I’m so pleased to have my poem, Prose Poem For After A Hurricane included in the Spring issue of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, which is published by Oxford University Press. The poem was written in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, so in it’s specifics it is a tad dated, but such are the rigors of academic publishing, it is just being published now. Regardless, the sentiment of the poem is one that I suspect could/should be written about every climate disaster. The full spring issue is devoted to creative responses to the issue of climate change.
After weeks of subfreezing weather, the temperature finally climbed into the mid-30’s and the sun was shining. Knowing more bad weather was on the way, I jumped at the chance to get out for a bit of air and headed down the trail to our neighborhood pond, which had partially frozen over weeks ago.
I stood for a few minutes and watched the ducks and geese as they came down the bank and skittered onto the ice, doing hilarious web-footed slide maneuvers across the ice until finally plunging into the bit of water that had not frozen over. Smiling at their antics, I continued on my walk.
It wasn’t until I rounded the last turn on the trail around the pond that I saw her–a tall woman with short, white hair, and like me, bundled up against the blustery January wind. She was looking up at the stand of trees at the end of the pond and when she saw me, she held up a hand in greeting. As I arrived at the spot where she stood, she lowered her gaze and looked at me with bright eyes. Her hand reached up to wipe away a tear.
“I forget how beautiful they are,” she said, and then apologized for being so emotional. I murmured that no apology was needed and looked up at the trees swaying below the vast canvas of the bright blue sky. Just trees, lovely in spring and fall, but in their bare, winter state, they seemed rather ordinary to me.
There are many trees that are spectacular beauties even without their leaves, trees that have a particularly attractive shape, or trees that have interesting patterns in their bark. So often we don’t see that beauty until the trees lose their leaves in the fall, leaving branches and trunks exposed. But these trees seemed to me to just be trees, their winter selves unspectacular until spring once again adorned them with their leafy finery.
I stood with her for a few minutes looking up at the bare branches. She took a deep breath and nodded a farewell to them and to me. Her last words stunned me, “At least I’ll have one more year with them.” And then she turned and continued down the trail.
As I watched her walk away I pondered the meaning of her startling words. She had seemed quite healthy, but perhaps she was sick. Or maybe just getting ready to move to another neighborhood. I looked back at the trees again, still just trees, but somehow now majestic and a talisman to remind us to let even that which is ordinary take our breath away.
Walking home, I thought about other trees I have encountered in my wanderings, the ones that I have called Spirit Trees, that somehow manage to stay proudly upright, long after they are supposedly “dead”.
Later that evening, I curled up in front of the fire with Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Invention of Wings, in which one of the main characters, Handful, and her mother Charlotte continue a tradition of keeping their spirits in a tree. Fascinated, I stayed up reading, finishing as the morning light began to tiptoe around the edges of the blinds.
There is much that has been written about the spirit of trees, Mary Oliver, Hermann Hesse, Wendell Berry, to name a few of the more famous scribes who have visited this place in their own worlds. (For more wonderful writing about trees, click here, and for a fascinating compendium of writing about the spirit of trees, consider visiting this site).
Clearly, for the woman that I met at the pond, the little stand of trees holds deep spiritual meaning and I hope that she has many more opportunities to visit with them. But even when the day comes that she can no longer walk down that particular trail, they will always be with her.
Last week I was feeling a little sorry for myself–bad enough that it was bitter cold and grey outside, I was stuck inside gulping tea and antibiotics courtesy of a bad case of strep throat. But in a stroke of fortuitous timing, just as the gloom was beginning to feel never-ending, the red amaryllis bulb that I had forced into bloom began to show its beautiful petals.
In the height of summer, one red flower is not terribly notable as the world is filled with bright, colorful flora. But in the dead of winter, all by itself, it is dazzling against the background of oppressive grey cold.
The other day, a friend shared a quote from the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel that speaks to the experience of delight that I found in this singular red flower,
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
As we go through our days, every now and again we will see something out of the ordinary that evokes such amazement, but perhaps what is really amazing is when we find that appreciation of the extraordinary in that which, in a different context, would seem quite ordinary.
