Let Them Eat Dirt

Some get the gravy, some get the gristle; some get the marrow bone, and some get nothing, though there’s plenty to spare…” — Joni Mitchell

I saw the first photo about a month ago in the Hartford Courant: a close-up of a Haitian child’s face, eyes wide and dark with misery, the mouth smeared with dust.

Did you know that in Haiti, hunger has become so extreme that the poorest of these poor are now eating dirt? They make it into patties by mixing it with water, a little oil and some salt. They dry it in the sun until it’s brittle and then they eat it. They feed it to their children. Their lips are lined with dust, because dust is what they have been reduced to eating. And believe it or not, it isn’t even free. Imagine that, if you can: imagine counting out your meager coins and handing them over in order to buy this thing: dirt to feed your baby.

This is the same world in which you and I live. Haiti is not so far away from our American shores. It is in fact a stone’s throw, in earth-sized terms, from the Caribbean playground islands so many Americans have visited on their vacations, where they snorkel and lounge on the beach and then sigh with bliss as they sip their martinis and wait for the lovely supper to arrive.

World food prices in the last year have gone up over 40%. For even the middle class in America, that’s enough to force some changes in eating habits; for the poorest, it’s enough to mean genuine hunger at least on some days during any given month. But in Haiti, where the average person lives on less than $2 a day in the best of times, it means that the people are eating dirt. This is a statement of fact so unbearably searing in the suffering it names that the mind wants to behave like a skittish horse, startling and moving sideways to avoid it.

But we can’t avoid it. This is not a momentary crisis born of one bad drought or the sudden destruction of an earthquake. It is the legacy of slavery and colonialism and corruption in Haiti’s past; deforestation, erosion and almost no  capacity to grow its own food; and a ‘perfect storm’ created from all the linkages in the present moment: the Iraq war and current oil prices; the co-opting of crops for biofuel; continual government corruption and incompetence in Haiti; the amazing shrinking American dollar; and the long-term greed and obliviousness of so many of us in the wealthiest countries.

What do we do about the fact that people in Haiti are now eating dirt? Most immediately, I guess, we look hard at our own personal resources and send as much money as we can to Oxfam (http://www.oxfam.org) or other aid groups working in Haiti. We agitate ceaselessly for more aid to go directly from the US and the UN to Haiti, immediately.

But the long-term solution will surely require much more from us. It will require, among other things, that we grow up, and leave behind the lovely illusion that a “growth economy” is sustainable, or has ever truthfully fit into this real world of ours. The American Dream would be more aptly called the American Delusion. We cannot keep on using up the world in the way we have been using it up: its oil, water and food, as though any of them are unlimited. As though any of them belong only to us.

Will we keep on sucking down the gravy when the people of Haiti are eating dirt?

Death By Blogging?

I know there’s likely to be another explanation, or a whole host of them. How can someone actually die from too much blogging? But that’s more or less how it was reported in the press a few days ago: two confirmed (unrelated) deaths of passionately committed bloggers, both of whom appeared to have been caught up in their work so intently that they failed to notice that their hearts were wearing out.

Of course as a neophyte blogger, this story confirmed all of my secret fears in spades. Not that it ever occurred to me that I (or anyone else) could die from the habit, but in truth the thing that kept me from starting a blog for so long was the dread that it would take on a life of its own and create one more thread of obligation wrapping around me. Once I got started I would be bound by the duties that come along with ownership, kind of like taking on a new pet: feed it, clean it, take it out for a walk. For God’s sake, don’t be neglectful, don’t leave it by itself for too long! If you can’t commit to that stuff, you don’t go out and get a dog, right?

Maybe back in the old days, like five years ago, blogs could be cared for by posting every week or so. Now it appears there are kinds of blogs, like the ones that proved fatal, in which it’s critical to write a post the very second that breaking news occurs; otherwise, readers (who I guess are also hovering over their keyboards, sleepless at 3:00am?) will go elsewhere.

I am not in danger of death by blogging, but I am having doubts about whether or not I’m cut out for this commitment. Some of us are more susceptible to this kind of doubt than others. If you are the type of person who lets the poinsettia linger (pathetically) until April and feels guilty even then for letting it die; the type who feels like your ethics are slipping when you throw out over-ripe bananas instead of dutifully making them into banana bread; the type who is compelled to capture the errant ladybugs in the house and march downstairs to release them… well, you get the picture. It’s a tendency toward obligation overload. Anything that is yours (even by virtue of unintentionally ending up in your home) you must attend to. And if a blog is yours (as a blog is now mine), it must, of course, be attended to.

But so must the garden be tended, and this is the first week when we’ve had any decent spring weather. So I have been out there raking leaves, cutting dead branches, digging up the sweet dark dirt and listening to the pileated woodpeckers holler at each other. The lettuce, peas and kale have sprouted; the crocuses, daffodils and forsythia are in full bloom, and the spring frogs we call peepers are singing their little hearts out, hoping to get lucky.

Somewhere out there, people are so intently melded with their computers that they don’t know the earth has tilted into springtime. I know, it’s hard and you might feel guilty, but here’s some unsolicited advice: Give it a rest. Take a sabbath. Go listen to the peepers tonight, or to whatever sings in your part of the world when the earth starts to warm. And please — get your heart checked out!

