Beloved Author

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The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved, I didn’t really understand it. The figure that haunts Sethe, the main character, is omnipresent yet mysterious. It took a second reading many years later for me to capture the import of this seminal work of American literature.

Toni Morrison’s death at age 88 has had many readers reminiscing and reflecting on her greatness. The first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison wrote with such power and lyricism that her works almost literally vibrated. Despite how puzzling I found Beloved, I followed up by reading some of her earlier works: Sula and The Bluest Eye.

As a woman, I identified with some of the emotions and the powerlessness felt by the female protagonists of Morrison’s fiction. Feelings of uncertainty and of not being good enough in the eyes of others are issues that have always faced “the second sex.” The sacrifices mothers make for their children is another universal theme Morrison explored in works such as Beloved and A Mercy, one of her later works. After I became a mother myself, I could relate to the pain and helplessness these women felt in trying to protect their children.

But what really affected me about Toni Morrison’s work was the window it opened into the world of blacks, particularly black women. Morrison’s unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery were hard to read. The goings-on at the ironically named Sweet Home of Beloved and the D’Ortega plantation in A Mercy show the devastating effects of whites’ willingness to dehumanize black men and women. Morrison’s writing forces whites to see the evil legacy of slavery, and it refuses to let us look away.

Toni Morrison opened up American literature to the black female voice. Her success even led to the rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston, a gifted writer from the 1920s. Americans will be forever indebted to her for championing the artistic efforts of other black women authors, as well as for her own deep and beautiful body of work.

A few years ago, I had the great good fortune to see Toni Morrison in person. She was in town to receive the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s annual Carl Sandburg Literary Award at a benefit dinner to which I was invited. She was a formidable presence on the stage, but when she autographed my copy of Beloved, she gave me a warm smile. I am still grateful for that close encounter with her literary greatness as well as her graciousness. Her presence in our world will be sorely missed.

 

Notre Dame, Notre Coeur, Notre Ame

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556629-istock-852755038_primaryThe sight of the venerable Parisian cathedral Notre Dame on fire filled onlookers around the world with horror and sorrow. Unlike most of the disasters that make news worldwide, this one thankfully involved no loss of life. And yet the dismay so many of us felt on Monday as centuries-old treasures of art, architecture, and religion threatened to go up in flames was only too real.

Across the Seine, the crowd broke into spontaneous prayer and hymns as they watched smoke billow up from the spire of the medieval cathedral. To imagine a Paris without the iconic edifice complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses was, well, unthinkable. Notre Dame is one of the most visited landmarks in the world. Hundreds of people have been posting photos and memories of their own visits to Notre Dame since its very existence became imperiled Monday. The wealth of art and the breathtaking feat of engineering that has held up the 12th Century structure for so long are irresistible for art lovers, historians, and even casual tourists.

But Notre Dame is first and foremost a monument to the Catholic faith and the devotion of its followers who risked life and limb to build such a beautiful and imposing structure.  Catholics hold a special place in our hearts for Mary, “Our Lady.” No doubt many Catholics fervently begged Our Lady to intercede with Christ to save her namesake church.

I have nothing but admiration for the tireless efforts of firefighters to contain the blaze and limit the damage to Notre Dame. Much in the same way as the builders of Notre Dame in the Middle Ages, these courageous Parisians risked their lives to save a building. Luckily only one firefighter was injured while working to put out the flames. Still, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of divine intervention in saving the venerable cathedral.

The fire at Notre Dame has brought public awareness to three other fires that occurred in the past two weeks at historically black churches in Louisiana. The fires were no accidents, however. They were incidents of arson, and a white man has been charged with hate crimes in connection with the destruction of the three historic places of worship. A Go Fund Me campaign has since raised $1 million for reconstruction.

All of this has occurred in the midst of the Lenten season and Holy Week, the preparatory 6 days before Easter, the Christian celebration of resurrection and new life. In the past few weeks the flames of hatred and destruction have raged. On Saturday night, the flame of the Easter Candle will be lit at churches all around the world to symbolize the return of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.

The response to the fires in Louisiana and Paris, whether religious or secular, has shown that the human spirit will always rise up to champion goodness, beauty, and hope. A fitting message for the Easter season and the arrival (finally!) of spring.

 

Fact or Fiction?

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During Oscar season, I noticed that many of the nominated movies featured real people: pianist Don Shirley in Green Book, Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, author Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and, of course, the late great Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film Vice told the story of the Bush years with uncanny performances by Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W., and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney. The Favourite, though a work of fiction, depicted Queen Anne, a real life historical figure. Even Roma was a thinly disguised autobiographical story of director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood.

