Steinbeck, moral virtue, and the loss of the American dream ~

Steinbeck, moral virtue, and the loss of the American dream ~

This is the year I lose what little faith I had left in the American Dream. Not ‘the’ American Dream — I’m not sure I’ve believed in that for a long time. All people can’t become president (unless they’re über rich…). Nor can just anyone come to America — especially these days — much less become whatever s/he wants to be.

No, this was the dream that drove America to international acclaim during the 20th century. The dream that birthed so many great poets, inventors, philosophers, scientists and musicians. The dream that flamed bright in Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, César Chávez. The dream of a quality public education that was the right of every American child.

I am trying to come to terms w/ the idea that while we say we care about education, what we do (remember the whole actions speak thing?) is cut funding, deride teachers, slash their pay and benefits. And blame them, in the meantime, for ills that are societal in nature. Witness our current Secretary of Education, and her disinterest in traditional public ed. Despite, for instance, the research that shows (fairly conclusively) that charter schools are NOT as strong, overall, as public schools, and that $$ DO make a difference in quality of education, she & her bosses continue to tout charter schools. Which make PROFITS off of kids. Grr…

John Steinbeck once said (in one of my very favourite books, The Log from the Sea of Cortez)  that American society pays lip service to abstract ‘good’ values like ‘wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility.’ But in reality? The man who forced Americans to confront the realities of the Great Depression argues that we ‘envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities [cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity] has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure.’ We love Jesus in the abstract, he says, but we’d rather be successful than good. Because to be good is to be weak. A ‘value’ we see repeated over & over in the current electoral results.

This is painfully evident today. We see sharing — w/ the poor, w/ other countries, w/ the elderly and people who look different than we do — as a sign of weakness. Those people, I hear over & over. Those loafers. Those non-believers. Those who are not like me. I hear people say ~ I have to work hard. They just want it free. Hence the horrific “health” plan that will leave the elderly, those w/ health conditions, and many many other Americans w/ no hope of health care.

I don’t really know how to draw lines between human hearts. If we all believe in the magic that keeps the world turning, does it matter whether we call it God or Allah? Or science? If our children laugh when tickled, does it matter whether their first words are English, Czech or Spanish?moral virtue

Don’t all parents awaken each morning hoping that their children will grow up happy? That our sons & daughters will find meaningful work, be able to live on the proceeds, and be safe from war and want? If so, why is it we can’t meet there? What is so damn important that we can’t sit down over tea and talk? How the HELL do we expect our children — ALL our children — to become what we dream of w/out benefit of education? I would think even the most diehard no-funding proponent would see that an educated populace is an economic advantage for all of us. Even w/out benefit of their taxes, the educated can work, and support themselves…

We cut education $$ because we would rather give tax breaks to 1% of American taxpayers than fund reading and writing programs that do hundreds of thousands of children good. In my previous state of residence — Oklahoma — we have cut education funding more than ANY other state. And we’re proud of it, most of us. But me? I’m grieving. Mourning for a country that I thought believed in our children. That cherishes them as our future.

I keep poking this wound. Even though I was expecting this outcome, knowing that I’ve agreed w/ Steinbeck on this since I first read him, I am heartsick. I know that there is enormous fear and hatred raging at floodtide throughout the country. And I don’t understand it.

As I drove to get coffee yesterday, I passed houses redolent with the fragrance of old money. Their bricks were all neatly pointed. Nary a shingle curled. Each fence contained its private sanctuary with evenly spaced and level boards. The neighbourhood was so beautiful in the balmy not-quite-summer sunlight that it made you smile in delight. People live here, I thought. In these houses as big as libraries. Within these walls of stone and brick and privilege. But it didn’t make me jealous. It made me deeply aware of how blessed we are. How blessed the owners of those lovely old homes are. How much we have to be thankful for, and how often we feel that offering opportunities — real, tangible, concrete opportunities — to those less fortunate is ‘redistribution of wealth.’

In Wisconsin recently, there are people who said they have no jobs, so why should others? What happened to empathy? If my life is hard, I don’t want everyone to be at my level. Misery really doesn’t love company. Even when I was poor — so poor that I did w/out a telephone, had no TV, lived in a 3-room shotgun apartment cut from 1/4 of an old derelict house in a very bad neighbourhood — I wanted peace and plenty for all. I didn’t begrudge pocket mansions or expensive imported cars. I just wanted every one of my friends to have the opportunity for the same.

And this week, it feels like that hope is a completely dead American dream. And I can’t understand why.

Catching up ~ NaPoWriMo (16)

Catching up ~ NaPoWriMo (16)

Still writing! Luckily (at least it feels that way today) I have a few assignments left. 😏 Day 16’s NaPoWriMo prompt came quickly. Here it is:

Today I challenge you to take your inspiration, like our featured interviewee did in the chapbook she co-authored with Ross Gay, from the act of letter-writing. Your poem can be in the form of a letter to a person, place, or thing, or in the form of a back-and-forth correspondence.

And the poem:

Dear America ~

Please explain to my grandson
Why you will not trust him as he grows.
Why his uncle and his mother are suspect
Those dubious brown people
Why my cousin’s darker grandsons
Carry with them trouble
As dark as their shadows
As dark as white fear.
Dear America
Can you explain
So that we all understand?

