We had our first taste of winter today, with temperatures 15 degrees below normal and reluctant to rise all day and puddles from last night’s rain flat and frozen, and fits of flurries throwing handfuls of white confetti into a stiff breeze, though I saw no reason for confetti. What is there to celebrate? It was a miserable day after yesterday evening’s miserable cold rain.
Last night I faced a night out with good friends, but nearly didn’t go, because, to get to the cheer and the warm hearth of friends, I’d have to venture out into pitch black and pelting, cold rain. It stinks when, in order to have a good time, you must first take a deep breath and run a gauntlet. But that is the definition of winter, in New England.
It is said, “No pain; no gain”, and that is what urges one out, yet at the same time another voice whispers, “No strain; No pain”. And there is much to be said for the second voice. Why risk pneumonia, when you could toast toes by a warm fire?
At some point one is forced to chose between which voice one will listen to. It seems a sort of “tipping point”, or a “fork in the road.” As a writer, often I stay home and am introspective, while others go out. I sometimes stay in even when the weather is balmy. Also as a writer, I often have wound up broke because I stayed home when I should have gone out to work, which later forced me to go out and work lousy jobs in weather others would call insane to work in. Therefore I have a pretty good idea of what both sides of the “tipping point” entail.
In my experience it is almost always better to go out. For example, last night, as I wavered at my front door, there could be no doubt the weather was disagreeable. It was weather best described by Englishmen in London during a North Atlantic gale, when they look out and say, with lordly disapproval, “Simply filthy weather; simply filthy.” Yet two hours later when I stomped back through the same door and hurried to my hearth, I was glad I’d gone. I hadn’t caught pneumonia, and had gained, through the insights of others, an idea I’d never have come up with alone.
One thing that few account for is that the mortal body is capable of ramping up its Adrenalin levels, and altering its entire metabolism, if need be. I noticed my physical frame doing this today. The bitter wind was “lazy” (IE: it cut straight through you, rather than taking the time to go around you) and I was flinching and muttering, “I’m too old for this.” My circulation isn’t as good, and my testosterone levels are lower, than when I was twenty-five. To me that seems a good excuse for staying home by the fire. But, because I’ve been a writer, I’ve worked over a hundred different jobs, and that is no way to earn a pension. So I’m stuck with working when friends have retired. And, because I have to go out when they don’t, I discover what they won’t.
What I saw is that one doesn’t need Viagra to be hot. Apparently something other than testosterone is involved, when the northern body shifts gears in the face of brutal winter. Something in the human frame fights back, when exposed to insults, even when you’re old. It will take science a while to verify this observation, I suppose, but it was undeniable to me: I was warmer after the first nasty blasts of winter hit me than I was when I first saw the forecast.
I didn’t notice how much warmer I was, at first. I walked through my front door after work and pottered about as if it was June, thinking little of it until I went to put wood in the stove. Only then did it occur to me I hadn’t rushed to the fire like a babe to a breast as I came in the house. Contrary as it may sound, bitter breezes made me warmer.
Decades ago I saw the same thing in a different way. A friend complained his wife never got out, and instead stayed at home depressed. In the foolish way that marked my youth, I stuck my nose in the business of others, “to be helpful”. (One friend called me guilty of “dry adultery”: I might not have had sex with friend’s wives, but was prone to emotional meddling.)
My friend was exasperated to a degree where he’d stopped listening to his wife, but I figured that, because I was an artist, I was more sensitive than my pal (who was gruff, tough, and constantly in trouble with the law), and that I would be more able to be sympathetic and empathetic. I believed often that is what emotional people need, in order to escape whatever dilemma they find themselves in.
I was useless. Why? Because it was immediately obvious to me the woman’s problems were primarily caused not by her insensitive, outlaw husband, but by the fact she used him as an excuse to never go out.
Why was it obvious? Hard to explain, but it was like this:
Sometimes your feet are cold because you are sitting too much. What you need to do is stir your blood and get your circulation going. In such a case it does absolutely no good to talk about what caused you to sit, for the longer you talk the longer you stay sitting and the colder your feet become.
Although my friend’s wife very much appreciated the fact I would sit with her and talk with her, she did not like it when I suggested she might benefit if she stopped sitting and talking. In the end I was not “helpful”.
In actual fact the woman helped me far more than I helped her, for she reminded me of myself. Artists often sit and think when they should get up and go. She made me aware a “tipping point” is involved.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest we should outlaw art, because artists sit and think when they should get up and go. (In fact I think too many people get up and go without enough thought.)
Instead I mean to suggest a “tipping point” indicates a balance is involved, and a balance involves two sides. If you succumb to the mentality that takes only one side you are completely out of balance.
At this point we need to define “balance”. In terms of humanity, it is actually a precarious state. Often the people we deem most stable and balanced are knocked completely out of kilter by a feather. For example a bank president may commit suicide when the market crashes. Meanwhile the janitor at the same bank may be the fellow who offers the most help to his fellow employees as the ruined bank closes its doors.
“Balance” is often seen as “security”, which can draw people out of balance. For example, “political correctness” draws people into postures they may not be comfortable with, but which they feel are “safer” stances than what their conscience knows to be Truth. Such compromises seem “balanced” up until Truth jars them with a rude awakening, and they become aware “political correctness” has lured them into being led by some sort of despot, such as Stalin or Hitler. Then what seemed like “balance” abruptly shocks people into the awareness they are miles past the “tipping point”, and are plunging into disaster. This sort of shock is like the first blast of winter into New England. When it hits you, nothing that came before matters. Truth has arrived.
Artists, who have (in theory at least) put Truth ahead of “political correctness”, are less perturbed by such abrupt and shocking arrivals of Truth. They tend to respond more like the Bank Janitor than the Bank President. At some point they faced a “fork in the road” and, as the poet Robert Frost stated, the choice they made “has made all the difference.”
Often I find the biographies of artists as interesting as their art. Not that they had easy lives. Often they faced winters. Van Gough is an example of a a man who lived a rough life, yet he painted Truth which millions, perhaps billions, now admire.
One biography that fascinates me is that of an American master of the genre, “short story”, named William Sydney Porter, who took on the pen-name of “O. Henry”.
What intrigues me about Porter is that he seems to have been more like a person who goes out, than a person who sits by the fire, and therefore he seems unlikely to ever become a writer. But he did like to sit in a bar after work and tell a good tale. Then one thing led to another.
Though Porter’s tale-telling can be seen to gradually develop, (as pieces he sent to newspapers, newspapers which he increasingly was interested in and involved with), he was too practical to depend on writing for his livelihood, and supported himself, and later his wife and daughter, by working as a pharmacist, sheep-herder, cowboy, draftsman, clerk, and teller at a bank.
While working as a teller he apparently strayed from doing things by-the-book, using his heart more than his head, for political and perhaps other reasons. He lost one bank-job when a new political party came into power, and was fired from a second when “irregularities” in his bookkeeping were discovered. In disgrace he move from Austin, Texas to Houston, Texas, and then for the first time focused on writing. He was making headway, getting raises and seeing his newspaper-column become more popular, when Federal Auditors snooped into the doings of the bank back in Austin. They didn’t want to hear any excuses for a former employee who used his heart and not his head; $854.08 were unaccounted for and, roughly two years after he had left Austin, Porter faced five years in jail for embezzlement.
Because he was a man of action, the day before his trial Porter fled to Honduras, where he associated with exiles, coined the phrase “Banana Republic”, and did a lot of work on the collection of intertwined short stories called “Of Cabbages and Kings”, (which was as close as he ever came to writing a novel.) He hoped to make money writing and had made plans for his wife and daughter to join him, but then discovered the tuberculosis (which he knew his wife was suffering from, before he married her) was now killing her. At this point he returned to face five years in jail, to be at her side as she died.
She died, and then he went to jail, where he was valued and worked as a pharmacist. However he still had a daughter to support, and became involved in sneaky ways to make money by writing without people knowing the writer was a jailbird. That is when he adopted the name “O. Henry” (Which some suggest is a condensed version of “Ohio Penitentiary”.) (The name first appeared attached to a charming tale about a hobo who becomes a hero but chooses to remain a hobo, called “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking”. In retrospect the hobo’s love-of-freedom is especially poignant because the writer himself was in jail, though of course readers of that time didn’t know that). “O. Henry” became increasingly popular even before Porter was released from prison, (two years early, “for good behavior”).
What I find fascinating about that part of Porter’s life is that he did not intentionally retire to the fireside to write. In essence he was forced to the “fireside” of a jail-cell, after facing the bitter winter of his wife’s death. Largely he was not a retiring man.
After he was released from prison in Ohio he traveled to Pennsylvania to where his daughter was staying with his in-laws. As a widower and ex-con he did not seem all that accepted or happy, and drank too much. He moved to New York City to be near the market for short stories, and basically drowned himself in work. Porter would write in the morning and conduct research after “the sun passed the yardarms”, with the “research” consisting of visiting restaurants and bars where, rather than telling tales, he often got others to tell him tales, late into the night. Then he’d head home and jot some notes, and work on a tale the next morning, often facing a Friday deadline. He produced a total of 371 tales, some masterpieces, in roughly seven years, before his liver gave out. What is interesting to me is that even while writing so much, he didn’t sit by the fire. By noon he was restless, and had to get out.
It likely impossible to state the effect Porter had during the time he was most productive, when my Grandfather was young. There was no radio or TV, and people were avid readers. My Grandfather’s generation awaited the next “O. Henry” story in magazines and newspaper-Sunday-supplements with the same eagerness my own generation awaited the next song by The Beatles, and it is difficult to translate that eagerness across time. I do not belabor my grandchildren with talk about the Beatles, and my Grandfather never told me why he had eight volumes of O. Henry short stories in the bookshelf by his living-room armchair. But I noticed them. Though the tales were panned by critics of that time (and by some fellow writers as well) they are more than a wonderful window to the attitudes and realities of another time; they contain descriptions of human frailty and nobility that are timeless. When I finally got around to reading them I felt like I’d discovered a gold mine.
However that is not the point of this essay. The point of this essay is to suggest that, sometimes, facing the blasts of winter, men do not merely survive, but become downright prolific, as O. Henry did, facing the winter of his life.
One gift my parents gave me was a sort of idealism that doesn’t seem like a gift. It can seem like a burr stuck in your hair, as this old world can be hard on idealists. Not only do others disappoint us, but we can disappoint ourselves. For this reason many who started out idealists become cynics; the softhearted become hardhearted; optimists become pessimists; the faithful become faithless.
To me such a response always seemed a weakness, and even a sort of sell-out. What sort of idealist quits just because the going gets tough? One should persevere, and have high hopes:
Of course, being so hopeful and optimistic, even in the face of proof such behavior is unwise, did make me a bit of a sucker and a chump. But my parents again set an example, for even when their idealism went down in flames (in the form of their intensely acrimonious divorce), the same stubborn unwillingness-to-compromise (which perhaps led to the divorce) made them stubbornly unwilling to compromise on their idealism after their divorce. Even in the smoking wreckage of a crashed marriage they stubbornly persisted with their views and insisted they were correct, which I found very embarrassing, as a teenager, but which I also respected as a powerful reality, even though I didn’t understand it. Therefore it is only logical that I would follow in their footsteps, and remain true to the dual-idealism I inherited, despite all evidence idealism was unwise.
For example, most bosses initially felt lucky, when they hired me. I possessed the so-called, “Puritan Work Ethic”, and had high standards for my self, and was an athlete and enjoyed working hard. But bosses discovered I also had high standards regarding the behavior of bosses, which made them feel less lucky and made me look less desirable. Eventually, (and quite often so swiftly my rise and fall was like a yo-yo’s), our employer-employee compromise would become untenable, and divorce (IE: Getting fired or quitting) became unavoidable. As a consequence I worked over a hundred jobs, and have great experience concerning bosses, and have acquired reams of knowledge about all quirks and foibles bosses may have. I also have no pension, for I never found a boss worth a compromise of longer than two years, let alone the soul-selling duration-of-decades required for a pension. As far as I’m concerned, any person collecting a pension is either very lucky or very weak. They are lucky, if they lucked into a worthy boss, and they are weak, if they stayed working all those years for an unworthy boss.
Eventually I discovered self-reliance mattered, and the best boss was my foolish self, and I became “self-employed.” Of course, once you are “self-employed” you still have bosses, but they are called “customers”. So you have to add another hundred bosses to the total I have worked for. I may not have a pension, but I do know a thing or two about bossy people. In fact I know much more than the fellow collecting a pension, for he compromised and worked for the same boring boss for thirty years, whereas I have worked for two hundred bosses. I deserve some sort of master’s degree. The irony is that the fellow with no experience gets a pension, as I, with all my wisdom, get little respect and no money.
What have I gained? It is a difference traced by the poet William Blake, which led him to call a first book, “Songs Of Innocence“, and a second, “Songs Of Experience.” It is a product of the pain of a burr, like the irritation of a grain of sand in an oyster’s tender places producing a pearl. In effect, it is proof hardship has meaning, and that you are getting something deeply significant out of life’s struggles, other than filthy lucre. It suggests the meaning of life, and of spiritual progress, and of real “gain”, is not measured by money.
One sad thing I’ve seen in those who retire, (in some cases far younger than I), is that despite one [or two or even three] fat pensions, they are often dead within a year or two of retiring. There are of course many exceptions to this rule, but such deaths happen frequently enough to be concerning. It as if such retirees realize they compromised too much, and worked their entire lives for emptiness, and the disillusionment kills them.
I don’t know much about this disillusionment, because I failed to live such a compromised life longer than two years, (and loathed those two years, during which time I joined a union, and discovered I then had two bosses at the same time). However I can speak with authority about how to get fired or quit, and how to never get a pension.
This seemed a totally useless authority to speak with, and a worthless wisdom to own, when I was a not-so-young, penniless man of 37, and still unmarried, and quite lonely. Where others bragged about increases in income, I could only brag about getting by on less and less (so I did so, for a man must brag about something). Even those who liked me tended to laugh at my idealistic attitudes, deeming me a mere mad poet. Therefore they were alarmed when I abruptly announced I was about to marry, and not marry a single woman either, but rather marry a woman with three small children.
To be honest, I saw no evidence even my closest friends thought the marriage was a good idea, or would last as long as a year. To some the idea of a person like myself being even a tenth as responsible as a husband and father has to be was not laughable, because it was too painfully embarrassing to even consider. After all, if I couldn’t even work for a boss, how could I possibly work for a wife?
Fortunately I had met a woman who on some level was as idealistic as I was, and who also didn’t care about money. Not that she didn’t enjoy the good life, when it was possible, but when the good life retreated from the present tense far into the foreseeable future, she was strangely unperturbed. What did she care for more than money? She cared about children and family, and she’d been through hard times that taught her that you can have the delights of children and family without a cent to your name. Consequently money had slipped downwards, in terms of importance, on her inward “list”.
As we talked we discovered we were on the same page, in a way impossible to describe to those who measure with money. We agreed a beer sipped in love was far superior to champagne without love, and agreed about fifty other things, and all that agreeable agreement occurred during the first hour of our first date. This hour astonished me, for usually I found dates painful, and the talk so stilted and ludicrous that I usually wanted to escape the woman more than I wanted to seduce her. But this woman was different. As I recall, we talked non-stop for a solid week, every chance we could, and, rather than wanting to escape, I wanted more.
We eventually agreed that love is so important it deserves a capital “L”, and this “Love” can also be called “God”, and that, compared to God, money doesn’t matter. We also decided to marry, after only a week. But we knew people would think we were crazy for deciding so swiftly, so we didn’t tell anyone else. We waited a whole three more weeks before announcing our decision. Most people still thought we were crazy.
It is one thing to talk the talk, but another to walk the walk. I have a sense my more cynical friends, (and at this point maybe I should demote them to “acquaintances”,) were sitting back amused, awaiting my humbling, as “the shit hit the fan”. And, to be honest, I myself was afraid of the same, for I’d been through humbling and embarrassing infatuations before. But this relationship was different. We deeply disappointed the prophets of doom. Then, as if it wasn’t a big enough challenge to provide for three children, God gifted us with a fourth, and then a fifth.
At this point I should probably answer the question, “If I couldn’t even work for a boss, how could I possibly work for a wife?” The answer was that we were “Pluggers”. We just kept plugging, never sure we’d come up with the next month’s mortgage or even the cash for groceries. Always the work appeared and the money was earned, often at the last possible moment, which was what we expected, and had faith would happen.
In the eyes of some acquaintances our attitude was irresponsible. It required a faith they lacked. They suffered from a “burr under the saddle” called “insecurity”, and felt that all responsible people should compromise greatly to be “secure”. They stayed with deplorable bosses for “the health insurance”, and for the “pension”, and for other “benefits”, but we were free of such chains and quicksand. Our security was Love with a capital “L”, and while Love may not have given us lemonade when we only needed clean water, we seldom truly suffered, and usually blithely breezed through reefs and shoals, somewhat to the annoyance of those who suffered awful jobs they longed to quit, and who dourly predicted (and perhaps even secretly desired) our certain shipwreck, because we didn’t stick to the jobs they were glued to.
