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.

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

Corona in Prison

I’ve been receiving frankly terrifying letters from friends in prison about the malignant neglect that has been causing exploding numbers of coronavirus cases there. And last night caught the new episode of Last Week Tonight that exposes some of the horror.

Though it seems after several months of the virus, with virtually no guidance from the White House, individual states have begun to figure out how to protect the elderly in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, the people in jails and prisons have been left to fester, and the staff, who go home at night, are spreading hot spots in communities all over this prison-happy land.

The federal Bureau of Prisons, left in the hands of Trump’s lackey Attorney General Bill Barr, could care less. But here, nothing I can say can match this blog post from a friend in a BOP facility.

Or this episode of Last Week Tonight.

PS – Just got this hand-drawn and colored political cartoon in the mail, a collaborative effort by my friend and his fellow prisoners, in a unit of 1200 where 700 are positive for coronavirus, and where two of his friends there have died from it:

Blue Ridge Parenthesis: a poem

For the first time since corona, Chris and I ventured out for a weekend getaway, staying at an Air BnB cottage on a hillside near Bedford, VA. She surprised me Sunday morning with Father’s Day gifts that included a watercolor set and Gary Snyder’s zen poetry collection Danger on Peaks. Which, over coffee, led to this:

On the ridge a neighbor
tests his semi-automatic:

Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta!

Funny how it’s then
you notice quiet
a blank sheet seepingly
watercolored by
a distant rooster’s crowing
a mourning dove’s
wooden flute reply
and far down on the valley floor
the trailing hoot of a train.

Silent as a shadow
a skink with a brilliant blue tail
edges onto the deck:

Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta!

Space Aliens…poem

This poem is in my new book collection Yearnful Raves, and strikes me as appropriate to the current situation:

Space Aliens Learning English Come Upon the Dictionary Page that Begins with Colonel Blimpism and Ends with Colorway - a poem

Space Aliens Learning English Come Upon the Dictionary Page that Begins with Colonel Blimpism and Ends with Colorway

Discovering that
a phenomenon
of light or perception
is how we distinguish
otherwise identical
things, and that this
inflection named
color is often used
among humans
in that way.

Though some are
color-blind, it seems
and others call others
colored, and those
without color – because
the definition of color
excludes the phenomenon
of light we call white
these whites block
those with color
(But why? And how?)
from participating
in various activities.

Color bar/color line.

Why would the colorless
do such a thing?

And how do they
distinguish anyway?
Is that what this device
a colorimeter is for?

Are there colorists
who decide?  Do they
fear those with something
called color temperature?

Blackbodies that can emit
radiant energy to evoke color? 

That’s it!  (They say.) 
We’ve got it.  The key’s
right here on this page.
Now we know what moves
them.  And the word we’ll
use when we go down
to colonize.

Why this White Virginia Boy Feels So Proud Today

Today is my proudest as a native Virginian, thanks to the announcement by Governor Northam (another born and raised Virginia boy) ordering the removal of the 6-story tall monument to Robert E. Lee in downtown Richmond.

The decision could not have come easy for the governor, knowing that a vocal minority of his constituents will rage, but also because in doing this he has needed to evolve his own thinking, which for most of us would have been the heavier lift.  I know, because like the governor, I am a white guy of a certain age raised amidst tales of the noble, daring, underdog General Lee, a native Virginian cheered by ragged troops as he passes on his good grey steed Traveler.  Like the governor, I underwent three years of Virginia history classes in elementary school, reading text books that not only never mentioned the extermination of the original Virginians, but that substituted the word “servants” wherever the phrase “enslaved persons” should have gone.  I even remember an amateur minstrel show at the white high school’s auditorium on the 100th anniversary of Virginia’s secession from the Union, where white leaders in our community dressed in black face and ragged tuxedos.  I played a role in that play as the son of a Confederate soldier, and in my skit ran onstage to my hoop-skirted mother shouting, “Father!  Father!  Here comes father!” to announce his return from the war. 

