We might as well try: Can you hear me?

27 11 2012

I almost turned off the radio.

I’m not a big fan of This American Life as it is—I don’t hate it, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to it, either—but this story, ohhh, I couldn’t stand it:

The Dakota War of 1862, the lead-up to and aftermath which led to decimation of the Dakota nation and dispossession of their lands.

The entire episode is devoted to the war, how it’s taught in Minnesota today, what it means in Minnesota, and by extension, the United States, today. If you don’t know the history, listen to it; if you do know the history, listen to it.

I half-knew the story, and made myself listen all the way to the end because I thought, Goddammit, you can’t turn away. You can’t stop listening just because it’s hard.

I used to have such a strong stomach for atrocity. It sickened and horrified and angered me, but I was driven by the twin senses that if others could live through it, I could at least read what they lived through, as well as the notion that maybe, somehow, such witness could be turned to good use. If attention were paid to genocide and abuse and injustice, such attention might lead to survival and protection and justice.

There’s something to that, I’d guess: The whole world is watching! is meant both to exhilarate and to warn. Amnesty letter-writing campaigns have apparently altered the conditions or lengths of sentences for many political prisoners. Human rights activism from afar can embolden those near, and efforts to get the State Department or the president to express concerns about this person or that group can make a difference.

At some point, however, I lost my stomach for atrocity, and whether as cause or result of my turning away, lost the belief that witness—or, at any rate, my witness—mattered. I turned away.

I can beat myself over this. After all, there’s a self-absorption in turning-away, a kind of thinking that my despair is the point, but, honestly, there was a self-absorption in the attention as well, a kind of thinking that my involvement could lead to justice. Kantian abstractions might appeal on the page, but as a practical matter, motives for even the most altruistic act are often mixed.

No, the problem with the despair is less selfishness than the closing out of possibility: doing nothing leads to nothing. Writing letters or e-mails or making phone calls or even just paying attention might not accomplish anything, but is anything accomplished without action? To act may be to fail, but the possibility of failure is not its certainty.

If I accept that as a general matter, for others, then why not accept that for myself, as well? I may not be a Kantian, but there are worse standards than act as if your will were universal law. Or, to bring it down to this cracked earth, if others can do it, why shouldn’t I?

Can I do anything about the Dakota War of 1862? Almost nothing. But if I think it mattered, if I think it matters today, for who and how we are as an American people, then I can do the one thing that is available to me: I can pay attention.

I can listen.


Anthony Shadid, 1968-2012

17 02 2012

Anthony Shadid has died.

Photo credit: Ed Ou, for the New York Times

Two weeks ago I mentioned my surprised upon (re) discovering that he had worked for The Daily Cardinal. Although I must have known him, I don’t remember him, so it was more with a start than with grief that I heard the news of death on the Syrian/Turkish border.

His death, however, is a loss, for all of us. Anthony was among the finest of reporters, deeply humane, who paid attention.

My condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

Nothing changes on New Year’s day

3 01 2011

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. I mean, it’s not like I’m actually going to follow through or anything.


My life has been bumping rather than rolling along, and thus it behooves me to think, Hm, why might this be? And what could I do to smooth it out a wee?

So, plans, considerations—resolutions, if you will.

1. I will do dishes at least every other day.

When I live with other people, I’m pretty good about not leaving common areas (e.g., the kitchen sink) clogged up with my gunk, but, alone, well. . . hey, those dishes are all mine, and they’re rinsed, and, you know, I just ate cereal out of that bowl or drank water out of that glass. . . did I mention I rinsed?


I’m an adult, and not much of a cook, so it’s not as if I create a blizzard of dishes—which, actually, might be the problem. It’s really easy to let things go if it’s only a plate or a bowl and a few pieces of silverware. . . .

Regardless, this is a basic way to take care, so why not just take care. It’s not as if spending 10 minutes making dishes clean every two days is that onerous, anyway.

2. I will leave my apartment every day.

This is not an issue when I am fully or overemployed, but in my underemployment, I find it very easy to hunker down and fade away. The gym membership helps, but as I have no expectation of spending 7 days a week at the gym, I need to haul my own sorry ass out of the building and around the block or over to the park or wherever until I do hitch a  new ride in the job-o-sphere. (And if I manage to find a job wherein I work from home? Even more important to get the hell out.)

