Friday, June 23, 2017

Good and Evil

23rd June 2017

For a long time, I took karate classes and even earned my black belt. The prevailing thought at the studio I attended was that there were simply evil elements in the world and we were arming ourselves to combat them. (I should insert here that this is how the Asian art gets filtered down in America and was not the original notion behind what is in essence a speeded-up version of Tai Chi.)
Yesterday I attended a talk given by Christian historian Elaine Pagels, who was demonstrating how the New Testament book of Revelation permeates political thinking in the West. As an example, she offered George Bush's Shock and Awe, a war cry lifted right out of those sacred pages. Other cultures don't seem to see the world in terms of this hard division between good and evil. In fact, the notion of  "satan" is a concept fairly unique to Christianity. This master of evil doesn't really appear in Judaism. But from early on, Christian soldiers were out marching in the war against him.


Millions of "heretics" died at the hands of The Inquisitors of the Holy Roman Church, and hundreds of thousands of women were burned at the stake, hung or drowned for being "satan's whores." 


Not so long ago, teachers were training students to hide under their desks in case of an attack from The Evil Empire. George Bush nominated three enemy countries the Axis of Evil. The paranoia that Satan Is Alive And Well On Planet Earth (a book making the rounds in the 1970's when I was a naive and young evangelical) persists today. Mike Pence is now railing against radical Islam as evil. 
We ought by now to understand the psychology of this trick: if our enemies are evil, then that makes us good. It is a dangerous and dishonest equation, and less than we can be. Our future and only hope lie jenseits von Gut und Boese.  Beyond concepts of Good and Evil.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Curtain Fall

16th June 2017

Given that this blog was supposed to be about tracking my progress on the publishing trail, so many of the entries deal with topics other than writing. But it's all really fodder for writing, because in the end everything gets filtered down to art. It is very hard to keep yourself focused in this chaos we are living through right now. I spend way too much time on my newsfeed. It has a sort of hypnotic effect, but not one that induces sleep. To all intents and purposes, it looks as though the western world is on a hayride to hell. The major powers of the USA and the UK swing from side to side, one minute to the right and then back to the left, as the recent general election in UK demonstrates: we'll take UKIP-driven right wing paranoia, but at this next turn, we'll take communism instead. All it reflects is a kind of desperation, the cradle, as it has been so many times in the past, for the rise of dangerous authoritarian figureheads.
Well, Donald Trump doesn't fit that bill, because he is a fool. The Russians bet badly on him. He doesn't have the smarts not to shoot himself in the foot. Theresa May is a woman at sea, trying to play the game like a man, just as Thatcher did before her.  It really makes you wonder if democracy is possible at all, when half the demos are sheep looking out for the loudest bleat.


In the meantime, in writers' limbo, I am waiting. Waiting. My agent is on the move, trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat for me and get the publishing of a certain trilogy up and running. I do have a new book in mind, but it is going to involve me going to Israel for a while, and I can't do that this year. I have tentative plans for February at Galilee next year. Part of me just wants to start writing, but then I criticised Gabaldon for writing Outlander without having gone to Scotland. The problem is, then you risk creating a caricature, and I would hate to fall into that trap. If I didn't actually go and see for myself, Galilee would in my mind turn very quickly into some version of a loch, with mist and brooding skies. So I must go.


For now, I will keep lying awake at night thinking about plot. Stories do have their own momentum. Like the story of western culture right now, the tale does keep speeding towards a conclusion. Let's just hope it's a satisfying finale.

Friday, June 9, 2017

America, The Teenager

9th June 2017

Last Saturday I attended the local high school graduation and failed, as I always make a point of doing, to stand for the national anthem. I am not an American and there are aspects of America that make me want to reach for the ipecac. Land of the free? Don't make me laugh. What about the native folks and the slave folks upon whom this "free" country was built? The greatest country in the world? You hear it from both left and right of the political spectrum, because it is ingrained at an early age when on any school day maliable little minds are taught to salute the flag.



By any measure this is not the best country in the world, and it is time for this childish delusion to be let go of.
Here are some facts.
America lies 17th in the happiness index, well surpassed by "socialist" countries.
In USA, 6 babies out of every 1,000 live births die before they reach the age of one, more than double the rate in Finland,  Japan, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Czech Republic
America ranks number 17 on worldwide economic growth, behind Ireland, Chile and Estonia.
USA stands alone as being the only developed country that does not provide universal health coverage for its citizens, and the only damn country apart from theocracies that requires a sitting president to be a practicing Christian.


There is a lot to be said for this country of America, and I wouldn't have stuck around here for long if that had not been the case. The American can-do spirit makes of it a good place to raise children and to get ahead yourself if you are motivated. But, America is a very, very young country.
It's a damn teenager, trying to find its identity, and, like any teenager it can be easily led astray. Such is the era, we are now living through. We bought into the bully-in-chief, because no people can turn their backs on reality like Americans. Denial is what we are living through, even though half of us are jumping up and down and trying to point out that the orange king has no clothes on at all.


Perhaps the first and best thing for America to do in order to grow up a little now is to admit, left and right, that America is a country among other countries, with some good, some bad, a country that is still taking baby steps, still at the beginning of the long process of trying to get it right. For the rest of the world, it is a problem, not a glory, that The United States  is "the great experiment," that this country, more than most, is still in the experimental phase.

Friday, June 2, 2017

If Music Be the Food

June 2nd 2017

This time of year in Aspen, music comes to town. The huge music tent is spiffed up, and students pour in from every corner of the earth dragging their unwieldy instruments behind them. Strings and horns fall into the disarray of a tune up, conductors tap tap their batons on podiums, and  then all comes together in a surge of harmony (or in the case of Benjamin Briton, cacophony.)


