To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #6 – Compassion)

You say you have compassion; social consciousness which sets you above the rest. You rail at injustice (sometimes real though often perceived through your oh-so perfected filters of subjugation). You vote the right way, you march during the great mobilizations of contempt, you use the correct hashtags and eat at the right establishments and protest at those speakers the rejection of whom so acutely demonstrates to the world your understanding, your enlightenment. You perceive your struggle to be epic; and yourselves to be descendants of gods upon Mount Olympus.

But what do you do, not for your planetary battleground into which you launch arrows and bombs in 120 characters or through like-and-share mongering? How do you show your compassion? Do you set aside money from each paycheck to put a little girl in the third world through elementary school? Do you stop to help an old man rake his leaves in the encroaching days of winter and engage him on his memories of family, not the turbulent talk of Trump? Do you spend your time cleaning your own community, looking for bits of trash or cigarette stubs left by the careless? What about a food drive for the inner-city vulnerable; no blue donkey to be seen anywhere. Have you built homes for the poor; have you traveled to a foreign land to make common cause with the struggles of the not-so-prosperous and thereby atoned somewhat for your tantrum? Have you sought out the widowed or the single-mothers in your church in order to prepare for them a meal – or perhaps invite them all to Thanksgiving, an act of generosity and compassion which might soothe your scalded spirit if only for a day?

Have you sought out somebody who fought to make our country great, to protect it from foes – perhaps somebody who is alone and hurting – and said thank you, inviting them in, laying aside for a season your bitterness?

Are you kind to others? Have you thought to hurl love-languages over twitter against those whose ideas so offend you; who you have declared your bitter enemy, who you have branded deplorable? Have you sought for a moment to understand them, from where they are coming? Have you gone to their churches, visited their community centers, sat with them in family, read with them their Bibles?

Acts of reconciliation only come served hot upon the platters of compassion. Compassion, which breeds empathy. Just like cynicism has replaced wonder as the fundamental philosophy of our generation; so too entitlement has replaced gratitude. Gratitude, which is only returned through service built upon compassion. We are getting close to thanksgiving – and today is veterans day. Maybe we can all calm down for a minute, and be kind to those with whom we have a shared interest in protecting so great a prosperity as we have known. Now that, my friends, would be an awakening.

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The Untold Story of Cuba

“Do you ever listen to a song that is so remarkable that you play and replay and replay it until you’ve memorized every word, and it becomes a part of you? (…) Have you experienced epic moments of victory when you were the world’s master? And have you agonized over a loss that is so total that you are sure you will never recover – a colossal failure that will mark you for eternity? (…) Now would you sacrifice all this? Would you end the celestial banquet of human existence because it is not your fate to taste of every dish?”

Joel D. Hirst's Blog

Have you ever seen a painting so beautiful that it stops your heart for a second; reds and greens and golds imprinted upon your essence for eternity? Do you ever listen to a song that is so remarkable that you play and replay and replay it until you’ve memorized every word, and it becomes a part of you? Do you ever read a line in a novel that is so profound that you have to close the book and set it down, to sit in silence for a moment – staring at the wall, letting it sink into your consciousness?

Have you ever encountered a moment of fullness so complete that you know you could die and it would not matter? Has your heart ever surged with such a sense of expectation and impatience at what is to come that it is hard to sleep, to eat? Did your adolescent…

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To Protect Us From Who We Are Becoming

In youth we rebel. We look around at what we instinctively know as good, and we sneer at it – for it is not exciting; it does not speak to us of danger or achievement, mountains conquered or sins at last permissible. This story is as old as Jesus’s parable of the rich man’s son, who squandered his fortune only to learn – after the parties were over and the wickedness left him exhausted – that what he had truly been seeking is what he had known all along. The joyous return; more joyous we are told because of the rotten mulch of evil out of which grows the gratitude and temperance; accompanied by so great a sense of guilt as have those who know they have done great wrong. But why is this, I wonder?

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It is not unsophisticated, to love our place in the world; the imagination of what we hold in our consciousness that is kept also in safeguard by the hills and vales in which we nestle protectively our ideas of home. They want to make it seem so – those who tell our young to flee; those whose meaningless lives are played out upon a great stage or an endless ‘feed’; inspiring others to live lives as theirs, lives of no consequence, wicked and banal and endless in their despair. To be sure, the young must find their place in the world; they must sail the storied seas on merchant ships carrying spices to and from distant lands; they must fight in just wars and return with injuries and honor to be placed beneath glass upon shelves of places where their heart always were. They must learn to miss home – to understand its value; to treasure its knolls and valleys and sip quietly the wines of their own land knowing that it is from and to themselves that this product of their sweat and labor will return. But if, in the end, they do not return – that is the real tragedy.

