Philip Levine’s “Our Valley”

Pulitzer-prize winning poet Phil Levine has lived and taught for much of his life in Fresno, California, in the San Joaquin Valley of central California. Growing up in Sacramento, that valley is a place I know and love. In fact, the title of my critical thesis for my MFA in poetry was “Writing in Gold Dust” on California poetry.

Enjoy Levine’s beautiful poem about the Central valley published in the November issue of Poetry magazine.

Our Valley

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

– Philip Levine, Poetry (November 2008, p. 110).

Where Were You on Election Night?

Apparently, the post Midnight at the Lincoln Memorial is getting lots of traffic and comments!

One person said:

I have been in high spirits since Obama’s win. Watching the returns I cried, yelled, laughed, and went a bit nuts. Hope is such an amazing thing. I was at the March on Washington in 1963. I had come over from France during the summer and was staying with my grandmother in Lansdowne, PA. Took a bus to Washington and slept in a hostel with a ton of other folks. It was amazing. I was also 19 and weighed about 120 pounds.

I’ve asked a few folks to write up their reflections about election night. So send me a comment: Where were you on election night? What feeling or image stands out the most?.

Mendelsohn’s (Other) Photo at the Lincoln Memorial

A few days ago, I wrote about veteran photojournalist Matt Mendelsohn who shot photos on election night when a few of us gathered at the Lincoln Memorial.

by Matt Mendelsohn
by Matt Mendelsohn

Matt wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about his experience huddled with us there on the steps. One of Matt’s photos was printed in The New York Times and is garnering much attention. It’s on the verge of becoming one of those “iconic” images and he’s been blogging about it at his site The Dark Slide where you can buy a commemorative print.

I contacted Matt to ask about any other photos he might have from that night and he was so generous as to give me one that includes some close up shots of faces. Thanks, Matt!.

Our New Organizer-in-Chief

I caught indy journalist and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman at D.C.’s Green Festival yesterday. She reminded the still-deliriously happy crowd that the work of rebuilding democracy is just beginning.

Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman
Democracy Now's Amy Goodman

Calling Obama our new “Organizer-in-Chief,” Goodman said the election was won by a combination of community organizing and unprecedented fund raising. But the jury’s still out, she said, on the lessons learned.

The answer is in who gets listened to in the new administration. Will it be the big dollar donors who find an ear? Or will it be a new day for community organizations and the people they represent?

Goodman made the point that Obama will need organizers pushing from the outside – both in times when community leaders genuinely disagree with him, but also for the added power it gives the president when he knows millions are ready to take him to task should he wander astray.

And to prove her point, Goodman lifted up two women as models for the kind of leadership that we now need:

Rosa Parks. Contrary to the watered-down history that portrays her as a tired seamstress too exhausted to give her bus seat to a white man, Parks was a trained community organizer – trained, in fact, at the Highlander Center with Myles Horton. Goodman called her a “first-class troublemaker” and pointed out that it was Rosa who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that launched Dr. King into leadership of the civil rights movement.

Mamie Till. The mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched during a summer vacation to in Mississippi in 1955, Mamie Till made the strategic choice for an open casket at Emmett’s funeral. Because of a mother’s courage, photos in newspapers around the world showed the brutality of racism.

Our new Organizer-in-Chief needs a few “first-class troublemakers” like Rosa Parks and Mamie Till to lead from the grassroots. Tuesday’s victory was huge and necessary, but this campaign was won, not solely by Barack Obama, but by an electrified citizenry committed to change. To move this from a historic “moment” to a historic “era” will take ongoing commitment by that same citizenry..

Green Festival, D.C. – William McDonough

I heard Bill McDonough speak at the Green Festival in Washington, D.C., yesterday. McDonough is one of those paradigm-shifting thinkers who comes out of the design world.

His newest book is Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (as opposed to “cradle to grave”), which outlines his basic design production concept. Besides, the book’s made from synthetic ‘paper’ that can be recycled. No trees were harmed in the making of this book.

