BARBARIANS

I write, to be (somewhat) clear and in order not to be (totally) misunderstood, not of Trump, the socialist barbarians challenging him or of any particular brand of politics. Rather I reflect briefly on this Saturday morning ( 10/12/19) of the weekend on which Blessed John Henry Newman will be canonized, upon the barbarism — social, political, moral — that is always with us and within us. This has been prompted by a random re-reading of Baylor University Theology and Literature Professor Ralph C. Wood’s monograph on Flannery O’Connor (Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.)

Wood notes that O’Connor, a Georgia native and Catholic, proffered Christianity — even of the fundamentalist variety — as “a divine remedy for the perennial human malaise.” Europe, and much of the rest of the west, is in the process of weeding Christianity out of its civilization. Professor Wood notes what St. Augustine, in The City of God, had to say about that — that evil corrupts “not chiefly individuals but rather civilizations.” Rome believed its civilization to be eternal. The Visigoths put an end to that notion. But so did Rome’s economic, moral and religious corruption.

G.K. Chesterton (quoted by Wood) believed civilizations dwell alongside barbarism, contrary to our notion that the human species has risen steadily from the primordial mud . (For my part, I’d say American life and all of us who live our American lives are currently stalked by wild, ravenous beasts within and without. But I concede that one American’s barbarism is another’s idea of civilization. You have only to go to the internet or the movies to be convinced of that.)

We’ve relied heretofore on “simple majorities” to protect the received traditions and inherited wisdom that are the vanguard of civilization, Chesterton adding, “the civilization sometimes spreading to absorb the barbarians, sometimes decaying into relative barbarism, and in almost all cases possessing in a more finished form certain ideas and institutions which the barbarians possess in a ruder form.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, first published in 1925 — between the barbarity of WWI and civilization’s horrific relapse into WWII.)

At the moment — or, perhaps, once again in our history — civilization is looking exhausted. I know I’m exhausted, and have no one to blame but myself. How about you?

Meanwhile, what does soon-to-be-canonized Blessed John Henry Newman have to say about this? Volumes! But all I can remember right now is his prayer, “lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom. The night is dark, and I am far from home.”

A SEPTEMBER SONG

This September day — September 23 — will always be a sad day of remembrance for my family. But before I get to the reason for that, some thoughts about the meaning of any September day….

Near the end of my career — it’s appropriate, given my subject matter here, that it would come near the end — I did a piece about the month of September, its resonances, it’s moods, its bittersweet positioning in our lives as a bridge between seasons. (Now, if you just chanced into this site like an early autumn leaf twirling down randomly in someone’s yard, I should tell  you that I was a television reporter in my working life. The “piece” I refer to was a “story” or, in TV new parlance, a “package”. And while it is rare that a news reporter is allowed a fill up a big patch of valuable time with a “package” full of personal ruminations, I was so indulged by my managers, for which I remain grateful.)

For one thing, September has obviously seeped into multiple songwriters’ subconscious, because, as  you may have noticed, there have been so many songs written about this month — more, it sometimes seems, than April, May or June whose crocuses and rosebuds have long supported the themes of re-birth, young love and the seasonal charm of Paris. (True, in T.S. Eliot’s “waste land” April is the cruelest month, but that lives on as a jolting and nicely executed act of poetic inversion.)

People sing of Autumn in New York and Autumn in Vermont, when the leaves are gold and beautiful. But in September, while the leaves begin to turn, summer breezes and summer temperatures seem to prolong, confuse and taunt us with a lingering sense of the vacation season just past — even as the flowers whither, the summer clothes and beach chairs get put away and the jackets come out for the first chilly days —  and darkness comes earlier and earlier.

Therefore, the songwriter’s mood at the onset of this month, inescapably, might be somber. In my “piece”, speaking of pieces, I rolled in pieces of the familiar September songs — “September in the Rain”, “September Morn”, “September of my Years” as my photographer gathered shots of me wandering  meditatively through Boston Common in a trench coat. I hoped for him, on that September day, it would be a happy diversion from a videographer’s usual round of car wrecks, train wrecks, politicians, criminals, criminal politicians, political train wrecks…etc.. The daily junk of every season. I believe he enjoyed the break — especially when I got a bunch of children from Boston Children’s Theater dancing to Earth,Wind & Fire’s “September”, a bouncy bit of musical funk I’ve always liked — conveying, as it does a less lachrymose spirit for the first month of autumn.

