There were no monuments around him. The setting could scarcely have been more modest.
It is possible, but seldom practiced in oratory, to press into the world a message that enlarges humanity while insisting that we grapple with our failings. It happened barely seventy-six years after the Declaration. There were no monuments around him. The setting could scarcely have been more modest. He was speaking to an anti-slavery organization which was a former sewing club. It’s notable that its members, aggressive social reformers, were women. He drafted a singular statement recognizing a deep affection and respect for the work of those who reached for independence which he sensed to be a catalyst for freedom for everyone, even globally. But he vigorously argued where our nation’s practices fell short in providing the means of freedom for all.
The US Census in 1850 enumerated over 3.2 million slaves.
Slavery was permitted, it was widely practiced and engrained in the economy. A former slave, an abolitionist, and a public intellectual, Frederick Douglass did nothing less than amend the Declaration of Independence in 1852 to rally for complete inclusion and insist that anything shy of that was in the least a national embarrassment and, in fact, extreme brutality. Remember, he escaped slavery in Maryland, far north of the Mason-Dixon Line. If anything should be carved in stone, its this address. It looks nearly 170 years forward to our current moment. It was later called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass had more humility, he left it untitled, or merely, “ORATION, DELIVERED IN CORINTHIAN HALL, ROCHESTER, BY FREDERICK DOUGLASS, JULY 5TH, 1852.” He gathered the facts about our already distressful history and the then contemporary state of captivity of the nation’s inhabitants. Although they would not be accredited with “citizenship” until 1868, the US Census in 1850 enumerated over 3.2 million slaves. The numbers were still growing and by 1860 the Census counted almost 4 million slaves. But in the end, Douglass saw a hopeful new world, even as he understood the world was smaller and economic and social globalization had already commenced:
“Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable.”
Red-wing blackbirds in legions rarely seen, except at dusk, are now making their mating announcement in mid-day sun. Their beautiful cacophony can be heard throughout the valley wetland trails of south suburban Denver. The Los Angeles skyline has been the subject of photographs, like those I took from rugged Damon Runyon Park when visiting a year ago. Unlike mine, these now show the lowest level of smog encircling the city since the 1980’s.
Chicago’s Loop has been featured in numerous flyovers from drone cameras: a lonely Michigan Avenue; tourist watercraft docked on the the Chicago river and its tributaries. The river’s surroundings, I imagine from these scenes, are free of the air horns which once cheered arrivals in the channels.
The contrast of a welcome fullness of birdsong and bustle on the trails is pitted against the apperance of suddenly unhurried urban centers seemingly hungry for their former hustle. These are the landscapes we surveyed throughout April. Without judgement of whether we should or shouldn’t be present in these regions now, and unfussed by our perception that these places are either satiated or starved, nature does what it will when humans are largely absent. Wildlife in the inter-regions flourishes when our predatious presence retreats.
I have recently submitted poems on these themes and experiences to an online journal, TEJASCOVIDO, edited by Dr. Laurence Musgrove, a poet who also currently teaches at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. The journal shares “with readers how COVID-19 is affecting health, mental well-being, income, family, friendships, work, the moral imagination, as well as local, regional, national, and international relationships.”
Here are two of my poems recently published to the journal, adjacent to this post’s theme: Isolation, Things Strange & Unforeseen.
It is the first day of spring. The gods have delivered inches of snow. A thin line of crocus stalks are teeming at the edge of a flagstone. Life is holding to a stationary orbit but struggling. A minister posted she would pray each morning and asked: How can I pray for you? This is a human prayer.
A Prayer on Your Wires
copyright 2020, Vincent Hostak
From the end of a copper wire
then the air
a minister’s voice signals
“For Whom Should I Pray, Today?
Leave Your Comment.
I Will Speak Them.”
For those I will not visit
for their safety
not a casual breath will pass.
For the cashier, who’s fingernails
are each a different glossy hue
clutching the currency passed
and bagging the beans and milk.
For the letter carrier, we forgot, still
distributes our gratitude,
our well wishes
quiet from a large world,
to dull colored mail drops.
For the peace officer by the phone,
the cook and expediter
whose holy eyes scan
curls of braising cabbage,
whose hands wrap parchment,
box a gift to nourish.
A teacher reworking
what was already troubled once
to make it small enough
to travel cables,
arrive total and rich
to a still new mind.
The doctor, nurse
upon the sixteenth hour,
i hope not to see you,
but to hear your breath
singing of sweet sleep
from miles away.
Even from this isolation,
your every movements
stir air around us
in ways we can’t ignore
it whistles with your hope
whirrs with your industry
is scripted with your courage
and encoded with your devotion.
we have chosen to see only shortages
and you have shown us abundance.
In a time of Affliction, or fear of Affliction, imprinted with the apocalyptic-sounding COVID-19, there is a rising tide of compassion. Look away from the LCD cool fire for a moment and be in residence in the Common Stream.
I know full well that invoking the term “faith” will make many bristle. But faith and science are connected openly in conversation at this moment. The seperation of the two has been exaggerated by the real presence of organizations in our communities fueled by fundamentalist principles that devalue the self-evident, long proven models of our reality. But those are not the streams within most of us wade. Faith and science are both empowered to explore the mysteries, like the presence of conciousness and awakening of biological life. One challenges the other to work harder to abstract a model for our understanding. In an enlightened age we can no longer afford to envision these two as combatants, but rather working together to lift our hearts and our knowledge of the natural world or whatever may be beyond the layers of our understanding.
Which brings me to this, in our time of Love and Affliction: there is tremendous energy radiating to educate, care and simply befriend from across many faith communities right now. People asking the questions: How can we connect and hold the appropriate distance recommended by the CDC or NIH? What do our neighbors and elders need from us? How do we keep the isolation from getting the best of us?
The social spaces are being utilized to organize and educate to scientifically sound behaviors by contemporary faith leaders. They have been recruited by our Govenors to help direct life-saving education. From my vantage point they had already started.
I am seeing a time in the future when we will look back and say: our faiths became what they were always meant to be, our liturgies came from a shared place such that we could see no differences in their structure nor content. We looked at our elders as we did our young and saw ourselves. We called everyone our dearest. We were serving love and humanity…we found our salvation in this life.
Tonight I’m on the Night Shift for another brief time. Volunteers, three in total, we gather at 8:00 p.m. in a church basement in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. We are part of a network that literally operates underground and in the middle of the night. Temperatures will drop to 27 to 25 degrees overnight.
Names of individuals (other than myself) are fictionalized, location not named for this post. Family Promise is an actual organization.
Two of us, tonight’s hosts, pour over a binder with information on tonight’s guests. One has migraines. Her daughter is sick with a cold. In an emergency contact her uncle. There may be civil orders we need to be aware of for a client’s well-being and security.
It’s just one small hospitality station in a vast network of support from individuals giving up a spare night or two each month or even a quarter. Truth be told, our clients, single parents, experiencing homelessness and many with jobs, are fiercely independent like most Americans. They will require and often insist on very little interference from the hosts. We’ll ready the cots, check the freshness of the milk, make coffee in the morning, make sure outer doors stay secure, respond to an emergency, and take the garbage out in the morning. There will be no preaching or prayers from the hosts. The night, like most, is uneventful. Hosts gather our own bed linens after our own overnight stays in the library. One of tonight’s co-hosts, let’s call her Hope, will take the laundry as homework since she returns again tomorrow.