If you are not familiar with him, I suggest reading his very short article Celebrating Human Artifice or listening to the Monticello Dialogues. Here’s a quote from his talk yesterday:

Design is the first signal of human intention. … Our goal is a delightfully divine, safe, healthy, socially just world with clean air, water, soil, and power, that can be economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.

McDonough’s developed concepts like roof farming in urban China, television leasing to avoid the landfill in Europe, and fabric that’s strong enough for public use and safe enough to eat.

Sojourners published Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things by McDonough in May 2005..

Mendelsohn’s Photo at the Lincoln Memorial

"Lincoln Memorial, 12:15 a.m., 11/5/08" by Matt Mendelsohn

On election night when a few of us gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to ring in a new era in America, there was a professional photographer who stopped by. It turns out he was veteran photojournalist Matt Mendelsohn — the guy who covered the invasion of Panama, the White House, and the Rodney King uprising for UPI.

Matt wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about his experience huddled with us on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just past midnight as Barack Obama was giving his victory address:

I’d spent most of election night in front of the TV in Arlington, Va. But around 11 p.m. I couldn’t sit idle any longer, which is why I sped to the memorial. When I arrived, I found a TV crew sitting on the plaza above the Reflecting Pool, waiting, I assumed, for a mob to arrive. I approached with cameras in hand. One of them looked up and said with a slight roll of his eyes, “Nothing to see here.”

And so I climbed the memorial steps and came upon that small group listening to the radio. (What is it about people gathered around a transistor radio?) Surely there was someone else around — a videographer, a print reporter. But there wasn’t. I felt for the TV guy. The crowd standing in the shadow of Lincoln had the scoop, a profound event to themselves, of the people and by the people.

Matt’s photo was printed in The New York Times and is garnering much attention. He’s blogging about it at his site The Dark Slide. And you can also buy a commemorative print from him!

P.S. – If you look on a higher resolution version of this photo, you will see the top of my head by travelling the line straight down from Lincoln’s right index finger!.

Catholics and Obama

The Tablet, the leading Catholic newspaper in the U.K., ran an interesting bit of analysis by David Gibson on Obama’s election:

Obama’s election is another important step towards what the Founding Fathers – all white men, many of them slaveowners – called “a more perfect union”. As Obama said in his speech on election day, “This victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change.”

And that is where the path once again grows steep. Now the prophetic rhetoric gives way to the cold reality of a country that cannot afford a New Deal or a Great Society. But the challenges facing America are, historians say, every bit as grave as those that faced Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression, and the desire for fundamental change – Obama’s campaign mantra – as strong as that which coursed through America in the 1960s.

Additionally, the Pew Forum on Religion and Politics report How the Faithful Voted (5 Nov. 2008) said this about the Catholic vote:

Catholics, too, moved noticeably in a Democratic direction in 2008; overall, Catholics supported Obama over McCain by a nine-point margin (54% vs. 45%). By contrast, four years ago, Catholics favored Republican incumbent George W. Bush over Kerry by a five-point margin (52% to 47%).

Though precise figures are not available, early exit poll data suggests that Obama performed particularly well among Latino Catholics. Overall, the national exit poll shows that two-thirds of Latinos voted for Obama over McCain, a 13-point Democratic gain over estimates from the 2004 national exit poll. Meanwhile, Obama’s four-point gain among white Catholics (compared with their vote for Kerry) is smaller than the gain seen among Catholics overall. In fact, as in 2004, white Catholics once again favored the Republican candidate, though by a much smaller margin (13-point Republican advantage in 2004 vs. five-point advantage in 2008).

.

Biden: First Catholic Vice President

Another historic “first” that hasn’t been too highlighted in the news is that Obama’s victory brings with it Joe Biden as the first Catholic vice president of the United States. Biden is a good representative of most American Catholics. He loves his church. He respects its traditions. He listens carefully to its teachings and to the bishops who are its shepherds. He tries his best to live out his faith in the midst of the world. He forms his own conscience. He tries to act with mercy. He also demands that bishops provide real pastoral answers to contemporary issues, not simply archaic legalism. Sometimes this puts him into creative dissent with some aspects of the Catholic hierarchy.

