On devolution

god_jack sanders_photo by Marilyn SandersToday I caught the last moments of a Terry Gross interview on NPR. In it, she was speaking with Jack Miles, general editor of The Norton Anthology Of World Religions and professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is also the author of God: A Biography, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. What I heard was of great interest, but most interesting of all was a seeming throwaway line I might have missed had I not gone back to read an online transcript of the discussion and reflect on what had been said.

“I have no confidence that the world [awaiting] us — given global warming, given the threat to the human habitat — is a world of ever-increasing knowledge…,” says Miles. “We may be at a peak now from which we will decline. Who knows?”

I think I can honestly say it never occurred to me that human beings would stop evolving; in fact, I have often taken comfort in the belief that we could grow out of our smallnesses and stupidities to become the enlightened band of sisters and brothers we were meant to be. But one glance at the day’s headlines, and I have to wonder if we are, in fact, on a slow, steady slide downward.

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May I have a word?

givethanks

I started this blog nearly three years ago, and, at the time, I had no expectations about what I should do or about how I should do it. I knew only that I wanted to write in a disciplined, thoughtful way because I saw that, for me, a careful, dogged approach to the craft and art of writing was the only path to developing myself.

Though I have done many things in my life — teaching writing among them — I always seemed to run from this slow, steady approach to my own work. Early on here, I began to write sections of a short story and to post them each week. This felt very risky, but your “likes,” “follows,” and comments gave me the confidence to keep on with it. I have since had the piece published — thanks in large part to your support. I now find myself very caught up in writing poetry, which has been a wonderful surprise for me, and I am once again grateful for your responsiveness to this work. I thought you might all want to jump ship if I stopped posting short pieces of nonfiction regularly, but so far only one person has jumped, and perhaps for other reasons.

I often have felt quite sad during the holiday season because the essence of its holiness seems lost on many of us — as does a true sense of wonder and gratitude for the life we each have been given, with every day a chance for renewal and for giving and receiving loving kindness. By staying with me over these years, you have shown me much loving kindness, and I am very grateful to you. During this season, may you all find and keep the peace and love you so deserve.

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Jocelyn

joss stone

If you haven’t guessed it, I’m a big fan of Joss Stone, the 27-year-old English singer/songwriter whose music more than tips a hat to the likes of Aretha, Dusty, and Janis but whose bluesy soulfulness is uniquely her own. I’m mesmerized by her sound, which recalls the music of my childhood, and by the barefooted, flower-in-the-hair performances that take me back to my hippie youth, such as it was.

For a while, though, I didn’t even know Joss Stone was a singer because I first saw her in Showtime’s The Tudors, where, during seasons three and four, she was cast as Anne of Cleaves, the fourth wife of King Henry VIII — who cruelly contrived to get rid of her because he found her unattractive. (“I like her not!” bellows actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s King Henry to anyone who will listen.) Hers was such a poignant, understated performance that I couldn’t have even imagined such a sexy singer would be hiding beneath the dull, thick costumes.

Sexy, indeed! …”but not slutty,” as one man pointed out in a comment he posted on YouTube — a comment that has me thinking about what it means for a woman to be just enough sexy. It’s that Virgin Mary/Mary Magdalene thing, the angel/whore split that dogs our collective unconscious and confuses even the best of men.

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It was like the end of the world

140723-mh17_kids-7a_9ccd2da63a049d06de43af53892c5c1c.nbcnews-ux-640-400

in those fields

the grasses were very high

wheat fields sunflower fields and

you would come upon the bodies

in their strange shapes and

it felt so deeply sad that

no one was coming to help them that

they were alone

basically

there was a little girl

who had a little

pink T-shirt on and

she was in this distant area near a pond

totally thrown clear

not near anything at all

they stay with you

the faces of the people and

how they lay in the grass and

they come into your mind and

it’s hard to get them out

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(Excerpt from an 8.6.14 interview between NY Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise and NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross)

It’s a matter of chemistry

Reel TalkI’ve been to three of the four Reel Talk events hosted so far by ReCreative Spaces, a dynamic organization dedicated to building community by offering “short-term, arts-oriented programming in unused, under-used, and unlikely spaces” throughout the DC Metro Area.

