Two years ago today I published this list of ruminations on the Mad Farmer's Manifesto. You could call it a conversation between me, the daily news headlines and Wendell Berry's very good poem.
If I re-wrote it this week, I'd include words about Baltimore and Boko Haram. I'd still talk about Boston. I'd probably say a bit more about Jimmy Fallon and include a paragraph or two about The Overnighters with the bit about The Queen of Versailles. I'd mention women giving birth in Syria, Iraq and women grieving children in Pakistan and Nepal. I might include a paragraph about driving through New Mexico, right through Fort Sumner where in 1865 the US Army was charged with the internment of 9,000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache men, women and children.
As for doing something every day that won't compute I'd have to question the wisdom of creating a hashtag slogan to celebrate Eastertide. To be honest, I've pretty much regretted it since the moment I clicked "publish". I think I'm just not a #hashtag sort of girl. Can we share photos and stories anyway? I hope so.
16 THOUGHTS FOR 16 STANZAS
originally published at catapult* magazine on May 9, 2013
1.When I read the first stanza, all I can think about is the documentary my husband I saw recently. We watched The Queen of Versailles because our Canadian friend told us one of the characters comes from Binghamton, our hometown. I watched 20 seconds and knew it was the Queen herself, Jackie Siegel (former beauty queen now married to the man trying to build the largest single family residence in America). I knew because of her accent — perfectly nasal with harsh, flat vowels. But I also knew because of something less tangible, something about her perspective on the world and economy — a sort of blithe expectation that she did not have much to contribute to the success of her family, and, therefore, she could not help the impending economic collapse. Which really made no sense. Before she was a beauty queen, she was an RIT-degreed engineer for IBM. She worked for IBM at its world headquarters in Endicott, NY at its zenith.
This was the culture we grew up in. It wasn’t necessarily a class system, but everyone knew if your dad worked for IBM. Siegel tells the story about a colleague who wrote a computer program that would count down each year, day, hour and minute to his retirement. And just as clearly as I recognized her accent, I recognized this mindset. This is the culture we were steeped in growing up in central New York in the early 1980s. IBM thrived, President Reagan spoke at the high school football field a few blocks from the factories and corporate offices, and we all benefitted. Until IBM moved out.
But Siegel wanted more than that retirement mindset — the grin and bear it wherever you can earn a living, dreaming of the day you can get yourself a little plot of retirement vacation land mindset. However, as the documentary reveals, you can take the girl out of the status quo, but not quite the other way around.
2.In the steamy summer of 1948, E. B. White, on guest assignment for the New Yorker, spent a few days strolling his former hometown. The essay was released in 2000 as the slim volume, Here is New York, which The New York Times calls one of the ten best books ever written about the city.
One of White’s most perceptive observations, in my opinion, is this:
New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along…without influencing the inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul… I sometimes think that the only event that hits every New Yorker on the head is the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which is fairly penetrating — the Irish are a hard race to tune out, there are 500,000 of them in residence, and they have the police force right in the family.I wonder if an unintended progress, of sorts, resulting from an event like the terrorist attacks on 9/11 — an event which penetrated every New Yorker so completely they’re still looking at the skies for wayward aircraft and checking skyscrapers for fire exits — is neighbors noticing each for a literal fear of dying.
It may be that the only good to come from each wave of tragedy we experience is the way neighbors share a conversation. Boston, West, Newtown — neighbors experiencing the same story. Neighbors making certain someone’s going to notice if the ground opens up beneath their feet.
3.When I was in middle school, we heard a lot of sermon illustrations about the apocryphal sign of the beast and how in the End Times our government would act like the KGB and know everything about us. That was then, before the Wall came down and we breathed a sigh of relief.
Now when I write an email to my friend about, say, moving into a new house next month, an ad for new Sears appliances shows up at the top of my inbox. And it’s not like Google’s trying to be secretive. Their courtesy is so thorough they provide a hyperlink “Why this ad?” with the answer: “This ad is based on e-mails from your inbox.”
Well, thank you, Google. You’re way friendlier than I ever imagined the KGB. Your art is cooler, too.