Forgive Me

There’s a lovely novel by Nicole Krauss called The History of Love. The main character is the author of his own book by the same title, and in it he writes a chapter called, “The Age of Silence”:

“The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists…

“Naturally, there were misunderstandings. There were times when a finger might have been lifted to scratch a nose, and if casual eye contact was made with one’s lover just then, the lover might accidentally take it to be the gesture, not at all dissimilar, for Now I realize I was wrong to love you. These mistakes were heartbreaking. And yet, because people knew how easily they could happen…people were used to interrupting each other to ask if they’d understood correctly.

“Sometimes these misunderstandings were even desirable, since they gave people a reason to say, Forgive me, I was only scratching my nose. Of course I know I’ve always been right to love you. Because of the frequency of these mistakes, over time the gesture for asking forgiveness evolved into the simplest form. Just to open your palm was to say: Forgive me.”

I love the language and imagery of this passage, and these imagined ancestors of ours, so wise in the ways of human error that their most common phrase, held in the simplest gesture, was Forgive me. The hand is open, not in asking for the best piece of fruit or that rope over there or some money, please, but for something so much more essential to these lives we weave together: Forgive me.

I have no idea how we would figure out the most common phrase in our own language, or what it would turn out to be. But I fear it would be something much more along the lines of, “that’s mine!”, or “I want”, or “my turn!”.

It makes me wonder what our lives might be like if we lived like those fictional ancestors: so alert to missteps, so aware of the constancy of getting things wrong, that our simplest gesture was designed to mend, to heal, to restore. Embedded in our language and woven through every exchange would be the thought, the possibility, that we might need to begin again so we could get it right.

I remember very clearly the television interview with President Bush during the last election season when he was asked what he considered his most serious mistake thus far in his presidency. He was unable to answer the question. After pausing for a few seconds of apparent reflection he said, astonishingly, that he could not think of any mistakes he had made.

It would be easy to simply add this episode to the long list of reasons people ridicule President Bush. But it points to a much larger issue that involves not one president’s errors, however grievous, but our own collective attitude reflected in each leader, each government we have had. Our nation has gotten many things right in its history, and we proudly own and proclaim those good things. We have also caused great harm in the world, and never once has a president of our nation had the courage or grace to say so: to speak from humility rather than pride and, on behalf of us all, extend that open palm: Forgive us. We were wrong.

Imagine such a thing concerning the war in Iraq: not just the language of victory or defeat, but of error admitted, repentance engaged, forgiveness asked and reparations begun. I hope I live long enough to see it happen.

4,012 Baby Names

When my youngest daughter was about three years old, she came across a tattered paperback on our bookshelves called, “10,000 Baby Names”. Drawn by the shining face of the baby on the cover, she would bring us this book again and again as though it were one of her story books, and ask us to read through the names. She was surely too young to be able to mull over the complicated thought  that she might have been given some other name than the one by which she knew herself. But there was some inkling or connection there, because whenever she got tired of the name book her concluding ritual was always the same: she wanted to hear the tale of her own naming.

Whatever name you were given, it came with a story of some kind. You were named for a relative (or for more than one), or contrarily named because your parents wanted a clean break from the ones loaded with family history. If you were a first boy and were born to a family that went in for the male lineage tradition, you got to be a Junior or have “III” or even “IV” after your name. If you’re Jewish, you may have been named for a favorite deceased relative but almost certainly not a living one. If your parents longed for a son and you turned out to be a daughter, you might have gotten a female twist on your father’s name. If your parents were traveling in some romantic setting when you were conceived, you may have been named for their favorite Spanish or Italian village. If your parents had heroes or heroines, you might be a Martin or Mandela, and if they were focused on popular culture, you might have been saddled with the name of a movie star or famous musician.

What’s in a name? Always, there is a story. In the congregation I serve as minister, during the time of prayer and meditation in Sunday’s worship we read aloud the names of the US soldiers killed in Iraq that week. We’ve been following this practice for three years now, as a way to make visible just one part of the brutal cost of what is unfolding so very far away from us. On some Sundays, the list has been so unbearably long that I have stopped at twenty, or twenty-five, saving the rest for the following Sunday in the hope that the week to come would be less brutal. One Sunday last month — the only one since we began this practice — there was only one name on the list.

One name, or dozens — each Saturday night in preparation for the next day’s worship, I take a deep breath and then go to the website that tracks the dead, icasualties.org. I read the names out loud, alone in my study, and I wonder about the stories held in them. I imagine these soldiers as the babies they were eighteen years ago, or twenty-five, or thirty-seven, held in someone’s arms at a baptism or a naming ceremony. I imagine the proud relatives gathered around as the name was formally bestowed, everyone beaming as the baby cooed or wailed or fidgeted because at these joyous ceremonies, no one really cares what the baby does, only that he or she is alive and among us. There is so much hope and wonder and gladness and pride in that moment of naming. And never, not once in any of the 4,012 ceremonies, did anyone imagine that the road this baby walked would end in a mix of blood and dust halfway around the world in Iraq.

As part of our protest of the war on March 19th in Hartford, we built a cairn of stones that each person had brought, on which we’d written the name of a dead Iraqi civilian. You can find those names online too, at Iraqbodycount.org. Instead of 4,012 and counting, that list of dead is well over 80,000 now, and it increases with numbing speed. I wanted to bring a rock for the cairn, but I was paralyzed by the numbers of the dead. How do you choose one name from so many thousands, to symbolize so much carnage, so much loss? I finally settled on bringing three stones, which I chose carefully from the woods near my home, and on them I wrote the names of three children, each of whom died on the birthdays  of one of my own three children.

And I wondered about the names. Always, there is a story. Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 stories now, and counting.