In the Trump era, truth is certainly stranger and more riveting than any fiction could be. Each news day features a revolving cast of characters in the White House, manic tweets from the president at all hours of the night, investigations, accusations, and counter accusations. Fox News has become little more than Trump’s mouthpiece, and suddenly fictional stories like Wag the Dog, Being There, and, most ominously, 1984 have become eerily prescient.

Yet the world of fiction still holds a fascinating allure. While the MPAA favored reality film in its Oscar nominations this year, superheroes and their villains dominated the box office. Such films as Venom, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Ant Man and the Wasp – as well as the latest sequels in such franchises as Spiderman and The Avengers – all made tidy profits for the movie studios at a time when theater audiences have been dwindling. The smash hit Black Panther, the first black superhero movie, was even nominated for Best Picture along with numerous technical awards.

Our appetite for escapism will always co-exist with our interest in real life drama. And the intersection of the two is often the key to unlocking truths about the human condition. I’m thinking particularly of dystopian and science fiction. These genres take us into the future, but they are really making commentaries on the present. I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, The Hazards of Time Travel, which depicts an authoritarian North American state in 2039. The main character, who has the temerity to ask questions and think for herself, is sent back to 1959 Wisconsin for “re-education.” As I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking about the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The manipulation of truth, control over the media, and other horrors of Oates’ fictional future feel ominously close to American society today.

Fact or fiction? Either way, our interest in stories may be the key to saving civilization. As long as we are able to think and feel about the human condition, we will continue to question and challenge the status quo. In the legendary words of Abraham Lincoln, “you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time: but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”

As we venture into another presidential election cycle (God help us!), let’s hope Honest Abe was right.

 

Falling Star*

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* There are spoilers in this blog post.

It took me a while to get around to seeing the latest iteration of A Star Is Born. I’d seen two of the previous three versions and figured I knew the story backwards and forwards. And I was somewhat right. The Oscar-nominated fourth version doesn’t really break new ground except to give us some beautiful new ballads in the Lady Gaga oeuvre and to make us aware that actor Bradley Cooper has some musical chops.

But as Cooper, who directed, co-wrote, and starred in the film, says in a special features extra, there is something so timeless and powerful about this story of gaining and losing stardom, of love against the odds. In each of the four versions of A Star Is Born, a movie or music star falls in love with an unknown talent, whose star begins to rise as his begins to fall.

The latest version of Star is particularly good at depicting the ruthlessness of the entertainment world, which deprives a person of privacy and is pitiless when that star fumbles. In a chilling scene towards the end of the movie, Ally’s manager tells her addict husband Jack, “We’re not friends,” and goes on to chastise him for jeopardizing Ally’s career and to assure him she’d be better off without him, indirectly impelling Jack to take his own life.

The film also shows that the business side of artistic creation can sometimes be damaging to the art. Jack becomes disgusted with the pop star package Ally has become, with dyed hair and backup dancers and inane songs about sexiness. Although his hurtful criticism is tinged with envy and fueled by alcohol, he does have a point. The Ally he fell in love with, musically and personally, seems compromised by the demands of fame.

Artists often pay a high price for their gifts. Many of our greatest painters, musicians, composers, and writers have been tormented by mental illness or substance addiction. They have often lost any semblance of a family life as they became consumed by both their artistic visions and their demons. Perhaps those demons are what compelled them to become artists in the first place.

In any event, A Star Is Born shows us the high price of stardom, the loneliness of artistic minds, and the choices we make for love. While I’m not sure we needed yet another version of this timeless story, I did enjoy the soulful journey taken by these two characters as portrayed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

And I’m still haunted by the lines of the song Ally and Jack sing together:

When the sun goes down
And the band won’t play
I’ll always remember us this way

 

Baby, It’s P.C. Outside

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On a recent long drive, I heard five different versions of the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” While the 1944 Christmas classic has always been played at this time of year, I suspect the reason for its renewed popularity is that some radio stations have banned it on the grounds that it references sexual coercion.

In light of the #MeToo movement and the conviction of Bill Cosby, who drugged women and raped them, the song’s lyric, “Say, what’s in this drink?,” has taken on sinister overtones. Critics argue that the woman in the song keeps saying no and the man keeps refusing to take her “no” seriously.

But the full context of the song paints a different picture. The woman is mostly worried about appearances: “The neighbors might think,” and”There’s bound to be talk tomorrow.” It’s clear she wants to stay: “At least I’m gonna say that I tried.” And she keeps accepting “maybe just a half a drink more” and later “a cigarette more.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is an old song that reflects very different sexual mores. It would have been considered improper for a woman to spend the night at a man’s place. Her family would be upset, and people would gossip. There was also a double standard (which, sadly, still exists today) that men were expected to pursue women openly while women had to act demure and as if they were too virtuous to want sex.

