Last Saturday I drove to East Texas (sounds like it’s a different state, but it’s not) to attend a gathering organized by a friend and advertised on FaceBook as a Winter Poetry Festival. Do you have friends who have other friends you accept because they have the good sense to be friends with your friend? That’s long. I expect you know what I mean. Peter is that for me. The interesting thing about the group was the diversity in ages, from considerably older than I am to young enough to easily be a grandchild. My friend Peter has an ability, a greatness of soul, to be open to people of different ages and backgrounds. One such helped him get a book of poetry finished and to a publisher. Another is organizing an Amazon anthology for him and other poets.

So what did I learn? Words unite people. It’s not unusual to hear that on these pages. Some of the readings were unforgettable. One keen example was written in 1971, the man’s first attempt at a poem. He was teaching 5th grade at the time. One of the students, a child named Robert Lee Williams, died of cancer a few years after his parents had taken him out of Children’s Hospital where he was to receive treatment. That loss, that pain, needed an outlet for the teacher and the grieving classmates. They poured themselves into those poems. “Poetry says it all,” he repeated.

Another was from a young woman, writing a love note to her husband. He was wearing some cargo pants from Tripp that looked like this. He had made her a bride; she’d known she loved him from the instant she saw him. I was glad of the marriage, the commitment.

A chemist by trade, one man wrote about change, another of my themes. He had come to town young, disillusioned, and found a young who smiled at him, then loved him. He thought his work dark, but I found it deep. Of particular interest was a comment in which he admonished us not to say we would pray for him unless we really would, a topic I’ve considered as well. He had this amazing couplet: “When time gives in to purpose,/You’re living beyond your span.” Peter then talked at some length about time, citing the ancient myths of Uranus, Gaia, and Cronos. Those Greeks had it going on, metaphorically and brutally. We talked about the clock on the wall.

Two more: a woman who has rediscovered tanka, a short Japanese form similar to haiku, which you all know (5-7-5 syllables). Tanka has 5-7-5-7-7. Worth a go. Another man liked that I’d used the word “akimbo” in my poem “Found.” He knew how to turn a phrase. My favorite: “In the service of blunder.”

Was this a “You had to be there” moment? I’ll say no. It would have meant something entirely different to you, of course. I found it humbling. Peter is a better poet than I, which he would be too kind to say just like that. A poet we agree is better than either of us, Walt Whitman, can be heard here reading this brief poem, “America”:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

An adamant is a stone considered unbreakable, like a diamond. Lots to think about today. The voice of a man speaking 120 and some years ago? The young and the old working together? Where might this all lead? Perhaps to a festival: something to do with a feast. Enjoy.

MLK: A Brief Tribute

Sometimes I think I’ve already done something when I haven’t. I was reasonably sure that I’d written about Martin Luther King Jr. before. Apparently not. While I did write about Juneteenth last year, he wasn’t mentioned.  In this brief tribute, three pieces of information I hadn’t known are shared.

First, when he was born, his father named him Michael, and still a junior, as that was his father’s name, but both were changed in 1934. A visit to Germany inspired his father to reflect Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer. The young King was something of a prodigy. He skipped the 9th and 12th grades of high school, entered college at 15, graduated at 19, and after wrestling with his heritage as the fourth in line in his family to become a pastor, entered seminary and became a Baptist preacher. For his work in human rights, he became the youngest person awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Second, he was a Star Trek fan. That may sound trivial, but as someone who grew up with the idealism of that original show, I assure you it’s not. This incident recounts his encounter with Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, when she was planning to leave after the first season: “…a very influential Trekkie named Martin Luther King urged her to stay on the show. ‘He told me that Star Trek was one of the only shows that he and his wife Coretta would allow their little children to watch. And I thanked him and I told him I was leaving the show. All the smile came off his face. And he said, don’t you understand for the first time, we’re seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.’” It’s one of those amazing bits of trivia I would have never guessed.

Third, the “I Have a Dream Speech” could have ended much differently. Dr. King had written it carefully beforehand, but he was ending when the singer Mahalia Jackson called out to him “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” A more formal adviser had told him to leave that part out: King had used it before, and Wyatt Walker told him it was cliché. When you watch, the dream passage starts at 12:22. King looks up from his prepared notes and begins to preach from his heart. This speech has been called the most important of the 20th century. It’s worth your time. Mahalia Jackson would sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at King’s funeral. You can hear her here.

We each change every day. A friend last week told me about this gospel song, “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” There are many versions, but I like this one. Riveting. While none of us is likely to change the world as did MLK, we can change ourselves. These three bits of knowledge will add to understanding, but we can honor another human today by not inciting the negative. I did by not publishing a lesser piece today. It was only clever, not worthwhile.


Owning the Sloth

Owning the sloth is my new phrase, made in defiance of an old label. It isn’t quite accurate because the only sloth I intend to own in reality is a toy from my local thrift. I took its finding as a sign, of course, as the actual memory of being called a sloth is painful, as would be the taking of a sloth from the wild. I don’t need any more pets. On the other hand, I do love the sloth in Zootopia.

Back to the labeling problem. I won’t disclose who said it or when the sloth shaming happened, but someone who loved me was responsible. For a long time, I never repeated the moniker because, in fact, I rather believed it. With a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, however, the landscape changed a bit. The go-to book is You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?! The title seems adequate, so I haven’t actually read the thing, which, I don’t know, is lazy? Anyway, it has come to me that the entire problem of not finishing projects (my principal symptom of ADD) has nothing to do with being lazy. It is something else. In fact, I am rather busy most of the time with an overabundance of ideas and unfinished projects, plus sweeping and caring for people as best as I can.