It is not lost on us that this is where we are now in our beloved country: a swing or overnight shift of volunteers filling in the gaps where social services funding has been cut. A time when affordable housing is the myth of the new century and perpetually out of most states’ reaches. Vast numbers of individuals are underemployed and/or marginally compensated. Denver, by all marks a progressive community with deep commitments to social justice, is reported by a USC study to be in the top ten least affordable rental markets in the country. The clients who will be sheltered here are single mothers. Some have cars, which I’m certain may have provided shelter on some nights before they connected to the host organization’s services.
The later won’t be due to a lack of effort by caseworkers from the host organization, Family Promise. They fulfill a remarkable secular mission to provide interim, transitional shelter when group shelter is not an option or a shelter stay has reached its term before re-entry (usually ninety days). Their mission is broader, of course, with a commitment to homelessness prevention and delivering families more permanent housing solutions. Some 6,000 organizations, many places of worship, will provide the physical accommodations and guided volunteers. If volunteers were staff, they report, they’d be the nation’s 31st largest employer with some 200,000 in the volunteer workforce.
But this week is the core experience for many clients: short term shelter. Tonight, and each night this week, a family will have the privacy of a clean room of their own, albeit a classroom by day. They’ll have fresh linen, reliable heat, a bathroom and shower with no long waits, a kitchen they can retreat to and fix their own lunch or have an apple. They will also have a comfort they barely ever know: locks on the doors.
Let me bust a myth about our homeless populations and shelters: Why, if there are ample beds, won’t many of our homeless stay there? The “why’s” are well reported here in Westword and by Denver’s Homeless Out Loud organization:
Many of these justifications are more heartbreaking than you’d ever imagine.
But one of the most common reasons, beyond personal security, is that a person can’t get out of a shelter in time each morning to make it to their early morning jobs, drop off a child at a day care facility, make it to a medical appointment, or get in line for day labor.
It’s only my second time as a host. My co-host has attended scores of times. But my experience is this: these women will be up before seven without a knock on their door and will skip the coffee I made (mostly for my own morning comfort). They will take a pass on the Cheerios. They’ll fill a water bottle and pour some juice in the sippy cup and maybe also grab a banana for the toddler. Each will have a busy morning, too busy to stop for these comforts. One, let’s call her Michelle, states she will take her one year old to the emergency room because she doesn’t like the direction her cough has taken. Michelle will take the optional van which a certified volunteer is driving. Michelle’s gathered her overnight belongings in a collection of PVC shopping bags and a small canvas duffle. She’s bundled the baby and fastened her in the car seat and stands ready long before our driver’s early arrival for her shift. Michelle, I gather, has had lots of experience preparing each day to mitigate one of the common time management challenges in her life: finding a good place in a long line. She doesn’t even ask for help and begins to sling the bags onto her shoulder. When I do offer, she says: “Would you mind carrying the baby?”
This is my central take-away: these people are trying. They are maintaining as much composure as they can facing the soul sucking daily grind of providing for their families under the most extreme circumstances imaginable–short of living each night in a car, or in a homeless encampment by the ball parks. They absolutely can’t make it alone, but Michelle will make every effort to keep as much involvement as possible in her and her daughter’s life choices.
One more parting notion. This is a secular effort. I am connected to a faith organization with a concept of God some would call unapologetically and even radically inclusive. Others will just say that inclusive is the very nature of God. I’ve read thelogian Tillich, humanist/atheist Hitchens and Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh within the same month and don’t find their messages to be contradictory. I am not a “non-believer.” Core to that belief is that we maintain a secular sanctuary for our government exclusive from limitations of religious dictates of any sort. But I also am convinced of the power of the Interfaith Alliance movement as perhaps the most innovative development in the recent history of religious practice worldwide. It gathers effort from faith organizations around the concept of service for humanity, is duty-bound to social justice, and is filling the broad gaps unfortunately left by the insufficiency of our civil safety nets. Our evening’s host organization, again a secular body, counts on support from the broad array of Presbyterian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, LDS, Lutheran, Unitarian-Univeralist, non-denominational evangelical and other faith organizations. It is not by providence that our country’s sanctuary for free religious practice makes the very idea of an Interfaith Alliance possible.
I’m not a public relations official or writing on behalf of Family Promise. I’m an unpaid, free will scribe. But if you’d like to get to know them, here’s a link to familypromise.org:
Less than a month ago, six wolves, as if conjured by the wind into Moffat County in the far and remote northwest in Colorado, have been detected by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The discovery of tracks and a wild animal carcass were followed by tests and estimates. Wolves have not been seen here for nearly ninety years. A bill to re-introduce the Grey Wolf to the state by 2025 aiming to counterbalance a long history of eradication will be heard this year. It is a challenging scenario given the rise in ranches and livestock in the area. But the emergence of these six scouts is significant. They are as a self-determined love unto the world and they will not wait for us to be ready. Poem: the wolves, the love that is follows:
Copyright 2020, Vincent Hostak (except for verse as quoted). The dialogue is a work of fiction and not the words of the authors except as quoted from published works. Links to this post in full are welcome by all readers.
I threatened to post this in January. It’s now February 9. Emily Dickinson was born in December. Mary Oliver passed in January 2019. As mentioned in the teaser, they are nothing short of Wild, Abandoned muses. I’m inventing a new anniversary, this February day, for these kindred poets who shared from an interior landscape that reflected the natural world they adored. Lyrical, metaphysical, immersed in forests, beaches, meadows, and the fabled Greenwood– as much invented as these were real to them, I’ll have them meet in a dream. This took a very strange turn and is now a “Half-Act Play” of an imagined dialogue between their souls: Strange Cumulus….Sisters?
I’d lie awake briefly that night as occasions from the day were replaying in my mind. Each were lined up to crowd the moment when my eyelids would finally drop. Which of these would move across the line quivering between wakefulness and my next trance?
Sleep advances like a crosscurrent you couldn’t predict, when you were waist deep wading in your thoughts. Then it catches you in the undertow and soon you are headed southeasterly from the shore in the breakers you craved. What my mind chose to replay seemed the most insignificant of details. One moment I was looking for a lost notebook that took the color of all the clutter in the room. Then, I remembered that I left the lid off the trash can I opened earlier that evening. I’d just grabbed the last small orange from the fruit bowl as I also lifted the bulging trash liner from the kitchen basket. Outside I left the frosted zinc lid of the trash can on the ground collecting snowflakes. I’d peeled away enough of the rind to eat from the orange as if it was a small apple. I tossed the remainder of the Clementine on top of the bag in the can. Snow was coming down in wet heavy clumps now and I was impatient to get back inside. I left a sweet wedge of orange behind in the rinds.
Now I’m tumbling towards the Scorpion Reef and the sounds of the room are silenced by the deep compression of Gulf water
– This is a dream. This is how it works. –
The sound of scuttling, small sharp claws scraping metal and puncturing sheet plastic go unobserved in the cold post-midnight air. A small, auburn, fleecy inverted triangle of a head bobs above the silver rim of the trash can. The fullest of moons is fully obscured by curtains of snow clouds drawn in for the night. Although this moon won’t set for hours, the only light in this setting comes from a streetlamp.
The fox sways his head back and forth and his crystal whiskers catch the light. He leaps out and lifts his body again as his lean back legs touch the flagstones. This action draws a cursive “m” in the night. Observed from the angle of a beetle looking upward, it might be an “E.” These ciphers hang in the air just long enough to be decoded by some consciousness tumbling in the sea. This is a dream. This is how it works.
