Bob Schwartz

Month: May, 2017

Wisdom Is Where You Find It

Wisdom Is Where You Find It

Wisdom is here
Where you find it
Collect everything
Discard everything
Still everything remains
One thousand and one sages
Advise you
Then disappear
Leaving you with empty shelves
And the world

Night Bird Still Awake

Night Bird Still Awake

Opening the window an inch
It is as if
That bird alone is
Bringing the night
Into the dark room
Or has the solo song
Taken me out?

Be Peace

6 Long has my whole being dwelt
among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace, but when I speak,
they are for war.
Psalm 120, translated by
Robert Alter

Terror in Manchester is one more shattering note in a cacophony of mindless aggression. News of the nation and the world attests to it, from nasty tweets by so-called leaders to torturers and mass murderers. We dwell among those who hate peace.

In Psalm 120, Robert Alter translates the Hebrew ani shalom in verse 7 as “I am for peace”:

The Hebrew appears to say “I am peace,” but, without emending the text, the most plausible way to understand these two words, ani shalom, is that they function as though there were an elided “for” (in the Hebrew not a word but the particle l’).

I dare not take issue with Alter, the great modern translator of the Hebrew Bible, but merely want to extend a thought. If the Hebrew appears to say “I am peace”, maybe that is precisely what it means to say.

Being for peace is a start and an essential part. Being peace is one step beyond this, where there is no space between us and the peace we seek. One step toward that elusive peaceful world, in spite of those who hate peace.

Diminished Capacity for Wonder

“Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away.”

This from David von Drehle in Time, about the end of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years:

Though it might sound quaint, there was a time when people could be astonished.

Before super­computers fit into shirt pockets and Presidents tweeted. Before moving pictures were beamed through the air. Before moving pictures.

Not only could people be astonished—they enjoyed it. Loved it enough to pay for it. And so businesses sprang up to meet the demand. The astonishment industry was called the circus.

And what an industry it was. Picture yourself in a quiet American town of ordinary people doing nothing even remotely astonishing. One day, a couple of strangers show up with handbills and paste to cover the town with circus posters. SEE the fearless lion tamer. THRILL to the death-defying wire walkers. GASP at the woman on the flying trapeze. Your brain did the rest. By the time the circus arrived via boxcar or truck, you were desperate to have your mind blown. Elephants—real, live elephants, thousands of miles from Africa or India—pulled the ropes to raise the tents. Inside you would see a man ordering tigers around, women poised on the backs of cantering horses, human pyramids walking on high wires with nothing to catch them if they fell.

On May 21, the most famous circus of all, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, will end its 146-year run, not with a whimper or a bang but mostly a shrug. Death has been a long time coming. A company press release put much of the blame on the recent decision, made under pressure from animal-rights groups, to stop using elephants as performers. But in fact, the Greatest Show on Earth has been headed for this day since the 1950s, when the same force that killed vaudeville—television—drove the storied operation out of its vast canvas big tops and into ho-hum auditoriums and arenas….

Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away. Sex is everywhere, and entertainment is on demand. Nostalgic parents have been struggling for a couple of decades to hide their disappointment from their children after seeing what the circus has become: a deafening soundtrack of recorded music backing a dull program punctuated by strobe lights, foreshortened performances cut to Internet attention spans, a rip-off of $6 sno-cones and $20 flashlights.

Meanwhile, the children have been struggling to understand why their parents would care. Nothing can compete with the circus that they hold in the palms of their hands.

I saw a lot of things at the circus. I saw a man shot out of a cannon, and much more. I was little and could not imagine all the things I would later see—in the world, in my mind, on a screen. We don’t always recognize the things that shape and twist us. Maybe the circus gets some of the blame or credit. Either way, it was wonder full.

People Evolve Slower Than Things

People evolve slower than things. Sometimes much slower.

This is not the only or ultimate key to understanding this modern world.

But faced with one puzzle after another—How could this be happening?—it explains a lot.

People evolve slower than things.

American Dislike of Studying History and Government Comes to Haunt Us

I have loved reading about American history and government since, well, since I have been reading. I was an officer in our high school Future Voters of America club, and I was a delegate to a mock presidential convention. A nerd then, and maybe still.

That is not typical for a large number of Americans, who seem disinclined to read much (and that is read, not just listen or watch) about these subjects. Partly that is because these subjects are usually required in school and are not always very well taught, with all due respect to those who have the sometimes thankless job of teaching.

My high school American History teacher was also our basketball coach, a decently smart and affable guy who happened to have been given one of the all-time exciting American History textbooks to teach from: The American Pageant, which thanks to the unique approach of its original author, historian Thomas A. Bailey, remains in print in its 16th edition. It was, and hopefully still is, one of the most fun reads of any textbook on any subject. Yes, I said “fun.” Without speaking for my classmates, I was excited to read each chapter.

I don’t believe all Americans think of learning about history and government as fun. More like work, maybe hard and distasteful and avoidable work. Except that avoiding knowing history and government means that when, as can happen, things get way out of whack, you won’t recognize what is happening, or recognize that as a historical matter, the consequences may be unfortunate, if not dire.

As can happen, things may get way out of whack, and they have. Maybe those who find learning about American history and government useless might squeeze it into their busy schedules. Particularly if they love America, because as we know, true love means learning about the one you love.

Born Mothers

Born Mothers

For K, the MOAM

Those born
With a boundless heart
Give and suffer
Even as they sleep
Or don’t sleep
Vowing to make good better
Cruel less cruel
Children or none
All within reach
And the sound of her voice
Are hers.

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Merton on the desert: We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated.

From Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude:

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself—that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.

This is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown out into the “wilderness of upper Egypt” to “wander in dry places.” Thirst drives man mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has immured himself in it and closed out everything else.

So the man who wanders into the desert to be himself must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage….

The desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. Do not think to close it by consenting to it and trying to forget you have consented.

 

 

Barely Audible

Barely Audible

קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה

A still small voice
1 Kings 19:12

Hurricanes earthquakes
Fires in the brain
Awed but unable
To follow a thought
Or lose one.
Hear O hear
Minute stillness
Soft murmuring
Gentle whisper
Still small.

Note: “God will reveal himself not in storm or fire or the shaking of the mountain but in a small, barely audible sound. On Mount Carmel, God spoke through fire; here at Horeb, he speaks [to Elijah] in a more subtle language, for the deity is by no means limited to seismic manifestations.”
Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, translation with commentary by Robert Alter

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Quilts

Quilts

Those who sew
The finer clothes
Worn and admired
For life lifting
Form and function
Honored for their hard won skill
Using needle and precious cloth.
My works are barely fashioned
From scraps sitting on a dusty shelf
Stuffed in an almost forgotten box.
Crude quilts not meant to do much
Or mean much
But nagging to be made.

© Bob Schwartz 2017