Too Many Tricks, and The Wrong Kind of Treats

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

In parts of the country where offense isn’t so easily taken, children delight in dressing up as princesses, cowboys, or Cruella de Vil.  Meanwhile, for the faux vampires, zombies, and other unspeakable night-creatures who seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil, corn syrup blood is dripping, and the body parts are piling up

There’s no question that Halloween has gone commercial. From our neighborhood haunted house to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights, everyone hopes 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 for a perfect holiday.

In this season dedicated to thinning the veil between life and death, 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, and too plain-spoken. In his own time, he wasn’t considered particularly literary; today, he might well be censored, cancelled, or de-platformed.  But his vision was sharp, and he understood people. Like Whitman before him, he acknowledged the value of the workers and builders, families, and business people who knit this country together, and he honored them with his work.

After decades of allowing his poetry to fade from memory, I began thinking of Sandburg after the devastation of Hurricane Ike. Standing in the midst of tossed boats and shredded houses, the introduction to his Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind seemed relevant. ‘Yesterday’ was gone indeed, along with much of Bolivar Penninsula, a goodly portion of Galveston, and the security of people up and down the coast. “What of it?” asked the woman Sandburg named Tomorrow. “Let the dead be dead.” Today, different storms wrack our society, and different forces are attempting to dismember the body politic, but Tomorrow’s question still echoes: “What of it?”

When I compare Sandburg and Faulkner on the nature of humanity, Faulkner often wins. Despite the nature of some of his novels’ characters, his eloquent Nobel Prize acceptance speech inspires and elevates; Sandburg too often seems bleak; resigned; dismissive of the possibilities inherent in life. When Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” the tone somehow seems more realistic — optimistic, even — than Sandburg’s. But both men are communicating truth, and it’s Sandburg’s truth that seems particularly relevant today.

In recent months, as economic devastation, social upheaval, and political crosscurrents have surged through our national life, I’ve wondered if Sandburg ever imagined his beloved country would transform itself in this way. And yet his words are chilling and 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 mask their intent and the would-be vampires try for a second bite. This Halloween, I’m tired of the fear-mongers’ tricks, and I don’t need the treats they pretend to offer. I’d rather see my country clear-eyed, hear the poet speak, and share his unmasked words with those who dare to face and battle 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.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Tears, Laughter, and Love

It was the simplest of exchanges. On the day poet Mary Oliver died, I responded to a reader’s acknowledgement of her passing by saying, “Yes, and I was surprised by the depth of my grief. I don’t believe I’ve ever wept at the death of a ‘celebrity’ before.” “I understand,” he said, “and as I’m certain you know, that’s all right.” Smiling, I replied, “Indeed, it is.”
And that would have been that, had I not continued to think about other simple exchanges that have shaped my understanding of life. I’m posting the story of one such exchange today: in memory of Mary Oliver, in honor of Charles Treger, and in appreciation for all who understand the role of beauty, truth, and tears in our lives.

 

Tucked into the heart of an old Houston neighborhood, Villa de Matel gleams with burnished light. Home to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the convent serves the larger community as a place of worship and retreat, as well as being a retirement home for the Sisters.

A large Lombard-Romanesque Chapel designed by architect Maurice J. Sullivan serves as its centerpiece. Consecrated in 1928, it’s noted for high vaulted ceilings, German and Irish stained-glass windows, massive marble pillars, and intricate tile work. Like the Rothko Chapel, another Houston landmark, it’s impressive without being ornate. Its numinous space shimmers in the silence, inviting visitors to pause, rest, and reflect.
Continue reading

A Trickster’s Truth

As increasing numbers of people are coming to learn, Oakland, California’s FOX News Affiliate KTVU was pranked last Friday. After broadcasting false names for the captain and crew of the ill-fated Asiana Airlines Flight 214, the station attempted to deal with the ensuing furor by insisting that the National Transportation Safety Board had confirmed the crew’s identities.

In turn, the NTSB declared that no, indeedy, it wasn’t them – at least, not officially. It was their silly summer intern, some young fella who’d roamed just far enough off the reservation to allow a Bart Simpson-like joke to make it all the way to the national airwaves. Continue reading

Cruising Yoknapatawpha

Step aboard a boat docked in any of the marinas clustered around Clear Lake, loose the lines, find the channel, and soon enough you’ll be edging into Galveston Bay.

Whether the Bay’s your destination for a day sail or the first step on a longer journey – to Galveston itself, or to the open doorway of the Gulf of Mexico – you’ll have plenty of company. Second only to Florida in terms of boat sales and with one of the largest collections of pleasure craft in the country, someone around the lake always is getting underway.

Most of the boats you’ll see are documented or registered in Texas, although craft from Florida and Louisiana are well-represented. Thanks to Delaware’s more relaxed attitude toward documentation and taxes, you’ll often see larger and more expensive vessels with Wilmington or Dover listed as hailing ports.  Now and then a cruiser from the East Coast or Caribbean will tie up on a transit pier, alongside sailboats from Half-Moon Bay or the San Juan Islands. Continue reading

Speaking My Heart – Writing, Vision and Truth

 

José Saramago, Portuguese novelist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, once remarked,  “In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because I didn’t know how to write essays.”  Implicit in his remarks is a refutation of the easy assumption that people write essays  because they are less difficult than novels.  They are shorter, to be sure, and differently structured.  But ease of writing is not necessarily one of their virtues, particularly when the so-called personal essay is involved.

In her Write on Wednesday prompt this week, Becca asks, “Do you enjoy reading and writing personal essays?”  The fact is I do – primarily because I’m most interested in exploring the world around me, rather than inventing a fictional world from whole cloth.  I’m intrigued by the challenges posed when attempting to communicate rich, densely-textured realities through an apparently simple form, and I prefer the freedom to move from one topic to another as my attention is engaged, rather than devoting months or years to the same project.

Alain de Botton, another prolific essayist whose The Art of Travel is one of my favorites, says, “I am conscious of trying to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction writing. It’s always surprised me how little attention many non-fiction writers pay to the formal aspects of their work.”

He goes on, “I passionately believe it’s not just what you say that counts, it’s also how you say it – the success of your argument critically depends on your manner of presenting it.”

The word essay  itself comes from the French essayer, which means “to try”.   Trying to communicate the richness of reality can be difficult at best.  When Anita Diamant, in her introduction to Pitching My Tent, writes that her challenge as an essayist was “to pay closer-than-average attention and then shape…experiences and reactions into entertaining prose”, she suggests what I have come to believe: that vision comes first.  Continue reading