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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

I’ve been thinking about the tree of life ever since a book near-literally fell from the shelves into my arms at the Boston Public Library. A non-descript old fashioned hardback with no book jacket. A bit over-sized though not especially thick. It was turquoise blue with gold lettering on the slender spine that said “Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life?” The title page made clear that it was a collection of interviews by Guy and Candie Carawan, with black and white photographs by Robert Yellin, together capturing the words, images and songs of the people of Johns Island, South Carolina. I knew of the island and that the people interviewed must have been the descendants of slaves, slaves who most often were of West African origin, who had labored on the plantations producing indigo, rice and other produce that had made their white owners some of the wealthiest people in America. Slavery ended with the Civil War but by the time this book was published in 1966 a new war of sorts raged for civil rights especially the right to vote.

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Given that the preface was written by Alan Lomax, the famed ethnographer and musicologist, I figured the book was just another cool book documenting folkways before a group of people and their ways vanished. Probably a good read but I had so many books in my bag already. I decided to flip through it just a bit and then I would put it away.  I did put it away but not before I saw myself.

Now I grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia not the Lowcountry of South Carolina. But it really didn’t matter as I stared into a book at a landscape that had surely shaped the people, as my childhood landscape had shaped me, and looked into faces that reminded me of home.  Beautiful men and women with dark-hued skin. Some slim as a stick and others quite round. Seniors and babies and every age in between. Some people laughing, some people crying and then there were those with their heads thrown back in song as they prayed through music to God. The poverty comes through too. Even so the poverty does not overshadow the joy, the sense of community, and the intense devotion, a devotion that must have helped these people survive the present when they had little idea what the future held for them and their children.

Look at pictures. That’s all I intended before placing the book back on its shelf.  But then I thought maybe I’d read a page or two, just standing there in the library, and then I’d tuck the book back on the shelf.  It was just a couple of minutes of reading. And then I walked away.

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That night I dreamed about what I’d read. It was a scene described in the first interview by Rev. G. C. Brown. It opens with him describing how his father had been a slave. But then he goes on to describe his grandmother whom he had known. She was a stubborn woman with a cruel owner and when she did not do as was expected of a slave “he’d take her by the ears to the corner of a house, and just bang her head against the corner until she’d bleed. … She died in the insane hospital in Columbia. You couldn’t find three square inches on her head where there wasn’t a scar when she died. And well, you find naked places all through her head where she was beaten until she beaten into unconsciousness. … In her latter years it was discovered that during one of those forays the skull was crushed into her brain.”  It was horrific to think of that woman having to endure such treatment for so much of her life, for her children to know of her abuse at the hands of someone who saw her as less than human … and that people must have stood around and did nothing, for whatever reason, as she was having her head bashed against a wall.

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I returned to the library and checked out the book and have begun to read it properly. I’ve learned more about the people behind the book, Guy and Candie Carawan, and their incredible legacy of social activism. And then there’s Esau Jenkins and his mission of teaching people to read so that they could register to vote.  He operated a bus driving people to their jobs between the island and Charleston. He decided to get a group on the bus in the mornings to teach them how to read the part of the Constitution they needed to read before they could become registered citizens.  As one woman describes she didn’t think Jenkins would have any luck with her; she’d had too little book learning to read such a thing. But somehow, as she described, standing in line and watching the woman before her stammer (and thus failing?), for the woman who’d been on Jenkins’s bus, the words flowed. She even surprised herself.

 

I am immersed in the music of the peoples’ words as well as the lyrics of their music. The music transcribed by Ethel Raim were songs sung by the island congregation at Moving Star Hall. I can’t read the music notes but the words themselves have impact — sad, uplifting and thought-provoking.

