Nelson Mandella 1918-2013


On this day, Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary, would have been 97. A year and a half ago, when he died, Bob Herbert (former New York Times columnist) wrote a remarkable piece about how history can swallow the work of revolutionaries and by sweetening their stories nearly erase the depth and devastating realities of oppressions against which they fought. On this International Nelson Mandella Day, it is crucial that we remember these political and social realities and own the history that produced them. His article follows:

Even though it had been expected, I was jolted when I got the phone call with the news that after many long decades the defiant fire of resistance had gone out and Nelson Mandela had died. He was the only truly great public figure I’d ever covered, an authentic revolutionary who refused to cower in the face of the most malignant of evils.

I knew that the tributes would be pouring in immediately from around the world, and I also knew that most of them would try to do to Mandela what has been done to the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr: turn him into a lovable, platitudinous cardboard character whose commitment to peace and willingness to embrace enemies could make everybody feel good. This practice is a deliberate misreading of history guaranteed to miss the point of the man.

The primary significance of Mandela and King was not their willingness to lock arms or hold hands with their enemies. It was their unshakable resolve to do whatever was necessary to bring those enemies to their knees. Their goal was nothing short of freeing their people from the murderous yoke of racial oppression. They were not the sweet, empty, inoffensive personalities of ad agencies or greeting cards or public service messages. Mandela and King were firebrands, liberators, truth-tellers — above all they were warriors. That they weren’t haters doesn’t for a moment minimize the fierceness of their militancy.

Unlike King, Mandela accepted violence as an essential tool in the struggle. He led the armed wing of the African National Congress, explaining: “Our mandate was to wage acts of violence against the state. . . Our intention was to begin with what was least violent to individuals but most damaging to the state.” Ronald Reagan denounced him as a terrorist and Dick Cheney opposed his release from prison.

King was hounded by the FBI, repeatedly jailed, vilified by any number of establishment figures who despised his direct action tactics, and finally murdered. He was only thirty-nine when he died. When King spoke out against the Vietnam war, characterizing the American government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” the New York Times took him to task in an editorial headlined, “Dr. King’s Error.”

King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is remembered mostly for its stirring evocation of a friction-less world in which blacks and whites get along wonderfully well and people are judged solely by “the content of their character.” What typically gets left out of mainstream reminiscences about the speech was King’s indictment of the real-world treatment of blacks in America. “America has given the Negro people a bad check,” said King, “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” He warned the crowd of a quarter of a million people outside the Lincoln Memorial:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality… And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.

These were not warm and fuzzy individuals, fantasy figures for the personal edification of the clueless and the cynical. They were hard-core revolutionaries committed with every ounce of their being to the wholesale transformation of their societies. When giants like Mandela and King are stripped of their revolutionary essence and remade as sentimental stick figures to be gushed over by all and sundry, the atrocities that sparked their fury and led to their commitment can be overlooked, left safely behind, even imagined never to have occurred.

It’s a way for people to sidestep the everlasting shame of past atrocities and their own collusion in the widespread horrors of racism that are still with us.

(Published in Jacobin on Dec. 7, 2013)

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Waiting for our ruby-throated guests


I have to admit, when I first learned that hummingbirds were here in Chicago, I was rather shocked. Aren’t they tropical birds? Chicago? Really? But I have seen them at the Botanic Gardens and even once in our yard. They migrate here from Central America in the late spring and venture back in the fall. Hummingbirds exist only in the Western Hemisphere (the Americas) and it is the ruby-throated hummingbird which makes its way to Chicago.

It was a bit of a production getting the feeder hung— we had to get the big ladder out of the garage which meant we needed to move a few boxes, tools, and piles around to get to the ladder; we had to maneuver the ladder out of the garage without smacking into the car and then through the garden without destroying too many lilies, echinacea, or black-eyed susans.

But after nearly smashing through a window while leaning the ladder up against the house, we managed to hang the hummingbird feeder. JB strategized all the mechanical details and now it is successfully suspended outside the back porch windows where we can easily see it as we sit down to eat as well.

