Monday, May 14, 2007

WRITING AS THERAPY

FROM DAVID GROSSMAN
wRITING FROM THE DARK. EXERPT.

. . . .

My thoughts relate not only to the conflict in the Middle East. Across the world today, billions of people face a “predicament� of one type or other, in which personal existence and values, liberty and identity are under threat, to some extent. Almost all of us have a “predicament� of our own, a curse of our own. We all feel — or can intuit — how our special “predicament� can rapidly turn into a trap that would take away our freedom, the sense of home our country provides, our private language, our free will.

In this reality we authors and poets write. In Israel and Palestine, Chechnya and Sudan, in New York and in Congo. Sometimes, during my workday, after several hours’ writing, I lift my head up and think — right now, at this very moment, another writer whom I don’t even know sits, in Damascus or Tehran, in Kigali or in Belfast, just like me, practicing this peculiar, Don-Quixote-like craft of creation, within a reality that contains so much violence and estrangement, indifference and diminution. Here, I have a distant ally who doesn’t even know me, but together we weave this intangible cobweb, which nevertheless has tremendous power, a world-changing and world-creating power, the power of making the dumb speak and the power of tikkun, or correction, in the deep sense it has in kabbalah.

As for me, in recent years, in the fiction that I wrote, I almost intentionally turned my back on the immediate, fiery reality of my country, the reality of the latest news bulletin. I had written books about this reality before, and in articles and essays and interviews, I never stopped writing about it, and never stopped trying to understand it. I participated in dozens of protests, in international peace initiatives. I met my neighbors — some of whom were my enemies — at every opportunity that I deemed to offer a chance for dialogue. And yet, out of a conscious decision, and almost out of protest, I did not write about these disaster zones in my literature.

Why? Because I wanted to write about other things, equally important, which do not enjoy people’s complete attentiveness as the nearly eternal war thunders.

I wrote about the furious jealousy of a man for his wife, about homeless children on the streets of Jerusalem, about a man and a woman who establish a private, hermetic language of their own within a delusional bubble of love. I wrote about the solitude of Samson, the biblical hero, and about the intricate relations between women and their mothers, and, in general, between parents and their children.

About four years ago, when my second-oldest son, Uri, was to join the army, I could no longer follow my recent ways. A sense of urgency and alarm washed over me, leaving me restless. I then began writing a novel that treats directly the bleak reality in which I live. A novel that depicts how external violence and the cruelty of the general political and military reality penetrate the tender and vulnerable tissue of a single family, ultimately tearing it asunder.

“As soon as one writes,� Natalia Ginzburg says, “one miraculously ignores the current circumstances of one’s life, yet our happiness or misery leads us to write in a certain way. When we are happy, our imagination is more dominant. When miserable, the power of our memory takes over.�

It is hard to talk about yourself. I will only say what I can at this point, and from the location where I sit.

I write. In wake of the death of my son Uri last summer in the war between Israel and Lebanon, the awareness of what happened has sunk into every cell of mine. The power of memory is indeed enormous and heavy, and at times has a paralyzing quality to it. Nevertheless, the act of writing itself at this time creates for me a type of “space,� a mental territory that I’ve never experienced before, where death is not only the absolute and one-dimensional negation of life.

Writers know that when we write, we feel the world move; it is flexible, crammed with possibilities. It certainly isn’t frozen. Wherever human existence permeates, there is no freezing and no paralysis, and actually, there is no status quo. Even if we sometimes err to think that there is a status quo; even if some are very keen to have us believe that a status quo exists. When I write, even now, the world is not closing in on me, and it does not grow ever so narrow: it also makes gestures of opening up toward a future prospect.

I write. I imagine. The act of imagining in itself enlivens me. I am not frozen and paralyzed before the predator. I invent characters. At times I feel as if I am digging up people from the ice in which reality enshrouded them, but maybe, more than anything else, it is myself that I am now digging up.

I write. I feel the wealth of possibilities inherent in any human situation. I sense my ability to choose between them. The sweetness of liberty, which I believed that I had already lost. I indulge in the richness of true, personal, intimate language. I recall the delight of natural, full breathing when I manage to escape the claustrophobia of slogan and cliché. Suddenly I begin to breathe with both lungs.

