Antidote: a poem

Confucius say
make a ritual
in order to attend
in order to focus
on what is needed
to calm enough to get
outside the blather
between your ears.

Make a meal and share it.
Taste and season as you go.

Pick up trash along your walk.

Turn off the phone and sit
and wait for what turns up:

maybe a hummingbird?

Next time you point and say
“You’re not the boss of me,”
scowl at that annoying mask
(while I pout back behind mine),

what if we consider
that even now that little
bee of a bird is gaining weight
simply from sipping flowers

to somehow brave the Gulf of Mexico
again so his race can go on?

By the Book: Rosemary Rawlins

I’m grateful to count author Rosemary Rawlins as a longtime friend. We met after publication of her powerful memoir Learning By Accident, which recounted her struggle in helping her husband Hugh recover from a brain injury suffered in a bicycling accident here in Richmond. The book is heart-wrenching, hopeful, true. It has helped so many people navigate the long months of brain injury rehabilitation in their own lives. Rosemary and Hugh came to lecture my occupational therapy students about this, we chatted, and thus began our friendship.

Over the winter my jaw dropped to read a second manuscript Rosemary was finishing, a work of historical fiction on a topic that might seem impossible to tell, the horrors of the Cambodian Killing Fields of the 1970s. Rosemary knows Cambodian immigrants who lived through that time, has visited Cambodia with them, has immersed herself in historical research, and she has magnificently condensed all of this into a riveting tale of one girl who comes of age across the years when Cambodia was tearing itself apart. By imagining the killing and the upheaval as seen through her innocent eyes, Rosemary is able to convey the personal, human cost of such brutality more powerfully than any straight history could. If you haven’t picked up All My Silent Years yet, it’s available on Amazon, or you can request it at your local bookstore. As they say, you’ll be glad you did.

All this by way of introduction to our By the Book interview:

What books are on your nightstand?

I am reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I often read two books at a time, alternating between them.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I read every day. It’s also a personal habit of mine to read each night in bed before I sleep, and the habit is so ingrained that I have trouble sleeping if I can’t.

My ideal reading experience takes place in a favorite cushy chair in my office, feet on the ottoman. I love being engrossed in a book on a rainy day, or reading at the beach in the early morning or evening when it’s empty. In the fall, I read out on my back deck.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

That’s like choosing a favorite child—impossible! But one book that has stuck with me for a long time is The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, not only for the story but the beautiful writing. I found her characters to be extremely well developed and their voices so distinct that I fell into the story and never wanted to come out.

Your novel might be considered historical fiction.  Do you have favorite historical fiction books or authors?

Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Tara Conklin (The House Girl). I also loved Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. More recently, I have read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys byColson Whitehead, two powerful stories.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?  Favorite villain?

Again, I could not pick only one, but for heroine, I’ll say Hetty Handful Grimke in The Invention of Wings, a slave girl called “Handful” with a strong will and memorable voice.

Here’s a quote from Handful in the book: “I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn’t any magic to it.”

Favorite villain. The villains I cannot stomach are vicious slave holders and overseers. The tortures they inflicted on people is unimaginable and inhuman.

Character-wise, I’ll name Nathan Price, the Baptist minister in The Poisonwood Bible. He was rigid and abusive, a self-serving fanatical man who was cruel to his wife and daughters while acting pious and self-righteous. If it’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people hurting others in the name of religion.

Your first book was a memoir.  Do you have favorite memoirs or autobiographical authors?

I love memoir! On top of the dozens of remarkable memoirs I’ve read as editor of the Brainline blog site (I have a written several book reviews on the site and you can find them here), here are a few other memoirs that I’ve loved over the years:

Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl for its immense wisdom.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, for the beauty of insight before death.

Educated, by Tara Westover, a riveting family story where education is only one of the themes.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, for its poignant depiction of a loving family’s dysfunction and how a child remembers that dysfunction.

Catherine Gildiner, Too Close to the Falls and After the Falls, for her humor.

Julie Barton, Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself. I am highly allergic to dogs, but I love them so much I get dog allergy shots. This book had me in tears until the end—a beautiful tribute to a woman’s best friend.