This is not to say we sat back very much at all. Pluggers must plug, and that involves hard work, even when the work does not pay very well. Faith involves far more sweat than sloth does.
I think this is actually a very American attitude, perhaps derived from the experiences of settlers, who horrified the Native Americans by arriving in destitute droves to farm (and destroy) their hunting grounds. America’s “Homestead Act” merely made official a phenomenon that was ongoing.
But such settlers often failed. They were expected to live for five years on their “free” land in order for the government to officially deem their ownership “legal”, and government statistics show roughly half of such settlers could not complete the five years. One sees little material success in characters such as “Pa” in the “Little House On The Prairie” books, as they move from failed homestead to failed homestead. What impresses me more than success is the amazing lack of security such settlers faced, uprooting themselves from former lives to face American wilderness, and conditions of extreme hardship.
American settlers had great (and often unrealistic) faith in their own ability to produce a lush, bumper crop from, in some cases, semi-arid wastelands. Their attitude was in some ways the opposite of those modern men, many of whom are meekly ensconced in the modern welfare state. Many modern men apparently trust cringing, and distrust daring. But what was this thing I call “a settler’s attitude”?
An “attitude” is often a difficult thing to intellectually describe, and this is especially true because “Pluggers” don’t tend to be intellectual. However that which you cannot say in words can sometimes speak in songs, and the spirit of American settlers echoes in their music, and in their song’s humorous attitude towards misfortune.
For example, In “So long, It’s Been Good To Know You“, Woody Guthrie sings,
The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed, An’ that dusty old dust storm blowed so black Preacher could not read a word of his text, An’ he folded his specs,
an’ he took up collection, Said:
So long, it’s been good to know yuh; So long, it’s been good to know yuh; So long, it’s been good to know yuh. This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home, And I got to be driftin’ along.
In the older ballad “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” a verse croons,
Well they soon reached the desert where Betsy gave out And down in the sand she lay rollin’ about While Ike in great tears looked on in surprise Sayin’, “Betsy get up; you’ll get sand in your eyes.”
But one song that (to me) best encapsulates the attitude of settlers springs from the unlikely root of a priest of the Church of England, George Herbert (1593-1633). Among other things he collected proverbs from other lands (“outlandish”), and seven years after he died his collection was published, and we derive from it some sayings we still use, such as “His bark is worse than his bite.” One saying we no longer use is, “To him that will, ways are not wanting,” because it morphed into, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” which first appeared in the English publication “The New Monthly Magazine” in 1823. It was then picked up by the humorist singer-songwriter “Handsome Harry Clifton” (1832-1872) and became a song heard in English music halls in the mid 1860’s, and then crossed the Atlantic and moved with settlers out into the prairies, after the American Civil War.
This life is a difficult riddle For how many people we see With faces as long as a fiddle That ought to be shining with glee. I am sure in this world there are plenty Of good things enough for us all And yet there’s not one out of the twenty But thinks that his share is too small.
Chorus: Then what is the use of repining, For where there’s a will there’s a way, And tomorrow the sun may be shining Although it is cloudy today.
Do you ever hear tell of the spider That tried up the wall hard to climb? If not, just take that as a guider; You’ll find it will serve you in time. Nine times it tried hard to be mounting And every time it stuck fast But it tried hard again without counting And of course it succeeded at last
Do you think that by sitting and sighing You’ll ever obtain all you want? It’s cowards alone that are crying And foolishly saying “I can’t” It’s only by plodding and striving And laboring up the steep hill Of life that you’ll ever be thriving Which you’ll do if you’ve only the will.
Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.
Laura Ingalls Wilder (of “Little House On The Prairie” fame), used the above song to happily conclude her most harrowing book, which described a railway-town’s near brush with starvation when blizzards and deep drifts cut the town off from trains, from January until May, during a particularly brutal Dakota winter.
But what is fascinating about the attitude Wilder describes is that it was not the typically American, Horatio Alger (1832-1899), concept of “rags to riches”, epitomized by Alger’s best-seller “Ragged Dick” (1868). Rather it was opposed to such ideals of material success, for “The Long Winter” basically describes an entire town of fugal, moral individuals reduced from riches to rags. Their reward was not a fortune, nor a pension, but merely to survive to see another spring. And what do they do in that springtime? They sing.
This Plugger’s-response resembles the “Whos of Whoville”, in Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (1904-1991) best-seller “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” (1957). After the “Grinch” had stolen every materialistic proof of Christmas, the Who’s still gathered to sing. I can remember sitting in my father’s lap on Christmas morning in 1957 and having that brand-new tale read to me. Over a decade later, as a teenager, I’d argue (only partially in jest) that Geisel (AKA “Dr. Seuss”) was a great American poet, whereas most of my fellow poets, in our snide groups at snide colleges, sucked the split lips of our artificial suffering with a moribund mentality that produced only snivel. Dr. Seuss, despite the genuine suffering of his own life (his chronically-ill wife eventually committed suicide) produced a bright, cheerful children’s poem that influenced America. Why did it have such influence? Because it described what Laura Ingalls Wilder also described in her best-selling children’s book, “The Long Winter”.
And what is that?
It is that there is something worth singing about in simply surviving to see another day. Life is beautiful and precious, in and of itself, irregardless of whether you succeed or fail. In fact the burr of suffering seems strangely beneficial, for it proves that Life persists in spite of adversity, and that Life is indomitable and unquenchable and independent.
Laura Ingalls Wilder left the third verse of Handsome Harry Clifton’s song out, when she quoted it to end “The Long Winter.” The third verse goes:
Some grumble because they’re not married, And cannot procure a good wife; Whilst others they wish they had tarried And long for a bachelor’s life. To me it is very bewild’ring, Some grumble, (it must be in fun), Because they have too many children, And others because they have none.
Then what is the use of repining, For where there’s a will there’s a way, And tomorrow the sun may be shining Although it is cloudy today.
The fact of the matter is that there is always a reason to complain, if you look for it, but if you take that road you may miss many reasons to smile. On the Path one faces a choice between complaining or entertaining. In a sense it is a situation that reminds me of a Junior High School dance, (which were gruesome experiences, for me).
I would stand on one side of the gym, with lots and lots of beautiful young woman on the other side, and be miserable. Lord! If you could put this old man’s mind back in that boy’s body, I would have skipped across that gym happily and asked girl after girl to dance. Sadly, I instead found reasons to complain. In fact I was so miserable I often wondered why in the world I ever went to such events.
Usually, because I was prone towards being a one-woman-man, I ignored all sorts of opportunity, because there was a particular girl I was fixated on, and she usually was already dancing with some far taller boy who actually grew peach-fuzz on his upper lip, and had grown above five feet tall. I was four-foot-ten, which put me at a disadvantage, [except in “slow dances”, when my face would have been buried between young woman’s breasts.] [Man, Oh Man! If I could put my old man’s mind back in that boy’s body, I don’t think I would have called being-short a “disadvantage!”]
Probably I should leave this subject, before I get myself in trouble. I only bring up dances because in a way it is like looking for a job. Just as I hung back in the Junior High dances, finding reasons to complain despite the lovely girls across the gym, I found reasons, when young, to avoid even attempting to look for work.
Rather than a particular girl across a gym I was infatuated by, who made all other girls worth disdaining, there was a certain job I was infatuated by, that made all other jobs worth disdaining. And what was that job? It was “poet.”
Now the funny thing is that, when you are looking for work, you never see employers looking for a “poet” in the Want Ads. A poet wants to express himself, but that is his work, and not another’s. Others have other work, different from “self-expression.” Therefore, if a poet expects a paycheck, he had better learn to sing while washing dishes.
This was something I learned before I got married. However I would be remiss if I didn’t say I was thirty-seven before I became so wise. Earlier it was agony to push myself out and apply for a job. It was like crossing the gym and asking the most undesirable girl in the universe to dance, and to be honest I sometimes couldn’t do it. I’d rather be homeless and sleep in my car.
How odd it seems that I later found it fun to apply for jobs. I didn’t care if I got the job or not; I just found it fun to fill out the job application in a poetic way, and then watch the face of the fellow considering me as he glanced over the form, interviewing me. Even if I wasn’t the man for the job, the interviewer had fun rejecting me. We’d laugh and tell stories, and I like to think the interviewer never had so much fun rejecting an applicant, before he met me.
I learned this art the one time in my life I was on unemployment, in 1985. I’d only receive $32.00 a week, (or nine hours of pay, at minimum wage, $3.35/hour at that time), and in order to receive this paltry amount I had to provide proof, to the government of New Mexico, that I had looked for work in three places the prior week.
I never actually applied for the job of brain surgeon at the local hospital, but I did apply at other absurdly impossible places, and discovered it can be fun to ask, even if rejection is inevitable.
This was a revelation to me. It was like discovering it is good fun to cross the gym and ask a glorious girl who would never dance with a shrimp like you for a dance, and finding out, even though she will not dance, that you can talk and laugh and learn, all the same. And rarely, (but often enough to lift your spirits), the girl will decide, what the heck, she will dance, just one dance. In like manner, some employers will sometimes hire you, if only for just one day.
“Just one day of work” is not enough to satisfy a person who feels insecure without a pension and other benefits, but it is a bonanza for a drifter living hand-to-mouth. The person who wants “security” and “certainty” misses the bonanzas the insecure understand. As odd as it sounds, the people who are “secure” and “have it made” are missing bonanza after bonanza after bonanza. Blessed are the poor.
Most “Pluggers” don’t intentionally seek to live “on the edge.” They simply were born into childhoods without a silver spoon in sight, and things such as “security” and “certainty” have not been their lot in life. They may hope for the perks of the privileged, the same way many hope they will win the lottery, but such things are like an apple dangled in front of a donkey to keep it plodding forward. Most Pluggers doubt they’ll ever really reach and taste that apple, and therefore the real reason they have the strength to keep plodding on can’t be from the apple they never reach, but rather from the bonanzas they experience, which the “privileged” know little or nothing about. Blessed are the poor.
There is something counter-intuitive about the statement “Blessed are the poor”, for we tend to associate the word “blessing” with wealth, bounty, riches. Wrong.
This is difficult to say, and will sound clumsy as I write it, but it has been my experience that the poor are richer than the rich. Why? Because nothing matters more than contact with the One who blessings come from. In fact blessings themselves have no worth, compared to the One who gives them.
In other words, the Plugger has a heightened sense of what constitutes a “blessing”, due to living so close to the edge. One doesn’t truly appreciate a glass of water until one has been parched by the desert sun. Therefore a person with “security” has a dulled awareness, whereas a Plugger has his awareness heightened. Not that some Pluggers can’t become so discouraged that they become bitter people, but many experience “coincidences” and develop what the “privileged” deem superstition, but which the Plugger feels, often in an unspoken way, is a communion with the One from whom all blessings flow.
I should probably leave this subject, before I get myself in trouble. I only bring it up to explain the difference between putting your faith in a pension, and putting your faith in something far better, something besides money, something I vaguely called “freedom”, waving my arms inarticulately to the west and pointing at a cloud.
Most Pluggers have a hard time intellectually stating their stance. After all, most are responding to circumstances beyond their control. To people who have a cushion of wealth, and the leisure to construct a stance, a Plugger seems like a person who can’t take a stand or even make a point. A Plugger points like a weather vane, constantly shifting. For a Plugger does not think man controls the climate; he responds to it. He is like the captains of the sailing ships of yore, very respectful-of and responsive-to the wind, whereas the man with money and security and a pension thinks he has a stink-pot cabin-cruiser which can plow straight upwind and ignore all weathers.
Now, if you capitalize the words “wind” and “weathers” in the above paragraph, you can perhaps glimpse how a Plugger might be responding to their Creator, in a manner which might be inarticulate and even unconscious, but which the Creator might notice. And, if you were a Creator whose nature was love, who would you respond to? The Plugger responding to You, or the wealthy with all their attention away on their portfolio, counting the stocks and bonds in their pension like a miser counts cold coins?
This is not to say Pluggers don’t long for comfort, and a life of ease, but they can sing and dance even with such gratification indefinitely postponed.
This brings me back to the early days days of my marriage, which I now fondly recall, but which were not so easy to struggle through, at the time. What is good to recall is the amazing faith my wife and I had that we would “get by”, and how that faith was not misplaced, for we did “get by”, (though I should perhaps use the words “squeaked by.”)
Now that I am older and wiser I look back and roll my eyes. I say rude things, like, “What the fuck were we thinking?” Yet we sailed through situations like an elderly woman on a tricycle passing through a terrible ten-car-pile-up on a major downtown intersection without a hair in her bun jarred out of place. In retrospect one cannot look at such history without mentioning unscientific things such as “guardian angels” or “the grace of God” or even, “Manifest Destiny”. However, somewhat amazingly, we each thought we were very practical, and the impractical one was our beloved spouse.
In retrospect our quarrels were delightful, (for our reconciliations created two delightful babies), but, moving on to the specifics, our quarrels were about very interesting stuff, although I don’t imagine the elite really think about such stuff. Unless you have ever faced an empty refrigerator, you cannot deem groceries a topic worth much attention, but I and my young wife had a yearly quarrel, which I will dub the “Harvest Quarrel.”
During the summer we had too much work: I, as a landscaper, and my wife, as the small town “Recreation Director” of the local playground and swimming pool. As winter approached her work vanished, as did mine, (after I made a final bundle raking leaves). We were shifting from having plenty of groceries for our three, then four, then five children, to having none. The stress of this situation resulted in the yearly “Harvest Quarrel.”
The quarrel had two fascinating steps, wherein at first my my wife displayed a flippant disregard for groceries, and then I myself displayed the flippant disregard.
The first step involved the fact that, even after working in the gardens of others all day, I always found time to have a garden of my own. Besides producing a paycheck, I produced actual food. I would proudly dump dirty produce in my wife’s clean kitchen, and she wasn’t always appreciative. Some of my fresh produce went into delicious dinners, but a shocking (to me) amount seemed to barely pause in the house before heading out to the compost pile.
I had an old-fashioned belief that my wife should be like my mother and grandmother, who had Great-Depression-aversions to seeing even a scrap of food wasted. My grandmother was especially good at making the labor involved look easy, like something she was doing on the side with her little finger, while focused on a more interesting conversation, either with a person working with her, or on the radio. She preserved food while berating the Red Sox for losing again, her work deft yet unconscious, like a taxi driver manipulating through intense city traffic while discussing politics.
During summer’s surplus, when food was cheap, my grandmother canned vegetables in glass jars, or pickled them, or made a sugary jams of fruits. Refrigeration was not necessary. She knew all the old tricks for preserving food, such as corning beef or turning cabbage to sauerkraut, and where to store onions as opposed to where to store potatoes, and had various pantries and cellars delegated for the storage of food. By the time winter rolled around she was ready. Children were incorporated into this bustle, and I don’t recall grumbling much about it, and at times enjoyed it. My mother might stop at a farmer’s market and score a bargain on a big basket of past-prime shell beans, and this meant I’d sit with my siblings on the back porch shelling them, separating the bad beans from the good, talking about whatever, watching the twittering chimney swifts soar overhead as summer clouds built in the sky.
If there was any grumbling involved, it was about wasting food. Woe unto the child who didn’t finish their dinner. Garbage went to the pig, (or, if you had no pig, to the pig farmer, who made money on the side picking up your garbage), and when the pig was slaughtered “everything was used but the squeal.”
So much was this constant activity part of my grandmother’s make-up that even when she was old and my grandfather had saved enough to allow her to be a lady of leisure, she could become restless. When the herring were swimming upstream in the spring she seemed a bit offended no men brought her pails of silver fish for her to salt down in big crock-pots.
My wife was not the same. If I plunked a pail of fish down in her kitchen she did not look the slightest bit delighted. The same went for heaps of grubby carrots or dirty potatoes. Only occasionally would she make some jellies or jams, seemingly more for amusement than out of any sense of necessity, and when I brought baskets of red and green tomatoes in before the first fall freeze they sat around on just about every downstairs windowsill, ripening and sometimes rotting, on their way to salads or sauces or the compost pile, but never to canning jars.
This rubbed my fur the wrong way at times. Call it my Yankee heritage if you will, but I just felt winter was a danger we should prepare for, and always was very busy splitting and stacking wood in the fall. My wife could make me a little crazy, for she wouldn’t even rush out to shop before a major winter storm. She preferred to shop right after the storm, and the one time I accompanied her I could see her point; after a storm the store was wonderfully quiet and there were no lines at the register. I could also see her point about tomato sauce; it was much easier to pick up a jar at the market than to can it yourself. All the same, it just didn’t seem right.
I got my revenge by rubbing her fur the wrong way, in my own manner. This occurred when my landscaping was officially ended by the first fall of snow. Even if there were still leaves on lawns, they were buried by white, so I’d put my rakes away and sit by the warm fire, and gaze dreamily out the window, working on a poem about falling snow. After months of hard work it felt good to just compose, but it drove my wife crazy. We had no income, and I was just sitting there, nibbling an eraser. She’d interrupt my composing with some inane question, such as, “What about groceries?” I’d say, “I thought you just bought groceries yesterday.” She’d respond, “But what about next week?” I’d heave a deep sigh, for I knew it was time for our yearly Harvest Quarrel.