I write, and I feel how the correct and precise use of words is sometimes like a remedy to an illness. Like a contraption for purifying the air, I breathe in and exhale the murkiness and manipulations of linguistic scoundrels and language rapists of all shades and colors. I write and I feel how the tenderness and intimacy I maintain with language, with its different layers, its eroticism and humor and soul, give me back the person I used to be, me, before my self became nationalized and confiscated by the conflict, by governments and armies, by despair and tragedy.

I write. I relieve myself of one of the dubious and distinctive capacities created by the state of war in which I live — the capacity to be an enemy and an enemy only. I do my best not to shield myself from the just claims and sufferings of my enemy. Nor from the tragedy and entanglement of his own life. Nor from his errors or crimes or from the knowledge of what I myself am doing to him. Nor, finally, from the surprising similarities I find between him and me.

All of a sudden I am not condemned to this absolute, fallacious and suffocating dichotomy — this inhumane choice to “be victim or aggressor,� without having any third, more humane alternative. When I write, I can be a human being whose parts have natural and vital passages between them; a human who is able to feel close to his enemies’ sufferings and to acknowledge his just claims without relinquishing a grain of his own identity.

Sometimes when I write, I can recall what we all felt in Israel, for one singular moment, when the airplane of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat landed in Tel Aviv 30 years ago, after decades of war between the two nations: then, all of a sudden, we discovered how heavy is the load we carry all our lives — the load of enmity and fear and suspicion. The load of permanent guard duty, the heavy burden of being an enemy, at all times.

And what a delight it was, to remove for one moment the mighty armor of suspicion, hate and stereotype. It was a delight that was almost terrifying — to stand naked, pure almost, and witness a human face emerge from the one-dimensional vision with which we observed each other for years.

I write. I give intimate private names to an external and foreign world. In a sense, I make it mine. In a sense, I return from feeling exiled and foreign to feeling at home. By doing so, I am already making a small change in what appeared to me earlier as unchangeable. Also, when I describe the impermeable arbitrariness that signs my destiny — arbitrariness at the hands of a human being, or arbitrariness at the hands of fate — I suddenly discover new nuances, subtleties. I discover that the mere act of writing about arbitrariness allows me to feel a freedom of movement in relation to it. That by merely facing up to arbitrariness I am granted freedom — maybe the only freedom a man may have against any arbitrariness: the freedom to put your tragedy into your own words. The freedom to express yourself differently, innovatively, before that which threatens to chain and bind one to arbitrariness and its limited, fossilizing definitions.

And I write also about that which cannot be brought back. And about that which is inconsolable. Then, too, in a manner I still find inexplicable, the circumstances of my life do not close in on me in a way that would leave me paralyzed. Many times every day, as I sit at my desk, I touch on grief and loss like one touching electricity with his bare hands, and yet I do not die. I cannot grasp how this miracle works. Maybe once I finish writing this novel, I will try to understand. Not now. It is too early.

And I write the life of my land, Israel. The land that is tortured, frantic, drugged by an overdose of history, excessive emotions that cannot be contained by any human capacity, extreme events and tragedies, enormous anxiety and paralyzing sobriety, too much memory, failed hopes and the circumstances of a fate unique among all nations: an existence that sometimes appears to be a story of mythical proportions, a story that is “larger than life� to the point that something seems to have gone wrong with the relation it bears to life itself. A country that has become tired of the possibility of ever leading the standard, normal life of a country among countries, a nation among nations.

We writers go through times of despair and times of self-devaluation. Our work is in essence the work of deconstructing personality, of doing away with some of the most effective human-defense mechanisms. We treat, voluntarily, the harshest, ugliest and also rawest materials of the soul. Our work leads us time and again to acknowledge our shortcomings, as both humans and artists.

And yet, and this is the great mystery and the alchemy of our actions: In a sense, as soon as we lay our hand on the pen, or the computer keyboard, we already cease to be the helpless victims of whatever it was that enslaved and diminished us before we began to write. Not the slaves of our predicament nor of our private anxieties; not of the “official narrative� of our country, nor of fate itself.

We write. The world is not closing in on us. How fortunate we are. The world is not growing increasingly narrow.

David Grossman is the author most recently of “Her Body Knows,� a collection of two novellas. This essay is adapted from the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, which he delivered at PEN’s World Voices Festival on April 29, 2007. It was translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Social advocacy: Choice or summons?

To some friends:

When we are pulling out of the river of life of trouble, addiction and chaos, those brothers and sisters who are drowning with loss of hope, and they are so many that we cannot reach but a fraction, then, Tikkun Olam, we have a duty to go upstream to see how so many are getting thrown into this great river, which is far larger than you think.

