Thursday, July 7, 2016

MAKING ONE'S LIFE A GREAT POEM

Walt Whitman
1819 - 1892

Three days ago, most of my American compatriots celebrated the Fourth of July with cookouts, fireworks, and other festivities that have little to do with either the history of American independence or the constitutional framework within which we are supposed to govern ourselves and function as a nation.  There were others, however — myself included — who found it difficult to celebrate American ideals during a year in which the members of Congress, most of whom are beholden to the National Rife Association, have not mustered sufficient courage to ban the private sale and purchase of military-grade assault rifles; during a year in which there have already been almost 500 fatal police shootings (many race-based) in this country; during a year in which the presumptive presidential nominee of one of the two major political parties in the United States is widely considered to be a narcissist, a bigot, a xenophobe, a misogynist, a pathological liar, and a man without any visible moral foundation.

This is not the America of our constitutional ideals, and the mere act of paying attention to what is happening — a civic obligation, I would argue — is enough to leave one in a permanent state of depression.  As always, however, something comes alone to remind us of the higher ideals which, historically, have provided this country with optimism, strength, and moral courage when these attributes of character are most needed.  In this case, the redemptive tonic was provided by The Writer's Almanac, which, on the Fourth of July, published an inspirational excerpt from the preface of Walt Whitman's great poetry collection, Leaves of Grass.  No shrinking violet, Whitman tells us what we should do if we want to turn our lives into a great poem. It's good advice for any time, but it holds a special resonance for me at this juncture in my life.  May you, too, find meaning and motivation in these wise words of a true American idealist.

THIS IS WHAT YOU SHALL DO
From Preface to Leaves of Grass 

This is what you shall do:  Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

18 comments:

  1. Seems we all have our crosses to bear George. You have your gun laws and the destruction they bring - at present the Chilcot report is fresh in our minds and the terrible consequences of that.
    I really must get round to reading some of 'Leaves of Grass'.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Pat. Yes, whether it's the disastrous, lie-based decisions to invade Iraq, the misunderstandings and misrepresentations that led to Brexit, or the current proposals of the what is now effectively the Trump party, recent history makes it difficult to retain faith in the future of our countries. That's the reason I find it hopeful to return to the spirit of a poet like Whitman. Regardless of what happens in the collective life of government and politics, we must hold fast to those things that give meaning to daily life — loving the earth and its animals, being skeptical of wealth and power, being good friends and good neighbors, always finding pleasure in the ordinary. This, I think, was Whitman's path.

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  2. Whitman was a very beautiful man who happened to be an american. for me this is such an important point. no country is better than another. (i know this is what you intend but i feel it must be clearly stated.)

    Whitman's spirit transcends borders. if his spirit is a nation, it is a nation of love and survival by contact. so it should be for all of us.

    it is a frightening time in america. a pivotal time. a time to choose wisely. if not — well, i fear for the world.

    (i so appreciate your care in initiating a conversation about the ideology and morality of a nation.)

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  3. Thanks for stopping by, Erin, and also for your thoughtful and insightful comments. By saying that Whitman was "a true American idealist," I intended to draw a contrast with those like Trump who have perverted what they perceive to be American ideals. I agree entirely, however, that Whitman's spirit transcends borders. Like you, I also remain a skeptic when people argue that one country is intrinsically better than all others. In my view, "American exceptionalism," a term which is embraced by most American politicians on both sides of the aisle, is a myth, at least to the extent that it implies that my country has held superior values since its founding. There is simply too much evidence to the contrary (e.g., slavery, the continuation of racial discrimination, the unequal treatment of women, the worship of guns at the expense of annual murder rates that exceed those of all other developed nations).

    By the way, I check out your blog and like what I see. I will be placing it on my blog roll so that I can remain current with your postings.

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    1. i'm so glad you received this gently, george. i find myself extremely weary these days of the political machinations of almost all nations. (i'm sure there is someone out there doing alright, but perhaps so quiet we don't have them on our radar.)

      we are in our beginning and in our end one people and only one people.

      humility. empathy. understanding. the only things that will allow us all a future.

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    2. Thanks for the additional comment, Erin. As we watch the insanity unfold throughout the world, we must remain anchored in our own values and do our best to find joy, peace, and inspiration in the ordinary rituals of daily life. Be well.

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  4. I have travelled far and wide across the planet, but never west of Europe and all I know about the US is from those of my family who have travelled and lived there (some long enough to acquire citizenship), and literature, movies, music, media - all of which I find amazing and inspiring and often spellbinding in their trail blazing openness. Still, asked about my idea of the US, I would probably come up with a string of cliches and second hand opinions - not unlike most of my US friends would produce if asked about my European homes (Ireland and Germany).
    In view of this dreadful but possibly unavoidable shortcoming, I cherish blogs like yours and in particular, blog posts like this one.
    Thank you.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Sabine. In the final analysis, what we do with our individual lives in our small communities is probably more important than the national boundaries that surround us. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, the world can never be better than its places, just as its places can never be better than its people. It's all interconnected.

