No, not Orson Welles’s aliens from outer space. The large purple swallows that swoop and dive and catch insects to feed nestlings housed in gourds. Those martins.
He has been waiting for them to come—for thirty-seven years. He hung hollowed gourds from tall poles. He constructed his own multi-tiered martin apartment building. He bought plastic gourds and a fancy manufactured martin housing project. Most years, in the spring, he cleaned house, discarding nest remnants from other species of birds that had taken up temporary residence. Occasionally, a few martins would drop by to inspect the property. But none ever moved in. Until this year.
Envy is one of the seven deadly sins. He never envied anyone else’s fancy car, or beach property, or fame and prestige. He did envy others’ martin houses—at Chatauqua, or on Sullivan’s Island, or in a field on a back road a couple of miles away. Why couldn’t a pair or two escape their crowded conditions and migrate over to our yard?
He was like Charlie Brown, hoping to kick that football, believing that –this time at last—Lucy wouldn’t jerk it away.
He knew that there were certain disadvantages to hosting a martin population. A man near Fayetteville, whose martins he envied, explained, “Well, you know, they’ll dookie on you.”
So. We now risk getting shitted on (or is it shat on?) while walking outside. But, on the other hand, martins eat mosquitoes—by the thousands. With all the dripper hoses, rain barrels, bird baths, and saucers under potted plants, mosquitoes breed here to the extent that when I want to get from the back door to the carport nearby, I have to either spray myself with deet, or run full-tilt (always unsuccessfully), to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. What’s a little bird poop compared to that? The martins could alter the whole ecology of our acreage—for the better.
And now we have the pleasure of watching the martins circle and swoop and dive with amazing speed and precision straight to the hole in one of the plastic gourds to deposit a bug before taking off again in constant motion that may seem like ADD but is actually utterly purposeful. It is not the martins’ purpose to inspire wonder or gratitude for the fulfillment of a dream long deferred. Those are merely side effects unwittingly bestowed by the purple martins.
Thomas Merton quotes Vincent Van Gogh, who said, “There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney. . . Must one tend the inner fire. . . , wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down—maybe to stay?”
Eventually, many strangers were attracted to Van Gogh’s domain, paying outrageous prices for his sunflowers and starry nights. But that was long after his flame had sputtered out.
And I am left to wonder, must one keep that inner fire burning at all costs, resisting anything that might damp it down?
Suppose this is not just a cozy fire to warm and light a room that might shelter a guest. Suppose sometimes it flares up, out of bounds, to destroy that room and everything in it. Suppose inspiration runs rampant—without the focus or patience to bring ideas to fruition. Suppose tempers flare, friendships are sundered, property is destroyed. Suppose the blaze inspires a person to cut off his own ear—or to so enrage a roommate that he cuts off the ear and departs the next day for the South Seas.
Are there times when truly tending the inner fire means overcoming the stubborn will, accepting the terms of one’s human condition, listening to advice, and taking whatever measures are necessary to keep the flame steady—neither a dying ember nor a blazing inferno?
I have been spending time since the election in activities that help me avoid unsettling news– Putin, bizarre cabinet appointments, well-engineered take-overs of North Carolina’s government, etc., etc. One path of escape is repeated games of Sudoku. Another is computer solitaire, which I have chosen to uninstall because it was consuming too many hours. In the past, I have also sometimes withdrawn from the world into facebook, but my facebook feed has even more distressing news than NPR.
Another way I escape is to get absorbed in a book. I thought I was safe retreating into Jonathan Ames’ novel, The Extra Man, published in1998. (I love to find books in coffee shops and little libraries. I actually found this one in a give-away stack on a stoop in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.)
In Ames’s novel, Louis Ives, a young man unsure about his sexuality, moves to New York and finds a place to live in the dirty apartment of Henry Harrison. Harrison is penniless but navigates the upper echelons of New York society. He teaches Ives how to sneak into Broadway shows and opera performances during the intermission and how to enjoy fancy snacks at fund-raising galas.
I was nearing the end of the book, at the point where Harrison returns from a winter trip to Florida, when I was ambushed by this passage:
“Didn’t you exercise in Florida,” I asked.
“I had no time. Something was always going on. It’s very competitive. Trump tried to break in again. He threw a big party at Mar-a-Lago the night of the Red Cross Ball. Said he was going to have beautiful models. They were nothing but prostitutes, and then at the end of the party they did the inevitable—jumped into the pool. So he’s finished for another year. Too vulgar.”
Recovering from the shock, I realized that this little clip helps explain some of Trump’s behavior. For years he was mocked and rejected by the wealthy socialites he was courting. Now, he has put himself on a pedestal, and they must stoop and bow to him.
There is no escape. We must all turn to action—making a stand in whatever way we can for love, inclusion, transparency, democracy. Meanwhile, I am sorely tempted to install another program on my computer. It promises to turn every picture of Trump in my facebook feed into an image of kittens.
The southern elite—plantation owners before the Civil War, bankers and mill owners during the Jim Crow era—benefitted from keeping African Americans and whites in separate spheres. They engineered a system that prevented exploited people of both races from conversing—at a lunch counter, on the bus, at a school meeting, at church, at a movie theater, or at a neighborhood gathering—and discovering how much the “rigged system” hurt all of them. And they even manipulated less privileged whites into supporting and enforcing the segregation that prevented a bi-racial populist uprising. It was a brilliant strategy.