It did no good to say “calm down”, for those two words never work, and indeed often have a strangely opposite effect. It also did no good to point out that if she had canned like my grandmother she’s have no worries about groceries because she’d have months of food on the shelves, because if I said that she’d just point out that if I was like my grandfather I’d have a job that lasted through the winter. Neither did it do any good to wax spiritual and preach that we should have faith in God, because she would open her Bible to “Proverbs” and quote, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man“. Lastly, it was equally unhelpful to suggest that if I was left alone to complete my poem about falling snow the result might be a one-hit-wonder that would make us rich, for she would just say I had already written a hundred wonders, and I should be out selling them.
She gave me no peace, and became a complete burr-under-the-saddle. My Dad advised me women look better if you “make them lively”, and I was succeeding in making her lively. (She became especially lively if I used the word “harangue.”) What I actually wanted to do is write about the peace of falling snow, and find a rhyme for the word “silver”, but it was always obvious that only way I was going to get the peace and quiet necessary was if I went out into the snow and drove through it. That was always the conclusion to the Harvest Quarrel.
What then happened always amazed me. I’d very soon come clumping back into the house with snowy boots, shoot my wife a smug look, and say, “I start work at six tomorrow morning. Happy now?” Then I’d go back to the fire, pick up my uncompleted poem about falling snow, and again begin nibbling my eraser, well aware my wife was itching with curiosity.
What amazed me was the ease with which I found work. There had been other times in my life work wasn’t to be had, and I’d roll my eyes to God wondering what He expected me to do. Other times I rolled my eyes to heaven with a different, happier expression, when I found work with amazing ease, and these were those other times: I’d look down a heartless street steeling my nerve to go to business after business, expecting to experiencing painful rejection after painful rejection, but the very first place would hire me. It happened with surprising frequency, and always felt like the part of a cartoon where someone charges a locked door, lowering their shoulder to smash it down, and just as they reach the door someone opens it.
Not that the jobs were good ones, but I’d lived on the edge so long that heights no longer bothered me. Where some fret about a pension thirty years in the future, I was more concerned about today, and more willing to let tomorrow take care of itself. Also I was less sensitive about rejection, less prone to burst into tears when a job wasn’t available (although that might be an interesting tactic), and less willing to morbidly dwell upon the offence of being refused. I was more curious about other people and midst this curiosity was more able to utterly forget myself and my own problems. Perhaps I was like a sailor who has seen his ship can come through a storm unscathed, and who no longer feels he can only sail in sunny weather.
In fact, when I looked in the mirror, I realized I had changed. When I walked into a business my demeanor was different, switched from overly sensitive and doubtful to cheerful and confident. Nor was it an act. I definitely had in some way matured, and in some ways I now got jobs too swiftly; I now liked job interviews, and, when I had been happily contemplating a couple weeks of interesting discussions with managers over coffee, it could be disappointing to only experience one interview, before getting hired.
It did puff my ego a little to be able to assuage my wife’s worry about groceries so quickly, but it was hard to be too swelled up, as the pay was usually so minuscule that it took some adroit budgeting to make it to spring. We’d have to run up a tab until April, wherever we could. Also, when I sat and thought about it, I really couldn’t take much credit for changing. The “School Of Hard Knocks” had matured me.
But who was the professor? This question seemed more interesting to contemplate than my poem about falling snow, and the page of the notebook in front of me filled with stray doodles, and the scribbled numbers of sketched budgets and altered schedules.
Such a silent guide You are that I never Knew it was You leading me to follow Your lead. But black sheep are not so clever As they believe. When my heart grew hollow I turned away, and thought I was leading Myself, but who is really the professor When slings and arrows leave students bleeding In life’s School Of Hard Knocks? Yet how tender You are; how patient, as with the pace of snails I learned. I called my guide, “my own Free Will”, But captains are not the ones who fill sails Like fat bellies. I blundered on until My free will finally learned how to dance. Your silent love is what leads this romance.
I should probably stop there, but need to add a coda to finalize the theme about “burrs”.
I think that one thing that makes the attitude of a Plugger so much more upbeat than that of a worrier, (who frets at a threat to a pension far in the future), is a Plugger’s simple discovery that good things come in bad packages. A Navajo friend once wrote, “Boot camp is a very good thing to have happen only once in your life,” which is an essay in only fifteen words; IE: Certain discipline may be as palatable as cod-liver-oil, but turns out to make you feel better in the end. The pains, bad tastes, foul smells, and itchy burrs are the curriculum of the School Of Hard Knocks, whether or not you believe there is a Professor in charge of how such discipline is dispensed.
Once you have been through such burrs even once, and see that you more than survived, but were actually strangely matured, then burrs in your future seem less repugnant. You are made able to face situations, which once filled you with dread, without fear, or with far less fear. Not that you don’t know enough to come in out of the rain, but if you must stay out you are singing in the rain.
When I walked into a business my demeanor was utterly different when I was forty, completely changed from an overly sensitive and doubtful 18-year-old’s. Some jobs were demeaning, such as folding and collating pages of inane pamphlets containing bosh and humbug, but I could sing in such rain. My fellow workers tended to be “temps” (short for “Temporary Contract Labor”) who worked for less than the regular workers, without benefits, and the regular workers tended to resent temps. But temps were interesting people to talk to, for they tended to be down on their luck, and usually there is a good story behind a downfall. However despite their downfall, and despite being exploited by bosses and disdained by regular workers, temps didn’t retreat in self-pity, nor expect welfare and charity, but rather were the sort who would work a rotten job to claw their way out of their poverty. They were true Pluggers, and I saw a hidden benefit in jobs that had no benefits, for I got to interrogate and interview interesting Pluggers I otherwise would have only a slight chance of ever meeting. The odd thing was some of these people had no idea anyone might find them worth interrogating and interviewing; my interest was something that lit them up; they blossomed under the feeble sunshine of my innocent, simpleton queries. Such a flowering, under the dingy light of forty watt bulbs, made me look over my shoulder, for I knew I’m not so bright, and I wondered why their faces lit up. From whence came the light? It intrigued me, yet, even as this intriguing stuff occurred, all we were doing was folding and collating pamphlets of guff.
This is not to say I didn’t yearn to be out in the falling snow like a boy yearns to escape Algebra class, but so did the other temps; you could see it in the longing light in their eyes as they passed a window. We were all in it together, and there was a sort of camaraderie reminiscent of that seen in soldiers in deplorable circumstances, which led Wilfred Owen to write, “I too have seen God through mud.”
This brings me back to what I stated earlier, which was, (in case you have forgotten), “There is something worth singing about in simply surviving to see another day. Life is beautiful and precious, in and of itself, irregardless of whether you succeed or fail. In fact the burr of suffering seems strangely beneficial, for it proves that Life persists in spite of adversity, and that Life is indomitable and unquenchable and independent.”
The problem with such a realization is that it robs you of some motivation. Once you realize you already have what is most valuable, namely Life, what more do you need? Why even get a job, let alone a pension? Beethoven proved beautiful music doesn’t even require the ability to hear. Nothing is necessary for happiness but Life.
Fortunately Life does contain burrs, which direct us. Your beloved will bring you a concern which, if you have a heart, you will respond to.
Just as my young wife brought up concerns, disturbing my content as I sat by the fire contemplating falling snow, she could disturb my content as I enjoyed folding and collating pamphlets of guff, by urging me to get a better job. Even when minimum wages were raised from $3.35/hour when we met to $4.25/hour when she was first pregnant, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t that we were greedy; we were running-up-a-tab at the market, and on our utility bills, even with me working full-time. Running-up-a-tab was a parachute that slowed our decent, enabling us to survive until spring, (when I’d make $10.00/hour landscaping). But if you made too little in the winter your parachute would be too small, and when you hit spring you’d be up to your neck.
Therefore I, (and indeed most “temps”), required “overtime” to get by. Once you worked over 40 hours your pay would be “time-and-a-half”, (shifting from 4.25/hour to 6.38/hour.) I freely confessed this requirement when I was first hired, during the initial job-interview, not minding much if being so demanding meant I wouldn’t be hired. Yet sometimes it was what got me hired. The boss had some job he urgently needed done in a big hurry, and he desired people who would work overtime, but his regular employees not only might be unwilling to work extra hours, but might have the “benefit” of an earned vacation coming up. In such situations “temps” stepped in to save the day, but, once the day was saved, “temps” would be promptly laid-off. Unemployment may seem a cruel reward for a job-well-done, but I could only fold and collate so long before the work got stale, and I tended to depart such jobs whistling, and looking ahead eagerly to the next chapter.
If I was in the mood to complain then looking for work would have been a burr, and getting laid-off would have been a burr, and my wife’s concern would have been a burr, and I could have been very sour. And I confess there were times I was sour, usually first thing on Monday morning. However I did notice my mood was mysteriously better by Monday’s midday, and a hundred times better at age forty than it had been at age eighteen. Furthermore, being in a better mood about burrs seemed to bring benefits hard to explain. It made sense that an employer might be more likely to hire a cheerful person than a person who radiated shyness and fear, but I seemed to sense a more amazing aspect was involved.
Call it a superstition if you wish, but I felt the “burrs” were actually the prodding of a Good Shepherd’s crook.
It is said God can be hard as steel and soft as butter. The earlier times in my life, when I couldn’t find work no matter how hard I tried, seemed a sort of hard-as-steel time of tough love, as I was educated by the School Of Hard Knocks. For some reason it didn’t make me feel angry at God, but rather utterly dependent, like a small child wearing pajamas with feet. However I also felt that was the normal state of the cruel world. I didn’t expect any soft-as-butter stuff, and was deeply mystified when I went through a time when I was hired wherever I applied.
One autumn, after my wife and I had been through our typical Autumnal Quarrel, it occurred to me, as I stomped out the front door, that it would make life easier if I got a job within walking distance of my house. Both my truck and my wife’s van were old clunkers, and it seemed likely I could save both on gas-money, and on the bother of dealing with break-downs, if I didn’t commute. The problem was that I lived in a small town with few businesses, and the economy was poor. But a friend had told me I might try one place that hired temps for the Christmas Rush. It was a New-Agey place I wouldn’t ordinarily consider, a business that bought herbs and spices in bulk quantities, and broke them down into small packets and jars to sell to retailers.
I figured I’d test my luck; if I was on a streak of getting hired the first place I applied, I might as well try a place roughly a half mile from my front door. I walked in and filled out an application there. My luck held. I had barely walked back into my house when the phone rang, and the owner asked if I could walk back for an interview. It was a bit of a drag to have to make a U-turn and walk back when I was planning to sit by the fire, but burrs are burrs.
I got the job, of course, but the interview struck me as wonderfully bizarre. The first question I was asked was, “Did you know a mad poet from Harvard named X?”
It just so happened I did know X, and for a time had considered myself a close friend of X’s, over a quarter century in the past when I associated with such crazies, and wasn’t a responsible father of five. I had been a senior in high school and X was a senior at Harvard, and we associated with pot-smoking intellectuals and had amazing conversations about wildly speculative things that one doesn’t usually bring up, at a job interview. To be honest, the question seemed a trick question, and I became very guarded. But honesty compelled me to answer, “Yes, I knew X”.
The second question was, “Do you know what happened to him?”
X was one of those flamboyant people who you may not want to partner with, but who dares things you don’t dare, and goes places you don’t go, and therefore, even though you don’t want to join them, you want to know where their flamboyance led them. I too was very curious, (and secretly fearful X had died in the horrible AIDs epidemic of the 1980’s), but could only answer my future boss with, “I don’t know. I last saw him in 1976, and our last phone-call was in 1984. Later I heard from a friend that he had headed south to join the Sufis of Washington D.C., around 1985, but in the decade since I’ve heard nothing.”
My future boss looked very disappointed, but hired me and told me show up at nine the next morning to learn the ropes of the herbs and spice business. He arose, and I arose, and it seemed the interview was over, but then, as if to explain something, he hesitated, and then added, “X told me you were the greatest poet since Shakespeare.” Throttled by astonishment, I couldn’t think of how to reply. I’m not sure what I said. Likely it was something dismissive. Then I walked home through the snow.
That was a strange walk, in the falling snow. I mean, how many job interviews do you walk into, for some simple job such as packing herbs and spices, without any sort of recommendation, where you get an unasked-for recommendation from someone you lost contact with over a decade in the past, who might even be dead? Not that the recommendation that I was “the greatest poet since Shakespeare” had anything to do with packing herbs and spices. I’d long ago learned poetry had little to do with feeding yourself, let alone feeding a wife and five children.
I’ll confess the strange interview did stir a hope in me that our interview was one of those “chance meetings” you read about in the lives of authors and poets, wherein they are “discovered”, and rise “from rags to riches” overnight, publishing some sort of “one-hit-wonder”. But this was not the case. We never spoke of X or of poetry again. However there was a strange, unspoken understanding: We had shared-roots in a wild past when mad poets were especially free, and didn’t need to work Real Jobs.
We did have some interesting talks, but I was far more interested in him than he was in me. I learned that when young he had a vision of learning of herbs and spices that could be wonder drugs, perhaps even finding a herb which cured cancer, and that he had labored long and hard, studying botany at Harvard and even travelling to the Amazon, seeking herbal mysteries, but that when push came to shove, and he had a wife and daughter to support, such study didn’t pay the bills. The herbs and spices that paid the bills tended to be mundane things like powdered Cinnamon and Garlic. To make a living he imported bulk quantities of things not locally grown, to sell to people who required smaller amounts.
Someday I’ll hopefully do a better job of describing what a wonderful job I lucked into, because I was too lazy to fix my limping truck and become an ordinary commuter. But for now I’ll give a couple examples of how wonderful the job was.
One of his best sellers was cinnamon. He sold several types, and four-inch-sticks and three-inch-sticks, but most people wanted the powdered stuff. It came in two-hundred pound barrels. Most households, when they buy powdered cinnamon, want to buy one or two ounces. A restaurant will desire perhaps a pound, and a busy doughnut shop ten, and even a frantic bakery will desire at most twenty-five. No one wants to pay the price of two-hundred pounds, even though the wholesaler basically doubles the price, selling to the retailer. My job as a muscular poet was to man-handle barrels most cooks can ‘t budge, and then break-down the contents to smaller packages.
The second example is bay leaves. All cooks understand the positive effect a leaf or two of bay can have on a soup or stew. However bay does not arrive from Turkey a leaf or two at a time. It arrives in huge, fragrant bales, weighing at least fifty pounds.
My first job, my first day of work, was to manhandle a huge bale of bay-leaves, and then break it down, and amidst the sweet, rustling aroma of this occupation I did not think of the customer, who would receive tiny packets, but rather I was transported to Turkey. Perhaps it was only because I, as a landscaper and farmer, was aware a lot of hard work went into picking and drying and baling and exporting the leaves, but the scent as I worked was evocative of a landscape I had never seen and of people I had never met. Images drifted through my imagination. It was much better than folding and collating pamphlets.
My family approved when I came home smelling of bay, but I was less popular when I had to deal with enormous amounts of garlic powder. For the most part my work involved around twenty everyday herbs, which likely produced around ninety-five percent of the business’s profit. But besides those twenty barrels of herbs there were perhaps a hundred others, holding mysterious herbs I had never heard of. When I filled orders I was swift to learn where to go to find Cinnamon, but sometimes at the bottom of the order there would be an item I had never heard of. Then I would have to search through the barrels in the back of the warehouse for a pound of some such thing as, “Saint John’s Wort”.
My boss’s wife was a bit scornful of such items, because “turnover” was so slow. If you bought a bale of some obscure herb it might be five or even ten years before it was sold, but my boss would not listen to his wife, and would reorder. He seemed to like being an herb-and-spice-place that had the items other places lacked. Also his insistence seemed to be like my own poetry; a thing he did even if it wasn’t profitable; a thing connected to his original reason for focusing on herbs and spices.
I could sense, my first day on the job, that I should be careful when bringing up a question such as, “What is Saint Johns Wort good for”? My boss’s wife would snap, “Absolutely nothing,” and my boss would look meek, and button his lip. It was obvious she was a burr to him, just as my wife was a burr to me when I wrote poems about falling snow rather than looking for work. And he was a burr to her, by insisting on restocking, just as I was a burr to my wife by insisting on writing poems.
I think it was during the first week that I discovered that, among the obscure items he had in the barrels in the back of his warehouse, he had burrs. Or not the burrs, but the root of the plant that made the burrs, called “Burdock”.
As a landscaper I tended to see Burdock as a rank and obnoxious weed. This was not only because, when my daughters happened to get burrs in their hair, tears resulted, but also because the plant could spring up with amazing vigor, with a tap root which made carrots seem small, and leaves nearly as fat and wide as Rhubarb’s. Here is a Burdock jumping up between my garden’s Rhubarb and Asparagus:
It is hard to be fond of such a rank and persistent weed. My Asparagus and Rhubarb have strong roots which are perennial; there are cases where grandchildren have fed off the plants their grandfather planted fifty years earlier, but burdock is a plant that can invade such a long-standing patch and, with roots equally vigorous, weaken the desired crop. It is hard to see such a burr as desirable.