The recent assault on West Virginia’s Elk River that left hundreds of thousands of people without usable water should give us all pause. We need to not only address the immediate disaster but also to examine the context in which it happened and the ways in which it is part of the global environmental crisis. As awful as this situation has been and continues to be, it should come as no surprise–the plundering of West Virginia for coal has been exacting an enormous environmental and human cost for many, many years.
And around the world, there are many places that have to cope with unsafe or scarce water supplies on an ongoing basis. As the impact of global warming continues to grow, this will only get worse. A lot worse.
We know this, but we continue to allow chemical companies, energy companies, agricultural companies, development companies and yes, military actions as well, to continue to endanger this most precious resource with far too little oversight and regulation.
When this story first broke, I saw a picture of water bottles being distributed to those in need, and I was struck by the irony that when you go through airport security, a water bottle is considered a possible weapon of terrorism, but tanks of toxins are allowed to sit upstream of our water supply with little or no regulation:
Downstream (for West Virginia)
What deep delusion
the body politic
that searches luggage
at airport checkpoints
looking for water bottles
that could become
weapons of terror
yet does not inspect the
tanks of toxic chemicals
that leak poison
into the rivers on which
so many lives depend–
incognizant that, in the end,
we all live downstream.
–Lucinda Marshall, © 2014
Will the West Virginia disaster be a wake-up call? Maybe for the next ten minutes, but then something else will happen to distract us and we will go along our merry, delusional way until another inevitable result of our folly comes back at us.
The 24 hour news spin cycle is dependent on moving us on to the next big thing, time to absorb and react is truncated if not obliterated. Water crisis today, burst pipeline tomorrow, a military crisis somewhere, budget talks break down–sorry something else just came up and we have to move on, no time to think about why this happened or how these things are connected, let alone how to change this destructive paradigm.
We would do ourselves (and the planet) a lot of good if we just stopped for a moment and insisted on being with what has transpired, refusing to allow ourselves to be push me pull you’ed on to the next crisis without the chance to absorb the implications of what has happened into our experience and understanding of the world and our very lives.
It has been a year since I decided to re-enter the world of poetry writing. Changing genres has been an eye-opening experience. Giving myself permission to abandon complete sentences and paragraphs in favor of singular words and short phrases to convey my thoughts (and I don’t mean that in a Facebook status/Twitter sort of way) has been an exciting challenge, albeit involving far more frequent trips to the thesaurus in search of well-chosen words. The relative brevity of poetry where less is often more challenges the writer to be deeply intentional in the choice of words.
One of the things that I like best about this genre jump is that it is far less frenzied than the 24/7 world of blogging/writing about current events. Poetry allows the luxury of time to contemplate and consider that you often don’t have when addressing fast moving news items. And there is space for fine-tuning and revision that you don’t have when your publishing turn around time is 10 minutes. It has also radically enlarged the subject matter that I consider to be grist for the pen (or keyboard). I’ve spent far more time writing about what I see in my immediate universe and am much more prone to personal observation and the sharing of emotion than in my longer form writing.
In this time I’ve been only minimally involved in political work although I am still a junkie when it comes to reading about issues. And you know what? I don’t miss it. Well maybe a little. I am ecstatic that sexual violence in the military (a topic I have written about countless times over the years) is finally getting the way overdue attention it needs and I am glad to see the health impact of military pollution (something I wrote about almost 10 years ago) getting attention too, and ongoing coverage of numerous other issues that I’ve touched upon over the years as well. But I am also okay not continuing to write about these topics, at least not with every new twist and turn of an issue and I am much more cognizant of the wear and tear that comes with writing about such things year in and year out.
I am also enjoying (and learning from) opportunities to read my work out loud (thank you to The Writer’s Center for the always supportive atmosphere of their open mic readings). It is interesting to explore the ways words work when spoken aloud rather than only silently read. For years, I used to tell my kids that the best way to proof-read their school work was to read it aloud. But this goes beyond that and becomes an additional way of developing a poem’s cadence and flow. And of course being a visual artist as well, I don’t hesitate to explore the visual presentation of the poem on the page.