I filled it with sugar water (boil 4 cups of water, remove from stove, stir in one cup of white sugar until dissolved, let cool) and now we patiently await our ruby-throated guests.

IMG_1627    IMG_1630

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Not too much is better than that


My friend Michael took me on an adventure today to Richmond Illinois to a place called by the owner’s name— Ginger Blossom. He even packed a lunch for us—peanut butter and jelly (raspberry) sandwiches on toasted(!) whole grain bread, chips, cookies, applesauce, a bottle of water. The only thing missing, he said, was a note from your mother.

It’s hard to describe Ginger Blossom’s place, but it is a farm, in fact the very farm she grew up on, with every building, cottage, barn on the place stuffed to the gills with ethnic and traditional items for sale, including furniture, that Ginger herself has gathered on her many trips overseas. (She has been doing this for 22 years!) There were surprises at every turn and there were lots of turns (and floors) to take. Wandering the farm was like making a sacred pilgrimage, discovering all sorts of precious treasure along the way. At Ginger Blossom, organic vegetables are also grown and part of the harvest is for sale as well.

Today was a remarkable day filled with the power of objects — of works made by sincere and skilled craftsmen from around the world— and of friendship — laid-back and easy. Not too much is better than that.

The last two photos are two of the treasures I brought home— a terra cotta, hand-painted Indonesian Buddha and a hand-carved shrine of travel Buddhas from Nepal.


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Not a trace left


I was in a cleaning frenzy today— reorganizing and scrubbing the back porch, ending up with about 5 bags of recyclables and a couple of bags for donation. JB and I even tackled half of the kitchen cupboards finally getting rid of the endless numbers of coffee cups and mugs past students have given to me at holiday times. It’s amazing how we live with so much stuff and get to a place where we don’t even recognize the clutter that it is, things weighing us down. We so easily normalize the chaos around us.

There is a big black bag I have been saving to cover the outdoor fire pit to protect it from the rain and after rediscovering it, I took it out to the fire pit. Of course, the fire pit was filled with water so I dumped it over onto its side to drain it before I covered it. The legs of the pit are hollow and inside one of the legs was a boatload of ant eggs and clearly lots of ants a lot more frantic than I. It was clear they were madly grabbing eggs and bringing them into holes in the ground I’m guessing into their larger colony underground. I even saw one drone dragging two eggs. This was clearly a crisis. Ant eggs are probably a tasty treat to any number of predators including humans across Southeast Asia. Lucky for these ants and their progeny we were in Illinois.

I watched them for some time in their desperate dash to save the eggs. They were managing this crisis well. The work was getting done. No one seemed to be bumping into each other or even frozen in shock. It was a team effort and the choreography of community was graceful, focused, and effective. I thought for a minute to tip the fire pit back up in such a way to cover the eggs again but it was too heavy and the pile of eggs and dirt had splayed out much wider than its original shape. And so I let the ants continue in their work. When I came back outside after dinner, there wasn’t a trace left.

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“Alas, Time stays, — we go!”


A friend of mine is teaching a summer school class about the city of Chicago and is out of town for a couple of days, so I am subbing for her. The class is small and the students are 6th and 7th graders. Yesterday we took a walking tour of Hyde Park visiting lots of different buildings, public sculptures, and historical sites. Today we visited a last site that we didn’t have time for yesterday— Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time.  It’s called a fountain but it’s really a reflecting pool between a large anthropomorphized “Time” and a parade of figures moving from right to left. Though it took us a while to get there — there was a bunny rabbit munching grass, a caterpillar in the middle of the sidewalk, and a butterfly that kept landing on everyone, all which required everyone’s undivided attention—- once we arrived the kids were totally engaged, climbing atop the sculpture itself becoming part of the pageant passing in front of Time.

This large monumental sculpture at the west end of the Midway on the University of Chicago campus was inspired by a poem that Lorado Taft (1860-1936) read:

The Paradox Of Time

Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go;
Or else, were this not so,
What need to chain the hours,
For Youth were always ours?
Time goes, you say?-ah no!