There is a rind hanging from the fox’s mouth. His black lips are crusted with sugar, nectar from the orange quickly freezing there despite the warmth of his breath. He seems to kiss the night air with these sweetened lips. These actions create small clouds that hover in the air and he canters away toward the shelter of a row of browned hibiscus shrubs. The clouds drift to rest separately above two sides of a tiny brook formed by snow melt from a drainpipe and channeled through decorative limestone beneath drapes of ivy. The water has only yet to freeze.
–One these clouds starts to speak.–
Mary: I’m sure that it was a fox that woke me. Its clattering is distinct, more elegant than those aggressive forest racoons. Did it find the kibble I left?
(Mary’s house is in some Southland woods by a brook. She dispels all myths of how a ghost might be clothed. There are no flowing garments. She rises in a black turtleneck that hides the creases in her neck. She has on faded jeans cuffed at her sockless ankles, just above her sand salted, blue deck shoes.)
Emily: Oh, wherever am I now?
(Emily lifts her head from a decomposing fallen timber. It is soft like a pillow, moss lined and there are no splinters. But there are tufts of green lace clinging to her hair which she let fall while lonely-ing in the wood. In this way she looks more the ghost than gentlewoman. She wears a white dress and brushes twigs from the folds).
I made too much of leisure
and slept in these woods-
Late afternoon into this moonlit Night-
Bird whistles customary to my rising,
Passed over without my notice.
I heard a fox.
(She continues):: Dear sister, is it you I hear? You blend to the gurgling stream.
Mary: Not likely. But, I’ll play. Hello, “sister.”
Emily: Not my sister true. I know her voice. Have you just woke?
Mary: I sleep lightly, wake early. You though, are a deep sleeper I can tell. You rest on the “linen of flowers.” Your other body is a bit unkempt.
(Mary refers to Emily corporeal, whom she can see drift in and out of the cloud as a faint projection)
Emily: I am of a mess, it seems, always to be. Oftentimes I drift off in the Greenwood. I am missed by no one I think. -Find me among the riot of the sparrows But, I left a candle burning on my writing desk, perhaps? Night has snuffed it with a silent pinch of Hand, I am sure.
Mary: I know your voice, “sister.” You sound like someone who saved my life. You and Edna, and Robert Frost.
Emily: I know not of her nor him. But the Frost? Here:
“As Frost is best conceived
By force of its Result-
Affliction is inferred
By subsequent effect-“
Mary: Oh, it is most definitely you! I would never have recognized you in…eh… billows.
Emily: These are garments strange I must admit.
Mary: However it is that we find ourselves here, this is a fair reunion. Even as…clouds. I see your other body, faintly, sometimes, fading in and out of the puffs.
Emily: Never have we met. But you voice is true like the wind-” ‘quivers down with tufts of tune.”
Mary: You think? Not bad for a cumulus-humilis.
Mary: Always! To the moon above the mirrored sand. It shines brightly tonight. But, I’m so sorry, I mean to say my voice is uncommon, for a cloud.
Emily: Indeed! Clouds that speak, strange, but not so very. I consider themselves disguising always. Now, they are my disguise. And your’s:
“A curious Cloud surprised the Sky, ’Twas like a sheet with Horns; The sheet was Blue— The Antlers Gray— It almost touched the lawns.”
Mary: No horns, I hope. Not a transformation I’d hoped, for. But, You are everything I imagined, dear. Except for your ‘raiment.’ You were photographed in more structured lines. The daguerrotype….you were so young. I would not have imagined you sporting these smoky balloons. There’s a poet, Billy Collins…I’m quite sure you would never approve of how he unfrocked you in his poem. Quite a salty little verse. He’s better when he writes about dogs. All of us are, dear.
Emily: Something- modern are you. You converse like a sunset that moves too swiftly for my recordance. You have many friends? But this William C.? Not for me, I fear. I’m not much for salty. It is for sailors, venison and Cape Cod Bay…not verse. We are of other times. But like kin, perhaps?
Mary: I read you in measures constant.
Emily: How, then, modern woman? It was all my secret.
Mary: Oh you couldn’t keep it that way, dear. The music is in just about everyone’s ears these days. Forget that riot of sparrows, dear girl. You went viral in my time, even before.
Emily: I was sick a time or two. “I could not stop for Death.” Than a time of three, “He kindly stopped for me.” Gone…then all of this…cloudiness. A surprise that these went to the printer at all. Lavinia. The sister I thought you were. How many?
Mary: Over 1700, dear girl. You were prolific.
Emily: Heavens! I mean, Heavens NO! There were such juvenile pursuits among them all. Valentines and such!
Mary: Nothing can be done now, girl. Besides, they are almost all beloved. Even, and I agree with you, the syrup among those hotcakes. Although I love them mostly all.
Emily: And you?
Mary: Oh they paid us in our time. Long inky, potholed roads to get there, of course. Roads through Rejection…and Ohio and Connecticut. But, I made many books. “In our time…” I memorized what you said about time. I was almost sure there was none, but now I’m certain its nothing but a series of Nows:
"Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –"
“Latitude of Home.” It rhymes with Gratitude. I’ve named the place I long to Iive as: Gratitude. Still longing. I think this is never meant to go away, even when you are… here. Wherever. Whatever. A Cloud. I think that is the pang that makes feel real. I feel it–I must still be real. Yes, even here, in these ridiculous…tufts! In this intersection where we find ourselves crossing, I am still longing, Emily. So glad to meet you again, Emily. I am Mary.
Emily: Oh, dear, dear Cloud Mary! It as if you spy upon my thoughts…if that’s what these things can still be called. As sure as you sing, you Are! You are -My Sister! Mary! The Cloud by the brook. Meet us again, here. In Transcendant-Nows!
To Be Continued
The clouds have briefly opened and shaken the last of the snow to further dust the rooftops and spruce crests. It’s moonset and my eyes are rolling back and forth behind their curtains. The fox can be seen swimming the brook between the Greenwood and Gratitude and washing outland into the Gulf. Words roll in with me and my watterlogged and matted fur grips the sand and clings with salty mangrove leaves.
My whiskers itch.
I am a fox
rustling through poets' trash
looking for those sweet remnants
beneath grimy cones of grounds,
drying coils of gristle,
and bitter wilted kale.
Where are the orange rinds
to sweeten my lips
so I may bless this night air?
Verse in quotes from published works of Emily Dickinson. Verse without quotes imagined by the author.
Billy Collins’ poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” was referenced without its content and can be found almost everywhere. Emily would most certainly not approve.
It is 1 degree Fahrenheit this Sunday morning. I’ve been here in Chicago a full week for a project. A west facing window at a close relative’s house, has an ice veneer over 90% of its surface. It is not even a month past the Midwinter mark and the ground is nearly permafrost. So, why then do I hear a voice saying “the world needs more Chicagos”? I spent some important, but young, years here growing up: most of elementary school through High School. I visited rarely for many years after, not again until my thirties-then about once each decade. It grew up and became a world class city. Rediscovering the city now as an older adult, exploring Ravenswood, Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park, on assignment interviewing social justice advocates for an audio project, I am exposed to cultures and points of view I wasn’t previously.
I’m returning to Denver in the early evening and happy to do so. Denver is a city that won my heart with wilderness just a wild hog’s hair away from the sprawling town; close family I love and, of course, a dog. On days almost as cold as this there is warm sunshine that cuts through the dry air and hits the crest of your head. Still, I’m moved to a deep affection for the city of Nelson Algren, Carl Sandburg, Saul Bellow and Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago allows me glances of a patchwork of neighborhoods rich with persons from every family of humankind. It presents me with a morning when I can walk along a colossal grey lake that sometimes rages to third story offices, often devours beaches and always fascinates.