Yet my new boss was making a small profit selling such roots. This of course piqued my interest, but unfortunately I asked my question when his wife was in earshot, and heard the brusque reply, “Absolutely nothing is good about Burdock.”
I already had concluded that, but was trying to escape my prejudice. My escape occurred soon, due to the fact the warehouse had a tiny “retail shop” in the front of the warehouse. It produced less than 1% of the business’s profit, but I had the feeling my new boss liked talking to people about herbs and spices, and the “retail shop” was more of an excuse to talk than it was a way to make money. However he was out, and I happened to be the only person available, so I had to deal with a customer though I knew next to nothing about herbs and spices.
The customer was a lady from Japan, where burdock root is often used in their cuisine. However she was not looking for fresh and tender roots, suitable for cuisine, but dried roots, for a tea that she claimed had amazing benefits. I became her student, as she praised burdock, but I became her professor, when I told her it didn’t need to be imported from Japan. After I sold her a pound of the dried root, we stepped outside and I pointed out a few examples of the invasive weed.
Some businessmen might think this a bad policy, for she would have no need to buy dried roots, if she knew she might harvest them from her own yard. All I can say is she did return, from time to time, over the next five years. For that is how long I lasted at this job as a “temp.” It was not a steady job, but one I could count on being steady before Christmas.
As I stated before, it would take another post to tell the tales of this on-again-off-again job. But this post is about the benefits of burrs.
Now it is twenty-four years later, and I am running a Childcare, and part of our haphazard curriculum is a course on “the benefits of Burdock”. Usually I am not officially on duty when this class is taught, but kids find the sight of an old man working in the garden more interesting than what my staff has planned, and they often come drifting over to pester me. Because my hard-working staff can use a break, I often involve the children in my work, (at times having them cheerfully make mincemeat of child-labor-laws, for example when I have to move a hundred bricks). Other times, for example when I am weeding, I weed less, and create a spontaneous curriculum involving what weeds are very poisonous, such as buttercups, and what weeds are edible, such as chickweed. At some point I always seem to involve them in digging burdock from the garden, and saving the roots.
These roots must be washed:
And then, (after trouble which always occurs when small boys have control of a hose), I show the children how to remove the bitter outer bark of burdock root from the slightly-sweet inner root:
Then they munch. I have a rule, regarding wild foods, which states that they are allowed to spit out anything they don’t like, which is a freedom they seem to enjoy. (Also I become very stern, and put on my most ferocious glower, regarding eating any wild thing without first asking me if it is edible.)
I’ve learned there is no accounting for children’s taste. The most fussy eater may demonstrate a peculiar fondness for some odd plant like Burdock, while the most voracious child may detest the same plant. Also a child who initially spits out a plant may, after watching his small peers munch away and ask me for second helpings, be seen surreptitiously picking up the root he cast away and giving it another chance, or, if he can’t find it, may whine to me for a second helping. Lastly I’ve discovered a sure-fire way to get kids interested is to tell them they won’t like the plant, because “only grown-ups like it.”
I don’t talk much about the medicinal benefits of a plant like Burdock, that I first heard about from the lady from Japan. For one thing, our society seems too focused on pharmaceuticals, and for another thing, the ownership of such knowledge seems a gift to me, and I am not particularly gifted in that regard.
I’ve known people who have an uncanny and often unconscious ability to prepare salads and stews that make people feel better, and cause the recipients to state “you are a natural chef” or “you put love in your cooking”, without thinking the cook is an herbalist or some sort of witch-doctor. But I sense a gift in such people. I think the gift likely has ancient origins, dating from when we were a nomadic people living off the land. Unfortunately the gift, like all gifts, can be misused, (in which case it may be withdrawn), and there are also fraudsters who lack the gift but are gifted in selling snake-oil. During the time I was involved with selling herbs and spices I met some New Age types who managed to make the entire topic of herbs repellent and downright disgusting, because their poorly-hidden desires seemed to be all about orgasms and hallucinations. Just as I like poetry yet avoid poet-societies, I’m interested in herbs but generally avoid herbalists.
Because I lack the true gift, I tend to be more pedantic and scientific, and conduct secret experiments, involving only myself. For example, my son might visit, and notice a glass of greenish sludge by my coffee cup at my computer. Wrinkling his brow, he’ll ask me, “What the heck is that stuff, Dad?” A bit evasively I’ll reply, “boiled Burdock root.” A bit of a smile will cross his face, and he’ll be unable to resist asking, “And?”
There’s no way around it, and I have to confess the secret: While wandering the web and reading about Burdock root I chanced upon a claim it “stimulates the hair follicles of the scalp.” My old follicles could use some stimulation, in my humble opinion, so I decided to conduct an experiment, keeping it secret because I don’t want people to know I am vain. I told my son that so far I had noticed nothing, which is a good thing, because such experiments can backfire and cause immediate baldness. He chuckled and walked away shaking his head slightly.
I sat back and contemplated the blessing of burrs. Even if my thin, gray hair doesn’t start to explosively grow, (making me look like a large dandelion gone to silver seed), it seems the weeds of my life later are revealed to have actually been herbs, and the burrs that made me uncomfortable moved me to my benefit.
Life is far more complicated than our puny minds can grasp, even when we attempt to control it and to guarantee ourselves fat pensions. Repercussions cause repercussion’s repercussions, with events clicking like complicated shots in a game of billiards, with complications clicking onward even years later. When I talked with the mad Harvard poet X at age sixteen, who could foresee it would land me a job at age forty, or that the job would result in me teaching little children about Burdock root, at age sixty-six?
As I thought about it, it seemed those who fixate upon control miss a lot. They miss bonanza after bonanza after bonanza. It seemed better to be a Plugger, leaving control in the hands of the only Mind that sees all repercussions.
As for me, I just do what comes next, and what came next was to start writing something titled, “A Burr’s Blessing.”
I’m getting old. I think I may even be starting to show symptoms of “second childhood”. Despite a return to cold and wet weather I failed to muster the proper attitude of dour, sardonic sarcasm, and instead continued to potter about the Childcare’s garden quite contentedly. Lots went wrong, but it failed to piss me off. Children ran through freshly seeded plots, and I shrugged it off. The radio reported politicians behaving like idiots, and I chuckled rather than raved. What was wrong with me?
When the United States sent an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, and Iran sneered it could take the carrier out with missiles, and I didn’t immediately thrash about in agony over my failures to be prepared for Armageddon, I checked my pulse. I wasn’t dead, so then I wondered if someone drugged my coffee. It just wasn’t like me to remain calm.
You see, according to my original script, by now my Farm-childcare was suppose to be more developed than it is. Using the extra income I’d make from either a best-seller or a hit-song, I’d be able to afford restoring the land to the productivity it achieved around 1860, when it produced enough to feed perhaps a hundred people (and make just enough money to raise a family). That may not be enough to profitably compete with modern agribusiness, but it would be a boon to my community in a wartime situation, when food supplies from far away might be cut off. It is a complete failure on my part that, even after years of effort, the farm at best could feed two or three. Ninety-seven neighbors might starve, because I failed to write a hit song.
Shame. Shame on me. How dare I potter about whistling? I should be cursing my weakness, and the failure of my society to pay me millions for my poems. I should be pacing like a tiger in it’s cage, not happily running like a hamster in its wheel.
What ponders the hamster, watching its wheel And wondering if it should go for a spin? It knows spin goes nowhere; sees that the deal Is non-profit. Does it grin a small grin All the same? And how about my labors? My poems unpublished? My soil’s hilled beans? My good deeds done for nobody-neighbors? I grin a small grin when I think how it means So little compared to what’s Eternity’s, Then think how God may be pleased if I spin My wheel right. Solomon’s futilities Be damned. It simply isn’t a sin To stretch my old limbs in the wheel and get sore When my dance is for God, and not to gain more.
Perhaps part of second childhood is having a decrease of motivating hormones. There are ads on the radio stating “erectile dysfunction” is some sort of serious problem I should seek help for, like a drug addict seeking detox and rehab, (though, looking back, it seems “erectile function” got me in far more trouble than “dysfunction” ever did.) Hormones seemed to fuel desire, and then lots of frustration when desire wasn’t fulfilled, (and some joy but also a strange dissatisfaction when I got what I wanted), yet both sides of that desire-coin can be avoided when you skip the desire altogether. Not that I sought desirelessness like some Yogi in the Himalayas. It just happens when you get older, to some a curse but to others a blessing.
I happened to be in a state of mind where second childhood felt like a blessing even in the rain, and then the sun came out.
With the sun as high as it is in early August, the delayed spring exploded, with buds bursting to unfolding leaves. If you have ever dealt with farmers when “June is busting out all over” you know they enter a state of manic frenzy. But I just couldn’t quite do it. I continued to potter, and failed at farmer-frenzy.
Formerly failure stung like a whip, and like a whip it spurred greater effort, but after fifty years that gets old. A man does his best with his gifts, and beyond that he can do no more.
What I just wrote is more profound than it looks, and young artists should take heed: If you are fated to be a Norman Rockwell then fate will supply you with help, and a Saturday Evening Post will appear to make giving your gift easier. Study the lives of artists who achieved fame and success and you’ll see none made it alone. The coincidental meetings and “lucky breaks” are astounding, and may make young artists jealous that they see no “lucky breaks”, yet such jealousy only occurs because they don’t see fame and success can be a pathway to misery, nor see that it can be very good luck to avoid all that, and instead lead a quiet life with a good spouse, unnoticed and untroubled, and blessed with far more tranquility than fame ever offers.
It has started to occur to me that it is lucky I never became a one-hit-wonder and gained the cash that would allow me to demonstrate how productive my “failed” farm (and hundreds of thousands of other “failed” farms) might be. Such success sounds like ceaseless work of the restless sort, when I prefer work of the pottering, restful sort. I understand I am blessed, (though some might call my luck a blessing in disguise, a sort of silver lining in the gloomy clouds of failure).
One failure many farmers face is that cute, lovable chicks become horrible beasts called “pullets”. They are basically dinosaurs hiding their reptilian nature with feathers. They neither cluck nor lay eggs like hens, and instead are the annoying adolescents of the chicken world. They make the innocent and adorable peeping of chicks into a peeping so annoying you want to kick them. Therefore all the people who were so eager to help me when the birds were cute chicks lose interest when they become gawky, demanding pullets. Therefore you’d think pullets would like me, their only loyal and true friend. But no, the word “thank you” is not in their vocabulary, and if I am at all late they rush to the door of their pen hurling peeping insults at me, crowd about my feet and never thank me for not stepping on them, and then dig into their food without a look backwards in gratitude. (Even dogs at least wag their tails at you while gulping down their dinner.)
Some farmer’s wives, through prolonged patience and kindness, can can eventually civilize these dinosaur pullets to a degree where, as hens, they strut into a farmhouse and hop up into the kind woman’s lap to be petted as she watches TV in the evening. However, as pullets, they are all far from such civilization, and few farmers have the patience and kindness necessary to generate warm and fuzzy feelings towards a dinosaur. Yet something about getting old and gray allows me to like the birds even when they only pause from fighting each other over food to give a glare with all the beaming warmth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
If I can feel pleased by even a pullet’s glare, then I can be pleased by other things, more easy and favorable, and less reptilian.
For example, I neglected some things last year, such as my patches of Rhubarb and Asparagus, and therefore I should be punished this year with failed crops. However Rhubarb and Asparagus do not forget the wheelbarrows of manure they were fed in prior years, an overcame the competition of last summer’s weeds, and grew even more prosperous, with root systems becoming even more vigorous. In fact this spring, for every shoot of asparagus I cut, three more spring up.
Here’s another example of how my weakness (being old and lazy) strangely blesses me:
I’ve sadly faced the fact I can’t weed like I once did. Nor can I hire the young and strong to sweat in the sun like I once did, (because I haven’t sold my hit song yet). Therefore I decided to buy a fabric that rich people use around the base of their their roses, to prevent weeds. It costs a pretty penny, but with hourly wages rising the fabric costs much less than a human. Also in theory the fabric is less work; you sweat under the sun laying it but then get to sit back, where old-style weeding was a constant battle. Then I discovered it had a further benefit, besides blocking the growth of weeds. Because it was black, it absorbed the sunlight. Even on a cloudy day (because the sun rides as high as early August) enough radiance penetrated clouds to make the fabric slightly warm, even when rain mixed with sleet, and therefore, because the soil beneath the fabric was made warmer, my peas germinated more swiftly, and are two weeks ahead of friends who planted at the same time without black fabric. Who would believe being lazy could have such a benefit?
In conclusion, the decrepitude of old age is turning out to be more pleasurable than I expected. Who would think failure could be such fun? It makes me stop and think, for it is so contrary to logic. How can an old geezer’s impotency have such potency? How can becoming desireless give me what I desire?
I don’t claim to fathom what I’m glimpsing. But it does seem my second childhood has some of the qualities of the first, and, because I run a Childcare, I have ample opportunity to study children as they get utterly stoned on the narcotic called “Spring”, and then to think about how Jesus stated we must become like such irresponsible little individuals, if we are to ever taste bliss.
How to regain joys barefoot boys heft When they’re walking whistling down summer’s road Freed from school’s failures, from “F” after “F” And all that shame? They have shed such a load Of ignominy. They are free, free, free of it. The final school bell ends a fifteen round fight And they’re the loser, but they don’t care a whit About such unforgiving displays of might, And find forgiveness in summer sunshine. How can they be so certain they’re embraced? They’ve achieved nothing, and yet a divine Compassion is their fate. Surely they’re placed On the level of angels. Their whistling Is praises to God, who smiles, listening.
Put down your coffee before you read on, for I am about to say something astounding, and I wouldn’t want your coffee to come out of your nose or spray the computer screen.
Sometimes, even though I am the air-headed poet, I am the only pragmatic and efficient person around. This is very stressful. Poets should not be exposed to such seriousness and gravity. Poets are suppose to skip and traipse, but perhaps it is part of the suffering of a poet to occasionally have to trudge and plod; to occasionally have to be the practical, efficient and boring person in a situation.
Partly this is due to mixing farming with poetry. I wanted to be like Robert Frost. Though he did have the misfortune to get incarcerated at an University later in life, some of his best poems were written when he was younger and got his hands dirty:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Robert Frost; (1874-1963) Published 1914
My wife would strongly disagree that I am ever the practical one, being of the belief I need to be inspected before I go out into the world, to be certain my shirt is right-side-out and I remembered to put my teeth in. Sometimes she seems to remind me not to forget things no man has ever forgotten in recorded history. It used to exasperate me, but I have come to see it as caring. What exasperates me is the insinuation that she is never the impractical one, and in need of caring, due to her own sort of poetry.
My wife’s poetry involves a tendency to see a reason for celebration in somewhat mundane events. I probably would limit holidays to Christmas and Fourth of July, to avoid all the bother of cleaning the house, but my wife has a joyous streak, and finds a reason to party to a degree where she sometimes resembles a burn-out. For example, I present to the court the following evidence:
My youngest grandchild just turned one. This may be a sentimental day for my daughter, as the boy is her first child, but I figure the child is at an age where he won’t remember the event, and is more interested in tearing wrapping paper than in what is underneath. It seems to me that one should limit the time and energy put into such an event, especially when we need to plant the potatoes. But does my wife put on the brakes?
It is around this time I become the pragmatic old grump. I mean, do we really have time to blow up 200 balloons? And what are you going to do with 200 balloons when the party is over?
And should the children at our Farm-childcare be running about joyously playing-with and popping 200 balloons? What, pray tell, does this have to do with farming? With using the brief sunshine of a rainy spring to work out in the muck that is the garden?
I mean, as much as I’d like to dress in a white linen suit with a black-ribbon-tie like Colonel Sanders, and drink mint juleps on a plantation porch as others do the work, I haven’t sold a hit song yet, and until I make my million I must be practical.
One thing we did to make our Farm-childcare more interesting, in the constant rain, was to buy some cute, fuzzy chicks. But they grow with amazing speed, and as their cuteness shrinks their reek increases. Someone must build a coop away from the main building. Being the only practical poet around here, the job fell on me.
The long, rectangular structure is fronted by thick, hardware-cloth of strong wire, which will allow the chickens to sleep without being nabbed by foxes or weasels or coyotes or raccoons. (A bear would be another matter.) The chickens learn to walk to the coop and roost in there even before the sun sets, (as they have very poor night-vision, and are all but blind in twilight). I then shut and latch the door, making their pillbox impenetrable. In the morning I will let them out, and they will be “free range” chickens in my garden, eating various bugs, until around the time tomatoes get red. Chickens are attracted to red, and peck holes in ripe tomatoes, so I built a pen to coop them in August, roofed with mesh to protect them from a chicken-hawk that lives nearby. (Chickens have what seems to be an instinct to keep an eye to the sky, and free-range birds hurry for cover, if anything large,even a vulture, passes over.)