The publishing side of the poetry world is still a conundrum to me. With the advent of the internet, turn around time for publishing pieces about current news topics is sometimes almost instant, certainly in blogging and more than a few times, I’ve had editors at various publications post my work within minutes of my submitting it.
Not so the poetry world where some publications still demand that you send your work with a self-addressed stamped envelope so that it can be returned within the 6 months they demand to consider its worthiness for their august publication. And they will not consider work that has been published elsewhere. And bloggers, if you think you are underpaid, believe me, compared to poetry, you are sitting pretty. There are numerous publications that charge fees to read work. IMHO, the poetry business model needs some serious updating, it is self-defeating and limiting to the detriment of us all.
And while Creative Commons is often used in the world of internet publishing, it is almost invisible in the poetry world. As a writer I have sometimes thought Creative Commons is overused and often abused, but it does have its place; in the poetry world however, most copyright discussion is as old-school as the snail mail submission policies.
That said, I am cautiously submitting work to various publications and am very pleased that the first piece that got accepted was a meditation about how we react to environmental disasters that will appear in the winter issue of Isle.
I wrote a poem recently about going on a hike and then coming home to the stillness of the night where there was space to create and conclude as needed. And indeed, observing and honoring the path and dwelling in the spaces that we find leads us to the poetry of life.
Over the years I have had something of a love/hate relationship with reflections. When I was young, I always wanted, just once, for the person I saw reflected in the mirror to be a movie star, and not the awkward girl that I perceived myself to be. As I grew older, I began to understand that our expectations of what we wanted to see in the mirror were based on the deliberate marketing of false expectations that fed our insecurities. I also began to realize that much of what women were expected to look like was informed by the male gaze. Wall upon wall in museums were (and still are) filled with images of how men see women and television and the movies are, even today, dominated by male perceptions of what women should look like.
Some years ago, those realizations led to my doing a series of artistic explorations about how women see themselves including several pieces on mirror glass that are impossible to view without one’s own reflection becoming part of what is seen, as mine is in this photo of Venus Deconstructed. By definition, this work looks different to each person as they become reflected in the mirrored surface as they view it.
More recently, I’ve worked with some photographic reflections that by virtue of technique completely change the nature of what is reflected, using duplicating lenses and shooting images in multi-dimensional surfaces (think disco balls). When the subject of the photo is a person, it is usually me because I’m not comfortable asking others to subject themselves to my reflected distortions.
Some of the most breathtaking reflections are of course found in nature, something I was reminded of a few weeks ago when walking at a nearby lake which contains a stunning field of water lotuses. Growing as they do in the water, on a sunny day it is almost as if the field is of double density because you see not only the lotuses but also their reflections. But what is particularly breathtaking is the subtle difference between the flowers and their reflections in the water. To my eye, the image of the flower and its reflection is beautiful and each taken separately is also beautiful. But perhaps if I was the flower, I would hate that my petals look so dark and that the image in the water seems so flat.
So why do I tell you all this? Because much of what we see, whether it is in a mirror, or in an advertisement for the latest shade of lipstick or the idealized images on a museum wall, are distortions of reality, whether due to optical effect or the subjective gaze of the image’s creator. Yet these distortions so often become the reality of what we see that, to borrow from my favorite Lily Tomlin monologue, it becomes quite difficult to explain the difference between a can of soup and an Warhol painting of the same.
I show’em this can of Campbell’s tomato soup.
“This is soup”.
Then I show’em a picture of Andy Warhol’s painting
of a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. I say,
“This is art.”
“This is soup.”
“And this is art.”
Then I shuffle the two behind my back.
Now what is this?
this is soup and this is art!
I dread having to explain tartar sauce!
Whatever you may think of the reflected lotus in the photo above, it isn’t the same as the lotus and our reflection in the mirror is not who we are or even what we look like. And airbrushed advertisements are not what the models we think we are seeing look like and the people in a Picasso painting most definitely aren’t the distortions that he painted. Maybe that is obvious, but I know that I spend way too much time in front of mirrors trying to make myself look a little better than I think I look and perhaps it is useful to reflect on the fact that we aren’t our reflections, nor are we how others view us.
