A Diary of Change

On the 18th anniversary of the day our world changed – forever.

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September 12, 2001. Last night I looked frantically for the picture of my SAVAR students on our yearly trip to NYC to no avail. But I can still see the their faces. BJ’s thousand watt smile, Kim, Thea, Byron, Jessica, Tiffany, Kristy, Nikki, and Katie all in adolescent poses of deep friendship. There were more but these faces found the camera at every turn. It is what I see when I close my eyes. And I could be wrong, relying, as I do, on the sovereignty of memory. I could be thinking of the picture we took on the eighty-third floor of the Empire State Building – different year but some of the same smiles and definitely the same Twin Towers in the background. I will always remember these pictures and yet over time I know these memories will fight a losing battle with the vision I beheld Tuesday, September 11th. Shocked, I watched the south tower as it belched smoke and flame. I saw the second plane bank and then plunge out of sight into the tower behind, propelling the fireball out beyond the south tower. I knew then that this plane was not coming in to drop flame retardant on the first tower – as I first thought. My heart raced. I held my head. Only later did I curse technology. Oh to return to the world of word-of-mouth transmission. The time when one hovered around the television or radio, listening to the newscast as it was filtered through the minds and hearts of stoic announcers. I thought of Cronkite’s voice coming over the speaker in my junior high library and how it cracked and caught on the words that president, John F. Kennedy was dead. That was a time when we were allowed space to form our own mental pictures of catastrophe – however tragic. It is different now.

 Yesterday I had a student write in her English essay, “Change is inevitable…” At fifteen she knows this. And here I am, half a century in age and barely able to remember when a postage stamp was two cents and the closest war was the ‘gas war’ happening over on the boulevard. I’ve missed something about change. Maybe it is the sameness of my days; the only changes are the ones I make.

 Now, my days are changed. An unseen hand has written a tragic script complete with murderous planes. How does one teach this? I don’t want to gather my son and the sons and daughters of others around me and have to explain hatred and intolerance. I fear it is completely beyond my ability. And yet I must.

 I left school on that Tuesday with nowhere to go. Everywhere there was nothing but television news so I watched my son’s soccer practice. I sat in the bleachers reading the local paper, the last one printed before the attack. I could believe, for a few minutes anyway, that the news of the day was light. Periodically, I’d look up at the boys and girls of various ethnic backgrounds on the soccer field in the bright sunshine. The day was exquisite, with the green hillsides only hinting at the golden leaves to come. On the broad expanse of lawn I witnessed young people in innocent athletics giving high fives to friends and competitors alike. I could have stayed there forever, a frozen tableau of perfection. No hatred, no intolerance, no headlines of alarm.

 A student asked about our annual New York City trip. I was resolute in my response. “We will go. That’s one thing that will not change,” I told her. But change is inevitable. A fifteen-year-old told me this. And she was right.

April 2002. The New York City trip did happen. Phantom of the Opera enthralled my forty-five students, most from the hinterlands of rural western New York. On the subway to South Street Seaport, I decide not to make the trek to the hole in the ground that changes forever they way I view human nature. Most of the young people go with another chaperone. A few students stay with me and the vendors of cheap memorabilia. I sigh with relief. I am not ready.

Our chartered bus is faithful to our departure time and, after a last minute buying flourish of knockoff glasses and watches, we depart. I count heads then relax amid the excited chatter of adolescence. Even as darkness descends I sense we are on THAT parkway. My senses are validated by the silence that befalls the group. The bus slows to a crawl – not for traffic but for the view of the remains of the Twin Towers – the hole that has swallowed my city memories. I thought if I didn’t look – maybe things would become unchanged. I looked.

I admonish myself for my foolish, pretzel logic – to think we could achieve some type of retro-sameness. Like the skyline of lower Manhattan, we are all forever changed.

GDF – 2019

 

NOV. 15, 2015: Headlines – A Poem

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Attackers in Paris

‘Did Not Give Anybody a Chance

as if chance played with motive

none are chanced

when death is not feared

FEAR:

it is all that keeps us good

and goodness is relative only

to the god one is willing

to die for

this god militarized,

weaponized

expanded

personalized

assault driven

a god unknown to

civil – ization, decency

lost in three hours

of hell;

a lifetime

of blood spillage

all red being read

in black and white

newsprint echoing ancient

tales written down

the original sin

in concert with the

unconscious brain

man-made insult

the beginning of pain

the parchment of war’s genesis

held tightly in the

fists of bloodstained

armies ordered

young conscripts

avenging lives dear

motivated

by chance

motivated

by fear

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THE 5th OF JULY

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The “why?” that cannot be identified,

Defined beyond its face

A hazardous life with Newton’s law

Setting the young in motion

Long columns of face-blind,

Ghost-eyed pawns to war

For liberty and commerce.

