NEAR THE PALACE OF CULTURE
I never told anyone: the first time
I took a taxi by myself —
twelve years old,
waving my shaking hand:
“To the Palace of Culture” —
near the plaza theaters
adorned with the colossal
bas-reliefs of workers and peasants,
the driver veered away
from the rushing wide avenues
into a silent part of town
no buses or streetcars entered.
The streets were lined
with gutted buildings,
charred stumps of walls
singed with the shadow of fire.
I couldn't speak: my mouth ran dry,
my heart pounded as if trying to leap
from its scaffolding of bones.
I looked at the empty window frames,
doors to nowhere
standing by themselves;
a stairway climbing
into jagged air.
An old man in a black coat, black hat
suddenly stepped through a hole
from the raw space inside,
poking with his cane
into a heap of loose brick,
tapping against a torn pipe.
No one told me; I didn’t yet know
those were the ruins
of the Jewish Ghetto.
The gaping doorways
were entrances to hell.
Warsaw 1946; photo: Michael Nash. This is so human, this bit of “fake news” as practiced by old-time photographers.
Cleaning up after a war takes time. If the devastation is overwhelming (the initial plans were simply to abandon Warsaw and move the capital to Krakow — but the returning inhabitants simply began cleaning up the rubble), and if the country isn’t rich, it can take years. Still, I couldn’t figure out why a certain area near the Palace of Culture — prime real estate in the center of the city — was left as ruins for so many years, a surreal ghost town. Only during my first trip back, when I learned that this had been the Jewish Ghetto, did it dawn on me that perhaps I wasn’t the only one to feel so much horror just being there that perhaps people didn’t want to go near.
Eventually, of course, this area too got rebuilt. I am amazed that circumstances (including a taxi driver who said he wanted to avoid traffic) still granted me a glimpse of it.
Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto Uprising (news photo, May 2011)
WHAT GOOD IS HEAVEN WITHOUT ART?
If I were brought across the sea to Paradise
and forbidden to write, I’d refuse Paradise,
since what good is heaven without art,
which has a joyousness beyond the self?
(lines from a poem by Edward Hirsch, "Marina Tsvetaeva")
I’ve often thought about it: for me the only heaven would be the kind in which I could do some meaningful work. It wouldn’t have to be writing, but I can see that for my younger self, completely in love with poetry, it would indeed need to be writing, or I’d be dejected and begging to be returned to my desk.
These lines in the poem also fascinated me:
When you love a person you always want him
to disappear so your mind can work on him.
The imagination is a storm-cloud of rapture . . .
~ Edward Hirsch, in the volume "On Love"
I wouldn’t insist on “always,” but most of the time. For me being able to relive the experience, to meditate on it, has been as important as the experience itself — sometimes more so.
THE WAR ON FACTS
"The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky
You simply feed him “alternative facts.” The prisoner needs to think he is in paradise!
Compared to the War on Facts, all other “wars” are secondary. Orwell understood this perfectly. All successful dictators understand this.
CHAIRMAN MAO’S WAR ON FACTS
~ “The Long March” by Sun Shuyun (Doubleday, 2007). In 1934, surrounded by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in the south, Mao’s Red Army marched more than eight thousand miles to a new base, in the northwest. The march, completed by only a fifth of the original army, was a defeat in all ways but one: it returned Mao from the political wilderness to power.
Mao transformed the march into the founding myth of modern China and, in doing so, created a new narrative around victories that never happened. Shun, a Chinese-born BBC documentary producer, retraces the route and interviews the few remaining survivors, in an account that shows the human cost of Mao’s revisionism. Along the way are huge memorials to spurious victories and countless unmarked graves of those who died in defeats that Mao later denied. (New Yorker, July 30, 2007)
The Prisoner by Nikolai Yaroshenko, 1878
~ “Mr. Samsa smart to throw apple at disgusting cockroach son, any father would. My sons will never turn into anything.” ~
Of course it’s expecting too much to assume that Trump is familiar with Kafka, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, and other classics. He may not even know children’s literature like Winnie the Pooh. That kind of psyche is not shaped by literature, which has been shown to expand empathy.
(This is a cut and paste from a recent article in the New Yorker.)
@realDonaldTrumpWeak Hamlet should stop moaning about past and get on with his life. All talk, no action! King Claudius has my full support.
@realDonaldTrumpTremendously fat honey thief Winnie-the-Pooh deserves to get stuck in Rabbit’s hole. Not crying for him, believe me, or low-energy Eeyore.
@realDonaldTrumpSmall farmers need our support not meddling spiders ruining livestock sales. Creepy Charlotte should stick to catching flies!
