All of us who are white in America were born into a country steeped in racism. Even for those of us who were taught that racism is wrong, that we are all equal, all God’s beloved children, regardless of the color of our skin, racism was something dark and deeply troubling we had to contend with, something that colored our whiteness.
It shaped our sense of self, our sense of justice, fair play, and compassion for others. It fostered a sense of collective guilt and shame for white ancestors who enslaved others or looked askance at those who did. For those today who persist in holding racist views. Even for beloved grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who ought to know better, and yet through the occasional disparaging remark and negative attitude revealed a meanness of spirit toward a whole race of people simply because of the color of their skin.
I learned at an early age that good-hearted people, people I loved and admired and thought I could trust, held racists views. That they could be, God-forbid, racists themselves. Who held views that filled me with shame and sadness.
I was fortunate to be raised by a mother who was not prejudiced, who spoke out against those who were, and who taught me through her words and actions to understand how wrong racism is.
I have been fortunate in that all of my brushes with “blackness,” black people and black culture, have been positive, enriching experiences, and have colored my view of blackness with a deep admiration and respect. My one negative experience was no exception.
Today, when the whole world is rising up to reject racism, to protest against its continued brutality, is a time for all of us to reflect upon our own “Brushes with Blackness,” as I call it here, the experiences that have colored our view of what black lives and black culture mean to us, to examine if we in any way contribute to those negative connotations implicit in racists views.
Do we merely look askance at the racist views and systems embedded in our society? Or do we do what we can in our small corner of the world to not only oppose those views, but to celebrate the beauty and braveness and wisdom found in black communities and black culture?
That’s what I’m hoping to do on these pages in a short series examining my “Brushes with Blackness.” This is the first. Three more follow.
Friends on Facebook shared these two music videos with me recently. I loved them so much I had to share with you here. Watching them brings such comfort and joy, especially during these challenging times. I can’t get enough of them. I hope they inspire you as much as they have me. Enjoy!
I don’t know if it has anything to do with Covid-19, all these mixed emotions that swell and rage and dissipate, often within a single day. But I think this lock-down acts like a incubator to warm and feed and grow them with no release valve.
It’s okay not to be okay, I’ve heard. That’s a relief.
First the joy: Singing and dancing with my granddaughter, listening to her laughter, feeling her fly-by hugs, snuggling while we read to each other. A trip to the beach to see the elephant seals, catching tadpoles in a creek.
Then the grief: Son missing. Haven’t heard from him in a month. So unlike him. Called the jail, the hospitals, the homeless shelters, (not the morgue). Called his friends. Only one responded. She went to look for him where he’d last hung out by the riverside. But he’s not there, she said. Mostly it’s been cleared out, the tent city where the homeless reside.
I think: Even if he called, how could I help him? What could I say beyond I love you, get help, get well, stay safe, be strong, don’t give up, fight to get your life back. And then a week would go by with no word from him, and another, and another, and then I’m back to where I am now. When does it end? And in a way that doesn’t tear me apart?
Then there’s the in-between, all that lies between joy and grief: Can’t write, can’t paint, no time to myself. Homeschooling stretching out 4, 5, 6 hours a day. Constant worry about the virus, the isolation, the welfare of the nation, our democracy under Trump, my daughter and son-in-law trying to survive their lock-down, working from home. The court hearing for guardianship postponed again. My husband disengaged, rattling around the house trying to stay out of the way, trying to keep busy. Both of us eating too much. Tired all the time.
A major wedding anniversary comes and goes, un-celebrated. Unless home-delivered pizza and chocolate cake count.
A few good books and movies to distract us. Downton Abby movie last night, Ozark series last week. The Last Kingdom starting soon. The Immortalists by Cloe Benjamin, The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles. Escaping to other worlds.
Silly jokes and hilarious videos passed friend to friend by email.
Roses blooming, pool warming, frogs in full concert during the evening hours. Green hills, blue skies, wild flowers everywhere.
I’m blogging again. That’s something. First time in weeks.
So much to be grateful for midst the worry and grief. We have it better than most. How are you faring in this surreal landscape of Covid-19?
after the photo by Jonathan Bachman
Our bodies run with ink dark blood.
Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.
Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?
Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else
Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?
We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.
Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.
