Last month we travelled to Germany, exploring the Castle Road, Bavaria, the Black Forest, art museums, and the historic Kris Kringle Markets, the oldest of which is in Nuremberg, site of the famous Nuremberg Trials. I had mixed feelings while in Germany, just as I've had mixed feelings about Germany my whole life. How could an entire country turn on its own citizens and neighbors so brutally? The past year in the United States has given me a clue. During WWII, my uncle's plane was shot down, and he became a prisoner of war at Stalag 17B. He never spoke of it, but WWII-era propaganda movies influenced my opinion of the Germans. And yet, I have some German heritage. When I was younger I didn't know what to do with my conflicting questions. Are the Germans part of my family? Or are the Germans the enemy of my family? Still, this was all relatively distant from me--both the country and what had happened to my uncle, long before I was born--and something I had the luxury to think about objectively. What must it be like for people who live in war-torn areas, where their friends and family members are often both victim and perpetrator?
It's curious how we have easy, one-word terms for victims and perpetrators, yet, I wonder why we don't have any easy words for people who forgive, who refuse to retaliate, who put an end to violence. We need names for people who do the most noble deeds. To that end, rather than focus on the horrors of the past, here are photos of just a few of the beautiful, charming, and enchanting things I encountered in Germany. Here's to people who spend their lives creating rather than destroying.
How easy it is to take our liberties for granted. Freedom of speech, for example, which seems to be under attack along with many other liberties in the U.S. right now. Not that my tiny blog is a battleground for freedom of speech, but for 2018 I've been inspired, along with dozens of bloggers, to take Donna Vorreyer and Kelli Russell Agodon's challenge to join the great poetry reboot and post to my blog on a weekly basis this year. Well, here it is, almost a week into the year, and I still haven't posted to the dang blog. Talk about taking the privilege and opportunity to have a voice for granted.
To tell the truth, and even though I'm a writer, there are often times when I have little to say. Just having a blog doesn't mean others will want to read it. This week, though, I'm inspired by my latest reading: Chris Abani's Kalakuta Republic, first published in 2000 about his experiences as a prisoner in Nigeria between 1985 and 1991. The first time he was imprisoned was at the age of 16, after his first novel was published. Besides the fact that it's amazing he published a novel at 16, imagine being thrown in prison with no charges, no representation, but three beatings a day and a steady diet of suffering. Imagine winding up back in prison, but this time being tortured physically and psychologically.
This week, Michael Wolff's book, Fire and Fury, was due to be released, leading Donald Trump and his legal team to threaten the publisher with legal action if they don't cease and desist. Instead, the publisher, Henry Holt, pushed up the release date, and the book has been so popular now retailers, including Amazon, can't keep up with the demand. It's unlikely Michael Wolff will end up in prison, tortured or killed, as were many of Chris Abani's fellow inmates, despite the reactionaries on Twitter.
And yet, one can't help but wonder how far are we from becoming a country where the government can intimidate publishers from publishing and writers from writing? How far are we from when our government will blatantly use our prosecutors and the courts to unjustly target their enemies and detractors? Oh wait. That's right. Something else happened this week. With pressure from Trump, the Department of Justice opened investigations into the Clinton Foundation over alleged pay-to-play politics. How this is different from Trump spending New Year's Eve at a Trump-owned property, where members could pay a premium price to have dinner with the Trump's, and presumably the President's ear, is unclear.
As far as we know, those who disagree with or challenge the current administration are not thrown into a brutal prison without due process, but that does not mean that they aren't targeted from the highest levels or that scare tactics aren't used to bully people into silence. One has to wonder, looking at another development this week, about the fire that destroyed the home of Tina Johnson, one of the women who told of being sexually assaulted by former Alabama Congressional candidate Roy Moore. A man who was seen near the house before and during the fire was brought in for questioning. It's possible the fire had nothing to do with the Moore case, and people are still considered innocent until proven guilty. It's not difficult to imagine a rogue or mentally unstable taking an action like arson, though, when elections or other political events don't go their way, especially if they perceive someone's public statements influential in the outcome.
The price of speaking one's truth can be great, and courageous people like Tina Johnson and Chris Abani leave me in awe. Would I have the strength to speak my convictions if I feared the cruelty Abani suffered or losing my home and everything in it as happened to Johnson? It's easy to see how one act of violence can serve to quell many voices. And yet, if the price of speaking out is high, the alternative, the price of silence and its subsequent, unimpeded injustice is far higher.
