallowed by a glacier, nudged farther/south every year." We haven’t been able to escape the fate of our times after all. We are pushed around by climate change like everything and everyone else. We do have to face our terrors, even if—like boulders— we endure. As Hirshfield says: “Trickster stories…make spells to break the spells that…grip us.”

In the fourth stanza we return to the eternal realm, the realm of what Jung calls the “Spirit of the Depths.” The poem’s speaker has shifted from the first person plural to the first person singular. Does he want to be alone with his late night blooming? Is he casting us out? We are uneasy again, as we were in the first stanza. The real news, it seems, comes from “animal familiars and ghosts,” who avoid “his name.” Of course, in true trickster sleight of hand fashion, to announce that his name is being avoided is to bring the unnamable one into the poem and the circle, while, at the same time, diminishing him, casting him out of the great cycles of life and death, and the terrible truth that “the things//we love we lose.”

Remember, he can’t face the truth. The trickster voice of the poem has put a spell on us, and out tricked our ephemeral trickster president. The poem resists the times, resists the screens, hangs out with dogs and with ghosts, and faces the ultimate loss, our lives, with that marvelous last line—"Who will take care of the garden?"

She Who Dances with Veils
It was the summer of ’43. What did my young parents know
about the Europe they’d fled

the trains the chimneys…
          —Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
          “Birth Day”

A poem of my own has just been published in the online journal Front Porch. It too is a “slant” poem, a trickster poem of resistance, which refers only tangentially to the “evil spirits” that spook our times. Like Messer’s poem it undermines the fearful “Spirit of the Times” by casting a larger view of life as seen from an ancient cave: “Your little life and mine in the flow/of all the mothers of mothers the grandmothers of magic/the daughters of ritual skill.” The poem invokes Maia, the goddess of illusion, creation and imagination—herself a trickster. I hope you’ll check it out.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Muse of Fractured Times

The Poetry of Resistance IV

The time is out of joint.

Whose Country?
the haters will crawl out from under their rocks
the “white only” nation come out of the woodwork
You won’t know whose country you’re in

—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, “Wishing in the Woods with Hillary”
Do you remember the night of the election, November 8, 2016? We probably each have our own story, as we always do about catastrophic events. I remember driving home from work, looking forward to drinking the champagne Dan had put on ice for us to celebrate the election of our first woman president. When I drove into the garage Dan came out to greet me with an eye roll I will never forget. He knew what I was still denying, though the radio had given me inklings. We were not going to drink that champagne.

I think we’re all still reeling from that moment. It is hard to find words to describe how we felt. Often it takes a poem to express the inexpressible. My friend Bruce Bagnell wrote such a poem, the fourth in the Poetry of Resistance series. The poem is very short, and very potent. It gives us three images in three stanzas that brilliantly elucidate our scary times. Here’s the poem:

November 11, 2016, Grey Dawn

After the election I took a selfie;
flesh ripped to the bone,
tangled neurons,
knots of muscles.

Imagine if it had been a bomb
this sudden drop of words;
this acid rain
is not Aleppo.

I still have the silver spoon called America
bent as it may be.
I renew my vows to straighten it,
polish it until I can see myself again.

Those bodily images of rupture and brokenness in the opening stanza are shocking and accurate. Bagnell is a Vietnam Vet. He knows the realm of war, in which people are shattered, physically and psychologically. His just published poetry collection, The Self–Evolution Spa, which I highly recommend, has a number of poems on this theme.

I Took a Selfie
We wander to the center of the earth
shattered by our own hands.
We seek ourselves on the other side…
There is a war within us,
the one stalking meaning.

—Bruce Bagnell, “Questions for Dante”
    in The Self–Evolution Spa
Bagnell learned about the dread side of life when he was young, in his service as an Air Force Captain in the Vietnam War. I learned about it in my nightmares when I was young, chased by the Nazis who would have murdered my family, had they not fled Hitler’s Europe. In the long journey of seeking myself “on the other side,” I faced those inner Nazis, and was reassured by the relative lack of anti–Semitism in my American life. When I saw that Heil Hitler salute to Trump after the election, I felt shattered, ripped up, tangled up, in knots. It happened again, even more intensely, just recently when the Neo–Nazis showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia chanting anti-Semitic slogans. I’m sure many of you have versions of this story, how the selfie you took after the election showed you in pieces.