@realDonaldTrumpSuccessful businessmen should be left alone by boring ghosts and sad employees. Bob Cratchit is a loser. No enthusiasm! Also . . .
@realDonaldTrumpTiny Tim is a lazy con who manipulates media with whining. He should save “blessings” for himself. Pathetic!
@realDonaldTrumpLittle Miss Muffet doesn’t deserve curds or whey if she can’t deal with a bug. No strength or stamina and her tuffet is a disgrace.
@realDonaldTrumpDeport Don Quixote with fat idiot Sancho Panza. We have enough problems without terrorists attacking energy plants.
@realDonaldTrumpNo one is saying Owl and Pussycat can’t be together, just don’t rub it in our face. And the boat is an embarrassment!
@realDonaldTrumpKnow from much experience Eastern European women are the most faithful in the world. Cheating Anna Karenina makes me sick!
@realDonaldTrumpAnyone who thinks a good relationship with Mordor is a bad thing is stupid. And crooked Frodo should return ring to rightful owner.
@realDonaldTrumpWolf well within rights to evict disgusting pigs from below-code structures.
@realDonaldTrumpOverrated king’s horses and men are failed élites. Humpty Dumpty deserves better and will get it after Obamacare repeal.
@realDonaldTrumpVery Little Jack Horner’s biggest accomplishment: putting in thumb, pulling out plum. Sad!
@realDonaldTrumpStepsisters deserve compensation for loss of employee. Shame on you, prince!
@realDonaldTrumpMr. Samsa smart to throw apple at disgusting cockroach son, any father would. My sons will never turn into anything.
@realDonaldTrumpBetter British schools and Hogwarts would fail on its own. Instead, England has disastrous witch problem. i won’t let it happen here!!!
@realDonaldTrumpFeel bad for amazing candy house after disgusting fat pigs Hansel and Gretel got through with it. Not nice! Admire witch’s restraint.
@realDonaldTrumpRumpelstiltskin made a very smart business deal with miller’s daughter, distorted by fake news media.
@realDonaldTrumpHumbert Humbert is a degenerate and should be jailed. Also, Ivanka is ten times hotter than Lolita.
@realDonaldTrumpHare was cheated in rigged race! Low-energy Tortoise continued during rest breaks. Not fair!
The line between satire and reality is no longer easy to discern. Trump’s tweets can be so surreal that it’s difficult for comedians to compete. He lives in his own version of reality, and the danger is that that alternate reality, repeated often enough, might begin to displace the actual.
At the same time, to a writer, he’s addictive — it seems like great material. But we should do some hard thinking about whether to keep giving him such wide exposure.
The Charlatan, Pietro Longhi, 1757
CAN WE OUTGROW A LANGUAGE?
The Latvian student was struggling with his assignment. I had asked all the students in my writing class at Maastricht University in the Netherlands — where instruction was in English — to translate one of their stories into their native language.
The Latvian student, B., was one of 23 who had signed up for the first year of creative writing minor I had designed for the university. This inaugural class comprised one of the most linguistically diverse groups I had ever taught. Only one — my single American — was monolingual. The rest spoke 12 different languages among them. For most of my students, English was their second or third language and yet they used it beautifully, writing stories and poems that were among the most interesting I had come across as a teacher of writing.
So I was surprised to discover that this last assignment requiring them to write in the language they had first spoken was especially difficult. Like B., many students found it nearly impossible to complete.
B. had been born in Latvia and had moved to the Netherlands with his family around the age of 10. He had already written an accomplished, rather adult story, a gothic tale involving a bit of violence and a bit of love. The translation assignment nearly did him in. He was in my office every week, unable to start the project, and then when he did, unable to make any progress. Finally, I asked him to try to pinpoint what was the root of his problem. He thought for a moment and then lit up.
“The problem,” he explained, “is that this is a very dark story and Latvian is just not that kind of language.”
I asked him what he meant.
“You see,” he replied. “Latvian is a very sweet and beautiful language.”
A sweet and beautiful language. I smiled. And then gently broke it to him that it’s not the language that was sweet and beautiful; it was the 10-year-old boy who stopped using it exclusively when he acquired a new one. He was able to finish his translation after that. But I don’t know if he ever quite believed me. Latvian will always remain for him the sweet and innocent language of childhood. As it probably must.
A similar thing happened when I taught a different workshop in Miami in 2014. Though many students spoke other languages, all wrote exclusively in English. I asked why. A student whose parents were from Gujarat explained.
