Saturday, September 12, 2015

The complexities of free speech

The overly publicized battle going on in Rowan County, Kentucky, over the granting of marriage licenses has glutted social media and news outlets until we are all sick of hearing about county clerk Kim Davis and her refusal to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in spite of the Supreme Court ruling in Oberfell and a judge's direct orders to issue lawful licenses.  Facebook friends have pleaded with us all to stop posting about her.  FB posts do not allow much room for reflection, so I would like to make my comments here.

Kim Davis is a flash in the pan.  Her time in headlines will pass.  In the large scheme of things she does not matter as much as the hoopla would lead us to think.  She is, however, a focal point in the immediate issues of equal justice under the law and religious freedom.  I believe she has been manipulated and used by fund-raising zealots (legal counsel and right-wing religious groups) and by politicians (most notably by Huckabee and Cruz).  She has also been willing to take a very public stance and be used symbolically, and I see her thus as both victim and culpable.

In a world where clever graphics become popular memes on social media she is glorified and vilified with equal fervor by the opposing camps.  It is easy to be facile and snarky and outright vicious.
When her marital history became widely known she was seen as a hypocrite since she became pregnant by husband three while still married to husband one, #2 adopted the children, then she divorced him and married husband three, and later remarried husband two. From the outside, this clearly undercuts any stance she takes on upholding a biblical view of marriage.  From within her context, however, all this happened before she "came to Jesus," and is a past of which she has presumably repented.  God does not hold it against her and neither should we.  Some of the rigidity of her current position can be seen as a, possibly desperate, attempt to demonstrate her commitment to a higher standard than the one she failed to meet in the past.  This would be her sincere attempt to demonstrate her new-found faith.  I think we need to set aside the criticism of hypocrisy on this point. In any case, it is irrelevant to her current actions and issues of law and justice.

My friend Jay has called upon us all, and on me, to remember that she is a child of God.  Name-calling is not a good way to honor the image of God in other people.  He is right.  If you press me, I will even say that I believe Dick Cheney is a child of God, though the bile I have poured upon him would not lead anyone to think I believe that.  When it comes to comments I make on this blog or on Facebook, I admit that I do not hold myself to a high standard.  When I see behavior or comments that I deem despicable, I unleash that nasty tongue (and keyboard).  My usual targets are politicians and religious conservatives. Since I do not cut Pat Robertson or Ted Cruz or Dick Cheney any slack, I am not going to cut Kim Davis any slack either.  She is no less nor any more a child of God than they are.

Kim sees herself as standing up for God's authority as opposed the human authority.  The state is not asking her to change her views, but it is demanding that she perform her civil function, which involves the issuance of legal documents, including marriage licenses.  When she invokes God's authority she is, as would be true of any of us, invoking her understanding of her deity's authority.  Other Christians invoke God as they celebrate marriage between same-sex couples. She does not have a universal standard here, but it is seen as clear and firm in the religious tradition to which she now adheres.  When she refuses to issue legal marriage licenses, she is acting not as a representative of God, which is not her job, but as a representative of the state.  As an agent of the state, she is intentionally depriving citizens of their legal right.  She may not believe it is their right, but she is not entitled to enforce her beliefs on other citizens.  That becomes an establishment of (her brand of) religion and an act of state oppression of a minority.

The furor over "religious freedom" that currently roils the social and political scene in the United States of America is fired by the decades-long, tenacious efforts of dominionists and their sympathizers to turn this nation into a theocracy.  They are relentless in repeating the lie that this was founded as, or ever was, a Christian nation. That Christianity has had profound impact on the history and ethos of the country is true.  That the Bible or the Ten Commandments are the basis of our founding documents is demonstrably false.  This nation was shaped by Enlightenment principles such as consent of the governed and social contract.  Much of the European colonization here was driven by the desire to flee established religion in Great Britain.  Baptists, Quakers, Puritans, and Roman Catholics came here to be free of the Church of England.  Each group would be leery of any other group becoming established and they were keenly aware that "Christianity" means many things to differing groups that fall under its umbrella. The USA became a workable society in which no religion was established and all could practice their beliefs freely.  We are still growing into that ideal, as we are into all the ideals of the nation.