I wrote the following post For Love of Chaos in August three years ago, when I had my little three year old granddaughter living with me. She’s six now and again living with me. So times haven’t changed much in many ways, including the wrecking-ball politics we saw on the nightly news, then as now. And I still enjoy watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix.
But chaos itself I can do without. I’m weaning myself away from cable news, and the dark, edgy stuff I used to like to read and watch I now avoid.
Now my nightly reading is Judy Blume, Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing, and Super Fudge, stories I used to read to my children when they were young. I read a chapter to my granddaughter before bed and she loves them just as much as her dad and auntie did. It’s so cute when she gets excited and starts giggling and covering her face when Fudgie does some new crazy thing that drives his big brother Peter nuts.
O give me light, give me laughter, give me snuggles and giggles. Chaos can take a hike.
For Love of Chaos, Trump, and Wrecking-Ball Politics
(First posted August 2016)
Since becoming the full-time nanny for my little granddaughter, my reading tastes have taken a decisive darker turn. Instead of the lyrical literary novels I’m usually drawn to, I’ve been on a Viking binge.
It started with Bernard Cromwell’s The Saxon Stories, upon which the acclaimed BBC series “The Last Kingdom” is based. It continued with Judson Roberts’ “The Strongbow Saga“, Giles Kristoan’s “Raven Trilogy”, and James Wilde’s books about Hereward, the English hero that some claim the Robin Hood tales were based on.
The question puzzling me for quite some time is why this dark turn toward such violent reads? What is it that draws me to them and keeps me reading?
I may have found at least a partial answer in one of Kristian’s books, when the young Viking Raven muses on “the love of chaos.” How even in the most life-threatening moments, when absolute silence is needed to keep death from descending and destroying them all, part of him wants to cry out and “turn that still night into seething madness.” Part of him wants to “break through the thick ice of that mute terror, for even chaos would be better than waiting, than expecting the fire to reach out of the night and eat your flesh.”
Perhaps we’ve all felt a bit of that “love of chaos” at some time in our lives. Felt in the face of some extreme danger a wild giddy urge–to run the car off the edge of a dark winding road, to step off the edge of the cliff into the wild-blue thrill of free-fall. Perhaps all extreme sport enthusiasts harbor a bit of this in their hearts when attempting their death-defying stunts. The mad desire to push past the edge of all reason into a wild unknown.
Maybe my turn toward these violent reads is a dormant “love of chaos,” the urge to experience, if only vicariously, that death-defying thrill. To travel with these warriors into a dark unknown as they risk death and destruction in a daring quest for gold and glory. To risk all to see what great gain may stand on the other side. Or not.
I can’t help seeing some of this “love of chaos” playing out on the political stage today in what some have called a kind of “wrecking-ball” mentality in some American voters. Their impatience with restraint, nuance, diplomacy, and what they see as political correctness. The wild urge to tear it all down, all apart, and see what rises out of the ashes. They see Trump as wielding the wrecking ball that will destroy the status quo in the wild hope that out of such chaos will come gold and glory.
I’m far from being a Trump fan, but I do understand that wild impulse. In certain seemingly hopeless situations, throwing caution to the wind has a strong appeal. The desperate hope is that chaos itself will become the cauldron out of which a new, better world will emerge.
This urge toward chaos has strong a strong corollary in nature, in the violent upheavals that impose a new order: The shifting Teutonic plates that broke apart to create the continents and seas that sustain life today. The glaciers that ripped away vast chunks of earth to carve out spectacular canyons and riverbeds. The wild-fire that brings so much destruction, yet germinates new seeds for future forests.The list goes on.
“Out of chaos the dancing star is born.” So sang the poet.
Perhaps this love of chaos is etched into our DNA. We can’t escape it, but we can try to understand it, in ourselves and each other.
I’m hoping our better angels, our more reasonable natures, will prevail in the November election, and we do not trust our future to the chaos of wrecking-ball politics. But it’s important to try to understand what gives rise to these desparate tendencies. To not make the mistake of thinking we are above it all, that only the others, the so-called “deplorables,” have such dark urges. Hate, racism, xenophobia, terrorism–if we look deep enough into our own hearts and minds we will find the seeds of each, whether lying dormant or on fertile ground. We have to see this, and understand it in ourselves, before we can understand it in others. And learn to rein it in.