Some people have fantasy football teams. I have fantasy Sunday morning talk show guest panels that are made up entirely of women. These are my picks for my fantasy panel, Syria edition.
As U.S. posturing on Syria has escalated, the media has trotted out old white guy after old white guy as “experts”, never mind many of them are the same men who lied to us about chemical weapons in Iraq and then commenced to bomb the Iraqis with all manner of chemical weapons which left a horrifying epidemic of cancer, birth defects and death in that country and have backed U.S. policies that have contributed to the current situation in Syria and Middle East unrest in general.
I think most of us are supremely tired of listening to these guys and of a media that simply parrots the talking points of U.S. military domination.
Imagine if instead they presented a balanced view that brought in people who articulate alternative visions and oh what the heck, how about we just kick all the men out and listen to women for a change.
So for the benefit of the media, here are some voices you ought to be including as commentators in your coverage of Syria:
1. Sarah Van Gelder writes in Yes! Magazine that, “there are at least six strategies that could hold wrongdoers to account, deter war crimes of all sorts, and build peace”:
- Bring those guilty of atrocities to justice
- Call for a United Nations embargo on arms, military supplies, and logistical support for both Damascus and opposition forces
- The U.N. Security Council should hold an international peace conference
- Offer aid and support to the nonviolent movements within Syria
- Provide the humanitarian aid desperately needed by the millions of displaced people
- Force the hand of Russia and China in the Security Council
2. The women’s human rights organization MADRE similarly calls for the Obama Administration to:
- Stop the flow of weapons into Syria
- Renew focus on diplomacy to end the conflict
- Increase humanitarian aid to the region
3. The Nobel Women’s Initiative (who unlike President Obama, are using their status as Nobel Peace Prize winners to promote peaceful solutions) has put out a statement that reads:
The use of chemical weapons in Syria is a crime that cannot be ignored but bombing Syria is not the answer. Military intervention in Syria can only lead to more death and destruction, and further fuel the volatile situation in the region.
We applaud the vote of the UK’s Parliament against endorsing British involvement in attacks on Syria, and call upon the United States to step back from the brink of attacking yet another country in the Middle East/North Africa region. Such a move can only result in more hatred, more violence and more retaliation.
We call upon the UN Security Council to accept its responsibility to act in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria instead of the ongoing posturing of its members based on their own self-interest instead of concern about the people of Syria.
We urge the Security Council to ensure the nonviolent resolution of this crisis within the ongoing crisis of the civil war in Syria. We call upon the Security Council to refer the matter to the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
We also call on the International Community to urgently convene the Syria Peace Conference, known as Geneva II, and to ensure women meaningfully participate. (emphasis mine)
4. Sonali Kolhatkar of KPKF’s Uprising radio program and Co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission writes,
Students of American imperial history do not have to look too far back to see the disastrous consequences of bombing dictatorial governments. As the debate over a US military strike on Syria heats up in Congress, American antiwar activists are clear in their opposition to the push for war. And they are correct to oppose any sort of military strikes if the long arc of destructive US foreign policy is to be trusted to remain the same.
5. Medea Benjamin points out that most Americans do not support the idea of bombing Syria.
6. Amnesty International looks at the problems of sexual harassment and forced marriages faced by Syrian women refugees.
7. The Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege has run a number of pieces about women in Syria.
The U.S. media owes its audience a fair and balanced representation of the issues, not just pro-war talking points and they need to include women’s voices and concerns as part of that discussion.
Postscript–As several readers have pointed out, I left out the crucial voice of Phyllis Benis.
One morning late last winter, feeling deeply depleted, I yanked the router cable from the wall, turned off my computer and crawled in bed with pen and paper and gave myself permission to write whatever I needed to write. I thought perhaps I might do some journaling but what ended up on the paper was poetry, something I hadn’t written for many years. As I wrote, I realized I’d been suffering from paragraph fatigue and needed to be able to write in a far less rigid mode. Quite a few pages later, I crawled out of bed and reconnected the wifi, but I didn’t put down the pen. As I continue to explore poetry, my work is once again flourishing and I consider it a necessary part of my writing life.