The structure is simple and pragmatic, but I soon noticed peculiar additions. Why are those branches tied to the side? And do chickens really require swings?
And what’s that thing down at the bottom of the post?
A xylophone!? A flipping xylophone!? Are these chickens going to be as musical as thrushes?
And do chickens really require a bench with gnomes? A hummingbird feeder at the top of a post? How do you know chickens even like hummingbirds? Did anyone ask the chickens? The hummingbirds? And hey! That’s my grandfather’s old wooden step-ladder! Did anyone ask, before turning it into an elaborate perch!?
I’m not sure I approve of what kids are learning at my Childcare. I’m not sure I approve of what the chickens are learning, either. But I will confess that it does the soul of an old air-head good to, once in a while, be the sensible one.
As the clouds rolled back in I did make progress in the garden.
How like a trickster is the April sun, When for days it hides in purple gloom Where a raw fog, complete with sleet, can stun Even optimists towards discussing doom And death, but then that same sun bounces up On a day with no clouds. I’m made surly And walk with a snarl to my coffee cup, For that slap-happy sun’s suddenly early In rising, beaming my bed so I squint. And what’s that I hear? Summer birds singing In the dawn? Robins are back. Shake the lint From my brains. Prankster April is bringing A day without clouds. A day of pure sun. A day to make dour men remember the One.
As an old poet I’ve learned that the world of poetry is, at the very least, on a tangent point between the physical and the spiritual, and at times is farther off in an air-headed place that has so little to do with the physical that bill-collectors, and sometimes your friends and your parents and your spouse and your children may be irked by your failure to face “reality”.
What such well-meaning advisors fail to see is their “reality” is going to quit on them. We must face our worldly responsibilities, but a day will come when this world will fade. In fact it fades every day, when you go to bed exhausted. Even if you stay up to all hours doing your taxes, being very, very responsible in a worldly way, when you are utterly exhausted the world becomes utterly ungrateful, for it vanishes. But another “reality” is more faithful. Pragmatists disdain the other world as a mere “dream”.
I would like to encourage young poets by telling them poetry is not a mere “dream”. You young poets have bungled into a battle which is occurring on a sphere the worldly simply can’t admit exists. Yet it does exist, and you do do battle, even if it looks like you are just sitting and nibbling an eraser.
Want proof? Consider Beethoven. Music, to physical pragmatists, is a physical reality involving sound-waves and the physical ability to hear. But Beethoven became deaf. In terms of physical pragmatism he lost all physical reasons to produce sound-waves. Yet he not only persevered with his art, but produced music most musicians confess is astounding. This is not possible unless a non-physical reality exists.
You young poets may have been tricked into poetry because it seemed easier to daydream than face the sweat of a Real Job, but at this point I have to inform you of sad news: Worldly responsibility must be faced, even if you are a genius. As amazing as Beethoven was, he still had to come up with the rent.
Now, before you young poets charge off into a rant about how unfair it is that Beethoven, who gave so much, had to scrimp to pay for shelter, (and how, by extension, it is unfair that you too have to pay rent), be aware Beethoven had his physical side. He loved a young widow he couldn’t marry because he was a commoner, and she would lose her children if she married beneath her class. Therefore much of the passion and tragedy in Beethoven’s music may have been born of frustration.
As long as we have any entanglements with the physical world there will be consequences. The only way to avoid dirty dishes is to give up eating altogether. Therefore young poets should expect interruptions. Be cheerful when asked to take out the trash. But do not be tricked into thinking the physical world is the only world.
It has occurred to me that age does not merely make us infirm and decrepit. It also has a benefit, in that some of us become, (unlike certain professors), less likely to fall prey to the goofs of youth, chief of which is infatuation. We are less likely to seize upon an answer and think we have found the solution before we have even gotten our feet wet with the actual problem. The escape from infatuation is to know you do not know the answer, and this realization is fundamental to being truly responsive, which is fundamental to being truly loving.
Every dawn is fresh and new. We may think we know what the weather will be, but in fact we don’t. The most fabulous computers our world has seen (so far) have been devoted to telling us what the weather will be when we get out of bed, and we have seen them proved wrong. Before we go to bed we can study the work of brilliant minds, the computer weather-models of Europe, Canada, the USA, Japan, and others, and they may all promise us a sunny day, but when we rise from bed and step outside to sniff the air we hear the roll of morning thunder. Our Creator has his own plan, and does not heed the computer models. So who should you obey? What your government states the weather will be? Or what our Creator states the weather actually is?
I tend to side with the Creator, for He is the Truth. Computer models are but an approximation, sort of like a four-year-old’s drawing of my face, at my Childcare. I don’t scold the child for a lousy drawing, and I don’t suppose God scolds the fellows who devise computer models. But, when push comes to shove, I tend to consult a mirror before a four-year-old, when it comes to how my wrinkled, toothless, old face looks, and, when it comes to the morning’s weather, I prefer to step outside and sniff the air, and trust my nose more than I trust bureaucrats staring at computer read-outs, far away.
When I step outside to sniff the air I can’t tell you how many times the weather has surprised me. This proves I am not in control. Despite all the effort I’ve put into comprehending the complexity of New England weather, I’m still ignorant. I am faced with my own imperfection on a daily basis, but does this make the dawn imperfect? No, for even when the daybreak annoys me with snow I must shovel, it is perfect. I may call it perfectly annoying, but still it is perfect. If there is any imperfection involved, it is in my grouchy responses.
As a child-care-professional I make no claim to be perfect, though the government regulations at times seem to want to demand perfection, and to desire bubble-wrapping childhood so no child’s knee is ever seen with a scab. Instead of pretending perfection, I wear my imperfections as a reason to laugh, like a joker, like the child-care-professional Yorick, the court jester of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s play. Hamlet recalls riding Yorick’s shoulders as a boy, and kissing him, and the way Yorick could make everyone laugh, but Yorick’s single appearance in the play is as a skull.
Facing mortality is a great blow to the optimism and infatuations of youth, which also owns a completely contrary sense of invulnerability. This is what makes Hamlet’s comment to Horatio so timeless:
Mortality is the great equalizer, because the exact same fate that befalls a jester befalls a king, and awaited Stalin and Sennacherib. Physically we are all doomed. But in terms of minds, Stalin and Sennacherib were downright depressing, whereas Isaiah, Shakespeare, and Norman Rockwell were (and remain) lively. The difference seems to be that the tyrant seeks power while the poet seeks love’s joy, and worldly power is perishable, while love is not.
A sort of epiphany occurred to me during the final weeks before our national elections, here in the USA, last November. At that time Alarmists were sticking with their arguments about sea-ice, despite the fact their arguments were utterly refuted. Worse, young and naive voters were convinced by Alarmist’s baldfaced lies. In effect I was zealously informed by youth (who didn’t know penguins don’t live with polar bears) that I knew nothing about arctic sea-ice.
If you look back across five years on this site you will see how I have sought to learn all I could about sea-ice, and to patiently share what I have learned. And yet some loud child, just barely of voting age, presumes to tell me what the Truth is, about sea-ice?
It stopped me in my tracks. Truth is such a beautiful thing, and I wanted so badly to share the joy and laughter, yet ignorance has power, and a virtual entity like “Google”, that exists unseen, can seek to demote me, so I sink twenty pages down on it’s “search engine”, so impatient youth will never “search” long enough to hear the truth I’ve learned about sea-ice. Instead they will just parrot the falsehood they have been indoctrinated with, by the politically-correct, who may not be aware of it, but are behaving in a Maoist manner.
Call me discouraged if you will, but I needed time to think.
It seems to me that, if Truth has the power I claim it has, and the pen has the power I claim it has, then there has been a singular lack of evidence that corroborates my belief. I seem to be standing in the same shoes that the sane people of Hitler’s Germany, of Stalin’s Russia, and of Mao’s China, stood in.
What was the use of telling the Truth? I seemed to be beating my brains against a brick wall.
I have recently finished reading “In The Garden Of The Beasts” by Erik Larson, describing the days leading up to the ugliness of the night Hitler first revealed the capacity of his hate and his inability to love, called, “The Night of the Long Knives,” from the view of the American ambassador and his somewhat randy and rambunctious daughter.
I don’t like that period of history, for I always see how Hitler could have been stopped, but none would heed the sane voices. Yet a fascination drags me to look at what I don’t like, perhaps to see how the sane managed to stay sane.
For example, when I first read “The Last Lion” by William Manchester, I couldn’t comprehend how Churchill stayed sane during the period 1933 to 1939. He could see where Hitler was headed, and what his aim was, and knew that if Hitler wasn’t stopped then war, and the death of millions, would be the result. But Churchill, (who knew first-hand the horrors of the trenches, and who wanted to avoid a major war), was called a “war monger” for stating Hitler must be confronted and stopped with a minor war. How great must have been his level of frustration! To be ignored, year after year, and to have his own imperfections magnified, as Hitler’s were forgiven. How did he manage to keep a shred of sanity, as the politically-correct steered civilization to a holocaust?
He must have had a mystic faith in some higher power, called Truth, which would win in the end. In a speech Churchill stated that if Hitler was not stopped, and achieved his goals, the world would face a new, prolonged dark age, made worse by the powers of modern science, but even that statement hints at an underlying belief in goodness. How? It suggests that even if the darkness is “prolonged”, it must lose eventually to the dawn of enlightenment.
It is ironic that Churchill was seen as a hawk and war monger, when what he desired was to confront Hitler in 1933, when Hitler was still weak, and when confrontation would allow the world to enjoy peace, and avoid the hell of war. He was the opposite of a war-monger. He was a peace-lover. But perhaps “peace”, at that time, was too intellectually attached to a royalty, wealth, and empire which God had decided to hit with His “ax”, because the empire’s rich exploited the empire’s poor, and when a rich man died “vultures would gather”, and that rich man’s “widow would be destitute”. People in power put the wrong things ahead of the right things, and lustful infatuation came before love.
When I read Churchill’s speeches from the 1930’s I have an odd sense the dude wasn’t really a politician. He was a poet. His prose has a cadence that your toes want to tap to, as you listen. There are some things that touch your heart, even as your mind objects. Such things have their origins in Truth, and seem to me evidence Churchill was a man living in proximity-to and association-with Truth.
That being said, it must be admitted Churchill (like all of us) had his weaknesses, one of which was a fierce loyalty in 1936 to the new English king, Edward.
Such respect of royalty may seem odd in Churchill’s case, for Churchill had an American mother, and gladly embraced a family-legend that his mother’s great-grandmother, (who had the wonderful Puritan name “Experience Martin”), had skin darker than her siblings and may have been the result of an indiscretion involving an Iroquois Indian. This would make Churchill a sort of “half breed”. (I should add that I’ve found no documentary evidence the family-legend is true). However it seems Churchill himself didn’t seem to mind the possibility he had some fierce Iroquois warrior blood in his veins. This may have given him reason to dislike Hitler’s emphasis on “racial purity.” If so, it perhaps should have also made him dislike King Edward’s contempt towards “inferior races” as well. Instead, Churchill enacted intense patriotic respect for the monarchy, (which American patriots can’t comprehend, unless they can comprehend that back then badmouthing the British monarchy was the English equivalent of an American spitting on the American flag.)
Edward is an odd character, for, at a time when great men craved power, he wanted to be done with it. Where Stalin and Hitler would kill for power, and Churchill would take the most unpopular stances with bulldog determination seeking to gain power through persuasion, Edward seemingly was more comfortable as an obedient and even subservient follower. Not that he didn’t have some strong opinions.
Edward had reason to hate communists, as his aunt had been murdered along with her husband, (the Russian Czar), and all her four children. Therefore he approved of Hitler’s hatred of communists. He also didn’t mind Hitler’s love of Germans, as he was largely German himself. He shared Hitler’s belief that some races were “inferior”, and in his travels around the British Empire he had little sympathy for his impoverished subjects, tending to see poverty not as a choice, or as a misfortune, but as brought about by the genetically diminished intelligence of an inferior race. Lastly, he didn’t mind Hitler’s autocratic mindset, because democracy had been such a shambles in Germany, which suggested an autocrat was necessary. To Edward the alternative to a fascist tyrant seemed to be a communist tyrant. Europe had seen few examples of revolution having results like America’s; largely European revolution resulted in some sort of “Terror” like France’s, and to resulting in people falling back to the “safety” of some sort of monarch, or a dictator like Napoleon.
One thing that made the royalty and the upper class so despised by communists of that time was that their lifestyle made them dependent on a staff of servants. Royalty were freed from doing their own laundry, which may have given them time to attend to other matters, but meant they were in fact inept, in terms of doing laundry. But some did not see themselves as inept, but rather as “more civilized”. People who lived more minimalist lifestyles, wherein one prepared ones own food, cut ones own firewood, and washed ones own clothes, were sometimes deemed “less civilized”, simply because such minimalists had little free time to sit about discussing politics at cocktail parties. It was not uncommon for the wealthiest English Brahman to not merely have clean clothes laid out twice a day, but to have a servant who dressed them. In some cases the servants were appreciated and well cared-for, (Churchill’s staff were largely devoted to him), but in other cases the staff felt disdained, because their unappreciative bosses looked down their noses and said the “inferior” should “know their place”. This belittling was what the communists most despised, and a servant’s natural dislike of an employer’s unappreciative snobbery was a resentment communists tended to nurture, like a small cut into an abscess, from a pout towards rage and revolution.
In a simplistic manner this tended to divide a nation’s naturally united people into Royalists and Antiroyalists, or the Bourgeoisie and the Prolatariate. To continue this simplistic division, Edward was faced with a choice between Hitler and Stalin, and, because Stalin was on the side that had murdered his Aunt and Uncle and all their children, the choice seemed simple. Though the pictures below are from a year later (1937) they demonstrate a friendliness between Edward and Hitler that likely would have made Churchill cringe. (Between the two pictures Hitler likely gallantly kissed the lady’s hand).
The woman in the above pictures is the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, who the king eventually gave up his throne for. The king was likely warned the relationship with her was unwise, (as “intelligence” [IE: gossip and spies] stated she had not only enjoyed an affair with Hitler’s foreign minister, Ribbentrop, but years earlier had an affair with Mussolini’s son-in-law [while in China, of all places]). However Edward likely knew much about the indiscretions of the upper class, having been a playboy himself, nor was he particularly upset about prewar, (pre-genocide) fascism, having been brought up to believe he was a king and superior to “commoners”, due to his “royal blood” alone. Ms Simpson likely was a person with whom he could be frank, about the foibles of leaders, and was a woman who knew much about the presumptions of the powerful, and with her he likely enjoyed a level of understanding he didn’t find elsewhere, and he fell in love.
Because king Edward had access to “red boxes” holding state secrets, (to keep him abreast of government decisions), and because Mrs.Simpson was suspected of being a spy, some were alarmed by how open he was with her. A private detective was hired to trail them. But in 1936 the upper class were oblivious to the approaching holocaust. Churchill’s deep distrust of Hitler, and of fascism in general, was not a widely held view. Many of England’s upper class, like Edward, felt Hitler was a good opponent for Stalin, and Hitler ought be supported, to stand as a “bulwark” against the rise of communism in Russia, and that Hitler could be controlled. Meanwhile Hitler felt England would eventually side with him, and that Edward could be controlled.
In spiritual terms both royalists and communists (in my view) are birds of a feather, for they both are based on autocratic concepts, and tend to want to be rid of restraints to absolute power, such as “constitutional monarchy” or “democratic socialism.” Royalists and Communists see each other as absolute opposites, and are unaware that, because “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, they actually create each other, and are dependent on each other, due to the perverse, Karmic nature of hatred. This was about to become horribly clear in the Spanish Civil War, but in 1936 that nightmare hadn’t started yet.
Churchill clearly saw that Hitler could not be controlled by appeasement, and that force would be required, but had a difficult time marshaling public opinion, as the British public loathed the thought of another war. He finally seemed to making some headway in 1936, after Hitler ignored signed treaties and broke trust by marching troops into the demilitarized Rhineland. Hitler himself later stated that, if the French had marched their own troops in to meet him, he would have had to back off, and that his move was a big gamble. Confronting Hitler was exactly what Churchill urged. He was winning support, and at this point, (when reading “The Last Lion“) I feel a surge of hope (even though I know the future), for Churchill’s power-of-persuasion was on the verge of saving Europe from the approaching holocaust. But then, right when an ordinary politician would make sure to keep cultivating a popular position, mincing and smirking towards cameras and the press, Churchill does something in his bulldog manner that was bound to lose votes.
It was right then Edward announced his intent to marry the divorced commoner Ms. Simpson. The public was horrified. The outrage was not so much that Ms. Simpson was a commoner, (or a fascist spy), but that that she was divorced not merely once, but in the process of divorcing a second husband.