“I’ve talked about this with my other friends,” she said. “None of us write in Gujarati because it’s not a nice language for us.”
I asked why. And after a moment of thought, she said, “Because it’s the language of scolding!”
Today, I ask my classes to reflect on what language means to them. I ask how many now use a language different from the one they grew up speaking. I ask: What is your language of scolding? What is your sweet language?
Eva Hoffman in her memoir Lost in Translation writes about emigrating from Poland to Vancouver at the age of 13 and encountering the shock of the new language.
She writes: “The problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. “River” in English is cold—a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke.”
And yet, as an adult, she chooses to write in English. “If I’m to write about the present, I have to write in the language of the present, even if it’s not the language of the self.”
Later, she realizes that each language “modifies the other, crossbreeds with it, fertilizes it. Like everybody, I am the sum of my languages.”
In her essay collection Create Dangerously, Edwidge Danticat comes to a similar conclusion:
One of the advantages of being an immigrant is that two very different countries are forced to merge within you. The language you were born speaking and the one you will probably die speaking have no choice but to find a common place in your brain and regularly merge there.
For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.
That, to me, is the great gift of bilingualism. And I usually begin a workshop by asking students to translate a short poem into their native tongues (I usually use Alfred Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” after I learned to translate it in a charming workshop given by the Dutch poet Wiel Kusters). Those students who do not speak another language are asked to rewrite the poem without using the letter “e”, a translation hurdle in itself.
To translate, one must really understand what is being said. The translator crawls inside a text and inhabits it in a way not even the careful reader can. This is why every writer must read as the translator does.
In the 20th century, some of the most celebrated figures in literature were multilingual, either through exile, immigration, colonialism or family circumstance.
Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his first novels in Russian, became an international star after he started writing in English. Jorge Luis Borges spoke English as a child and wrote in Spanish. The Irish Samuel Beckett, who studied English, French and Italian at Trinity College, wrote his most well known work in French, preferring that language because, as he famously noted, it allowed him to write “without style.”
This list grows longer towards century’s end when we add the refugees of the era’s great upheavals: Eva Hoffman, Charles Simic, Anchee Min, Edwidge Danticat, Milan Kundera, Nuruddin Farah, and Amin Maalouf, to name just a few. Many of them, like my uncle Dionisio Martinez, left their homeland in their early teens and went on to write in the language of a new land.
Finnich Glen, Loch Lomond, Scotland
THE SIXTIES: A DEVELOPMENTAL CROSSROADS NOT TOO DIFFERENT FROM THE TWENTIES
~ “I've been thinking recently about sixtysomethings and how much they're like twentysomethings.
Author and photographer Bill Hayes calls it the Post-Anything-Is-Possible stage. A few months ago he wrote a New York Times op-ed about the relief it brings. When you're middle aged, he wrote, certain doors have finally and irrevocably closed: you won't ever have that baby or become a doctor or sail solo around the world. There's an upside to the loss of these dreams. "When possibilities stop being endless," Hayes wrote, "you can narrow the choices. Indeed, you can make hard choices, without resorting to dreams, without relying on maps, without abandoning duty. Is that not what wisdom is? Knowing when to unload what one will not need or use before approaching the next bridge."
The prolongation of the lifespan has led to a reassessment of all the traditionally-understood stages. And just as the transition between adolescence and young adulthood has become more elastic, arguably creating a new developmental stage between ages 18 and 29 that some are calling "emerging adulthood," so has the transition between middle age and old age begun to transform.
No one has given it a formal name yet, but people are definitely studying it. The same kind of scholarly consortium that looked at the "transition to adulthood" was also created to investigate "Midlife in the United States" -- in both cases, a group of scholars united into a professional network sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. And in the case of midlife, the resulting publications have led to the overall impression that midlife (which they define as 40 to 60, younger than the important decade I'm talking about here) is a time of psychological turning points, growth, and — despite the conventional wisdom and my own idiosyncratic hang-ups — overall happiness.
Mary Catherine Bateson, the daughter of Margaret Mead, followed her mother's lead in thinking about how societal roles affect individual's psychological development. The lengthening of overall life expectancy, she writes in Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, has "opened up a new space partway through the life course, a second and different kind of adulthood that precedes old age." Not only are the ages between 60 and 70 changing, according to Bateson, but so is every other stage of life as a result, the ones that come before as well as those that come after. She thinks of the sixties as the dawn of a period of life she calls "Adulthood II." I like that way of looking at it.