Turned in the draft of my first virtual reality screenplay last week. It's a short film about Texas history from pre-history to present, delivered in a whirlwind five minutes. No dialogue. No text. A Koyaanisqatsi-esque film experience, but completely immersive, where your entire field of vision is filled with moving image, and stereoscopic music and sound effects also give a three dimensional impression. Not true time-travel, but a fun experience nonetheless. Maybe because I've been immersed myself in the concepts and possibilities of virtual reality, maybe because of current politics, everything seems like virtual reality. Each day, I read the news and find myself thinking, 'Is this really our life? Is this what we've done with our beautiful democracy?'
I log into Twitter to see what's trending and ... Well first, let me just say there's something fundamentally wrong with chasing after what's trending each day. Aren't I a buy and hold kind of person? Following the news on Twitter is like day-trading for opinions, many of which I don't really want to know in the first place. On the other hand, it does give me access to what most of the key players are saying directly, not simply what's screened by the media. ... So here I am, reading tweets on the latest pack of lies, commenting with a cross between snark and incredulity, and scanning the hashtag du jour, when I notice almost all of the commenters have avatars. They aren't using their real names. Given how contentious our public dialogue has become, it's no surprise people might want to protect their identities, but most of these commenters are either trolls or bots. Not genuine individuals sharing their spontaneous opinions, but paid or automated commentary meant to influence people like you and me.
My students would say "it's surreal." They say this when something doesn't seem real. They don't know about surrealism as a cultural movement, an expression of the subconscious in surprising, but seemingly realistic ways. Clocks melting, a pipe that "n'est pas une pipe," something that, according to Antonin Artaud, one of the first surrealists, verged on the mystical, a cross between "falsehood and illusion." Wait. That last part actually fits. Maybe my students actually do know what they're talking about.
And that's how it feels reading the news. What one minute seems like a crazy conspiracy theory, the next minute has legs. Monty Python style images such as a neon sign flashing "False Election" trots around atop a fish-hose clad pair of legs. A theater of the absurd, which is how the U.S. must appear to the rest of the world. Of course, sites like Breitbart and media outlets like Fox deliver content that has been proven, over and over, to be biased or completely untrue, so we cannot call them news. Meanwhile, taking a play from the Goebbels playbook, they (and either their puppet or puppet-master, Trump) accuse their enemies of what they're guilty of themselves, and cry, "Fake news!" Or is Russia the puppet-master? And who's in Russia's pocket? Trump? Bannon? Sessions? Trump's kids? We already know about Flynn and Manafort. Who else?
I used to wonder what it was like to find oneself in an alternate reality. The world where the real you went to work, but the alternate you stayed on the highway, went on a roadtrip, never saw the real you's life again. We have alt-news, and the alt-right, and now even our beloved Jane Austen, who wrote about the oppressive lives of women who had limited choices in a world where they had no legal status and were completely stripped of money and power except through the "ownership" of a husband or father, has become an icon for the alt-right. Can this be real? Can any of it be real? After all our forebears had done to fight for democracy and equality, have we given it away to thieves who will steal our rights, our resources, our very reality?
We sometimes tell a person to take off their blinders, referring to the devices placed on horses so they won't pay attention to or be spooked by what's creeping up on them on the side. Virtual reality headsets look a lot like blinders except they block out sight of everything, not just what's on the sides, and replace it with an alternate reality. That's fine, if you know it's not real. If you know it's entertainment, and also if you're in a safe place where no one will hurt you while you can't see to protect yourself. Unfortunately, virtual reality blinders are exactly what the powers that be have tried to impose on us, and the very people handing out the blinders are the same ones who will steal our rights and resources, destroying our land, economy, freedom, and democracy in their wake.
Could we just go back to our real lives now or at least time travel to when this is all over? Much as I wish for our normal lives to return, I know that's exactly the kind of lazy escapism that seems to have gotten us into this predicament in the first place. While we were going about our lives, binge streaming Netflix or escaping to some gorgeous trail, we let our guard down. We let the enemy in. Now is not the time for more escapism, but to reclaim our country and the ideals that make it great. Truth. Equality. Justice. And an end to this alt-reality.
Make America America Again!