To insist that religious believers NOT impose their beliefs and practices on others is not religious persecution.  It is a guarantee of the freedom of us all.  By refusing to issue legal marriage licenses to citizens who are by law entitled to them, Kim Davis is not only violating the rights of others, she is acting oppressively in the name of the state.  If she feels she cannot do her job without violating her conscience, then she should conscientiously resign and let someone who can and will perform the office of county clerk do so. But she is not entitled to enforce her religious beliefs on others.

I wish I had a shorthand term for "self-rightous religiously oppressive agent of the state."  That would be more precise and rise above terms like hateful beyotch and worse. I believe she is a willing and willful actor in this drama and we have a right to hold her accountable. I am going to opt for "theocratic oppressor."  Not a victim, not a martyr, not a hero, not a saint, no more a sinner than anyone, but definitely an oppressor.

My novels of Mídhris involve the conflict between oppressive power and redemptive love. Caesar versus Christ, if you will.  My perception of Kim Davis is that she has currently sided with Caesar, an irony I am certain she would not appreciate.

I started with a title about free speech.  This essay is an attempt not only to clarify issues as I see them but to push back against a "censorship from the left." When I exercise my right of free speech I am, as we all are, subject to push back from others. The dialogue continues.

--the BB

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Farewell, Big Sister

Shirley Louise Benzler (née Strid)
17 December 1931 - 7 September 2015

 This is my all-time favorite photo of my Big Sister Shirley.  She smolders with Hollywood glamor and appears ready to take on the world. (Eat your heart out, Joan Crawford.)

Both of my sisters are older than I.  Shirley, as eldest, has long been Big Sister and Iva, younger than Shirley, has been Little Sister.  Even why I had reached my full height (though mercifully not my current weight) in high school, she boasted that she could whip me.  I did not challenge her assertion.  As we all know, young and strong and swift (even were I swift) cannot stand against old and tough and sneaky.

Shirley loved to skate, whether on roller or ice skates.  I could not keep my balance on roller skates, so I was certainly impressed.  She moved out, shared an apartment with a girlfriend, had jobs; the independent firstborn.  Domesticity was not her thing; if it was more than Hamburger Helper she probably would not want to cook it and the only beef she ate was ground beef.  Iva and I inherited the cooking mojo.

 Shirley on her tricycle

Life with a baby brother can undoubtedly become tedious.  When The Egyptian came out in 1954, guess who took me to the drive-in to see it... along with her boyfriend.  Why do I suspect, in retrospect, that Mother sent me as a chaperon? I remember seeing Oklahoma at the indoor theater in 1955.  I do not remember who had to drag me along, one sister or both.  I do remember my curiosity and anxiety about some Red Skeleton.  Hey, I was too young to know the actor and comedian Red Skelton then!  For these movies, I was 8 and 9, respectively.

 Iva and Shirley with Grandmother Iva Rhoades Safford

Oh, a smartass baby brother, I should add.  One day, when I was five, I told Shirley I was bored.  She told me to learn the alphabet backward.  Was she truly posing a challenge or just getting rid of me for a while?  I went away, wrote down the alphabet, practiced like crazy, then returned and rattled it off from Z to A.  I can still do it, though not so quickly, and sometimes practice doing it with foreign alphabets.  You never know when that sobriety test might come along.

Dad, Grandmother Marie K. (Moberg) Strid, Shirley, and Paula
Four Generations

 Many memories center on the cabin that Dad built at Hume Lake, huset på backen (the house on the hill in Swedish). One treat was sleeping on the wrap-around porch in the summer and seeing the Milky Way as one could never see it in the city.  And during the Leonid meteor shower we watched "shooting stars."  I would entertain my nieces and nephews with short stories I made up, somewhat along the lines of Edgar Allen Poe.  Who can resist telling "ghost stories" in the woods, even if we were not out in tents?

