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Posts Tagged ‘musings’

DSCN9544

I photographed this tree today. It stands in an adjacent property that has been purchased for development. Given the type of development taking place around me and across Boston, I don’t think the tree is part of the developer’s plan. Its roots may be strong but the tree will be cut down and those roots dug up. Change happens.

DSCN9552Near the tree there is a wild tangle of forsythia branches. For years I’ve watched the brown turn to green and then gold when it fully flowers. A bright sign of spring. I’ve always wanted to sneak onto the property, cut some branches and place them in a vase, like bringing the sunshine indoors. I think they will have the opportunity to bloom one more time before they too are dug up and tossed away. Part of the change.

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I think a lot about change and how change happens. I’m not happy about the changes around me. I am at times near paralyzed by the scale of idiocy and inhumanity in the world right now and especially in my own country under what should be an insignificant presidency. I’m not always sure what to do except donate money where I can, give my time when that makes more sense, and send notes of gratitude (and occasionally of protest). One of my greatest regrets during Obama’s tenure is that I never sent a note of thank you. Not because he was a perfect president but because he was (and remains) a good man, an inspirational figure for the ages. Speaking of inspirational figures … I was looking for some words and came across a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. that seemed relevant.

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In a 1965 commencement address, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, King spoke to Oberlin graduates about the strides that had been made in this country.  “We have come a long, long way since the Negro was first brought to this nation as a slave in 1619. In the last decade we have seen significant developments – the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregation in the public schools, a comprehensive Civil Rights Bill in 1964, and, in a few weeks, a new voting bill to guarantee the right to vote. All of these are significant developments, but I would be dishonest with you this morning if I gave you the impression that we have come to the point where the problem is almost solved.”

“Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out. Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem. That is a myth, and it is a myth because time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m absolutely convinced that the people of ill will in our nation – the extreme rightists – the forces committed to negative ends – have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

Well, I do not feel I am silent, nor do I like to wait around, but I do feel a bit stalled at this moment. Stalled and appalled.  Appalled at what is taking place in this nation with regard to immigrants. Appalled, when I can stomach it, to view the websites of anti-immigration organizations and to see on their staff and boards people who look like me. And so darned appalled at the petty political games being played with “immigration deals” that leave hundreds of thousands of people in limbo. How are people expected to live with such constant anxiety in their lives? They just do. They live. And they act.

People taking action. That is the key, isn’t?

Today even as I grappled with the overwhelming amount of bad news in the headlines, I found uplift in a little video that was heartbreaking but ultimately so inspiring because it featured two people taking action, in two very different ways, and how those actions galvanized the people around them. Its worth a view when you have the time.

 

 

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cuban oregano

Despite my pictures of the icy landscapes that form on some of the windows in this bitter cold, the sun does shine bright through those very same windows and so my plants shake loose their night time chill and seem to thrive though I have been a vary poor caretaker of late.

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flat leaf parsley

The geranium continues to thrive and even grow new leaves though I have it sitting in the coldest room in the house but in a spot that gets the most direct sun at a certain time of day.

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geranium

And I learned long ago that it is best to just let the nasturtium and African violet just be. Not too much water and let them find the sun in their own way.

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nasturtium

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african violet

And while the branches on the oak tree are winter bare, so the sun just pours in, I see an opportunity to plant some sprouts for now and to think about what else I’d like to plant in the future.

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sprouts planted and empty vessels waiting for seeds

This Sunday it felt good to rise from my desk … and take a break from, though not hide from, the absurdity of the news today … and put hands into soil and sort through seeds and muse upon what I’d like to grow.

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WashingtonandRoosevelt

Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt

… a black man sat down to dinner and it caused a national uproar. That man was Boooker T. Washington, President of Tuskegee, sitting down to dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt.

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It was not as if, as one paper noted, it was the first time “a negro had been the guest of the White House. During former administrations … Frederick Douglas and B. K. Bruce registrar of the treasury had attended White House receptions.” [1]

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Blanche Kelso Bruce and Frederick Douglass

And “Queen Lilliuokalani, whose skin is as dark hued as a full-blooded negro, was once a dinner guest of President Cleveland.” [1] So what was the difference?

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Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee

In an NPR interview about her book on the subject, Guest of Honor (2013), Deborah Davis notes that from a Southern perspective inviting a man to dine with your family was acknowledging him as a social equal. Such a man, as your social equal, could even woo your daughter. If that’s true, Roosevelt’s action, as President of the United States, must have come across as a slap in the face to those southerners whom he had been courting politically.