The most famous of the September songs is “September Song”.  Kurt Weill wrote it and a wonderful Berklee College of Music professor named Jimmy ( who’s last name I will insert here whenever I locate or remember it) sat at the piano and explored the mood-adjusting chord shifts for me, from hope to sadness. The lyrics follow those shifts:

But it’s a long, long while
From May to December
And the days grow short
When you reach September

The lyrics takes us forward. We pause, as does the melody. We look back, we look around….

And the days turn to gold
As they grow few
September, November…

Pause. Memories, both harsh and tender, rush in.

And so do they rush in for my extended family on this day of September grief:

That’s because my sister Anne died of pancreatic cancer three years ago, September 23, 2016.  I got the phone call  as I sat waiting in a lawyer’s lobby — waiting to sign papers to buy the townhouse where I sit writing now. It was a September moment — sorrow, not unexpected, at the precise moment I’d found a plateau safe from a torrent of tormented circumstances….

My life had been unsettled for several months following my end-of-2015 retirement. Thanksgiving weekend, 2015, having bid my 17-year workplace goodbye, I’d driven nervously through nights of rain to Florida where the prospect of some sustaining work for extra money awaited me — or so I thought. Extra cash would be necessary, I thought, to make retirement possible. But I sold a mobile home there and drove back when those prospects didn’t pan out. I stayed three months at my friend Diane’s cousin’s house west of Boston, where there was another prospect for free-lance journalism or broadcast work. In Massachusetts, I assumed I’d absolutely have to work to make ends meet. Ultimately I wound up driving back to Florida — to Diane’s son’s little white beach house in the Florida Panhandle. This unexpected retreat became necessary when it was plain we were staying longer in someone else’s house than etiquette and two rambunctious dogs would allow, and when it was also plain work wouldn’t be coming my way any time soon in my home state.

What followed, briefly, was a period of peace and refuge facing the Gulf of Mexico among migrating Monarch butterflies — until a hurricane temporarily forced an evacuation inland to Greater Atlanta and the home of one of Diane’s other sons.  When the storm passed, we returned to the beach house, relieved to find it still  standing, though the waterfront road was completely gone.

All this while Diane was skillfully working to secure a beautiful townhouse back in Massachusetts, one town over from where I’d lived before retirement. Ultimately, that led to yet another drive north — and that moment sitting in the lawyer’s office, waiting to close on this, my current home — at least for a few more days.

I recall, after that September 23, 2016 closing, walking out into downtown Worcester, Mass. The September day was a mild day of muted sunlight. The air was absolutely still. No breeze, no city noises. It was peaceful. My sister, after a brief but intense illness, had died quietly among her husband and children — back down in Florida. She, too, was at peace. My return to Florida had allowed me to visit her one last time. I last heard her voice over the phone while sitting outside a little store in the Panhandle. She was serene, resigned. She would have been 78  that December….

As they grow few
September, November…

Now, once again, I’m moving. Don’t ask why. Finances, yes. Sitting surrounded by half-filled boxes, preparing for the movers on Thursday,  I am wondering, has a September restlessness nested permanently in my soul? Why am again uprooting myself? Why am I leaving this beautiful place? I’ll pray about that, just as I prayed before making this decision — a decision to return to Florida where the Septembers are intensely humid in my memory ( l lived and worked there a full ten years in my career). But while I was able to do free-lance work here, that work has completely dried up. I was lucky to this point. In Florida, I think I can get by with little or no extra work. I’ll see….

But I know this. I know I’ll be back among old television colleagues and Florida friends and relatives who’ve relocated there — and that finally, I’ll be able to visit my sister’s grave in Sarasota. And visit with my still-grieving brother-in-law.

And these few golden days
I’d spend with you
These golden days I’d spend with you

And that, for now, is my particular September Song.

 

ON BEING OURSELVES

Best be yourself, imperial, plain, and true. — Robert Browning.

Really? Robert Browning, whom I admire, would likely have rued the day he helped spawn the current age of the Imperial Self.

Leaving aside the poet for the moment, I stand at this hour on the conjoined shoulders of two delightful contemporary writers, Heather Wilhelm and Derek Thompson, neither of whom are particularly well-known. Heather, in this case, was writing recently in The National Review, Derek in The Atlantic. Each in their turn set out to skewer the “Be Yourself” culture being propagated on coffee mugs, t-shirts and bumper stickers.