There is something beautiful about literature from the Caucuses. Nodar Dumbadze was born in Soviet Russia and became one of USSR’s great writers; winning among other honors the Lenin Prize. The story is about the love of a man for his friends, his family and his land. About the big city and its excitement, the sly adventures of youth and the warm comfortable embrace of his country girl and his grandma when he knew that the time had come to return to a place that would always be there. This is why we fight for these places, incidentally – for we must protect them from the wicked who see the values and principles of the timeless earth as a threat to their wickedness. For if they succeed, and we have nowhere to return to – if all our places have been charred and our books burned upon the altar of passing prejudices and our legendary tolerance for injustice (today it is called ‘social’, though tomorrow it will be other) – the timeless healing beauty of who we are will no longer protect us from who we are becoming. And that is scary indeed.

“So here I am striding along the meandering path that leads to our village. The earth, the grass and everything around is wet from a recent shower. I myself am drenched to the skin and keep slipping in the mud. The path goes steeply uphill. I hasten my steps, scale the hill almost at a run and suddenly my village opens to view, lying in the valley as in the palm of my hand. My knees give way and I sink on a boulder, a lump in my throat. I sit for a long time, swallowing tears and waiting… At last I see Granny go out of our house. She is more bent than she was last year, but she moves briskly enough. I jump up, grab my weightless suitcase and run downhill shouting at the top of my voice “Gra-a-anny!” Nodar Dumbadze

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Will It Be Enough?

Streets are charged, electric;
Milling crowds are hectic;
The rage it does now overflow;
The violence is pyrectic.

Boy he lifts a rock;
Inserts it in his sock;
Around, around his head does go;
To ‘nother lad doth knock.

Vendor burns his stuff;
Will it be enough?
A sacrifice of his to show;
The consequences rough.

Bodies on the street;
They are never neat;
Piles of them do grow and grow;
Oh, smell so sickly sweet.

When will they be done?
And when the tax ’tis gone?
Or when the man above does know;
That they sure have won.

What does rage desire?
Why does anger spire?
Do they want to right bestow?
Or are they sure for hire?

Man who is in charge;
Persona, his is large;
Yet ignorant he does not know;
How’er to this fire sparge.

It is but a plan;
From a maddened man;
Revenge for failure bright as snow;
Madness now to fan.

What in fact to do?
How to see it through?
Should a’groveling we go?
Or to bid adieu.

Answers, they’re not good;
Knowing not we should;
Of how to deal with dangers though;
Reverse the time we would.

And now my sage advice;
Comes without a price;
Worry not for streets aglow;
And do not e’r play nice.

For what it is they’re after;
Can’t be met with laughter.
This the world your feet below;
And your quiet hereafter.

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The October Storm and After

There is something nostalgic and haunting about soviet literature. I often wonder why that is…? How did writers participating in a project as wicked as that one harness the written word to such a degree as to be able to make their collective enslavement sound even beautiful? And conversely why does so much literature that emerges from the prosperous West sound anemic and sickly?

Of course these are epic generalizations. W. Somerset Maugham; J.R.R. Tolkien; Oscar Wilde; John Steinbeck – the list goes on. New literature, like Pacific Viking – the only novel by Barnaby Allen before he died; selling maybe a dozen copies though it blows anything by Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler out of the water (to say nothing of the disgusting self-dealing self-promoting books by this or that politician making up stories about themselves being somehow important; “I want to be famous” like an elementary schoolboy says when asked what they want to do when they grow up). Yes we have good stories too – though most of them also come from a place of pain and suffering.

Which brings me back to my question, because I want to answer it; so here goes. Any good writing comes from a place of vulnerability and sadness and tension and conflict. People sitting thick and rich beside a pond somewhere in New England cannot write a good story. Oh they might write one that sells many copies; marketed to others simple and without nuance looking for a “thriller” to distract them from themselves. But they cannot write literature. Full stop. This even goes for the “great” writers like Stephen King – replacing gore for sophistication as he plays for the crowd difficult-to-scare, anxious to fill their nihilism with a sense of fear product of a cheap thrill. This – conflict that is, sadness and suffering and struggle, Russia (and her satellite states) has had in spades. War, after war after war – slavery of their tsars; poverty product of a feudalism that never-ended, perpetuated into eternity by kings who would hear of no other way. Ushering me onward toward my second point; why would so many people put their magnificent talent to the service of such a project as was communism? I am slowly learning the answer – I think – realizing that I have been looking at things the wrong way.

