10 Terrible Words that Shouldn’t Exist in Any Language

Digital text-illustration: 10 Terrible WordsOne person who hates is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. One who cares and shares? Perhaps the only antidote.

As I recently said to my friend Maryam: poverty—both of concrete, material resources like food and shelter, and of intellectual and ephemeral resources (education, spiritual enrichment, the arts, community engagement, etc)—seems to me to be perpetrated and perpetuated more by selfishness than by an actual shortage of any of those resources. The rich and powerful always want more riches and power, and what they do have makes them able to afford and acquire more and to keep their feet firmly on the backs of the have-nots. Plenty is never enough. The resulting imbalance is as old as history, and rotten as ever. Only those who will speak up and resist entrenched inequities and injustices will have any hope of making change.Photo montage: Wolverine & Badger

The badger and the wolverine have a reputation for being among the most tenaciously savage brutes of all the mammals. Yeah, Honey Badger even has his own meme to show for it. But let’s be honest: no beast of earth, air, or sea has a capacity for vile, rapacious cruelty rivaling that of the human animal. Even creatures of the natural enmity of predator and prey compete, fight, kill, and are sated. They have little apparent ideation of hatred and war to match people’s. A wolverine or badger will fight to defend, or to kill for food, but unlike the human, doesn’t seem inclined to attack indiscriminately outside of its primal needs for safety, shelter, and food; when the skirmish is done as efficiently as possible and the need assuaged, the sharpest of tooth and reddest of claw among them doesn’t do an end-zone dance to celebrate its pleasure in winning but will usually depart the scene or go to rest for the next time of need. The remaining food and shelter and other resources stay in place for whatever creature comes next, hunter or hunted, cousin or not.

Can we humans not learn from such a thing? I’m pretty sure that if we destroy each other and ourselves in our constant self-righteous, self-congratulatory belief that we deserve everything we can get our hands on, Honey Badger won’t be the only creature that doesn’t care.

Stars Everywhere

Photo montage: Stars in the DarknessThis world is a dark place. War and strife, fear, hunger, hatred, greed, self-righteousness, and poverty gnaw the bones of suffering people on every continent at every hour. And all of these menaces are, in accordance with early expressions of the idea of Tragedy, nearly entirely the making of our own species.

Little hope, at least in my mind, of that sorrowful truth changing as long as our species continues to dominate the planet. We are deeply flawed. Even the finest among us tend to forget themselves and their mortal limits at time; regardless of how educated, high-minded and genuinely well-meant their attitudes and actions may be, it’s sadly true that underlying those attitudes and actions is a firm belief in their rightness. Only natural that it’s hard, from that perspective, to allow that others might have an equal possibility of being right, or at least as wise and well-meaning, as they themselves are, and to show them the full respect of that acceptance.

What, then, of accepting life among my fellow flawed beings in this imperfect world? No comfort is found in denial or in persistently, aggressively resisting what may not have the possibility of ever changing. But to accept this grimness as an eternal truth and let it lie like lead on my soul is no help, either.

I look to the stars.

Physical stars exist in a surprising number of places, many lower and commoner than the depths of the sky, and I look to them and rally as I realize that they stand, every one, as beacons reminding me of what is good not only in the nature in which we imperfect beings live, but what is good within us as well. Small as our fineness may seem, individually and corporately, at times, it does exist, and if there is to be any hope of overcoming the dark, it must come from the nurturing of every little glint seen starring that darkness.

I look to the stars in the indigo distance of the sky, sparkling like promises of better things as they look back at me. I look to the lesser stars of reflected light that dazzle on earth, the  diamond dashes on every body of water and glimmering in every eye, never mind among real gems and the many things made expressly to be beautiful and good and positive. I look, more than anywhere else, at the multitude of stars that shine from the hearts of good and true people, people who are thoughtful and generous, merciful and hardworking, and kind and loving, sometimes despite and against the dark things of this world, and often, wonderfully, for the sole reason that they were made to be such earthly stars.

Feed the Birds

I loved the movie Mary Poppins when I was small, and surely will still love it whenever I see it again. The charm of the story combined with such a well-cast ensemble and the magic of cinematic technology are hard to surpass. I loved the sweetness and buoyancy of the tale and its jolly playfulness and the marvelous escapism of it all. Those were surely the characteristics the filmmakers intended to capture children’s hearts and attentions.

But perhaps more than any other thing about that movie, I think, I loved the song Feed the Birds. It seemed such a small thing in the scope and scale of the whole production, but that, in fact, may be precisely what makes it still stand out in my mind. That, of course, must have been part of the grand plan as well. Clearly, it worked on me. As little and secondary as it may have appeared in the grand scheme of the cinematic version of the story, that song’s piquant minor melody and, especially, its very allusion to the importance of the seemingly insignificant stay with me and move me even when little else of the film’s specifics remain in my memory. I’ve read that this was precisely the intent of the piece and its inclusion in the film. Clever, that Mr Disney and his professional storytelling cohort.

Clever, and they weren’t wrong either.

The beggar urging passersby to trade their tuppence for her packets of bird seed, as well as the birds hungering for it in the hardscape of the city are both easily avoided, neglected or despised by the better fed citizens who might rather brush them off than admit to their existence. That little vignette reminds us, and rightly so, just how much those persons, creatures and events we’d often prefer to ignore or deny really mean.