And thus begins what I consider the fourth metamorphosis of my work, which began in architectural design with some vague idea of designing Utopia and at the very least in the meantime, some earth-friendly structures. After the birth of my first child I migrated into art–painting whimsical furnishings and making fabric baskets and some really bad ass and sometimes erotic mixed media art about how women see women because I was damned tired of going to museums and seeing how men see women.
In 2001, in response to the deep misogyny that was surfacing in the anti-war movement, and my concerns about how war in Afghanistan and Iraq would impact women, I founded the Feminist Peace Network. At the time I didn’t expect it to replace the art, but it became clear after awhile that while I was both a visual and verbal creator, I was dreadful at doing both at the same time. Since then, I’ve written about many issues, often with little turn around time in the 24/7 media world. Part of that work has been writing the FPN blog and since 2006, that has added up to almost 1800 posts! It’s been a privilege to do this writing, but somewhere along the line, my personal has gotten lost in my political and I need to re-balance the gaze and pace of my writing.
To accomplish that, I am ending the FPN blog so that I may free up the time and energy for new work (although I still plan to maintain the website and Facebook and Twitter feeds and be involved in human rights and social justice work). I will continue to write opinion pieces when I am so moved and they will appear on this, my personal blog, but they will be interspersed with poetry and pictures of wondrous things and great silences that you may presume are filled with my feet hiking along a trail, a good nap or perhaps deep meditation and lots of good food and laughter and hugging my loved ones, working in my own community and yes, you’ll no doubt still find me at demonstrations now and again carrying signs and standing my peace.
There is a kindness meditation that I like to do every so often that involves putting your hand on your heart and sending kind thoughts to your loved ones, friends, neighbors, the people in your city and country and throughout the world. For whatever reason, I decided to do that particular meditation the morning of July 4th. Two seconds after I’d put my hand on my heart I realized the irony of doing that the same day that so many people participate in holiday rituals that involve putting their hands over their hearts and pledging allegiance to a flag that stands for a toxic definition of freedom and independence that requires ‘power over’ that can be held only through violence–quite the antithesis of my little kindness meditation–which after that realization felt all the more necessary albeit completely inadequate.
Then, over the weekend, I happened to meet Luiz R.S. Simmons who is a representative to the Maryland House of Delegates. He was at the farmers’ market asking people to sign a letter to Maryland Governor O’Malley asking him to close Maryland’s gun control loophole by funding a system that would facilitate law enforcement officials in confiscating guns which are illegally in the possession of those convicted of violent crimes. There is such a law in Maryland that allows law enforcement to do this, just not the funds to enforce it. Mr. Simmons estimates that it would cost $350,000 to set up the system with another $35,000 a year for personnel to run it.
As Nick Kristof pointed out in column published on the July 3rd,
All told, since 9/11, the United States has spent $8 trillion on the military and homeland security, according to the National Priorities Project, a research group that works for budget transparency. That’s nearly $70,000 per American household…
…The imbalance in our priorities is particularly striking because since 2005, terrorism has taken an average of 23 American lives annually, mostly overseas — and the number has been falling…
…Most striking, more than 30,000 people die annually from firearms injuries, including suicides, murders and accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. American children are 13 times as likely to be killed by guns as in other industrialized countries.
In Chicago alone, 72 people were
shot over the July 4th weekend. The benefits of Mr. Simmons modest spending request should be abundantly obvious. Aside from the astounding number of people who are killed by guns in this country every year, in comparison to the cost of fighting terrorism, the amount needed to fund this proposal is chump change. Add to that the other costs of gun violence. If you suffer a serious but non-fatal gun wound, the hospital bill for just one person could easily be more than the amount Mr. Simmons is asking for. And then there are the lost earnings, the impact on families, the costs of prosecuting and imprisoning perpetrators who should never have had the weapons in the first place, etc. The cost is enormous in every possible way.