What compels this affection is of course the character of the city’s people. They interact with tough weather, struggle with change and growth, troublesome inequities and ceaseless revitilization, while retaining a legendary friendliness. Yes, the friendliness is real.
It is meeting Shaims (pronounced loosely “shay-emz”), my driver one day, a refugee from a Middle East country. He mails a check for some $600.00 to his daughter every month to help with room and board at a University downstate. At a stoplight in Rogers Park, he wrote his name with his finger in the air, in Arabic, so I could briefly see its ornamental beauty. He told me it means “sun.”
It’s Miriam and Heidi in a Northshore coffee shop, in their mid to late seventies, overheard speaking of Walt Whitman. The two are interrupted by me, apologetically. I’m eager to tell them, I’m from Denver– a city Whitman visited and loved. I share that he was impressed, then, by the smelters where workers shoveled out silver bricks. He even called Denver the “Queen City of the plains.” It was how they offered me a chair with no second thought, because I had time to kill, and they, like the blessed whole of citykind here, are friendly and “don’t bite.” I was invited to their book club. It was an invitation I had to decline but this did not prevent them from chiming: “Next time, then.”
It’s a scavenger potluck dinner of sorts with friends, where the guests bring ingredients to cook harvested from across the city and cabinets. Some of these prove surprisingly difficult to find in local markets. But all arrive, with all the produce and hospitable temperaments intact, despite the late-breaking snow and special side trips required at rush hour. Soon, there are steaming saucepans and the air is generous with the aroma of smoky spices.
It’s close family in the city, who like me wake too early, because each day is so precious you don’t want to miss a second of it, or, worse, fail to behold the cardinals drawn to the feeding platform in the yard with a bounty of raw peanuts. “Peanut Mountain” was poured there, before full day-break by The Philanthropist to the Birds of the Western Suburbs.
It is being a guest at a local church later on this Sunday for a service honoring Dr. King. The congregation is first met moving chairs from the main sanctuary to an unattached Fellowship Hall –where the newer heater can keep up with the now 5 degree day. This unlike the 130+ year-old building, wherein, today, you can see your breath. This is a Midwestern welcome: being forced to sit closer together in a smaller room. It is listening to congregant Sandy’s story. She, to the left in a folding chair, strikes up conversation immediately with this guest. I learn about her duties as a Census worker and she can tell whether or not I care. I do.
It’s not Wilder’s Our Town. But it is a town of towns, each often full of approachable people. I’m certain that the world-at-large needs more Chicagos. We need to look further than the reports that unfairly amplify the danger of living in the city. There has to be a balance struck between it being one of the “top 25 most dangerous cities in America,” and hands down, the friendliest. Because, with all the work it still has to do, it’s a place filled with the endlessly curious. These are folks not afraid of making eye contact with strangers. In fact, watch Chicagoans, they lead with their eyes as they enter a room, the train, or as they flood to the sidewalk. Like the woman responding to my question: “Am I on the right Union Station to Aurora line? Will it stop at Stone Ave?” Because, puzzingly, on the BNSF-Metra sometimes there are stop announcements, sometimes there are not. It was a “not” day. I was on the right train, by the way, as the woman in a nearby seat confirmed, adding: “Your stop is just three away.” Friendly. In other circumstances, maybe your driver’s eyes recognize you warmly in the rearview mirror. My name is Shaims. Let me embroider it in the air and share a small piece of the tapestry of my life.
Vincent Hostak is the creator/host of the podcast “Crossings-The Refugee Experience in America.” Look for a series of Chicago episodes coming in late January through February 2020, featuring topics of resettlement, the changes in public policy affecting admissions to the US, poetry and other writing from refugees and their sons and daughters, special programs for refugee girls, and how trauma and mental health services help integration of newcomers to America. More at: http://crossingsrefugees.home.blog/2020/01/10/coming-soon-refugees-finding-sweet-home-chicago-and-more-art/
Many of us have enjoyed weeks of the warmth of family gatherings, expressing love and hope in life and/or faith practice, and application of our deepest principles honoring humanity. It is important to remember that many members of our human family also share these feelings while they grieve at this time. Over the last weekend more were added to the human family sharing these paired emotions. Two tragic and violent events occurred in suburban New York City and White Settlement (Fort Worth area) resulting in trauma, injury and deaths in our communities. Each occurred while these communities worshiped. There were serial attacks reported on the streets of New York near Jewish places of worship across this Hanukkah, Christmas and other important holy days. We needn’t wait for “all the facts to be in” in each occurence to know that the conducts of hate and violence orbit together. How do we take a stand to counter and prevent hate practices? I don’t have the answers, except for myself and to begin by acting with these principles: align service to the people of our world to the practices of love & kindness, respect the differences of our faiths or secular values, and allow absoutely no refuge for hate in either. One thing we can do within the organizations to which we belong and influence is to explicitly prohibit acts of hate and the language of hate by members and within our bylaws and code of conduct. It’s a start.
The lyric offered below was written soon after I learned of the events in Monsey. It is hence dedicated to the people ofMonsey and West Freeway Church.
Why does hate have a home when love is crying in the street? How does hate visit a place where it was never conjured? It comes in darkness, the way it leaves. Wielding fire, a blade or a gun, and a chorus of maledictions: “Segregation for survival.” “I want what is mine.” “This will show them all.”
It came so on Kristallnacht. It raged barbarous, even in These Days: Laramie, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Sutherland Springs, El Paso. Wherever love holds an address. If anyone gives a home to hate, will it come to ours?
Lift the shamash. Light the candle on the seventh night. You only mean to honor the holy, the improbable- wax sweltering in the tapers, growing a tiny pool of fuel which the flame both makes and drinks. The light seems to remake itself by the hour. Now a drip scuttles downward- moves like worshipers fleeing the room to safety.
How will we shelter the remaining days? How will we care for the injured? When will we minister to ourselves? There is a refuge which our own hearts and broad arms alone can render.
The story of each miracle, from each text: each are beautiful, each our truths, each grow in our hearts. But we may not survive unless we add one more.
Light the last candle. Light it for the day when, whatever aim or faith we are fixed to, our lips form the words: “No” and “Never” to hate: hate in hiding, hate in plain sight, hate enacting its misguided fiction of how it suffers deprivation of the spoils it thinks it, alone, once had, and still deserves; in some time it thinks all mortals looked the same.
Light it for the day our actions match our words and when our love & mercy are greater than anyone prophesized them to be.
From now forward when I’m called to think of christmas eve it will be a camellia on pool water which first appears. Snowdrifts and holly crowns, will always have their place. But winter comes in many shades. Stories are shared. Each tell: how it all began, how we changed, became better or were saved. All of it water from our favored wells, channels tied to the same true spring, quenching the same blessed thirst. I can’t know with any certainty if this flower moved itself, leaving the protective shade, of magnolias planted near, like a life artist building this hopeful new myth. I’d like to think it was courage. I’d like to think it was faith. I’d like to think that all things share a conciousness- a will to move to better states. That we possess all the grace we need at times as these. Even the flowers must find a way.
Perhaps, it was just a December storm that shook the branches, cast the flower to the water along with leaves that frame it here.
