Standing in the presence of great beauty
as portrayed by an artist in great pain
amidst a crowd of visitors,
driven up from the city.
What was his illness
and who were the people
he painted in the public gardens
How curious they are to me,
like the crowds of men and women
that caught Whitman’s attention
on the Brooklyn Ferry
Did any of them suspect
their place in history?
My great grandfather
was in the park in Arles
with Van Gogh.
My great aunt
rode the ferry
Now, we stand in museums
looking at Van Gogh’s paintings
We go to special poetry events
where Whitman is read and discussed.
young men are sitting in libraries
learning a quote
Cicero, Locke, and Bacon,
forgetting that Emerson also
was once a young man
sitting in the library
years before Van Gogh painted
or Whitman wrote.
For the past few days, I’ve been very focused on the story of Rachel Dolezal, the woman in Washington who has passed for a black woman for many years. You can see this in my recent blog posts. Why are we, as a country, so interested in this? Some suggest that it is because she lied. However, politicians lie all the time. So much so that there is the old joke:
How do you know if a politician is lying?
His lips are moving.
So, I don’t buy that it is because she is lying. Some of this may be because it is manufactured by conservative bloggers, who seem to dislike anyone who works for civil rights. Conservative blogs appear to be really enjoying this. Some of this may be because of issues of cultural appropriation. Although, when you look at it, it appears as if her she has appropriated much less and is much more friendly to the culture she is adopting from than so much cultural appropriation we see today.
For me, perhaps the biggest issue is one of identity. How do we identify ourselves? Black? White? Male? Female? Straight? Gay? There are many labels we can use on ourselves. There are many labels we can use on others and others can use on us. Yet these labels may not always feel right. We may feel that our real gender is different than our biological gender. We may feel that our sexual orientation is different from what is dominant in the culture. Perhaps, we may feel that our race or ethnicity is different from the race or ethnicity we were born into.
As an aside, it is curious to think about how social media is feeding this. As I write this, my youngest daughter says, “Can you guess what decade I belong in?” She had just completed one of those many quizzes that suggest our identity might be different from how we were born. Social media is telling us about the fluidity of identity.
Add to this, advertising. If we want an identity that will be accepted by others, all we have to do is buy the right products to look darker, lighter, have straighter or curlier hair, wear the right clothes, etc.
Recently, I’ve had some experiences that have gotten me thinking about my identity. Who am I, really? What do I desire? How does this relate to how people see me? How does this relate to how God sees me? How does what I desire relate to what God desires for me?
In one book I’m currently reading, “The Wounding and Healing of Desire” has a great line, “It is the wisdom of Christianity to understand that we are so wounded we do not know who we are.”
Now some people will suggest that at least we know who someone’s parents are. To go back to Rachel Dolezal, her biological parents are both white and say she is white. Yet this comes back to another idea from Christianity.
In Mark 3:33-35 Jesus says, ""Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.""
I would imagine that for her, and for many of us, doing the will of God means, at least in part, fighting for civil rights. Who is Rachel's father? Whoever fights for civil rights. Yes, Rachel perhaps has many black fathers.
Here, I will go to another verse. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul says, “To the weak I became weak in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some of them.”
So, by becoming black, Rachel is standing in the tradition of the Apostle Paul.
Then, there is the artist angle. Rachel received her Masters of Fine Arts from Howard University as a white woman married to a black man. One aspect of art is to get people to look at the world around them in a different way. As a piece of performance art, intentional or unintentional, Rachel has excelled in this, propelling the discussion about the social construction of race into the limelight. This is an area I’m especially hopeful about. By getting more people to think about racial identity, she may do more than all the handwringing Facebook posts about police brutality.
This gets to why what she has done is so radical. It joins with a great Christian and artistic tradition of challenging the way we see the world, in the way we understand our identity, and ultimately, in the way we live.