And we celebrate – loudly

The necessary battles

On that slow arc

Rumored to bend

To perfection

THE MUSEUM OF LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING

red door

Where we keep our humanity

Hermetically sealed

And in the future they will come

Down long google-glassed tunnels

To collect artifacts

Heartless facts from

Our artless landmarks

Blind to the act:

Giving succor to the enemy

Night on the battlefield when mountains

Of hatred became mere

Mounds over which we stumbled with gifts

The weight of humanity too great

Too heavy for the light of day

A light used to make way for

The resumption of war

THE POLITICS OF EBOLA: GOD’S PLAN, AND I TOLD YOU SO

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Last week I was stunned by the unkind comment of the stranger next to me as we filled a container with donated cans of soup at the local food bank. The comment came after a polite discussion that almost lulled me into dangerous camaraderie with this woman whose conversation segued from motherly pride in her daughter’s nursing career to her idea that Ebola is God’s punishment. “Whoa!” I put up my hand and responded with the usual; where was God when….(insert any historical scourge here). I pointed out Nazi Germany’s contribution to earthly scourges but, after a few days of contemplation, I know there is not much I could say to this woman and others like her who make their stabs at somatic immunity by volunteering in local food banks and presuming to know what God has in mind for believers and non-believers. And maybe my discomfort comes from my own questioning about a belief system that asks me to suspend belief in reality; a reality in which I live. The reality here is that Ebola is not new and as long as it stayed in some faraway land punishing others for being… well, the “other,” Ebola remained that terrible disease plaguing those sad people in that faraway land. Ebola is here, in our face, live and in living color (cue the hysteria).

We first-world (as opposed to third-world) inhabitants are quite predictable in our approach to life; we live our comfortable lives (some more comfortable than others) consumed with the daily familial and material concerns of the species. Oh, we read the headlines as we pass from one engagement to the next but no headline gets our attention like the local headline giving us the exact location and identity of the killer who has been knocking at our door for decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Ebola was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1994 Richard Preston introduced a generation of readers to The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, a non-fiction thriller that frightened even Steven King who, according to Wikipedia said the first chapter of The Hot Zone was “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life. ” Preston’s book paints indelible images of people in the throes of hemorrhagic fevers and bursting vomit-bags of black bile on transatlantic flights. (After reading the Preston’s book in ’95 I have seriously changed my original position on monkeys as sweet and adorable pets). But Preston’s bestseller did not act as wake up call for the “free world”; shaking our collective shoulders and encouraging us to answer the door. No, it was not until the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, according to Slate.com, that serious research spending occurred at the behest of Dick Cheney whose fear of America’s vulnerability to attack by enemies using bioweapons (as if airplanes were not enough) prompted the Project Bioshield Act. And here is just another story from the file of tragic irony; were it not for the vicarious warriors – those men who fight wars with other people’s children – and their projection of retribution, we would be living with an even worse prognosis for survival.

It is Monday morning, our favorite team has lost the game leaving fans with nothing but hindsight to tell us that America has, once again, been caught deaf to the knocking of humanity. Had we listened to those doctors on the front lines fighting diseases (diseases that know no politics or religion) we wouldn’t be in this heightened state of terror. Had we studied the past, listened to our hearts, and reached out with all the atomic weight our country can muster (especially in times of war) to assist a world far less fortunate, we would not be at this intersection of moral chaos and panic. We allow the scourge of Ebola to continue by proclaiming it a part of “God’s” plan – a passive aggressive approach that did not work with the aids virus. As a country we need to read, reason, and understand. After reading the story of the Ebola virus in The Hot Zone we should have understood Preston’s terrifying conclusion: EBOV will be back. And so it has.

WHAT DOES NOT DISTURB

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We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric but the quarrel with ourselves – poetry     ~      Yeats

 

The hungry brat-god

    Squatting over a world

   Pushes his toy soldiers off to war

    After his milk and cookies

What would happen if

    The woman in his life

    Told the truth?