Coming as I do from the United States, where the communists in our midst offer us slavery, their minions wailing to the sky, “Who will save us from so great a prosperity as we have known?” Camus’ gentle existentialism becoming violent Nietzsche nihilism as the holes in their spirits are rent ever wider. So too was Venezuela; behind a banana curtain – or Cuba, destroyed through envy not because one’s life was not better than before (compared with parents and grandparents) but because the germ of greed and jealousy always caught one looking up the ladder into the pent-houses of the rich, sickly green blood boiling. “Burn it all” they say, “even what we have; their suffering more than makes up for my own!” A fools choice offered by death eaters demanding human sacrifices to fill the voids within their souls.

But this was not what was happening 100 years ago in Russia. There, suffering under so great a yoke as the tsars had imposed, the idea of collective property – of collective ownership – of a chance to be free of THEM once and for all must have seemed appealing. A political project which offered – not freedom (which they had never had anyway) – but education and food and a job and a house and entertainment, literature and a weekly pass to the opera. For they who suffered under totality, this must have seemed less total, marginally more free – heck, it must have simply chimed with opportunity like a church bell cuts through the silence of a village on the Volga on a crisp winter morning.

Now, we know that the price of this ‘freedom’ was blood and famine. Yes, we know this now, which is why the calls to socialism in the west are less a call to command economies (wherein the math will never work) and more the perpetual whines of the spoiled (and yes, spoiled people can really muck things up – Venezuela being the best example). But its also why the modern socialists will fail; for they make nothing beautiful to draw nations to themselves. They do not write out of hope emerging from tyranny and the desperate desire to be free; theirs is a temper tantrum put to paper or a film strip or enacted live upon the stage at a comedy club. It does not inspire, and just for this reason: it does not call to us from the great places wherein lay hearts that beat.

October Storm

I just finished “The October Storm and After” – a propaganda book published by Moscow Progress Publishers in the Soviet Union. A collection of stories and essays by people close to the October Revolution and Lenin, compiled for the English-speaking reader to tell the story of the energy and purpose of those heady days of revolution. It is an extraordinary book, well written, beautiful even conveying the spirit of men and women throwing off the yoke of tyranny. Yes, I know, they were embracing a new, if not worse at least just as bad tyranny. But isn’t that the story of humanity? We seek protection in herds from one another, giving those we trust the keys to our well-being only to find them corruptible and oh so wicked. And isn’t the moral of this tale that of limited government and separation of powers and federalism, which the socialists have made boring and yokelish? “Aw shucks,” they have us saying to each other, “if only the 10th Amendment were respected” to the chewing of tobacco and the mooing of cows.

Its all very complicated, and frankly very annoying which is why I rarely watch TV anymore and have no social media accounts; nor do I enter into debates with friends or enemies. I prefer to read, and listen, and write – and in doing so I choose stories emerging from poverty and desperation, stories which do not have the ‘punch’ of a thriller but instead the hearty goodness of “The October Storm”.

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I Come From Homer

What responsibility does a writer have to the world around him? Should he be good, and kind? Faithful and free and gentle? Should he suffer the little children and fight for the weak and make common cause with the powerless? Or is his writing enough; an act of creating worlds which absolves him from the petty nuisance of living himself in the messy world of men?

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Truth is I don’t know the answer. I am not perfect, in anything I do. Neither are you. Does this withdraw from me my right to create? Do my opinions which you might find offensive, as I do yours, leave me open to censure? Or does writing stand alone? “I am a writer, I come from Tolstoy, from Homer, from Cervantes. Leave me in peace and don’t ask me questions like that.” Says Peter Handke, who received the Nobel Prize in literature this year and has since come under intense scrutiny and criticism for positions held in support of Slobodan Milosevic. I mean really, who in any real way can today defend such a despot, such a wicked warmonger? Should we not all condemn him who defends the acts of such people?