Twenty-somethings are beginning to work in earnest while sixty-somethings are retiring from working for a living — and in some cases, beginning to live as they always wanted to, becoming so busy that they can’t understand how they ever managed to hold a job. But it’s not always an easy transition. For some, the freedom turns into boredom — though it seems that eventually most people work out a new schedule of activities. But I’ve seen sad examples of men mowing the lawn into the ground and pruning trees that don’t need pruning just to appear useful. The lucky ones have developed satisfying pursuits while still employed.
I've noticed that the term "the Golden Years" is hardly ever used anymore. Yet the part of older age when health is still sturdy can really be that. Of course we are assuming no financial hardship. Older often means richer — another pleasant surprise.
And for women, it can mean the autonomy of widowhood, finally being fully yourself and living for yourself — without having to take care of someone else. You stop being such a people pleaser. Let’s face it — such a slave.
In the best-case scenario, you discover the bliss of being “posthumous”: the stage of life where you no longer feel you “should” do anything. Been there, done that. It’s an incredible relief to realize that I’ve been in over 100 magazines, so I don’t need more magazine publications. I’ve published, I’ve won awards, it’s enough. I may *choose to* work on creative projects, but I no longer have to to accomplish anything — what relief! Likewise, it’s no longer possible to have a child, so the torment caused by the idea that I “should” have at least one is history. This is the gift of growing older: torment and anxiety fall away because possibilities close — and that’s fantastic!
I realize that I protest too much. Poetry was indeed agony and ecstasy — and I do miss the ecstasy part, now much attenuated. I loved my passionate commitment to poetry, even if at times it felt like enslavement and demonic possession. The challenge of the transition is to work out a new mode of living that is not all mundane and same old, same old.
WHY THE SECOND HALF OF LIFE IS HAPPIER FOR MOST PEOPLE
In Sonia Lubomirsky’s “The Myths of Happiness” I found the predictable section “The best years are in the second half of life” — with one finding that was new to me. The most frequent explanation for increased happiness in older age is “when we begin to recognize that our years are limited, we fundamentally change our perspective about life.” We invest more in things that truly matter and make it a priority to enjoy the present. We choose peacefulness over risk and excitement. We focus on positive memories. We have more wisdom and better social skills — and so forth.
OK, here is something obvious that I didn’t expect: “The older we are, the more likely we are to be treated with respect and kindness. Others confront and criticize us less, acquiesce to us and forgive us more, and work hard to resolve tensions and de-escalate conflicts.”
That’s certainly been true in my life. In my youth I used to be criticized and attacked all the time. This has certainly calmed down. True, I’ve withdrawn from participating in poetry workshops and other poetry events where I was most likely to encounter unpleasantness. I’ve learned how to block the nasties on Facebook. But even so, I’d say that Lubomirsky’s conclusion holds. And when I look at the really old ladies, who can be oh so very slow, I'm struck by the patience with which they are treated by cashiers, say. Somehow no one tells grandma to hurry up and make up her mind. It seems to me that we’re as indulgent toward the really old as we are toward little children — perhaps even more so.
Silence is one of the great arts of conversation. ~ Cicero
What do you mean, “But is it art?”
THE END OF THE “AMERICAN CENTURY”
~ “In 1941, a year before America entered World War II, Henry Luce, the founder and publisher of Time, wrote an essay called “The American Century.” It was an argument not just against isolationism but for America as a global moral beacon. Luce, the son of American missionaries to China, wrote that America must “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence exert upon the world the full impact of our influence.” That vision, he wrote, was only possible if it reflected “a passionate devotion to great American ideals.” He enumerated them as a love of freedom and justice, equality of opportunity, and a commitment to truth and charity and cooperation.
The inaugural address of Donald Trump did not contain the word justice or cooperation or ideals or morals or truth or charity. It has only one reference to freedom. It did mention carnage and crime and tombstones and a variety of words never uttered before in a presidential inaugural. Since then, the president has doubled-down on his desire to build a wall on America’s Southern border and has said his administration will re-evaluate accepting refugees from designated Muslim countries and cut back by half the relatively small number of refugees accepted by the Obama administration.
I spent seven years as editor of Time before I worked in the State Department as under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. While I was editor of Time, I never wanted to be the first of Luce’s successors to pronounce the end of the American Century. In part, this was because of a misunderstanding of the term. Most people thought it meant American power or hegemony and there was not much diminution in America’s global power. What it really means is America as a global model and guarantor of freedom and rule of law and fairness.
Trump’s vision does not spell the end of American power, but a retraction of American influence. It suspends American involvement as a global leader on global decision-making for a resolute policy of non-interference. At the State Department, when I traveled abroad for discussions with another nation’s government, I talked not only about agreements and exchanges and trade deals, but also about freedom of religion and expression, transparency, and rule of law. I sat in diplomatic “pull-asides” with President Obama and Secretary Kerry and foreign heads of state where they talked not only about America’s interests but universal values—free expression, religious liberty, rule of law.