Since the dawn of human history, men and women have slipped out of speech into song. It varies, of course, from culture to culture, but the urge to music is universal. Cats meow, Dogs bark and humans sing.


There is no reason for music. It doesn't make the species fitter, but it does make the human heart bigger. The happy person hums or whistles. It is the universal language of emotion that bypasses the intellect and  drops us into the realm of "religion," I would say, if religion hadn't slipped off into...

...something else entirely.  

In 2009, Andrew Schulman, a professional musician, was in a coma in a hospital bed, and close to flat-lining.  Given little hope by the medics, his wife plugged his ears with a recording of his favourite music, St. Matthew's Passion. Within hours, his vital signs had stabilised, and within four days he was out of the hospital.
I recently sat on a weekday in the completely empty sanctuary of Riverside Church, New York, in a vast verticle shaft of light enclosed by a vaulted ceiling and stained glass. Luckily for me, the organist was aloft practicing Sunday offerings, and the entire space, both outside and inside me, seemed to pulse and swell. Sitting in churches usually brings on in me a gag reflex, but I had to give in to this, for what is such music other than the spectacle of our race straining on tiptoe?


Friday, May 26, 2017

All the President's Men

26th May 2017

I was out and about for the first of this month, and so I didn't stop to give a nod to my ancestors' pagan festival of Beltaine. But I don't want the month to evaporate without drawing attention to this time of year, because now more than ever we need to take our focus from that "piece of work" called man and reconnect instead with the female paradigm that is celebrated in this spring festival.

In my books I make a lot of these earth-centered festivals, because my goal in this series (and beyond) is to ask what we lost when we as a civilisation went the route of the male god and his incitement to go forth and conquer, particularly lands, other religions and women.

Here's a passage from our Holy Book: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

Two thousand years of this has brought us to this moment, the rise once more of populist leaders like Trump, and the re-establishment everywhere of hard-line shrines to the god of greed. Divide and conquer is once again the name of the game; the men are in charge bigtime, and with the Stockholm of all Stockholm Syndromes, there are women who make this possible. No surprise there, when you consider that even the women's suffrage movement had to contend with opposition from within its own ranks, women who had been taught their role of full submission. These women: 




It's a little known fact that when Lewis and Clarke first encountered Native American tribes, what they found were matriarchies. But coming from Christian Europe, they reconfigured all this in terms of what they knew and would have no truck with women leaders. And so the myth of the Indian Chief was born.  In actuality it was the Indian Women's council that held sway in these tribes. This "Chief" could be removed at their say if he didn't perform to their satisfaction.(CF. Iroquois Women, by Spittal.)
So at this important time of the year when we marvel at the rebirth of mother nature, let's not forget that this:



And this...


...was never the natural order of things. Now more than ever it's time to reverse the rule of male hierarchies and save both ourselves and our lovely green planet. They've had thousands of years as chiefs,  have messed things up royally, and now it's time for the council of women to move back in and fire them.


Hanta yo!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fighting the Wind

19th May 2017

Once there was a way to get back homeward, sings Paul McCartney about the mother Mary he lost when he was just fourteen. For all of us who lost a parent before we had the chance to take our own leave, his song is an anthem to that ever-receding horizon.  Gaelic has a word for this feeling: Cianalas. Literally, it means far-looking. Pining, I suppose.
Today May 19th was my father's birthday. He was a complicated man: once violinist, eternal lover of music. Once electrician, body builder, boxer, and then orator before hundreds; once a disciple of John Wesley, in later years a student of liberal theologian Paul Tillich. He it was who loved the word Charisma, and had it in spades. A man in motion, married too young, too often moving in silent desperation, in his own far-looking sadness. Cianalas



And then he was gone, wizened by chemo-therapy, a tattered coat, a stick. Such a young man to be stretched out on a hospital bed and adminstered his last rights.  For the rest of us, the door back home was shut forever.  Off he went into his secret garden.
And then the year after he died, Naomi my first-born came, on this day, May 19th, her grandfather's birthday. Death ran the cycle and came round again into light. Naomi herself a forward-thinker and orator before thousands.


Do not go gently into that good night, says the poet, and perhaps no one ever does.  But for those of us left behind, the good night is not so good.


And yet, and yet, as in all things creative, there's another edge to this sword. Waiting at doors is fertile ground, the kind of place perhaps art needs in order to move itself forward. Perhaps this is the twilight zone writers rely upon: Cianalas. Rage, rage against the dark, and then, perhaps if life is kind, it will allow us to unearth the key to the garden and look in.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Epiphany in Brooklyn

12th May 2017

When it comes to New York City, pictures speak louder than words. Which doesn't stop me from trying to throw a few words together as I stand waiting for the Q train. About the sparrow chirping from the inside the plastic O on a McDonald's sign; about the tiny sapling sprouting from a decomposing log beside the train tracks. My instinct is to cobble these visions into lines of poetry.


Here I am scrawling lines across a pad as the Q train careens and lurches within its subterranean tunnels. And then when I glance up, I am fixed by the gaze of an hispanic baby. Suddenly all my literary efforts lack all conviction. It is the truth of that baby's unblinking black eyes that slays me.

On the way to a meeting in a tea room, I pass a church that was once surrounded by fields and lines of horse-drawn carriages, a hard-won temple to the Christian god. But time has moved on, and the once impossibly high steeple is now dwarfed by odes instead to the god of finance.


All sentiment gets deflected in these moments of urban epiphany: a tree grows in Brooklyn; a caged bird sings. A baby appears trailing clouds of glory. A church, vexed now to nightmare, slouches towards its final stoney sleep.