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I’m still working my way through the book, this book that’s not so thick and mostly images. The words I read resonate, in some ways too much so, with words I hear today.  By the way, another book recently fell into my arms at the library, 865 pages including footnotes and index. It’s called The Framers’ Coup The Making of the United States Constitution by Michael J. Klarman. One book at a time …

Sources & Additional Reading

Guy Carawan

Alan Lomax

Esau Jenkins

Moving Star Hall

Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life? (1966)

Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree of Life? (1994 updated & revised)

 

The Framers’ Coup by Michael J. Klarman

 

 

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I continually learn through photography that when beautiful things fall apart – like my bouquet of tulips – that’s when you sometimes find an even greater beauty.

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This post was inspired by the images of Trump (and others) espousing hateful words against those who are different, and the audiences who are looking up at him (and others) with these beautific smiles as if he (and the others) are the second coming of … something.  Trump (and too many others) are playing upon peoples’ fears and I’m not sure what to do except when the opportunity arises to reach out to those who think that I am different, and perhaps fearsome, and hold out my hand.  But sometimes I can’t make myself take my hands out of my pocket and I will excuse myself by saying, “Well, I am not a saint.” But what is a saint? It is a concept found in many cultures and across different religions.

There is a word that I overuse: timeless.  Yet timeless is what comes to mind whenever I read the words of Theodore Parker Ferris in the book, Death & Transfiguration.  It is a small book of sermons he began compiling shortly before his own death in 1972.  The book’s cover is unfortunate I think because these days, especially for people who know nothing of Ferris, they are not drawn to pick up a small book with only those words on the cover in black and green on a white background.  Even when I hold the book, people come up to me and ask what’s wrong, why am I reading a book about death.  I’m not reading a book about death. I’m reading a book about life. About how we live and about how we could live.

I keep returning to a sermon he wrote about saints. In a sermon titled The Unknown Saints he invokes the “image of Christ” – words that fit his life and times.  But looking past that historical and theological specificity to the heart of his message – generalizing his “image of Christ” to encompass the range of behavior we all recognize as holy, however labeled — do not his words fit these times as well?

… we stand before the staggering fact that in a world so steeped in sin, there are still people who live saintly lives.  By sin I mean anything that blurs the image of Christ; anything that blurs his image either in you or in the world.  The word sin means vastly more than that, but seldom can we take in at any one time all that it means.  Right now it means anything that blurs the image of Christ. The pursuit of money as an end in itself is one of the things that blurs the image of Christ. Everyone, of course, has to make a living, and he has the right to have the opportunity to make a living; but not everyone has to make a fortune, and when this becomes the obsession of his life, to make not only the money he needs to live on and a little extra to spare, but to make enough to give him excessive power and inordinate pleasure, then his money begins to blur the image of Christ. It does to his image of Christ what glass wax does to a window before it is wiped off; it cuts off the view.

The bitterness brought to light by a political campaign like some we have been through blurs the image of Christ. It has brought out into the open, and this may be healthy for all I know, hostilities that run deep beneath the well-paved surface of our national life. It has revealed the fact that we are much less mature as people than we thought we were, and perhaps it is better for us to know the truth; but in the meantime this bitterness which is bred by hostility, and this immaturity which it reveals, blurs the image of Christ.  We look at ourselves and at our world through the distortions of the most adolescent political campaign of the twentieth century.

The desire for freedom which rejects every conceivable restraint, where there is no respect for law and order, or decency, or the rights of others, no consideration for other people, this too blurs the image of Christ. We see ourselves and our world through screens of litter, licentiousness, and violence.

The refusal to face facts when the facts hurt; this is another thing that smears the image.  There is a social revolution going on in our country and in our world.  In our own nation a submerged race is reaching for its rights.  If it is not recognized, it will seize by force what those in power refuse to give it.  Thousands of people refuse to face the fact that there is any such revolution going on and, if they do face it, they refuse to face the fact that the people who are reaching for their rights have a right to reach, and that the rest of us will not find it easy to do the right thing when we have done the wrong thing for so long that we have come to think that it is right.

