Monday, December 4, 2017

Margotlog: Remember Hiroshima, the World's First Use of Nuclear Warpons

Margotlog: Remember Hiroshima

This morning (12/4/2017) the Mpls/St Paul Star Tribune published an article by New York Times writer, Nicholas Kristoff: "Latest missle test conveyed a sobering message." Many of us are jumpy at the bellicosity of North Korea and its threats of exploding a nuclear weapon capable of killing a million U.S. citizens. Terrified all of a sudden, I flit through the empty house, and finally dial my friend Jo outside Tampa. Jo is one of my few connections to the generation that survived World War II. She helped care for my father's first cousins, Eleanora and Sadie when they all lived in Dover, Delaware. Eleanora's husband Dick was killed in 1943 when the Japanese torpedoed his ship in the Pacific. Sadie served in the Waves. My mother was a stay-at-home Mom, and my father did war work because his flat feet made him exempt from active duty.

Though I was born in the midst of war, any trace of that seemed to have evaporated by the time I was old enough to understand what it meant. Growing in the 50s and 60s, with jalopies and sex in the front seat, and parents whose incomes allowed us to move to the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, I thought nothing at all about World War II until my uncle Stanley came to visit. He had been a commissioned officer in the Mediterranean as the British and Americans, slowly, very slowly moved into Italy. The only part of his war expeience I heard about had to do with managing tete-a-tetes between Neopolitan prostitutes and American officers. Ah, the joy of the conquoring hero. Those were my war stories.

Now fear of war for the first time lands on my shoulder and clutches at my throat.

At the end of his article about North Korea's nuclean threat, Kristoff writes "let's try talking, rather than risk the first exchange of nuclear weapons in the history of our planet." I stare at these words. Kristoff seems to have forgotten, Hiroshima, the first nuclear decimation of a civilian population in world history. In 1945, soon after U.S. warplanes dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, John Hersey was commissioned by The New Yorker to write a description of the city. In his calm almost uninflected voice, Hersey wrote about six survivors: two doctors, two women, a Protestant clergyman, and a German priest. The New Yorker published this materpiece in one issue. The cover showed ordinary Americans enjoying summertime activities. We have so often wanted to turn aside from whatever threatens our childish sense of well-being

In a June 8th, 2010 article by Jon Michaud appears an excerpt from Hersey's masterpiece:

     Father Kleinsorge went to fetch watr for the wounded in a bottle and a teapot...At a beautiful moon bridge he passed a naked, living woman who seemed to have been burned from head to toe and was red all over....When he had given the wounded the water, he made a second trip. This time the woman by the bridge was dead....he heard a voice from the underbrush, "Have you anything to drink?" He saw the uniform....there were twenty men and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks....Father Kleinsorge got a large piece of grass and drew out the stem to as to make a straw, and gave them all water to drink that way. One of them said, "I can't see anything." Father Kleinsorge answered, as cheerfully as he could, "There's a doctor at the entrance to the park. He's busy now, but he'll come soon and fix your eyes....
     ...immediately after leaving this horrible sight he stopped on a path by one of the pools and discussed with a lightly wounded man whether it would be safe to eat the fat, two-foot carp that floated dead on the surface of the water. They decided, after some consideration, that it would be unwise.

Hiroshima follows these six survivors through many years. Hersey describes suburbs and inner city. He does not describe the slow rebuilding, though my memory tells me he does chart the six survivors as their extraordinary good fortune sometimes turns into anguish.

Ten years ago, I went as high as I could in Honolulu, where many battleships from World War II remain as warnings and emblems of U.S. participation. The slow, pleasant bus ride up the hills above Honolulu ended a few blocks from a cemetery where were buried American and British war dead. I wanted to find the grave of my dear Eleanora's husband Dick, the husband who never came back, the husband whose death she mourned walking through the midnight streets of Pittsburgh, her mother on one side, her sister on the other.