Over the weekend, EMC Insurance Cos. announced that they would not provide insurance for Kansas schools where teachers carry guns. Imagine if other insurance companies followed suit or refused health insurance to those who keep guns in their homes. Imagine laws requiring liability insurance for those who own guns (and insurance companies that refused to issue it). It would be a good economic move and save a lot of lives.
Corporate decisions like that and campaigns like Mr. Simmons’ in Maryland are very productive steps in getting the gun problem in this country under control.
And the next time you are asked to put your hand over your heart, pledge to send out kindness too.
As the flags are waved and the parades marched this 4th of July, we would do well to consider the freedom and independence we claim to cherish and defend. In decidedly different ways, Edward Snowden’s leaking of NSA documents and Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ filibuster have challenged us to think about what it means to stand up for what we believe in, in ways that don’t involve spending billions of dollars fortifying our borders, stopping and frisking without cause, arresting people for expressing their First Amendment rights in washable chalk, perpetually attacking other countries, the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and the highest per capita rate of gun ownership.
In just the six months since the Newtown killings there have been more Americans murdered by guns than the 4,409 United States armed forces killed in the Iraq war.
Aside from the fact that fighting spurious wars against other nations most decidedly makes us more vulnerable rather than safe, on our own streets and in our own homes, every day, we are waging war against ourselves.
Our military meanwhile censors news in defense of free speech and insists that maintaining the chain of command and good order trump legitimate prosecution of sexual assaults within the ranks, completely missing the point that the epidemic of personal violence being perpetrated by those who have sworn to protect us completely belies any semblance of a functional chain of command or good order.
At the same time, we have ignored both our own complicity in and the consequences of global warming. How is it that the President just got around to making a major speech on that subject?
Last week there was an insert in my PEPCO bill that informed me that 41% of my power came from coal, 18.6% came from gas, 34% came from nuclear and only 5.7% came from renewable sources. Meanwhile we are told that we must frack, never mind that it causes water to catch on fire and earthquakes, and we still don’t have a clue how to store nuclear waste (because the truth is it can’t be safely done) and we build tar sands pipelines through our farmland, wilderness and suburbs, and commit mountaintop mastectomies. Our air and land and water are polluted, wildfires rage and entire cities flood.
And too, we cut education spending, close schools and fire teachers, and saddle our college students with impossible debt. Even with “Obamacare” there will still be those who do not have insurance. In our legislatures and in Congress, a war is being waged against women’s reproductive rights. And retirement? Don’t even go there. And Wall Steet? Well it’s doing just fine.
That is the nitty gritty of the democracy for which we wave our flags. As Team America put it so eloquently, America, fuck yeah.
Josh Marshall (no relation) of Talking Points Memo makes the point that American democracy is dependent on secrecy as an integral part of its defense and questions whether breaking that secrecy (even when it exposes the abuse of that mandate) is acceptable,
Let me put my cards on the table. At the end of the day, for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. I’m not a bystander to it. I’m implicated in what it does and I feel I have a responsibility and a right to a say, albeit just a minuscule one, in what it does. I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way. (emphasis mine) So when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason. And even then I’m not sure that means you get off scott free. It may just mean you did the right thing…
…And I’m very skeptical of the notion that what Snowden did is awesome just because leaking state secrets is always a heroic act.
No question, America does indeed depend on secrecy. But as The New Yorker points out,
Snowden took classified documents from his employer, which surely broke the law. But his real crime was confirming that the intelligence agencies, despite their strenuous public denials, have been accumulating vast amounts of personal data from the American public.
Yes, precisely. And ask yourself this–Can you defend democracy with secrecy and spying or do those acts in fact completely undermine what you claim to hold dear?
Patriotism is a dangerous notion. It assumes the supremacy of the state that requires the constant exertion of ‘power over’ to maintain and the sanctity of borders that imply a damaging assumption of dominion and ownership which destroy any possibility of real freedom or democracy.
It’s time, past time, to reconsider what that flag we so proudly wave really represents and to stand up for the values that we hold dear.