Each time I’ve come away with the sense that something very important had taken place for all who attended, something to do with building a better world a handful of people at a time.

The series offers participants a unique opportunity to watch a feature-length film on a topic of social importance—such as the impact of global warming on the planet or the effects of poverty on children—and then to engage in thoughtful, free-ranging conversation about it with the goal of articulating some concrete steps they might take to bring about positive change in their communities. At the heart of each event is a delicious meal prepared lovingly by a local chef—a meal that helps those attending forge new or deeper friendships with the others.

Something very special happened at last week’s Reel Talk, though, that made it stand out for me, something to do with a subtle chemistry at work. First, there was the dynamic Emily Arden—co-founder with John Kagia of ReCreative Spaces—and her capacity to make magic wherever she goes. Next, there was the exquisite, and exquisitely simple, meal prepared by Chef Tim Meadows of Nurish Food & Drink, which is located in the Anacostia Arts Center and which is where the event was held. Then, there was the movie itself, A Place at the Table, which offers an unflinching look at hunger in the US and sheds light on the fact that one in four children doesn’t know where his or her next meal will come from. Last, there was just the right mix of thoughtful, creative, articulate, socially conscious people with the heart and will to foster change.

Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on any of us that we were eating such a special, nutritious meal while children not far from where we sat were going without supper. But, this fact seemed to bring us closer to one another and to open up the possibility that we might find a way to reach out and to help the hungry children in our very own neighborhoods.

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A dark preoccupation

guns-more-guns

Yesterday, a 20-year-old runner from Fiji was shot to death in California. He was about to start school at the University of Louisiana. Last Tuesday, a lone killer gunned down a 14-year-old freshman at Reynolds High School in Oregon. On June 5th, a gunman who wrote in his journal “I just want people to die…” killed a Seattle Pacific University student. Days before that slaying, another madman with guns (and knives) murdered six University of California, Santa Barbara, students. And, a few days prior to those killings, a 10-year-old Wisconsin girl was shot on a playground.

In total, there have been 74 school shootings since 26 individuals, including 20 first-graders, died inside Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, according to data compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety. Just in 2014 alone, there have been 37 gun-related incidents at schools; 79 shooting-free school days out of the total 116 since Jan. 1. Thirty-one states have experienced school shootings since Newtown. ~ Quote

When I realized I was losing track of the number of children who had been gunned down around the US, I thought the very least I could do in a country that has lost its collective mind on the subject of the Second Amendment would be to send out regular tweets, such as the one below, chronicling the instances of baby murder and calling on members of Congress to stand up to the NRA:

Twitter: the good, the bad, and the ugly

twitter icon

Although I signed up for a Twitter account in 2011, it was only a few weeks back that I resolved to tweet. In part I had been feeling out of the stream of life and thought I needed to participate somehow in what has become such an important part of our global culture—and, to my surprise, not only among young people.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, I also had some sense that “tweeting” would help me become a better writer in the same way that composing a three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku might. In fact, writing something compelling and marrowy in 140 characters on a topic that would be of interest to (theoretically) hundreds or thousands of others is no small task. Nor can one underestimate the inherent potency of the hashtag and its capacity to inform and enlarge the impact of any given tweet.

Now that I am “following” some 150 people or entities (mostly other writers and news sources, with Lena Dunham thrown in the mix), I have been made very dizzy by the sheer quantity of information—much of it otherwise inaccessible—literally at my fingertips. The Twitterverse, it seems, is a place where you can learn about the news almost before it happens.

There is quite a lot of dreck to poke around in, though, which means one has to be attentive, thoughtful, discriminating, smart—and triply so. Plus, with so much material to investigate, it becomes difficult to know where to put one’s attention so as not to scatter energy. Or so as not to become buried and bobbling in material that flows down like lava and carries with it bits of the sacred along with the profane. I have also discovered that, as in life, barkers and hucksters abound: My first five “followers” were thinly disguised porn sites looking to see if I wanted to have a good time.

