Friday, March 9, 2018

State of the death penalty in the US

I attended the Amnesty International USA 2018 Annual General Meeting on Saturday, February 24. Of particular interest was the session on the death penalty in the U.S., featuring the following articulate speakers:

    Ngozi Ndulue, senior director of criminal justice programs, NAACP
    Shujaa Graham, death penaltty exoneree
    Kathleen Lucas, executive director, Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and AIUSA death penalty abolition coordinator for PA

     Subjected to 4 trials (several of them before all-white juries) before finally being acquitted of murder, Mr. Graham was a particularly moving speaker and his talk can be found from 12:34 to about 29:00 on this video recording of the session (thanks to Kathleen):

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Gratuitous violence

  Yesterday we went to see Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Neither my husband nor I was prepared for the level of violence in the film. We sometimes speak of “gratuitous violence” in movies, video games, and other entertainment media. I don’t know the proper definition of the term, but I guess it means something like “violence for the sheer excitement of it.” Shoot-em-ups and explosions because directors know that certain sectors of the viewing public get a charge out of that sort of thing. I’m not sure what the opposite of “gratuitous” violence is (appropriate violence? inherent violence? organically generated violence?), but the violence in Three Billboards did not strike me as gratuitous. It emanated naturally from characters who had a violent spirit. Why talk something out when you can punch the guy’s lights out? Why speak to a counselor when throwing Molotov cocktails will get that rage off your chest and how!

   I thought about our recent Valentine’s Day Massacre and how little political will there is to take any measures at all to stop the slaughter of our young people. Effective background checks, closing the gun show loophole, banning assault-style weapons made for war, even something as simple as banning bump-stocks. The default answer to any single one of the above is always a resounding NO. Then my mind returned to Three Billboards. No, I thought, we are not gratuitously violent. Indeed, our violence emanates from our deepest selves. Many in our society have long stoked this internal rage, raising it to such a fevered pitch that they categorically refuse to live without AR-15’s, weapons capable of destroying scores of their fellow human beings in a matter of minutes. When there's a mass shooting, they blame the individual shooter...while harboring the collective enemy within.

   Young people must feel terrified growing up in a world where their elders nurture such rage. Yet my hope rests in them. You rock, Emma Gonzalez! Call B.S. on all us oldsters who can't live without our lethal toys! Maybe we’ll finally start acting like responsible adults.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Dominant Culture

We fear the Muslims and the Syrians,
   Latinos, Dreamers, Black Americans

They must be detained, deported, regulated
   But white men with arsenals must be placated.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Another day of devouring our own

Another day, another mass shooting.Over 50 people. Senseless.
I'm speechless.

Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Oil and wine

Oil and wine I will pour on my soul
   I'll be my own Good Samaritan

Consolation and healing from those who assailed me
   restoration of my spirit, mending its wings

Till carried awhile on the faithful beast
   it learns to soar again

Monday, July 24, 2017

No poem ever began with I can't

No poem ever began with I can't
I can't is a real non-starter

Like turning the ignition key
and finding the engine dead

I can't's like the sound of an untuned piano
or the squawk of a crow too early in the morning

I can't is like egg whites that won't peak
or a cake that won't rise

So if you want your poem to rise
better start it with I can

Saturday, June 10, 2017

In Search of Summers Past, I

    I'm going back more than 50 years. Memories of those summers make me melancholy. My only companion --who dogged me mercilessly-- was the sun. Beating down on my head, blinding my eyes, drowning me in humidity. I naturally took refuge indoors.

    The bookmobile visited our neighborhood every week and parked just down the street. A van the length of a bus, it contained more books than I had ever seen in one place. The bookmobile also ferried about a duplicate of the library's card catalog. (Never seen a card catalog? Wikipedia to the rescue!) I could discover other books in the township library's collection, complete an order form, and the bookmobile would deliver it to me the following week. What a sense of power! In a few weeks I had consumed all the titles appropriate for my reading age that were housed in the vehicle, and I was hungry to browse in situ all those tantalizing titles listed in the catalog.

    When I was twelve or thirteen, Mom let me take the bus that stopped on our corner. It stopped at the larger branch library housed in the municipal building. During the summer months I'd visit the library almost every week, lug home all the books my arms could hold, and finish reading them in two or three days.

     My two best friends both had grandparents with homes at the New Jersey shore. They left the day after school closed and didn't return until a couple of weeks before the new school year. Bringing along a friend was out of the question, as both families were already densely populated. Later on I heard about kids who went away to summer camp, but the parents on our block didn't seem to know about that, and even if they did, who had that sort of money?  So, that's how books became my true companions.

