Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.
- Name: Jonathan
- Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
Pope Benedict on Peace
Therefore, what we do to those who suffer, we do to the Last Judge of our life. This is important: At this moment we can take his victory to the world, taking part actively in his charity. Today, in a multicultural and multireligious world, many are tempted to say: "For peace in the world, among religions, among cultures, it is better not to speak too much of what is specific to Christianity, that is, of Jesus, of the Church, of the sacraments. Let us be content with what can be more or less common .…"
But it is not true. Precisely at this time, a time of great abuse of the name of God, we have need of the God who overcomes on the cross, who does not conquer with violence, but with his love. Precisely at this time we have need of the Face of Christ to know the true Face of God and so be able to take reconciliation and light to this world. For this reason, together with love, with the message of love, we must also take the testimony of this God, of God's victory, precisely through the nonviolence of his cross.
Remember the Alamo
We drove through Chicago Plantation (it didn’t look much like Chicago) parting the rain curtain drawing around the cotton fields and shotgun houses all turned to one big muddy sea. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, late in July, hot, and I was yawning and asking how much further Greenville was which was where we were going to see a movie. Twenty miles my father promised with that sort of promise I had heard many times before and learned to interpret. I looked out the window at the rows and rows and rows of cotton drowning floating moodily in the rain and found my eyes closing down slowly, opening slowly: more rows of cotton swimming in the sea, flat as a tabletop with brand new linoleum on it. I fell asleep finally subdued by the rhythm of the relentless Delta. I woke up in Greenville. It was four o’clock and the rain had stopped but the streets were still streams just starting to sizzle off into steam, as the sun shoved off the clouds and starting filling the world again with its heat. It was July after all.
We were on our way back to the Coast, driving home after visiting our kinfolk in Memphis which was a town I did not like, maybe most of all because to reach it we drove for hours upon monotone monochrome hours through the Delta. I think my father felt as if it would be a good thing to make it up to me a little bit for having to crawl through the Delta to Memphis and back, so he had promised to stop in Greenville on the way back, at the movie theatre where we would watch John Wayne’s new picture, The Alamo, which was about him as Davy Crockett going to Texas (a place I had never been but figured it had lots of cattle, cowboys, and big mountains, and not much else) where he killed a lot of Mexicans before they broke in and killed all the white people and killed John Wayne-Davy Crockett last. I knew all that because my father told me while we were driving out of Memphis. He said it was a ‘historical picture’ which was important, as important as going to the picture-shows can be (he had studied history a good bit at the university and still liked to talk about it). The big battle was in an old church, the Alamo, and the Mexicans (after lots of them being killed) ended up killing all the Texans- who were white mostly. ‘Even John Wayne?’ (I already knew about John Wayne pretty well.) ‘Even John Wayne. Everybody. But the Texans kept fighting and they whipped old Santa Anna, place called San Jacinto, killed a bunch more Mexicans and Santa Anna tried to run off but they caught him and he gave up then and there; Texas was free.’
That was what my father said though I wasn’t sure exactly who Santa Anna was or where San Jacinto was. That last place wasn’t in the movie at any rate. ‘After the Alamo the Texans, whenever they were in a battle, would always yell “Remember the Alamo! Remember the Alamo!” They were yelling it at San Jacinto when they caught old Santa Anna and then Texas had its independence.’ I had said that phrase to myself as we were scooting across the table-top land; I imagined the brooding white horizontality-defying churches to be the Alamo and the little fringe of trees ringing the churches were Texans fighting the Mexicans- which were the sprawling cotton plants out in the fields around. ‘Remember the Alamo.’ I decided I would. It was important. However I wondered if maybe there wasn’t something sort of wrong about fighting in a church. I knew if I did it I would get into trouble. But maybe when you’re being attacked by lots of Mexicans it’s alright. I wasn’t sure.
