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By David Evans:
the case for god
Religious “faith” is not an idea I subscribe to. I was asked recently if I would describe myself as an atheist. My response was no, but not in the sense that we usually think of the word. Like the former nun and author Karen Armstrong, I am also conscious of the mystery that is life and that there are many questions beyond my comprehension. I am grateful for being alive and for being able to add my own little contribution toward making this a better world for all of us. But I don’t feel any need to wrap myself up in any organized religion or wind my way on any particular day of the week to a church to “worship.”
pursuit of ambiguity
No, no, not that kind of ED, which always seems to feature one of those slightly discomforting situations where you see the happy afterglow of couples strolling hand in hand and smiling lovingly, presumably after the little blue pill has worked its magic. The kind of ED I’m talking about is entirely different. This ED is the nineteenth-century Belle of Amherst, the reclusive poet in white named Emily, and her ties with a fellow writer named Henry.
The great satirist, song writer and pianist Tom Lehrer had me wondering about and laughing at his songs even as an adolescent just beginning to appreciate the sardonic view of life. Who could hear and ever forget his black humor in “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park”?
Although separated by time, he and I both served in the Army as “enlisted scum” and both achieved the rank of “Specialist Four,” which he described as “a corporal without portfolio.” He held onto his identity as a sartorial dandy even draped in his wrinkled and ill-fitting uniform, describing his olive drab duds, “If it was good enough for Robin Hood, it’s good enough for me.”
tooting my alto
When I first heard the music of Bob Marley years ago, the Jamaican reggae singer-songwriter, guitarist and philosopher, I found myself moving to the music. Somewhat to my surprise, I seemed to be responding automatically to his enlightened suggestion to “lively up yo’self.”
Music has always been a challenge to me. I guess part of the difficulty has been my insistence on wanting to know how it works rather than just sitting back and letting it work on me. Too much left- and not enough right-brain dominance.
most beautiful words
As a young boy doing my homework while staying over with a favorite aunt, I was puzzled by a word and asked her where her dictionary was. She looked at me with befuddlement and finally said she didn’t have one. I thought that odd, but continued to ponder away at the word “sundry” which I also thought odd, and just assumed in my youthful innocence that it was simply a misspelling for “Sunday.”
I’ve always had lots of dictionaries lying about, even foreign ones since my late wife was a professional translator.
He was not at all like, as Jane Kenyon would say, “a wine glass, weary of holding wine.” During our recent time together, he was at one point on his hands and knees retrieving his confounded new hearing aid that still let him down. As he sat ajar at the table so that his one good ear was pointed my way, he told me that Mildred had said, “Don’t tell anyone.” His dear wife was forgetting too many things and was frightened of what was to come, although she didn’t want to talk about it.
listen to the words
“I was wearing an orange bathrobe. She was leaning over me in a white men’s T-shirt and tiny white panties, shaking me by the shoulder. Her slender body seemed fragile, secure, childlike, with no sign of last night’s Italian excesses. Outside was not yet dawn.”
As I wind down Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World, I am deliberately slowing down my pace to savor the language and to listen to its tempo. The music is playing in the words.
value of liberal arts
When I read Frank Bruni’s column recently in The New York Times about the value of a liberal arts education, I was pleased at how he had honored a professor at Chapel Hill whose Shakespeare classes had been the most transformative educational experiences of his life. She had read the column and had written him, the first contact they had had since the mid-1980s, to talk more about the state of higher education in this country today.
As I squirmed over their exchange on how so many politicians want to value education according to what kind of high paying job it can bring, I can still hear the concerns over half a century ago of my father…
the winter metaphor
Brushing up on my Wordsworth recently during a particularly paralyzing cold spell, I found The Solitary Reaper and settled into trying to understand the brutality that we know make up the day’s news, the savagery that burns through the TV screen, the “old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago.” It’s hard to read about or listen to the news when there’s so much everyday gloom brought about by war, epidemics, violent deracination from family village to refugee camp, and train wrecks that take the lives of innocent commuters en route home.
I read recently that “serendipity” is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering the farmer’s daughter.
It would truly be a lucky boy who would find such a treasure in a haystack when he was just looking for his car keys. That’s the way I felt this morning after awakening from a delightful dream in which I had finally been awarded my PhD in ancient languages. The rub was that I have never sought such a distinction…
tracks in the snow
“Please hold my hand now. I am dying.” As this soul pulled me close to her, she looked up but just smiled. I had just finished reading “Walking Home From Oak Head” by Mary Oliver to her and she seemed to be pleased to hear some of the refrains again,
There is something
about the snow-laden sky
in the late afternoon
that brings to the heart elation
and the lovely meaninglessness
In her autobiography A Backward Glance (1934), Edith Wharton wrote: “In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”
I like that concept which I stumbled upon this morning in a delightful newsletter called Dr. Mardy’s Quotes of the Week — Jan 18-24, 2015. Wharton was a great stylist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century whose books on the conflicts between societal mores and the pursuit of happiness are still read with great enjoyment after all these years…
I read recently that the American novelist, poet, and composer Paul Bowles once said, ”We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
our friend floyd
We took Christmas dinner to Floyd in southern Pennsylvania yesterday. Although he said he was continuing to feel “tired” most of the time and had a bit of trouble breathing (probably a lingering effect of the pneumonia he suffered before Thanksgiving), he seemed more alert and active than what he was at Thanksgiving. We’re never sure if he enjoys the meals that Jody prepares, but he always finishes everything and is pleased that she packages up the leftovers for him.