It is difficult for people nowadays to understand the shame and disgrace involved back then, when people broke their marriage vows. Not that the upper crust didn’t cheat on each other, but they didn’t divorce. (In fact some upper class marriages involved couples able to have tremendous rows about the affairs they discovered each other were having, who still were able to make-up, and laugh about their moral indiscretions, later in their marriages.) (King Edward VII (Edward’s grandfather) may even have had a door put in at the back of the palace, so Queen Victoria would not see his lovers coming and going, but he would never, never divorce his queen.) In conclusion, while an affair might be dismissed as a “foible”, a divorce was a big deal. In 1935, when Edward had introduced Ms. Simpson to his mother and father (IE “presented her at court”) his father was furious when he discovered she was divorced, for divorced women simply were not allowed in to be present at court. The English church deemed relations with a divorced woman “adultery”. The British press was silent about the kings “affair”, (even as the American press blared the news), hoping that the new king would get over his “infatuation”, and the affair could be discreetly dismissed. The British press imposed this self-censorship for they were well aware of the outrage that would occur if the public was asked to accept such a woman as their queen.
There was a lot of behind-the-scenes speculation about what gave Ms. Simpson her power. Edward seemed “under her thumb” and “to enjoy being ordered about”. Various pseudo-psychological ideas were bandied about, basically involving her being really good in bed, and the king being masochistic, but none of this solved the problem, which was that Edward was smitten. Finally the press couldn’t hide the romance much longer, as the English who visited United States read the great delight the American Press got over the idea of an American queen. Finally Prime Minister Baldwin visited Edward to bring things to a head, basically telling him the English people would not accept Ms. Simpson as their queen.
As this news broke Churchill was immediately loyal to the king, which cost him much of his new-found popularity. It was typical for Churchill to take unpopular stances, but when I read this part of “the Last Lion” I groaned and rolled my eyes. Why should Churchill be loyal? Edward disagreed with Churchill and felt Hitler should be allowed to militarize the Rhineland. He disagreed with Churchill and said the Italians should be allowed to march into Ethiopia. When the Ethiopian king visited England seeking aid, Edward refused to meet him. Yet Churchill remained loyal. Churchill floated the idea of a “morganatic marriage”, where the king could remain king but his wife would not be called “queen”, and it floated like a lead balloon.
Perhaps Churchill’s loyalty was in part due to the fact his own father had married an American, so he was less scandalized by Edward’s choice of a foreign commoner, but it also was founded on an old-fashioned British belief in near-blind loyalty to the king, (as a figurehead, if not in fact). As a rebellious American, I, of course, have problems with such loyalty to any worldly king, preferring a concept, “liberty”, as my ruler, (though that too can be a false god, if “liberty” is anything short of true Truth.)
In some ways the loyalty of those times seems quaint and archaic, though “those times” are relatively recent times. It is an indication of how brutalized ordinary faith has become, that fidelity, whether to a marriage or to a leader, is now something we deem laughable, and even sneer at. However loyalty was in Churchill’s blood, and even when he opposed he was “the loyal opposition”. He would lose all the political capital he had painstakingly gained before he would throw his king under the bus. This made me groan as I read about it, for Hitler marched into the Rhineland unopposed.
This was all the more exasperating because Edward had more compassion towards Hitler than he had towards Churchill. Fascists could be loyal to royalty, while communists killed royalty. Furthermore, if you want to play at being a pseudo-psychologist, Edward preferred heiling someone else, to being a king and shouldering the burden of responsibility. There are embarrassing pictures of him teaching the future queen of England to heil when she was just a child.
There are other pictures of Edward supposedly “heiling” Germans (when he may have been merely waving.)
But then Edward did something that baffled the mind-set of both Hitler and Stalin. He gave up power. For what? For loyalty to a lady he loved, loved more than power. In this manner he was equal to Churchill, (though not in matters of insight and intelligence.)
A picture that chills me is from 1937, which demonstrates Edward’s lack of insight and intelligence and especially foresight. He is inspecting the troops of the cruel and merciless Nazi SS.
One odd thing about this picture is that it may be photo-shopped. I have seen other versions of the same picture, wherein Edward has an arm raised and “heiling”. The question then becomes, which is the photo-shopped photo? Has the above photo been “cleaned up” by monarchists, or was the “heiling” photo “made politically-correct” by communists?
It doesn’t really matter, for both sides are haywire, in my humble opinion, for both sides are autocratic, and therefore cut off from the healing powers of Love. However even as late as 1937 Edward could have thought he was wise and politically-correct to heil the SS, and that Churchill was the naive and foolish poet. (Although Churchill was loyal to Edward, I see little evidence Edward returned the favor.)
The idea at that time was that Hitler could be controlled. By flattering here, and appeasing there, Hitler could be utilized as a useful puppet in the real war, which was against the communists who were determined to murder the upper class. Stalin was the beast, and Hitler was merely beastly.
By 1937 it was clear Hitler was a murderer. He didn’t merely disenfranchise and rob Jews; his insanely patriotic Brown Shirts didn’t merely beat American tourists who didn’t know enough to “heil” passing troops. Hitler himself had Rohm, his good buddy and leader of the “Brown Shirts”, executed, (just as Stalin had his former comrade Trotsky assassinated). Such behavior was definitely not proper among the English upper crust, but, because Hitler respected royalty where Stalin didn’t, Hitler’s atrocities could be winked at. The politically-correct felt Hitler could be cultivated, advised, and used as a useful tool, for Germans would eventually wage war with Russia (as Hitler promised to do in his autobiography). Then, as Germans and Russians slaughtered each other, the English politically-correct could sit back and enjoy the benefits of peace, and of being “better”, like Brahmans served by Untouchables, superior-to and more-civilized-than and intellectually-smarter-than murderous barbarians, like Stalin and Hitler.
In my humble opinion, if, ( and I stress “if”), these smug people, discussing international politics over scotch-and-soda at a cocktail party, actually had the control they imagined they had, then they should be included in the ranks of mass murderers. Of course, they would flatter themselves, and think they were saving the lives of British troops, and it would only be “other” soldiers dying, out of view. They would be deeply offended if I told them they were plotting the murder of millions of Germans and millions of Russians, to preserve their own lives of soft, plush, upper-class luxury. In a sense they were no different than Mao, certain that what was good for them was good for not merely Britain, but the entire World.
Such upper-class intellectuals had no real excuse for their vanity. They had attended the best schools, and had been forced to study dreary poetry, and had seen the work of the poet John Keats, who in fact describes just such hardhearted people as the elite of 1936 became, when describing (In 1818) two brothers who killed their own sister’s lover:
“With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt, Enriched from ancestral merchandize, And for them many a weary hand did swelt In torched mines and noisy factories, And many once proud-quiver’d loins did melt In blood from stinging whip;–with hollow eyes Many all day in dazzling river stood, To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.
For them the Ceylon diver held his breath, And went all naked to the hungry shark; For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe A thousand men in troubles wide and dark: Half-ignorant, they turn’d an easy wheel, That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.
Why were they proud? Because their marble founts Gush’d with more pride than do a wretch’s tears?– Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs?– Why were they proud? Because red-lin’d accounts Were richer than the songs of Grecian years?– Why were they proud? again we ask aloud, Why in the name of Glory were they proud?”
What naive fools the politically correct of 1936 turned out to be! But they were sure they had things all figured out. To them politics was like a game of billiards, and they were certain they saw how all the balls lay, and that they had all the shots all figured out and arranged, but then the layout of things changed, because others shot first.
To jump ahead, rather than Germany and Russia exhausting themselves in a war between communists and fascists, in August 1939 Stalin and Hitler, supposedly worst and irreconcilable enemies, agreed to be friends. Who could have ever predicted that? But both evil men stood to gain, as they had agreed to together wipe Poland off the face of the map, dividing the spoils.
Then Stalin got to sit back and laugh, for he likely knew Hitler had been cultivated to destroy him, but, instead of communists being destroyed, he got to to see Hitler turn the full brunt of his military might onto peaceful and unsuspecting non-communists, as for two years communists enjoyed, if not peace and prosperity, at least time to recover from self-destructive purges, and an utterly bungled war with tiny Finland. (Little did Stalin know the enormous price Russia would pay for these two years of peace. It is never a wise thing to feed a mad dog, nor to help a Hitler.)
But now allow me to jump back to 1936, when the politically-correct were completely unaware of what lay ahead. It should have been obvious to these ignoramuses (and was all too painfully obvious to Churchill) that they were making some serious mistakes, (but instead they continued to believe they held the strings and others were the puppets, until they were completely embarrassed by the falling of France, when it started looking like Hitler held the strings, and that they themselves were the puppets, at which point they turned to Churchill, [likely not because they they thought Churchill could bring victory, but because they they themselves wanted to escape the blame of defeat.])
(In actual fact Truth held the strings, but powerful people seldom give credit where credit is due.)
1936 also marked the start of the Spanish Civil War. My take is that the nation was suffering the birth-pains of reform, with the people who desired reform arguing with those who liked the old ways, and, rather than a two-party-system allowing these disagreements to be worked out in a civil manner, things became uncivil. (This is called a “civil” war, though it is the exact opposite of civility.) What is particularly horrible is how outsiders exacerbated the incivility, rather than making peace. Hitler and Mussolini supported the traditionalists, as Stalin supported the reformers, and both sides got to try out their new weapons and their techniques for “controlling the masses”, and in the process did much to destroy both Spanish traditions and reforms. Meanwhile the politically correct of England didn’t lift a finger to help. They had a “hands off” policy, publicly stating the civil war involved the “internal affairs” of Spain, and needed to be resolved by the Spanish, while privately gloating how the Fascists and Communists were spending so much money, as they didn’t spend a dime. I think some patted themselves on the back, seeing Spain’s horrible suffering as proof they were successfully employing Hitler as a “bulwark” against Stalin.
Yet despite the government’s official non-involvement, the Spanish agony touched the hearts of all sorts of young poets. Even when doing so broke certain laws, they rushed to Spain to fight, some for Republican principles, winding up with Stalin’s troops, and some for Jesus and the Church, winding up with Hitler’s troops. Most were profoundly disillusioned by what they went through, and many accurately wrote about the complete inhumanity and stupidity involved. (A good example is Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”) My favorite example of an artist being disillusioned was Eric Arthur Blair, who joined the anti-fascist Republican side, and got shot through the throat by Franco’s fascists, yet, surviving that, also nearly got killed by the side he had joined, as the communists involved felt he should be “purged”.
Most know this poet by his pen name, “George Orwell”, (and whose work I didn’t at all like, when I was forced to read it, [“Animal Farm” and “1984“], in high school English classes, when I was fifteen, for I found his work “depressing”, and utterly unlike what I called “true poetry”, [which “inspired” rather than “depressed]”.) However Eric Arthur Blair’s view of Truth was based on grim, ugly facts, and on what he actually experienced, and he has been rewarded with the adjective, “Orwellian”, which describes how ugly life looks, if politically-correct standards are upheld.
Neither Hitler nor Stalin cared much for the advice of Jesus, but, along those lines, neither did the Catholic Church of Spain. The Spanish Inquisition is a horrendous example of a church disgracing the name of Jesus. And, if Karma is a reality, and if it is true that what goes around comes around, perhaps the Spanish Catholic church was merely reaping what it sowed, when priests, friars and nuns were murdered without trial in the Spanish Civil War. (The Wikipedia figures are: 4,184 priests, 2,365 monks and friars, and 283 nuns.)
However, in terms of propaganda, it doesn’t seem entirely wise for communists to have a picture like the picture below appear in the London Newspaper, the Daily Mail, with the heading “Spanish Reds war on religion.” (The picture below was such bad publicity that the cynic in me thinks it may well have been posed, and be propaganda.)
While it may be a Marxist belief that “religion is the opiate of the masses”, to actually execute Jesus a second time seems like unwise publicity for communists, for many of the proletariat, even when they dislike priests, like to go to the sanctuary of a church and to idealize that a Superior to priests is present on the alter. Therefore it was also bad propaganda to take an alter that looked like this:
And make it look like this:
However the worst publicity the communists could have ever imagined was named Andre Marty, who brought the paranoid insanity of a Stalinist purge to the struggles in Spain. Like Mao he felt it was necessary to “purify”, not by killing the enemy, but by killing soldiers on his own side. He held some title like “Commissar Of Foreign Troops,” which gave him the power to execute, (with only a pretense of a trial), any who begged to differ with him. This might include idealistic young poets who came to Spain to sacrifice their lives fighting Fascism, but who happened to think Trotsky had some good ideas. Rather than fighting a fascist they got killed by a communist. Of the roughly 5000 foreigners who died fighting for the anti-fascist side, only 4500 were killed by fascists, for Andrè Marty rather proudly stated he had executed 500.
But Marty couldn’t kill all the poets, and those he let slip through his nets are not kind to his memory. Hemingway is cruel, describing Andrè Marty, (not even bothering to change his name), in “For Whom The Bell Tolls“. In the case of Eric Arthur Blair, who barely escaped Marty’s purges, Marty (and Stalin) will be immortalized, as long as the book lives, as the evil pig Napoleon in “Animal Farm“.
Eric Arthur Blair had surprising difficulty getting “Animal Farm” published. Even when he found a publisher, the publisher changed his mind after a visit from a prominent member of England’s “Ministry of Information” (who later turned out to be a Stalinist double agent.) Such opposition seems a bit odd, considering Eric’s tale is basically a fairy tale and fable, involving talking animals. However those who read it seemed to know it held dynamite: Truth too true for revelation. (Stalin had become an Allie of England, after being double-crossed by Hitler, when the book was being written, and the book could have been censored then, because war-time censorship ruled, and being “anti-Russia” was unhelpful to the war effort. However, after the war was won, when the publisher initially accepted the book, such censorship should have been relaxed, yet still many of the politically-correct didn’t want to see the fairy tale published, and publishers continued a sort of censorship, taking on the role of “gatekeepers”.) This suppression not only didn’t discourage Eric Arthur Blair; it encouraged him to write “1984“.
However I have leaped ahead of myself. In 1936 the politically-correct had no idea where England would be in ten years, nor that they’d ever have to get Churchill out of power, in an attempt to regain their odd mode of highly hypocritical moral leadership. In 1936 they smugly sat back and watched Spain as fascists butchered communists, and communists butchered fascists, and thought to themselves, “This is how the game is played.”
This is not how the game is played. You are not allowed to sit back, when gifted with power, and to passively observe inhumanity. Sooner or later you will repent your inaction, as the inhumanity rises up to bite you. Yet so many politically-correct people in history believe it is wise to turn a blind eye to immorality, and then over and over are flabbergasted to find their own necks stretched on the guillotine. (The inventor of the guillotine was beheaded by his own invention.)
By 1936 Stalin’s inhumanity was obvious, as was Hitler’s. Stalin was purging many of his best generals, (which may explain why his army was pathetic when it tried to overpower tiny Finland in 1939.) Hitler had purged many of the Brown Shirts who were responsible for bringing him to power. Stalin in fact purged every “founding father” of Russia’s rebellion in 1917, because they were not Stalinist enough, because they were not Stalin. And, in like manner, Andrè Marty was killing the poets who bravely came to Spain to fight fascism. Is it any wonder his side lost?
This is not how the game is played. Killing the people on your own side is distinctly unwise. And, while Stalin and Hitler made this a “sin of commission”, to sit back and smugly watch was a “sin of omission”, (unless you, as an editor, censored or used “gatekeeper” status to silence those poets attempting to be whistle-blowers, in which case you were involved in a sly and subtle “sin of commission”). In all cases such politically-correct behavior will rise up to bite you, history shows.
For the sake of argument I’ll briefly entertain the concept that “desperate times require desperate deeds.” Some will argue that the Republican position in Spain was so perilous that Andrè Marty was justified in hacking off heads, to “discipline” troops.
I will counter by comparing his behavior with the behavior of George Washington, when he was in an equally desperate and perilous situation in December, 1776.
In twelve months Washington had fallen far. He had fallen from marching into Boston victorious, after driving the English out, to being driven from New York City defeated, and getting his army’s butt booted by Cornwallis clear across New Jersey and across the Delaware River, to where some of his his ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-supplied troops wrapped their bootless feet in rags and left bloody footprints in the snow at Valley Forge. People who had praised him twelve months before, stating “We” are winning, were now grumbling that “You” are losing. He desperately needed help but wasn’t getting any. What did he do? Kill people who criticized?
No. Instead he was truthful, and expressed to everyone that he needed support urgently.
First, he told the colonial congress that if they didn’t send food and clothing they soon would have no army. Instead of food they sent four representatives unannounced, and Washington interrupted his busy schedule and showed them the army’s dire need in person, and the representatives got the message loudly and clearly, and brought the message back to Philadelphia, and then supplies-for-troops became a top priority among politicians in Philadelphia, (as did extra pay for the troops).
Second, he was truthful with his troops. He confessed they were in dire straits, and ordered that they fast and pray, for God’s help. He also pleaded for their help. Many had only enlisted for the year 1776, and had every right to to go home to their farms (where they would be warmer and better fed) on January first. Washington begged them to stay just two more weeks, promising them ten dollars extra in their pay, and also explaining that their nation desperately needed them, and that they had a great power and influence, in the present tense, that they might never, never have again. For a moment none of the sullen troops stepped forward, but then, slowly and somewhat reluctantly, most of them did.