We have a duty not just to minister to whoever finds us, but to find and heal what is broken in our society. As a married priest, I cannot wait for some congregation to come to me. I must seek and find the least of my brethren where they are hurting and lost. I have discovered there is no better place to find these than in the county jail nearby, and oh! what a discovery it has been gthe past five years. My visits are now approaching 300 in number, not just to bandage wounds but to create an environment that challenges a personal transformation via hard work of self - examination. Tough stuff.

What is also amazing about this part of my faith journey is how many care -givers have decided to join me in this work, and the amazing diverse gifts they each bring. I am continually humbled.
Having finally found a fertile wounded mission field for my passionate heart, it keeps me in wonder and awe the quality of those who choose to join me.

But I must also go upstream to address the systemic failures in our criminal justice system, not simply blindly ride the Pullman car of modern America, half - asleep and half awake. Tikkun Olam. Our society will survive only to the extent that each of us embraces the summons to heal what is broken. Otherwise our society does not deserve to survive.

(This is also the message of Ched Myers and Liberation Theology: that is, we are called to be prophets, to stand against the PTB in the whatever way we are led))

Below is the final draft of my Op Ed submission to the local paper on these issues, sent yesterday. Feel free to use or adapt any of this work to your local needs. I am a channel, not a source.

Namaste, dear brothers and sisters of another faith journey of long ago. (Oh, what a wondrous camaraderie we had...still?)
Paschal in Lexington, May 8, 2007
__________
"TOUGH ON CRIME" POLICIES PRODUCE SCHOOLS FOR CRIME.

Serious crises exist in Kentucky which are not being addressed in this political season. The first has to do with use of our tax money and the second, making criminals out of several ever-growing groups of people among us.


America incarcerates more citizens per capita than another other country in the world, including Russia. Kentucky with its harsh sentencing code puts in jail and prison more than three times the average of the seven surrounding states. Since 1975, incarcerations and imprisonments have increased by 6 ½ times while our state population increased by a mere 25%.

Governor Fletcher has been quoted as saying our county budgets are "hemorrhaging" due to the overwhelming burden of supporting an increasing jail population. State expenditures for prisons exploded from $7 million thirty years ago to over $300 million today, an increase of more than 4000 percent.

According to the report of the State Auditor on the county jails, 72% of our full service county jails are overcrowded. Those jails are also warehousing additional state and federal prisons because the added revenue helps support the county budget. Some counties are eager to build bigger jails to keep more inmates so they can raise more money..

This escalation of tax expense and of jail and prison space does not reduce crime. It is not designed to reduce crime. In fact. this growth is out of control. Eighty percent of all offenders are drug and alcohol related but practically no programs are available.

Basically we are now making criminals out of social problems: the prevalence of addiction, child non-support and the release of the mentally ill from asylums. Arrested persons in these categories are worse off after months or years in jail with no remedial programs. Therefore, we as a society are not any better or safer but rather blind to what is happening.

Even though the huge percentage of inmates have committed drug and alcohol related offenses, rehabilitation and transition programs are minimal. Whatever exist are mostly by volunteers. No state agency takes responsibility to ensure that programs can meet actual needs. Consequently, a "Revolving Door" is what happens, with two persons out of three returning within three years. Returning once more to mere warehousing.

Many judges are opposed to the mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent addictive behaviors. Mandatory minimums cuts out judicial consideration of extenuating circumstances options, and instead puts control into hands of "Tough on Crime" prosecutors. (For example, as Dr. Robert Lawson, UK Law Faculty, in his report, points out, driving with a suspended license or shop lifting can require ten years in prison for a third offense, regardless...)

The trickle-down effect of mandatory minimums and automatic increase of seriousness of previous offenses upon another offense, with rampant drug and alcohol abuse, means that we are forcing a large group of class D felony prisoners onto an already over-crowded jail population.

So large an expenditure for warehousing these groups means that there is nothing left for programs of rehabilitation or transition.

So what has "Tough on Crime" legislation accomplished? What we are accomplishing is growing tax supported "Stealth Schools for Crime," where with room, board and plenty of time, "serving time" means an education in drug connections, drug dealing and learning new ways to be more shrewd. In the meantime, families are more broken, addictions are deeper, and job skills shot, lost or obsolete.