Bagnell describes one of the dangers of war—a loss of feeling, of soul, a Medusa complex:
We the still–flesh,
conquered by Nam’s disease,
slowly yielded to Medusa,
our souls turned to stone

—Bruce Bagnell “Those Were Strange Times”
in The Self–Evolution Spa
Those words are pertinent to the second stanza of Bagnell’s Election Day poem in which we are invited to imagine the “sudden drop of words” as a bomb. For those of us who have not gone to war, not contracted Nam’s disease or had our lives shattered in Aleppo, it seemed like a bomb had gone off, tearing down everything we thought we knew about America.

But Bagnell is a veteran. He knows that bad as things are, “this acid rain/is not Aleppo.” Words are not sticks and stones, or bombs. The “sudden drop of words,” though it won’t break our bones, will damage our spirits and run the risk of turning our souls to stone. The phrase resonates with many meanings—as in the lowering of standards of civility, integrity, factuality, as in the President’s twitter storms, in which he indulges in temper tantrums, untruths, bullying and rabble rousing, as in the torrents of words in the media and online responding to his every taunt and tirade. The man is a walking time bomb, with access to the nuclear code. He sets off explosions in the press, on TV, on Facebook, in the blogosphere, in the White House, in Congress, in bedrooms all over America where people awake to yell at the radio about yet another outrage, another early morning provocation from our bad boy president. And yet, Bagnell reminds us, he is not an autocratic ruler bombing his own people, like Assad.

Nevertheless, did you have any idea things could get so bad? That we’d have so much to lose, from health care, to women’s rights, to civil rights, to environmental policies, to our very democracy? Do you, like me, feel whiplashed between the maturity and grace of our “no drama” President Obama, and the soulless greed and rapaciousness of the current regime, which steals from the poor to further enrich the rich. Do you, like me, feel traumatized, afraid of what acid, what bomb of words, or worse, will drop next?

The Silver Spoon Called America
The question that wakes you in the night is
What if your worst fears are the story of our time?

—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky “In the Wild Wake of the Election”
America has been a silver spoon in the mouths of many of us lucky enough to be born here. Those of us who are first generation Americans, the children of refugees, like Dan on his father’s side, like me on both sides, really value that spoon. I don’t think African–Americans feel this way, however; their ancestors came here against their will, stolen from their lives and culture. That silver spoon is after all, a symbol of privilege—part of our delusions about American exceptionalism. As James Baldwin put it in his marvelous essay, “Down At the Cross,” from The Fire Next Time, his people tend to “dismiss white people as slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”

That said, I love how elegantly Bagnell uses the image in his final stanza. The spoon has been bent by the election, perhaps by many earlier events we can think of, that batter its shape and dim its luster. The poem’s speaker renews his “vows to straighten it.” This is a familiar American spirit—practical, no–nonsense, can do. The poem has taken us from the horror of the first stanza, in which the damage, the trauma, is reflected in a selfie, to the capacity for thoughtful differentiation in the second stanzas—“This is not Aleppo”— to the solution suggested in the third stanza—to straighten and polish that spoon. Bagnell’s speaker is a no Hamlet, crying: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” He’s an American. He plans to fix it.

The Portal of Despond

     The nightly news is a hike through the Book of Revelations.—Al Gore

As happens with a potent image, well expressed in a poem, that silver spoon set up residence in my imagination. It’s what we Jungians call a living symbol. I watched it tarnish, shape shift into a dark portal, an opening that lets in evil spirits, lets all our worst fears come flooding in. As in the first stanza of Bagnell’s poem, we feel overwhelmed, frightened, traumatized, impotent, don’t know where to turn or what to do. It’s a syndrome many of us are suffering these days. We have to learn how to manage the unspeakable specters that arise from the tarnished spoon we call America. Here are some of mine:

The Russians have invaded our elections. We can no longer trust our voting process.

