11 August 2022
Some years ago, after I gave a talk on conservation in Salado, Texas, a retired biochemist told me that Mao Zedong had decided birds were stealing too much grain in China, so he ordered all citizens to go outside and bang pots continuously until the birds, repeatedly flying up in alarm, fell to the ground from exhaustion, whereupon they could be captured, killed, and eaten. Thus was China stripped of nearly all its birds. Whereupon the insect population swelled out of control, spoiling or devouring more crops than the birds had ever consumed. This news helped explain something that the renowned nature essayist Edward Hoagland once told me. Sent to China by a magazine to write about the status of wildlife in that country, worrying that his report would be dismal, Hoagland was relieved to see, on the first day of his visit, a cormorant flying over the Yangtse River. He thought maybe the status of wildlife was not as bleak as he had feared. But the cormorant was the only bird he saw during ten days of travel in China.
4 July 2022
Of all my writing, the essay I wrote about my father’s drinking, and its effects on me and the rest of our family, has elicited the most correspondence from readers. Here’s an example that arrived today:
Hope you are doing well! I'm a high school student, and I read your piece “Under the Influence.” I wanted to let you know that was honestly an amazing piece of work. Like, after I finished, I sent your story to all of my friends.
I also wanted to ask you a quick question about your opening. It reads: "My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food--compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling. I use the past tense not because he ever quit drinking but because he quit living." That is honestly the best hook I have read in my entire life, and wanted to ask how you were able to write a hook as good as that.
I don’t think about the opening of a story or essay as a “hook.” The metaphor strikes me as disrespectful of readers, as if they were fish, to be snagged by the first paragraph and then reeled along. If anyone should be intrigued by the opening sentences, it’s the writer; or at least that has been my experience. I must believe in those first sentences, must feel they provide an honest invitation to all that follows, before I can proceed.
In the case of “Under the Influence,” it was liberating for me to set down those initial three words—“My father drank.” They revealed the family secret, which had been shrouded in shame. Then I was able to bear remembering my father—a former Golden Gloves boxer, who prided himself on his toughness—drinking “compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling.” I could name his affliction, which was also the family’s affliction, only after he died. While he lived, I kept hoping that he could become sober; but only a heart attack put an end to his drinking.
Through writing “Under the Influence,” I came to realize how deeply his drinking had shaped my character and conscience. In particular, the essay helped me recognize that I had felt guilty, as a child, for failing to heal my father, for failing to bring peace between my parents, for failing to erase this family shame. As an adult, I struggled to let go of that guilt, and simultaneously to let go of my anger toward my father. The anger had always been mixed with a deep love for him, and the writing brought love to the fore.
7 June 2022
As I write these lines, Russian bombs, artillery shells, and missiles are pouring down across Ukraine, on factories and hospitals and schools, on shopping centers and train depots, on apartment buildings and houses. The assault has continued for more than three months, sparing no part of the country. Meanwhile, huddling in shelters, children have been drawing pictures.
One can sample the images online, pictures filled with black smoke and orange flames, helicopters looming overhead, tanks in the streets, people firing guns or fleeing. The children use blue and yellow crayons, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, to draw their own nation’s weapons and soldiers, cheering on their side in the war, but they also use these colors to draw symbols of peace, such as a yellow-and-blue dove bearing an olive twig in its beak, or a yellow-and-blue airplane dropping strawberries instead of bombs. One defiant picture shows a pair of girls holding hands, one of them dressed in the colors of Ukraine, the other in the colors of Russia, both of them grinning as they dance on the prostrate body of Vladimir Putin.
Allowing for differences in age and skill, these drawings are as eloquent in their own way as Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica, named for a Basque town in northern Spain that was bombed by German and Italian forces in April 1937. Much of the town was reduced to charred rubble. People who fled into nearby fields were machinegunned by low-flying planes. As in Ukraine today, the attack was ordered by a tyrant, Francisco Franco, and the victims were nearly all civilians, mostly women and children.
This was only one atrocity in a civil war filled, like all wars, with atrocities. We remember this particular horror chiefly because of Picasso’s painting, which expresses the grief and outrage we all feel, not only about the slaughter in Guernica, but about every murder, every rape, every willful act of destruction, whether it occurs on a battlefield, in the supposed safety of a school or synagogue or church, in a movie theater, nightclub, bedroom, or back alley.
