2022 Journal

A record of occasional thoughts and questions

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.