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Lines of Thinking - November 2018: Tree of Life

“Lines of Thinking" is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. 

November, 2018

The last week of October was horrific. There were the new outbursts of racist and hate-inspired acts of violence in Kentucky, pipe bombs sent nationally through the mail, and the ghastly shootings of innocent synagogue congregants in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh; and then there was the apparent normalcy with which so many Americans received news of these utterly inhumane actions. The Real President Donald Trump referred to them as “distractions” from the campaign before returning to efforts to divide us with his own messages of fear, xenophobia, and intolerance.

In the not distant past, any one of these dreadful events would have required weeks and months of public searching, mourning, and initial coming to terms. Have we reached a point of saturation and tacit acceptance that what is being presented these days is what must be?

The day after Pittsburgh I wrote in my journal:

Sunday, October 28:
what is there to worship
but the rain overhead
pattering softly on the roof?

As I went on with my day and week, with my Antioch College work, travel, meetings, meals, and many conversations, I listened for what I was not seeing. In and around these activities, strains emerged, passages from ongoing individual stories of change and hope; these encourage me to listen more deeply still and to understand how important it is for us to hear and share such stories. Stories like the one Noreen Dresser '77 told me about how members of her synagogue congregation in New York had earlier rallied to protect a local mosque against attack when some organizations were threatening anti-Muslim action, only to find members of the same mosque turning out to defend her synagogue following the murders in Pittsburgh. And sometimes the stories are told indirectly through the resonances of music and poetry.

Edna Small ’52, kindly presented me with a volume of her poetry in early October. Its very title, Listening Still, is such an evocative line in its own right and a prelude to a small piece I found at the end of a section called, Time Shifts:

Your voice
still answers—
five years after

Back in Yellow Springs, early in the morning on Sunday, November 4, I’m watching as light gathers on the leaves of a magnificent gingko that has prospered for nine decades or more. A storm, exactly a week ago, tore loose a major limb from the tree and dropped it in the yard below. The debris has since been cleared from the ground but as I look up I can see the raw, bark-less break where the branch snapped away.

Scientists know much about the life of trees, I am sure; and we have been assured by the arborist that this tree is healthy and in no danger from its loss. Still, as I watch now—one week later, and one week plus a day since the genocidal murder of 11 humans and serious wounding of 6 others in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the attempts to kill prominent people of conscience with bombs and the outright racist murder of two more African Americans in Kentucky only days before—I wonder what assurances can be given to us by our fellow citizens, those who profess to being appalled by the hate and intolerance represented in these actions, and yet refuse to be accountable in anyway for the conditions that created them or the politicians for whom they voted and whose rhetoric and fear mongering are providing essential fuel.

Even as we grieve, look for solace in nature and inspiration in the heartfelt responses of the bereft and those who would rally against hate. It is fair and necessary for us to stand and demand moral accountability and humane acknowledgment for these unconscionable acts. I do not expect to hear this from so-called leaders who are unwilling to see past their hypocritical and cynical agendas; but from this point forward, I will call for it from my neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens. It is irresponsible to stay silent and it is irresponsible not to listen.

The violation of individual and collective human dignity should be an affront to us all. Our anguish over these acts and the ongoing humiliation and violence practiced against women, people of color, those who dare to freely and peacefully worship, love and pursue happiness, should not be overlooked or set aside for the sake of getting along. Acting for justice does not require acting in anger; rather the deepest, most powerful responses will be grounded in humanism and generated from love.

Here is a poem about feeling death to feel life. It is written by Pittsburgh-born Gerald Stern.*

Behaving Like A Jew

When I got there the dead opossum looked like
an enormous baby sleeping on the road.
It took me only a few seconds—just
seeing him there—with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back again into my animal sorrow.
I am sick of the country, the bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles,
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,
that joy in death, that philosophical
understanding of carnage, that
concentration on the species.
-I am going to be unappeased at the opossum's death.
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
with the Toyotas and the Chevies passing over me
at sixty miles an hour
and praise the beauty and balance
and lose myself in the immortal lifestream
when my hands are still a little shaky
from his stiffness and his bulk
and my eyes are still weak and misty
from his round belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.

*When I selected this work by Gerald Stern, I did not know he was (and is at 92 years of age) from Pittsburgh.

“Lines of Thinking," a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily. 

Homepage Title: 
Tree of Life