Whatever is the truth, or madness, if you think it so, come every Christmas Eve, i will first see a weightless and magenta dream the blue arena, the cords of sunlight, and the rewards of bearing witness on one December day.
Bearing only a sliver of light so I might know I adressed the sky at all, I asked: Why must there be more black night? "So I may replenish the color of crow feathers, that wolves may know when to sing, that the moon might cast a reflection in black water and know that it is beautiful. Should you gaze into another's pupils, the place casting no reflection, you may know all things with eyes are twinned and share the color of this gift I bring today."
Lola Chi is a new member of the Wild, Abandoned household. She is a near eleven week old Border Collie mix bursting with energy and already a loving companion. Her mother was rescued by a dear foster family. Mom was recovered, pregnant, from Houston and brought to Parker, Colorado, a city south of Denver. We adopted Lola at eight weeks.
We had an adventure last night in the front yard. I recount it as being about 1 a.m. when Lola was fidgety and in urgent need of a bio-break. I bundled up and fetched the leash. This is what we do. Patience is required. Her ritual includes a bit of choreography to discover the best place in the (neighbor’s) front yard for her performances. Also, she must collect brack and stems and chew them.
But tonight, she went into full-point, her attention keenly directed to the east. Our house is on a T-intersection on a bit of a slope facing our across-the-street neighbors. Last night’s street party was orchestrated by two coyotes streaking back and forth across the street, maybe fifty feet away. Sighting one is not an abnormal occurence, but two signals a rabbit hunt. There was eye contact: Lola’s, one of their’s and mine. Lola was on alert, I was dragging, but did swing to bundle her in my arms and jacket and head slowly to the front door. This would not have been her choice. She was in it for keeps, like Wonder Woman. There are too many stories in these parts recounting swift attacks on small animals. Something kept them occupied or scared them off, because they were gone quickly, like strands of mercury. My surprise was that Lola’s tail was fully parallel to the ground, her eyes were fixed on the interlopers, she did not move except to ease forward, and I detected no submissive posture whatsoever. Delivery vans scare her. She pee’d on me once when the UPS delivery woman came too close to the front door. But wild animals don’t scare her? This is maybe not so good. Was she ready to herd them? I’ll need to be more aware–like her. The Nextdoor site has posted that there is a Great Horned Owl picking off small pets. We are Wilder here than I recently recall.
On my insistance Lola slept the better part of the remaining evening next to me, in bed. Chalk it up to my unease, not her’s. Today, I, pridefully, smell like dog. I may not even shower. I don’t think the vet will mind. Lola may be a bit Wild, but she will never, ever be Abandoned.
Wild, Abandoned reflected on the active energy present in nature during the winter solstice. Near the eve of the Hibernal Solstice, here’s a vignette on a very near winter world & the relationships of plant and mammals. Neither of the varieties of both hibernate, it seems. In fact, there is a highly energetic relationship between squirrels and conifers in winter. The property I live on is nothing more than a small conifer orchard which includes six pines and firs small and large to the east and west of a house. Now, pinecones are everywhere. They make wide amber colored blankets of bracts which can be seen on the winter days when the snow is gone. It’s squirrels at work of course. They eat from the bottom up of these cones and drop the hard-shell exteriors of the seeds. I think they prefer to strip the armored cones of the fifty foot plus Red Pine to on the southeast corner of the property. The seeds are the prize, under the scales, and they must be sweet and nutritious. They leave a vast field of middens (as these are called) on the now straw-colored bluegrass. Here, they don’t need to bury the cones in the late fall for recovery in winter. The trees are productive and simply don’t drop all their cones. Those are the trees, by the way, that retain their green on the outside, even as they’ve halted the production of pollen. I’ve often wondered why there is a steady drip of sap from the trees in the winter as well. I’ve learned this to be, again, partly the squirrels’ work. They have tapped the tree for the elixir that apparently nourishes as it gives them the energy to run amok.
This post was revised to multiple edited posts on December 18. Here’s hoping it reads a bit leaner and humbler.
“Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow”
This is how poet Christina Rossetti described the natural world to our insufficient senses in “In the Bleak Midwinter” in 1872. The poetry is exquisite and ready made for the liturgical hymn it would become. But is this the sum of the winter world in its entirety: stiff as stone, hard as iron, and abundant with snow?
Midwinter’s Energy: This is Not Retreat
Why would an assessment of winter lensed through human senses be at all inadequate to describe the energy of the natural world at this relative time? Because the less-seen-world of nature during a hibernal Winter Solstice (“midwinter’) can be more active than we observe. This is true both in our immediate terrestrial environs, but also on a cosmological scale. Let’s start with what has been happening over the last several months, leading to the Winter Solstice. While observed on the shortest day (December 21, 2019) solstice is a process. Our planet began the process which will turn our lakes to stone, our earth to iron and produce snow on snow on snow around September 21st . This was when both the earth’s rotation and tilt moved our Northern Hemisphere away from the direction of the sun. Both tilt and direction are the important terms and concepts. We are not “farther” way from the sun. In fact, our planet is closer to the sun within its elliptical annual rotation in December. But we in the Northern Hemisphere experience winter now due to the tilt. If the concept is difficult to grasp, think of this: the sun appears to be lower in the sky throughout the winter. That is because we are tilted away from the sun.
It’s Good To Be Oblique: On Earth We Lean
I’m not a scientist and I nearly failed Astronomy in college. I’m a poet and would now like to return to the more familiar and tilted ground of earth. Let’s just accept that we are moving around the sun in an ellipse, the earth is rotating at the same rate as it travels that ellipse, and our planet relative to the sun is always tilted at a 23+ degree angle. We are oblique, posed at an angle on this planet at all times. This is where our terrestrially aligned senses fail. Our relationship with the ground is predictable, even though we stand at an extreme angle relative to the sun we orbit. When I step out the front door, the stairs to the driveway are in the same place, the trees rise perpendicular to ground around them. I do like this fidelity. I also like that the earth is moving through space with fidelity over the course of what we call a year. Days are still measured with 24 hours during all seasons. But sunlight is scarce and days, realtively speaking, are short.
Remaining Green on the Inside
Closer to home: nature doesn’t disappear in the winter. Most animals and insects, and even many plants, don’t actually die. Most move to a hibernal state. This is to say they are using energy-differently.
Perennials are said to come back. But they never went away. Many just move to a state of dormancy. I have purple coneflower that returns every year in the late spring in my Wild, Abandoned backyard. They are now dry, brittle stalks and seed caps. But they are green on the inside. The seeds seem to drop in the same relative place every year and need the winter for pre-gestation processes. Cold weather will ease open the surrounding shell while the seed remains dormant in the hardened soil. That seed, a fragment of the plant, is using energy differently in its dormancy. To take it to a nearly metaphysical level—that plant part is getting a major assist from winter earth energy that works to crack it open and literally hold it in place.
Slower, Because We Are
Take the human experience. It feels slower. An icy ground is harder to navigate. We tire faster in cold weather. It seems to take more energy to do anything. We are moving to our hibernal state as we tilt farther from our universal source of energy. That’s right, the planet is not the only thing that is heliocentric. We are also depending on the sun to produce food for energy and a terrestrial atmosphere that itself drives our bodies to utilize energy differently. But we are not just going to sleep.