For my research on Cambodia, I read many riveting first-hand accounts of stories that occurred during the Khmer Rouge period including: Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, compiled by Dith Pran; and First They Killed My Father, a memoir by Loung Ung.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It’s a raw, honest, and wildly funny book about Chast’s caregiving experience with her parents. I needed this book when I felt isolated and frustrated about my own caregiving antics. A friend gave it to me at the right time, and it had an immediate impact. I felt lighter, less alone, and saw my situation as more absurd than annoying. Sometimes, books are pure medicine; they remind us that there’s love beneath all the mess.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Beautiful, impactful, and important in these times.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

It wasn’t a book but it was words, so I hope it counts. My daughters arranged for all of the people in my life to write a quote or passage that reminded them of me, or that they thought I would appreciate, and I received the passages in a gift box. I open it all the time and read the slips of paper; each one is uniquely thoughtful and endearing. The gift means more to me than any other.

Are you a solitary reader or do you share your reading experience in a book club or reading community of some sort?

I read a book a month with my book club: Wine, Women, and Words. This group is made up of mostly retired teachers with a few oddballs like me, and we always have lively, intelligent discussions about the books we read together. I also attend a monthly Women’s Journey group that focuses mostly on women’s issues and spirituality.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

If you ask me this again in ten minutes, my answer will change. I’d like to have several dinner parties by genre and one with poets, but here goes:

  1. Sue Monk Kidd (The Invention of Wings),
  2. Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), and
  3. Yann Martel (Life of Pi)

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. What makes a life worth living in the face of death to a young doctor and father facing a terminal disease? An exquisite exploration of the significance and meaning of life, of life choices and beliefs.

What do you plan to read next?

I just ordered Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kandi. I’ve been immersing myself in reading BIPOC authors to better understand recent events in our country and the Black Lives Matter movement.

By the way, here’s an interview I did with Rosemary about her new book. Enjoy!

Hummingbird Poem

My friend dying
on the mountain emailed
talk of hummingbirds
some of the last sweet
creatures she will see.

Wrote me last week not to worry:
“Only continuing my years’ long
evaporative process.”

In this season of our confinement
she sits with my friend her husband
on their porch and tears fall
with no more shame than the rain
spattering the trees.

She has planned it all with a kind of hope
that something like this would come along
some way to share it alone with him
no visitors to spruce up for, no pies
to nibble and throw out, no long sad looks
from those of us still breathing without gasps.

Her head cocks listening
at the flit, squinting eyes marvel
at the sliver tongue sipping
from the livid blossom’s drip.

All the thousand things that persist
as he cups her fuzzy head in one hand
to plump her pillow and she wonders
if she’s smiled in thanks but leaves it
over to trust because after all
that is what we have left
in the darkness in the naked world
when at last we surrender to sleep
and the next thing after that. 

She might be awake when hovering
for what seems like a pause
in time the little hummingbird
she could swear it
takes her measure
nods its glistening head
deftly turns its needled beak
like a pointer on a compass

and zooms away as if to say
the truly interesting
the nectar you seek
it’s over here come see.

Whitman visits Thoreau in Concord: excerpt

For some time I’ve been weighing the philosophies and the examples of these two primary Americans, whose ideas have driven so much of what we do and feel. Their ideas are so similar and yet crucially different in ways (I believe) that have warped our perspectives and driven so much of the civil difficulty we continue to face across the 160+ years since they met briefly – at Whitman’s home in Brooklyn. I’m working on a historical fiction piece that imagines them meeting again in Concord, where these similarities and differences play themselves out in a way that I hope expresses what I mean by that. On Thoreau’s birthday, today, sharing a section from the story:

“So this is your river, the Concord, is it?”

            “Of course it is not mine, nor anyone’s.  If anyone’s, however, then perhaps the indigenous peoples run off by the farmers so long ago.  You will find their name for the river felicitous.  They called it the Musketaquid, or Grass-ground.”

            ”I know it. From your book.”

            “Oh yes, I had almost forgotten.”

            “Ha.  And your mention, I do not pretend ownership of the word grass.”

            “Let us leave it at that, then, shall we?”

            “Ha, yes, leave.  Do you open your book, do you go back to it?”

            “I can hardly avoid it, the bulk of the edition insulates my attic room.”

            The poet pauses another moment on the bridge, chuckling at the slate blue surface, still as a lake, but no more than a ribbon of water in comparison to the mighty effluvial East River and the magnificent Hudson, America’s Nile, that embrace Manahatta back home.  He turns to see his companion already off and down the road, a stick man in soiled corduroys and a flat hat, stiff legs striding on as if he has forgotten his companion.  Well, no effort to catch up, after all.

            As he comes alongside, Thoreau continues his thought, saying, “Your book grows.  Why did you not make a new book entire of these other poems?”