It is a beautiful cemetery, with a fresh breeze and a vast panorama of blue-green ocean. Close to the ground, the dead lie under small stones, with names and various insignia, identifying their rank and service. They seemed like the tombs of unknowns. All treated alike, all disappeared from the lives they might have had years ago. I wanted to mourn, but I found that I could not. I lay a sprig of wildflowers on Dick's stone and went away. Only now, with fear clutching at my chest do I grasp what Eleanora might have suffered day after day, night after night. No wonder it took her almost a decade to recover. And then she recovered her essential ebulient personality and became a public health nurse whose patients (after various other jobs) became the higher ups in various Washington, D.C. administrations. She watched generals weep and I have no doubt that there was forgiveness but also pain in her care of them.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Margotlog: Glimmering Light - Autumn Melancholy

Margotlog: Glimmering Light - Autumn Melancholy

     "So much has happened," our friendly postman comments as I hand him a bunch letters, "We've changed plans. Taking a cruise that will pass by St. Martin. At least we'll get a chance to see how it's doing after the hurricane." He and his partner had intended to stay on St. Matin. Not possible now after the hurricane has had its way with the island.
     I spend an hour or so writing checks to environment and humanitarian organizations--my monthly attempt to ameliorate blistering heat, ruined crops, rising seas, starving people. My hopes for those I'll never see.  My hopes to help preserve the rainforest.
     What we do when we can do almost nothing at all.
     Outside the window, light glimmers on neighboring trees. The air is alive with green, fading into gold.
     In the mail comes a much-worn copy of Lampedusa's The Leopard. It's been years since I first read this classic of early modern Italian literature, set in the boot of Italy. The beauty and sadness of its fading way of life reminds me of my time in Sicily a few years ago in Erice, a hill town with a splendid view of the ocean and Palermo's giant rock. Did I feel so intensely alive because I believed I was touching the Sicilian part of my heritage, or simply because the view was so extraordinaty? I knew I was lucky to be there, part of a group of American writers selected to participate in a writing conference. But in my typical way, avoiding a full embrace of the accolade I had sought, I snuck out and spent time talking Italian with the custodian of an ancient church near our quarters.
     Writing is largely drudgry, with occasional bursts of inspiration that send you over the edge. Keats wanted to melt into the nightingale's darkening song. With his talent, mabye he did. Yet. poor man, when he was dying in an apartment beside Rome's Spanish Steps, he asked to be carried outside, simply to experience people walking, chatting, picking over vegetables for sale.
     

Friday, October 6, 2017

Margotlog: I Fell in Love with John Adams

Margotlog: I fell in Love with John Adams.

There are some classic books that I reach for when I'm uncertain if I want to live or die, or life seems so nasty and brutish I almost can't bear being human. These fluctuate, a rock and roll of moods and and helps, meaning tips on how to live. Right now, I'm rereading John Adams by David McCullough.

Who knows why we chose certain books? I was swapping bound copies of books I'd enjoyed over the years for books on disk. This many-disk volume seemed absolutely right. McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize for this book. I love American History. My father taught American History. Not the Puritans, heaven forbid. Or the trek westward which makes me want to grind in my heels and refuse to move. No, I want a town, an ocean to look across to the "old world," and a character so lively that in this fine rendition, he pokes and snorts right off "the page."

He was small of stature, five feet something to Jefferson's six feet three or four. They would be elected as the second duo to lead the new nation, but it's the material before Adams left Braintree that charms me the most. Imagine a town called "Brainstree." A brain with many-branches, stoked by a busy pen that scratched its intelligence every chance it got. Adams kept voluminous journals, in the style of New England worthies. But he wasn't "worthy" in that sense, not a minister. He was a lawyer, and suffered small disgraces before getting it right.

His early infatuations were also rather silly. When he met Abigail and her sisters, he was not originally impressed. She did not flirt like other young ladies who'd entranced him. Yet with time, he came to count on her steady intelligence, her perserverence, and the flame she lit which kept burning in the letters where she addressed him as "My Dearest Friend." He'd been advised not to marry young, and indeed he kept her waiting for years, something of the opposite of the woeful knight, palely loitering.

It was his insistent, masterly writing, his journal-keeping in the New England style, where he cringes or chortles, strides or creeps away--this honest, salty self-assessment day after day that makes his story so appealing. Yes, once he married Abigail, once he took horse to Philadelphia for the first and second Continental Congress, once the affairs of independence consumed all his time and left little for his pen, then he became the politician and leader worthy to guide a new country through some especially perilous times. But it's Adams the individual man, not necessarily the political leader that David McCullough brings so enticingly to life. As president, it was only his quiet resistance to war-mongering against the French or the English that struck me as a kind of genius. He waited. He did not denouce or champion. He waited to see what would transpire. Eventually the French offered a treaty. Eventually, the war against Britain, the war of 1812, subsided. He lost the next election to Jefferson and retired to Braintree.