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excerpts from Weekly Clarion-Ledge, Mississippi 1901

In 1901, the nation was grappling with what was referred to as the Negro Problem. Millions of black people in the South freed for a generation. Some had moved north and west but some stayed having finally acquired some political voice with the right to vote, a right being methodically stripped.

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excerpt from Atlanta Constitutution 1901

By 1901 blacks had become refugees within their own country as they moved across the land, often up north, seeking new opportunities. For many of those who stayed in the South, invisible if not literal walls were being built between the races. Each state took their own approach.

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Peoples’ fears and anxieties were heightened, and others’s sense of supremacy legitimized, by the fiery words of white supremacists like Ben Tillman of South Carolina and the Reverend Thomas F. Dixon.

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Benjamin Tillman and Thomas Dixon

Dixon had yet to publish the first book in his Ku Klux Klan trilogy that would inspire D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation fourteen years later, but as an extremely popular preacher of his day, Dixon was widely known, his lectures sold out and his words published in newspapers and journals nationwide.

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One month prior to the dinner, Vice President Roosevelt had been sworn in as President after McKinley’s death following an assassination attempt. Only thirty-six years since the end of the Civil War, Roosevelt sorely needed to keep a still-shaky Union together by remaining aware of, if not outright appeasing, a once again politically powerful South.

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Booker T. Washington and Family

Earlier in the year, Booker T. Washington had published his memoir Up From Slavery. For years he had traveled the world promoting the success and the ideal of Tuskegee, an educational institution that combined necessary academics with industrial training. In terms of the two sides of “the color line,” there were probably few other national figures as famous as Roosevelt and Washington.

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Theodore Roosevelt and Family

So for these two men to dine in the White House in 1901 was of significance. Evidence suggests that Washington was well aware of this fact whereas Roosevelt, with his impulsive nature, was less so.

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The uproar incited by the press, especially the Southern press, was unprecedented. For those who felt threatened by freed blacks, the dinner, its portrayal in the press, conversations on the street and from the pulpit, fanned flames of hatred and gave reign to violence. After news of the dinner, Tillman, then a Congressman from South Carolina, is quoted as saying: “we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to get them back in their places”. He also says later that same year,

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excerpt from Moberly Weekly 1901

As Davis shares in her NPR interview, the impact of that dinner would have ripple effects across the decades. For instance in 1901 a poem was published and appeared in newspapers called Niggers in the White House. Six Months Hence. Written by an anonymous figure, the poem describes in all the derogatory ways possible how blacks had taken over the White House, but then it ends with a solution alluding to the two men’s sons and daughters …

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In 1929, the poem was sent to First Lady Lou Hoover as censure when she invited a black congressman’s wife, Jessie DePriest, to tea in the White House. At a time when Northern politicians were trying to enforce existing laws against racial discrimination, the tea became an event around which southern politicians could rally efforts to continue the segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks.

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Jessie DePriest and Lou Hoover

Clearly both Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt survived the dinner’s aftermath. Roosevelt would even be elected for a second term as President. Roosevelt and Washington would meet again, several more times, but they never dined again in the White House.

Sources & Additional Reading

Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis (2013)

http://www.npr.org/books/titles/152665080/guest-of-honor-booker-t-washington-theodore-roosevelt-and-the-white-house-dinner

[1]Star-Gazette (Elmira, NY), October 19, 1901

[2] Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA) January 13, 1901

https://www.newspapers.com/

Blanche Kelso Bruce

Frederick Douglass

Queen Liliuokalani

Benjamin Tillman

Thomas F. Dixon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niggers_in_the_White_House

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_De_Priest_tea_at_the_White_House

 

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privatepropertytree

nature overwhelming private property

It is important to analyze the how and the why of Trump winning the 2016 Presidential election but right now I am more concerned with the present situation. It’s Fall 2017. While there’s that whole Russian influence piece to be dealt with, there are no hanging chads to be counted. Trump is president. So my question for today is … why is this man who is technically the leader of the most powerful nation in the world being allowed to grandstand and postulate like a spoiled uneducated potty-mouthed silver spoon-wielding toddler without consequence?  Why hasn’t his phone been taken away and put in a lock box until he learns some manners?

He leads the world closer to war(s) with schoolyard taunts back and forth with other world leaders most of whom are as juvenile and narcissistic as Trump. He’s debasing the idea of the American Dream by consistently, if not systematically, instilling fear across this nation. He’s planted the seeds of hopelessness in the hearts of those most desperate, and who aspire to make it to these shores, to start a new life, and to become a productive part of what should not be a stagnant place, this place called the United States of America.