    By the time I was in high school, I was allowed to take the bus to the terminal and from there, the El (elevated train line) to center city. From Suburban Station it was but a short walk to Mecca, a.k.a., the Free Library of Philadelphia. Along the way I strolled through Logan Circle, brushing by Alexander Calder's fountain to catch its cool, moist breeze. Eventually I learned that the architectural design of the circle and the buildings facing it, the Free Library and the Courthouse, had been modeled after the Place de la Concorde in Paris. OK, but to me the Free Library was the Taj Mahal.  

Logan Circle and its facing buildings. To the left, the Free Library. To the right, the Courthouse.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Poem for Easter

They don’t sing for us
   they sing to mark their territory
   and attract a mate
   as nestlings screech
    I’m hungry! I’m hungry!

Out on a branch
   warbling full-throated
   in his ancestral key
   he could care less that
   we’re listening

But allow me to say thank you
   tiny virtuoso
   beyond price the ticket
   to such a glorious concert

Sunday, April 9, 2017


We write letters to our representatives
  and we post to Facebook
we're righteously indignant
  we know who to blame
expressing our outrage
   denouncing like Jeremiah
shedding warm tears
   while wringing our hands
then we sit down to dinner
    as they keep dying

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Powell's City of Books

Portland, OR

I could live here. Maybe in the Rose Room.

Powell's is like an old warehouse. Nothing about it is shiny or polished. The tables in the coffee room remind me of my grade school cafeteria crowded with long tables I'm sharing with strangers who aren't really strangers. They're kindred spirits, book lovers like me. We understand one another. We're instantly at ease in one another's company. You can keep your Barnes & Noble.

My mission for today is to leave with a French book or an Italian book. The selection is better than that at most university libraries. Maybe something by Natalia Ginsburg or Oriana Fallaci. But --more than that-- I want to linger. In my imagination I plot how I could stay past closing. How I could hide in a corner, evade detection, and sleep here. In the morning I'd have coffee and a biscotto for breakfast, greeted by the smiles of other bibliophiles. Only the ghosts of my favotite authors would know...

If the nerves in your fingertips don't scintillate when turning the pages of a book, you can't understand.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Ils sont tombés

A poignant song written and performed by Charles Aznavour, qui est de ce peuple, i.e., from an Armenian family that migrated to France.

Ils sont tombés sans trop savoir pourquoi
Hommes, femmes et enfants qui ne voulaient que vivre
Avec des gestes lourds comme des hommes ivres
Mutilés, massacrés les yeux ouverts d'effroi
Ils sont tombés en invoquant leur Dieu
Au seuil de leur église ou le pas de leur porte
En troupeaux de désert titubant en cohorte
Terrassés par la soif, la faim, le fer, le feu

Nul n'éleva la voix dans un monde euphorique
Tandis que croupissait un peuple dans son sang
L' Europe découvrait le jazz et sa musique
Les plaintes de trompettes couvraient les cris d'enfants
Ils sont tombés pudiquement sans bruit
Par milliers, par millions, sans que le monde ne bouge
Devenant un instant minuscules fleurs rouges
Recouverts par un vent de sable et puis d'oubli

Ils sont tombés les yeux pleins de soleil
Comme un oiseau qu'en vol une balle fracasse
Pour mourir n'importe où et sans laisser de traces
Ignorés, oubliés dans leur dernier sommeil
Ils sont tombés en croyant ingénus
Que leurs enfants pourraient continuer leur enfance
Qu'un jour ils fouleraient des terres d'espérance
Dans des pays ouverts d'hommes aux mains tendues

Moi je suis de ce peuple qui dort sans sépulture
Qu'a choisi de mourir sans abdiquer sa foi
Qui n'a jamais baissé la tête sous l'injure
Qui survit malgré tout et qui ne se plaint pas
Ils sont tombés pour entrer dans la nuit
Éternelle des temps au bout de leur courage
La mort les a frappés sans demander leur âge
Puisqu'ils étaient fautifs d'être enfants d'Arménie

A lovely translation that preserves the poetic quality of the original French:

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Decoration Day

Some thoughts that occurred to me during meeting for worship this morning...

Today I hold in the Light military vets like my 98-year-old father-in-law as well as those who have fallen, who paid the ultimate price --and whose families continue to suffer-- because of humanity's inability to resolve conflicts nonviolently. 

I am reminded of the Illiad and the Odyssey, those epic poems that express the Greek belief that war among humans reflects rivalries and conflicts among the gods on Mount Olympus. Our leaders in high places, like the gods of Antiquity, pull the strings of those in more lowly places. However, unlike Ulysses, Aeneas  Roland, Henry V, and other literary military heroes, our leaders do not gallop at the head of their troops. Some, like Joe Biden, do have sons or daughters who serve. But most are safe and their children are safe at home, while the sons and daughters of others are sent into combat. Some reserve units deploy a number of adults from the same town ... sometimes including a mother and father from the same young family.

We still have much to do before we can, like George Fox, come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strife were.