By this time, Abigail had more than come into her own. As they lived together in Philadelphia, the capital of the new nation, she became so involved in political affairs that residents bowed to her on the street. Always his advocate, she did not shirk from voicing her own opinions. I like very much what I read of her, and mourn her rather early death back in Braintree, so ill the doctors would not let her speak, She died "aware of herself up until the very end."

Her husband mourned her, but his life continued, full of long walks and rides on horseback. Of managing his farm. Of watching his son John Quicy become fit material for the presidency. It's Adams as the old man who also appeals to me. He is writing his diary again, reading, farming, riding. I imagine him facing the ocean and taking stock, day after day, as his life lengthened. He had made much of himself but in the salty, gregarious, tempered manner of a fine, lawful, intelligent man. The more I think of it, the more I believe we were very very lucky to have him as our second president. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Two Wonderful St. Paul Poets - Kevin Fitzpatrick and Norita Dittberner-Jax



Two Poets in Five Days - Kevin Fitzpatrick and Norita Dittberner-Jax


For those unfamiliar with the Twin Cities poetry scene, it might seem unlikely to find two such fine poets reading almost back to back. There was Kevin Fitzpatrick at the funky Midstream venue, just over the Mississippi from St. Paul on Thursday night, September 14, and Norita Dittberner-Jax at the beautiful St. Paul Swedenborgian church on Sunday afternoon, the 17. Their work, especially about primary love, rings so true that it makes me gasp—in laughter and heart-break.

Their life-experiences have not been doled out evenly. Of Kevin’s lively and touching poems, I found myself gravitating toward those that treat of his love for Tina, and Tina’s choice to leave the city for farming. Years ago when I knew Kevin in the Lake Street Writers Group, he was a completely urban guy. Now I encounter this tall, lanky, urbanite reading poems about lambing and sheep-dipping. Never in my wildest dreams, years ago, did I imagine Kevin on a farm.

Tina has strong opinions about berries. The first poem in Kevin’s collection, Still Living in Town (Midwest Villages and Voices, 2017), begins as Kevin reads a poem by Seamus Heaney to Tina. She interrupts: "I wouldn't wash wild berries....They'll rot..." Kevin's last stanza admits,
     I don't know who to freeze or put up:
     Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney,
     whose poetry I love and admire,
     or Tina, who I also love and admire
     and who's a three-time Mille Lacs area
     4-H grand canning champion. (p. 11)

The humor is infectious even as it settles the question of exactly who to trust with berries. And no doubt with real life.

Two facing poems in Norita Dittberner-Jax collection Crossing the Waters (Nodin Press, 2017) describe with poignant love the weight of her husband's illness from Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS). In the first (p. 46) "The Window Facing West," she asks,
    How can losing the light be sweet?
    How can the waning days
    of your strength be tender?
In this contemplative pause between light and darkness, she sits alone "as I will be./ You are gone for only an hour." But those quiet words convey the inevitable loss. Then comes a reprieve in the poem's last two lines:
    The bronze of the desk fades. The door
    of your return clicks open.

We sigh with gratitude for them both, beloveds of long standing.

On the right hand side opposite is a long poem with lots of air, titled "The Kiss." Here it is entire:

At the graduation, people ask about you
or don't.

Later, you say when I leave the house I forget
to kiss you.

Are you becoming invisible
to me?

I would rather forget
my name.

After I am sad and pondering the meaning,
I think,

he misses
my kisses.

reminding me of our losing each other
at the Dead Sea resort

you had an announcer summon me;
you were mad

and I was happy, knowing you would never
leave me behind.
***

Brevity and sudden wit in the midst of loss, hope, and undying love. For me, it is one of the lightest and most buoyant poems in this book of sadness and affirmation.

We are so lucky, so wealthy to have both these voices, renewed in handsome volumes. 
     * Kevin Fitzpatrick, Still Living in Town (Midwest Villages and Voices, midwestvillages@yahoo.com)

     * Norita Dittberner-Jax, Crossing the Waters (Nodin Press, 5114 Cedar Lake Road, Minneapolis, 55416)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Margotlog: Bat Attack

Margotlog: Bat Attack - The Warmth of July 31/August 1


Wow! Pal of Mine, if I'd known you'd come...well, it was 3 a.m. two mornings in a row. This "morning" you were swooping in our high stairwell, with the light on, of course, because I became aware of you in my bedroom and had to scram out of there, turning on every light I could find.