The Winter Work of Our Beautiful Minds
There is perhaps a good scientific and neurological explanation to why I feel that I have a more fertile imagination, write more, read more and even derive more satisfaction from all of these activities in the months leading into the Solstice and through the winter. I’m just not willing to stop and research the physical factors at the moment. I’m going with this: mind energy is capable of using the reserve of energy that a body has stored as a result of a its winter readiness. These might be the results of: the kinetics of moving slower through the world, eating more fats, & of all our natural inclinations to physically survive the winter. But as our planet tilts farther from the sun, we seem to tilt inward to thoughtful and creative processes. I don’t think I’m alone in this actioning of the mind with activities like those listed above. Even those friends I know to be grieving this time of year are using their mental and if you will, spiritual energy, in a constructive and active manner. This is not exclusively the work we do in midwinter, but for many of us, it is work which comes more naturally at this time.
Tilt Farther this Midwinter- We Are Not Standing Still
The literal definition of Solstice is “Sun Standing Still.” Poetically, I think of this as the sun giving us our big break, literally and figuratively. Is your heart ready for what the midwinter might bring to you? This Hibernal Solstice I invite all to take the big break the sun has gifted you: recover more of your humanity waiting in reserve, turn off the political vitriol, enrich the hearts of others, reach out to the grieving (even if that’s yourself), and share some this productive sun-born energy. Perhaps, more simply: love the world that sustains us, more. I’ve witnessed and accepted, let’s call it, luminous energy from friends, family, & strangers– much of it transmitted in this very “time of the tilt.” You may call it Christmas, or something else entirely. It’s midwinter by the solar calendar. Winter will not break us, but it very well may play a part in making us stronger mentally and spiritually. We are still standing, but we are not standing still. Tilt Farther.
On January 17th of 2020 it will be one year since Mary Oliver passed. She was the poet who lived “in the house near the corner, which, (she) named, Gratitude.”
Brilliant and highly accessible, Mary Oliver won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. For a Blog committed to finding the natural world in nearby and unconventional places, often as a solitary observer, she is nothing short of a muse. She would likely say that her precursor, Dickinson, was one of her’s. A tribute to the power of words and a dialogue imagined between two poets born a century apart. Yes, there will be bees, grasshoppers, foxes, sparrows and waking with a “thirst for goodness I do not have.”
My Little Day After Story: John Lennon’s Gone. Stand By Me.
I had to work December 9, 1980 at a Mall bookstore in Texas the day after some of us heard about John Lennon. It was also an exhausting week for final projects in film school, semester five. Project partners would rotate encampment, sometimes all night, to hang onto an editing station in the dingy “Fishbowl.” This was hours of counting frames, algining mag sound reels, splicing each independently and fighting classmates for a precious thing called a split reel of which there were far too few to go around. Magical.
On the 8th news came late from Roosevelt Hospital, so most of the world heard on Tuesday. I can tell you that few film students would have been watching the Dolphins game when Cosell broke rank with the play-by-play and announced the wretchedness. On the 9th, and the day after, a local radio station kept playing his music back to back, no commercials, just a legal air check whenever required by the FCC. Locals will know the call letters –I think it was KLBJ. The mall was very slow well into my evening shift and I rotated from the main store to to a slender second floor newstand until closing.
We had an old school am/fm radio and permission to use it at low volume to relieve boredom. The signal came in clear if I aimed the antenna just right and positioned myself out of the field on the stool. I tuned into radio free Lennon and set the loudspeaker toward the outside so everyone could hear. I turned it to about maybe 50%, plenty loud enough: “Imagine,” “#9 Dream,” “A Day in the Life.” Dammit: “Stand By Me”. John’s reedy voice echoed from the second floor atrium and I’m sure made a racket in the Hallmark Store and the Orange Julius. I didn’t care. Make a complaint.This isn’t my dream. I’m going to be the next Truffaut, anyway, and you will read about me in Film Comment. By the way, November-December issue is to my left –Raging Bull on the cover. But you came in for Architectural Digest, didn’t you? Anyway, John’s gone. So, grow a heart and let the music play.
A mall security officer approached. He had a few years on me, but still in his twenties I’d say. I feared the worse. He turned to me and asked: “What’s your name?” “Vince,” I offered, in what was probably not much more than an mumble. “Well, Vince. Can you maybe turn it up a little?”
I did. The music was now echoing like E. Power Biggs on the festival organ at Canterbury. “Working Man’s Hero,” “Julia,” “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Dammit: “Starting Over.” Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
The guard stuck around a short while, browsing car magazines. When no one showed from the nearby Dillard’s to give me what for, he vanished to his rounds. No one ever did raise a stink for the three hours the music was blaring. I don’t remember seeing the guard again after my weeks off for winter break. Maybe he was a holiday worker.
A month later, I’d stock the shelves with the January Rolling Stone. This was the one with the cover that broke everyone’s hearts all over again. Lennon lying in profile in his all-together and enraptured with Yoko. I made sure it was front and center and on every endcap, too. Dammit.
In the first week of December, Colorado skies have cleared completely. Cloudless after the Thanksgiving weekend storms and this morning’s sky is black as stout. Stars are widely visible, the air is crisp but not frigid. Mercury can be seen by your eyes unaided. At 35 degrees I can still stand comfortably in a long sleeve “T” with my coffee cup in my hand.
Where is the wild, always, no matter where you are: a city’s zealous core or the sylvan edges near the region of your home–the ones radiating toward the mountains, on the other side of a lake, down at the shore, or out on the desert road? The wild is above you always. You can regard the wild, soak it in this way, by looking up. You don’t need to rely only on the memory of that day in the countryside.
The sky: light breaking blue
This early morning I was searching for the moon and found the black sky instead. I learned the waxing gibbous crescent will not be visible until shortly after noon. If the clear skies hold we will see it easily throughout the day. In just the time it took to write these paragraphs the sky has transformed, breaking to blue. As peaceful as you might feel observing the night sky’s pitchness, the blue that breaks at this hour is breathtaking. William Gass wrote in his book length essay on the color, feeling, and poetic textures of blue: “Blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed.” If this is true, blue might be a good color for us all to be associated with and should not always be held as the the standard bearer for melancholy. Especially in light of (and blue appears in light) all the the things in nature in which the color occurs. Gass goes on: “Among the ancient elements, blue occurs everywhere: in ice and water, in the flame as purely as in the flower, overhead and inside caves, covering fruit and oozing out of clay. ” Given this, I believe blue should be known for its emotional versatility, maybe even more so than the other primary and secondary colors. Who can make red or yellow express the color of solitude?
In the blue emerging in the sky, which throughout this day, will have more subtlety in a range of hues than can possibly be catalogued, the moon will rise and arc as a soft white smudge in the wild blue above. That white will contain blue, because blue is in a wide range of visible light, especially those objects in the wild blue sky. Look up today, friends.
Haiku a day until midwinter
Tanku: Waiting for the moon
Search for the moon’s light Ease forward to the clearing Feet gnaw at the ice How is the sky black as oil? No crescent ‘til noon
*This form is Tanku, 5-7-5-7-7 syllable, five lines
You might call it slowly destructive, but you might also see in shoreline erosion that the variable cycles of sea energy help the shore gain a kind of wisdom. The land recognizes that the ocean, although aggressive as it cracks upon the sand, is its cohort. The rock promintories take the rougher assaults, where the surf is higher, which results in fragments that return to nourish the beaches or build the sandbars. The shoreline is created by the force of the breakers and the shoreline is as ageless as the sea. Not one without the other.
