Greeting a New Year

Just Now, by Ted Kooser

Just now, if I look back down
the cool street of the past, I can see
streetlamps, one for each year,
lighting small circles of time
into which someone will step
if I squint, if I try hard enough —
circles smaller and smaller,
leading back to the one faint point
at the start, like a star.
So many of them are empty now,
those circles of roadside and grass.
In one, the moth of some feeling
still flutters, unspoken,
the cold darkness around it enormous.
(from Flying at Night)

The start of a new year is a good time to take stock of our lives — not so much in the framework of the typical New Year’s resolutions, but in a larger sense. At the turning of a year we’re more than usually aware of the simple passage of time. Are we doing what we want to do with this precious gift of life?

It’s not always an easy question to answer. There are so many elements of life that are out of our control, after all: we might be stuck in a dull job that we need to keep in order to pay the bills, or we might be hanging on to a sour living situation because we can’t afford to move. Maybe we’re struggling with illness, grief or depression. In those cases we’d say, “No, I’m not doing what I want to do with my life, but what are my choices?”

The concept of equanimity is familiar within the practices of Buddhism, and for a long time the word brought to my mind the serene face on a statue of the Buddha. That seems to be what equanimity looks like, but it isn’t usually the face that I wear, or that you wear, when we’re surprised by changes we didn’t want or stuck in a situation we’d like to exit. But then I learned that in Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha, “equanimity” translates more literally as “to stand in the middle of all this.” I love that definition, and I hold to its wisdom each time I take stock of my life at the turning of the year.

We don’t get to choose the good and the bad that will visit us in the new year we’ve entered, and it’s unlikely that we’ll greet the winds of change with balanced calm and serenity at all times. That vision of equanimity is more than we can manage. But “to stand in the middle of all this”? That’s something we can do. We can ground ourselves in spiritual practices that let us breathe more deeply and see more clearly. We can commit ourselves to a community of faith we trust and love. We can open our eyes each day with the intention to heal, in some small way, one of the wounds in the world around us.

All of these things help us “stand in the middle of all this” – in the middle of the rush of our lives. They help us see it differently, greet it differently, as we recognize both our feast of losses, and the preciousness of each stone in the road, each thing that comprises our sweet lives.

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Slouching Out Of Iraq

Yesterday the New York Times reported on Iraq in the immediate wake of the U.S. withdrawal:  “Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq threatened on Wednesday to abandon an American-backed power-sharing government created a year ago, throwing the country’s fragile democracy into further turmoil just days after the departure of American troops.”

Okay, for starters, could we please agree to stop using the term “fragile democracy” in this context? Iraq is not and has never been a democracy, fragile or otherwise. Constructing a democratic government was the thin disguise for a U.S. invasion that was premised on other things: illusory weapons of mass destruction, getting rid of Saddam Hussein and the drive to secure the American oil supply.

Webster’s defines “democracy” as:                                                                                       a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority                                                   b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. 

The stage props that the United States set up to create an illusion of this definition are swiftly crumbling just days after our army withdrew, so let’s stop pretending that it is a “fragile democracy” that’s struggling in Iraq.  The Times article continues: “The escalating political crisis underscores the divisions between Iraq’s three main factions — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — that were largely papered over while the American military maintained a presence here and lays bare the myriad problems left behind with the final departure of American troops: sectarianism, a judiciary that the populace views as beholden to one man, and a political culture with no space for compromise…..I’d say that this analysis is a direct contradiction of the earlier characterization in this article of a “fragile democracy”.

Why am I making a big deal about this? Because words matter, and the truth matters. Call Iraq a “fragile democracy” and it implies all kinds of things: that the United States really intended to foster democracy in Iraq and truly succeeded in that wildly ambitious plan; that this delicate new flower of freedom is now threatened by outside forces bent on destroying it; and that the United States will be positioned on the sidelines, wringing its collective hands in regret that our well-intentioned efforts, so heavily financed by both money and the lives of over 4,000 Americans, are threatened by the forces of evil.

It would be well to point out that if our goal in Iraq had been democracy, we could have begun at any point during Saddam Hussein’s rule, since we established and sustained him in the first place. And it would be honorable to admit that the people of Iraq might organize for their own democracy, like those in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have begun to do, if they’d not been beaten down not only by years of dictatorship, an earlier US war, terrifically costly sanctions and then nine years of another US war.

I’m in the mood for a little humility and a lot of truth-telling as this shameful war winds down. I will not say “ends” because it is not going to end, though the US troops are largely withdrawn. We have set the conditions for more suffering. The least we can do is be honest about it.

Poetry For Life

I love poetry and read it all the time — sometimes old favorites that sit by my bed for months at a time and sometimes new voices (to me) that I stumble on or find through Poetry magazine. Today I was interviewed on WPKN and read some excerpts from my book Shine and Shadow. I was followed by a local lawyer cum poet, Charles Douthat, whose interview I listened to while driving home (a drive that included the intense juxtaposition of a poem of his about his infant daughter’s life-threatening illness, just as my car inched past a horrific accident on the interstate… somebody’s baby…). He’s got a book out that I just ordered, Blue for Oceans, and a website, charlesdouthat.com. I highly recommend the poems; and for you parents of teens or young adults, this poem pretty much says it all. Enjoy!

The Hold by Charles Douthat

There it is!  Just before putting out the light.
Here in the doorway to his room. 
The unmistakable smell of him,
though his train pulled out an hour ago. 
Not a child’s smell anymore, but a young man’s air 
of college nights and long wool coats 
and jokes so cool they cannot be explained. 
You had to be there, Dad, he says.

Now in his scented wake I wait,
knowing he’ll soon be gone for good,
graduating to some new city,
paying too much rent.
And this room where for years he slept
and read, while brown hair broke through
on his face and chest… Soon 
it will be a place for someone else to rest.  
But not quite yet.

This fragrant air is sweet to me 
tonight. The dusty heat rising 
from baseboard vents. The windows tight.  
His house-warmed high school books 
upright in their case.
Like me, they’ve done their work.
What we instructors had to say
has all been said.  And what he took to heart
is as unfathomable now
as what he cast away.

For he’s moving on and on his own
to worlds he’ll live to see 
but I will never fully know.  Of course 
he’ll stop again to sleep and eat.
We’ll speak again of Charlemagne
and Russell Crowe.   But the being of him,
that second self housed for years
nearly inside my skin, is elsewhere
flowing on, flown.

How does a father live, I wonder.
But it’s late now.  At the stair 
my wife is calling.  And so I remember 
that morning my son was first handed to me,
still blood-smudged and birth-slippery.
And because I was a new father then
and because my inexperience showed 
the midwife taught me how to hold a child properly.
Lightly now, she cautioned.  
But also pulling at my arms, testing me,
until I sensed what it meant
not to let go.