The Fetish of Individuality that is the United States

I wish I had thought that up, but I confess I heard it in an interview and I can no longer remember who said it.  At any rate, for me it gets to the heart of a warped belief system in this country.

The other night I watched a documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where girls and young women burned to death because there were no laws in place to make their workplace safe. The staircase door was locked, the elevator could hold only a few people at a time and the fire escape was so decrepit, it collapsed. Girls as young as 14 jumped to their deaths, while others died wreathed in flames.  Predictably, public outrage was great, and that outrage led to federal laws being passed to protect workers in their workplace. At the end of the documentary, the narrator said: “but before this could happen, women had to burn.”

When I heard those words, a chill ran through me, because it brought to mind Sandy Hook and the massacre of 26 people, 20 of them first-graders. Public outrage was great then, too. But not enough to pass new laws to protect other children from the same fate.

We have sunk to the level of making our children pay for our fetish of individuality. We think our personal freedom to carry an assault weapon is far more important than the lives of our children.

If a society cannot keep its children safe from itself, then it has failed its primary purpose—that of perpetuating itself—not to mention a certain reverence for life. Fetishizing personal freedom spells the end of a civilized society.

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Spring

Okay, I’ve changed my mind. I  re-posted something I wrote last year for this week’s post, and then I looked out the window at the grey and brown and white that has been here for quite a while and I saw a flash of yellow at the feeder. A goldfinch, just starting to turn! We may not think spring is coming, but the birds know it is. The goldfinches are beginning to turn that  amazing shade of yellow, and bird songs are different now–more sing-song, more carefree, less terse.

If I stop and just listen for a moment, I think I can even hear the icy grip of winter loosening.  In the brook that has more laughter, in the ground that has a hint of cushion, in the minutely beginning swelling of buds.

It makes my insides swell with nourishment, to see it and hear it.

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What Do You Give Up?

I am taking a few weeks off from posting new writing, but I am reposting something I wrote last year when I was first starting out and didn’t have the readership I have now. Maybe you haven’t read it and maybe you’d like to. I hope so.  When I re-read it, it  comforted me in this winter-weary time and I especially like looking at the photo (all that color!) I took it a few summers ago on Prince Edward Island. 

I recently read an early draft of the novel, Passion Blue, published in 2012. It has been well received and I am eager to read the published version. The story revolves around Guilia, a girl living in fifteenth century Italy, who is trying to change what she believes is a deleterious fate. Her horoscope (and casting horoscopes was considered a science in fifteenth century Italy) seems to indicate that she will never marry. In the fifteen hundreds, females had very little rights and it was only through the protection of marriage that they had anything like a secure life. Or so Guilia thinks, so she tries to change her fate through sorcery.

When she gets sent off to a monastery, where she discovers the world of painting, it becomes obvious that this, not a husband, is where her passion and security lies. However, Guilia stills holds to her original idea of a husband. She thinks she knows better than the stars what her fate should be and to that end she tries to command them to her will. The consequences of her decisions are the plot of the book.

The book’s theme, that of free will versus fate intrigues me. It opens up the idea that, with our limited scope and experience, we think we know the way our world should go, and try to arrange events accordingly. It makes me wonder if most of the heartache in life comes from trying to force our idea of free will on fate. Which is not to say that we can only let things happen to us. There’s a finer distinction here that I’m struggling to understand.

I once read in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, something that went like this: “if you want to control a sheep or cow, give them a bigger pasture.” That seems counter intuitive to the idea of control, but I think what that phrase is doing is challenging our idea of control altogether. That it is saying that control in the larger sense is about the control to let things become what they are meant to become. We cannot see what the overall tapestry is, since we are only one thread in it and have the viewpoint of only seeing the threads nearest us. So we try to arrange our limited threads to a picture that does makes sense, not realizing that the bigger picture is already perfect.

Toward the end of Passion Blue (at least the draft I read) one of the nuns tells Guilia: “there is always sacrifice, you always have to give something up”. And I’m wondering if that is the free will. What do you give up, to obtain the freedom to live expansively within your fate. I’m thinking that ultimately what you give up is the idea that you have anything to give up–that free will and fate are anything different at all.

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Lives for Public Consumption

Last week I spent a few days in Brooklyn and Manhattan. It was just the thing to kick away the winter blues. I went to the Rubin Museum and saw an exhibition on prayer beads; I had a perfect cappuccino at Amy’s Bread. I sampled lots of cheese at Murray’s Cheese Shop, and then had a leisurely lunch at Murray’s Cheese Bar. And shopping—Richie’s birthday is Valentine’s Day (sweet!) so I wanted to see what I could find in the little shops of the West Village.

When it was time for me to leave, my host generously escorted me from her home in Brooklyn where I had been staying through the subway maze to Penn station. (She is adept and brave in subways—I am not.) Walking from the subway through Penn station, I noticed the large glossy ads lining the tunnel. Each advertised a movie, a fragrance (with celebrity attached), a TV show. All displayed the ambitious shining faces of humans who are eager to live their lives for public consumption. The display put me into mind something the novelist Somerset Maugham said after he returned from a stint of writing scripts in Hollywood. He said the money was good, but he got tired of the endless parade of tawdry egos.

I can’t even imagine at this middle age of my life, wanting to, or needing to be validated by a general public. But I wanted to when I was younger; I remember feeling it strongly.

I think that youth have a visceral need to belong—it’s part of who they are. I hope, though, that they are mature enough know the price before they commit to the sale.

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A Capacity for Indignation

A friend recently posted his outrage over the coca cola commercial that aired during the super bowl. Some people decided to ridicule him for this, as if having an ideological opinion is an embarrassing character flaw.

Indignation is an honest and vulnerable emotion. The word is derived from the Latin, indignari—“not worthy”. Expressing indignation is drawing the line in the sand—what you will or won’t put up with. If you lose your capacity for indignation, you’ve lost the personal compass that tells you what is unworthy to you. Indignation is a lance that spears through the clutter of mindless chatter, like the debris in the movie Gravity. Which, by the way, was a movie about which I was very indignant. I didn’t see it in 3D, and for me it had the oh-so-tired trope-y plot of “helpless woman rescued by man” (even if he’s dead). In other words, the movie’s success was dependent upon other media—3D—to make it work, since god knows it didn’t work based on its storyline. I don’t know about the rules in the movie award business, but in the children’s picture book award business, the Caldecott given for best picture book of the year is never given to a book that is dependent on additional media to make it work. But I digress.

Expressing indignation raises pointy bits—the rough edges that continue the discussion. It is the antithesis of that smooth manipulation disguised as communication—the spin.

Take the pointy bits. Leave the spin.

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