We pulled up to the theatre and I stepped deliberately down into the mud puddle under my door and grinned happy to be out of the car to be almost out of the Delta almost inside the movie theatre. The puddle wasn’t very deep and I splashed once and jumped up onto the sidewalk and yelled ‘Remember the Alamo!’ A Negro man was standing near the door across from me and I guess I startled him because he turned around and scowled at me. I just grinned some more. He turned back around. Next to him was little boy, maybe his son or nephew or something. He also turned around and walked towards me. I said hello and maybe we can have a battle: I’ll be John Wayne and you can be a Mexican. But he didn’t seem to like the deal even though I figured it was fair: I killed him then he killed me. But he went back to stand beside the man who had scowled at me. They were buying tickets and soon moved inside. My father and I went up to the other ticket window, bought our tickets from the bored looking skinny boy inside, and went in, out of the emerging big brightness into a musty (still rainy smelling) dark with a few yellow lights. The boy and the man went in too, through the door marked Colored Only.
We sat down. I loved going to the movies: the oozing darkness of the big square room that was so deliciously cool. And then the movie: Motion, Sound, Excitement! I had never been to Texas but sometimes I thought I had and it was anyway better than Texas would turn out to be I would decide later (much later). The movie was a suspension of distance and time, but it wasn’t the same as being there, which was comfortable. You don’t move during the moving picture show; the picture moves for you. I liked that back then. It was easier. Sometimes I still prefer it.
I huddled up against my father and whispered, ‘Why can’t we go sit up there?’ and pointed up behind us to the balcony where the boy and man had gone, under the door marked Colored Only and up the stairs. But he only shook his head, scowled, and didn’t say anything. I didn’t exactly understand except that Negroes colored nigger people (I was never exactly sure which to use when) had to sit up there and we sat down here which was alright because we all watched the same movie I decided. Still I wanted to sit up there sometime. But they wouldn’t let me (I didn’t know who exactly they were or why they wouldn’t but didn’t want to ask either).
The movie started and sure enough John Wayne-Davy Crockett was tough and grim under that coonskin hat (I thought it looked sort of silly but didn’t say anything: it was John Wayne after all). He went to Texas to help a bunch of other grim tough men fight the Mexicans. And soon they ended up in the old church, the Alamo, which I discovered was different from the little tree-guarded churches in the cotton fields. For one thing this place had walls and cannon. And it wasn’t all church: there were other buildings too, which I decided made things better for it was less a violation of the- back then I didn’t have a word for it exactly- sanctuary of the church.
It wasn’t long before my favorite part, the fighting, started. Then something strange happened. I yelled ‘Remember the Alamo!’ when the shooting started but someone in the upstairs (Colored Only I remembered) booed. Then another person booed and it was just as John Wayne-Davy Crockett shot a Mexican. I didn’t know what to think. Why were they booing? The movie kept on. There was more booing while the Texans were winning. Soon the Texans were caught in the Alamo and they decided to stay and fight to the death. I wasn’t sure if that was such a good idea. Of course I knew it really wasn’t because soon they would all be dead, and I sort of wondered if that outcome- all of them getting killed- really helped things. The Mexicans came and yes lots died but more came and now they had ladders they lifted and while the Texan flag was shot up more and more the Mexicans came. More and more Texans started dying and they fell over with the Mexicans who were still falling. Now the upstairs people were cheering, as the Mexicans swarmed down off the walls into the middle ground, more Texans falling, dead. And then it was over. They- the blacks niggers negroes coloured people- were cheering loudly now. I didn’t know why. I suspected there was a reason: maybe they were really Mexicans? But they weren’t. Were Mexicans colored? I decided they must be if in a different way.
I liked the movie alright, even with the booing and cheering that didn’t match unless the Mexicans were colored (though maybe that wasn’t all there was to it). We came outside into the now lessened big brightness of late afternoon. The people had come down from the downstairs and some were standing about outside laughing and grinning. I grinned at them and said ‘Remember the Alamo!’ but they just laughed and grinned. We were starting to get into our car when a white man came out of the theatre. I think he was drunk from the way he was walking and talking. He came up to the tallest Negro man in the group and just punched him in the stomach and starting cussing and yelling, about the movie and their cheering and booing. The crowd moved back a little and we watched from our car (neither of us saying: just watching): the tall Negro man looked around once or twice then stepped up to the drunken white cussing man and punched him back. The white man fell to the sidewalk, just like that. He got up and another man pushed him back, just barely like I was pushing my little brother back or something, hardly trying. The man fell back down, crawled back a bit and pulled himself up. Nobody touched him again but they didn’t need to because he walked off not saying anything holding his nose which was bleeding. He didn’t try to give any more trouble.
