Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Poetry Safety Net

francine j. harris won the Page Clayton Poetry Prize this year. Her poem, published in the Michigan Quarterly Review, is called “what you’d find buried in the dirt under charles f. kettering sr. high school (detroit, michigan).” What francine finds is disturbing: blood, condoms, broken fragments of high-school life and dreams. The poem is gritty and beautiful at the same time. Its beauty lies not in rendering a world we would hope to visit, but in the way it brings us into us the lives lived there. High school can be a tough; charles f. kettering high was very tough.

Page Clayton (not long out of
high school herself)
Page Clayton was my mother. The prize in her name is something Meg and I support to keep her memory alive in a way we think she would have liked, by encouraging young poets. Mom loved Emily Dickinson, another writer who gave us beautiful and disturbing poetry. I think Mom would have liked francine’s poem too. More than most, Mom retained until her death an ability to feel the struggles and frustrations of young people coming of age. Her gift was more than just empathy; it was something close to actually experiencing herself a small part of their pain.

I worry about kids like those in charles f. kettering high. The political landscape today is brutal. It’s hard to get funding for education or health care or almost anything kids need, even contraception. Every dollar is a fight. And even when there is funding, it’s hard to get it to the folks who need it. Government bureaucracies are thickets. Mothers with children who need medicine or education assistance can be too overwhelmed with the day-to-day struggle even to know help might be available.

The human spirit is amazing, though. And ultimately, it is that spirit that carries us forward. Food, education and health care are necessary, but they are not sufficient. There are stories every year of young men and women who transcend enervating environments to accomplish great things. Sometimes you want to ask: How did they do that? How did they persevere under such daunting conditions?

francine harris is the answer. Not her, literally, but what she represents. Sometimes we take wrong turns from which there is no way back. But sometimes we strike out on the right path and just keep going. We owe those journeys of courage and optimism to the spark that makes us human. For reminding us that that spark lives even among blood and discarded condoms, we owe a debt to poets like francine harris and to publications that bring us their work, like the Michigan Quarterly Review.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why Didn't I Ask Him That?

I always wondered why my father lost his temper so easily. When I was a boy, I thought the question was not one I could ask without risking a volcanic demonstration of the subject matter. Dad’s emotional volatility was better avoided than studied. Still, I wonder what caused the big bang. I wonder what causes cancer. And I wonder why Dad got so mad so easily.

The Prime Movers
I know the possible psychological and physiological explanations: temperamental genius, rage disorder (or worse). But they don’t interest me. What interests me is why he got mad at me. What did I do that was right, and what did I do that was wrong? Could I have done better? Could I have made him angry less often? Could I have made him love me more?

Dad has been dead almost forty years, and still I think about his exhausting lectures, about the way he stood over me with wagging finger and immobilizing stare and talked to me as though I were incapable of understanding what he had to say unless he repeated it over and over and over. Repeated not until I showed signs of comprehension or contrition, but until the fire of his passion of that moment, for that transgression, burned out.

Even now, knowing what I know about various kinds of behavior, what they are called and what they mean, I cannot disassociate those lectures from me. I cannot make them more about Dad than me. After all, it was me he was lecturing.

My mother died three years ago. Not a month goes by that I do not think of something I wish I had asked her. Frequently my questions are about events in her past that she was the last to know, but sometimes, as with my father, they are about events in my past, our past. And I ask myself, Why didn’t I ask her that when she was alive? We had plenty of time together during her last years. Her mind was still sharp. She knew everything I now wish I knew. She probably even knew I wanted to know it. But I never asked. And she never volunteered.

We learn to live with ourselves. Part of that is some alchemy of rationalization and repression that leaves us comfortable with both who we are and how we got there. How we were treated by our parents. What that meant about them, and what it meant about us. Asking too many questions can be dangerous. Self-image is a house of cards. Pulling out one can collapse the whole structure.

I don’t think Dad would have gotten mad at me if I had asked about his bouts of rage. That wasn’t the kind of thing that made him mad. A challenge when he didn’t want to be challenged would cause him to turn up the heat until the opposing force was incinerated, but a sincere question, asked in a calm moment, even about something so personal, was more likely to elicit a thoughtful response. At worst, he might have waved me off with some bit of his charm, the flip-side of his coin of darkness and light.

No, I think the reason I never asked was the reason so many of our questions go unasked while our parents are still alive, only to haunt us after their deaths. I think I didn’t ask because I was afraid I wouldn’t want to hear the answer.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Freedom From Religion

My grandfather was the most religious man I have known well. He was a Deacon in the Episcopal Church, the son of an Episcopal minister who was an army chaplain in World War I. Like water running over dry land, though, the family piety was reduced to a trickle by the time it got to me. My mother took me to church and signed me up to be an acolyte, but faith never took hold in me. I liked the organ music and the hymns, but I just didn’t believe in God. Not even when I was wearing those acolyte’s robes and lighting candles.

St. James Church, window memorial to Rev. Philip Davidson
I didn’t say anything about it to anyone. Why would I? It was just my opinion, not any more provable than the other. Besides, the religion of my grandfather was, as far as I could see, mostly doing good. It comforted those in grief. It called parishioners to visit the sick and feed the poor. These are good works for our time in this life, whether or not you believe in the next.