An interesting word appeared this week, twice, which again I took as a sign: palimpsest, “writing material (such as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased.” Not dealing so much with parchment these days, we might think of a blackboard not completely erased with the next formula written over it. This is a great metaphor for our lives, perhaps. We are not yet finished, and yesterdays never really disappear. Today is an overwriting of yesterday, no matter how much it seems the same.

I was going to write about another painfully received remark but have decided against it. From someone not so dear, I was nonetheless wounded to my core, and for little cause. It might be true, and I have tried to guard against its truth, so I won’t repeat it. The main lesson remaining is to be careful what you say to people.

One last sign: Today is the birthday of my writing mentor, Raymond Carver. It’s been two years since he died, and as FaceBook doesn’t remove his data, I was reminded. He had the ability to love and show it better than almost anyone else I knew. When I say writing mentor, he was that too, and he had no problem telling me if something I’d done was bad, or at least not good. He was a miner, in a way, and could bring out the gold. What a gift. I miss him, his calls to see if I was fine, to tell me he was until he wasn’t. I hope to finish something so good someday that I can give him credit. Until then, I just wish him thanks.

Star Wars Images: Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, and Elisha

I can hear it now: “Can’t we just enjoy Star Wars as entertainment and not muddle it up?” Of course, if somebody could have kept hands off the original three episodes. We had a lovely conclusion of the story arc with redemption for Darth Vader, victory celebrations, and Luke Skywalker’s vision of (essentially) the spirit world peopled by Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. But no. Whatever propels decisions made prequels, sequels, and add-ons galore. And I saw them all. Twice.

Two viewings of the last (and supposedly final-forever-but-I-wonder) film, I am moved to say a bit more. While it was easy to be content with the idea throughout of Good vs. Evil as the theme, much of the muddlement (new word) comes from the fact that it is often not so much that pairing as Might vs. Right. I was particularly disturbed, for example, when audiences were asked before of the sequels if they would be choosing the Dark Side. In my mind, that is not appropriate. Not a strong enough word. We can always choose to be bad, but why put it so blandly, as if there were no moral difference? George Lucas said this in 1983: “But for better or worse, the influence of the church, which used to be all-powerful, has been usurped by film. I wanted to make a kid’s film that would strengthen contemporary mythology and introduce a basic morality.”

Religion is more than mythology or morality, however. While a story arc exists in the gospel, it is not the point of the gospel. The trouble with multiple directors and writers, obviously, is the resulting confusion of plot lines, the development (or its lack) of characters, and the harmony of the outcome. Using the language of religion doesn’t work either. Looking for the Chosen One without a connection to the Divine lacks the impetus of something beyond human experience. (The Matrix’s Neo a case in point.) Anakin’s mother Schmi reports that he had no father, but nothing is made of that point when in fact that point is central to Christianity.

Three images will serve to support my point. First, the Pieta. Second, the Tudor rose. Third, an axe and the angels on the mountain with Elisha.

Michaelangelo’s Pietà shows Mary holding the crucified Jesus before his burial. I saw this not in Rome but in New York when I was twelve. Through the centuries people had kissed the Savior’s foot so many times that the marble had worn away. When we see Rey dead after killing Palpatine, Kylo Ren holds her in just that pose. (Ren has been assumed dead so many times before that as he slogs up one more time, we’re not particularly surprised. When he does die, he must actually and mystically disappear as his mother Leia had done minutes before for us to be convinced.) So in case we hadn’t realized it before, Rey is the Chosen One. Her name, remember, means “king.”

Shakespeare’s history plays, the eight beginning with Richard II and ending with Richard III, give an account of not only the reigns of five kings but also the conflict known much later as the War of the Roses. Two families battle for control of the crown, the Lancasters (red rose) and the Yorks (white rose). To say it’s complicated would be understatement. But the conclusion results in the uniting of the two houses when Henry VII marries Elizabeth of York. (Their son is Henry VIII, of whom you’ve heard at least through the song.) That one is not a better choice than the other reflects the might vs. right argument above. The Tudor rose signifies, however, that the House of Lancaster is superior even in the uniting. Henry VII was a Tudor supported by the Lancastrians, technically, so that explains that.

Finally, in 2 Kings 6, we have two stories from which imagery for scenes in Star Wars seems plucked. First, men are cutting down trees in order to cross a stream. One of them drops an axe head into the water and exclaims that it was borrowed. The text notes that “the iron did swim.” Not one but two bits of iron are raised from the water in the movies when Yoda and then Luke raise (borrowed!) X-wing fighters. (Personal motto: Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try. Thank you, Yoda.) A few verses later, Elisha prays for an opening of the eyes of the young man afraid before a battle in which his forces seem overpowered. Elisha says, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” Then there are suddenly angels and chariots of fire (!) all around. Just like Poe cannot see until they are there the amassed ships who have responded to his call to help.

Obviously, this could be a book. I suppose someone else will write it. There is The Gospel According to Star Wars. It’s available through Google Scholar. Very, very scholarly. Needs updating, of course. And if it is as I have foreseen, another movie after the last final finished one comes out, that will add to the mix as well. It is, perhaps, like a dish prepared using ingredient we know but no recipe. The danger of something unpalatable remains likely, but yes, we will watch because we are all still sitting around an ancient campfire listening to stories. That Star Wars is not, in fact, the Gospel is of only secondary importance.