The crowd left, still grinning and laughing a little. I didn’t really feel sorry for the white man. I didn’t approve of the booing and all but figured there was something behind it that would explain things. But the white man should have known better. He was pretty drunk and besides there was only one of him and a lot of them. He should have known better.
Industry & Agriculture
Chinese estimates say up to 40 million farmers have been removed from their land. Song Lingui is one of those farmers.
Four years ago, the local government took his land and sold it to the chemical plant. He was given some compensation, but he says it was not enough.
"Our land was so good. We could grow crops on it throughout the year," Song says. "In the past, we could live off our land, but now that's not possible. "
One of the first things that struck me while riding from Kunming, Yunnan, south to Honghe Prefecture, was the seemingly endless industrial sprawl crawling out from Kunming, and the overwhelming grayness of the land that wasn't industrialized or crowded with housing. As I would discover, the sprawl around Kunming (which I would imagine is small compared to that of cities in more populated and industrialized provinces) is a far cry from the beauty of the Chinese countryside outside of industrialization.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to over-romanticize China's agriculture and the lives of the people who till the land. Yet it remains that for many, many Chinese, particularly those still making a living from farming, the land is something that dwells very deeply inside of them, something that only gives them food and income, but is beautiful and charged with sacred significance. Farming land is a very important anchor of tradition in a land where old ways and traditions are still important.
When I talked with Chinese students about their home villages (I was in a largely rural region where most students hailed from rural villages) I was struck with how much of an identification they still had- even as young, modern university students- with the land of their homes, with the rivers and hills and farms. Nearly all desired to return to their hometowns if possible. While the Chinese tend to be reserved- for good reason- with criticisms of current affairs in China, I heard from many students laments over the state of the environment in their homes. One student told me sorrowfully how when he was young the river beside his village was living and full of fish; now, in the wake of factories along its banks nothing can survive in it. It is dead. Things like this matter deeply to many Chinese, and I believe that many are thinking deeply about them and do not wish to see their land disappear under an unstoppable tide of industrialization.
How to prevent this and maintain economic progress: I don't know all- many even- answers, but I believe that many Chinese are considering such questions deeply. Whether anything can be done remains to be seen, though many more are acting and speaking up. Perhaps change will come- not in revolutions or overnight- that will extend not only to farmers but to all of China, that will lead it into a future free of Communism, free of ruthless state explotation in favour of no-holds-barred capitalism: a free and beautiful China. I do not- I refuse to believe- that such a dream is impossible.
Comedy & Tragedy
From Letter Apart.
Lauds, After the Storm:
We awoke in the up-sprung morning-
Outside air of after-rain filled our heads
Flooded under the oaks and pines
Slow paced nodding breathing in
The smell: memory condensed
Of mornings beyond count past
Under new rain-washed skies
Soil singing in its fresh-found embrace-
And all the things only the smelling of can contain
(How much deeper than words some things work
Unlocked inside of us unspoiled yet)
Rain-loosened lauds this, seeping from the soil
Gathering to God and speaking clear, distinct
Memory of Him, too, soft sudden immediacy.
So then the tractor rattled and hummed, it also
Woken again, noticing nothing new,
We lurched slow and settled
Into the broken rows of trees
Teeth set on edge but
Lines softened scattered out
In the blurring spilling-out first light.
Over the sand-hills and brimming floodplain
Tallahala Creek over beyond the tree-cloaked brim
(This too a memory though
The signifiers are long fled from their sign)
Comes the horizon-stretched broad flaming orb
Sweeping the sky of last night’s memory
The sudden burst, the flare:
Arrival in blaze of glory, terrible and strong,
Beautiful, angel choir surrounding
Summoning, the dawn.
