11 November 2009

Learning About Home

Jonathan, one of my colleagues, and I left the college together tonight. We walked down a short path that leads to a promenade that borders the oldest cemetery in the state as well as two college buildings before passing under a Long Island Railroad trestle.

Along the way, I couldn't help but to notice that the reds and yellows of the leaves that had not yet fallen were more vivid in the darkness, with the lights from the buildings reflecting off them from behind, than they were in daylight. That is because the day was heavily overcast, although no rain fell. The light of this day was definitely late-fall, tending toward winter: It has lost the October glow and is darkening into the more stark light of a winter sky. For another week or two, we will see more color on those trees than anywhere else, even though the leaves seem to be falling off more rapidly with each day. Then the branches will be bare of leaves, not to mention color.

Every year, it seems that the department in which I teach holds its Open House on a day like this one. As in years past, it began at 4pm, just as the sky is about to start growing darker. This year, there seemed to be more camaraderie than in last year's Open House, even though the organizers of last year's event tried to make it a festive commemoration to the newly-elected Obama. I think part of it had to do with the topic of the readings and presentations: Home.

At least it's a topic that everyone can relate to, in whatever way. As I've mentioned in another post, it seemed, for much of my life, to be an abstraction: After all, how could I be at home anywhere if I wasn't at home in my own skin?

I was uneasy, not because I was giving a presentation, but because I saw the department secretary and the coordinator who'd accused me of something I didn't do. I was going to avoid them, but they both apologized to me. They seemed sincere to me, so I assumed that they were and accepted their apologies.

Of all the readings, presentations and performances, mine was scheduled to come last. I was a bit intimidated, because the two readings that preceded mine (There were eight in all.) were dramatic and done by a pair, then a group, of people. And I was going to read poems and a short prose selection by myself.

I read three pieces in all. Actually, I recited one from memory: Palais d'Hiver,one of my own short poems. I preceded it with a selection from Jacobo Timerman's Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number and followed it with Bruce Weigl's Anna Grasa.

But the way I started my presentation really got people's attention. I introduced myself and said, "I find this topic, home, very poignant right now. After all, I came home for the very first time this year."

Some of my fellow faculty members knew what I was talking about. So did many of the students who were there, as well as some guests they and faculty members brought in. And, I'm guessing that the college president and provost, and the dean of arts and sciences--all of whom were in the audience--knew, too. I haven't mentioned my surgery to any of them, but I'm sure they've heard about it.

Afterward, a number of my colleagues--including Janet, a new prof with whom I hadn't previously had the chance to speak--as well as students I'd never before met and the partner of one of the profs--came up to me and offered hugs, congratulations and advice.

The selection I read from Timerman can be found here.

My poem is here.

And here is Weigl's poem:

Anna Grasa

I came home from Vietnam.
My father had a sign
made at the foundry:
in orange glow paint.
I had to squint,

Out of the car I moved
up on the sign
dreaming myself full,
the sign that cut the sky,
my eyes burned,

but behind the terrible thing
I saw my grandmother
beautiful Anna Grasa.
I couldn't tell her.

I clapped to myself,
clapped to the sound of her dress.
I could have put it on,
she held me so close.
Both of us could be inside.

One thing Timerman and Weigl understand is that sometimes home takes some getting used to, especially if you're there for the first time, or are returning after a long absence. I'm learning about that, too: I just came home four months ago.

An Execution of the Eve of Veterans' Day

In a very, very dark sense, it's fitting that John Allen Muhammad was executed on the eve of Veteran's Day. I unequivocally oppose the death penalty--yes, even for someone like Muhammad--and war, for any reason. For one thing, I figure that if a man who won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star in World War II (but who wrote, ahem, Thank God for the Atom Bomb) could tell me, "There is simply no way to justify one human being to kill another," what argument is there for any war or the death penalty? For another, I have come to understand that the only people who benefit from either one are the men (and, yes, almost all of them are men) who are the powers behind the social, economic and political systems in which both are conducted. There is never any justice for the loved ones of the victims of either monstrosity; there is no such thing as "closure" after such a loss. And revenge is not justice.

Also: No one has ever corrected or prevented a crime by committing the same sort of crime. The "war to end all wars" indeed! Finally, I simply cannot stomach the idea of a state, no matter how benevolent, having the power of life and death over any human being. Now, I know someone is going to say, "Well, would you rather that John Allen Muhammad have the power of life and death over someone else?" Of course I wouldn't. But he didn't have such power once he was captured.

As for war: What in the world are American troops doing in Afghanistan? What were they doing in Iraq--under Bush I or Bush II? And what, pray tell, were we doing in the Balkans region under the Clinton regime? How can anyone who has any respect at all for life put another person in a country where he's hated just because he's there by people who did nothing to harm him or the country he hails from?

Even if you accept the premise that American invlovement in, say, World War II was justified, how can you have so little respect for what your sons, fathers or neighbors accomplished and sacrificed in such a war that you would so cavalierly put them in some place where they face danger for no useful purpose?

I am thinking again about the story "Gunnar Berg" posted on his blog. How many people would refuse to fight, or set their "enemies" free if they could see the common humanity they share: That the desires and dreams of their enemies aren't so different from their own, and that perhaps their adversaries' children are, in some ways, like their own. Then perhaps they would understand the truism that war is between brothers. And that is the reason why nobody wins, ever.

Plus, in killing someone, you place him and whatever he represents above all else. Muhammad, as a result of his execution, will have had more attention paid to him than any of his victims ever had. And in a war, so much effort and materiel go into tracking down and killing "ememies" that those enemies take precedence over everything else--whether it's the economy, education or one's own loved ones