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.

We were So Civilized

Digital collage: We were So CivilizedNo matter where I am on the Fourth of July I am likely to think about the country in which I was born and have lived all of my life thus far: the United States of America. The Fourth is the official birthday of the nation, though many of the current states joined the union long, long after that July in 1776 when it was established by its founders. Like so many nations around the world, this country and its history are a tremendously complicated and varied patchwork of fact and fiction, hope and fear, two steps forward and one step back. Over and over and over again.

Imagine this: a pack of refugees from religious persecution left their homeland and sailed into the unknown across an ocean of which they also knew very little except that their passage across it was dangerous and miserable and killed plenty of them before they hit the new shore. When they landed, to their surprise there were already plenty of other people living on that new turf, and did that stop the interlopers from moving in, too? Of course not. I don’t expect it ever occurred to them, to be honest, that there wasn’t room for everybody or that if they took a ton of the resources around them that might just mean there were fewer for the previous residents of the land, folk who had, indeed, already long established a very different relationship with the continent.

That the illnesses and diseases the newcomers brought with them from Home would endanger and kill many of their new unwitting and unwilling neighbors could never have entered these interlopers’ minds, when they were so preoccupied with not only their current survival but their escape from the hardships and sorrows back in their own homeland. That they themselves would suffer privation, fear, danger, loneliness, and the loss of their lifetime homes, belongings, families and friends across the vast ocean they had crossed was a stark enough reality that perhaps they willed themselves not to think too hard about all that they faced next also affecting the long-tenured native peoples across whose lands they moved like human bulldozers.

The establishment of this new home was far from smooth and easy too, as anyone could probably guess, though I wonder if any of them really considered that the goal as much as simple escape from what they’d known before. Still, none of those inhabitants of North America—invaders or original denizens—could possibly imagine at the time, I suspect, quite how vast the whole continent was and what that meant in terms of creating new colonies within it, let alone new nations. In the years that followed, the westward migration confirmed the existence of innumerable tribes and clans of people not before known to the new arrivals, but also of wild creatures unimagined, of terrain unlike any they had dreamed possible, of climates that had been the stuff of legend until then.

In those many decades of carving out new paths and territories, it was inevitable that, just as it had been with the foregoing generations of various indigenous peoples, there would be struggles over who had access to what, who could live where, and who belonged together with or as far as possible away from whom. No surprise that this led not only to separated towns and enclaves and ethnic, religious, political or philosophical communities but also, in turn, to a wild array of accents and ideas that might as well have been different languages and different species altogether.

Amazing that all of this could remotely possibly coalesce into what is known as the United States of America. Today’s states are still so diverse, even sometimes from county to county or one side of the railroad tracks to another, that it’s nearly laughable to call them United. We fight like pesky siblings with each other all the time; it’s a miracle, in my book, that the so-called Civil War, one of the most uncivilized events in the country’s history, hasn’t simply continued from its beginning to the present day. It does, perhaps, at subtler levels. Just because the invasion of the continent by a bunch of frightened Pilgrims who only thought themselves seeking freedom from tyranny didn’t destroy the whole land and kill every one of them off outright, and because the various internal skirmishes that led to, but were far from limited to, the Civil War didn’t complete that annihilation doesn’t mean we’re not still perfectly capable of incredible incivility at every turn. We try, we fail.

On the Fourth of July, I think of how astounding and—generally—good it is that this messy nation has managed to survive this long without self-destructing. But I can’t help also thinking this of most of the rest of the world. Humans just plain are messy. We form and break alliances; we argue over being Right instead of being compassionate or practical, let alone pursuing justice. We blunder around, hog resources, ascribe privileges and powers to ourselves and our chosen comrades that we willfully deny others, or just pretend the others don’t exist, and thanks to our weirdly, wonderfully diverse array of accents, when we do get around to discussing the least of these things, even those who ostensibly share a language can’t understand each other half of the time anyhow.

