Posts Tagged ‘Quakers’

14 May, 2010

Birthdays and Prayers. Looking Back, Looking Forward

Today my best friend celebrates his birthday in a state, New York, which denies him and many of his friends basic rights and benefits that the rest of us take for granted.

As I think about that, I am reminded of a Fall morning many years ago, when I sat in a class on Black Women in the Americas, at Bates, and was told that we were going to watch the romantic saga that brought Vivienne Leigh to independent theaters worldwide. “Gone With The Wind? I love that movie!” I exclaimed. My friend, an African-American woman, stared at me, aghast: “But it’s so racist!” Thanks to our subsequent discussions, Mammy and Pork took up a full screen in my mental map of the movie, revealing a subtext that I, a foreigner, had missed in my awe over Scarlett’s waist and the beautiful green velvet drapes.

Recently, I revisited that moment in light of the debate over same-sex marriages in New York, and the attacks that have been made on those who have tried to bring equal rights to everybody in this country as well as those initiatives that seek to export our basest impulses overseas. In an article for the NYT early this year, Jeffrey Gettleman talks about three American evangelical Christians, who went to Uganda to give a series of talks about “curing” homosexuals:

For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”

The end result was a law, introduced by a little known politician with ties to the U.S., called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which will impose a death sentence on people exhibiting homosexual behavior. The role of individual Americans, (usually those with an agenda of proselytizing thrown in), in instigating and supporting bigotry in other nations, particularly in the recent past in African nations against gay individuals, is bad enough, but we have troubles closer to home.

Here’s the current status of human rights with regard to gays in the US: five states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont and the District of Washington DC, allow legal marriage between same-sex couples, along with the Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon. Previously, the state of California granted the same legal right to marriage for same-sex couples, and then rescinded that right although it continues to grant the right to the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, although only those who were married before November 5, 2008, are allowed the designation, “marriage.” In NY, Rhode Island and Maryland, same-sex marriages are recognized but not performed.

So back to that movie. I first saw the driveway to Tara projected on a screen at a private screening in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Apart from the movie, I watched a young man, Michael, who was wearing blue shadow on his eyes and had his arm around the shoulder of his boyfriend. My parents – an educator and a senior member of the Ceylon Civil Service – were deeply involved in the arts community, and Michael, new to the fold, became a good friend.

I went from 7 to 17, with a dawning realization that our home was a haven for my parents’ non-heterosexual friends. Neither my brothers or I or any of our friends ever questioned their presence under our roof. Uncle Eustace, trained in England and a Brigadier from the Royal Army, a fine actor who played Alfred Doolittle with aplomb, cheered us up when my father lost his job, and commandeered an army ambulance to get him to intensive care when he had his first heart attack. I called Uncle Tony when I needed a ride somewhere. There he would reliably be, a very large gentleman in a very small red Morris Minor, on time and ready to shuttle us where we needed to go. Uncle Damian, Director of the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, cleared both my American husband and me for our International Drivers Licenses. These men and women joined the many others who created the social backdrop to my childhood, coloring it with their generous spirits and purposeful lives.

It has been bewildering to me therefore, to watch each wave of fearful and vitriolic reactions to bills ensuring that the rights extended to all citizens and legal residents are not withheld from those who choose to consummate their romantic relationships differently than others. Much of the debate has been centered on God. As a practicing Buddhist who attended a Roman Catholic convent and then a Christian missionary school, reads both the Bible and the Qu’ran, worked for the Quakers, and conducted research on the Jewish and Druze faiths, I have come to see that there really is no God who is not present in every person. Among the words of wisdom that have guided me in how I raise my own three daughters, are the words of Jesus who said, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me.” (Mt. 25:40)

It is difficult for me to understand how some of God’s followers have taken it upon themselves to decide that they must judge other human beings. Not for the massacre of innocents or the pursuit of material gain at the cost of destroying all creation, but for how two consenting adults choose to conduct their private lives.

In trying to understand the motivation behind these assaults, I go back to that class I took as a young adult. Ignorance is usually at the root of our most repugnant and non-inclusive political positions, but it is also at the root of our blindness to what life might be like for someone other than ourselves. I learned, by seeing that movie through my friend’s eyes, that it both left things unsaid and stated other things loud and clear. It did not diminish my enjoyment of the chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett. It did not make me stop grabbing the unyielding soil of my garden from time to time and declaring that “as god is my witness I’ll never go hungry again!” It did make me understand her experience, it did enlighten me about American history. It broadened my mind, it made me a better human being and it made us real friends, the kind whose friendship is based not only on shared activities and interests but deep empathy.

Surely our lives should be defined by the people we stand up for, not by those we seek to destroy? One of the early Quakers, William Penn, once said that “Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it,” which is not unlike the verse in Colossians, Chapter 2:13-19: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

May my friend wake up someday soon to a home that recognizes that which is holy in every living being. Happy birthday, Charles.

