Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Power of "Thanks"

 “If the only prayer you said was, “Thank you”, that would be enough.”  
                             Meister Eckhart        
 “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”      
                           A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
 “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”     
 Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. This holiday is all about things that really please me: good food, being around people in a joyful and happy setting, reflection, and expressing gratitude for what I have and for where I am in my life. The relative lack of advertising and the tiny focus on what to buy when compared to Christmas gives me an opportunity to focus more on the day itself and to think about what the holiday is supposed to mean. In that light, I get a chance to look beyond myself and to acknowledge all the people, things and circumstances that are a part of my life that I had little, if anything, to do with. Particularly given the changes in my life over the last year and a half, I am incredibly aware of the value and wonder of family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Yes, we have disagreements, and yes, we do not always see eye to eye. But this day, Thanksgiving, is one day for me to join with many other people to formally acknowledge and embrace the fact that without them my life would not be as rich, as joyous or as full as it is. And how and why it happens as it does is something that is in many ways beyond me.

  This "giving of thanks" has always been a human and universal thing; it is probably a human need. It has happened in every part of the world, in every culture, and at all times. Throughout the centuries this giving of thanks has always involved some acknowledgement of forces outside of ourselves and expressed through public and group acknowledgment. Will the crops have a good season of growth? How high would the river be this year? When would the rain come? When and where will the next herd pass by? When would the heat come? Or go? Or stop? Will there be enough to eat? When would the war stop? These were all things that mattered to us, and we asked for help as a group and also expressed gratitude the same way. We know that these are not things that humans control all by ourselves, and we need the help of other people and other forces. We can get away from that somewhat in a modern civilization such as ours, as most of us are generally not so directly faced with struggles for the basics of life-food, shelter, etc. So it is good that we have at least one occasion when we can take a wider and broader look at ourselves and our lives and see the importance of family (by birth or chosen), and friendship. And for most of us it also involves an awareness of happenstance and/or some type of spirit or spirits. This is what we observe and celebrate when we observe Thanksgiving.

 Of course, it can be hard to hold on to that feeling in our civilization. We have been bombarded for several weeks now with advertisements for “Black Friday’ and “Cyber Monday” sales. Commerce is and always has been a key part of civilization, and the post-Thanksgiving time period is awash in sales, offers, and “special deals.” The time after the traditional autumn thanksgivings has always been the “get ready for winter” time. After the 1924 debut of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade this time became became the start of our “get ready for winter shopping time.” This became the time period when many retailers started turning a profit and going into the “black” and out of the red in accountant’s terms. Thus, the first day of the winter shopping season became known as “Black Friday, and it continues to be one of the biggest business days of the year. “Cyber Monday” came into being in 2005 as a marketing company’s idea to build online business. It has been very successful, taking in nearly 8 billion dollars last year.  This seasonal urge to spend is quite powerful in our culture; this move past gratitude into commerce will be a part of our culture for years to come.

   There is a way to extend that feeling of gratitude, though, even in the midst of so much commerce. Due in part to year end concerns about tax deductions, about 50% of all charity giving occurs in the last three months of the year. This led to the creation of “Giving Tuesday,” a day of donations to fund good, charitable causes following Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The founders wanted people to focus on extending the feeling of gratitude by following a weekend shopping spree with giving to help others and/or support good causes. The idea quickly took off, and it is now an international movement.  It even has its own website- which serves as a conduit to connect groups, causes, organizations and individuals. The website has history, tools to get organized, and connections to local movements from around the world. So that feeling of gratitude and giving can go on beyond Thursday, co -existing with the shopping frenzy. 

    I wish all of you a fun, thoughtful, comfortable and delicious Thanksgiving however you celebrate the holiday. I hope that you get the chance to reflect on people, situations and things for which you can be truly thankful. Even if things are tough, we all have some things, people, memories, and/ or moments for which we can be grateful. Here's hoping we can slow down enough to really acknowledge those things and to discover the quiet pleasure and joy in giving thanks.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Ernest J. Gaines

ERNEST J. GAINES: January 15, 1933-November 5, 2019

Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow.”     Ernest J. Gaines, A Gathering of Old Men

“Ain't we all been hurt by slavery?”