The New York Times of Sept. 1, 2017, ran this headline “Russian Election Hacking Efforts, Wider than Previously known, Draw Little Scrutiny.” The Times has produced an in–depth report on this issue. Their research shows that Russians hackers targeted voting systems in at least 21 states. For example, in North Carolina, some people were denied their right to vote despite having current registration cards. This was mostly an issue in Durham—a blue–leaning county in a swing state, which Trump won. One has to wonder, did he, really? Has a foreign power manipulated our election process? Can this be America?

The New York Times of Sept. 1, 2017, ran this headline “Russian Election Hacking Efforts, Wider than Previously known, Draw Little Scrutiny.” The Times has produced an in–depth report on this issue. Their research shows that Russians hackers targeted voting systems in at least 21 states. For example, in North Carolina, some people were denied their right to vote despite having current registration cards. This was mostly an issue in Durham—a blue–leaning county in a swing state, which Trump won. One has to wonder, did he, really? Has a foreign power manipulated our election process? Can this be America?
Lining up to vote in Durham, NC

But here’s the thing: if you watch that dark portal carefully, if you read and listen to our blessed American press, you will see people emerge from that underworld opening who stand for the America my parents believed in, the America in which people believe they can fix things. Take Susan Greenhalgh, “a troubleshooter at a nonpartisan election monitoring group,” according to the Times (9/1/17) “The problems involved electronic poll books—tablets and laptops, loaded with check–in software, that have increasingly replaced the thick binders of paper used to verify voters’ identities and registration status.” On November 10th Greenhalgh sensed something rotten in the state of N. Carolina. “‘It felt like tampering, or some sort of cyberattack,’ Ms. Greenhalgh said about the voting troubles in Durham.” She asked a colleague at the Election Protection agency in North Carolina “to warn the state Board of Elections of a cyber attack and suggest that it call in the FBI and the Dept. of Homeland Security.” She was told the state didn’t view this as a problem and wanted to move on, Greenhalgh recalled. “Meanwhile I’m thinking, ‘What could be more important to move on to?’” She hasn’t given up. She’s still worried, and so she talked to the New York Times for their in–depth report.

Susan Greenhalgh

Susan Greenhalgh is America; she’s a fixer, and so is Verified Voting, the non–profit she works for. They stand between the Russian hackers and us.

Mother Earth is in a fury and will never forgive us for pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords.

Hurricane Harvey has dumped more water on the U.S. than any other weather event in history. So said Politifact, on August 31, 2017. Since science is fact based and precise, scientists disagree on whether climate change and specific weather events connect. But here are some helpful summary statements from Politifact: 

As Earth’s temperature warms, land-based ice melts and ocean water expands, causing sea levels to rise. This in turn increases the risks that the sea will rise with the atmospheric pressures of a storm, causing more waves and flooding. 

Scientists may disagree on the degree to which anthropogenic (or human-caused) climate change intensified Harvey, but almost all concurred that Houston’s lack of preparation for it magnified its ramifications. 

Urbanization turned prairies and forests into concrete, reducing the land’s capacity to absorb rainfall, and lax zoning codes gave way to development more prone to cave to the flooding. 

The Earth’s rage takes the form of terrible storms and floods as well as fires. We had an experience with the latter in the usually lovely town of Ashland, Oregon recently. It lived up to its name in a dreadful way—the air was filled with smoke and ash from eight wildfires, surrounding the area. We couldn’t walk to the theaters—the air quality was deemed unhealthy, and people were urged not to spend time outdoors. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival cancelled its outdoor performance of The Odyssey because the air was so bad. The mountains were hidden behind a veil of smoke. People wore masks to walk the streets. After seeing the death of King Henry IV and the ascension to the throne of Prince Hal, who had reformed his rowdy ways, we walked out of the theatre into over 100 degree heat, the air so thick with smoke it was almost unbreathable. There was ash on the car’s windshield. The quarter moon glowed orange and angry. Our lovely little retreat town, with its cultural riches, has turned into a hell realm. There’s the hell of fire, and the hell of water. Ask the people of Houston about the latter. They suffered 70 deaths, major flooding and destruction of their homes.