It was not until 8th grade that our county fully integrated its schools, and my re-education began.  I am grateful for that.  Looking back, maybe I should say that was my proudest day.  Because that’s when I began to walk the path the governor too has followed.  My first black teacher was Irvin McQuaige, a tough love fireplug of a football coach who made it clear to us that nothing he was putting us through at practice compared to the cotton fields he worked as a child.  He spoke in Bernie Mack staccato, made sure our integrated football team set an example of racial equity and comradeship for the school, and that we were undefeated in district play.  (Coach McQuaige later became a beloved high school principal in our county.) 

Some of my white friends left for the local military school, segregated at the time, but most stayed on.  It was the early 1970s.  The black students led walkouts when administrators made particularly bone-headed (ie, racist) decisions, but our county got through the era intact.  That our sports teams won championships, setting shining examples of interracial teamwork, helped. Black and white students alike are friends to this day.

I think we all know what happened when Governor Northam went off to study medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. That photograph in black face will forever haunt him.  But his journey from that day to this mirrors my own and that of so many other white Virginians.

I’m a little younger than the governor.  Went north to college, where I spent a semester-long independent study reading all of Faulkner, whose entire Nobel Prize-winning oeuvre is a wrestle with slavery and its aftermath in the Deep South, and where I studied history under Professor David Herbert Donald.  Hearing this barrel-chested white scholar dissect and disprove with plain evidence lies I’d been raised on about the Lost Cause and the happy servants and what people I knew back home still called “The War of Northern Aggression,” all with a Mississippi drawl, frankly blew my mind.  Professor Donald taught me what history is all about (he almost made me a historian).  History is about facing the evidence, about wiping away cobwebs of myth and self-serving lore.  It’s about reading the ledgers of humans sold alongside cattle and the postcards showing lynchings all over the South.  It’s about letting the facts guide your opinions.  What a concept.

Which brings us to this past week, when everyone watched the slow and agonizing death of one man beneath the knee of another, and when the steadily growing protests across the country (and the world) made the white knees on the necks of black, brown and indigenous Americans over all these centuries plain for anyone to see and maybe finally reckon with.  Governor Northam saw it, and it changed him.  It pushed him along a path he’s been on his whole life.  The governor had already signed legislation that has made life easier for under-served Virginians, but until yesterday he hadn’t taken any step that might answer that yearbook photograph, that might punctuate the achingly slow revelation so many of us white Virginians have journeyed towards in our own lives.  Yes, there is so much work to do. Yes, our black friends are like, what took you so long? Yes, it’s only a symbol. But what a symbol! He’s done it now.  The Lee statue is coming down.  I’m so proud.

One last thing. If you were not able to listen to the entirety of Governor Northam’s remarkable announcement, I highly recommend it. One of the most moving speeches I’ve heard in a week of moving speeches:

Paired Viruses: a poem

A virus can’t act alone.
Needs your participation.
Just a burr of contagion
sucked in on the air you breathe,
that finds a weak link, a chink in a cell,
then incubates until the fever burns.

Clots your brain, swells your lungs,
inflames the hearts of children
too young to understand.

With this one, we have carriers
who infect others but never suffer themselves
and super-spreaders who sicken whole crowds
as if spewing from megaphones.

How it preys on the weak, the under-served,
those frayed at the end of their rope.

One thing, though, some recover.
Yet speak of its tortures with awe.
How it knelt on their throats and chests
until they gasped their mama’s name.

A virus is a frightful thing.
A virus can’t act alone.

Summer Reading for White Folks

I’m helping a friend write his memoir.  In doing so, we’ve uncovered themes that have colored his life and that have me thinking about the threads that weave through all our lives.  For Americans, an important one is race, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not.  So, sparked by this past week’s horrors, I’ve been trying to come to grips with it, as a writer will do, by scribbling down my own experiences as a rural Southern white boy raised in the midst of school desegregation and all that has followed that noble, failed experiment, a white man whose ancestors in Albemarle County, VA, owned other people, a white man with black friends who, in their vigilant courtesy, never share their real feelings about race with me, a white man who has written four young adult biographies about famous black Americans, wondering all the while why the publishers did not find a black author to pen them.  The more I scribble, the more I realize how deeply race has threaded through my own life story, but being a white guy with all the privileges that attain, I haven’t ever really had to think about it much.  I’m determined to do so now, as a form of narrative therapy.  I hope it helps.