Oh well. That’s like most of us. We say our prayers and get up the next morning and try to follow Jesus.

I pray that there will be an American bishop who is strong enough and secure enough to engage Joe Biden in an authentic, intellectual, compassionate, public dialogue on the role of the church and the state, the way scripture shapes and guides our values, the centrality of respect for human life and dignity, the role of forgiveness in public life, the way churches and governments can participate in God’s loving vision for the world beyond denominations, creeds, or nationalism. But this needs to be a bishop who respects Biden and his role, not one who is trying to punish him, humiliate him, or use him as a foil for what’s wrong with “liberalism.”.

Moneygall: The Ancestral Home of O’Bama

I wrote earlier about The Photo Not Taken as I sped through Moneygall, Ireland, birthplace of Barack Obama’s great-great-great grandfather a few days before the historic U.S. elections.

What do you know? Canon Stephen Neill, Anglican priest in the diocese of Limerick & Killaloe who blogs at Paddy Anglican, sent me the photo that I missed!

Sign outside Moneygall, Ireland. Thanks Stephen!
Sign outside Moneygall, Ireland. Thanks Stephen!
.

Midnight at the Lincoln Memorial

The only word that comes to mind is “magical.” After watching the early election returns with friends and observing a hushed moment of unbelieving silence at 10 p.m. when ABC called the election for Barack Obama, I did what has been in the back of my mind to do since Obama got the nomination. I drove through town to the Lincoln Memorial, parked my car illegally, and walked through the quiet grove to the great wide marble steps of that monument.

There were three or four other people there and a few security guards. It was misting. The steps were wet and slick. The guards were chatting among themselves and listening on their walkie-talkies to their compatriots guarding the White House where the “real action” was. (Apparently, about 2000 people gathered in Lafayette Park.)

I walked up to the foot of that massive statue of Abraham Lincoln. The words of the Gettysburg Address are carved along the walls. In his speech Lincoln reminds those standing in that muddy Pennsylvania field where so many died that “we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Dr. King preached from here to a crowd of 300,000 marching on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Marian Anderson sang from here when the the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her entrance to Constitution Hall on Easter Sunday 1939.

By 11:45 p.m. there were about 50 people beginning to gather together on the steps. There was a quiet peace broken by occasional fire works from across the city and celebratory horns honking on streets below. Barack Obama was slated to give his acceptance speech at midnight. Everyone was fiddling with Iphones and other gadgets tracking the news and trying to figure out how to get a radio signal. Finally, a guy from London pulled a real radio out of his coat pocket and set it down on the steps. As Obama made his way into Grant Park in Chicago, our radio savior pumped up the volume.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

I have to say that the small gathering broke into tears.

When Obama quoted Lincoln, there was a nod of recognition. “We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” And then in a rhetorical sweep that seemed to heal 40 years of painful history, he echoed Dr. King.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

The increasingly damp crowd shared a good laugh when Obama said:

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

As Obama’s victory speech came to an end, our tiny community clapped and hollered and whooped and did a little dance there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Strangers hugged each other, held each other, cried on each others shoulders. The Europeans in the crowd said how proud they were to be there and share this moment with America.

It was a magical moment.

I drove back through the streets of D.C. People were everywhere. Horns were honking in celebration. People were dancing on streetcorners and waving Obama signs. Dupont Circle was mobbed with revelers cheering and laughing. In front of the Ethiopian restaurant on 18th street, there was a crowd of men singing the “Ole Ole Ole” soccer song and waving signs. At the corner of 18th and Columbia, a guy was playing a guitar and dancing.

Before leaving the Lincoln Memorial, I walked to the steps where Dr. King preached on August 28, 1963, when I was two and a half months old. There’s a small engraving in the marble to mark the spot. One hundred years after Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, King said:

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. … But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

At about 1 a.m. I parked the car in the alley behind my house. The city was still ariot with joy. I figured it was time to dry off and get a good night’s sleep. … but my face was hurting from all the smiling.

Welcome world, to America’s “invigorating autumn.”.