Just possibly, our life form may have been civilized at a few choice moments. There is plenty of potential in this odd species of ours, I like to think. Even we Americans aren’t entirely irredeemable; we keep bothering and beating up on each other like so many brothers and sisters, and yet most of us still manage eventually to just agree to disagree and, in moments of precious lucidity, even to see each other’s point of view and operate in an environment of respect and hope. As rotten as we can be to each other, we care enough to wrestle it out and try to find ways to go forward. Together, even. If that isn’t a family worth saving, I guess I don’t know what one is. Happy birthday, USA. Go forth and get a little more civilized, if you can.

All Together Now

Another day, another rehearsal. More study, more practicing. And for all but the most independent and reclusive researchers or out-and-out hermits, this means work done in company. We need each other. The best progress is usually possible only with the support and aid of collaborators and fellow workers in all kinds of related tasks. We build on the work of our predecessors and colleagues; we stand on the shoulders of others.digital illustration from a photo

Nowhere is the necessity of such mutuality, of working very literally in concert, truer than in choirs and orchestras. I have written here plenty of times about the privileges and joys of my life in being able to attend not only so many wonderful concerts but the rehearsals where they are prepared. Beyond that, though, I feel fortunate to have the example and reminder constantly before me of an approach that can be tremendously beneficial in all kinds of life’s activities: surrounding myself with all of the resources that smart and able and collegial, supportive fellow laborers can bring to the task.digital illustration from a photo

Time alone is valuable. It offers all sorts of useful room for quiet reasoning and planning, uninterrupted cogitation and problem-solving, and the mental and emotional space to put all of those aspects to work for me. But there would be little in the way of material with which I can do any of that if it weren’t for the rich stores of fact and imagination prepared by all of those who have preceded me in any task I choose, and there can be only the kind of progress that my own limited stores of wisdom and experience, skill and talent and imagination can cobble together if I don’t work in tandem with others. So I am happy to enlist all of the company I can, and aim for working in harmony toward whatever purposes we can dream and achieve. Then, perhaps, my projects will have a chance of culminating in choruses of satisfied approbation.

You can Lead Me to Water…

…but I can’t guarantee I’ll be smart or committed enough to take advantage of it. I may represent the truly average human in that, though it’s hardly cause for admiration or celebration. We’re just good at being too blind, stubborn, ignorant, lazy and foolish to make proper use of whatever riches are set in our way. It’s silly enough that I can sit at the brink of a well pouring out pure, cold, sweet water and die of thirst, but that I would fail to fill a cup for any of the other thirsty people waiting for my smallest effort becomes a much more significant omission. I should be better. I could be better.graphite drawingAnd I want to be better. The first step, surely, has got to be simply paying attention. Am I so accustomed to privilege that I have acquired wealth-blindness, forgetting how rich I am, or worse yet, have succumbed to that ugly disease, Entitlement? I must teach myself to renew my awe and wonder at what is good and great in my life. Then I must remember to make wise, generous, jubilant and extravagant use of it all. A whole new year lies ahead, a whole new series of opportunities for improvement. See you at the brink.

Urbanity

There is a huge difference between the merely impressive and the expressive when it comes to modern cities. Rotterdam, once one of the glories in the European architectural crown, was bombed to dust in WWII and, given the poverty of post-war resources, was rebuilt in the following decades as a horrifyingly soulless, boxy blot of concrete on the face of the Netherlands. There is no comfort in knowing that the firestorm that destroyed the city was probably not planned as it happened but resulted from a perfect storm of another kind in miscommunications; the horrors of war are a long testimony to the potential for such devastation. In any even, it took Rotterdam ages to be revitalized into the place of energy and beauty that it is today. Why? What made it such a heart-stopping graveyard of a place when it had once been full of life and loveliness, and how could it ever come back to be something gracious and potent again?