This evening, the Walt Whitman class I have been taking online comes to an end. As a final exercise, we were encouraged to write a poem in the style of Whitman.
Last night, I went to the opening of "A Body in Fukushima" at Wesleyan. It is a powerful show, that I highly recommend. As I thought about the show, and thought about my assignment for the Whitman class, I thought it would be good to writemy thoughts about the show, al a Whitman.
A Body in Fukushima
Who were you that rode your bike to the train station, now abandoned to the radiation?
Who were you that steamed your rice, in a cooker now too hot with a different type of heat?
Who were you that mended the boats, the boats damaged by the tsunami, the boats that can no longer be repaired?
Who were you that danced by the one ton bags of radioactive dirt or photographed the dancer?
And those of you in years past who helped build the nuclear power plants. You saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Did you not worry that those promises of prosperity to your impoverish properties would be empty?
It is all part of a giant dance of survival, the deals we make to escape mind numbing subsistence work. But sometimes, the deals go bad.
Now, the cherry trees, that your ancestors nurtured so lovingly, bloom each spring, but the radiation keeps away the visitors, keeps away the former inhabitants. Their flowers, their smells, their beauty hidden behind the warning signs.
And what can we learn from the photographs? And what will those who come many years hence, after the radiation has decayed, what will they learn?
Tomorrow is the last day of the online class on Walt Whitman I have been participating in. We’ve read sections of his poems and been given things to think about
think about how hearing Whitman in song affects your understanding and interpretation of Whitman's words as they appear on the page.
It sounds like a homework assignment and doesn’t set my mind wandering.
On Sunday, the church I attend will have its annual meeting. Prior to the meeting, we’ve been invited to think about two questions.
1) We are now at five years with a new Rector. There have been many transitions in those five years, many new things. What new, different, exciting enhanced ministries do you see coming out of this parish over the NEXT five years?
2) In our fallen, rapidly-changing world, what do we believe God is calling us to be/do as a Christian community of faith, as p part of the Body of Christ, in this time and place?
These are important questions as we think about how we will spend our time and money. They are questions I’ve been tempted to write a long response to.
These are the things I’m thinking about as I stop at “A Body in Fukushima”, an exhibit at Wesleyan. This is another experience deserving much more though, and a well written response. There are issues of art and politics, things that I find echoed in discussions on social media.
Perhaps, all of this is woven together into some larger construct.
I’ll spend some time thinking about all of this, hoping that I’ll get a glimpse of the larger construct, but now, it is time to sit quietly pondering.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
This is how David Foster Wallace introduces his famous 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, “This is Water”.
Yet I have to wonder, is it really the ‘liberal arts education’ that does this? Can we get this without going to a liberal arts college? I’m taking a MOOC right now about Walt Whitman. Reading Walt Whitman breathes a little life into the day in, day out existence. So does a sacred scarf, a beautiful sunrise, and a few moments of silence in church.
Today, I spoke with my daughter Miranda and her efforts in the arts as it relates to tiny houses. I’ve seen people talk about the difference between tiny houses, RVs and mobile homes. Some of the discussions have talked about sustainability, others about supporting local artisans. Yet perhaps the big question is, how much art is there? How much of whatever David Foster Wallace was speaking about that keeps us from going through life unconscious?
I spoke with a homeless friend this evening. I know people who are looking at tiny houses to address homelessness. For some people, a tiny house, any sort of a house, is about having basic needs met, the physiological and safety needs from the base of Maslow’s hierarchy. Many people I know who live in nice houses, view their houses in this way. Yet what if our houses were meeting our needs of esteem or self-actualization?
It may seem to many that these sort of houses are reserved for the very rich who can have their dwellings designed by famous architects and built by master craftsmen. Yet this may be where the tiny house movement has some of its most important appeal. If you focus on form and function, and not on how many square feet a McMansion takes up, you can have a house that is a work of art.
Housing: Conceptual art and interactive sculpture, a chance to live deliberatively.