Young Raven learned to rein in his urge toward chaos that dark and deadly night, and he and his companions lived to fight again for gold and glory. Learning when to let our wilder urges move us forward, and when to rein them is what will move all of us closer to our own common goals, whether they be of gold and glory, or peace and prosperity and a better world
The Roman Forum lies right behind the Colosseum, that I wrote about last week. It is the great plaza where Caesar and Augustus and other Roman emperors once trod and, like the Colosseum, has been a mecca for tourists, artists and photographers down through the ages.
It was mostly in ruins when the Vikings first sailed up the Tiber River to gaze at this wonderland of antiquity.
I was there for one short and very hot afternoon last summer. I didn’t take as many photos as I wish I had, but the views I’ve become most enamored by are the ones that artists painted hundreds of years ago. You will find my photos mixed among those below.
It seems so far away now, and long ago, that trip to Europe last summer. Even more so when re-viewing photographs of The Coloseum and Public Forum, which were ancient even in ancient time, when artists throughout the ages flocked here to paint these wonders that still stand like a thread through time, tying us all together.
Below are a few of my photos of the Coloseum that I took last summer, along with paintings of the same from long, long ago. I’ll do the same for The Public Forum in another post.
Here we see the floor of the Coloseum, the arena where the gladiators fought and Christians died, as well as a view under the floor, the little cells where they prepared for battle and were held captive.
The cross in the Coloseum was a place of pilgrimage through the ages.
I loved seeing this Selfie from the 1500’s! So I’ll end with my own selfie, nearly 500 years later.
I have always been drawn to and moved by images of Michelangelo’s Pieta, his sculpture of the Mother Mary holding the body of her son in her lap after his crucifixion. Seeing it in person when I visited Italy last year did not disappoint. To me it symbolizes that perfect all-embracing, unconditional love that transcends time and space. Her son is dead, beyond her comfort. And yet she holds him with such tenderness and devotion that I don’t feel despair or grief. I feel the power of an undying love and that spills outward, encompassing her and her son and all who behold them.
The Pieta was commissioned to be “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could best.” It is truly that, even today, and is considered by many to be Michelangelo’s greatest work of art, even besting his sculpture of David, and his painting of the Creation of Adam.
St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is a magnificent setting for the Pieta. Many masters of the Renaissance contributed to its creation, including Michelangelo, Bramante, Raphael, Donato, and Giacomo della Porta.
After the narrow, crowded spaces of the Vatican museums, it was a pleasure to move within the spacious grandeur of the Basilica. I loved especially the lush details in the decorative grilles and arches, and all the beautiful and varied colors of marble found in the tiled floors and walls, as well as the stunning sculptures.
Visiting the Vatican Museums while in Rome is a must if you love art and history. The vast richness and splendor of the long halls and chapels, along with the stifling crowds, is almost overwhelming. Too much to really take in. But I found a quiet refuge in the Modern Art gallery tucked away in the middle of the Vatican, where I was able to move at leisure, uncrowded. There I found religious art by Van Gogh, Chagall, Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee, Redon, Picasso, and so many others.
The place I was most excited to see was the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo”s painting of the Creation of Adam, with God’s finger touching Adam’s. But when I reached the place after being herded through so many countless rooms, I did not recognize it at all. While I found a place against the wall to actually sit and rest my poor feet, I gazed up at the magnificent paintings on the ceiling, not realizing I was in the Sistine Chapel. I was shocked to see the Creation painting, one small rectangle among dozens. Can you find it in the image below?
For some reason I expected that to be the dominant painting covering nearly the entire ceiling. Not so, as you can see. It is almost lost among the others.
Photographs were not allowed in the Sistine Chapel, so the images of the Creation painting featured above are not mine. The photos below are.
The Sistine Chapel was not the only room where the ceilings and walls were covered in paintings.
But for all the splendor of the long halls and chapels, my favorite rooms and artwork were more intimate and modern.
Sometimes for me, the simplest drawings are the most moving.
These time-worn tiles below . . .
. . . and this little faded alcove above also touched me.
But of course, my favorite is still the Creation painting. Even as small as it is and almost lost among the many, it moves me like no other.