After the first "incident" the night before when I was sure you were confined to the kitchen, I found the correct phone number to call for help from the St. Paul Police Department, 651- 291 - 1111 - and with my knees shaking, I called. Then I stood downstairs at the front door, hoping you would come close enough (but not too close) to see an open door. After what seemed like a century, with you landing on the ground floor--pitiful little bunch of life--then rising into "terror mode" again, you actually swooped past me as I stood in the entryway, holding open the screen, and FLEW OUT.

Julia the black and white cat and I were so relieved we sort of hugged, though Julia might have "done battle" had I not screamed her away.

I was still shaking and couldn't quite decide to call back the Police Department and say no need to send the officer. Eventually I did call, but the "officer" was on his way and arrived, looking very official and neat, and spoke with me, gesturing up to the long stairwell, and recounting how tiny an opening a bat can get through, about the size of a dime! And YOU, UNWANTED VISITOR, WERE WAS NOT A PUNY LITTLE BROWN BAT, BUT A BIG BROWN BAT WITH A WINGSPAN OF AT LEAST A COMMERCIAL JET PLANE..

I was very very grateful to have a "back up" and I do truly believe this man makes a fine business of doing "critter calls." He'd already visited two other houses that evening, but much earlier, between 9 and 10 o'clock. He said the huge mansions on Summit Avenue are havens for bats, despite all their glamor. And the residents get as freaked and terrorized as those of us in more modest dwellings. He also explained that in hot weather, aka July and August, bats are especially prone to investigate insides. The fact that I harbored a bat for who knows how long--at least 48 hours--does not mean  that I'm a bad person or doomed to a lower ring of hell.

Right now, nine a.m.ish, I'm hoping we can get through the summer without another visitation.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Margotlog: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea

Margotlog: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea

     This is one of the most powerful accounts of hope, loss, and suffering that I've ever read. Melissa Flemming, the author, and also chief spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, spent hours interviewing Doaa Al Zanel, a young Syrian girl who grew up near the Jordanian border. As Doaa became enlightened to the oppressive regime, she confronted soldiers on the street. Her large, loving family suffered increasing poverty. It was 2011, and the army had taken control of her town. Curfews, power outages, water shortages, air raids, and violence created tension and danger.
     Her father's employment as a barber became more and more problematic--his shop destroyed, his clientele terrorized, and citizens in general afraid to venture into the street. Finally after agonizing uncertainty, Doaa and her family decided to escape to Egypt. Here she fell in love with a Syrian freedom fighter Bassem, who'd also escaped from Syria. In the crowded hospitality of relatives, Doaa and her family found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. The Egyptian "welcome" deteriorated, and she and her family along with many other Syrians were terrorized and reduced to prejudice and extreme poverty. All she had saved from her betrothal gifts and jewelry became the only hope available to her and Bassem.
     Selling her jewelry and other items, she and Bassem gathered the thousands of dollars necessary to buy their way onto the often leaky and unreliable ships that would cross the Mediterranear Sea and bring refugees to Italy. From there, she and Bassem hoped to reach Sweden where Syrian friends wrote that it was possible to make new lives.
     Doaa and Bassem tried three times. Waiting on deserted beaches, shoved into claptrap busses, robbed, beaten, their promised escape soon loomed like a nightmare. But they persisted, returning to other pick-up points, hoping to push their way onto a boat. Finally, having had half their money stolen, but still holding enough to buy passage, they found themselves at sea. As if in a Shakespearean play, storms shook the leaky craft. Eventually it broke apart, scattering the refugees into the welling sea.
     Bassem had bought Doaa a life ring. As she clung to that, bodies gasped, choked, and drowned around her. The waves of cold water were very high. Bassem tried swimming to stay warm. Bobbing all around Doaa were individuals in peril. One woman with a baby begged her to take the child and hold it on the life ring. Moments after Doaa settled the baby, the mother disappeared in the waves. Bassem himself, after trying to stay afloat, sent her his love and also sank. A father with an infant begged her to take it. Now Doaa became very cold, but she had the two babies to protect. She clung to her life ring.
     When there remained perhaps only ten or twenty survivors from the broken ship, Greek sailors on a Merchant Marine vessel spotted them. For a time, afraid to come near or unable to believe there were live people in the water, the sailors eventually pulled Doaa and the babies, along with her cold, exhausted compatriots out of the sea. She was hysterical. One of the babies had died and the other's life was in peril, as was her own.
     This is a story of unforgettable determination and heroism, but also a story of horrible loss and suffering. It brings to life what until now may have seemed far removed from us, in the middle of the middle of our large and essentially prosperous country. That is, until we ask ourselves, how many in the United States may not also be desperate enough to press hope into the shape of escape, yet have nowhere promising enough to go.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Margotlog: Friends with Cancer