There are no Kings

    No Queens

    No rulers in the forest

    No language

    No plan

    No god

    Just nature

And its vaguely menacing

    March of days

    Blooming seasons in line

    With our attraction to ruin

 

THE STORY OF US

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I awake most mornings to a sense of deficiency; my mind is hard to move forward – like an old car with a slipping clutch. And I can’t sit in front of my computer anymore, put on my favorite music, and write down my heart. My words fail me – flooded as they are with anger derived from a Facebook stupidity or the NYT headlines. I know, I open that door every morning  – I walk in thinking somehow things will be different, someone will upload some piece of information that does not require a fear of going to hell or total annihilation to act upon.  It would be promising to see Times headlines speaking of peace in the Middle East, a true and peaceful blossoming Arab Spring. But no, truth is painful and  half -truths are doubly painful. I am retired, five years now – and I am prepared to quit my part-time adjunct position at the local community college – a job only meant to ease my transition from 24 years of high school teaching. It has done its job.  I sit on my deck now and watch the apples ripen on the ancient tree in the side yard – no it’s not like watching grass grow or paint dry because the growth of the apples signal a freshening of sorts, an advancing – of the deer and fall. It is unchanging – this seasonal slippage. It happens with no coaxing or caffeine induced rage. Unlike human nature, nature is separate – slipping the bounds of discovery and design. It is what it is – no more no less.  My knees and back ache. Yes, you could say it is simply age but I like to think these aches come from years of struggling under the weight of why.

  This week I began an online class offered by Coursera –  A Brief History of Human Kind by professor Yuval Noah Harari  who beams his talks from a chair in Israel to people as close as his Palestinian neighbors to hundreds if not thousands of students worldwide wanting to know the history of us. I’ve just completed session 1 which has moved me from why to how:  If we spent so many thousands of years being hunted and eaten just how did we maintain our grasp (however slippery) on that middle link of survival only to move to the top of that monstrous food chain? As my professor said, we had no physical strength or size, no great teeth, claws or tough hide to protect us and yet here we are – god of all creatures great and small.  I’m left thinking this accident of ascendance is because we are genetically wired to wage war and kill in mass quantities for purposes other than food. Maybe something as simple as thumbs…? – But the great apes are equipped with such – they can still be captured and enslaved. So, thumbs are out. Maybe we began using our brains – proportionally larger than other beasts – to better advantage. Whatever the case, I agreed with my professor that man was (and remains, in my view) ill equipped for his role at the top of the food chain.

 So, after my first week of study, I’ve learned that cooperation within the species holds more weight than the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Indeed, according to professor Harari, because we have ascended so rapidly to the top of the food chain, we remain weak and vulnerable. So much so, we have the all-consuming need (for survival?) to fortify ourselves for protection (the fittest?). Harari likened early sapiens to ascendant albeit frightened lambs nervously scanning a shortened horizon for a leader. This suggests we are not really armed wolves fighting to survive but something far more dangerous – armed sheep.    

TERRIBLE GOODNESS

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We legislate our terrible goodness

As if nature didn’t exist

As if she will not open her great maw of

Poetic justice and suck in her

Poisoned air

   As if she will forever

Keep mighty trees propping up

The stars that have died eons ago

  As if she will forever allow

Freedom to be

The barometer of a civilization

   We have failed in our charge

Blind to the vision of bleached and

Scattered bones of an

Earth free to be

Legislated to death

    The bomb in the baby carriage

Tells us

We should all be enslaved

By limitation

    There should be no freedom

To be evil

To the earth  – or

To each other

FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN

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You,

who have taken God from her forest

taken her and clothed

her in items of your choosing

Jewels and houses she would eschew.

Put a gun in her hand put her sons

in foreign lands – all

In the name of her father.

You, who have twisted her words

to create the leviathan called

modern culture.

You, who walk the street undercover of pinstripes and attaché and

a business card for proof, and privilege.

You, who cannot judge the passing smell oozing

(a fragrance?) from the carcass of your dying civilization

Yet you judge.

 Fear.

Please do.

 For someone has sallied the rope

Spanning  the crevasse between man and the super man.

Someone knows that side of the swampy abyss and

It’s folly:

You, making it yours with every sweep of arm and voice.

You, who  strive to be occupied with life’s banquet

As you jockey for position and invent

for convenience

determining closeness to your God.

Surprise! When the female of the species,

(Fear this)

with her patterned wings, rises from the swamp and

with nothing more than her sense organs

 drives you back to the craggy edges of your success.

It is she (not you) who will enact the inevitable:

extinction through natural selection.

She worries not.

Moving from host to host she will

ensure that you and your super-kindred,

in attending this banquet,

will surely

sit and starve.