One of the most powerful weapons in this “southern strategy” was the manufacture of horror at the mere thought of “race mixing”—specifically any kind of sexual contact between black men and white women. (An amazing feat of denial conveniently ignored the generations of sexual contact between white men and black women, obvious in the multiple shades of “colored people.”)
Most of the lynchings of the Jim Crow period involved the suspicion of inappropriate behavior between an African-American man and a “Caucasian” woman. The accusation of merely whistling at a white woman was enough to get Emmet Till beaten to death.
Donald Trump’s first attempt to grab public attention and open a path to political success was not the “birther” controversy. It occurred 27 years ago, in 1989, when the jogger Trisha Meili was raped and severely injured in Central Park. Five young African American and Hispanic men—ages sixteen and under—were charged with the crime. Donald Trump bought newspaper ads urging the city to BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY in the case. In essence, he was calling for modern day lynching. We now know that the young men were manipulated into false confessions. Twelve years later they were cleared of charges on the basis of DNA evidence and a confession by a serial rapist. But just as Trump continued to argue that President Obama was not born in the United States, for years after the long-form birth certificate was produced, he still insists that those originally accused of the attack in Central Park are guilty.
It is no coincidence that Trump’s second intrusion into politics was to proclaim that the product of a sexual union between a blond woman from Kansas and a very dark-skinned man from Kenya could not possibly be a real American.
Recently Trump’s 2005 boasts about fondling any woman he finds attractive have made the news. There might seem to be a contradiction between his bragging about forcing his attentions on women and his horror at the Central Park incident. The explanation, of course, is white supremacy. As was true on the plantation, Trump seems to believe that a white alpha male should have unquestioned access to any female. But a black male who approaches a white woman challenges this entitlement and must be severely punished.
The divisions between black and white voters persist. After Reconstruction, African Americans began to migrate from the party of Lincoln to the Democrats. And, true to LBJ’s prediction, after 1965, working class whites left the Democratic party to form an odd alliance with country club Republicans. Nixon and Reagan argued that some people (especially African Americans) were too lazy to get a job and were living off welfare at taxpayer expense. This clever strategy caused white voters to approve of cuts to the social safety net from which they, too, could have benefitted.
Trump has recently made some attempts to woo black voters—or to appear to be reaching out to them as he speaks to mostly white audiences at his rallies. So he uses coded language for his racist statements. For example, he does not depict those who benefit from social programs as undeserving “welfare queens,” but he promises that a six-month maternity leave program could be financed by ending fraud in the unemployment insurance program. He has not openly called for the kinds of voter intimidation that led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but he asks his supporters to volunteer as “Trump Election Observers” in “certain areas—you know where they are.”
I will not call Trump’s supporters “deplorable.” But I will say to them, don’t get tricked again by these time-worn tactics designed to silence our voices by driving a wedge between us. All of us who are not (like Trump) in the top 1% of the economy are in the same boat, if we will just open our eyes to see. We all need access to affordable, high-quality health care. We all benefit when social security, Medicare, and Medicaid are fully funded, when college tuition does not burden us with huge debts, when a variety of good jobs are available. I dream of an America where we can find spaces for all of us—of many different hues—to meet and talk and find common cause. I dream that we can join forces to vote for the only candidate with detailed plans for creating a world where we can all succeed. That person is not Donald Trump.
“Joy to the World” descends the scale—one note at a time.
This tune—so familiar –doesn’t ring my bells,
Until one December afternoon
When I go caroling at the Memory Care Unit
And watch as every worn face mouths the words
And tears course down each cheek.
The gospel choir overflows with gratitude.
Their words describe hands lifting in praise
As the notes move down and down and down—
Until the music soars again in overlapping Amens.
Listen, now, to Webber’s “Requiem”
As that ethereal soprano voice
Hovers near the apex of the Gothic arches
And wafts downward as we wait below,
What is the magic here?
What ancient incantation is evoked?
What genetic memory
Or ecstatic moment from a former life
Is linked to the soundtrack of these descending tones?
While “Joy to the World” bounces down the scale
And “Total Praise” strides confidently along,
“Pié Jesu” floats, drifting as gently
As a falling leaf on an autumn afternoon,
Lofted briefly on an updraft,
Only to settle on the ground
In perfect peace.
“Joy to the World”
Andrew Lloyd-Webber “Requiem”
in honor of Ellen Douglass Leyburn
I’d like to go out in a blaze of glory
Like these falling leaves.
The chemistry of their dying
Strips off masking green,
Reveals true colors,
So they now flame forth—
Orange, yellow scarlet—
Before they crumple—brittle, brown.
As in blue gown at after-lecture party,
She glowed, all dross refined,
Fine facial bones just visible
Through translucent skin,
Lavishing on us the intensity
Of eyes—blue jewels—lit
By fire about to be snuffed out.
Crepe myrtles burst into bloom—
In vivid red and purple, sunset pink,
And splashes of white.
They dominate the landscape.
Our Southern aunts instructed us
That it is rude, unladylike,
To put ourselves forward
With such dramatic flair.
We should, instead,
Seek to be accommodating, pleasant,
To fade into the background.
What rebellious streak,
Hidden even from themselves,
Led these proper matrons to supervise
The planting of crepe myrtles
That line our quiet streets
And clamor boisterously for our attention?