            “Well, I have not said it, hesitate to speak it now, but….”

            He strides on, beaked nose leading like a divining rod, if anything picking up the pace, as if their conversation is only an aspect of his own private thought.  The poet ambles alongside, grinning at how neatly the man matches the acerbic words on his page.  He says, “I think it will be my only book, and it will swell across the years left to me.”  He hesitates, then says the words, “My American bible.”

            Thoreau doesn’t seem to hear.  He stops at a gated lane and beckons.  “Come.  Let me show you something.”  He opens the picket gate and turns down a side path through brambles, pausing to wave an arm across a plat of browning vines.  “If only you had come last week!  It was my annual melon picnic.  The community entire descends!  This year one watermelon required a wheelbarrow.  We carved it open with a crosscut saw!”

            “A melon picnic.”

            “Every year of my adult life, when I have enjoyed the freedom to garden.  It is a great labor, but a joy.  Here.”  He bends mid-row, reaching into a loamy burrow, “This one I saved in case you might come.  It will be our dessert today.”  The shiny green melon, hefty as a cannonball, easily fits in his knapsack.  “The garden seems to grow each year to fit the expanding renown of our picnic.  Like the loaves and fishes, I always seem to have just enough melons for the crowd.”  Thoreau shoulders the knapsack, turns to look directly into the poet’s gray eyes, as if to make some kind of point, adding, “May your American bible, as you call it, find a readership that swells alike.”

            They cross the railroad tracks and descend towards the pond, through regimented rows of Lilliputian trees, none more than waist high.  Spindly pines by the hundreds, interspersed with lindens, and a few oak saplings here and there.  They pause in a little open space amidst them, at a squared off depression in the black soil. Thoreau pauses, looks about, as if seeking a companion or lost in a private revery.  He gazes down towards the pond bank rimmed at this time of year with cat tails and calamus at this end.  Emits a sharp whistle and waits.  Oh my, this must be it, the poet guesses.  “Your cabin, it was here?”

            He barely nods, emits another whistle in a different pitch. 

            “But the reviews, they read as if you were far on the lost frontier!  And there is the afternoon train steaming by, and your Concord just this short walk!  And there on the far bank, is that a shanty town, too?”

            Thoreau frowns, says, “I call to my old pets, but they are long gone or they have lost the habit.  Yes, my retreat to the woods was here.”

            “But where is it now?  And the woods?”

            “All cut down since.  This was years ago.  We planted this grove just last fall to make a new wood that I fear we shall never live to enjoy.”

            The poet takes off his hat, bows his head ceremonially.  “Then I shall read your new book in reverence.  It will all be new to me as if imagined.”

            “Better for that, I think.  But it was real enough in its time.  Now the chimney bricks themselves have wandered off.”

            “So we have your book.”

            “Well, you do.  Here, have one.”

            It’s a slight thing, in a brown binding, opens to a pencil drawing of the little hut that stood here, just as the poet’s first effort opened to an etching of he himself, no name just the image to identify him.

            Whitman bends to his own knapsack to tuck it in, pulling out a second book.  “And one for you, too!  My third edition!  See how it grows!”

            “Indeed, sir!  Since the volume you gifted me just last year!  All new?  What have we here?”

            “Did Emerson not tell you?  We spoke of the new poems at some length down in Boston last spring.”

            “I fear he has said very little about them.  But we see each other only seldom of late.”

            “All for the best, I think.  Judge for yourself.  He wished to bowdlerize the lot, and that I cannot do.”

            “Ha, that he tells you!  He charges me to write with a fleshier zest.”

            “I fear his ideal might straddle our paths.”

            “To thine own self be true is the man’s oath, fleshy zest or no.”

            “Which I think he eventually came to see.”

            “In my case, too, I suppose.  Though I know it irks him.”

            “Where is the good reverend, I wonder?”

            “Down to Boston again.  You might have passed in your trains.”

            “Well, thank you.  I eagerly anticipate the wisdom of this new book.  Is this then what your letter intended, this new thing you would show me?”

            Thoreau removes his hat, bends to tug at his boots.  “Do you remember in Brooklyn you spoke of swimming at Red Hook, I believe, in the harbor?”

            “Every day that I can get there, yes, to this day!”

            “Well, I too swim.  Often of late walk a mile in the river up to my neck of a summer’s day.”  He steps out of his boots and stands to unbutton his shirt.  “So much of this new book was fished from this pond.  I would invite you to fully immerse yourself therein, so as to enrich its reading.”