Their loss or abandonment creates a much more profound emptiness than their seemingly small stature could possibly imply. It’s the barrenness of spirit, of humaneness and hospitality, of compassion and grace in the rest of us, that is the real cost of failing to tend to the weak and small. And it can be the smallest gesture, tiny as a handful of bird seed, that opens the way for healing and humanity and hope.photo

The Price of Innocence

Wye Not

Wye was an impoverished man

Because he didn’t know

The answer to all questions was

‘Because I told you so’—

Wye was a pauper and

He lies in Potter’s Field

Because he tried to find the truth

That others kept concealed—

Wye lived in such poverty

And died alone, unmourned,

Because he kept on asking things

Well after he’d been warned—

Poor Wye was a mortal fool

Despite being a hero:

In heaven, truth makes you a saint—

On earth, it makes you zero.graphite drawing

It’s Good to Set a Poor Example

photosI’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.photosThe photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.photosPeople even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.photosThing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.photosSo the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!photos

Dangerous Desires

My little retelling of the story of Hansel and GretelYes, I prefer a slightly less virulent interpretation of the tale than the early versions focusing on the stereotype of the ‘Wicked Stepmother’ and a father cruel enough to go along with her determination to abandon the children. After all, there’s still plenty of blame to go around when ordinary and seemingly decent people do thoughtless and stupid and even horrible things without considering the ultimate consequences, and even a fairly charitable interpretation of the story seems to me to illustrate that quite handily. And, lest I be accused of excessive softening of what is, after all, a pretty grim [!] tale, I left off the traditional cozy ending, to keep the pointy parts more firmly entrenched in any conscience that will allow them. Wink, wink.

graphite drawingLaw of Unforeseen Consequences

Late, when the children want to play, When chores are a burden at end of day, Why, what harm can come of it, anyway?

Who would begrudge their choice, this chance To lay down the work and pick up a dance? Who would look on this sweet play askance?

What if their Schottische, when lightning flashed, Upset the pitcher and milk was splashed? Ah, suddenly, their mother’s lashed

At them with her anger in surprise At such wild waste of the poor folk’s prize, And tears are smarting in all their eyes!

The rich folk scarcely would give a fig At spilling milk over one swift jig, But their consequence never did loom so big.

No innocent children ever guess That a tiny slip and a modest mess Will afford their mother such deep distress,

Nor mother foresee that her sorrowed scold Will send, heavy-hearted, into the cold Her little ones, lost to the family fold.

And how could their father know what would fall If they failed to answer his panicked call And foraged instead far from safety’s wall?

Too distant from hearth and garden run, Could the children know that their crimeless fun Would lead to endangering anyone?

So off to the forest’s gloom, replete With wild strawberries, so good to eat, They skip unconcerned, when a wilder sweet

Appears before their young, hungry eyes In the most appealingly false disguise Of a gingerbread palace, whose luring lies

Present irresistibly tempting charms To lead them directly into the arms Of the wicked witch whose most horrid harm’s

The deceptive sweetness her cottage seems To hold in its sugary halls of dreams–What covers in icing the children’s screams!

(How could these tender young cherubs guess That under the sparkling prettiness Was a ravening monster intent to fress On their flesh and bones in a gory mess!)

But the most nefarious in the tale Was also most ignorant that such frail And tender tidbits might possibly fail

To end up feeding her heart’s desire, Instead being fueled by fear and ire To shove her into her own oven’s fire!

The story is old, that in unformed youth We may lack the wisdom to see in truth, That apparent delights may be foul, forsooth

But we still hold on to our foolish ways Of dreaming and hoping in wishful haze And never considering that this daze

Can blind us to sanity–in its mire, Can lead to such unexpected, dire Results–unintentionally, Desire Makes us leap from the frying pan into the fire.

Simplicity Itself

 

photoSimplicity, I think, is like most of the virtues and values that we humans might hold dear–those who have it don’t necessarily appreciate it, and those who talk the most about it tend to know the least about it.

The rich and comfortable are so obsessed with the idea or ideal of simplicity nowadays that there are magazines, fashions, classes and whole philosophical movements devoted to its study and cultivation. People will expend massive quantities of energy and spend large quantities of money on trying to simplify their lives and themselves, when very likely simply giving up the energetic striving and letting go of the amassed money would do the trick in a trice. (Perish the thought!)

The poor and underprivileged have ultimate simplicity forced upon them, and tend to choose whether to embrace the unsullied earthiness and quietly hardworking ways thrust on them by their circumstances or to battle against them. Probably a majority of people, both poor and rich, will always think the grass greener where they are not, and hardly give thought to how hard the next person is trying to get over the fence onto their own enviably other property. Dissatisfaction may be an essential part of humanity’s natural state of being, much as it naturally chafes us to think so.

On the other hand, looking at what dissatisfies us with as unsparingly honest a glare as we can might in fact shed some light on how to find better contentment, not necessarily by having more or less of something (tangible or ephemeral) but by giving it all its appropriate due and then saving our true love for the most meaningful virtues and values of all. At the very least, that narrows down the field for most of us. At its best, it frees us up to say that life is remarkably livable where we exist right here, right now, regardless of the shade or tint of the lawn. The simple presence of any one particular leaf of grass or bud of bloom in the one square foot of soil nearest to hand may be quite enough, at least for one simple day.photo