No Time for Tricks ~ No Taste for Treats

With goblins, ghoulies, and ghosties skulking along the edge of consciousness. and with every horror movie that refuses to die — Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca — being pulled from its grave, it must be Halloween.

While more sensitive little ones delight in dressing up as princesses or pirates, blood is dripping and body parts are piling up for the vampires, zombies, and other unspeakable creatures of the night who seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil terror. 

Apparently, there’s gold in them thar dismemberments. From neighborhood haunted houses to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights, everyone  is trying to take a bite out of the consumer.  Since we love to be entertained, and we love to be scared when we know it doesn’t count, the witches’ brew of  Dia De Los Muertos skeletons, decorated graves, black cats, and whacked-out pumpkins makes Halloween our perfect holiday. All those sugar highs are lagniappe.

In a season dedicated not only to thinning the veil between life and death, but also to ripping it asunder, one of the most unlikely purveyors of horror is the American poet, Carl Sandburg

Sandburg isn’t much in favor these days. He’s too common, too plain-spoken.  In his own time, he wasn’t considered particularly literary. Today, he might well be left out of most symposia and cocktail parties.  But his vision was sharp, and he understood people. Like Whitman before him, he acknowledged his debt to the workers and builders, families and business people who knit this country together.

After decades of ignoring his work, I began thinking again of Sandburg after the devastation of Hurricane Ike.  Standing in the midst of tossed boats and shredded houses, the words which resonated were his: the introduction to the gripping Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind.  “Yesterday” was gone, indeed: along with Bolivar Penninsula,  a goodly portion of Galveston, and the security of people up and down the coast.  “What of it?”  asked the woman named Tomorrow.  “Let the dead be dead.”

Whenever I’ve pitted Sandburg against Faulkner on the nature of time, both past and future, Faulkner always won.  Sandburg felt too bleak, too resigned, too dismissive of the possibilities inherent in life.  When Faulkner gave Gavin Stevens the line, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” the tone seemed to me quite different: more attuned to my own experience of reality.But both men are communicating truth, and it’s Sandburg’s truth I consider today.

In recent months, as economic devastation, social upheaval, and political crosscurrents have surged their way through our national life, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Sandburg. He couldn’t have known, when he published his works so many years ago, what form his beloved country would have taken years hence. And yet his words are chilling, nearly prescient: as sharp and timely as though he meant to speak them precisely to us, the countrymen and women he never would know.

A Lincoln scholar, a lover of history, a straightforward man of integrity who could touch the hearts of his contemporaries,  Sandburg should speak to us today. Let the thrill seekers crowd into their theatres, and the living dead prowl their haunted houses.  Let the role players smear their blood and the would-be vampires try for a second bite. This Halloween, I’m tired of tricks, and I don’t need the treats that are being offered. I’d rather see my country clear-eyed, hear the poet speak, and share his unmasked words with those who dare face our own unnerving horrors. 

Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind

Carl Sandburg ~ 1922
The woman named Tomorrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.
The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold
and the girls were golden girls
and the panels read and the girls chanted:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.

It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
and paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
…and the only listeners left now
are…the rats…and the lizards.
And there are black crows
crying, “Caw, caw,”
bringing mud and sticks
building a nest
over the words carved
on the doors where the panels were cedar
and the strips on the panels were gold
and the golden girls came singing:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,”
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
And the only listeners now are…the rats…and the lizards.
 

The feet of the rats
scribble on the doorsills;
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
chatter the pedigrees of the rats
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
of the rats.
And the wind shifts
and the dust on a doorsill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

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Daring to Make Our Own Groceries

She hangs in my kitchen, this nameless woman who holds a chicken in her lap.  She watches me as I move between stove and sink, and I return the favor. Over time, I’ve come to imagine I know a thing or two about her. The directness of her gaze tells me she isn’t afraid of being seen. She’s a busy lady – her apron tells me that, and her distinctly practical hair. She didn’t mean to be posing this morning, but someone came along and she cooperated, no doubt happy for a moment’s rest.  Surprised by her inactivity and suddenly wary, the dog presses protectively against her, but they’ve spent his lifetime together and her hand is enough to calm his fears.

Around her portrait, bits and scraps of ephemera hint at the realities of her life.  A letterhead from A.E. Want & Company, one of Ft. Worth’s premiere wholesale grocers at the turn of the last century, provides elegance to a simple invoice. The invoice is dated September 14, 1921, nine years after the company gained a certain noteriety by suing the Missouri,  Kansas & Texas railroad over a carload of frostbitten Minnesota potatoes.  The potatoes, valued at $155.87, were judged defective, and the railroad ordered to pay. (more…)

Published in: on November 4, 2012 at 10:23 am  Comments (84)  
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An Hour, A Day, A Life

 

When reminders about the end of daylight savings time began to crop up last month, the usual congenial grumping began.  Some people wished it never would end.  Others expressed hope the practice would be abolished.  Arguments broke out at dinner tables and over fences: is the practice left over from a more agricultural society?  Does it really save energy?  Should it be standardized across the country?  Does it help or hurt school children?

At least for now, Daylight Savings time is gone, but the transition back to Standard time always amuses me.  I have one friend who takes the reminder to set clocks back one hour at 2 a.m. so literally she sets an alarm to wake her at 1:45.  She doesn’t want to be late in meeting her civic obligation.  She’s done it for years, and for years I’ve given her a bit of a hard time about it.  She says she does it because that’s the way it’s “supposed” to be done, and if everyone would get up in the middle of the night and set their clocks as they’re told, we wouldn’t have so many people being late for Church or missing television programs on Sunday. 

I’ve never dared tell her about my approach to the end of daylight savings time.  If she knew, she’d be scandalized, and probably would be knocking at my door at 2:05 to get me moving.  She’d have to, because the fact is I’ve never risen in the middle of the night to change clock settings.  I don’t even reset them before I go to bed, as my mother does, or adjust everything, one by one, as I move toward the first early sunset the day after the change.

The way I see it, that hour we “gain” as we “fall back” is pure gift.  It’s a little chunk of time, just lying there at the edge of my life, and it’s mine to do with as I please.  Every year, I save my hour of re-claimed time until I need it, or decide what to do with it.  While everyone else is running around resetting clocks, I’m sitting back with my feet up and a smile on my face, secure in the knowledge of that hour safely tucked into my pocket.  When I decide I need that extra hour, I reset the clocks, and am back in synch with everyone else.

(more…)

Published in: on November 15, 2008 at 9:08 am  Comments (5)  
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