Rain-drops clinging, filtering the grass and trees-
The universe condensed in each luminescent globe-
Water, type of heaven, harbinger of life-
And of death-
(Both in each speaking to the other)
The fruit waits heavy with rejoicing for
The storm has seen the breaking of the drought
The silent stony prayers of the land
At last returned and now echoed back again
We look down the rows and shake our heads-
For there is always loss in gain
Joy is more rapt, perhaps, for the sorrow
In which it embowers itself
The seed within bitter flesh and pulp.
The rains come their bright draughted wine:
Sometimes the cup is downfall, and joy.
Toppled, brought low
Are ten, fifteen trees- we count, the tractor grumbles on:
Cutting our losses we continue
In the work of the day, the work of our hands
Confluence of times and seasons
And we recall that day last fall
The bitter too-hot autumn
That brought these trees down
Sank low into their hearts, cut to the roots:
The roots weakened, the tree
Will not long stand.
And I wonder: are my roots well-set
Unrattled by storm and displacement?
Is there some strong cup yet for me to drink
Sorrow and joy mingled, equal measure?
But no matter, this. We are not dismayed
For the lauds still rise in the midst of
What falls apart-
There is still room for rising in the collapse.
Away in the clean-washed distance
Above the fig-tree fronted barn
The last clouds are smoldering off
Final tracery of the fire and ice
That from them was lately sprung
(The fire we did not feel, and as for the ice:
It was, despite our fears, of little consequence.
We were blessed.)
Streams off, smoke from the burning-down
Underground coal-mine fires in the skies
Their ovens banked and cooling
Overhead the egrets sharp-reliefed
Flung, snow-pure arrows from the rising sun
Burnish across the sky
Moving as in a waking dream
I think they sleep upon the outcast sun-beams
To regather on the waking world when their roost
Rises to roof again the fields and floods.
We fill the gun-metaled buckets
As the heat slowly wraps around us
Briefly fled, brooding now out from the sun.
All the world rises awake up alive (even with its losses)
And I think:
What is it to be, alive? To love?
How can we- riders on rattling tractors
And lonely severing roads and highways-
Be taken with the joy-laden lauds floating
Over the morning ground
The bright paling-piece praise rising
To the not-so-distant throne
Of God, His remembrance brimming in leaf and stock:
But I do not pretend to know
The route to cull out the words I need
Some songs are sung
Without the roil and heave of tongue-formed word
And on after-rain hymn-heavy dawns
The knowing of the thing seeps into you
As the drought breaks water flooding in.
It is then that you know, you love
And rejoice in the midst of shattered tree
Withal within you the remembering:
Imminent Return, and all-things Resurrection, Remaking.
A Handful of Reviews
While browsing in the used book section at an antique store (antique stores can sometimes turn up pretty decent books at low prices), I ran across A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul, which I bought not particularly knowing anything about V.S. Naipaul or having read anything by him before that I can recall. The novel turned out to be quite good, however. Set in post-colonial Zaire (though the reader is never given the name of the country or places within it) it deals powerfully and provactatively with post-colonial issues: the collapse of the colonial order, the experience of independence, rebuilding, engagement with the crossing of European and African culture, and then a second collapse into chaos and violence.
He deals with a lot of issues particular to post-colonial literature, but does so in a unique manner. Salim, the narrator of this first-person narrative, is African-Arab, and hence at once an outsider and an insider. His situation in the post-colonial world is even more ambiguous than the other foreigners in his town, for he is an exile from a place that has ceased to exist: his community, foreign and not-foreign, has ceased to exist on the coast, and his place on the continent is precarious and uncertain. The novel is primarily concerned with his experience, the events and developments of the world unfolding often only as background, until they intersect directly with Salim's life.
Naipaul raises some difficult issues, particularly concerning the transition of traditional, tribal Africa throught the colonial experience into some sort of independence in collision- collusion- confusion?- with the modern age. He does not paint a rosey picture; the novel concludes with loss and destruction more bitter than the loss and destruction at the end of the colonial era. There is no offer of a possible hope, that civilization (itself an ambiguous term) will eventualy rememerge, the violence and disorder be quelled.