Humans are not the only animals that attack or kill members of their own species, but we alone make art to protest or lament such cruelty. The long agony of slavery, and its bitter legacy of Jim Crow, gave rise to the blues, gospel hymns, and jazz. Lynching inspired the song “Strange Fruit,” best known in the 1939 recording by Billie Holliday, with lyrics by Abel Meeropol, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who would have brought with them from the old country stories about pogroms. Among Meeropol’s students at DeWitt Clinton High School was James Baldwin, who would later write novels and essays denouncing racism, and would open the way for today’s blossoming of gay literature.
One could trace a similar pattern to show how the centuries-long oppression of women gave rise to a wealth of art, from the essays of Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf to the novels of Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. One can see in Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs of sharecroppers a profound sympathy for the poor in a society arranged then, as now, to favor the rich. Art does not merely protest oppression, it demonstrates the worth and dignity of those who have been exploited, abused, or despised.
Prisoners in Nazi concentration camps wrote and staged plays, composed and performed music. Art did not save them from the gas chambers, but it reminded them of beauty and affirmed their humanity. Primo Levi, one of those millions of prisoners, wrote in his memoir Survival in Auschwitz about reciting for a fellow inmate verses from Dante’s Divine Comedy,including the following passage, here in translation:
Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.
W. H. Auden’s elegy on the death of William Butler Yeats, written in the shadow of World War II, contains the much-debated assertion, “poetry makes nothing happen.” The same might be said of any work of art; but it is only a half truth. Dante’s verses did not free Levi from Auschwitz, but they helped him avoid committing suicide. Songs did not break the shackles of slavery, but they helped Black people preserve their courage and creativity through generations.
Children’s drawings will not stop missiles from falling, but they can say to the world, even to the invaders, “We are not targets, not enemies. We are kids, like those who sit in your lap or play outside your window.” A child’s crayon picture of two grinning girls holding hands and dancing on a dictator can stir the heart of a stranger on the far side of the ocean, a stranger who will use these few words to make his own plea for peace in their land.
5 April 2022
In February 2021, one of the darkest periods of the Covid pandemic, I took part in an online literary festival. Each of the featured speakers was given an hour to present his or her work. When my turn came, I read passages from my book The Way of Imagination, and I spoke about the role that imagination plays in social reform, science, art, and ethics. I emphasized how, by nurturing compassion, this mental power may help us to overcome the many forces that divide us.
By the time I finished my presentation, the online audience had posted dozens of questions. The first person called on by the moderator was one of my fellow speakers, a writer of Penobscot lineage who denounced me for using the word “tribal” in my talk, which she took as an insult toward Native Americans. I tried to explain that the word “tribe” could be traced back to the ancient Romans, and that I used “tribalism” to mean the human impulse to create divisions between Us and Them, between those inside and those outside our moral regard. Refusing to listen, she talked over me, called me insensitive, accused me of reinforcing stereotypes about indigenous people as savages. I tried to point out that I had referred to racists and partisan politicians, not to indigenous people, but she continued her diatribe without giving me a chance to respond, and used up half of the time allotted to Q&A. I chose not to argue with her, so that others might have a chance to pose questions or make comments. Next, the moderator called on another of my fellow speakers, a poet, who used up the remainder of the Q&A time to attack me for using the word “we” when talking about artists, because she knew that my collective pronoun would not include her, an immigrant from Taiwan, and she resented always being marginalized, forever a victim of colonial contempt from people like me. Again, I had no chance to reply. Having run out of time, I said a brisk goodbye to the audience and logged off the Zoom link. It took me an hour, and a long walk in the park, to calm down.
Each of these attacks had been triggered by a single word—“tribal” and “we”—and by assumptions about my attitudes for which the two writers had no evidence aside from what they saw on the screen. What they saw was a seventy-something, white-bearded, pale-skinned male, who they felt certain must be hostile toward them as individuals and toward those with whom they identified. In short, they saw me as belonging to an alien tribe, someone to fear and despise.
This was not the first time I had been given a taste of what it feels like to be profiled, to be judged by my outward appearance, nor would it be the last. White guys have it coming. I get that. But this experience of being stereotyped, while instructive, was also disturbing, which is why I am mulling over the event a year later. If we had met in person instead of onscreen, if we had sat at a table and learned about one another’s lives over cups of coffee, would my fellow writers have been so quick to assume the worst about me? If they had read any of my books, would they have realized that I treat with respect both immigrants and indigenous people? Would they have discovered that I am an ally rather than an enemy?
What most troubles me is the possibility that these two writers, and many other bearers of personal as well as historical grievances, need to see me—and people who look like me—as irredeemably Other. If this is so, they will never believe that when I say “we” I include them and all the rest of humankind, and when they say “we” they will never include a great many people who care about their suffering and their heritage. So we must listen to one another, patiently, forever open to the possibility of kinship.
