Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Monday, June 22, 2015


I spent the weekend before the Charleston church shooting in Providence, Rhode Island, attending a grief workshop facilitated by Carolyn Baker. Carolyn led us in a ritual in the West African tradition of Malidoma and Subonfu Some.
My beautiful teacher, Carolyn Baker.

One way Carolyn readied us for grieving was to tell us folktales while drumming. She usually began with something like "a long time ago or a short time ago or whatever time it was." Right away, because I couldn't place the story in time, I--I'll speak only for myself--could disengage some other habitual expectations. Where was it taking place? I didn't need to know. If a dead father walked into a village, weren't there dead fathers everywhere? Villages everywhere? If a long-delayed tear was shed by a man and drunk by a woman, couldn't that happen in my town, and wouldn't my town be changed by it?

With the drumming serving as a sort of universal pulse, I could have been sitting anywhere in the world or living in any time. I could accept that caring for an ancestor required picking the maggots off one side of his body and polishing the gold on the other side. Of course it did. Why wouldn't it?

I won't tell you much about the grief ritual itself except to say that it was simple, it lasted a couple of hours, and for most of us, it "worked." That is, we were able to sink into the experience, feel our grief fully and release it, achieve a sense of emptiness and ease. For now. Grieving must be done regularly. I will need to grieve again before long and will have to find a community in my home town to grieve with. You can't do this kind of work alone.

We'd all come to Carolyn's workshop with different losses to grieve. For me, and for some others, I think, family losses and the slipping away of a livable planet intersected as one loss. I was able to cry for both.

We grieved in the presence of photographs of our ancestors. I'm only beginning to look into how people outside western communities think of their forebears. In my experience, when a loved one dies, a service is held, his or her life is remembered and celebrated, we say goodbye, and the body is cremated or buried. In other parts of the world, there is no goodbye. Those who have died are still part of the community, maybe the most important part. They strengthen the living, grieve alongside them, advise them, and require their attention.

The shootings in Charleston on June 17 didn't surprise me very much.  I've been there, seen the elegant colors its bricks are painted, bricks made by slaves from the clay of alligator-infested tidal rivers. I've visited the slave market, which has been turned into a shopping center where crafts once practiced by slaves are sold as artsy souvenirs. I've seen the barbed wire placed on top of the walls around some of the oldest homes after the slave rebellion in Haiti in1791. Charleston whites were scared to death by what happened in Haiti, and they must be scared still since that barbed wire is regularly refreshed. I've looked out on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Confederate artillery fired the first salvos of the Civil War on the Union garrison there. I've seen the Confederate flag flying everywhere, sometimes just above what's called the Gadsden flag, popular these days with the Tea Party.

Gadsden Flag
Tourists crowd Charleston's streets. Its venerable, perfectly preserved hotels fill up with destination weddings. The restaurants are so epicurean I don't have the vocabulary to describe them. Charleston's permanent residents are white.

Black people, descendants of slaves, live around Charleston, on its outskirts. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, dating from the time when the slaves of Charleston proper needed a church near where they lived, is in white territory. How could a kid like Dylann Roof--imagine his ancestors if you dare--be expected to tolerate that?

I live in a bigger world since Carolyn's workshop, but it's a dying world, a little closer to death every day. I will need to grieve regularly. These last few days I'm grieving for the people a white supremacist killed, for their grieving ancestors, and for their grieving children.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

All Things Superhero

I'm an explorer without a compass these days, writing about what happens to be on my mind.

Thirty years ago, when my older son, Alex, was five or six, he made a habit of waking up early, an hour before his baby brother, and waking me up, too. When the coffee was ready, I sat beside him on the sofa and read to him from a collection of Spiderman comics strung together and reduced to a mass-market paperback. The print was minuscule. At 6 AM, even with my glasses on and downing coffee at a good clip, the words in the speech balloons were hard to bring into focus. But the effort was worth it. Being there with Alex, his head leaning against my left arm, the smell of his hair, the nap of the corduroy sofa, my old red bathrobe--I love remembering these things.

It must have been important to Alex to spend that time with me, but I'm pretty sure that the book was more important. He was riveted by Peter Parker, the radioactive spider bite, the boy's transformation to Spiderman and his ensuing heroics. Alex's inner life, his backyard play dates with himself, were, right up until puberty, all about superheroes. I've come to believe that the Spiderman book, the boxes and boxes of comics that until recently were stored in our basement, the never-ending series of superhero TV shows and movies, that all things superhero helped Alex, who was three years old when his parents divorced, reknit his psyche.

Am I wrong or is the volume of superhero stuff in our culture still growing? Is there ever a time these days, for example, when a Marvel or DC comics hero isn't sailing across a screen at the multiplex?

I've never read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but I think I know the basics. Heroes go on journeys to lands where supernatural forces are at work. They face obstacles, internal and external, in order to bring back some essential wisdom to their communities.

One man (usually a man) steps up to attempt the heroic task because he's decided, for one reason or another, that he's the man to do it. If you've been bitten by a radioactive spider and can suddenly swing from skyscraper to skyscraper, stepping up might be the obvious choice, but if you're a hobbit, half the size of everyone around you, and you've never been away from home, it's a little harder to find the courage to say, "I will take the ring though I do not know the way." Luckily, Frodo doesn't have to go by himself.

I've always been suspicious of the idea that we need heroes. Wouldn't it be better if we ordinary, imperfect people banded together, encouraged and instructed each other, shared our intuitions and ideas? Wouldn't that improve our chances of surviving the superheating of the earth more effectively than the sudden appearance of super-smart, super-powered heroes? What if we stopped waiting for a savior and stepped up ourselves?

Okay, maybe at this late date, this eleventh hour, we need both ordinary and extraordinary people.

I just read Ben Percy's new novel, The Dead Lands, a dystopian fantasy in which a few people set out from what they believe to be the only surviving human settlement in North America toward a land of plenty that may or may not exist. Most go not for heroic reasons but because the settlement is a horrific place governed by a vile man. Risking their lives outside its walls feels better than staying put. One character, however, is chosen for the trip, summoned. His name is Lewis Meriwether.

All the party have impressive skills, but Meriwether and one other are armed with special gifts. Unfortunately, these gifts don't apply in every situation, and they are dwarfed by the sequence of dangers the group encounters. Imagine the Donner Party fighting monsters created by radioactive fallout--giant bats, bison, bears, and spiders. There are lots of reasons to like The Dead Lands--interesting ideas, consistently great writing, fully imagined female characters, and some really scary shit--but the main reason I liked it is that the hero's journey is ultimately successful because of mutual help and developing trust.

This is not the first time Percy has interrogated the idea of heroism. See, for example, his short story "Refresh, Refresh." But he hasn't given up on the solo crusader either. He's writing the comic Green Arrow now. Number 41, just released, begins a story set in a foggy, failing Seattle. Black men are getting murdered at a terrifying pace. Timely.