Without programs, inmates with already impaired opportunities cannot exit detention better prepared to fit normally into society with regular jobs and supportive families.

Actually they are worse off each time they come out, having dug deeper holes for themselves in addiction, justified negative attitudes and betrayed family trust. The quickest way to survive on the streets is to deal with drugs. All their connections and addictive associates are waiting.

In 2005, the Chief Justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court appointed a Blue Ribbon Sentencing Commission, which with initial sincere enthusiasm, made several recommendations to the General Assembly. Unfortunately no such new legislation was addressed and the Commission has been abandoned. Apparently too many politicians are afraid of being accused of being "soft on crime." Prosecutors get faster guilty pleas since they hold the cards with mandatory minimum sentencing policies.

But our Justice system, judges and prosecutors, are pledged to administer the law "fairly." Judges, prosecutors, legislators and citizens -all of us- have a duty to face this crisis. Yet our criminal justice system, let it be said, is not an equal opportunity employer.

African Americans make up 15 percent of drug users, but account for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison. Or consider this: America has 260,000 people in state prisons on nonviolent drug charges; 183,200 (more than 70 percent) are black or Latino. (2006 ACLU report)

Black men are seven times more likely to be incarcerated, with average jail sentences about 10 months longer than those of white men. A total of 12% of Black men in their 20s are in our correctional system, that is about 1/8 of this age group. (National Urban League figures, released April 17)

Since mandatory minimum sentencing first began for drug offenders, the Federal Bureau of Prisons' budget has increased by more than 2,100%, namely, from $220 million in 1986 to about $4.4 billion in 2004. Because of mandatory minimum sentences, the number of drug offenders in federal prison grew from 25% of the total inmate population in 1981 to 60% in 2001. It is larger still now.

What is a remedy? First of all, wake up to what we are getting from our taxes. We are not getting more safety and security that Tough on Crime advocates highly tout. We have created Stealth Schools for Crime by the revolving door. We have issues to address. We have reports, tax paid and supported, such as the State Auditor's report on county jails with 14 recommendations that are already lost in the winds of political change.

We propose creating a permanent independent oversight commission on Sentencing, Corrections and Rehabilitation. Key players, such as Supreme Court judges, Attorney General, Corrections director or their reps would be included. A non-partisan citizens review panel for sustaining public advocacy and interest needs to be part of that Commission.

We ask the commission be chaired by distinguished legal scholars, perhaps rotating among our three law schools. Beginning chair could be someone with the qualifications of Dr. Robert Lawson, of the UK Law Faculty who has already written extensively on these matters and visited a number of county jails. (This legal scholar describes this situation with the term "criminalizing addictive behavior" repeatedly.)

Initially we see the urgent immediate mission is to vet the recommendations already made by State Auditor and the now dead Blue Ribbon Commission on Sentencing, for changes in legislation and sentencing policy. Then examine and support work release and effective treatment programs in order to reduce the revolving door.

An estimated $50-100 million per year could be saved in Kentucky (figure from an attorney who is in court or jail or both everyday) Not to speak of lives and parents given back to many families. We challenge each candidate for governor and for attorney general to announce their own proposals to address these issues. Many other changes are possible.

Paschal Baute

Pastoral Psychologist

May 7, 2007

4080 Lofgren Court

Lexington, Ky

tel 859-293-5302

Chair, Kentuckians Expecting Effective Justice

Facilitator of the Spiritual Growth Network of Kentucky

Coordinator of interfaith Fierce Landscape program at the Fayette Detention Cnnter now in its 5th year with ten volunteers. (Note: This program was featured in your Community section last August by Robin Roenker.)

This letter is signed by other indivdiuals whose names can be provided and these groups;

Central Kentucky Council of Peace and Justice.

Lexington Society of Friends.

Kingdom Purpose Ministries

Bluegrass Christian Community

Note to editor: Fact sheets on all factual matters listed can be found on my web blog at "Kentuckians Expecting..." Via my web site: www.paschalbaute.com, and scan to bottom blog.

Also The Interfaith Alliance (TIA) of the Bluegrass, president Mike Ward, has addressed this issue in a letter to the now abandoned Blue Ribbon Commission on Sentencing and are ready to follow it up. This is a group of progressive clergy and laity in Central Kentucky.

The Clergy and Laity Network of Kentucky have also addressed the issue and support this initiative.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Wimps, Wussies, and W.

Wimps, wussies and W.

