Introspection has not been much in vogue for, well, the last four or five centuries, at least in the West, anyway. The man of thought has become the man of action, the one who changes the world, makes things better. As we head pell-mell into the post-digital, post-handwritten, robot-manufactured world, the question of just where we might be going should give us pause for thought. Certainly the notion that the very act of thinking could itself alter the world, build its complexity and beauty, and of course its wisdom, would meet with a sceptical response these days. Yet RT suspects that something like this understanding lies close to the heart of Eastern religion and art. This is the world we dream of, the world which heals us and in which we have our true place. It is not magic, but a sense of a broader connection to our surroundings.
Du Fu seems to have started his career as a gifted poet, but one who had not met with profound suffering. The collapse of China in the mid-8th century forced him to flee the capital, and to confront in a basic way his life and the unfolding of history around him. Out of his despair he refashioned the possibilities of Chinese poetry, the Chinese people, and RT would argue, the possibilities of humanity as it today struggles with overwhelming change.
Winding River 1
a last petal falling marks the close of spring;
trees shed their 10,000 tears in contentious winds.
I’ll drink my wine, then, and examine
blossoms lying trampled in the mud.
and yet, in the abandoned riverside pavilion,
kingfishers flash and mate. At the foot
of high tombs in the park, stone unicorns
rest in conjugal silence.
all things live in their joy—
exiled from the palace, I wander,
Photo: Statues in the Imperial Tomb of Tang Emperor Gaozong. Zingaro. WikiCmns. CC BY 2.0.
RT was 26 when this photograph was taken; Ronald Reagan was 76; Nancy Reagan, 65; Bill Clinton, 40; Hillary Clinton, 39. Wikipedia reports: In 1900, non-Hispanic whites comprised almost 97% of the population of the 10 largest American cities. By 2006, non-Hispanic whites had dwindled to a minority in 35 of the nation’s 50 largest cities. In 2000, the U.S. population stood at 281 million; today, it is estimated to be 324 million (a 15% increase). In 1990, 86% of the U.S. population was Christian; that figure has since dropped to 70%. Finally, the Pew Research Center reports that the purchasing power of American workers has remained essentially unchanged since 1964.
Certainly a lot to think about, and that is one of the reasons that RT supports Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s presidential election. The country is in the middle of a sweeping transformation that has generated deep-seated panic and anger among Americans. What is needed at a moment like this is clear thinking.
Of course, at some level, the United States has always been about change, hopefully in the form of progress, though our country’s history demonstrates that that can take its own sweet time. Something new is struggling to be born, but that is always the case.
Look hard at the usual answers. Don’t just create jobs, create prosperity. Don’t build a wall, create a just and generous guest worker program. Work to make sure that taxes pay for necessary services that individual states and private foundations, however wealthy, simply can’t afford to fund. Above all, work to create mutual understanding and cooperation, i.e., plain old goodwill. That is challenge and achievement enough.
We are all federalists, we are all republicans, as Thomas Jefferson once put it. If the other party’s candidate gets elected, exercise your right to protest, to have your grievances and opinions heard. But also do your best to hear and respond to the legitimate worries and priorities of the other side.
And by the way, RT urges everyone to vote. Take the day off, if you have to. Elections, after all, are important.
RT thinks that Hillary Clinton is by far the better candidate. Her abilities and achievements speak for themselves. But if Donald Trump should win on Tuesday, he will not go running to the post office to get a passport application. RT believes in the system, with all its flaws and failures. It has given us our first black president, and, he thinks, it will soon give us the first woman in the oval office. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
Photo: President Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton attending the Dinner Honoring the Nation’s Governors. 22 February 1987. Reagan Library Archives. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Halloween, the Day the Dead Walk; RT has been dealing with some ghosts of his own as we approach the end of the Celtic year, which may explain why out of the blue he checked out Larry McMurtry’s fine short biography of Crazy Horse, the famous Sioux warrior. Not much is known about Crazy Horse himself (though we do know that he was averse to being photographed), but quite a bit is known about the Sioux people and their struggle to save their land and way of life from encroaching settlers. And perhaps no survival from that long fight is more remarkable than this group portrait of many of the principal Sioux leaders. Though these men were active for decades, they are best remembered for their participation in the famous Great Sioux War of 1876, which gave us the Battle of the Little Bighorn, aka Custer’s Last Stand.