Turning to film, I recieved in the mail today Palestinian film-maker Hany Abu-Assad's most recent film, Paradise Now. Following two best friends as they seek to carry out a suicide mission in Tel Aviv, this isn't a particularly easy film to watch or arrive at a judgment about. Abu-Assad seeks to examine the suicide bombers and the organization behind them from within; he does an incredible job connecting the viewer with the two men, as they struggle with issues that are both generic and personal.
Both men contend that their fight is for freedom from oppression, equality, and an end to an unjust occupation: the official rhetoric. How they ultimately respond to this belief, how much they actually believe it, and what happens when their insistence on violence as the only means is questioned, makes for a very compelling film. Yet besides this 'offical' rhetoric and reasons are personal ones, and each man's personal psychology. In trying to get inside the internal, personal motivation of a suicide bomber Abu-Assad echoes Salman Rushdie's latest offering, Shalimar the Clown, in which the chief antagonist associates himself with radical Islamic terrorism, espouses its doctrines, yet is really motivated by intense personal private concerns. Abu-Assad suggests motivation that consists perhaps more evenly of both.
The film itself is excellently done: the characters are believable and compelling, and the story develops with a decent pace and enough- believable- developments and turns to make it interesting. The cinematography is well done, particularly considering that the filming locations were occasionaly subject to gunfire, mine explosions, and the like.
Ultimately Paradise Now shows the emptiness of terrorism as a political tool; at the same time it humanizes those caught up in it. It also does the comendable job of reminding us that not every Palestinian is in favour of violence, and that some approach violence with an ambiguity and uncertainty. Often times in such conflicts there is the development of a second-self in people who cannot help being aligned with one side or another; they try to act from within a second-self that they hope can be detached from the actions and compliances they are forced into. Some of this tension is hinted at by Abu-Assad. Finally there is the role of religion: Islam is certainly a presence in the film, partially as motivation, but more as a background element. We are led to wonder in the depth of true belief in the primary actors, and how much it motivates them is never fully clear.
Overal a good film, though I am not certain how fully Abu-Assad details the motivations of the suicide bombers- and this is certainly a film from the Palestinian point of view, which has both its advantages and weaknesses. Yet it manages fairly well to examine a very complex situation and convey some measure of understanding, while deftly undercutting violence and ultimately appealing for peace.
So I took the job. We start out at six in the morning, picking peaches or peas, depending on which is ready, or do various odd jobs around the farm and orchard. We sell our produce at the farm, which is on one of the more heavily used thoroughfares in our county. It can be hard sweaty work once the sun comes up high enough, by midmorning, to heat things up. Lately the humidity has been high, even at sunrise- that stiffling thickness of air (it doesn't have to be hot outside temperature wise to be hot and humid) that clings to you and soaks through. The peaches have been smaller than usual, thanks to the hurricane which stressed them extensively, and then a prolonged drought that really began after the hurricane.
But I have enjoyed working there. Granted, waking up every morning before light- something I'm not accustomed to- can get a little old, but I find myself now feeling out of place if, on a day off, I wake up later, after sunrise. Then working out on the land, among living things, as the sun is climbing up and burning through the fog out over the bottomlands down below (the farm is up on a fairly substantial ridge)- is beautiful, and calming. Every morning has its own poetic aura to it (even the heavy humid ones). Gathering and selling the produce is rewarding: you tend the trees, then pick the fruit and sort it out yourself; you get to see both the work and its end. Gradually you begin to feel a connection to the land, to the living things you work with, and the soil and sky around.
My greatgrandmother, who is still living (she is almsot 89), kept extensive vegetable gardens until last year; her health has declined a great deal lately and only that has kept her indoors. She has often told me how much she loves to garden, to work in the fields planting, tending, and picking. She would be out working in her peas and corn right now if she could, not because she has to, but becasue she genuinely loves the land and its fruit, has that connection down in her blood with it. In my few days of farm work I have begun to somewhat understand that love, the satisfaction and poetry, the contentment of having earth under your fingernails and sweat on your brow and the smell of grass and corn and soil in your nose, in your blood.