Let me, at the outset, ask this question: would any of us have encouraged Jeffrey Epstein to “be himself”? It appears, in the end, even Jeffrey was glad to take leave of himself.  Or, touching lightly on theology here, it seems Jeffrey, alone in his jail cell, feared the consequences of actions committed by the “Jeffrey” he had become which, I submit, was very different from the Jeffrey God intended him to be. And my Baltimore Catechism tells me there’s ultimately no escaping the consequence of bad deeds freely done by ourselves, be it our good self or our bad self. Of course, divine mercy may work differently than the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But in the sweet by-and-by, I suspect no lawyer can help the perversely “selfish.”

You might be a determinist or some rigid iteration of Calvinist and believe we are doomed by a capricious deity to be either wretched or blessed “selves”. I can see the Army drill sergeant standing over the recalcitrant trustee he – or she — is about to send to the stockade for conduct unbecoming a soldier. “Our slogan, trainee, is ‘be all that you can be”, whereupon the trainee answers, “this is all I can be, sergeant, take it or leave it.”

Heather Wilhelm was moved to her meditation on the culture of “self” (that’s the name of a magazine, too, right?) by the “dictum-spouting screen” at her New Age dentist’s office, “relentlessly instructing me to be myself, no matter what.” Why? Well, as best Heather can figure out, because “everyone else is doing it, too.” Who’d have thought Emerson’s 19th Century celebration of self-reliance would devolve into the modern plague of Groupthink?

Derek Thompson, meanwhile, writing on The Atlantic’s website, was examining the cultural implications of online dating in which “anybody who feels obligated to select the ingredients of a perfect life from an infinite menu of options may feel lost in the infinitude.” (I’d be tempted to begin my online dating appeal by quoting that Emily Dickenson poem: “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody, too?”)

“Gone are the days,” writes Thompson, “when young generations inherited religions and occupations and life paths from their parents as if they were unalterable strands of DNA.”

Well, I hope they’re not gone, even though, in our relativistic culture, we are apparently all free to invent our own “truths”  and our own “selves.” Herein, of course, lies the big problem. Was Jeff Epstein following his own truth? Just being himself? DNA: Do Not Ask.

Ms. Wilhelm, meanwhile, has helpfully catalogued some “be yourself” exhortations from the lips, blogs and tweets of our pop culture favorites. Lady Gaga, for instance, tells us, “don’t you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can’t be exactly who you are.”  Or Taylor Swift: “If they don’t like you being yourself, be yourself even more.” (As they used to say of the mechanical rabbit at the Wonderland dog track, “there goes Swiftie…”)

Oscar Wilde’s dictum is Heather’s favorite. Mine, too: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” She also likes the t-shirt that says, “Always be yourself. Unless you’re a jerk. Then, be someone else.”

I’ll buy that.

 

A TALE OF NORTH AND SOUTH

I was actually disappointed a few years back when the rabidly, if artfully, politically correct city of Cambridge, Mass. decided to stop dressing up its parking citations with  a flowing sequence of Yoga positions, suggesting that proper parking practices assured greater urban harmony. Don’t know why they stopped that practice. Printing costs, maybe? It was worth it if at least one harried parking scofflaw, finding that dreaded flapper under his wiper, was borne from indignation toward niruddha or nirvana or wherever happy Yogis go to find tranquility. (I concede that a mere warning, a happy face and a piece of chocolate would be my ticket to serenity.)

I thought of this – though  it’s an imperfect parallel – when I read that a Ford dealer in Chatom, Alabama had decided to offer a free shotgun, Bible and American flag with every purchase of a vehicle, first requiring that, in order to redeem the promotion, buyers pass all requirements for firearm ownership as well as for vehicle ownership.

In Alabama, it’s probably safe to say that many, if not most prospective buyers already have perfectly good shotguns, Bibles and flags at home, so the other dealers on ‘Bama’s auto mile probably aren’t being outsold on the strength of this campaign alone. And for many obvious reasons, Ford quickly ordered the dealer to omit the gun from the deal.

I stumbled on this serendipitous tidbit far from current troubling headline. Forgive me if I found some comfort in it – especially in the fact that we remain a diverse nation where law abiding people can follow divergent highways to satisfaction…and harmony. It’s enough to get me into the lotus position.