4.One of the most well known contemporary Chinese artists, Ai Weiwei, created the world-acclaimed exhibit in 2010, Sunflower Seeds. The exhibit featured 100,000,000 porcelain seeds. One hundred million unique sunflower seeds hand-painted by 1,600 Chinese artisans, piled into an exhibit hall to be kinetically experienced by exhibit attendees. The artist hoped visitors would contemplate the exhibit as a “comment on mass consumption, Chinese industry, famine and collective work.”
Ai Weiwei has been openly critical of his government’s position on democracy and human rights. He currently lives under house arrest.
5.Fifteen years ago, when I was in my late twenties and early thirties and my children were in preschool and I was exhausted and broke, I created a dream scrapbook as a sort of reminder that better days were ahead. I listed, among other things, “own a bed & breakfast,” “RV across America” and “earn a six-figure income” — my version of counting down the days to retirement, I guess.
Now I’m in my forties living out a dream with my family we never knew we had. And we’re dead broke. We’re broker than broke. Dreams — at least good ones — are expensive. They’ll cost you everything — in our case, even our retirement.
6.In the PBS series Call the Midwife, based on the real-life memoir by Jennifer Worth, viewers are invited to re-visit an era when doctors made house calls, nuns delivered babies and midwives rode bicycles. Before The Pill and after England’s National Health Service Act, poor mamas delivered babies in their own beds, surrounded by several generations of family. The nuns dedicated themselves to caring for human life no matter how poverty-stricken, uneducated, diseased, moral or sober the patient.
Medicine has come so far. And yet, it has not.
Yesterday I read in the news that the night bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was admitted to Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, 11 other victims were still being treated there. By the same medical staff. In the same institution.
7.My 17-year-old daughter thinks our country hasn’t been its Best Self since the time it was founded. She wonders about a government that permits torture. She wonders about the American citizen lying in a Boston hospital bed, held without Miranda rights, facing the strong likelihood of torture by his own government.
When I read her this stanza from Berry, she thought, perhaps, we should denounce ourselves, instead.
8.“There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yes, four which I do not understand: The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid.”
9.My friend Jenny is trying to cure cancer.
My friend John and his sister Michelle make art, raise money and tell stories hoping to eradicate sex trafficking in our city.
My friend Phaedra wants to be a working artist and a mom.
I’d like to write something meaningful here.
10.Recently clicking my way through hipster house tours on a high end design blog, I paused my image-pinning long enough to wonder at a statement from one of the urban home owners: “What I love most about our house is that it feels like our grandparents might have lived here.”
May the same be said about our earth.
“More people 34 and younger watching The Daily Show than actual cable news for political convention coverage” (September 5, 2012)
“Daily Show’s ratings now higher than most of FOX News” (June 6, 2011)
Also, this study exists.
12.ERSAL, Lebanon, September 10, 2012 (UNHCR) — For Syrians fleeing their homeland, there is never a right time to leave. Zaina, 24, endured more than a year of fighting in her hometown of Homs before 10 neighbours were killed in a single helicopter attack last month. Nine months pregnant at the time, she decided she had had enough.
“I felt I am going to give birth and that I have to leave this place,” she said.Zaina, her sister and sister-in-law left Homs but did not get far. Before reaching the border, she gave birth to a little girl with blue eyes and porcelain features in a canvas tent, attended by another Syrian fleeing the conflict.
13.“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
— Mother Teresa
May all progress lead us to this sort of greatness.
14.Put another way: may all pollsters be confined to getting their information from the selected majors of college freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors and then their resulting occupations.
Another option: may all market researchers know only what they can discover strolling through a suburban neighborhood garage sale.
A third possibility: may all would-be tyrants study only the “How to Get Your Baby to Sleep” section of a Barnes & Noble.
15.After we moved 1,700 miles across the country to a city four times larger than our hometown, we said things like, “Thank God for our GPS!” and, “What would we have done before the GPS was invented?” Then our GPS was stolen by what I can only assume was another mom who recently moved here, crying and cussing at the steering wheel, driving in circles around Austin’s highways. That was the day I started learning my way around Austin. Wandering — a lot — taught me how to get around.
Other possible methods to make progress like a fox:
Walk a prayer labyrinth.
Pray a rosary.
Follow a toddler.