There is something sacramental about work, and I suspect it runs even deeper when that work is with the land and with living things. We were created as tenders of a garden, made from the soil of the earth, and that connection still beats down within us somewhere. In our industrialized (post-industrialized almost for some of us) world however it is easy to sever that connection. I could elaborate but there is no need to: the land, the soil, free air and water and trees, are things mostly foreign to us. They are not part of what we do, how we live. There is something sad about that loss, though I do not imagine there is much we can do to reverse it. Nor do I suggest that a 'return to the land' is practical or desirable for most of us. Yet the loss is still, I think, a loss. It is one that is increasingly global, as farmers are driven off their land by economic forces far beyond their control; or they grow tired of agriculture (it is much harder in developing-world countries!) and seek the cities for jobs. Sometimes their situation grows worse, sometimes better. Either way something is lost, as more farms are either consolidated or abandoned.
The farm I work at is really a labour of love, with precious little real profit: so are most small, non-mega farms in this country. Suburbia is already creeping up around the peach orchards, strange as that is to contemplate in rural Jones County. I wonder how long such places will survive? If- or perhaps when- they are all gone there will be a genuine loss, a loss of some of the poetry and life and beauty in the world.
Thoughts On Southerness
But the ambiguity of the Fourth of July does not lie wholly in the memory of those days, or in the fact that not a few of us here in the South are descended from men who fired upon the Star-Spangled Banner, in the not-so-distant past (in the Southern memory anyway.) There is the fact of the seperate, in many ways, trajectory of the Southern experience from the wider 'American' experience, and this falls upon all Southerners, black or white. My ancestors arrived on the shores of the Chesapeake and the Carolina coast without dreams of freedom and proper worship or anything of that sort; they carried dreams of tobacco cultivation, of wresting new money from the wilderness. And they sought to carry out this dream employing the unpaid labour of West Africans, who were forcibly integrated into the Southern Experience. We were not the noble Pilgrims, we were not zealous idealists out to forge a new society in the New World. Some stayed along the coast and built up wealth in the emerging slave-labour system; others forged off into the wilderness and fought and built with their own hands and cared littled for legality or ethics in their relations with the original inhabitants of the mountains. (Yet how many would marry Native Americans and no one among them was offended?)
I had one ancestor who ended up fighting- and getting killed- in the American Revolution, at Kings Mountains on the North-South Carolina line. I doubt whether he had ever read Common Sense, knew anything much about Declerations and Congresses, or cared. He was probably angry at the British for their threats against the mountaineers who were pushing the British-established boundaries of Appalachia. Had he survived Kings Mountain in all probability it would have been the end of his fighting for the Revolution; he would have gone home and grown his corn, drank his whiskey, and raised his children.
Gradually my ancestors left the mountains of the Carolinas, pushed across Alabama, and, with the siezure of the remaining Choctaw and Chickasaw lands of Mississippi (treaties were made to be broken), settled upon the prairie land and adjoining red clay hills. We have, by and large, remained, through war and depression, social upheaval and economic progress. Slavery came and went but it is always in the background, the burden of history on all of us. We have fired upon the Star Spangled Banner, and we have in turn bled for it in later wars; we have seen the same flag fly over slavery (and we cried freedom! liberty! long live the republic! while tightening the chains), and have seen it fight slavery. Yet that one war remains the War and the old battled-flag is still as ubiquitous as the Stars and Stripes. We are Americans but we are also Southerners: this is a land that has known defeat, slavery, entrenched poverty, all those things that America is not supposed to be. I suspect that such an experience, while tragic, lamentable, is in some ways a good thing: we have seen the world, all of us, white and black, from a perspective that allows us to see differently from the rest of the country, to lend something unique, a corrective perhaps.
Of course the South is a place that is still changing: driving back from Winston County, MS, I noticed that one of the highways between here and there has been named the Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner Memorial Highway, the three civil rights workers murdered outside of Philadelphia. It has not been that long since the murders themselves; even a few years ago naming a highway after them would still be risque. The South is changing in other ways: I picked up several Spanish-language radio stations on my way back; Thursday I played soccer with a group of Latino immigrants some of whom have been in Mississippi for a few years, some a few months. They are still a small minority, but their presence is noticeable. I am sure the number of Latino Southerners will increase- for while many immigrant workers will return to Latin America, many will stay, and become a permanent part of the Southern Experience.