                         Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

             Ernest J. Gaines; Interviews with Ernest J. Gaines

     Sometime in the1970’s I was haunting the literature stacks at the Parkway Main Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia like I did on a regular basis. I had always been a reader, but my high school experiences combined with the times in which we lived made me an insatiable and voracious reader, and I spent a great deal of time at libraries. I was reading everything: beat and modern poetry, revisionist histories of the United States, Russian and African writers, books about Blacks in the American West, and tons of poetry and novels by Black authors. In the literature section that day I stumbled across a book that would become one of my guidelines for the next decade:Interviews with Black Authors, by John O’Brien. This book contained interviews with several of my favorite authors at the time-Ralph Ellison who wrote Invisible Man, Robert Hayden, whose poem, Frederick Douglass haunts me to this day, and Al Young, whose touching coming of age and music novel, Snakes, I learned about from a Nat Hentoff column in the Village Voice. There were a bunch of other authors with whom I was not familiar, and over time I read all of the interviews,  and I went on to read books by the people whose interviews intrigued me the most.That is how I discovered such wonderful and creative writers as Ishmael Reed, John Wideman and Alice Walker. And it is how I became acquainted with a Louisiana born writer by the name of Ernest J. Gaines.
       Gaines’ interview immediately captured me for two reasons. One was because he talked about capturing the sounds, dialect, time, and feel of the places in which his writing was set. I had read a little William Faulkner by then, and I knew what Faulkner was doing with  Yoknapatawpha county in his novels. Gaines acknowledged being influenced by Faulkner, but he also said that he knew that all the people who Faulkner portrayed were not like people he knew in real life on Southern plantations. He also did not see them in the Russian peasant novels he loved by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, so he decided he would portray them as he knew them. Gaines also talked about his Louisiana plantation setting he used in most of his novels almost as if it was a character  focusing, for example, on the role dust played in one of his novels, And he talked about how his characters related to struggles between the past and the present, how many of them were trying to define what it meant to be a man, and the various meanings death could have in not only his novels, but in real life. WOW! All of this was heady stuff for a young, urban Black boy in the 1970's, on the edge of “manhood,“ trying to play the blues, exploring his cultural past, loving history, and looking at all of this in different ways. I had to read this man.
   I read Catherine Carmier first and got acquainted with how Gaines could capture the dialect and sounds of characters-almost so I could hear them as I read the conversations. I could see how he could hint at themes and meaning without necessarily making it obvious. I was also impressed  by how he could present emotions in such a quietly intense way and how he could make the ordinary lives of so many of his characters feel real and compelling. I don't think i had ever at that point really identified with and really appreciated a female character in a novel before, but Catharine really affected me. This was a wonderful revelation that awakened me to new insights in reading. I was hooked. 

From there I read The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and I then had to read everything he wrote. His characters, ideas, setting, plots and quietly stated themes would sit with me for days after I finished reading one of his works. Some of his books, including, A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men, I read several times, getting something new out of each reading.  Ernest Gaines became one of my favorite writers, and he taught me and awakened me to so much.

  The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying were each made into powerful films. If you are not familiar with Gaines' work but are reluctant to jump right into reading a new author, I would recommend seeing those films. They are incredibly powerful, well-acted and well-directed (although I do have one little problem with a scene in Miss Jane Pittman.) I will see those films over the next week or two, and I may go back and re-read one or more of his books. Ernest J. Gaines wanted to bring the world he grew up in and knew to life in a full and meaningful way. He did that and much, much more.
(Here are a few websites about Ernest J. Gaines:

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Humans and Time

                         The Chambers Brothers
  We “turned our clocks back” a little while ago and ended what we call “Daylight Saving Time.” We do these manipulations of the clock twice a year, and we have been doing this for over a hundred years in most parts of the country. As a kid it took me some time to learn how to “spring forward and fall back,” but once I got it, I didn’t think too much about what it meant or what it showed about us as a species or what it might mean about the universe. I simply adjusted my clocks, was grumpy or happy about “gaining” or “losing” an hour, and that was that. But the last year or so has found me thinking and wondering about this Daylight Saving thing and thinking about this thing we call “time?” How many different ways do we use and experience it?  What does how we relate to and use time tell us about us? Just what is “time” anyway??