If you have begun to wonder about these things, too, I’d recommend a little summer reading that has opened my white man’s eyes.  These books were written by black authors who drop the vigilant courtesy for a moment, telling it like it is, and daring white folks to attend.  You may not agree with what they say, and they’re okay with that.  What they want, I think, is self-reflection, dialogue, some kind of reckoning.  Because without that, even now, twenty years into the 21st Century, what Joe Biden yesterday called our “open wound” cannot begin to heal.

The books:

Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me.  Only 150 pages long and conceived as a letter to his son, this book is also a memoir of growing up in Baltimore and learning how to navigate the world one hard lesson at a time. It pulls back the curtain for us white folk on what black parents teach their children, about the past, about the police, about dignity in the face of systemic outrage.  Coates’ meditations on the “black body” in the American consciousness are instructive and unforgettable.

Also recommend Coates’ essay collection We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time.  Coates clearly modeled his book on Baldwin’s, universally recognized as one of the great works of 20th Century American literature.  Baldwin’s is even shorter, only 130 pages, composed as two letters to black and white America, about growing up in Harlem in the 1930s into the civil rights movement he did so much to inform. They may be letters, but they read like incisive, surgical pleas, the closing argument of a brilliant attorney who preaches from the pulpit on Sundays.  That Baldwin wrote this in 1963, and that last week happened, is all to our shame.

Toni Morrison – Any of her novels, but I’d start at the beginning, with The Bluest Eye.  The thing about the late great Morrison’s work, apart from the brilliant way she condenses history into personal experience expressed with lyrical concision, is that white people hardly figure in.  Her novels are of, by and for black people.  Black people who make their lives inside a waffle iron that is being heated and pressed on by a hand that doesn’t even have to be named.  In the (white) spaces between every line she wrote seethes a righteous anger with too much pride to go there.  And once you see that, as a white person, you learn something crucial about all the things your black friends don’t say to you.

A film:

Spike Lee – Do the Right Thing.  This movie came out 31 years ago, and it ends with a riot sparked by three white cops choking a black man to death.  So, yeah, relevant.

A documentary series:

Hip-Hop Evolution (Netflix) (4 seasons).  It’s a music series, yes, but whatever your thoughts about rap, it’s also a scathing history of the past 50 years in America, with important footage of the bombed out Bronx in the 1970s, of the Rodney King riots in LA, of the crack invasion that ruined whole communities, and the prisons that filled behind all that.  The talking heads keep saying that this week’s riots are not just about the killings, but also about all the other societal inequities communities of color face.  So if you’ve not lived all that yourself, this series can help bring you up to date.  If you also add Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to your Spotify playlist, that’s a bonus.

Another thing to think about.  Before you do anything else, watch this 50 second YouTube video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yrg7vV4a5o.  Then let’s chat.

Love Over Fear!

PS – My friend Doris McGehee shares these additional readings:

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. I’ve known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation
(1994).

“I’ve Known Rivers is about loss and triumph, rage and love, blackness and sexuality, trauma and healing, and the challenging journeys of life. The courage and insight of these storytellers and the wisdom of Sara LawrenceLightfoot as she presents their memories, struggles, and dreams inspire recognition and hope.” – Marian Wright Edelman [Katie Cannon; Charles Ogletree; Toni Schliesler; Tony Earls; Cheryle Wills; Orlando Bagwell]

 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Thirteen ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997).

“Colin Powell, Harry Belafonte, Louis Farrakhan, Anatole Broyard, Bill T. Jones, James Baldwin, Albert Murray: these men and others speak of their lives with startling candor and intimacy, and their illuminating stories reveal much about the anxieties and contradictions of our society.  What emerges is an unforgettable portrait gallery of “representative” black men – which is to say, most unrepresentative ones indeed.” [also Simpson trial]

Shelby Steele. The Content of Our Character (1998).