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22 April, 2009

Writing like The Wire

In an article in the NY Observer, Leon Neyfakh poses this question: ‘Should Literary Novels Be More Like The Wire?’ First of all, let me say that I am a devotee of the now safely in TV history series, The Wire, a world that was made available to me through access to Netflix, since access to Cable has been scorned within these four falls by all its inhabitants including myself and we are now too invested in the point to be made by this to turn back. For a terrific essay on the thinking behind the show, please read Margaret Talbot’s ‘Stealing Life’ in the New Yorker (10/22/07) which describes the genius of David Simon, its creator. It is Simon’s way of ‘storying’ actual events that is being celebrated in the NYO article. Here is the beginning:

“Walter Benn Michaels, the punchy professor of American literature and theory at the University of Illinois at Chicago, came to New York last week and delivered an emphatic message to novelists: Please start writing more about class issues and the social order of contemporary life! It was a rainy evening, and Mr. Michaels spoke as part of a panel at the New York Public Library. At the center of the evening’s discussion was a brief, polemical essay that Mr. Michaels had recently published in BookForum in which he argued that the leading voices in American letters had, in their work, rendered “the reality of our social arrangements invisible.”

In his essay, Mr. Michaels implicated three groups of writers: those who traffic narcissistically in memoir and self-examination; those who write fiction about past horrors like the Holocaust and slavery; and those who focus in their work on the tribulations of individual characters while ignoring the societal pressures that determine those characters’ lives.

None of them, Mr. Michaels argued, would ever produce great art unless they reversed course. What novelists need to do, he said, is take a cue from David Simon, the creator of the The Wire, a show that portrayed over the course of five seasons the inner workings of Baltimore.”

Frank Sobotka
The article goes on to quote others who neither agree or disagree but who each speak, in essence, about their personal need to create timeless stories whether they are based in fact of – sorry – fiction. But ‘The Wire’ does much more than make a story out of fact. It does what Toni Morrison does in Tar Baby and Vikram Seth does in An Equal Music. It puts us in mind of each of its many characters, even the vilest of them (I have a particular loathing for Stringer Bell), and makes us believe in their necessary viability, and champion their particular – often vile, in the case of ‘The Wire’ – cause, vice, or mission. In fact, it persuades us to do this even when cheering for or believing in any one of these people is a mutually exclusive proposition. The gift of Morrison, Seth and Simon lie in the fact that we are taken through that intellectual discombobulation with effortless ease, such that we can convince ourselves that every character is both deserving of their own truth as they are right, and that all these people can be true and right at the same time. It is precisely the sort of hastily assembled but weirdly harmonious chorus of voices we choose not to hear in our own lives. (Unless we’re Quakers.And, if you are one, I salute you. If you aren’t, I urge you to try it. I aspire but will fall short, I fear, forever.).

But back to the blog. The stocky but strangely elven Frank Sobotka, secretary-treasurer of the longshoreman’s union of checkers (a lead in Season Two, picture above), is a terrific example of the kind of unsung flawed hero that gets unglued from the script and creeps under your skin. We become invested in a visceral way in the trivial urgencies and unnecessary deaths that are being depicted and the violence (and hard-earned speedily dispensed with sex) never seems overdone or gratuitous; it is simply the unfortunate grist of these lives as they are conducted, the way in which the terms of existence are negotiated and the form in which each individual story must end whether that end is psychological, spiritual or corporeal.

The topic of exploring the reason for narrative and the forms it takes must be in the air. Ana Menéndez, who wrote The Last War, quotes Umberto Eco in an essay in this month’s Poets & Writers entitled, ‘The Future of Narrative: Storytelling in the Internet Age.’ The story is about a linguist, Thomas A. Sebeok, who is hired to transmit, for the ages, the fact that the radioactive waste that was being disposed of by the US govt. was dangerous. The struggle? How do we retain the viability of the term ‘danger’ when all such meanings are ridden with the virus of cultural historical context?

In a review of Tar Baby, John Irving quotes this section from the book:

”At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to. When that happens -that letting go – you let go because you can. The world will always be there – while you sleep it will be there – when you wake it will be there as well. So you can sleep and there is reason to wake. A dead hydrangea is as intricate and lovely as one in bloom. Bleak sky is as seductive as sunshine, miniature orange trees without blossom or fruit are not defective; they are that. So the windows of the greenhouse can be opened and the weather let in. The latch on the door can be left unhooked, the muslin removed, for the soldier ants are beautiful too and whatever they do will be part of it.”

And perhaps that also is the goal of the literary writer: to blend human experience which is so often imagined – in the form of aspiration or desire or fantasy or escapism – not lived, and fact in the form of actual events, to create something that outlasts the conditions which created it including its author, and which retains the beauty of a truth that is independent of its form of expression.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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