Is there no censure for this man’s juvenile behavior? Does the title of President prevent one from being held accountable for one’s actions?

I mean, really, in a world where daily scores of men, women and children die horrible deaths from violence, starvation, drugs and so many other tragedies, he spends his time (and U.S. tax dollars) and internet bandwidth taking on the NFL as an institution? Through his words and actions he taunts and bullies individually the men and women who expressed once again the idea of the American Dream, an idea that includes freedom of expression?

I think that there is no greater recent expression of what makes America great than what NFL players and owners did this past weekend … they did not all agree that kneeling during the anthem was the right thing to do … but they agreed that those who do bend the knee have the right to do so because where else but America can you do such a thing, to publicly and safely protest what you perceive to be an injustice? Linking arms this weekend, whether standing or kneeling, were Americans of every race. How beautiful was that?

I recollect from the Civics and Government classes that used to be taught in grade schools that there was this thing called “a system of checks and balances” which made U.S. government rather unique in the world. What are the checks and balances on a sitting U.S. President who is inadequate to the tasks before him?

Clearly it is in the best interest of certain individuals and certain institutions for a man like Trump to have the keys to the kingdom. Let him (and those for whom he is simply a mouthpiece) try to bar the gates and build the walls. Others have done so in the past. And over time those gates have been reopened and those walls have been taken down brick by brick. Too many people are becoming near frozen with fear and I say, even if it be easy for me to do so, remain steadfast. Put your words into actions. Keep in mind the upcoming elections. And, you know what else? Be good to your neighbor. Trump isn’t going to be building any bridges. But individually we can. We know what’s tearing us apart. So become agents of change to unite.

 

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This morning I woke to … sound. Phone alarms going off on multiple floors inside the house. Outside, car horns honking, then the cursing that usually follows honked horns, the beep-beep-beep of delivery trucks backing up and so on and so forth. Life in the big city. By the time I made it to the kitchen table and sat with my first cup of coffee, I’d decided that today I was going to write about silence! Not silence as in the absence of all sound but as in the absence of mankind. I wanted the silences that I had just experienced along the Eastern Shore and in the mountains of Virginia. I scribbled some notes about birdsong and humming insects and water lapping at rocks. I was getting darned poetic. But even as I tried to wrap myself in that real yet also romanticized silence, I could not help but remember sounds I had experienced just two days ago, just one day after returning from my travels.

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shore birds

The morning began calm enough. Home brewed coffee is always a good start. But then suddenly the air was filled with the sound of heart-wrenching sobbing. I rushed to the window to see a woman walking away from the neighboring police station. Every few steps she’d turn and look back, her hand sometimes pressed to her heart and sometimes over her mouth. After a while I turned away, not wanting to speculate about the source of her grief. Later that same day I walked into Harvard Square and there too was a woman crying. She sat huddled next to a storefront with a beat up cardboard sign. It said something like, Please help me eat today. She’d propped the sign against her knees. Her hands covered her face, muffling her cries. Her body shook just as hard as the woman I’d seen that morning.

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At one point the woman in the morning had thrown back her head, I think to ask God why?, at least that’s what I deduced from her creole. As she stood there for that short moment, the wind whipping her white dress about her dark skin, she brought to mind the Haitian man whom I’ve written about before, the man who regularly travels past the place where I live and who, even in the rain, will lift his face to the sky and sing joyously, perhaps to God as well, songs like Ave Maria.

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eastern shore of virginia

The woman in the square was quite young, probably a teenager based on her ragged jeans and t-shirt. Red wavy hair spilled over her hands as she cried. Some people walking by placed money in her cup, but her tears did not stop, I think, until another teen sat down next to her with his sign.

My hearing these women did not change their circumstances but their crying did affect me. I was humbled because no matter what aches or pains or grievances I may have, the sound of their tears reminds me how awfully lucky I have been in this world. It is too easy to shut out the cries of those around us. I do want, and maybe even need on occasion, that special quiet of wild places but I also want to remain aware of the aches, pains, and joys of the loved ones and of the strangers around me as I hope there are those who are aware of mine.

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white tailed deer in virginia

 

 

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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

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Robert C. Winthrop. Charles Sumner. Phillips Brooks. Martin Luther King Jr. The lives of these four men span over 150 years. What’s the connection? For me, it’s in their words and actions, or lack thereof, on the subjects that humanity has struggled with since the beginning.  Most often these subjects involve issues of race, class and gender, issues that have always, it seems, inevitably produced tensions within defined societies that then threaten to tear those societies apart. As then as chaos looms or even reigns, individuals within those societies, like these men, must decide what to do, if anything at all.