I sat next to Kerry as he demanded the release of political prisoners and journalists who were behind bars. These were uncomfortable discussions. I once had an African foreign minister say to me with a touch of annoyance: “You come and talk to me about transparency, but the Chinese come and build a super-highway.”
And that was often the case. And no other nation, I promise you, ever talked to that foreign minister about transparency. That is America’s strength, not its weakness. The Chinese, and now the Trump administration, will resolutely practice non-interference in other nations’ affairs. America First is not a policy that any of our allies around the world want to hear. Our adversaries are delighted. Our power and influence with our friends and adversaries came in large part because we were the one nation that did not always put ourselves first.
American presidents operate along the realistic and idealistic sides of the foreign-policy continuum. But ever since Woodrow Wilson, Americans have always seen themselves as being the moral beacon that Luce talked about all those years ago. As Obama has said many times, our ideals are our policy. Trump appears to see those ideals as, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, effete.
Having traveled around the world on behalf of the State Department for the past three years, I can promise you that governments do not worry that America is too engaged—they worry when we disengage. And wherever we may disengage around the world, we are never replaced by a better actor. The president’s vision of putting up our national drawbridge and hunkering down mirrors the transformation of Great Britain to Little England after the end of World War II. The American Century was a term of pride for many and it represented the flowering not only of American power but American values.
That seems to have ended beginning last Friday.” ~
DIFFERENT GOSPELS, DIFFERENT MEANING
Why didn’t people realize this at the time? Mark reinterprets (misremembers) Jesus’ life to make sense of this. Mark says that Jesus intentionally kept his mission a secret; and he did tell his disciples, but they were just too dumb to understand. That’s why Jesus death was such a surprise to everyone. Mark seems to be letting his readers in on this secret for the very first time. He is reinterpreting what it means to be the messiah, and misremembering Jesus life to fit into that interpretation.
According to Mark, God’s plan also included a subsequent era in which followers of Jesus would suffer just like he did (which Mark’s community was currently experiencing). But not to worry, says Mark. Jesus will be returning soon, in judgment, to fulfill is ultimate goal as messiah and finally establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. That’s the promise God had made, through Jesus, to the Christian community…according to Mark.
The gospel of John, on the other hand, is written (again, not by John) in a completely different era—an era when the early Christian expectation of the Jesus’ “imminent return” was nearly a century old and thus beginning to look a bit silly. As a result, John remembers Jesus’ life in a completely different way. Although John still thinks part of Jesus’ mission is to suffer and die, Jesus’ ultimate goal is not to overthrow Roman rule and establish an Earthly Kingdom of God. That’s not the promise John’s Jesus makes. He instead promised his followers eternal life after death. Think John 3:16.
To make this offer, Jesus must be one with God himself. And so in John, Jesus doesn’t keep his mission or his true nature a secret, like he does in Mark. In John, the main purpose of his ministry is to declare who he is (one with God himself), prove it by performing miracles, and then do what is necessary to grant this enteral life to his followers by suffering and dying. The resurrection is the final proof that he was telling the truth.
Ehrman draws an analogy between how Mark and John remembered Jesus and how people in the American North and South remember the civil war. For the former, it was a war brought on by southern rebellion, motivated by their desire to keep slavery legal. For the latter, it was the war of northern aggression, motivated by their desire to keep southern states from governing themselves. Same war, different memory.
For Mark, Jesus was someone who would deliver his community from their suffering and bring judgement on the political authorities who were suppressing them. For John, Jesus was someone who promised and provided the means to enteral life. Same guy, different memory.” ~
Ehrman sees the “historical Jesus” (he opposes mythicism) as one of many apocalyptic preachers common around that time. Not that he thinks we can reliably extract a historical Jesus from the gospels (including those gospels that didn't make it to the canon), but he thinks there is a certain “gist” in those stories that adds up to an apocalyptic preacher.
The gospel of John, however, strikes out in a new direction, more relevant to the times and
less Judaic. The promise of the Second Coming is now displaced in favor of eternal afterlife. Of course what really happened is that instead of the Coming of the Kingdom we got the Coming of the Church . . .
We are long-eared owls. Short-eared owls are “alternative owls.”
ending on beauty
The forest, letting me walk among its naked
limbs, had me on my knees again in silence
shouting — yes, yes my holy friend,
let your splendor devour me.