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Punch Cell-y

Punch Buggy

“I know,” I said to my daughter. “Let’s play a game like ‘Punch Buggy’ — only with cell phones.” We were driving back from a very enjoyable night out together, and it occurred to me that we could nightcap our fun with a variation on a car game we had played when she was a child.

Remember playing it when you were on a long drive and bored out of your wits? You’d call out “punch buggy” whenever you spied a Volkswagen Beetle on the road, shout out its color, and punch the arm of the one next to you — even if that someone happened to be a toddler? In those days, it would have been difficult to find one unbruised arm in your circle.

Fast forward a quarter century for an update to the game: Each time you see someone walking across the street or on the sidewalk without a cell phone in hand, scream out “Punch Cell-y” and slug the person next to you two times in the most tender part of the upper limb. If that person is visibly carrying, but not staring down at, a phone, you can thwack a car buddy once and feel pleased that yours was a partial win.

One thing we decided, though, was that spotting cell phoneless people in a group wouldn’t count; presumably these pedestrians would be engaged with each other — at least when they weren’t looking both ways before entering a cross walk. I haven’t decided if calling out the phone color should entitle one to an extra punch.

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Fastest

little boy on bike with training wheels

Lately, I have been spending a good amount of time rounding the dirt track located up the street from where I live. It can be a lively place—especially on the weekends—as runners with cell phones, dogs, power walkers with cell phones, football players, football fans, malingerers, soccer players, soccer fans, cigar smokers, pee wee teams, mothers, tennis players, body builders, opera singers, and others converge.

This morning, I found myself walking behind a small, helmeted boy, four years old at most, who was riding a red bicycle with lopsided training wheels. His distracted father, at first walking slowly alongside his son, soon began to jog out in front, at which point the boy turned around to look at me. As he did so, the bike began to veer off the track and onto the uncut grass that bordered it.

“Oops! Oops!” I couldn’t help but call out.

Upon hearing this, the young father stopped, turned around, and trotted back to his child. As I caught up, I could hear the man say, “And, you were so fast.”

“Why?” the boy wanted to know.

How cute, I thought, as only a smug adult would think. Then, I began to ponder the question more deeply and was struck not by its seeming innocence but by its seeming genius. I came to understand that it wasn’t one of those “but why daddy/why mommy” questions every exasperated parent of a toddler receives. Rather, I think this child genuinely, and without any self-consciousness, wished to understand something about what it actually means—and why it even matters—to be fast.

Why?” the father replied, apparently as disarmed by the question as I was. “Well, because you want to be fast.” And, in this one, nearly innocuous, moment, which could have been no more portentous than the one that came before or after it, the father told his son what kind of man he was expected to become.

Later, I saw the boy careening around a corner. “Look, Daddy!” he screamed. “Look how fast I am!”

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Children in the crossfire

Anti-Slavery Day March To ParliamentIn his chilling piece in Vox about the April 14th abduction of more than 275 Nigerian school girls, Zach Beauchamp argues that Boko Haram’s recent threat to sell the kidnapped children into slavery “is not a one-off event.” Rather, he says, “[i]t’s part of a vast web of human trafficking and slavery in West Africa — one that neither local governments nor the international community have been able to shut down.”

According to Walk Free Foundation, an anti-slavery group in Australia, “30 million people are living as forced laborers, forced prostitutes, child soldiers, child brides in forced marriages and, in all ways that matter, as pieces of property, chattel in the servitude of absolute ownership.” With some 700,000 of its people enslaved, Nigeria now boasts the largest such population in West Africa — and the fourth largest in the world, says Beauchamp.

While the rest of the world has been focused on the missing Malaysian plane, anguished relatives have been looking frantically for their missing little girls and have had relatively little support in the process.  “It’s hard to imagine a more compelling, dramatic, heartbreaking story,” writes Frida Ghitis, a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. “If it had happened anywhere else,” she suggests, it “would be the world’s biggest story.”

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