In the Summer, sand is deposited off shore to those sandbars with the gentler winds and waves. Strong Winter Northeasters bring the sand and sediment back to the shore and cause some higher segments of the beach, dunes, to erode. This thins the beach overall. But the wise sandbars, built in the summer, mitigate further shoreline erosion during the winter months by causing many waves to break further from the shore. This relationship is like that of the cohorts of the body and the mind. When one is burdened the other assists, moving the body or mind to take a break, step away or protect the overall ecosystem from one or the other’s central preoccupations. It lets things productively change and heal. The regulation of further erosion provided by sandbars built in the summer is a metaphor for the reserve of counterbalancing energy humankind has always needed to get through our winters.
Haiku a day until Midwinter
haiku: monterry winter
a mind freshly wringed kindly salted erosion balms greeting the shore
swiftest of gliders once you were swimming this pond a lotus now blooms
the story of the african sacred ibis
It is estimated that millions of the birds were sacrificed by Egyptians to Thoth, a deity commonly represented in art as a human with the head of the bird. Thoth was endowed with the gifts of wisdom, science, written language, judicious thought, magic, and art. Toth was held as a deity between 6000 to 30 BCE. It’s long been held that the Egyptians must have farmed the birds to keep a steady supply for ritual sacrifice. There is very recent DNA evidence from bird mummies suggesting they may have only been wild caught and kept in some sort of stockyards. It’s too early in the research to flip the the long held theories.
The African Sacred Ibis is extinct in Egypt, but prolific in sub-Saharan Africa. It is unlikely that it will be re-populated in Egypt. The immense expense and effort seems to be only justified by cultural interest.
“Hope is a thing with feathers…”
With its standing in spiritual history symbolizing intellect, wisdom, art and judgement; that it was sacrificed in large numbers; that it is extinct in parts of Africa but thriving in others, all make the bird, I think, an approriate symbol for the difficult history of the AIDS epidemic, our responses to it and the new hope in our world’s time for recovery. That recovery is one of our souls as we find the will to help our beloved people in both the broad daylight of nearby locales and the forgotten corners of the world still suffering without prevention knowledge and appropriate care. I will invoke the most durable quotation I know on the subject of hope on any occassion it is needed:
"Hope is a thing with feathers That perches in the soul- And sings the tune without the words- And never stops-At all-" -Emily Dickinson
Hope is fair treatment and prevention, erradication of stigmatizing prejudice, education and compassion. “Hope is a thing with feathers” and, indeed, “it never stops” and because of this, it will never be lost.
I woke up today knowing this exercise I assigned myself of a haiku a day until Midwinter (December 21) is going to be only about snow and ice without introducing some new variable. They aren’t all going to be gems either. I’m using the form as a piano student would use etudes: develop poetic muscle memory for long form workings. But, back to the problem of winter haiku. I remembered it’s not snow and ice everywhere.
off-road haiku: Jack Kerouac
Near this time last year, I was in Big Sur gazing at tide pools: cold, rock-bound baths surging with tiny, undulating marine lifeforms in cold, transparent Pacific blue water. I was a stone’s throw from the shack near Bixby Bridge where Kerouac wrote his novel Big Sur. It was poet and City Lights bookstore founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin. He was trying to do Jack a favor. Kerouac was living a nightmare at the time and attempted to dry out from his alcoholic haze (after On the Road). But if you read this novella, you’ll find that Kerouac just about jumps out of his skin with every unfamiliar sound from nature. He’s terrified of the extreme dark skies. It wasn’t successful therapy for poor Jack. Nothing was in the long term unfortunately. What may have brought him some peace was his move to a dharmic investigation of his own essential character in relation to the cosmos. His work with haiku and Buddhist principles suggests he was doing that work. He went “off-road,” in my assesment, from the pure constraints (5-7-5). Some call it “western haiku.” But he was well disciplined, often using three simple stanzas with all the delight, rhythm and swing he always maintained in his most sprawling, nearly punctuation free work.
Anne Waldman on the “Transcendent Friend”
In his haiku, he wrote generously (he’s said to have written at least 1000) and he wrote of generosity. He thanked the natural world that seemed to repel him in Big Sur. Anne Waldman, the prolific and profoundly talented poet, captured the notion in her “Vow to Poetry,” calling generosity the “Transcendent Friend.” She would know. Her generous work in her school and the community of writers is well established.
The writing school she co-founded at Naropa Institute in Boulder takes Kerouac’s name. Denverites are fortunate to attend her readings and curated performances just 30 miles up the highway and turnpike from Capitol Hill. With these lines in “Vow to Poetry” she was paraphrasing a Buddhist read made at meal times that goes on to say: “Generosity is the virtue that produces peace.” This is a unifying principle to Jack’s presumed quest for inner-peace, Waldman’s work in the world, the purpose of poetry in genral, haiku in specific, and just being human. I’ll endeavor to hold true to the principle when posting here. Carefully walking to observe life in the tide pool, like a parent bathing an infant, and discovering the companion forms of things that are shaped by nature–these are the subjects of the haiku posted here. Starfish are echoes of hands. Tide pools are the twins of the ocean. Generosity is our Transcendent Friend.
today’s haiku from the blog’s author
haiku pair: tidepool, big sur + the bath
1 rock bound sea traces afloat with five-armed sea stars dancing in the wash
2 tub of bathwater my daughter’s infant palms splash rising as starfish
The trouble with gratitude is the same as its blessing. I begin by thanking the ash tree for being. Then how it looked in the rain when I was once struck by sadness or how its bark felt to the fingers of a blind friend. How it’s branches resisting its gusts gave wind a voice. How it gave me work to do one summer that made me sturdy. I’ll recall the beauty of its foliage and its absence these winter months. I’ll see the hues of the leaves which science still can’t name, the names which it has found, the pigments that an artist knows, paintings the artist brought me of its shadows over seven summers. I’ll see the hole in its core after a limb fell in the hard spring rains, see the home that hole made for a family of animals. I’ll know it’s a mystery how it fills me with a love for all things, and the mystery of its being in the first place, the desire it builds for some things to remain unsolved. This trouble I observe with gratitude is how a single blessing cultivates more. It is unfolding a prayer flag and stringing it from tree to tree. Before even completing the task, stepping along it to read strange figures stained upon on each patch: three jewels enflamed, an elephant, a horse, a snowlion. Without a trace of knowledge of the inscriptions and still not knowing why I rose so early on this near-winter day or how this song called itself to be set free, I’ll know what to do. I’ll begin once more by thanking the ash tree for being.
There’s a place where on a weekday you can watch Parisians traverse by foot what would be about eleven US city blocks. They are on their way to the Metro, a hotel district, or the regional train station Gare de Montparnasse. They’ll avoid the main street sidewalks, crowded with tourists. They’ll move with the swiftness of Apollo in Adidas “StanSmiths” on their way to work. For most of that walk they’ll never leave Paris’ second largest cemetery, Cimetière du Montparnasse.
Cimetière du Montparnasse is a walled and partially wooded park of forty seven acres established in 1824. It is most known for its entombment of the illustrious: artists, musicians, writers and theatrical performers of the 19th to our present century. It is also a natural area by inner-city Parisian standards that is lined with linden, ash and maple trees. During the hottest summer on record in Paris I had occasion to roam the park just outside the door of my hotel.
Wildlife & Lunch at the Necropolis
First a brief diversion. I have a peculiar preference for cemeteries as parks. When nearby, they are places that I find to be appropriate for contemplative walking, thinking, writing… and a sack lunch. That’s right, I used to take lunch in places like the Texas State Cemetery which, at the time, was in a very unfashionable and rough section of East Austin. It was walking distance from a commercial film and television studio where I worked (where the rent was cheap). I parked myself on a bench, peeled open the baby carrots and hummus, and proceeded to think and eat in the quiet outdoors. I never considered it disrespectful. I offered my respects and read the stories of the fallen in this sacred place..