“In this controversial essay collection, award-winning writer Shelby Stelle illuminates the origins of the current conflict in race relations–the increase in anger, mistrust, and even violence between black and whites. With candor and persuasive argument, he shows us how both black and white Americans have become trapped into seeing color before character, and how social policies designed to lessen racial inequities have instead increased them. Neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” but an honest, courageous look at America’s most enduring and wrenching social dilemma.”

Punk on Film Top Ten + 1

Compiling a list of books on punk naturally led me here. You can stream a lot of these in our confinement. Play loud.

Documentaries:

Punk (Epix) – 4-part docu-series produced by Iggy Pop. Best if you want to see the originators playing live, and light on hoary pronouncements of significance (thank you Mr. Williamson), letting the explosion (or fart, if you will) of that 2-3 years yawp for itself.

Punk:  Attitude (Youtube) (90 minutes) – Don Letts’ history starts with Brando in The Wild One, links to ‘50s rock’n’roll, gives props to hippies, it’s about why punk.  Interviews and concert snippets by the originators but follows through to hard core and noise bands (Fugazi, Sonic Youth), even for some reason includes Nirvana.  If you only have 90-minutes, watch this one.

Punk Revolution NYC (Amazon Prime) (3-hours).  How it began, fascinating about Warhol’s guiding hand, the influence of transgressive downtown theatre, the nascent clubs, the rebellion against disco, SOHO and Loisaida as cauldrons of creativity when poor creatives could still afford to live there.  Sob.

The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris) (Youtube) – Okay, it’s not the first wave, it’s the hard core generation that Reagan/Thatcher spawned, but damn, the concerts cum riots!  Headache inducing, intentionally, of course.

The Blank Generation (Poe/Kral) (Youtube) (50 minutes) – Grainy black and white footage, audio as if they’re playing down the hall, but it was all shot in 1976 at CBGB, a time capsule, primary documentation.

Hip-Hop Evolution (Shad) (Netflix) (4 seasons).  Watching this series now, and wow!  Hip hop started exactly at the same time as punk, in bombed out 1970s New York, and way outlasted it.  Same impulses, same anger, same release, but black.  (Notes that punk fans were the first white people to fall in love with rap.) 

Movies:

Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox) (not currently streaming).  I so love this sad movie; may have been Gary Oldman’s first (as Sid).  One of my favorite unforgettable movie scenes (right up there with “Forget it Jake”) is Nancy running down the street in an angry fit, catching a glimpse of herself in a store window, and then stopping to tear off her clothes, screaming, “Fuckin’ Stevie Nicks!” when she realizes those clothes resemble something Nicks would wear. 

Summer of Sam (Spike Lee) (pay to stream on all platforms).  If you want to know what it must have felt like to be a nobody in New York when punk and hip hop launched, this is the movie.  The blackout, the talking devil dog, CBGB, the graffiti bombed subway trains, the grit and the hopeless energy.  Figuring out what to wear!

CBGB (Randall Miller) (Vudu).  The late great Alan Rickman’s last movie, as bushy-haired loser Hilly Kristal, the guy who owned CBGB and created a punk Mecca in the process. Actors play the musicians, some even look like the punks, but it’s Rickman’s movie. The scene where he meets the Ramones for the first time is priceless.

Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch) (pay on Prime).  Are you a Jarmusch junky, like me?  This movie, set in Memphis, is not about punk rock, but I’ve never seen anything that better nails how our lives fail the rock’n’roll impulse, that cry of spontaneity and freedom, and how that failure hurts and in some cases ruins us.

Control (Anton Corbijn) (pay to stream on all platforms).  A biographical film that follows Joy Division’s Ian Curtis to his suicide, and it’s just as bleak and heart-rending as that sounds. If you’ve lost friends and never really understood it, this won’t explain anything, but the movie knows how you feel.