Hold on to your hats, folks, here they are:
To give the reader some idea of the scope of these men’s lives, RT offers a pair of brief biographical notes:
Red Cloud (1822-December 10, 1909). Best known as the leader of Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868); fought to protect the Powder River country from encroachment by whites. The Sioux were victorious, in particular winning the Fetterman Fight, one of the worst defeats the U.S. Army experiencing during its struggle with the Sioux. Also prominent as a negotiator and diplomat on behalf of the Sioux, including the negotiation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868).
Young Man Afraid Of His Horses (1836-July 13, 1893). Fought during Red Cloud’s War. A prominent Indian negotiator, active until the end of the Sioux wars in the early 1890s and especially in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
As the Dakota access pipeline protests bear witness to, the long struggle of the Sioux to preserve their traditional way of life is not yet over.
Photograph: Red Cloud and Other Sioux. circa 1860-1880. Library of Congress. WikiCmns. Public Domain.
RT has been resolutely ignoring his creative impulses (such as they were) in the face of the many tasks (not the least of which is grieving) that have followed on his mother’s death. Resolutely ignoring, that is, until a spontaneous visit to his local bookstore brought him face-to-face with an alluring poem by Kameda Bosai, a Japanese poet (or rather, scholar and literati painter) that RT had never heard of before. Well, the temptation proved too much for the sterner angels of RT’s nature, and he offers the results of his latest foray into translation below. He knows that mom would approve.
old trees crimson at spring’s glance;
waterfalls icy, smash and echo.
imagine a mountain hermit swaying,
collapsing into laughter. water-stars, wind.
(Dedicated to Andy and Janet)
Glanum? Ambrussum? Vaison-la-Romaine? Somewhere in Provence, in any case. RT has a distant but distinct memory of seeing an ancient Greek city while on vacation back in the mid-1970s. The site was small and gorgeous, oval-shaped ruins of marble sited among pine trees, not far from the sea. What made the experience especially memorable was the guide’s report of the city’s population, as high as one or two thousand people, if RT recalls correctly. And all of them sheltered in a space about half the size of a football field.
Now, RT, car-less as he often has been in his life, is doing a great deal of walking these days. It takes him about 45 minutes to walk into town by the legal but indirect route. He is actually fairly lucky, since a bike path constitutes part of the trek. At least on this section, he doesn’t have to worry about getting hit by a car. Still, there is something distinctly humbling about walking along the path, which lacks shade trees, park benches, and water fountains, while cars zoom past on the other side of the grass border. His almost daily excursions make him wonder what life would be like if we still lived in pre-industrial communities. Or, to put it another way, could we get rid of cars?
Here are some facts: ancient Rome at its height (population 1 million) occupied about 5 and ½ sq. miles; Manhattan could hold six cities that size. Nearly all Romans lived in concrete and brick apartment buildings (called insulae), some of them nine stories high; apartments of 1,000 sq. ft. (about the size of a modern 1-bedroom apartment) housed families of five or six people. Most of these apartments offered running water. Romans went to great lengths (pardon the pun) via their aqueducts to ensure water quality—and their diet in many ways appears superior to ours. Those who survived into their teens (infant and child mortality were very high), often lived to be 60.
So far, things sound pretty good. Now back to walking: horses were expensive, and carriages for the rich. Though vehicles could be hired for transport (some featuring primitive odometers), nearly everyone walked everywhere.
RT will let readers draw their own conclusions. What remains with him is the memory of a beautiful city in Provence, built to human scale; human-powered; and healthy, communal, and intimate in a way hard to imagine in our own lives. It’s a beautiful day; let’s walk to the store.
This poem, by Du Fu, China’s greatest poet, continues to haunt RT. The version below isn’t his first attempt at bringing the poem over into English, and certainly the poem’s reputation (its opening lines are generally considered to be the greatest ever written in Chinese poetry) has something to do with his interest. Or it may simply be that the poem is being given to RT slowly, line by line. An improvement over his previous attempt? RT will let his readers judge …
The Great Palace lies in ruins;
mountains reflect, rivers pass on.
In cities, weeds like silk pile up,
and rain slaps the flower’s cheek.
But enough of this!
Birdsong astonishes my heart.
Three months have passed
and still the beacon fires burn.
I’d pay pure gold for a letter.
Raking my head, exasperated,
I pull loose my scholar’s knot.
The hairpin dangles.
Painting: Emperor Xuanzong of Tang fleeing to Sichuan province from Chang’an; painter unknown. 11th century. WikiCmns. Public Domain.