Third, on a practical level, he demanded General Charles Lee bring 2000 troops down from the north and Colonel John Cadwalader bring recruits from Philadelphia north (around 1000). He got no response. Just then a letter from Lee to Cadwalader passed through Washington’s camp. In his need to know if reinforcements were coming, Washington opened the letter.
The letter continued an ongoing discussion between the two men about how Washington might not be a general fit for the job of freeing America. Such doubt might be expected from Lee, who had made it fairly obvious that he felt he, and not Washington, should command the Army, but Cadwalader was a friend and confidant of Washington’s, and the exposure of his dwindling faith likely hurt. (Basically the letter wondered if Washington lacked the necessary assertiveness to be decisive, suggesting he was too prone to back off. In essence it stated Washington retreated too much, and didn’t know how to attack.)
Stalin or Hitler or Andrè Marty would have had the two men immediately “purged”. Immediately “Liquidated.” Washington? He apologized for reading their mail, and explained why he had done so.
Washington’s gentleness might not be politically-correct among those of a dog-eat-dog mentality, but I think it was very effective. Honesty always is. At the very least it told both men that Washington respected their exchange of thoughts. How they then felt, I don’t know. However it seems that, rather than executing the two men, Washington took their accidentally revealed “advice” to heart, for he immediately became more decisive, and attacked.
He was helped by two things. First, his troops, who had felt neglected and forgotten, abruptly felt cared for, as Washington’s efforts succeeded in bringing foodstuffs, and perhaps more importantly blankets (which meant more than we can imagine, as the blankets were actually hand-made by supporters), and furthermore brought news that the public was touched by the soldier’s efforts and their suffering. Thomas Paine’s inspiring and poetic broadsheet, “The Crisis”, may even have reached the troops, though it is dated December 23 and they first crossed the Delaware December 25, (and communication was slower before the internet.) “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Ten days later the situation had radically changed. Washington had crossed the Delaware three times and defeated the English at Trenton, and then stalled Conwallis’s counterattack with delaying skirmishes at Five Mile Run and Shabakunk Creek, and a stand at the bridge in the Battle of Assunpink Creek. Then Washington out-maneuvered Cornwallis, for as night fell Cornwallis drew up his forces and planned to attack across the creek in the morning, certain he was about to “bag the old fox”. Across the creek bright fires burned and the clinking and clanking of picks and shovels made it sound like trenches were being dug and earthworks erected, but the fires and noise was made by a group of men left behind to create the illusion Washington was still there, as he slipped away. These noisy men slipped away as well, in the first dusk of dawn, and when Cornwallis attacked the next day he found no Americans. They were away, winning the Battle of Princeton. At this point the winter was growing harsh, so the British retreated north to await the warmer weather of spring. The Americans also hunkered down to await the spring, but in far more comfortable circumstances, as they had captured all sorts of provisions.
Though seemingly small victories, the news that Washington wasn’t in retreat, but that he had fought back and won, did wonders for American morale. On the streets of New York City, behind enemy lines, the news Washington had captured a thousand Hessian troops was spread by mouth, and the effect was electric.
But their joy is off the point. The point I wish to make is that Washington didn’t need to “purge” a single soul, to turn the tide.
In many senses Washington was down to his last dime; he was very nearly a general without an army, and had to plead with his troops not to abandon him, as so many had only enlisted for 1776, and were free to go home on January first. Yet he never threatened them. They were given a choice. Some did depart on January first, but most chose to stay, and to be part of tiny army that defeated a superpower.
When I compare Washington’s behavior to Andrè Marty’s, I sense I am seeing something missed by those who subscribe to certain unspiritual ideas about power-politics. It seems to be a difference between being crudely politically-correct or having a more high-minded Karmic-Correctness.
Once again the two different ways of behaving basically boils down to the difference between infatuation and love, yet this distinction eludes the logic of many. They cannot see why the American Revolution didn’t result in the “Terror” of the French Revolution, or the dual “Red Terror” and “White Terror” of the Spanish Civil War, or the terrible “Night Of Long Knives” of Hitler’s accent, or the terror of Stalin’s terrible purges or of Mao’s “Proletarian Cultural Revolution”.
If Truth must be known, the American Revolution also had its “terrors.” War is hell, and the American Revolution could well be called “The First American Civil War”. In areas under the Crown’s control Loyalists felt free to dispossess “traitorous” Patriots, (including some men who signed the Declaration of Independence), jailed other Patriots in prisonships so abysmal that many died, and hung some, (like Nathan Hale, a mere school teacher), as spies, but later these same Loyalists found themselves dispossessed of all wealth and property and sent penniless north by the thousands, to trudge to Canada. Yet, as these Loyalists trekked north, many would not have made it to Canada, were it not for the mercy of rural farmers whom they had formerly scorned as “bumpkins,” and had called “enemies of the Crown.” All in all, comparing the American Revolution with other Revolutions in other lands, it was a civil war with far more civility than usual.
To even suggest suggest history holds the fingerprints of anything “High” opens a can of worms, for many find belief difficult when they look at genocides, slaughters, and demoralizing behaviors. They do have a belief, but it is a belief in disbelief. In Truth, they are mistaken, and there is a reason for hope. And I could end this writing with that (but will go on).
As soon as I state, as an American, that the revolution that created the United States had a higher and more ethical side than other civil wars, I fully expect to “catch it from both sides”; for being a mushy dreamer who lacks the spine to take a stand. Why? Because in many situations I feel both sides are wrong. I assert that, unless one prefers to see a revolution and civil war wherein millions die, and wherein both the principles of reform and the principles of tradition are shattered, and wherein humanity degenerates to foulness and lowness, a so-called “centrist” position is desirable. All this means is one listens to others; one respects others; the reformer listens to the traditionalist as the traditionalist listens to the reformer; in other words, a “two-party-system”, where respect and honor and even loving-one’s-enemies are held in high regard, and beheading opponents is regarded with disdain.
People do not become faithless without reason. A baby is born with faith that its cries will be answered, but if left all alone in a cold and dark room it may be deeply scarred. In like manner many young idealists have wild hopes in a compassionate Almighty, and believe they are invulnerable because a kind Deity watches over them, and then, like the youth who dashed off to help “the right side” in the Spanish Civil War, have their faith mangled by the hell of war. They often then bounce from one extreme to the other; from naive faith to fierce atheism. In actual fact faith needs to mature, and become centered.
History demonstrates, over and over, that when a society loses faith in the decency of respect and honor, they in some way become disconnected to the roots of Truth. A withering of the lush, green and vigorous vines springing from love and liberty occurs. Even a “Chosen People” like the Jews can suffer ruinous exile from their capital of Jerusalem, as Jeremiah so poignantly describes in “Lamentations.” Conversely, when a people behave in an opposite manner, they become filled with some sort of sap springing from the roots of Truth, and they prosper and gain powers no one expected.
Allow me briefly sidetrack to an example of how things unexpectedly worked out for George Washington. It involves General Charles Lee, who was not being as helpful as he could have been, and who Stalin would have purged. Lee was taking far longer than he should have taken to bring the 2000 troops he commanded south to help Washington in the time of crisis. It has been suggested he had ulterior motives for his delay, and that either, (when he accused Washington of lacking the courage to battle) he was doing what psychobabble calls, “projecting”, (and he himself feared battle), or that he slyly calculated that if Washington’s troops were decimated as his force remained unscathed he would become de facto commander. He lacked Washington’s commitment to the cause; where Washington served without pay Lee’s letters complain he should be paid more. Then, as if divinity stepped in, Lee was removed, and no “purge” was necessary.
It happened like this: As his troops slowly preceded south Lee decided to forgo the discomfort of winter tents and to spend a night in a comfortable tavern three miles behind the lines. It has been suggested “a lady of the evening” may have been involved. Early the next morning a raiding party of 25 British horsemen, carefully avoiding the 2000 troops, came galloping up to the tavern. Lee hid in his nightgown, but the tavern owner’s wife, fearing her property would be torched, ran outside screaming that she was a Loyalist, and that General Lee had forced her to house him against her will. The English were delighted to capture a general. Then, with Lee out of the picture, the second-in-command led the 2000 troops south to Washington with haste.
(As an aside to an aside, General Lee did not go to a dismal prison-ship, but was housed well in New York City, (because officers treated officers with dignity, back then), and later was returned to Washington in a “prisoner-exchange.” Washington gave him a second chance, because trained generals were in short supply among ragtag troops, but when Lee again refused to follow orders, this time refusing to attack in the heat of a battle and allowing the English to escape a trap, Washington was done with him. And if you wonder how Washington could replace such a skilled person, again divinity seemingly stepped in, for Tadeusz Kościuszko unexpectedly arrived from Poland.)
Call me a dreamer if you will, and dismiss such events as luck and coincidence, but when I see these events sprinkled through history I always shake my head in amazement. It seems to me there is a Power whom the powerful are deaf and blind to, yet Whom the deaf can hear and the blind can see.
The politically-correct, who think they know all there is to know about power, are always blind-sided by this Mystery. This occurs because they see worldly power as an end-all and be-all, when it is actually a byproduct of a greater things: Life, Liberty and Love. Because political power is a byproduct, it actually is a bit like manure. Manure is a byproduct of farming, and valuable for enriching the soil of a garden, but it would be absurd to see manure as being so important that one blew up entire farms for piles of shit. Yet the politically-correct, one way or another, always seem to succumb to this lunacy, and, because they ignore what is important, preferring shit, they are always utterly amazed when power is snatched away and given to those who do not subscribe to their views; consequently they are blind-sided.
For an ancient example, when Genghis Khan was born around 1162 few cared a hoot about a bunch of crazy cowboys riding about and fighting neighboring cowboys on a remote prairie, far from the centers of power. When he died seventy-five years later, Japan, China, Russia, Persia and all of Europe feared him. How the heck did such a rural hick gain such power?
It seems to me that, though people now primarily see Genghis Khan as a mass murderer, he did have some spiritual qualities. He did slaughter large populations who resisted him, but also absorbed people who would work with him. He seemed to have a keen awareness of his own weaknesses, and knew that he needed others. For example, as a nomad he had no idea how to run a city, so he sought people who knew how to run the cities he conquered. Yet he did not always seek such governors from the politically-correct; he would ignore a Brahman of high rank in favor of an Untouchable who had a proven record of getting things done. In like manner, he ignored religious big-shots who thought they were high priests, in favor of humble friars and monks who could simply talk the talk and also walk the walk. This ability to judge men by the quality of their character, rather than the political-correctness of their caste, enabled him to first unite a collection of warring cowboys into a powerful nation, and, second, to unify the peoples he conquered into a religiously tolerant empire, (which was [and is] an unexpected tolerance to see, in one whom many now regard as a mass murderer).
In 1162 the politically-correct in China were likely imagining they had complete control over the Mongol cowboys to their north, and that they were clever and crafty to pit Mongol against Mongol, supporting one group of cowboys one month and another the next. And yes, such diplomacy might wreck havoc among the Mongol tribes, and cause much misery upon those distant steppes, but making misery elsewhere only proved (supposedly) that the Chinese were smarter and superior to northern-barbarian neighbors. When they tricked such loser Mongol tribes into killing each other off, what harm could come of it?
The politically correct of China were completely blind-sided by the Karmic consequences and repercussions. They never saw the Mongol cowboys coming, never envisioned unified hoards galloping south from over the horizon and taking over their entire land, and ruling it. Yet, like the Jews of Jeremiah’s Jerusalem, they got the “ax” they deserved. In fact, they got a worse “ax” than the Jews, for after the Mongols, China saw the invading Manchus of Manchuria, and then got Imperialistic Europeans. But would any of this Karmic backlash have happened, if they had treated Mongols (and other non-Chinese) differently, in the first place?
In like manner, in 1450, who, of all the politically-correct in Europe, as laser-focused (as they were) on the post-Byzantine treachery of the spice-wars between the Ottoman and Venetian Empires, payed any attention to three tiny kingdoms far to the west, at the very periphery of Europe, called Portugal, Aragon, and Castile? Yet, a half century later, the Pope was dividing the entire planet between the Portuguese and Spanish empires. Yet, even as Spain and Portugal gained their power, who was paying attention to the obscure Island to the north, Britain? Who then could dream that, (as I described earlier), Britain would come close to ruling the world? And yet, as the English first felt their power, who paid much attention to their thirteen impoverished colonies clinging to the east coast of North America?
The point I am trying to make is that the politically-correct often don’t see what is coming, even though they often exude a plush assurance that purrs like a sleek cat’s, and radiate confidence that insists they have power, and control. They don’t control, which is shown by how often history demonstrates them being blind-sided by shifts in power. They like to think they see the future and have invested wisely, but often wind up looking like an investor in horses and buggies just before the invention of the car, or an investor in typewriters just before the the invention of the word-processor. Their vision of the future is clouded, because they ignore Truth, and instead are besotted by power. They fail to see the true Source of power, and that power itself is a byproduct like manure. In this manner the politically-correct are worshiping a “false god” and are led by “false prophets.” To be blunt, they worship shit.
Not that there is anything wrong with a byproduct, in and of itself. As a farmer I call manure “brown gold” and recognize its power to be helpful in the nourishment of plants in my garden. But I do not value the shit more than the animals that produce the shit, which is what, in a manner of speaking, the politically-correct seem all too prone to doing. History seems to over and over demonstrate how the politically-correct put shit ahead of what matters more, and how they are then are astonished when their future turns brown and stinks.
In many ways the more wicked of the politically-correct are comical, if one is able to detach oneself from all the unnecessary heartache they cause. Like jealous schoolgirls, anxious to be seen as fashionable, they rush hither and thither from fad to fad, glad to be seen in the right place and in a panic when fashion shifts and what was right becomes wrong. Though pompous and vainglorious, (and highly offended if you equate them with schoolgirls), top-hatted bankers can be a joke. They are full of themselves when stocks soar, and then verge on suicide when markets crash. While money is no more evil than manure, love of money is a madness worthy of laughing at, reminiscent of a gambler’s yo-yoing mood as he makes ten thousand at nine o’clock and has lost it by ten. At nine he is radiant and struts through the casino with a babe on either arm, and at ten he trudges in despair with his complexion green, all alone, as his fair-weather-friends have all fled. Without roots drinking deeply of Truth, people are reduced to being but panicky lemmings dashing back and forth between two cliffs.
Sadly, faith in the Truth has been shattered by horrible amounts of unnecessary heartache. The very people entrusted with the upholding of faith have abused the trust so severely, and been such awful hypocrites, that people have lost faith in faith. Where Washington once ordered his troops to fast and pray, such faithful behavior is now deemed politically-incorrect. To suggest civility might have political benefits tends to be laughed at, in our cynical times. It tends to spoofed, (for example, in Monty Python skits). However even the spoofing of civility has an odd peacemaking power, because it makes people laugh, and it is hard to strike out in rage when you are laughing.
In fact I once knew a cheerful young man at an English public school, (back when corporal punishment was commonplace, and bullying and baiting were the norm), who sailed through many dangerous social-situations and escaped unscathed, simply by pretending to be terribly offended and challenging people twice his size (even teachers) to fisticuffs. In a voice halfway between an English Lord and Foghorn Leghorn’s, he’d shout, “Sir! You have pushed me too far! Honor is at stake, sir, honor! Prepare yourself for a pummeling!” Then he would prance about furiously shadowboxing jabs for one or two seconds with a fierce scowl, before predictably pausing, raising an index finder and one eyebrow, and inquiring in the most polite manner, “Queensbury Rules?” Somehow the way the young fellow’s eyebrows shifted from incivility to civility never failed to win over his enemy, often buckling his foe over at the waist with paroxysms of laughter. He made Foghorn Leghorn look dull.
Of course, certain politically-correct people no more like the humor of cartoons than they like the talking animals of “Animal Farm”. Why? Perhaps the antics of a loudmouthed rooster too closely resembles their own sophism. When a cartoon character expects one result, and another occurs, it too closely copies situations such as the the politically-correct of 1936 feeling smug about arranging things so Hitler would fight Stalin, and then being flabbergasted when Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact. In the first case it may seem a mere cartoon, with a silly rooster facing a chicken-hawk and/or cat and/or farm-dog and/or sex-crazed hen and/or younger-generation, while in the second case it may seem a deadly serious reality, but I see a similarity in the disapproval of the politically correct, and how they seek to censor not merely a political fable such as “Animal Farm”, but even cartoons.
It is not the soldiers on the battlefields who attempt to banish the slapstick humor of “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, but rather it is the politically-correct. Why are they so offended by a mouse clobbering a cat with an impossibly over-sized hammer? Is it not just a modern version of “Punch and Judy” puppets? Yet with pious expressions they state “Tom and Jerry” “encourages violence”. Encourages violence? Who is encouraging violence? Do they think those soldiers are out on the battlefield getting shot-at and shelled for the fun of it? Do the politically-correct think “Tom and Jerry” cartoons cause war, and war has nothing to do with their own lusts for luxury, privilege, power and sex?