There is no obvious single word that can express the massive destructive toll the bombing took on that city; annihilation is perhaps a close approximation, since it’s clear even from faded photos that the thoroughness of the attacks left very little evidence there had ever been a Rotterdam. I find it nearly impossible to imagine even when staring at proof. When my spouse and I visited the city for a conference even less than fifteen years ago it was still a sad shadow of its former glory, still dominated by 1950s-vintage blocks of affordable and utilitarian harshness that made me want to scream when I saw them in juxtaposition to the few tiny remnants of the beautiful architecture that had once filled the place.

The main reason that Rotterdam is beautiful once again, and that many other cities have, and some have never lost, such beauty is simple: architectural thought and distinction. Building what is cheapest and easiest to construct is a poor solution to lack of structure anywhere. Places that have never experienced the ravages of war, urban decay and other forms of damage and neglect in such extremes can retain the beauty and patina of urbane culture in their urban settings far more easily. Take Boston, Massachusetts, a city that has seen its share of ups and downs over time, but as one of the older cities in a young and generally untouched-by-war country, still has many of its older–even oldest–and most prized, elegant, distinctive buildings. Despite the expected problems of social unrest, economic up- and downturns, spots of urban blight and misdirected city planning that Boston has faced like any modern city, the knowledge that the architectural strengths it does have are worthy of protecting and preserving means that it was built as more than mere indoor space in the first place and that the character of the structures has as much value in shaping the city’s identity as do its great denizens.photoIt should be obvious to those of us wishing to see all of the world housed and sheltered in humane and useful structures and towns and cities that simply throwing up whatever is cheapest and most readily available is hardly more useful, in the long term, than just plain, well, throwing up on people. If we want others to live educated, healthy and therefore productive and admirable lives, we can’t stuff them into trash bins of buildings that, even if they don’t collapse under their own flawed ugliness, will never encourage their occupants and users to flourish. If we don’t intend to fill others’ lives with the vomitous garbage we ourselves would reject and flee, we must find ways to make good, practical, appealing design a mandate and not an afterthought or an unaffordable dream.

That approach not only makes living and working in tolerable shelter possible but nurtures the human spirit and pushes us all to better ourselves, our cities and our world. photo

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

It’s Not Enough to be Beautiful

digital painting from a photoReally, the stuff that lies inside is what matters, what always mattered. Wit, integrity, talent. Compassion, charm. Power and intelligence and courage and humor. The things that last go far beyond the mere physical and visible attractions that we, individually and collectively, consider beautiful. It’s more difficult to find and gauge inner beauty, and far more so to develop it, so no wonder we hunt for it and we treasure it so highly. Still, it’s funny that we do. We love, after all, what looks beautiful to us very, very deeply as well. And beauty for its own sake is not a bad thing, either.

Is one morally or inherently better than another? Certainly not. Are they mutually exclusive? Hardly. But it’s true all the same that visible beauty has its perks. We often don’t have to know anything about each other for us to want to be associated Beautiful people, to be around them and admire them, if only for how much we like the way they look. And they in turn, both those with the inner resources that we admire and those who might be closer to pretty, empty packages with nothing fabulous inside, get attention and get things done, their way sometimes greased by the access and support that their prettiness gets them. If it’s possible to have both the outer and the inner, that could hardly be objectionable, but if I had to choose, some days I suspect I would be quite content to be the beautiful one in the room; it’d be fun just to see what it’s like, I imagine. Might not be a Greta Garbo, with both the looks and the evidently impressive inner life, but even being a cheap imitation of the exquisite woman for sheer looks wouldn’t be too awful, I’d think. All I can say is that it really isn’t enough to be beautiful–but it’s not exactly such a bad thing either, is it, now?

All right, I’m only enjoying my little fantasy. My partner, husband, best friend and spouse tells me I’m pretty, I’m beautiful, and I’m full of all those dandy aforementioned inner resources too. And whether it’s flattery or his perception of the truth, I don’t much care. It’s more than enough to feel beautiful. Glamorous I may not be, and in fact I might not even be any of those other lovely things my guy tells me I am, but he’s pretty convincing, that fella of mine, and his word–with his impressive daily love backing it all up–is plenty for me. Any day of the year.