            “Well, sir, then, you lead.”  The poet doffs his slouch hat, drops it atop his companion’s, and strips down in an instant.  The summer air so stifling when wrapped in linen and corduroy now fresh upon their skin.  Thoreau has already begun to walk down to the water, elegant in his stride, the poet thinks, as a red Indian, his flanks narrow as a boy’s.  He follows as best he can, tender feet hobbled by the pebbled path.

            At the water’s edge, Thoreau snaps off a reed and hands it to Whitman, snaps another for himself.  “You will require this,” he states, a glint in his steely blue eyes.  Then he toes almost silently into the water.  “Do not splash, you must slip in stealthy as a snake.” 

            The poet laughs, “Well, then, lead on, whatever initiation awaits!”  Ridiculous, to stand ankle deep in pond ooze, twiddling a stick, directed as if a child by this rural intellectual.  He had expected to sit in some stuffy parlor, nibble at corn bread, debate some point of the news.  Well the little man is far out now, up to his neck in the placid green lake, his beaked nose a pointer at the surface.  He said go slow, well then, yes sir, I follow as good as lead.

Love Over Fear? A reflection

When I wrote this poem last fall, using the 5-7-5 syllable haiku formula, I really didn’t have an answer to the question it poses. 

But it’s nagged at me.  I have a t-shirt worn to demonstrations that reads LOVE/fear (love over fear).  But the t-shirt doesn’t fully answer the question either.  Then I ran across a book by the popular philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum that goes directly to the point.  Here’s the cover:

Nussbaum writes:

“We’ve said from the outset that hope is the opposite or flip side of fear.  Both react to uncertainty, but in opposing ways.  Hope expands and surges forward, fear shrinks back.  Hope is vulnerable, fear self-protective.”

So by Nussbaum’s reckoning, fed by her deep reading in the classic philosophers and astute observations about popular fare like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the answer to my high coo’ed question might be:

If hate is just fear

spewed onto others then love

is hope in action.

I’m not entirely satisfied with this equation (or the way the new poem parses) either.  After all, doesn’t love often express itself best in situations where there is no hope, for instance in holding the hand of a dying friend (or in today’s climate, placing a hand up to theirs on a window pane)?  But I like the way Nussbaum’s definitions allow friction to operate on these heavily loaded four-letter words.  She describes how fear and hate, like sticks rubbed together, feed each other’s fire.  Hope and love, like palms rubbed together, warm the hands that reach out to touch.

So I’m thinking that hope and love, framed in this way, can be practiced as solutions to fear and hate.  When fear emerges, because of pain or misunderstanding or perceived danger, then hope can arise, too, perhaps aided by the behavioralists’ A-B-C (accept-believe-challenge) ritual, so that love can blossom where hate might have seeded instead.  For example, the coronavirus is deadly, terrifying and unpredictable.  But because it’s hard to hate a microbe, fear instead feeds on various strategies for hiding one’s head in the sand:  distrusting science, disbelieving the numbers, blaming others, and opposing the simplest efforts to combat the menace.  Fear can even lead to hateful rants in supermarkets by people refusing to mask.  The A-B-C approach to short-circuiting that fear with hope, as a path towards love, might read like this:

I accept that the virus is a sneaky killer.

I believe that I can take actions to protect myself and others.

I challenge myself to keep informed, stay home when possible, wear a mask in public, wash my hands frequently, and help others when I can.

The same model might fit so many of our personal, social, and political concerns.  After all, we live in frightening times.  But there is another word needed to complete this fear-hate/hope-love equation, and that is courage.  Is love, as my amended poem now reads, hope in action, or is something more required to act on these emotions?  Maybe courage is the linking word I’ve been looking for:  Hope feeds love feeds courage feeds hope feeds love.  Maybe, too, courage is love’s engine when there seems to be no hope.

So this: You can give in to fear, let yourself cower into hate; or look up with hope and brave love.  As the Jackson 5 sang in the midst of a time as tumultuous as the one we find ourselves in today:  “A-B-C/it’s easy as 1-2-3.”  Or is it?

PS – Here is a fascinating conversation from the Washington Post with a Black Buddhist gentleman on these same issues.

PPS – Interesting article (with rich links) on this topic, starting with Descartes!