children of the enlightenment
When he gasped to take a breath and to stop swearing in his fractured English, he told her he had a “fucking shit life” and that she was a filthy whore who would die a horrid death. Spitting out more vitriol with each breath, he finished his rant by saying, “You will lose this war.” Perhaps time will, if it hasn’t already, prove him right. Certitude rang out from this Algerian jihadist who had been captured by Afghanistan’s tribal Northern Alliance shortly after the American onslaught following 9/11 . At this point, however, the “interview” was concluded when she said, “That may be, but your own war is over.”
hear the crowing
The word “frustraneous” grabbed me by the back of the neck a while ago and hasn’t let go since. In case you don’t know (which I didn’t), it means “useless” or “unprofitable.” Derived from the Latin “frustra” (in vain). I bring it up since I think it’s a description of something just the opposite of what I learned anew in an on-line class I recently completed on the importance of continuing to read and reread the classics, especially the Greeks from Homer to the tragedians Sophocles and Euripides to Plato.
on the myriad paths
It’s the broken slat on the chair that will keep our recent visit to Floyd focused in my mind. The soon-to-be ninety-nine year old husband of my late cousin Mildred lost his balance a few weeks back and misjudged the placement of the chair when he thought he was about to sit on it at the dining room table. He lives alone in his “cottage” at a retirement complex in southern Pennsylvania, so there was no one there to help him get up. Of course, he couldn’t get his cell phone to work so he lay there for a while before he could muster the strength to get back on his feet. While he lay on the floor, he “talked” to but not necessarily with Mildred.
who am i?
As part of my winter endeavors, I have ventured off with Dante on a journey through The Divine Comedy. So far, so good, but as my wife often asks, “Why?” I am not a religious person, at least in the conventional way, so why indeed am I stumbling along in a fourteenth-century conceit of a man’s mid-life crisis? As it turns out, I am following a Georgetown University on-line class which is serving as my guide, my own Virgil.
another dark wood
In a class on Dante I’m currently enrolled in, Professor Frank Ambrosio of Georgetown University quoted the nineteenth century philosopher Friedric Nietzsche that human beings, as far as we know, are the only animals that make promises. I only add that humans are also the sole ones who break them.
According to Ambrosio, Nietzsche puts the significance of human promising and its place with regard to freedom this way: “In man, nature set itself the task to breed an animal worthy of making promises.”
Mary Alice told her joke by asking, “What is black and yellow and goes zub, zub, zub?” Of course, the answer is a bee going in reverse. Thus we rode this joke off into another round of high-energy talking, joking, and drinking some less than satin wine. If I were to compare her to some famous author, perhaps the Nobel-prize winning Doris Lessing would come to mind. She’s funny, yet serious at the same time.
The tiny old man wheezed and warned me to leave him alone since he was just looking for a wall to lean against. He was an examination of human frailty, revealed in blurred and jagged fragments. He told me to beware of joy. Thus ended another of my dreams that left me a bit shaken and in need of understanding. In some of my dreams, such as this one, everything is frequently miniaturized and even immaterial …
the muse be with you
Like the proverbial schoolboy with his nose pressed up against the glass of the candy display, I can’t seem to get enough of the various on-line and free classes offered over the edX educational program conceived of by a couple of Harvard professors just a few years ago. This fall I’ve perhaps bitten off more than a full plate by registering for six different classes. They range from the Greek epics to Chinese history to current events in the Middle East…
follow your bliss
“All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.”-– William Faulkner
It’s been quite a spate of birthdays for famous writers this latter part of September, the beginning of autumn when we slowly let go of whatever is left of our ties with summer. The daily Writer’s Almanac column always provides for interesting bits and pieces of the lives of writers, but this week seems to have been special.
the mighty chestnut
The mass killers came as stowaways aboard ships about the time the Kitty Hawk first took to flight along a North Carolina beach. Although these assassins were merciless, they probably did not even know themselves the great destruction they were to bring.