It was hard to get my grandfather to tell you what to do. Even when I asked, he was frugal with his advice. And he was downright parsimonious with his judgment of others. He was a New Deal Democrat, the first to integrate a major university in the south, so it must have broken his heart when I organized a mock Republican convention at college. He never said anything about it, though. He talked to me about it as though it interested him as much as it did me. I didn’t even know he didn’t think much of Dick Nixon when Nixon visited the university. As a university president, my grandfather lived in a pluralistic world. He believed that contending ideas, both religious and secular, make us wiser.

I wonder what he would have thought about the way religious doctrine has come to dominate our political debate today. His god was a private god, not a dictator. A god that respected free will. I don’t think my grandfather would recognize that god today, at least not by looking at the actions of some modern true believers.

Consider the much publicized case of the sixteen-year-old girl in Rhode Island who objected to a prayer being displayed on large banner in her high school. She’s an atheist, and the prayer to “Our Heavenly Father” made her feel she didn’t belong. She thought the prayer, and the feeling of otherness it gave her, had no place in a public school. She sued to have the prayer taken down and a federal court agreed with her. Apparently, many of her neighbors did not. Certainly not the ones who threatened her life, causing the local police to  escort her to school for her safety. Not the state legislator from her hometown who, on a radio broadcast, called her “an evil little thing.”

Or listen to the campaign language of Rick Santorum, today’s darling of the not-Mitt conservative wing of the Republican party: “The American Left hates Christendom. They hate Western civilization.” “If we follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road.” That road being, in Santorum’s estimation, the one that leads to the French Revolution, as in, “When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution.”

Or consider the Catholic Bishops' stand on President Obama’s rule that Catholic hospitals and universities must offer health plans with contraception coverage to all employees. These are not churches; they are large institutions serving non-religious purposes and employing people of all faiths, or no faith. Even after the president modified the rule so that health insurance companies, not the Catholic institutions, would pay for the coverage, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said it was like letting Catholics have pornography as long as someone else paid for it. Health care as pornography. Who would have guessed?

This country was founded by people seeking freedom from religious persecution. Their wish to be able to worship as they pleased was enacted into the constitutional guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As a people we have held to that ideal. Anyone in this country can practice whatever religion they want without fear of intimidation by the state. They may not be so free from harassment by other religions, however. The constitution doesn’t speak to that. That courtesy is left to the people to work out among themselves.

Certainly government harassment of religion is worse than one religion’s harassment of another, or of agnosticism or atheism. But it is the rich diversity of views that have made this country interesting, perhaps what have made it great. We lose an important part of that, an important part, I would suggest, of our humanity, when we try to impose our religious beliefs on others.

Go to the church or temple of your choice, by all means. Pray to your god. But leave him or her there. Bring the values you learn in church to secular life, if you feel they will benefit others, but don’t try to impose them on others. You’re not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you; it will just cause strife. Were he still alive, my grandfather might say, “Practice what you preach, but don’t preach what you practice."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Vote to be Free From Big Government

Elections have consequences. It’s an old saying, but it’s not true. Or not true enough. In the United States today, the counties with the greatest dependency on government benefits are the ones that most reliably vote Republican. That would be the same Republican party that runs on a platform of cutting entitlement spending. So here’s my idea: Let’s link ballots to the government check-writing department. If you vote Republican, the government checks stop coming to you. That’s what you say you want, right?

Oh, you meant the government checks to those other people, the freeloaders. Not to deserving folks like you. Well, tough as it may be to believe, it’s mostly deserving folks like you who are getting help. It’s middle class people who receive the earned income tax credit or get help with school lunches or day care. It’s the guy who worked hard all his life and had an accident on the job and now collects disability. It’s a grandmother on social security. It’s millions getting health care through Medicare.

You’re not freeloader, but neither are these folks. Sure there is waste and fraud in government spending, and we should work to reduce both, but human nature being what it is, we’re never going to get rid of all of it. Some waste is just the price of doing business, like the unsold fruit that spoils in a supermarket, or the clothes that are shoplifted at the department store.

There are many possible explanations for why people receiving government aid vote for a party that wants to cut it. Guilt is one. No one likes to feel dependent. We all like to think we can take care of ourselves, so we vote for that myth. Selfishness is another. That needs no explanation. But the biggest factors, I believe, are ignorance and fear. The ignorance is of who is actually getting what from the government, and why. And the fear is that the less worthy will take too much and leave too little for us.

All that is perfectly understandable. The facts are hard to get. (Although The New York Times did an impressive job today in a front-page article that sparked and informed this essay). And even when we have the facts, we are deeply programmed to look after, and rationalize on behalf of, ourselves. If government spending needs to be cut, it must be because of the shiftless, lazy moochers, because good honest folks like us couldn’t really be causing such a big problem.

But, the truth is, we are. All of us. We all benefit from government spending, and most of us receive what are called entitlements. We need to get out of our current deficit pinch in a collaborative, sensible way. Higher taxes on the rich and cost-control in Medicare would be good places to start. Voting for the Republican fantasy of small government isn’t going to help. If you want to do that, you should have to put your money where your vote is.

Secret ballots are important. I’m sure we could figure out a way to preserve that essential democratic value. My son Nick is a fine programmer. I’ll bet he could work out a link between the voting machine and the government payments office that would not identify anyone except to the database that spit out government checks. Republican voters would be the only ones who knew they were truly standing on principle.