So is the song sexist and retro? Yes! But I don’t think that is grounds for banning it from airplay. There are so many songs from the past that have sexist and downright disturbing lyrics. Take the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” It’s all about how the man has asserted dominance over his woman. Isn’t anyone offended by the lyrics, “the way she talks when she’s spoken to?” And how about “Run For Your Life” by the Beatles: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” And don’t even get me started on the lyrics of a lot of current music.

I realize that part of the brouhaha over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is that it’s supposed to be a feel good holiday song. I understand why people find it offensive. And certainly, no one should be forced to listen to it or any other song to which they object. But to ban it? I personally cannot watch the movie “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” due to the racist portrayal of an Asian character by Mickey Rooney. But I’m not interested in preventing others from watching it. Nor do I consider them racist for liking the film. The level of sensitivity to what offends us these days has gone overboard.

The irony of the “BICO” ban is that the song seems to have become more popular than ever. Obviously, people don’t want to be told what they should or should not listen to. So let’s lay off “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Frankly, I’m getting really sick of hearing it.

The Patchwork Quilt of America

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America is not so much a melting pot as it is a splendid patchwork quilt of all the races, cultures, religions, and traditions of the native people and the millions of immigrants who journeyed here over the past few hundred years.

The melting pot imagery took root during a time when complete assimilation into the dominant culture in America was the only road to prosperity and acceptance for new immigrants. Learning the language, of course, made sense. But what of subsuming one’s own cultural and religious practices under a sanitized, “apple pie” vision of what America should be?

Luckily, over the past two centuries, our Constitution has protected our right to be different – to practice different religions, dress differently, celebrate our unique holidays, and wear our cultural identities with openness and pride. As a result, America has been gifted with a plethora of colors and patterns. We have cuisines from all over the world. We have the ability in our big cities to spend the morning in Chinatown, the afternoon in a mosque or synagogue, and our evening at an Irish pub.

Far from being dangerous to American values, immigrants are often more patriotic because they take their freedoms less for granted than those of us who were born into a vibrant democracy. Their willingness to work hard, often at jobs most Americans would decline to do, make them assets to our society, not detriments.

Of course, when cultures clash, it can be unnerving. And there are practices that may be common in some societies that are illegal here in America. The rule of law in these cases should prevail.

The president’s attempts to demonize those people clamoring to come into our country fly in the face of reality. Immigrants are no more likely than native citizens to commit crimes. They are not eligible for welfare or other public assistance that detractors claim creates a strain on our resources. Most of us are the descendants of “aliens” who brought many things to this land – most especially hope.

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The crazy quilt was popularized in American during the Victorian age. Crazy quilts are hodgepodges of shape, color, and design. They don’t seem to go together until a skilled artisan takes the various pieces of fabric and makes something unique and beautiful out them.

America is a gigantic crazy quilt that at times can feel jarring but that ultimately makes our country beautiful and unique too.

Writers on Writing

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If the writers I’ve been listening to lately are right, then I’m not really a writer.

The other day I saw an excellent movie titled The Wife, starring Glenn Close as the wife of a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. During the course of the movie, the idea is reiterated that writers must write – that’s it’s excruciating and horrible but that it’s almost an uncontrollable compulsion.

Author Judy Blume said much the same thing last Wednesday at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, where she was on hand to accept an honor for her body of work and to discuss the writing life with NPR host Scott Simon and fellow author Neil DeGrasse Tyson. During the conversation, Blume made the oft-repeated claim that writing was akin to breathing; she simply had to write in order to live.

I find this notion about writing to be a bit romantic. Writing is a decidedly tedious, unglamorous undertaking. Writer’s block and procrastination are almost as famous as the old saw that real writers need to write. For myself, it’s easy to let my other responsibilities and desires overshadow my urge to write. Maybe I just don’t want to admit to myself that I don’t have what it takes to be a real writer. But it seems to me that the way to determine if you’re a writer is simply to suck it up and write, no matter the exigency.

In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield describes the Resistance that afflicts all artists, and he prescribes a simple antidote: Get up, go to the computer, and write. Do it every day and don’t stew over every word as it leaves your mind and hits the screen. Thumb your nose at Resistance and get on with it.

For over four years, I have been faithfully writing a minimum of two blog posts per week. I have maintained this regimen no matter what the circumstances, whether sick or well, traveling or at home. It might not be much, but it tells me that I have some sense of the discipline involved in being a writer.

Do I need to write? No. But I acknowledge the reality. If one is to be a writer, one must write. End of story.