Hopeful Change in Richmond

On this July 4th, Richmond, VA, my home and birthplace, is a changed city.  Restaurants, gyms, and barbershops shuttered for months tiptoe towards normality, masked shoppers courteously dodge each other in the stores, and for more than a month, protestors have marched every day and night proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, their efforts too often marred by an aggressive and militarized police force that only serves to underline their protests against police brutality.  The monuments to Confederate generals on Monument Avenue are coming down, something that seemed daring to imagine in the story published in my collection Last Rites a year ago.

As I told it, the Confederate ghosts, condemned to haunt their monuments, taunted each other, Jefferson Davis predicting that A.P. Hill’s little traffic island plinth in North Richmond would come down first as a test case before the toppling of all the equestrian statues on Monument Avenue.  But as it happened, General Hill got the last laugh, his statue still standing, while those on Monument Avenue fall like dominoes.  Not that he hasn’t been targeted.  Marchers have demonstrated at his feet, and one of the ugly events of the past month occurred there, when an anti-protestor ran his car through the crowd.  Fortunately, no one was hospitalized, and the culprit was arrested.  But after more than a month of nightly marches, a bronze and pigeon-bombed A.P. Hill still stands athwart the leafy environs of Northside.  The city has recognized his unique status, because unlike the Confederates who have been toppled, Hill is not just memorialized but buried inside his plinth.  Before his statue is dismantled, something must be decided about what to do with his remains.  Because his corpse stands inside it, the Hill monument may yet survive the current purge. 

As will hundreds of other testaments to the Confederacy here in Richmond.  Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett lie among 27 Confederate generals and 18,000 enlisted men in the shadow of a 90-foot granite pyramid erected in their honor at Hollywood Cemetery.  The Daughters of the Confederacy will continue to place confederate flags atop their graves.  The perverse Tiffany stained glass window of Robert E. Lee (as Moses) amidst angels in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Grace Street, will remain, as will the White House of the Confederacy (where Stonewall Jackson’s bullet-torn jacket is reverently displayed), the Civil War Museum at the old Tredegar Iron Works, where so many of the Confederate cannons were forged, the old Confederate convalescent home and chapel on the VMFA grounds, and the townhouse on Franklin Street where Lee licked his wounds after the war. 

Those critics who have complained that Richmond will lose its tourism dollars from Civil War history buffs now that the Monument Avenue statues are coming down are no doubt mistaken.  This city is permeated with the war and its ultimate cause.  Consider, for instance, the Slave Trail to the razed Lumpkins Jail site; consider Belle Isle, where hundreds of Union soldier POW’s starved and died of dysentery; consider the ruined half bridge on the James, a reminder of the burning of Richmond, ordered by the Confederates themselves, as they fled south at the end of the war. 

Consider, too, the national park battlefields dotting the area: Cold Harbor, Malvern Hill, and within an hour’s drive Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, and Petersburg.  Those battlefields would seem to be likely relocation sites for the Monument Avenue statuary.  I have mused about remounting General Lee on his noble horse Traveler, at Petersburg, pointed west towards surrender at Appomattox.  General Hill, a reckless warrior and a virulent and abusive racist (though in my story a long ghostly pergatory has mellowed him somewhat), may deserve no monument at all.  Perhaps his corpse will, as my story suggests, eventually lie without fanfare in some family plot near his birthplace in Culpeper. 

And perhaps the time will come when we can perceive the blight of slavery and its ongoing aftermath, the holocaust visited on Native Americans (and its ongoing aftermath), the continued unequal treatment of women, and the persecution of all those “othered” people (immigrants, LBGTQ folk, those with disabilities) in a clear-eyed and fully informed light that leverages our history towards honest reflection and action.  Perhaps as the ghost of A.P. Hill in my story concludes, we may eventually recognize both the dream and ideal that we claim for our nation, and acknowledge and atone for the horrors perpetrated in their name across the centuries. 

If the upheaval this year in Richmond and around the globe can do more than topple racist monuments, if this long-suppressed fury can be harnessed to reconciliation and reparation, in the name of a more equitable nation, in the name of recognizing all people as our brothers and sisters deserving of the rights penned by that most complex and troubling Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, then perhaps, too, the remaining vestiges of the war that for a time split our nation in half, a war with ghosts that haunt us still, can play a role in reminding us of what can happen when we let fear and greed sour to hate, serving as cautionary guideposts towards a better way marked by hope, kinship and justice.  Or not.  As always, it’s up to us.  Stay well and safe this Independence Day, friends.

Image by Richmond Times Dispatch