But is that really the point? Because creation – like objective truth – stands alone independent of those vessels of creation. Did not even God say “the rain falls on the just and wicked alike”? Cannot both the good and the bad make lovely things? You who walk down the streets of Chicago marveling at the Watertower Center or the Hancock Building or any of the other great works, do you search into the inner thoughts of the architects seeking their purity in order to form your judgments of the works of brick and mortar? Or do you too not stare at a painting and decide whether you love it – sometimes even purchasing it without an interview, a background check of she who held the brush?

Are Handke’s novels beautiful? Did the pen of a man as depraved as one who could defend a brute such as Milosevic produce lovely prose which, ignorant its source, inspires and enlivens our dull world? And incidentally, who decides? Where were you who deride Handke, when Gabriel Garcia Marquez – the lifelong friend of the tyrant Fidel – won that same prestigious prize? What about Mario Vargas Llosa, who abandoned his wife? Is loving Fidel given a pass? Is infidelity not a great enough sin to assault the prize-winner?

“Ah,” you are saying now, “here is another. A defender of evil. Making common cause with the devil.” The truth is I had not heard of Handke before his win. And my life, such as it has been, fighting to end war after war after war and fight the very seeds of wickedness that germinate into genocide, stands as a solitary proof of my beliefs. “Then what are you talking about?” you ask.

I am saying I am sick of the empty moralizing. I am sick of the attack on objective truth – objective beauty – objective reality. I am sick of the currents which declare that only in the closely examined DNA tests; only in background checks conducted over years and against the measuring rod of newspeak’s blurred dictionary can we make a decision as to what is worthy, and what is not. I am sick of people using the wickedness of man – and yes we are all wicked – to say that there is nothing true, nothing good, nothing right or pure or just; simply because no man can live up to the standard. (Which is of course not exactly true, one man did in fact live up to those standards. He was murdered for it – oh, nobody wants me to talk about that. To speak of faith? That is intolerant, the cardinal sin! But I digress…)

So no, I am not making common cause with evil. I am making common cause with a beautiful building constructed by a tax cheat; an amazing meal cooked by an illegal immigrant; a song of love composed by an unfaithful man; and a well written book written by a racist. Without these things, our world would be ugly indeed.

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For Whom the Bell Tolls – A Review

There is a certain amount of nostalgia and some sadness in Hemingway’s best novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. How could there not be? It’s about the Spanish Civil War; that most terrible of events pitting the bad against the equally bad. The story is simple, the tale of an Englishman (actually an American, but we don’t know that till the end) who ends up fighting on the side of the communists (republicans?) against the fascist (monarchist? religionist?) government. His task? Blow up a bridge. His conflict? A sudden and growing romance with Maria; some existential conflicts about the meaning of the war; the desire to die a purposeful death that is also painless.

So shoot me, but I’ve now read quiet a lot of Hemingway (including A Movable Feast) and I think the challenge I have with his writing is that he is not an intellectual. His books are simple and straightforward, without nuance or any sense of understanding or any real exploration of the inner lives of the characters. His style is clean and crisp, built on simplicity and momentum not the infinite digressions that usually accompany literary fiction. There are many people who like this – I am just not one of them.

The closest Hemingway gets in this novel to giving Jordan a personality is the last four pages of the book where, after an accident that leaves him unable to move, he is providing cover for his fellow revolutionaries and waiting to die. Those pages are to a degree poetic and I found them charming, if the end somewhat abrupt and without resolution. The rest I found rather tedious.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I read this novel. Spain is a lovely place, full of history and significance and the civil war which rent asunder her social fabric in a time not too long ago was noteworthy in its violence and brutality but also in it being one without good guys. We are accustomed, we from America, to thinking of civil wars as an epic effort of violence to expunge that which is vicious from society; our own expiatory war the prime example – the violence which atoned once and for all time of the ‘original sin’ of slavery. The Spanish Civil War had nothing of this narrative. The fascists – who can like them? Backed by Hitler, wicked and violent and thick. But the communists, with their political project dripping with blood and a slavery more wicked than even our own? Well, those obviously aren’t the good guys either. Hemingway doesn’t go into any of this in the novel, at least in any meaningful way. There is nothing political (or at least intellectually so) about Hemingway’s writing that would make one believe he considered the implications of a war without heroes. But the novel does let us think about war; about its consequences; and above all it reminds us that it is to be avoided. This is not a novel that glorifies war, and for that – at least – I am grateful.

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