I’ve found wildlife and some very strange natural activities in cemeteries. There came foxes from time to time and native birds seemed to like the diversity of habitat and lack of predators. In the early 2000’s I actually discovered feral parrots nesting in the live oaks of the State Cemetery. In older and unfortunately poorly maintained cemeteries, such as the Lutheran Cemetery that gave space to the poor and on the western edge of the Garden District in Baton Rouge, you can find wooded sections rife with foxfire. Foxfire are fungi on fallen trees which actually glow (a phenomenon known as bioluminescence). This place is deeply wooded on the edge of the City Park.
In North Denver’s historic River Oaks cemetery I was harassed by wild turkeys. In Texas’ Round Rock Cemetery there is a sequestered and fully wooded Slave Cemetery, a sad reminder of the inequities in our world. It is full of aging & broken stones with misspellings on nearly every hand carved memorial. One afternoon when walking the main cemetery to find the grave of famed Texas outlaw, Sam Bass, my daughters and I stumbled upon this humbly marked slave section. Don’t judge-they thought finding an outlaw’s memorial was great fun. We ambled reverently into the woodsy section to find innumerable monarch butterflies, their wings folded and pulsing, draped from the leaves and branches of tall scrub oaks above us. It was like a monarch preserve. It was a moment with a divine aspect, it seemed, and added import to an afternoon we’d otherwise spend walking, and securing Happy Meals before visiting a popular playscape nearby. I turned to my daughters and said: “Do you think they are the souls of those buried here?”
La Magie du Montparnasse (The Magic)
I did not take lunch at Cimetière du Montparnasse. There’s a great creperie in nearby Rue Daguerre for takeout, should you wish to lunch in the well maintained surroundings. I did find magic, however. The magic you discover here is pure Parisian romance expressed for modernist artistic traditions and the people of the Left Bank. Here are the graves of Baudelaire (poet), Camille Saint Saens (Composer), Susan Sontag (Cultural Critic), artists Constantin Brancusi and Man Ray. More recently the great singer, songwriter, poet, painter and actor, Serge Gainsbourg, began his rest here in the Jewish section in 1991.
You’ll find filmmakers as well. The title of this essay, btw, is a play on Alan Renais’ renowned art film “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.” A poetic, although sometimes satirized, masterpiece, the film intercut the private conversations of lovers with graphic newsreel from Hiroshima. It is terribly difficult to watch. More to the point, Renais was laid to rest in Cimetière du Montparnasse in 2014. He lies under a simple affair of a raised horizontal block and a perpendicular headstone.
One of the most arresting features of this place is the playful, sometimes absurdist, tradition of either mounting modernist sculpture to the grave upon installation or adorning it later with spirited decoration. It’s all the product of inspired Parisian mischief mixed with respectful homage. The tourists play along.
Marguerite Duras, who was a prolific novelist and penned the screenplay for “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” is buried here. Her grave is festooned with saucers full of pens, to signify the eternal writer. I can only presume these are replenished regularly by well-wishers.
“Oisseau por Jean-Jacques” contains mixed media, scrap metal and glass. The sculpture rises as a spectacular bird from the tomb of Jean-Jacques Goetzmann. I’m sorry to say that I cannot find much of his biographical details, other than he was a close friend of Niki De Saint Phalle. Saint Phalle was a French-American sculptor and renaissance woman. She created and dedicated the piece to her friend who died prematurely from complications due to AIDS.
I must honor the combined tomb of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone du Beauvoir. It greets you at the main entrance at the Boulevard Edgar-Quintet. I found it at the end of my tour having walked from the back entrance from the hotel near Rue Froideveaux. It is one of the great treasures of the park. A simple, somewhat large, stone which is always covered with lipstick imprints from strangers, tourists, students and undoubtedly, offspring of friends and relatives. They were a complicated couple, this existentialist playwright/philosopher and the leading light of feminist theory. The admiration is clearly expressed for both: two exceptional minds that found a way to live together.
The colors of flowers, gifts and sculptures throughout the cemetery lend a carnival atmosphere. It’s clear that this began as a sober place. Then when Paris was invaded by aritists and modernisitic principles, not the least of which was to bring laughter everywhere, this place was marked by romantics for the transformation that post-Napoleonic city planning couldn’t provide. Color is grafted to everything grey. Flowers are everywhere and thrive in the summer humidity. I walked away with a sense that colors were skillfully matched to the souls of the occupants of the cemetery. I imagined that those who greet the markers choose specific colors and flowers in honor of the vivid personalities and legacies. This is probably ridiculous. But since it felt like magic, I end with this chant.
Cimetière du Montparnasse (The Names of the Flowers of the Cemetery at Montparnasse)
Serge Jean Paul and Simone Mirelle Margaurite Camille Genevive
burst to lifers undefeatable climbers dramatic departers magical returners radiators of madness without prejudice ramblers refusing to be abridged
lavender sable and saffron coral ivory oyster canary
Lovers and laughers astounding cantors infernal fomenters relentless entanglers prolific champions of nuisance-making noise sparking kindlers in pitch-dark dwellings. Here, the grey day is excited by vivid, provoking intruders. Traverse the angled footway, leave lipstick prints on headstones, sculpted faces, then hurry to quarters, cafes, muted places or stay for the piercing peal of Notre Dames Des Champs let vines and blossoms embrace you along their rambling romp.
October 31st leans heavily into November 1st. It is All Soul’s Eve crossing over to All Souls Day, and Día de los Muertos. The Hungry Ghost Festival of Japan & Vietnam, is now passed but continuously moving the hearts of the living in the Pacific since September. This “inter-region” is the whole of the worlds. The frivolity is over, the party rubbish cleared, and now we honor those who slipped beyond the veil, but still influence or straight up guide how we move through our current world. It is my parents I’m thinking about this dimming day and a moment abstracted in a photo. The word “parents” is more abstract then the perfect photo: this is Dorothy W. and Millan M. Hostak. They are the two beautifully formed persons seen reflected in the photograph below. I am past their passing(s). But, I am still in the hold of their adventurous and bold love for the world, their humility, brilliance and often grandly chivalrous gestures. I also have some questions about the moment in the photo.
while you were enclosed in each other's attention, the warmth must have been incalculable and I thought you rolled your sleeves to style to the camera. the field of energy must have been immense and bright, even as you looked away from each other for the portrait maker’s cue. was that all that could distract you? and what of the sound? was there any other song worth hearing then the one humming through your hearts?
had you any idea the moment was moving, that it would radiate toward generations: sons, daughters, granddaughters and great, nieces, nephews or anyone who examined the evidence of light burned and polished into this silver salted paper? or that the restless light wouldn’t be, couldn’t be still? could your sweet minds caress any other thought on that occasion? or were they a jar so brimful it could only hold all that the day gave you?
would it surprise you to learn the outcomes: the successive fields of new energy in the world, the sweetness in our blood that made us hopelessly romantic, yet hopefully spirited? would it turn your heads to learn that our painfully acquired realism would never spoil the honey in our veins? maybe you’d barely be astonished that your love made worlds move like the snow-melt spring coursing through newly carved and thirsty flumes i see beyond the gate. perhaps it would not astound you that it made rivers.