Besides taxing my wallet, the politically-correct tax my patience. They seem to feel they can hold on to all the accouterments of love without the bother of actually loving. For, in Truth, love does tend to make a person rich and gives them power, but another gift is joy, yet the politically-correct have a terrible tendency to frown at laughter, and shame people for joking, and to gain more glee from scolding, than from confessing an embarrassment with a chuckle. They are epitomized by the garlic-faced priest, the dour schoolmarm, the glowering headmaster, and become absolutely furious when you demonstrate that they themselves are the joke.
They don all the trappings of love’s successful bounty, but are like small children dressing up as kings and queens. They flounce about, forgetting love works from dawn to dusk and puts in constant overtime, and instead they desire the harvest without the hard work. Then they become strangely irate when they see joy descend not upon themselves, but upon their servants. I think it makes them honestly angry to see there is more humor in a cottage than a castle, more good-natured hilarity on a noisy factory floor than in the morgue-like mansion the factory supports, and far more laughter in a reeking cannery than among the erudite nibbling pickled herring. Having experienced both sides, I know this to be true, but many poor envy the rich, as many rich resent the poor, because the grass is always greener on the far side of a fence.
In Truth, it is more blessed to give than to receive, and blessed are the poor, which in effect conversely means that the politically-correct are accursed. In their smugness they parody amazing ignorance, and are dunces to such a delightful degree that the heavens shout with laughter at their downfalls, which they richly deserve. However such humor is often hidden, here on earth. It is funny to see another slip and sit down hard on an icy pavement, but not so funny to be the one who falls. The haughty call another’s laughter at their discomfiture politically-incorrect, and even “unspiritual”. Then, when such humor bursts from tightly pressed lips, it appears sardonic or ironic or sarcastic, as a sort of gallows humor. However its persistence is a proof joy cannot be quenched any more than Truth can be destroyed. This is never made more clear than in the humor of poor soldiers suffering the hell of war.
The people who actually suffer on the battlefields, and in the trenches, are living so close to the end of life that they do experience joy in situations where the politically-correct deem it politically-incorrect to laugh. An example of soldier’s humor that struck me as amazingly incorrect, in all polite society, dates from the Korean war. But telling this tale involves explaining a great deal, (perhaps creating a long run for a short slide), because the actors on the stage need a background.
We need to jump ahead 13 years from 1936 to 1949, when Mao moved from doing good to doing bad. He moved from unifying China to attacking people outside his borders. In this manner he was a bit like Hitler. If Hitler had dropped dead in 1938, just after he annexed the “German” part of Czechoslovakia, he might be remembered as the man who unified the German people, and freed them from foreign oppressors. In like manner, if Mao had dropped dead in 1949, he would be remembered as the man who unified China, freeing it from the confusion of divided Chinese warlords, and foreign oppressors, ( non-Han “imperialists” from Manchuria and Europe and Imperial Japan). But no, Mao couldn’t stop at his own borders. Just as Hitler felt compelled to advance his fascist concept of German superiority outside his homeland, Mao felt compelled to advance his communist agenda outside his own borders.
Mao’s aggressiveness is in some ways understandable, if you look at the belittling attitude Europe had towards China during Europe’s most obnoxious and imperialistic period, towards the end of the 1800’s. The Chinese felt they were the most civilized people on earth, and Europeans were just a different form of barbarian, but Europeans felt the Chinese were primitive and in need of Europe’s supposedly-superior and politically-correct intelligence and modernization, and were busily dividing China up into “spheres of economic interest” which Europeans would control (just as India had been subjected to European control.) The Chinese revolted, with the “Boxer’s Rebellion”, which resulted in a humiliating defeat for Chinese patriots, and an increase in the imperialistic powers of foreigners in China.
The patriot who actually began throwing the foreigners out of China was Sun Yat-sen, (who Americans approved-of because he admired George Washington). He devised a uniquely Chinese blend of foreign ideas, using parts of American democracy and parts of European communism, which he called “The Three Principles of the People.”
The first principle is called by some “nationalism” or even “fascism”, but basically stated the Han Chinese should be ruled by the Han Chinese, and not a Manchu royalty. The second principle stated an individual had rights, and was downright American. But the third principle stated the government should be concerned with people’s welfare, and was European and socialistic. These three ideas never had a chance to jell and be properly worked out, as Sun Yat-Sen died in 1923, and no one followed who upheld his sane and “centrist” concepts, and instead things degenerated to a communist dictator on one side and a royalist-fascist dictator on the other, much like the situation in the Spanish Civil War, only in the case of China the communists won. Nor did the communist Mao display the sanity of the fascist Franco. Where Franco was made wise by the civil war that bled Spain dry, and kept Spain out of World War Two, Mao was eager for more bloodshed.
Why? Partly it was because Mao believed communism was good and would sweep over the entire planet like a new religion. He wanted to continue the “good work” he felt he had done in his homeland, extending communism beyond his shores. Second, he wanted to counter the idea that China was a dissolute push-over, and couldn’t fight back. Third, he wanted recognition on the world stage, as he wasn’t yet recognized as the legal government of China by the United Nations, and the defeated Nationalists, (relegated to the island of Taiwan), still held China’s seat on the UN Security Council. Lastly, like Hitler, he desired to conquer (or “gain-influence-in”) neighboring lands for China’s economic benefit, and to have satellite-puppet nations, like Stalin had. This made Mao, the second he stepped beyond his own borders, just as “imperialistic” as the imperialistic nations he so despised, only he saw his own imperialism as something higher and finer, and used double-speak to call it “liberation.”
At this point most in the United States appear gullible and naive. Americans thought war was over and treaties were binding, and that aggression-beyond-one’s-borders was something all had agreed was unwise, and that imperialism was wrong. America was busily (and somewhat proudly) working to grant America’s lone “colony”, (the Philippines), their independence. When Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946, many Americans distrusted Churchill more than they distrusted Stalin, seeing Russia’s “excesses” (purges) at home, (which most Americans knew very little about), as an unfortunate side of a civil war, similar to brutalities which occurred in America’s Civil War, while seeing Churchill as an old-school 19th century imperialist, primarily focused on propping up the crumbling British Empire. (In fact some American socialists detest Churchill to this day, including a recent American president who had a bust of Churchill removed from the White House.) Churchill didn’t care. He squared his shoulders and, as an old man in his mid-seventies, thrown out of office by the people he had saved, once again expressed an unpopular view, which was poetic because it held Truth. It is well worth rereading, 72 years later, as much he said stands the test of time, and hints the old man may have had some degree of the “gift of prophesy”.
Two sections which strike me as particularly poetic (including the famous “iron curtain” section) are as follows:
” …We cannot be blind to the fact that the liberties enjoyed by individual citizens throughout the United States and throughout the British Empire are not valid in a considerable number of countries, some of which are very powerful. In these States control is enforced upon the common people by various kinds of allembracing police governments to a degree which is overwhelming and contrary to every principle of democracy. The power of the State is exercised without restraint, either by dictators or by compact oligarchies operating through a privileged party and a political police. It is not our duty at this time when difficulties are so numerous to interfere forcibly in the internal affairs of countries which we have not conquered in war, but we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence… “
“…From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. Athens alone — Greece with its immortal glories — is free to decide its future at an election under British, American and French observation. The Russian-dominated Polish Government has been encouraged to make enormous and wrongful inroads upon Germany, and mass expulsions of millions of Germans on a scale grievous and undreamed-of are now taking place. The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy…”
Many in the United States did not want to hear this, in 1946. A huge effort was being made to beat swords back into plowshares. American military expenditures plunged from nearly 40% of the American GNP during World War Two to down around 5% just afterwards. The war had forced America to hugely increase its military from roughly 350,000 to at least 12,000,000 men, (some sources count 16,000,000), and, with roughly 60% of that force comprised of military men who didn’t volunteer and were drafted, huge numbers of men (and some women) wanted out of the military. They wanted to go home, and raise a family. The shift of so many from war-based-employment to the ordinary pursuits of working men made peace as great a shock to the economy as war was. Furthermore, few homes had been built during the Great Depression, and nearly none during the war, and now all the returning soldiers all required housing. People in the United States figured there were problems enough, inherent with facing peace, even in the United States which had no bombed cities, and that places which had seen cities leveled would be even more interested in building. Who in their right mind would desire more war and destruction?
Mao was who. Why? Because for him the war was not over. He must “liberate” Asia and the world from “imperialism”. He consequently brought horror to peaceful lands, certain he was improving society. He was not much different from the Spanish Inquisition believing it was righteous to chop off the hands of Native Americans in Mexico, because they were “heathens” who needed to be brutalized into seeing the Truth. Mao, like Stalin, felt he was pushing mankind to a higher and better level, by being brutal.
Ordinary Americans of that time appear in many ways baffled by the attitude of communists. In 1945 China and Russia were our friends. How could they be shooting at us in 1950, only five years later? Much of the United State’s policy seemed conducted midst bewilderment and confusion. For example, when hostilities resumed in Korea there was a need for Sherman tanks. Where were all the tanks we built to fight Hitler? In city and small town parks, where they had been placed as monuments to World War Two. Just imagine the dismay of peace-loving townsfolk, as mechanics arrived on town commons to rewire engines, and the tanks were then taken off the pedestals and went clanking up onto transport trucks.
Now skip ahead to young soldiers finding themselves yanked from plopping nickles into American jukeboxes and from slurping at ice-cream sodas, to being plunked into hellish battlefields in Korea.
The United Nation’s “police action” in Korea surged from the the 38th parallel to the extreme south, to the extreme north, south again and north again. However I will skip all that, and merely describe American soldiers laughing in a situation which no politically-correct person would think was a scene anyone could even smile about.
Korea has hot summers and frigid winters, and the laughable event occurred during the summer’s heat. The situation was this: After a savage fight, exhausted American troops were slumped in a farmer’s field. It was a period of relative calm which no one would call peace, except a soldier. The summer sun was beating down, and the soldiers were so tired they had not the strength to form a burial party to deal with the corpses of North Korean soldiers bloating all around them. What they desperately needed to do was to drink water and eat some food, but no one had much of an appetite, with not only dead bodies all around, but the hot and humid air thick with the stink of excrement, because Korean farmers fertilized their fields with human feces. The sergeant of this squad had to get his troops nourished so they would have the strength to stand up to an expected counterattack.
Most of the squad were were teenagers, or barely over twenty, (as the draft of that time had a deferment for people who had served in World War Two), but the the sergeant had seen action in the past, and seemed very old to the young men. He was described as a a heavyset man with an square, jutting jaw and a sour expression, stereotypical for a sergeant, but his age wasn’t stated.
If he lied about his age when he joined the army (as was quite common back then) he may have been as young as 28 or as old as 52. If he claimed to be 21 when he was only 17, he might have joined in 1918 (in the great excitement of that time), or in 1939 (to escape Great Depression poverty and unemployment, and also perhaps to escape working for FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corp). In any case he was “an old campaigner” and had experience on the battlefield. Korea was the third ferocious war that the United States had seen in thirty-two years. The sergeant had likely served in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Southern France, and Germany by 1945. He knew it was important to eat, no matter how horrible the restaurant was, so he attempted to set a good example, as the veteran in the situation. Perhaps he berated his squad for complaining, but then sat on some wreckage, stolidly chewing a spam sandwich despite the fact the bloating body of a dead invader lay right in front of him. No matter how disgusted he may have felt inwardly, externally he was stoic, munching with machismo. But just then the dead body in front of him, due to decomposition creating gasses in its guts, produced a long, loud, and bubbling belch. The sergeant’s immediate and involuntary response was to vomit the entire sandwich he had just eaten.
His squad’s reaction was to promptly dissolve into helpless, weeping laughter. After looking around with a wounded expression for a moment, the sergeant began laughing himself. The prolonged laughter was the last thing any of the men expected, and was amazingly relieving and refreshing, and was an event one of the soldiers recalled with vivid clarity years later.
The humor in the situation is not all that different from the humor of seeing a pompous snob slip and fall on ice, the primary difference being that that sergeant was able to laugh at his own discomfiture. What is more surprising to me is that some politically-correct people, sipping drinks far from the battlefield, seem completely unable to get such a joke, and rather look down their noses at the resiliency of the human spirit. They seem to display a dour intellectual skill at downplaying courage, and to instead see joy in grim circumstances as a type of mental illness, as masochism, or sadism, or some other warped behavior, and to justify their disdain with extraordinary psychobabble.
The simple fact of the matter is that suffering cannot kill the Truth, and in fact can make appreciation of Truth keener. Not all hearts are hardened like Stalin’s when broken. Stalin is purported to have stated, regarding his first wife, “She softened my hard heart, and when she died I never again (was soft)”, but the poet John Keats, if anything, grew more tender due to the suffering he experienced nursing first his mother, and later his younger brother, as they died of tuberculosis. His beautiful “Ode to Melancholy” states:
“…Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows, Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave, And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die; And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips: Ay, in the very temple of Delight Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine, Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine; His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might, And be among her cloudy trophies hung.”
In a way Keats is merely speaking a truism commonly expressed as, “You’ve gotta pay the dues if you want to sing the blues.” When the politically-correct seek to avoid suffering they inadvertently deny themselves much that is most beautiful.
An amazing example of a poet finding beauty in hell is the war-poetry of Wilford Owen. Owen seemed a poet specifically born to tell the truth about the trenches of World War One, for fate had him survive, against all odds, until the final week of the war. (His mother received the telegram announcing his death as the church bells rang, celebrating the war’s end.) Various psychobabble tends to degrade the compassion he felt for his comrades-in-arms, (and even for the Germans he killed), as “homoerotic”, when in fact he was a somewhat delicate, prissy poet who adored green fields and flowers, yet was plunged into the exact opposite. The spiritual crisis he went through, and the amazing maturation he displayed, (moving from “songs of innocence” to “songs of experience” like William Blake), deserves admiration and not psychobabble.
Basically he wrote most of his best poetry when in a hospital, before returning to the trenches. We have rough drafts he never had time to fine-tune. In some ways it portrays a mind experiencing flash-backs, (what is now called “post-traumatic-stress” but back then was called “shell shock”). He simply tells the truth. One great poem describes witnessing the death of a fellow soldier who didn’t quite get his gas mask in place in time, and how “as under a green sea, I saw him drowning.” He describes the slow torture of a man gradually dying as lungs fill with blood, and mocks the statement that to die for one’s country is a glorious thing.
However, midst the realism of describing the true hell of war, he also describes the true heroism of the soldiers, and how in that heroism is both beauty and joy. In “Apologia pro Poemate Meo” he begins, “I, too, saw God through mud…” and concludes:
”…I have perceived much beauty In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight; Heard music in the silentness of duty; Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.
Nevertheless, except you share With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell, Whose world is but the trembling of a flare, And heaven but as the highway for a shell,
You shall not hear their mirth: You shall not come to think them well content By any jest of mine. These men are worth Your tears: You are not worth their merriment.”
The above poem, with its echo of “Ode to Melancholy”, does an amazing job of both describing the sheer, unnecessary hell of war, and also the heaven of brotherhood which appears among men in deplorable circumstances, from factory-floor to storm-at-sea to the gruesome landscapes of war. But who is the “you” Owen speaks to, at the end? It seems (to me) to be the politically-correct, who mix the oblivion of ignorance with downright condescending psychobabble. People undergoing shell shock don’t need psychobabble; they likely can only be truly helped by another who has been through similar hell, who has faced the crucifixion of simple men, (and who understands Christ truly did sweat blood before his humiliation, for they have witnessed ordinary soldiers undergoing hematidrosis.)
One mysterious poem among Owen’s notes contains amazing assonance, and also describes meeting a German soldier who he bayoneted the day before, in a dream. He may not have shown the poem to anyone. Reluctance would have been understandable, for one knows what psychobabble would state, about the peculiar “vision” he shared in “Strange Meeting.” In the eyes of many, dreary, so-called pragmatists, “Strange Meeting” is but the raving hallucinations of a shell-shocked madman.
Yet one needs to also ask, what is so sane about war? The First World War was basically a disagreement between Cousin George and Cousin Willy, and began with prancing horses and fancy uniforms. It was suppose to be “over by Christmas,” and there was even a somewhat accidental and unofficial truce in 1914 on Christmas, when the German and English played soccer in No-Man’s-Land.
The soldiers in the above picture faced trouble, for they were “fraternizing with the enemy”, and their starched superiors demanded “discipline”. Not that the men were immediately willing to stop “fraternizing” with their new friends, but when the officers ordered the artillery behind the lines to start firing on Boxing Day the men had to return to their trenches. The killing resumed, and it does not take too long, when friends standing beside you are cut down, before feelings of incidental friendship turn to hate. But I think the episode demonstrates war’s origins lie not among the ordinary soldiers, who the politically-correct like to call “low”, but rather among the “high”, the erudite sophists greedy for power. And perhaps it also explains why poetry gets along so poorly with politics, (unless you include mocking limericks).