Ours is the eyes’ deceit
Of men whose flying feet
Lead through some landscape low;
We pass, and think we see
The earth’s fixed surface flee:-
Alas, Time stays,-we go!

Once in the days of old,
Your locks were curling gold,
And mine had shamed the crow.
Now, in the self-same stage,
We’ve reached the silver age;
Time goes, you say?-ah no!

Once, when my voice was strong,
I filled the woods with song
To praise your ‘rose’ and ‘snow';
My bird, that sang, is dead;
Where are your roses fled?
Alas, Time stays,-we go!

See, in what traversed ways,
What backward Fate delays
The hopes we used to know;
Where are our old desires?-
Ah, where those vanished fires?
Time goes, you say?-ah no!

How far, how far, O Sweet,
The past behind our feet
Lies in the even-glow!
Now, on the forward way,
Let us fold hands, and pray;
Alas, Time stays,-we go!

—Henry Austin Dobson (1840-1921)

Lorado Taft explained,

A vagrant line or two of Austin Dobson’s once made a great impression on me –

Time goes, you say?  Ah, no

Alas time stays; we go.

The words brought before me a picture which speedily transformed fancy into a colossal work of sculpture.  I saw the mighty crag-like figure of time . . . leaning on his staff, his chin upon his hand, and watching with cynical, inscrutable gaze the endless march of humanity – a majestic relief of marble I saw it, swinging in a wide circle around the form of the lone sentinel and made up of the shapes of hurrying men and women and children in endless procession, ever impelled by the winds of destiny in the inexorable IMG_1491_2lock-step of the ages.  Theirs the fateful forward movement which has not ceased since time began.  But in that crowded concourse, how few detach themselves from the greyness of the dusky caravan!  How few there are who even lift their heads!  Here an over-taxed body falls – and a place is vacant for a moment; there a strong man turns to the silent, shrouded reviewer and with lifted arms utters the cry of the old-time gladiators:  “Hail Caesar, we who go to our death salute thee” – and presses forward.  And once in a while an illuminated mind catches some glimpse of the eternal sequence, or his own relation to the past, to the present and to the future. Such a one thinks with reverence and gratitude of those around him, not living for himself alone, and he yearns to send a message on down the shadowy years to those who are to follow. Such souls bind together the generations of men: they give solidity to the race. Such a man is the true citizen. (Lorado Taft’s “Fountain of Time Done in Concrete by John J. Earley: A Triumph in Application of Concrete to the Uses of Art.  Concrete, Vol. 21.  December, 1922.)

And even this sculpture, as it is made out of concrete (there wasn’t enough money for a more permanent material), is subject to the ravages of time including Chicago’s freezing and thawing. This required major restoration a couple of years ago. I guess, “time stays, we go,” but if you are a sculpture there are things that can be done to help you stay a bit longer.

On the way back to school the students were asking me how we were going to spend the rest of the class. Would they be writing? Was there going to be a movie? Would there be time to play outside? Someone mentioned that summer school was already halfway over as of today. Another student mentioned she had to leave class early today. I’m sure the irony of their questions and comments was lost on them. I told them to be patient and enjoy the leisurely, unhurried stroll, enhanced by the smell of freshly mowed grass and a female cardinal flitting in the branches of a small crabapple.

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“Poetry is useless” by Anders Nilsen


xxxxxNilsen_Anders_3-halfnotebookpublished July 1, 2015 in Poetry Magazine


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Wrapped in the flag


New York, 1917. This is a photograph of the American soprano (sometimes referred to as a mezzo-soprano) Marcia Van Dresser (1877-1937), who participated in a variety of patriotic programs at the Metropolitan Opera, including the sales of War Bonds in support of the United States entry into World War I. Since she never recorded I can’t be sure of the quality of her voice, though she had many favorable reviews, but clearly the drama of her patriotism is unquestionable.

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