I remember playing Crazy Eights with Grandmother Strid.  Hume being a strict fundamentalist environment we were not allowed playing cards lest someone gamble.  Well, any preteen boy can quickly figure out that if you take a Rook deck and remove the fourteens you have a perfectly fine deck of cards with which to play poker, gin, canasta, solitaire, etc.  Grandmother was born in Sweden.  Her "J" always came out as a "Y" and, to compensate, her "Y" always came out as a "J."  So when she called the (Rook) suit "yellow" she said "Jell-o."  The gelatin dessert, of course, was "yellow."

 Mugging for my camera.  This is cropped.  
Her husband Jack was eyeing the whole thing suspiciously.

 I mention cards because Shirley loved playing games.  She loved crossword puzzles.  One night when she was at home, the two of us were playing Scrabble.  We were probably up way past my bedtime.  She challenged some word I had put down and out came the dictionary.  I stumbled across the word "kibe," which means an ulcerated chilblain.  Although I have never been able to play that word in Scrabble I have never forgotten it because, as happens when one is running on fumes, we found it hilariously funny and laughed until tears ran.  As with all such stories, you had to be there.

I taught Shirley how to play cribbage and the two of us played many games of it.  She taught me to play pinochle.  I picked up the French game Mille Bornes and we played that.  Later Yahtzee came along.  Shirley was always up for this, with close friends and with family across generations.

I don't know what I said as we washed dishes but
I probably deserved the slap she gave me.

The wild child was partly tamed from a motorcycle accident that left her with a bunch of metal in her legs.  Although the love of puzzles and games remained, and the love of riding on motorcycles behind Jack, in a sidecar, or on the big trike, the fiery energy had diminished.

Shirley at Iva and JR's for Christmas

Since her birthday is just before Christmas, what this cropped photo does not show is a big yellow tag she wore.  It was part of a birthday card I had sent her that year and read, "I am the sister of a wonderful brother" or some such silliness.  And she wore it.

Shirley and Jack in later years

When Bill and I took a road trip to California for grandnephew Jeremy's wedding to Katie, we stopped in Fresno and had dinner with Shirley and Jack.  I had never seen them quite so mellow and loving toward each other and Bill and I cherish the memory of that night.  It was so sweet.

Alzheimer's is cruel and was not kind to my Big Sister.  She was finally ready to go and in the last hour Paula reports that she was at peace and died in Paula's arms.  With these photos I remember the Shirley I knew before the disease took hold. May Heaven's motorcycle rallies ring with her laughter, may San Pascual fix her some good biscuits and gravy, and may she and Aunt Dorothy share loads of stories.

Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.

Into paradise may the angels lead you. 
At your coming may the martyrs receive you, 
and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.

Rest in peace, Big Sister.

--the BB

Sunday, July 12, 2015


Romanesque arches,
Cathedral and Basilica of St Francis,
Santa Fe, New Mexico

“From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.” 

--Wallace Stevens

 I heard this on a lecture while driving today.  The source of poetry (and all creative activity) seen in the disjunction between us and our location (in time and space, in history, in society) and ourselves.  We do not own the place in which we live; indeed, what do we own at all?  We are located within it and we are faced with the task of deciding how to relate to it.  We must create meaning in the context where we find ourselves.

How do we read "and, much more, not ourselves?"  What governs that syntactically?  Do we not live in ourselves?  Or do we not own ourselves? [Please do not take this in tangents about how we need to resist those who would presume to own us or tell us what to do with out bodies or our lives. I feel certain Stevens is writing about our relationship to ourselves.]

However we construe the poet's words, it should not be difficult to posit with him that we are somehow out of joint, out of place, not at home in our world (however broadly or narrowly defined) or in our own skin.  This is our basic human dilemma and "hard it is."  From this the poem springs.

Poiesis, the act of making or creating, is a Greek term from which we derive poem/poetry.  A huge chunk of what makes us human is the self-reflective ability to create.  We not only create tools but also complex language systems for communication.  We create physical structures and social customs.  At the core is our attempt to create meaning.