Three glorious weeks in the company of fellow artists at Playa Foundation for the Arts residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon. If you are a writer or artist, I encourage you to apply. The setting is spectacular and remote, perfect for artistic inspiration. The accommodations are very comfortable. And the people are amazing. It's a competitive residency, but a tremendous gift if you are accepted. And if not, your application fee serves as a donation to support fellow artists in a well-run and worthwhile program. Highly recommended!
Images from Halloween in France last year (2015). Soon, images from Halloween in the San Juan Islands...
Lately, I've been thinking about all the questions we ask ourselves as a manuscript comes together. What to keep? What to leave out? How to structure the book? How to avoid the famous saggy middle? Should the book have a rising arc? Sections? Interwoven themes? Transitions or interlocking images between individual poems? More importantly, what are the poems trying to say? What am I trying to say? And what is the most effective way for this book to say it?
The photo above, taken by one of the guests at our B&B, represents some of these structural and aesthetic concerns. How to balance the difficult and prickly with the lovely and lyric? Does the collection need cohesion, symmetry, balance? Or will the poems naturally fall into place? How can the aggregate form something that allows the details of the individual pieces to shine, but still offers a collective experience? How to maintain a sense of intimacy and close observation while also providing a striking vista of the whole?
Every collection is different, of course. And every poet strives for objectivity, trying to see their work with fresh eyes, trying to see the forest despite all those individual trees, or, in this case, petals.
Today, I have been filled with gratitude for being able to start each day doing things I love. Things like cooking with my husband, gathering flowers from the garden, baking, immersing myself in the nearly mindless yet mindful zen motions of cutting fruit and arranging it on plates. On the grand scale of things, running a B&B is not important work. The world does not depend on it, and for that I'm glad. But for a dining roomful of guests each morning, I might be able to create something lovely and satisfying--a small vignette of fruit and flowers, a glimpse of beauty, and sense of wonder. Maybe even a respite from the tedium of petty insecurities, the burden of the news, environmental degradations, politicking, traffic, and the usual onslaught of life's stings and insults. Maybe for a moment, our worries replaced by symmetry, vibrancy, succulence, delicacy, and grace.
I love the images on Liivia Sirola's blog, especially seeing her apparently random images in different cities in Europe, so I decided to share some more of the photos from my walking & writing trek in France last fall (and inspiration for the first section of my forthcoming poetry book, Revolutions We'd Hoped We'd Outgrown). Please bear in mind that Liivia is an accomplished photographer, and these are shots quickly captured with my phone. I'm sorry the photos aren't particularly crisp, or even very well composed. Consider this an on-the-fly travelogue of a few of the many things that caught my eye.
These photos, and Liivia's of Paris, have me dreaming of returning. But I feel guilty about the carbon imprint of jet fuel, and find it hard to justify the trip. I'll have to settle for revisiting France by photo. And distract myself with the beauty of the Northwest...
So I'm supposed to be marketing my upcoming book, sending emails and posting about it relentlessly on social media, so people will know about it and buy advance copies (all of which helps the publisher know how large of a print run to do, so there's incentive for me to market the bejeebers out of this thing). But it feels wrong. Not just because I feel awkward about it and more than a little embarrassed to toot my own horn, but because recent events, especially the massacre in Orlando, have me feeling profoundly sad. Even though I don't know anyone who was personally affected by the killings, I grieve with the friends and families of the victims, and I suspect you do, too. It's difficult to come to terms with the sudden and violent deaths of people we love. I know because I lost my sister and niece to a head-on collision. Senseless violence, though, I mean, violence intentionally perpetrated by another person is hard to fathom, which makes accepting loss practically impossible. Even the word "acceptance" sounds a bit like acquiescence. As though accepting their deaths implies some degree of condoning or accepting the behavior that led to them, rather than simply acknowledging the reality of the loss and moving past the initial shock.
Then I read about the girl who at 14-years old was "gifted" by her parents to a man more than 30 years her senior -- a man who subsequently fathered two children with the poor girl.
The parents, Daniel and Savilla Stoltzfus, reportedly turned their daughter over to Lee Kaplan in an arrangement that somehow allowed the Stoltzfus' to keep their family farm. It's horrifying to think of parents selling their own children, if that is, in fact, what happened. And horrible to think of anyone buying a child, apparently for his own pleasure. And yet, cultures throughout the world have arranged marriages, often with an underage girl, and often with a "bride price," similar to a dowry. Are these situations any less horrific than the situation of the unfortunate girl in Feasterville, PA? Or what about the situation in some countries, where unscrupulous grooms and their families continue to extort money from the bride's family by beating her unless they are paid. Sometimes they will go so far as to kill the wife in an "accident" such as bride burnings in order to free the man up to marry (and extort more money), starting the cycle all over again.