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  5. As an American living in Germany, I truly have second thoughts about ever wanting to live in American again. Western Europe is leaps and bounds ahead of the US on so many fronts...

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    1. I agree, OE. Thanks for the comment.

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  6. It would be interesting to sit and pick apart each of these statements with Walt himself, wouldn't it? Not taking off your hat alone would have been radical in his time, I think.

    Thanks for this, George. These last days have been especially grievous. I feel myself breaking along with blacks in our country.

    I have always wondered why people took an exceptionalist approach to the world. I remember as a kid watching the Olympics and wondering why we only heard about American athletes at the end of the day, for instance. Sadly, as a nation we have become isolated, and yet also overly interventionist around the world. Well there is just too much to be sad about, and the topics are endless.

    I have not really celebrated the 4th of July since I was little. The American flag itself is wrought with troublesome associations for me. I struggle with the word patriotism and feel strongly that it should not mean blind trust or pride or submission.

    As always, I would also love to sit with you and talk over these things. I loved seeing your FB post of the climb with your grandson and soulmate, which is why I came and checked here for a post. And I am glad I did!

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    1. How wonderful to hear from you, Ruth! Yes, these are The Sad Times, for it seems increasingly (though this may be the nature of media) that those who would divide are vanquishing those who would unite. Let us hope for better days. Let us hope that a modicum of sanity will prevail. If all else fails, let us make sure that the world we imagine is being created daily in our own communities, in our own little pieces of earth, in our own little lives, however flawed, even as the larger world remains bent upon hatred, division, and war.

      On this matter of "an exceptionalist approach to the world," few things get under my skin as much as the notion of "American exceptionalism." To the extent people want to revere the ideals of the Constitution, so be it, but it is both wrongheaded and arrogant for Americans to suggest that this country has historically been superior in every way to other countries — this country that legally condoned and practiced slavery for a very long period after the Constitution was approved; this country that continues to be racist in many quarters, notwithstanding the niceties of occasional surface behavior; this country that often seems to be in a state of perpetual war, invading other countries at will, often by blatantly lying to the public about the need from preemptive war; this country that literally worships guns, that has the highest level of gun-related deaths per capita of all developed countries; this country that has mastered the art of hypocrisy when measured by its behavior versus its so-called ideals . . . Needless to say, I could go on and on, and as you can see, I find it difficult to keep my frustration under control.

      I also struggle with the commonly accepted notion of "patriotism," this completely insane notion that an American owes his or her first allegiance to the American nation, "right or wrong." My allegiance goes first to my values and conscience, and I will never, out of some misguided sense of "patriotism," support American policies or actions that are inconsistent with my values and conscience. Living as a conscious and inclusive human being is more important that allegiance to a particular country.

      Sorry to carry on to much, but we haven't talked in a while. Thanks again for sharing your concerns. As for the hike with Brody, these are the redemptive moments that give me the strength to deal with weeks like the last.

      All the best . . .

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    2. I appreciate your responses very much, George, and I feel those same frustrations.

      I am trying not to resist what is happening. I purchased a book that I have barely begun to read, but even the title is helpful, about the state of the world: Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times, by Carolyn Baker. Maybe you are familiar with her work. I have only read an interview or two. I like the idea of being conscious that the systems of the world are collapsing, and that while it happens, we need to be as conscious as possible so that we can be kind and helpful, and to contribute whatever strength and comfort we can, both to ourselves and to others.

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    3. Thanks for this note, Ruth. The book by Carolyn Baker sounds very interesting. I'll check it out.

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  7. It is also lovely to see Erin's comment! I miss her, and you, in our blog conversations.

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    1. Glad you were able to reconnect with Erin a bit.

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  8. On a morning on which our new prime minister seems to be appointing a
    quixotic, pro-Brexit and right-leaning cabinet, including Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, it is easy to despair. Luckily we always have the idealism of Whitman and his wonderful, liberating advice.

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    1. I was surprised to see that your new prime minister, who had voted against Brexit, appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. That's truly discouraging. That said, we have little encouraging news here in the states. Notwithstanding those who continue to say "it'll never happen," the widespread disapproval ratings of Hillary lead me to believe that there is at least a 50/50 chance that Trump will be elected, not because he has higher approval numbers (he doesn't), but because he will be regarded as the non-establishment, outsider candidate in an election cycle in which the electorate seems to be looking for something new, even if it's a demagogue. Frightening times we live in, my friend. Let's hope that the future unfolds for the better, and if it doesn't, that we will at least be able to hold on to Whitman's timeless values and ideals.

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