   According to Webster’s College Dictionary, time is ,1.“indefinite, unlimited duration in which things are considered as happening in the past, present, or future; every moment there has ever been or ever will be… a system of measuring duration and 2.the period between two events or during which something exists, happens, or acts; measured or measurable interval.”  In both of those definitions there are a lot of words and ideas that depend on other words for those definitions to make any sense. It is assumed we all have an idea of “future” or an “event,” for example, and that we all agree on what those ideas mean. But that, of course, is not always true. Different cultures, professions, philosophies, etc. all have their own concepts of this thing we call time.   Is there really a universal definition of time?    
    We do not have one clear definition of “time” that is universal to all circumstances; what we call “time” can be and is often many things simultaneously. We have all been in situations where time seems to slow down or stop; boring class lectures, bad films, or conversations in which someone goes on and on and on. And we have been in situations where we ae excited, having a great time, and things seem to go by too fast. “Time flies when you are having fun” is a saying most of us can relate to. But the fun experience and the boring experience could have lasted for the same duration in measurable reality; they could have both been 45 minutes when we look at the clock. So if “a system of measuring duration” works as a definition of “time,” 45 minutes is 45 minutes. But there is also a psychological and emotional measure of time, and they go beyond something a clock can capture. And we often live within those emotional/psychological definitions: they are valid to us. So there is often a difference between “clock time” and the time I feel and experience. As a human I have to navigate a world in which actual time and my emotional experience of it can be at odds with each other. Think about anxiety attacks and panic attacks over what might happen “later.” That is the personal nature of time, and sometimes we have to wrestle with living both definitions simultaneously. For we have to live in the world that is about us.
   We humans are communal. We live in groups and groups need to share some ideas about time in order to function. Different groups have spent countless amounts of time thinking about how to measure, regulate, capture, and make use of time. That measuring and regulating are thing humans do. We all acknowledge something we call “time” and we want to at least understand it in some way and get whatever use we can from it. We used the changes in river height or temperature or rain or animal movements or crop growth to let us know what we should be doing at certain points of the regular earth cycle: seasons. As we observed more of the world around us and used our thinking and toll making skills we came up with sundials, water clocks, hourglasses, and eventually mechanical and later digital clocks. Colonization and global trading systems meant that certain ideas spread around the world, so the universality of Western ideas about “Clock Time” eventually became the norm for much of the world. So when most of the Western world went to Daylight Saving Time, much of the rest of the world had to also.
   The theory behind early versions of Daylight Saving Time was that it would extend periods of daylight and therefore save energy and money.  If this was enacted cities would save money by having the electric lights turn on an hour or two later. It was also believed DST would lead to people being outside the house longer, spending money and helping the economy. It was not an easy sell to many people, but by the end of World War I most Western countries had adopted some type of DST. Germany did it first as they wanted to minimize the use of expensive artificial light during World War I. They were the first to use it nationally in 1916. After the war other European nations slowly adopted the idea largely for the same economic reasons. In the US DST was passed into law in 1918. There was originally no nationwide idea of how DST would be observed, and states had different version of what DST meant. The Universal Time Act of 1966 set a national standard country wide. Arizona and Hawaii eventually opted out of the practice, so 48 states now spring forward and fall back.
   There is still a quietly ferocious debate as to whether DST is a good idea or not. In what ways is it still economical? In what ways isn’t it? How does it help society? Hurt it? The European Union wants to scrap DST, and there are arguments regularly made in the US Congress to scrap it as well. DST may well be on the cultural endangered species list.
    Regardless of how this plays out, though, one of the major things DST shows is that humans will measure, regulate, make use of and/or alter that which is around us. Whether it is something tactile, tangible or jut and idea or concept, we seem to need to do that. So whether I am grumbling about or happy about the “extra” or “lost” hour, when I turn that clock back or forward I am a participant in that very human thing: measure, regulate, and/or make use of what is around me. Happy Daily Standard Time.

(Here is a link to an article that examines pros and cons about Daylight Saving Time: