I recently read Cultivating Delight – A Natural History of My Garden by Diane Ackerman. It was a delightful read and went well beyond her extensive knowledge of gardening and into insights on human nature. She takes the reader on an adventure through her garden and the wonderful mysteries of nature by season. I learned quite a lot from this book and will be referring back to her insights and wisdom as time allows. Her detailed descriptions made me feel as if I had been transported into the environment that she was describing. I bought my copy used through Abe Books, my personal go-to resource for small booksellers. I highly recommend Cultivating Delight to gardeners and lovers of our natural world.
Mahabarata – A Modern Retelling
For some reason I saw this book and felt compelled to read it, which derailed me from my other studies. That is okay. I finally finished reading this modern and easily digestible abridged version of the epic Vedic poem/story and religious text that British poet Carole Satyamurti deftly composed in blank verse. It was very interesting and enlightening, with numerous similarities to other religions and/or belief systems. This tragic story is told through the ancient bard Ugrashravas as relayed to brahmin seers. I will highlight only three thoughts. In no way can I do justice to this work; however, do recommend it as an easily read and followed poem/story all 888 pages no including the Forward and Preface, which are important. I would also recommend going to the back and reading the Afterword, which further defines the extent of Ms. Satyamurti’s work. I consider it is worth keeping handy among my other religious texts and studies. I include only page numbers behind quotations and the pagination is the same in the hard and soft cover versions. I initially discovered it at our local library then Kathy bought me a used copy in December that I can tab and write in, which already has some helpful highlights!
In the Prologue, the assertion that runs throughout the story, is that “‘What the poem contains concerning dharma, pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and final freedom, may be found elsewhere. But you can be sure that what it does not contain is found nowhere.'” (6) I consider this to be an interesting and relevant assertion when one compares some of the foundational characteristics found within Mahabarata to other beliefs. Placing to the side the three monotheistic religions of the book, are there essentially X numbers of god/desses, stories, teachings, etc, parts of which bards, seers, scholars of various religions/beliefs have adopted to their own belief systems? This is plausible and one among several regions in which such an adaptation occurred was Roman Gaul and Britain where god/desses were different yet the same, in simplistic terms. The beginning assertion is found verbatim in the Epilogue (843), and elsewhere…the beginning and the end meet in the middle of the war.
In the Prologue the gods are summoned by Brahma based on a please from Earth due to the ensuing havoc that the human world was spreading throughout her world. Earth pleaded with Brahma and bowing before him said “‘O Lord Brahma, I am overwhelmed by so much wickedness. I shall be destroyed!'” Brahma told all of the gods that “‘Earth is in danger. You must each be born as humans, using a portion of yourselves to endow a human being with god-like power. Employ your attributes as you see fit. Pitch your strength against the demonic forces which threaten to engulf the entire earth.'” (9) While this story begins with concern the Earth Mother, the bulk is about brutal warfare and fulfilling one’s duties in their current life based on the karmic influences on actions and outcomes. Modern warfare is brutal but we have learned that ancient warfare, especially that on a grand scale was truly unrelenting with its extraordinary vicious acts. The gods in Mahabarata bestowed upon men, some who were conceived by the gods, celestial weapons of mass destruction, to use modern terminology. I have to wonder that mas destruction of a dynasty of humankind was not exactly what Earth Mother envisioned as the end state of Brahma’s guidance to the gods.
Is there such a thing as karma? I believe nothing is mere coincidence yet really dislike the adage the everything happens for a reason, blah and so on, and so it goes says Voltaire in Candide. I can put in a working context the idea of karma shaping one’s life through actions in past lives and souls (good and evil) being “reborn” into new forms. How else can one explain the continual downward spiral of humankind and its treatment of all living beings, destruction of Earth, Waters, everything? In The Teaching Continues, after the massacre of two dynasties, Bhishma exonerates the royal cousins of blame saying instead that “A person’s karma shapes their life and death. And, beyond that, there is the cosmic plan, the grand design constructed by the gods.” (747)
I would be interested in what other Folk know and understand about the Vedic pantheon. I am primarily Celtic but have aspects of Greek and Egyptian, and am quite interested in the Vedic.
Satyamurti, Carole. Mahabarata – A Modern Retelling. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2015.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is one of the best books I have read, ever. Dr. Kimmerer’s writing and teachings had me hooked at the “Preface.” I learned about sweetgrass, which we burn along with sage for cleansing our home and other spaces and take for granted. I learned about this wonderful gift from Earth Mother and her other gifts that we take and use, sadly often more than we need, then fail to replace them to replenish Nature and ensure there is enough for everyone to share. Every section seamlessly weaves into the next and every chapter offers a lesson from Nature deftly interwoven with indigenous knowledge and the science of botany, which is fascinating. Dr. Kimmerer’s sharing of indigenous knowledge and her writing encourages reflection.
Per my usual, I tabbed chapters or pages that perhaps imparted even deeper lessons. The chapter on “Allegiance to Gratitude” reveals the Thanksgiving Address with which the kids of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of the Onondaga Nation begin and end their school week. I am a Veteran, career US Army Chief Warrant Officer and am loyal to our Republic; however, I believe that if all kids were to learn at least some portions of the Thanksgiving Address they would grow into humans who would take action to care for and nurture Earth Mother and tend to our beloved Republic and her citizens. I share below one such verse that the kids know by heart and recite in their native language.
Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 107.
A theme that ran throughout Braiding Sweetgrass is that of asking Earth Mother for permission to take what we need and only what we need and what is given to us. I think of the abundance of waste humans create that includes food and other natural resources, and things we buy that we think we must have then toss aside later…parts of the unnecessary clutter that disturbs our spaces and our lives. This applies to the gifts of Nature and other commodities. The human race as a collective is and hoarding species and not a responsible steward of our planet and her resources. Dr. Kimmerer lists the guidelines of what may constitute an Honorable Harvest.
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 183.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a wat that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
Braiding Sweetgrass is so much more than the tidbits I shared here. Check it out for yourself. I am growing better from its reading. I look forward to reading Dr. Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss, which she wrote prior to this beautiful book. In the meantime, let us learn to value the cherishments that Nature is willing to share as long as we ask permission.
I completed Sister Outsider – Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. She delivers to the reader honest and raw truths with nothing held back. I appreciate her bold, intelligent approach to speaking out for black women and others who society perceives as the ‘other,’ and has throughout the history of most of the world. I consider myself to be aware and receptive. Ms. Lorde broadened my insight and opened my mind and heart to the degree and methods of racism and classicism that fellow humans enact against people of color. The issues surrounding women rights and inequality and loving women resonate with me; however, her powerful words about the struggles against and among black women disturb me. They disturb me in the sense that with my mere glimpse into black society I cannot fathom how our fellow beings of color have struggled and continue to struggle in this day and age with racism and classicism. It is disgraceful. It is inexcusable. It is cowardly…those who feel insignificant harbor the need to exert some sort of power over others who they perceive as essentially lesser beings, when in actuality the oppressors are the lesser beings.
Within many of my books I read, I take notes and/or highlight and earmark chapters/pages that contain passages that leap from the paper into my being. In her paper entitled “Age, Rage, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” which was delivered at the Copeland Colloquium, Amherst College, April 1980, Ms. Lorde succinctly defines conditional racism/classicism, a global issue.
MUCH OF WESTERN EUROPEAN history conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior. In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. Within this society, that group is made up of Black and Third World people, working-class people, older people, and women.Audre Lorde, “Age, Rage, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in Sister Outsider – Essays and Speeches (1984; repr., New York: Crossing Press, 2007), 114.
Audre Lorde was a brave and intelligent woman – a poet, a writer, an activist, a black, lesbian, feminist with two children whose partner was a white woman. Now think about that for even just a second, if you can about how society to include her own, and I mean her black society and sisters, considered her and her family. Yes…surely as the ‘other’ – bad, down, inferior – less worthy than the good, up, superior oppressors. Who do we think we are as a society of such rich global culture to sit in judgment of our fellow humankind, people who are trying to make a life for themselves? We are supposed to be in this thing called life together because it is not easy for everyone and I would argue that even the wealthy who grew up knowing nothing about poverty, racism, classicism, bias and more, have indeed had times of unhappiness. Happiness is inside each of us and we hold up and are held up by our fellow humans, or put down by them. It is a choice, to be a good human, and it is not…should not be so difficult to understand.
Thank you Audre Lorde for helping me view the world through an enhanced, clearer lens. I am a good human but like all of us, not without faults, and when pitted against those I perceive to be bad humans I can run into trouble. Thinkers like you help me to seek what is inside and really study myself and others, to be a better human and continue to improve myself.
Note: The photo of Audre Lorde from the Poetry Foundation website, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/audre-lorde, accessed 9 March 2021.
Gwendolyn Brooks and Her “Anniad”
I bought three new books, selected to honor Black History and enrich my perspective. I just read through The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks edited by Elizabeth Alexander, American Poets Project, The Library of America, 2005. As with all poetry books I read, I ran straight through it and will return later to focus on the contents and Ms. Brooks’ words more closely. Her work is raw and revealing, especially to a white woman. Yes, I have experienced prejudice based on my gender (ignoring and/or countering my expertise in being technically correct), and who I love (cannot simply hold the hand of my wife in many places). Yet, it does not compare to the racial bias and violence deployed against our Black friends and neighbors that enrich every aspect of our collective human experience called life – if we enable them as equal members of our society – which is who they are by our given rights.
One epic poem that stood out based on my concentration and interest in Ancient & Classical History was “The Anniad.” The similarity of the title and thematic narratives should not be lost on those familiar with The Aeneid by Roman poet Virgil (T. Vergilius Maro, 70-19 BCE). To read Virgil’s Aeneid online, a scholarly-sanctioned Loeb translation, go here: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0054%3Abook%3D1%3Acard%3D1. Gwendolyn Brooks gives the reader a view of feminine sexual idealism and the struggles in a world focused on patriarchy, to include love, imagined and real, warfare, and other tangential scenarios. Dr. Ann Folwell Stanford, professor of multidisciplinary and literary studies, provided a detailed analysis of “The Anniad,” in her article “An Epic with a Difference: Sexual Politics in Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Anniad.” Dr. Folwell discussed not only “The Anniad,” but also the underlying currents running throughout its cover volume Annie Allen (1949).
Gwendolyn Brooks’s second volume of poetry, Annie Allen (1949), furthers a resistance to white racist hegemony begun in A Street in Bronzeville (1945) but extends its analysis to the confining ideology that (mis)shapes gender and distorts sexual relationships. Many of Annie Allen’s poems interrogate femininity and romantic love, looking at how such constructs restrict women to an oppressive and ultimately unworkable notion of love. Annie continually experiences conflicts be- tween opposites within herself: realism/idealism, assertion/submission, and expression/repression. These dialectical terms dictate struggle, and that struggle inheres in many of the volume’s best poems. Feminized both by title and subject matter, Annie Allen foregrounds a resistance to male co-optation and female passivity and offers a critique of sexual politics focusing on the imbalance of power that frequently characterizes relations between the sexes.Ann Folwell Stanford. “An Epic with a Difference: Sexual Politics in Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Anniad,” American Literature 67, no. 2 (June 1995): 283, accessed 18 February 2021, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2927790.
I share below the opening lines of Brooks’ “The Anniad” to wet your appetite to engage her work. I will be reading more of her work, which is beautiful in its complexity and simplicity, and raw portrayal of life impacted by gender inequality and racism.
Think of sweet and chocolate,Gwendolyn Brooks, The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, ed. Elizabeth Alexander (New York: The Library of America, 2005), 36.
Left to folly or to fate,
Whom the higher gods forgot,
Whom the lower gods berate;
Physical and underfed
Fancying on the featherbed
What was never and is not.
With this brief introduction, I now challenge you, dear reader, to explore the world of not only Gwendolyn Brooks, but of other black and female authors who bravely broke the codes through their artistic expressions. We are bound to honor and thank them.