25 February 2022
Of the roughly fifteen hundred books on my shelves, I’ve read at least half of them more than once, and many I’ve read three or more times. Sometimes I only review the underlined passages and the notes scribbled in the margins—always in pencil, since ink bleeds through paper like a bruise. But usually I read every page. What draws me back to favorite books of prose as well as poetry might be the rich quality of the language, the striking metaphors, elegant phrasing, vivid images, and the musical sound of the sentences. If the book is a work of fiction, I might reread it because I was fascinated by the characters or captivated by the story. If the book is nonfiction, I might take it up again because I was intrigued by the subject matter, enlightened by the argument, or impressed by the author’s wisdom.
I read for pleasure, mental travel, and knowledge, but above all I read for insight. The best books are inexhaustible, revealing new depths on each reading. They also reveal new dimensions in me, as I grow older and bring to the reading more life experience, including the experience of writing books of my own. Here is the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, himself a prolific author, coming upon such a revelatory book: “I went out this afternoon, read some stuff on meditation....Then came back and began a new Penguin containing Bashō’s travel notes. Completely shattered by them. One of the most beautiful books I have ever read in my life. It gives me a whole new (old) view of my own life. The whole thing is pitched right on my tone. Deeply moving in every kind of way. Seldom have I found a book to which I responded so totally.”
I drew this passage from The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (HarperCollins, 1998), which I finished reading today for the third time. My hardcover edition of the book, with a photo of Merton in his monk’s garb on the cover, rests beside me on the desk as I type. Next to it is my well-thumbed copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the book that Merton found “Deeply moving in every kind of way.” Written by the great Japanese writer Matsuo Bashō, it was published in 1966 as a Penguin Classic, in a translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa. You can be certain that Merton returned to this book more than once, as I have. Any book that affects one profoundly on a first reading is likely to reward further visits.
27 January 2022
I am in the second week of a news fast, a discipline I practice now and again for the same reason that other people go on a food fast—to purge the poison from my system. The poison, in this case, is the venom that oozes from the mouths of politicians, pundits, and powerbrokers whose insults and lies fill the headlines and airwaves.
Take in a steady diet of contemptuous speech and you’re liable to feel contempt yourself, not only for this or that supposed enemy but for our entire species. Read constantly about cruelty and corruption, and you may lose trust in the power of honesty and kindness. Absorb enough reports about wars and threats of war, and you may cease to believe in the possibility of peace. Immerse yourself in stories about the purchasing of legislators and judges by corporations and billionaires, and you’re liable to give up on democracy as a failed experiment, and you may even yearn for an autocrat who promises to keep the stores full of stuff and the gas price low. The algorithms on social media amp up anger and hostility. Even late-night TV, which might seem like harmless entertainment, relies on ridicule for laughs, coaching us to scorn not only people we already dislike, but also people whom we had been naive enough to admire.
Strife grabs our attention; harmony lulls us to sleep. That’s why news is littered with the language of violence: clash, attack, battle, scorn, troll, slam, humiliate, denounce, assault, harass, rape. In the flood of images and words, strife rules, as thousands of media sources compete for our ears and eyes. I gave up watching TV news on commercial channels years ago, because I was repulsed by the smirking hosts and snarling guests, and the images of mayhem haunted my sleep. But even the highest quality news sources available in print and online feature conflict, for they, too, must garner enough readers to please the advertisers.
Most of the time I am one of those readers, sampling a dozen or more sources every day, but as my spirits sink lower and my view of humankind darkens, I realize that I must take a break to recover my sanity and to recall our better traits. So I tune out the news for a spell and tune in the eternities. I watch birds, weed the garden, listen to music, reread favorite books; I visit the art museum on campus, strolling among students whose faces glow with promise; I chat with neighbors on the sidewalk and I ask checkout clerks how they’re doing; I write letters to friends, actual letters on paper, and I phone other friends just to hear their voices; I listen to kids whooping with joy on swings in the park, track the moon through its monthly phases, watch films about wildlife and conservation and the cosmos, and I take walks around town with my wife.
I’m aware that a responsible citizen should be informed about what’s going on in the local community, across the nation, and around the planet; but one should also have enough faith in one’s fellow citizens to believe that together we can fashion a more just and peaceful world. Taking a break from the news helps me regain that faith. If the world seems blighted to you, and hope seems foolish, you might try this remedy, which costs nothing but a little restraint.