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Robert C. Winthrop, 1850

It has been two years since I last wrote about Robert C. Winthrop in the context of Hope, the stained glass window that he purchased for Trinity Church in Boston. Winthrop, a one-time Speaker for the U.S. House of Representatives, was a complicated man.  He was a major philanthropist especially to educational institutions in the north and south believing that education was vital to blacks and whites. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, he too gave anti-slavery speeches. He did not want slavery to spread but as far as ending slavery where it already existed, he differed with Douglass and other activists, like Charles Sumner.

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Charles Sumner, 1850

Sumner was a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts who became the leader of the anti-slavery movement in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans. He was an incendiary speaker against slavery, one speech of which led to a physical attack on the Senate floor. When Sumner died in 1874 after a long career in domestic and international politics, people immediately remarked upon his anti-slavery leadership. One of those people who praised Sumner’s legacy was Phillips Brooks, Rector of Trinity Church, himself noted for his powerful oratory.

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Phillips Brooks, Rector of Trinity Church

The words were spoken on a Sunday morning at the end of his sermon.  Exactly what Brooks said in entirety, I do not know. What I do know I learned from Winthrop’s memoir. The diary entry he wrote in response to Brooks are thought provoking.

“I sometimes question whether the cause of religion is advanced when clergymen, from a pulpit on a Sunday, single out for especial admiration statesmen in no way identified with religious observances; and I have been led into this train of thought by the fact that my own rector, in the course of a fine sermon this morning, took occasion to make a brief but glowing tribute to Sumner, who, according to Henry Wilson, had not been inside of a church for twelve years past, unless to attend a wedding or a funeral. He spoke of him, moreover, as one who was ‘a friend to freedom when others were its enemies,’ and as  ‘hating slavery when others loved it.’

Precisely what was meant by this allusion to ‘others’ is not quite clear but it was interpreted by some in the congregation as referring to the party with which Sumner was originally associated. If so, I do not think it fair. The great Whig party loved freedom and hated slavery as much as he, though they could not adopt his mode of showing love and hate. It is a perversion of historical truth to stigmatize that party as having been, in any sense, a proslavery party.  …

We did what we could to keep the peace between North and South, hoping that a day would one day be opened, in the good providence of God, for gradual emancipation on some basis which would be safe for both blacks and whites. Emancipation came as a necessity of the Civil War which we had sought to avert. Perhaps it could have come in no other way, but we had always looked to the ultimate disappearance of slavery under the influence of civilization and Christianity, without endangering the Union or sacrificing half a million lives. …”

His words irritated me.

Upon reflection I realized why and then I found myself re-reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written nearly 100 years after Winthrop put pen to paper.

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Martin Luther King, Jr, 1964

The 1963 letter opens “My Dear Clergymen, While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely. … I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”

King goes on to affirm that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” …

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. … 

“Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Well, fifty years later, you have only to read the headlines of a reputable news source. Indeed, now is the time, yet again, to lift our national policy from the quicksand of injustice of any kind for anyone.

An addendum: I recently saw a news story about a small town in coal country in a southern state. The mass majority of people left in the town are white, economically adrift with few job prospects and with little access to health care and food. Drug use is rampant, and there is great love of Trump because somehow there is a perception that he is just like them. After surviving in this strange new world through July 2017, I now realize I don’t need those people to ever like me, someone who is so different from them, and I don’t need them to vilify Trump and his cronies. At least not yet. First I need to see their living conditions improved … because what they are dealing with, whatever their beliefs, is indeed an injustice. And, as we have seen with this recent Presidential election, its that kind of injustice, as well as injustice regarding race and gender, that can too easily become a threat to justice everywhere.

 

Sources & Additional Reading

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sumner

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Charles_Winthrop

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King_Jr.

 

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DSCN5817

where do the squirrels go

perhaps inside a tree or beneath a big leaf

maybe underground to huddle in a group

a few brave souls probably stay with faces upturned to the sky

I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen wet squirrels before

but when it rains so steady as it has done today

where do the homeless people go

not into tree not beneath a leaf though I am sure there are a few undergrounds

but in general really I am asking as I see the puddles grow outside

where do the homeless go in the rain

those folks I saw just yesterday in Back Bay

not far from this squirrel

on the streets in the alleys on the benches

some asking for money some fighting and others praying

I don’t know where they go in the rain

but I probably should

 

 

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