Are the fires a result of climate change? Here’s a headline from Pacific Northwest News, Oct. 11, 2016: "Climate change doubled size of western forest fires, study says, and it will only get worse." According to the Union of Concerned Scientists higher temperatures cause drought, the soil dries, making wildfires more intense and difficult to put out. Depressing, right? And our fact-denying president doesn’t want to work on this issue? What’s happened to America?

Enter Al Gore, through the portal of despond. He’s been working on this issue for a decade, and has a new movie out, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Carole Cadwalladr, who has interviewed Gore several times, describes it in The Guardian of July 29, 2017.

The film runs through a host of facts – that 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001 is just one. And the accompanying footage is biblical, terrifying: tornadoes, floods, “rain bombs,” exploding glaciers. We see roads falling into rivers and fish swimming through the streets of Miami.

The nightly news, Gore says, has become “a nature hike through the Book of Revelations.” But what his work has shown and continues to show is that evidence is not enough. The film opens with clips from Fox News ridiculing global warming… What becomes clear over the course of several conversations is how entwined he believes it all is – climate change denial, the interests of big capital, “dark money,” billionaire political funders, the ascendancy of Trump and what he calls (he’s written a book on it) “the assault against reason.”

Gore brings a different American spirit into these times. He is a do-gooder, a man on a mission, who intends to change the world by talking to people about climate change one person at a time. He shouts at us: “Couldn’t you hear what Mother Nature was screaming at you?” He sums up what he’s figured out in the phrase, “Our Democracy has been hacked,” this time not by the Russians, but by the rich, particularly the Koch brothers. He speaks Truth to Power and I am grateful.

Until I Can See Myself Again
We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation. The giant forward steps we have taken on civil liberties and civil rights and human rights are being met by a ferocious pushback from the oldest and darkest forces in America.
—Joe Biden on the Atlantic website.
The Evil Spirits that have haunted America since slavery and Jim Crow are back, in full daylight. They feel supported by our rabble–rousing president.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center “Trump’s run for office electrified the radical right, which saw in him a champion of the idea that America is fundamentally a white man’s country.” They came, Neo Nazis and White Supremacists in full force to “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, VA on Saturday Aug. 12th. They were protesting the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from a city park. The event became a cauldron of rage, Nazi slogans, counter demonstrations, violence erupting between groups, and a young man who ran his car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, killing one young woman, Heather Heyer. The governor declared a state of emergency. The president refused to condemn the white supremacist provocateurs, preferring to blame both sides, clearly misstating the truth of what had happened. There was a furor of condemnations of the President’s remarks, including from Republican leaders of congress. Was something new emerging from the portal of despond, in horrified response?

I was moved by a story I heard on NPR. In the wake of Charlottesville, a young pastor, Rev. Robert Lee IV, a nephew many generations removed of General Robert E. Lee, was interviewed by Lulu Garcia–Navarro, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. He walked through that portal, illuminated with his moral clarity, and gave me a moment of tearful relief when he said of the monuments:
I do think they need to come down. I think it’s time we have a conversation about how to remember our past without commemorating our past…We have made an idol of Robert E. Lee. We have made him an idol of white supremacy. We have made him an idol of nationalism and of hate and of racism. And that’s unacceptable. And not only for me as a person of goodwill but as for me as a Christian, I can no longer sit by and allow my family’s name to be used as hate–filled speech.
Garcia–Navarro asked him, gently, about the threats he’s been receiving. He responded:
It’s been hard. I mean, I’m a 24-year old. I’m a pastor. I’m not a violent person. I don’t condone violence in any form. And so to see that there are people who wish to be violent against me and my family, against my church community is terrifying.

At the end of the interview Lee says:
I just got an email from a lady who spoke to me about being owned by my family and how her ancestors were owned by my family…and what that means for her now to hear someone speak out against it in the name of the Lees.
The Rev. Robert Lee IV brings a spirit that we have not often seen in America, the courage to face the shadows in our past, and to take responsibility for them. We need many more Americans like him.