And the waggish author of this little item must be a Harvard grad or perhaps a frequent flier to the Bay State, because he or she is obviously familiar with life north and south of the great cultural divide. I say this because they suggested that car dealers in Cambridge consider offering a rainbow flag, a yoga mat, and a copy of Rules for Radicals with the purchase of each new Tesla.

REFLECTIONS ON 8/6/45

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Gembaku Dome, Hiroshima. Photo Credit: File:HiroshimaGembakuDome6747.jpg

 

It happened — according to internet calculations — 74 years, sixteen hours, four minutes and seventeen seconds ago. The seconds and minutes will mount as I write this.

But time seemed to stop when it happened. The world hasn’t been the same since.

There is a park and memorial museum at the heart of Hiroshima, Japan. I visited it in September, 1970 during a break from Army duty in Korea. Somewhere in the archives I assume they’ve saved the generations of guest books left out for museum visitors to leave their comments. My comment, prosaic and probably identical to thousands of others, reads, simply, NEVER AGAIN.

Did we have to drop that thing? The debate never ends.

It seems almost coldly inappropriate to factor out, retrospectively, the pre-Hiroshima and Nagasaki options facing allied military planners who found themselves at the end of a long, bloody and calamitous world war with no endgame in sight. One is almost tempted to say – there was no “magic bullet”. Alas, it seems there was, and we discovered it and fired it, twice.

Among the many exhibits in glass cases at the Hiroshima Peace Museum – and you have to embrace that name — are objects gleaned from the city’s radioactive ruins after August 6, 1945. Most disturbingly memorable to me were the manikins depicting adults and children survivors as they appeared after the fiery detonation. The manikins display the victim’s terrible burns and their burned and tattered clothing. It’s almost like looking into a macabre department store front window in the course of a terrible nightmare. You see the dark uniforms of female school children; you see how their white blouses repelled the nuclear flash while their dark jumpers absorbed it with terrible consequences for the wearer. Also memorable in a ghastly way, among the scattering of smaller preserved objects, is a jagged metallic lump the shape of large chunk of coal. This had been some male victim’s pocket change – all melted together.

So what was the alternative to this horror, coming at the end of five years of horrors, including fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, Germany, grinding island-to-island Pacific warfare and deaths and casualties mounting into the millions?

It was called Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese mainland. It was a two-pronged assault: Operation Olympic was scheduled for November, 1945, aimed at Kyushu, followed by Operation Coronet in March, 1946, which called for landing troops on Hokkaido, targeting Tokyo and the Emperor. The Eleventh Air Force, including our B-25s, would move to Okinawa and would have abundant targets. The Japanese were fierce defensive fighters (ask any of the few surviving American veterans of the Pacific theater). They would surely defend their home islands savagely, foot by blood-soaked foot.

The Pentagon estimated the invasion would result in half a million American casualties, a million and a half Japanese. Those estimates may have been low. Many of us Americans would not be here: our fathers would have died in the prolonged fighting.

An estimated 125,000 died in minutes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   Knowledge that we had the bomb probably kept the Soviets at bay until their empire could collapse generations later. But of course, they built their own bombs. Then you have Pakistan, North Korea – and the wobbly balance of terror lingering into the 21st Century.

Everybody should visit that Peace Museum. And that, sad to say, is the only “bottom line” I can come up with here.

A Continental Summer

I. The Attic Window

GregPassport2Op

One day, an early summer’s day, I set out across the sea — on a Norwegian freighter, no less, bound for Europe. This fulfilled a youthful yearning born of a view out an attic window.

It was a small window in our small house, gray and modest, sitting on a small fenced-off rise above our neighbors below on Salina Road. The view was of the sea — though just a small blue wedge, barely visible over the McIntyre’s green two-story house and the three-decker that, over time, had been home to people like Mrs. Baylion and Jimmy Kinally and Freddie Ferguson. It was mostly a harbor view and bay view: Boston Harbor and Dorchester Bay. Small waters in the grand scheme of things. But that was sea water out there, no less enticing to the embryonic imagination of a would-be Balboa; the blue threshold to the deep ocean of legend — of vast ships and fabulous creatures. A boy of eight or nine would see it that way. I was that boy. Continue reading “A Continental Summer”