Death Comes for the Archbishop
I vaguely recall that I read something by Willa Cather…decades ago. Like many of us, my life became focused on other missions and their recommended or relevant readings. Furthermore, I generally have not been focused on American literature. That is changing as I continue to evolve and broaden my scope. I will read all of Willa Cather’s books in due time as her work is revealing and so descriptive of the Native American Southwest and other adventures that pioneers endured in settling America’s breadbasket, where I grew up.
Within a few phrases I realized why Claire Messud referenced Death Comes for the Archbishop in her book that I briefly discussed in a prior post. I was hooked and could not wait to keep turning the pages. Those of us who have visited our American Southwest, especially New Mexico and Arizona, understand the awe of the desert landscape and its reverberating energy…Native American spiritual energy that is unmistakable in its mystical, pure, and raw forms. When I visited the Grand Canyon in 2002 and arose early with my friend to watch the sunrise, it was a priceless moment, an exquisite example of nature’s splendor. More recently, when my wife and I visited Sedona, and when I visited Taos, the energy was ever-present, tingling one’s senses with its wonderful vibrations. Each time I go to the Southwest, it calls me to be there and live among the ancestors.
Willa Cather paints a beautiful and picturesque scene with her words, strung together like an artist, perfect in their description and ability to transport the reader into her book, a vibrant movie reel in one’s open mind. I share a passage below that popped out when my book simply fell open to its pages. Cather painted the natural yet deliberate array of the vast rock mesas, the grandeur of the Indian pueblo at Ácoma, New Mexico.
In all his travels the Bishop had seen no country like this. From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, generally Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals. They were not crowded together in disorder, but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between. … The sandy soil of the plain had a light sprinkling of junipers, and was splotched with masses of blooming rabbit brush,—that olive-coloured plant that grows in high waves like a tossing sea, at this season covered with a thatch of bloom, yellow as gorse, or orange like marigolds.
This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927; repr., New York: Vintage Classics Edition, 1990), 94-95.
Come one, come all and join Willa Cather to vividly explore the adventures of America’s construction. Through her illustrations, find rays of light and rainbows that shone and glittered, in the bitter and destructive wake, of those who were strong and fought for the right to live, and the missions who understood, respected, and supported their way of life. Reminisce in the stars that shine down upon us in our own worlds.
Last week I finished reading Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write by Claire Messud (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2020). We learned of this book from a NYT book review and it peaked our interest enough to buy it, which I do not regret. In addition to insight about an author with whom I was unfamiliar, Messud expanded my list of authors. I consider myself to be well-read but there are ALWAYS more books worthy of one’s attention and considering people can get into certain genres, we miss other gems.
I have several works by Albert Camus that I regularly re-read, and read Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro a very long time ago. However, I must confess she highlighted others that have intriguing lives and works. I even enjoyed her coverage of artists, which is definitely out of my scope although I cannot wait for the National Gallery of Art and other museums to re-open for sitting and studying silence their offerings.
I ordered Pulitzer Prize winning The Wild Iris (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992) by American poet Louise Glück, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. I read it straight through quickly for my first read. I will return to it again and contemplate each verse more slowly as her work demands such attention. I also ordered American author Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927; repr., New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), which I am currently reading and will finish by the weekend. Searching for poetry led me to poetry and essays that by three black women that I felt compelled to read to further educate myself about Black History as a part of American History. We are supposed to put ourselves in others’ shoes; however, that is easier said then done in many cases. My desire is that to read from a black woman’s perspective will expand my own aperture to a deeper level of understanding. There are great works by black male authors but as a woman, I turn to these awesome pioneering women for enlightenment. More on them in a future post.
Now I turn back to Messud to close this Friday morning train of thought. Kant’s Little Prussian Head offered numerous insights but there is one in particular that I highlighted, yes in our new hardback copy, toward the end that resonated with my senses. Through the love of books, one can learn connectedness. Just think…
Connection—whether in love or in art—entails risk; risk entails awkwardness. And it is through vulnerabilities that, as humans, we speak most profoundly, from the heart.Claire Messud, Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2020), 285.