By sin I mean the self-centeredness in your own life which leaves no room for the spirit of Christ.  We all have to cope with this because in a sense we are all self-centered.  We are all deeply concerned about our own lives.  We are made that way, we can’t help it.  But when that self-concern reaches the point where it excludes everything else except the things that concern our own pleasure, our own welfare, or our comfort, when it reaches the point that there is no room left for the spirit of Christ, then that self-centeredness blurs the image of Christ.  In fact it blots it out.

And yet, in spite of the fact that we are living in a world so steeped in sin, there are people who are nevertheless living saintly lives. They are not perfect, not by any means.  They are living imperfect lives, under difficult circumstances, without word of complaint.  They do not win all the games, but they never play a crooked game.  They have their faults but in some peculiar, mysterious way, they are lovable faults. They make mistakes, but their mistakes do not make them. Everyone makes mistakes, but there are some people who are made by their mistakes; they are shaped and molded by them. Other people make mistakes, but their mistakes do not make them; they rise above them, go on in spite of them, and sooner or later master them.

In an un-Christian world, these people are the unknown saints.”

Would Ferris today think that there is a whole industry today in blurring the image of Christ? Clearly there is much money being made in promoting hateful behavior.  Is it behavior that has become so common, so taken for granted, that people do not even recognize what is being done to them and taking place around them?

Just something to think about perhaps. Meanwhile I am grateful for those who are able to take their hands out of their pockets and reach across the aisle.

Please note that the above words by Ferris is just an excerpt of the full sermon.  His book, Death & Transfiguration, can be purchased online and at the Shop at Trinity Church in Copley Square.

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Recently, on a warm day in the city of Boston, I raced through one of its many squares toward my favorite hot dog vendor.  I’d already spent most of my half-hour break running errands and knew that I was going to be late returning to work, but darnit, I needed to eat and wanted a good hot dog.  As I made my way through the square, an elderly man stepped into my path.  He said, “Can you spare a quarter?”  I gazed into his watery blue eyes and said, “No, but would you like a hot dog?”  I don’t know why I said what I said that day, and he certainly wasn’t expecting me to say what I said.  He frowned and blinked a few times and then said, “You don’t have a quarter?”  I didn’t quite put my hands on my hips in exasperation, but I did raise an eyebrow as I repeated, “Do you want a hot dog?”  He shrugged.  “Okay.”

He walked with me to the hot dog vendor.  We stood in line together, a small brown woman and a tall older white man.  He told me about his son who was going to give him money later in the week.  He asked me questions about myself  including where I went to school.  I gave him mostly vague responses, not wanting to share too much, but I did admit that I’d studied history at one phase.  He nodded, and then said with great pride, “At university I studied philosophy.”  He then proceeded to tell me about Kierkegaard.

As we moved to the front of the line, the hot dog vendor said, “Hey, dear.  Your usual?”  I nodded and then added, “And this gentleman has an order too.”  The man cleared his throat and then ordered a small dog.   “What about a drink?” I asked.   Like a child, he thought a moment and then said, “Oh, yes.” He looked over the line of drinks displayed on the cart and picked an orange soda.  The hot dog vendor kept looking at me, a quizzical expression on his face.  I just smiled.  The vendor shrugged and began to fill our orders.

“Where do you work?” the man asked as we waited.  I paused, and said, “Many places, but part-time in that church over there.  That’s where I’m coming from today.”  He nodded, his face taking on a sage expression.  “G.K. Chesterston,” he said.  “He wrote a book called Orthodoxy.”  I took my hot dog from the vendor.  “I’ll check it out,” I said and then walked away.

Though I have been in the square many times since, I have yet to see this man again.  Other people, men and women, come up to me and ask for money.  I say no.  I have not been compelled to offer up anymore hot dogs.  Perhaps that moment will come again.  Meanwhile, each week, there is a gentleman I see in a wheelchair with his sign and his cup.  I do not give him money either, but I do smile and nod in greeting as I walk by.  He smiles and nods back, and that seems to be enough.

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