I have made this commitment before, but what the hell, it’s a good one, and worth trying again.

3. At least 5 days a week I will do one thing I don’t want to do but which needs doing.

This isn’t about the cleaning the cat box, which I don’t like doing but needs doing and already do, anyway; no, this is about going through files or organizing this or tossing that—clearing away the (metaphorical) cobwebs, if you will.

Again, I’ve tried doing something like this previously (if I could find the post about lists I’d link to it, but you’ll just have to trust me: I’ve written on this before) and have failed, but, again, it’s worth another shot.

4. I will open my mail as soon I get it.

I don’t this, and that’s bad.

I have hang-ups about mail (postal and electronic) and no, I don’t want to talk about it, but, well, there it is.

I am most likely to fail at this one first.

5. I will sit, and breathe, and try not to distract myself, for a little while every day.

Or this one—I might fail this one first.


There are so, so many things in my life which need changing, but many of those are big, or seem big, or are in any case currently beyond my will and/or ability to deal with. So I’m starting small.

Now, of course, if I fail at the small what are the chances I’ll tackle the big? Oh! Oh! I can answer this! Nil! Because I’m already failing at the small!

In other words, I gots nothing to lose.


I am unhappy with my self and my life. No, I’m not awful, but I’m not who I want to be, either.

Not that I know who I want to be, but I do know some of the pieces that I would like included in present and future versions of myself.

I’d like to pay better attention.

I’d like to be a better friend, to show up for people, in ways that matter to them.

I’d like to take more chances. On everything. And maybe, just maybe, if not on everyone, then on at least some-ones.

I’d like to learn something other than defense.

I’d like to stop making excuses.

Oh, and I’d like to be taller, please.


The list is not unreasonable (for the most part. . . ), but even now, I hesitate.Who cares about these things? Who cares that you want to do these things? What kind of pie-in-the-sky crap is this, anyway?

I don’t want to silence my inner critic—who would I talk to?—but it would be nice if I could get her to remember that a true critic doesn’t just chastise. Sometimes, sometimes, the critic applauds.

Or at least puts down her pen long enough to give a nod.

Yeah, a nod. I could live with that.

Two poems

13 11 2009

I used to read poetry, and write it, too.

When students ask how to learn how to write better, I tell them Read poetry. Write it, too. They look at me, faces pulled back and skeptical. Your poems may be no good, I say, you may not want to show them to anyone. At this, they nod.

But you will pay attention, I say. You will learn to pay attention to the words.

I keep forgetting this, the paying of attention. Words come so easily for me, I take them in chunks and waterfalls, gorge on and scatter them, thoughtlessly.

Pay attention. I used to whisper this to myself, as a reminder. Then I stopped paying attention.

Friday at TNC’s open thread seems unofficially designated as poetry day. People post their own or, more commonly, poems which move them.

I’ve been rushing past. Words words words—what’s the point?

Slow down. Pay attention.

So, two poems, in honor of my long-ago friend C., and in memory of her younger brother, J.

Fourteen years ago this month—this Saturday—J. shot himself to death. He was thirteen.

What could we bring C.? I brought music; we brought ourselves. And I gave her two poems:

The body of my brother Osiris is in the mustard seed

Seed from an early Egyptian tomb,
after water damage to the case
in the Historisches Museum,
sprouted in 1955.

That was the year my brother’s foot
slipped on spray-wet log.
He was gone
into the whitewater out of sight.

Just downstream
the back of his head
came up
in a narrow chute.

Between terrible rocks
the back of my brother’s head
looked wet and small and dark.
I watched it through the roar.

Through tears, afraid
to pray, I told God
he was swimming. Wait.
He would lift his face.

—Brooks Haxton


A day comes when nothing matters
And nothing will suffice.
The heart says: I cannot,
The soul says: I am not.

The window whose frame
Once held dawn
Gleams all night in desolation,
And the one tree

Untouched by blight
Offers a fruit you do not refuse,
An anguish impossible to conceive

Until this lucky day.
Weigh it in your hands, so heavy,
So light: is there more to wish for?

—Phyllis Levin