Sorry to be so depressing. On a happier note, huge kudos to the heroine, Jan Betz, the neighbor who alerted police to the situation in Feasterville.
Her compassion may have prevented who knows what kind of abuses against the eleven children in total who were found in the house. Not to jump to conclusions, but based on what the police have revealed so far, the prospect that none of the other children was affected, directly or indirectly, seems highly unlikely.
Since the arrests of Kaplan and the Stoltzfus parents, several neighbors have come forward to say they suspected something, and that some of them had notified the police as long as two years ago. If that's true, there have been several heroes acting on behalf of their neighbors, whether successful at the time or not. Those are acts of courage and compassion, and I applaud them.
Meanwhile, in Poland, the populace prepares for a vote to ban abortion in all cases except when the mother's life is in danger. In 1993, they passed a vote that makes abortion illegal except in cases of incest, rape, or extreme deformities of the baby, as well as to protect the life of the mother. The latest law would force victims of incest or rape to carry the child of their rapist full term. As if rape weren't already a terrible crime of violence against women, the ability to then make the woman carry his child may appeal to those brutes, and may even motivate some particularly sadistic rapists to rape with the hope that he can spread his seed and father more children in the world -- with no greater repercussions than the original rape charge, IF he is caught. He wouldn't have to bear the child, give birth to it, have the heart-wrenching decision of whether to keep it, and wouldn't have to pay a penny for its upbringing. But let's not talk about the rapist. Regardless of what happens to him, and in fact regardless of whether the pregnancy is the result of rape, the government has no business controlling women's reproductive rights. If abortion is illegal, where will they draw the line? Will it be illegal for a woman to drive while pregnant, in case the baby should be injured in a car accident? This is the law in some countries. Will it be illegal for pregnant women to work outside the home, or even leave the home, for the same reasons? Are we one step away from the regressive and oppressive ideologies of the Taliban, Daesh, and other extremist, fundamentalist religions? Are we headed back to the Middle Ages?
Who will speak out against such legislation? Who will speak on behalf of women who get sold, married off, and forced to bear and raise the children of their rapists and oppressors? Who will speak out on behalf of lesbians, gays, transgender, and queer folks who are judged and targeted by nearly every fundamentalist religion (and some not so fundamentalist), as well?
I'm supposed to be marketing my book, but it feels like there's more important work to do in the world. The funny thing is, the book addresses these oppressions -- against women, gays, religious minorities (yes, including Muslims) -- and bemoans the fact that we return to these fights for basic rights over and over again. Some days it feels as though the compassionate among us repeatedly rally against these actions and attitudes, and some days our voices (my voice) seem futile. But maybe if we all stand up -- for love, for autonomy to control our own bodies and lives, for human understanding and respect -- maybe it will move the needle. Maybe we will return to a less violent and oppressive world. At least for now. At least till the next fight.
Oh, and to make my publisher happy (and stop avoiding and procrastinating), here's the link to the book. I'd be ever so grateful if you decided to order it. Or even just admire the pretty cover. ('There,' she says to herself, still feeling supremely awkward. 'That wasn't so hard, was it?')
I had the best time at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, leading a workshop to Walk, Sketch, Write last weekend. The participants were amazing -- many of them accomplished writers and/or artists. Over the course of two days, they created stunning sketches, poems, and moving prose. The sketches and written works they made can serve as starts and inspiration for new work, or simply stand on their own. In the next couple of weeks, I'll mail them sketches they did on postcards, as a way to extend the workshop. But, I have to admit, it will be hard to let go of their beautiful drawings!
A huge thanks to Molly, Abby, Mindy, and the other fine folks at the Sitka Center for hosting the workshop and giving such a warm welcome to us all. If you haven't been to a workshop at Sitka yet, I enthusiastically recommend it. The setting is gorgeous and the facilities wonderful, too.
Jill McCabe Johnson's research and writing practice follow the tradition of the French Medieval poetic form, the "chanson d'aventure" or song of adventure, where a writer walks into a new environment for enlightenment and inspiration.