Margotlog: Friends with Cancer

     We are not supposed to be brought low by our friends' illnesses, or that was the message I received as a kid. Maybe I was simply a hedonistic type, skipping rope and running up and down the enormous block from King Street to Meeting Street along the bulk of what we called "The Old Citadel." This was Charleston, South Carolina in the days before home airconditioning. During the summer, our parents often took us to the movies, within walking distance, since we lived at the King Street end of The Old Citadel, and the movie theaters were maybe five blocks down King Street -- the Gloria Theater being the one I remember most. Glimmering stars shone down from a large replica of dark sky above our heads.

     Entering the air-conditioned cool and walking the dark sloping ramp to find seats, we settled in to be transported to other realms, other eras. There was a bio-pic of Chopin, played by a pale though not haggard young man, with a mess of curly, dark hair. Several times the camera focused on his hands traversing the piano keys. Finally, the keys were splashed with red blood. Our mother explained that he had tuberculosis, and was hemmoraghing, or spitting up blood. The music he played even as his blood stained the white keys was so delicious, so rampant with fury and passion that I was completely mesmerized.

     After that, for weeks, months, maybe years, my sister and I played at romantic dying in our parents' big bed. She was Violetta from Verdi's "La Traviata." Then I was Mimi from "La Boheme." Snuggling in our mother's fleecy pink bed jacket, we sang lustily as the maid, (aka the healthy sister) brought us glasses of lemonade and a cookie or two to assauge the illness. There was something remarkably lifelike about this play-acting, especially for me. I had periodic bouts with tonsillitus--high fevers and very sore throats, which sent me to bed while penicillin worked its cure. 

     Dying in almost all 19th-century opera occurs not so much to young men, but to beautiful young women. Sometimes like Mimi, the dying damsel is simply pathetic; other times as with Violetta, her illness is a kind of plague brought on by her all too "free and easy" lifestyle, depriving her of a chance to redeem herself except through dying. I have no doubt that enough beautiful young women died of TB during the 19th century to make these scenarios all too realistic. I also sometimes include the great poet Keats in these remembered scenarios, though my sister and I had never heard of him. But now, his poem "Bright Star/ would I were steadfast as thou art," says so much about the 19th-century's scourge of TB and the need to make it poetic.

     Now, the plague is cancer. We live longer, giving those mutations that cause cancer (along with environmental plagues) time to do their horrible work. Right now, I have three friends with cancer, one for the first time. For another, the scourge has recurred. This will be her fourth bout with cancer. And for the third, a man, the cancer occurred perhaps eight years ago, and he has been very lucky to have extremely good care at Boston's Mass General as part of a study, which I believe involves a new concoction of drugs as well as blood transfusions.

     I bow my head to their courage. Sometimes after talking to them, I am so subdued that I need to be quiet, drifting up and down stairs, a bit like walking a prayer. Prayer offers up a supplication to the great powers of faith, hope, and charity which the weakness of my soul, and the absolute incomprehensibility of their suffering require that I petition. Now, outside my window, it is a beautiful morning. I am happy to report that many houses along our block no longer use herbicides and pesticides on their lawns. Yes, our climate is warming, but so, perhaps are our hearts, transformed by awareness of how depredations to our environment bring on slow-or-fast moving catastrophe.

     This, in itself, is worth a prayer of thanksgiving and for me, at least, a determination to continue to support the work to free our world from cancinogens with which we have polluted our air, water, and soil. In the names of my friends, and of the increased number of birds in my backyard--I offer my sorrow and my attempts to do what I can. Yesterday, I saw for the second time this spring, a humming bird at my sweet water feeder. For their lives, and those of my friends, for myself, my neighbors, my family--I offer up a prayer of muted hope.