NaPoWriMo ~ catching up (6)

Prompt 6 on the NaPoWriMo site stumped me, I confess. Obviously, not all prompts work for everyone. But this one was more difficult because it felt vague. Also? I ADORE the Stevens’ poem referenced, & its several riffs. All beyond my skill set! Oh well, I tried. Here it is:

I’d like to challenge you to write a poem that looks at the same thing from various points of view. The most famous poem of this type is probably Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. You don’t need to have thirteen ways of looking at something – just a few will do!

I can think of so many things that I see from varied perspectives. You’ll have to decide if my flight of fancy works for you. Here it is:

The hands of a craftsman

A draftsman An engineer A fisherman
A man
A scholar A father A builder
A son
The hands of a draftsman
A surveyor A pen holder
A line follower
A rule
A compassman A sketcher
A ruler
A blade
The hands of a fisherman
A hook baiter Line knotter
Lure caster
Fish
Reel tangler Float sinker
Knife
The hands of a lover
Fisherman
Surveyor
Visionary clear
Scholar & blade
Precise & careful
Magician true

Catching up ~ NaPoWriMo (3)

Catching up ~ NaPoWriMo (3)

Still catching up! I’ve written several poems to catch up, but probably shouldn’t inundate the ether net w/ poetry. So I’m limiting myself to 2 posts daily: the day’s actual NaPoWriMo prompt, and one catchup. I may end up w/ more than 2 at the end!

The prompt for day #3 was:

Today I’d like to challenge you to write an elegy – a poem that mourns or honors someone dead or something gone by. And I’d like to ask you to center the elegy on an unusual fact about the person or thing being mourned. For example, if you are writing an elegy about your grandfather, perhaps the poem could be centered around a signature phrase of his. (My own grandfather used to justify whatever he was doing by saying, “well, I can’t sing or dance, and it’s too wet to plow,” which baffled me considerably as a child). Or perhaps your Aunt Lily always unconsciously whistled between her teeth while engaged in her daily battle with the crossword puzzle. These types of details paradoxically breathe life into an elegy, making the mourned person real for the reader.

I’ll leave you to decide if my response is suitably elegaic ~

Elegy for a dysfunctional dog ~
For Pascal

He farted.
A LOT.
Frenchies are known
For being gaseous
Gas giants
And his were powerful
One Christmas we sat
Our noses in our shirts
Breathing our own skin
His love just as oversized
Jumping madly until
You gave him what he craved
Attention. Touch.
Epileptic victim
Of his own faulty wiring
He would snap at illusory
Flies, then stare into space.
Startle him at your own peril.
Epilepsy is another word
For canine rage.
Still, the house is emptier.
No sulfur, no scratch of claws
Scuttling over hardwood
To chase a cat
Who misses him not at all.
But I do.

To unfriend or not…?

To unfriend or not…?

One of my sisters left her long-time FB account at least a month, maybe longer. She’s been on FB for years. A 2nd has muted several ‘friends’ & even family (as have I). While a third is cast-iron, and seems able to keep her sanity. Me? I recently unfriended — then refriended — my cousin. And yes: it was political: I unfriended him after he insulted one of my friends one too many times, ‘citing’ spurious ‘evidence’ from sources like Agent Orange (my current fave name for our ersatz president), Breitbart, and the worst of the alt-right idiots. Please note: my friend wasn’t blameless, but she didn’t start the ruckus. She simply took it to the next level.

And I can’t handle it.

It didn’t make me feel good to unfriend him; he’s family. But it did make me less angry than when he was constantly popping up in my feed saying crap that’s flat (verifiably) untrue.

Still, I felt like I’d failed as a Buddhist. I know we’re supposed to ‘listen’ to each other. But what if what someone is spouting is pure poison? Do I have to listen to Agent Orange (my beloved’s name for president #45) spew vitriol about the Women’s March I was so proud to walk in, with my niece & grand-niece? Do I have to accept it? What about his clueless ‘tariff’ on Mexican imports?? Or the Republican Congressman who said folks could pay for the prohibitively expensive Repub alternative to Affordable Care if they just didn’t buy iPhones?? I don’t have a simple Buddhist answer for this one…

I wish I had a nearby Buddhist teacher. The pagans & Wiccans have a word for me: solitary practitioner. I read Buddhist books, websites. Talk about Buddhism to anyone who will listen (some would probably rather not!). And bumble along, trying to live by this truth, and that precept. Mostly I couple tonglen with a sincere effort to be kind & practice compassion. It’s probably not enough, but it’s what I’m able to do at this point. And breathe, of course…

If someone reading this has useful insights, I’d love to hear them. Because I can’t believe it’s okay to ‘accept’ the hate masquerading these days as ‘give him a chance.’ I will NEVER give hate, intolerance, and evil pretending it’s ‘for our own good’ a chance. I don’t think THAT is good Buddhism, either. If you espouse hate, you don’t get my cooperation. Period. If racism is your way to ‘unite’ people — against someone different from you — I will call you on it. The very Buddhism that counsels me to be compassionate also grounds my social justice work.

I did, however, refriend my cousin. After all, he’s family. Besides — I’m off FB for Lent. I can deal with it in April, right? In the meantime, I’m serious: how are you dealing with these virulently polarised times? Any tips?