Thus began the near complete killing of all the American Chestnuts in this country. The pathogens that had probably slipped into the country on infected nursery stock consumed relatively little time in destroying the forests of American Chestnuts ranging from Maine to the southern Appalachians. It took fewer than forty years.
happy birthday to me
“Old Age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.” –Fred Astaire
It’s finally happened to me… I’m now the Biblical threescore and ten years old. I went to bed after a great meal, wonderful evening with my ever-loving wife Jody, some funny conversation, a little mystery on the telly and woke up… well, I didn’t feel any different.
She somewhat resembled the retired but not really old men who can’t wait to don their big blue hats and disappear into the basement for long periods to “work on” their elaborate model train sets. Like them, she could easily slip into a fantasy world where objects of interest were always smaller and at times had to be willed to be seen. She could spend hours gathering moss and twigs to build fairy houses and would then sit quietly nearby waiting for occupants. Little did she suspect that if you make them, they don’t necessarily come. And she was nearing forty.
increasingly cynical prism
At this time in my life I am beginning to view so much of what is happening around me through an increasingly cynical prism. As a friend is quick to point out, though, that behind every committed cynic there is a disappointed idealist wondering what happened to a world that once seemed so good and full of possibilities.
I blame Shakespeare for part of my mental dyspepsia. It all began back in university when a supercilious professor dressed down a fellow student for misspelling the bard’s name. Now after reading Bill Bryson’s book Shakespeare: The World As Stage …
In his poem The Cabbages of Chekhov, Robert Bly had me again when he wrote that,
“William Blake knew that fierce old man,
irritable, chained, and majestic, who bends over
to measure with his calipers the ruins of the world.”
Despite such a fierce image in his poem, Bly has that way about him where he can rescue you in the end from all the bad news that comes tracked in on the dog’s paws.
make love stay
I read recently that the woman was so hateful that you could light a cigarette from her glare. There was just some deep hurt or plain orneriness about her that made her a Fukushima Daiichi that refused to cool off. When looking at the tabloid in the supermarket rack, I noticed that her mop of big hair needed some untangling and definitely a good scrub. She sat there showing a tattoo on her fleshy forearm bearing witness to whatever meaning was hidden beneath her skin’s impression of a tractor trailer. And she sure looked pissed.
The apple was no ordinary apple. It was a Red Delicious and it had been cut in two and shared with her some fifty years ago. The man who cut it was her grandpa and he was confined to a wheelchair soon to die of multiple sclerosis. She and he were alone in the house and he rolled his wheelchair up to the refrigerator, managed to get an apple out, and then expertly used his pocket knife to cut it in two and then scoop out the seeds, coring it before sharing it with her. Back in those days on the farm no one had store-bought apples and certainly no one peeled, cored or cut the crabapples that the kids would pick directly from the tree, wipe on their jeans and eat on their way to the field to herd the cows into the barn for milking.
“I just opened up the Sunday morning paper to the Religion page and was stunned that my little county, including the county seat, had eighty-four different Baptist churches! Why so many and what kind of folk could harbor such nuanced differences in a particular denomination that they could be spurred at any perceived slight to go out and found another church to match their theological shoe size perfectly?”
So began Lady X, one of the nine of us seated around a large table at a recent writers’ symposium. The topic was the “fine art” of cobbling together your far-fetched yarns into comprehensible tales that have a point and won’t lose your reader.
oh, shit moments
“I remember the City Park Prophet once said everything that isn’t darkness or death is a vision. I remember he said we are all God’s hallucinations.”
As I read further into Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, ostensibly about the second Chechnya war set in 2004, I begin to wonder how much people think about god and the afterlife when all the minutes of their each and every day are focused exclusively just on keeping one step ahead of any number of thugs who want to plant them in some garbage pit.
life in their shoes
By now, most of us know that 28 July 1914 marks the formal beginning of WWI when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. Within a few days, most of the other nations of Europe had decided to unleash their own dogs of war in a complicated array of alliances that obliged them to come to the aid of their pals and fellow monarchs. Perhaps toward the end of the carnage a few years later, the phrase “How’s that working out for you?” was coined.
waging peace. fighting disease. building hope
I recently had the pleasure of roaming about the grounds of the Carter Center in Atlanta. It was an early Sunday morning before any of the buildings were open and I had the place pretty much to myself except for one lady who volunteers there and was fidgeting around in one of the small side gardens. I didn’t tromp over the entire thirty-five acres, but I covered enough to be impressed with the design and the number of large Oaks that provided much needed shade from the bright sunshine and heat.
words of love
This past weekend, my wife Jody and I attended a performance of Cyrano de Bergerac performed at the Blackfriar’s Theater in Staunton, Va. Just to hear the language was well worth the one-hundred forty mile round trip. Although I don’t have the skill to read it in the original French, Anthony Burgess’ translation which combines blank verse, prose, and rhyming couplets held our attention for the nearly three-hour performance. He created a contemporary sound for a play written in 1897…