How Americans' infatuation with masculinity has perilous consequences.
By Mark Dery, MARK DERY is a cultural critic who teaches in the department of journalism at New York University.
May 3, 2007

SO THERE'S a smoking crater where Don Imus used to sit. That's fine with those of us who never understood the appeal of his grizzled-codger shtick, which always sounded like Rooster Cogburn reading "The Turner Diaries" anyway.

But if we're going to administer a ritual flaying to every blowhard who channels the ugly American id, why has a hate-speech Touretter like Ann Coulter escaped the skinning knife? She called Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards a "faggot" at the Conservative Political Action Conference; insisted on "The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch" that Bill Clinton's "promiscuity" is proof of "latent homosexuality"; quipped on "Hardball Plaza" that Al Gore is a "total fag"; and wrote, in her syndicated column, that the odds of Hillary Clinton "coming out of the closet" in 2008 are "about even money."

Obviously, racism — slavery, lynching, institutionalized discrimination — has taken a much greater toll, in this country, than homophobia. According to the most recent FBI data (2005), most hate crimes (54.7%) were racially motivated; only 14.2% were inspired by the sexual orientation of the victim.

But there's another reason the media haven't given Coulter a prime-time water-boarding: Her problem is our problem. As a society, we view racial epithets as Class A felonies, whereas homophobic slurs are parking violations (if that). Coulter laughed off her Edwards crack, saying, "The word I used … has nothing to do with gays. It's a schoolyard taunt, meaning wuss."

Got that? The term "faggot," helpfully defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "offensive slang … a disparaging term for a homosexual man," really means "wuss," a schoolyard pejorative applied exclusively to guys — guys who are "unmanly," according to American Heritage. Not that it means you're a fag or anything. Which is just British slang for "cigarette" anyway. So why are you looking at me like that?

Coulter's chop-logic reminds us that homophobia is so ubiquitous as to be invisible in American society. Only people whose idea of formal attire is a white sheet with eyeholes would dare to use the N-word in public, but homophobic smears reverberate throughout pop culture. Little wonder: Asked in a 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Project study if homosexuality should be accepted by society, only a razor-thin majority (51%) of Americans answered yes, in contrast to 83% in Germany, 77% in France and 74% in Britain.

Our tradition of demonizing political opponents is founded on homophobic innuendo. Camille Paglia derided Al Gore for his "prissy, lisping Little Lord Fauntleroy persona" that "borders on epicene." John Kerry was deemed too "French" — meaning too much of a girlie man — to be commander in chief. Now Edwards is too heteroflexible; only Straight Guys with a Queer Eye get $400 haircuts, right?

George W. Bush learned an unforgettable lesson about the anxious nature of American masculinity when Newsweek branded his father a "wimp," a perception Bush 41 never really overcame. The resolve never to look like a wimp is the key to Dubya's psychology: the you-talkin'-to-me pugnacity at news conferences; the Top Gun posturing on the aircraft carrier, in a crotch-gripping flight suit that moved G. Gordon Liddy to swoon — on "Hardball," for Freud's sake — "what a stud."

Doesn't all this machismo and locker-room homophobia protest a little too much? What can we say about a country so anxiously hypermasculine that it produces Godmen, a muscular-Christianity movement that seeks to lure Real Men back to church with services that feature guys bending metal wrenches with their bare hands and leaders exulting, "Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!"

The trouble with manhood, American-style, is that it's maintained by frantically repressing every man's feminine side and demonizing the feminine and the gay wherever we see them. In his book, "The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity," clinical psychologist Stephen Ducat calls this state of mind "femiphobia" — a pathological masculinity founded on the subconscious belief that "the most important thing about being a man is not being a woman."

OK, so maybe I'm overstepping the bounds of my Learning Annex degree in pop psychology. But the hidden costs of our overcompensatory hypermachismo are far worse than a few politicians slimed by pundits.

The horror in Iraq has been protracted past the point of lunacy by George W.'s bring-it-on braggadocio, He-Ra unilateralism and damn-the-facts refusal to acknowledge mistakes — all hallmarks of a pathological masculinity that confuses diplomacy with weakness and arrogant rigidity with strength.

It is founded not on a self-assured sense of what it is but on a neurotic loathing of what it secretly fears it may be: wussy. And it will go to the grave insisting on battering-ram stiffness (stay the course! don't pull out!) as the truest mark of manhood.

Paschal: I find much truth in this reflection and much to ponder. May 7