I suspect Stevens has this in mind.  We write poetry (and create narratives) to bring meaning from that which seems random, unconnected, and perhaps meaningless.  We witness a scene and instinctively build a story about it.  We crave beginnings, developments, and conclusions.

My poem, my creation, my invented narrative, my story is my attempt to make sense of the context of my life, how I relate to my place, this place I do not own.  I develop a sequential tale that tells me who I am and how I am related.  Together we develop collective narratives, the mythoi of our families, our clans, our neighborhoods, our schools, our circles of friends, our towns and nations.  And those collective constructs take on a life of their own and form another sort of place we do not own and we struggle to know how we relate, or do not, in those contexts.

Since I was in junior high school I have used poetry to explore my feelings.  No poem, however well crafted its meter and rhyme or however innovative its free form, can capture me or my feelings, but when I put words on paper I have a tool to approximate what I think is going on and I can look at it, react to it,  and take advantage of its framework to see what was unspoken or spoken amiss.

I have also written short stories and novels.  I love the characters in my novels and keep discovering things about them.  They all arise from within me more, I think, than they do from outer observation.  I see and hear people and their behaviors and some get written into the text but I have to own these figures as parts of myself.  Brave and noble parts, twisted and evil parts, broken and yearning parts, inspired and transcendent parts.  Perhaps as time goes by I will understand better how the novels make meaning out of life.  So far, I know they do and catch snippets of it.

A chuckle just arose.  In my early books I mention characters or situations that are left open-ended, but are actually spinning out threads for potential exploration in future books.  Remember how I mentioned above that we like a beginning, middle, and end?  It is hard to leave something unresolved.  Very hard.  We struggle with ambiguity and even more with not knowing.

My patio this evening during a thundershower

Here, for the moment, is my physical place and also my emotional place.  What meaning do I create?  What poem am I writing?  How do I tell the story of my journey to this moment?  This is fascinating because that narrative changes as my perspective alters.  My evaluation of past episodes can shift from "that was pleasant or positive" to "that, now that I think about it, was deadly."  And vice versa, as we recognize the gifts we received from difficult moments and persons.

Blessings on y'all as you compose the poems of your lives.

--the BB

Sunday, July 05, 2015


An exodus is a "going out," as one might gather from the major narrative known by that name.  It is a compound of two Greek words, one meaning "out of" and one meaning "road/way." 

I have been struck in the past two days by the contrast between my life journey and the Odyssey.  Wily Ulysses had a long and adventure-filled journey home but it was a journey BACK to Ithaca.  My life has been a journey AWAY from Fresno.  Looking back at old journals as well as the course of my life, it seems I knew it long ago.


I continued climbing, occasionally glancing back down and out to the sea.
Well, not really—it was just a small bay. But beyond, out where those little fishing boats were headed, was the sea. And above the sea were clouds stretched across the sky like last Wednesday’s washing. Or perhaps the thousand sails of another fleet, navigating the winds alone without the water.
            The rocks were getting steeper as I turned my back to the sun—the sun, which seemed to lay its flat hand on me and push down, down, back where I came from.  But I had no more to do with that little village.  So I climbed, climbed, climbed,
κατά τὸ βοριά, ξένος.

29 May 1965

This is from the end of my freshman year in college. The closing phrase is adapted from the first poem in the Mythistorema series by George Seferis: κατά τὸ βοριά, ξένοι  (northwards, strangers).  Here I recast it in the singular.  I am journeying alone, a stranger.

We had taken a break in classical Greek the second semester and read some of these poems, a bit of modern Greek for different.  I still have the ditto sheet text in Greek and my translating notes, tucked in a copy of Seferis’ poems in English.  For some reason this phrase lodged itself in my memory and has been with me now for fifty years.

I have removed the opening fragment of this since it seems stupid and irrelevant now.  The rest of this handwritten page in my journal still speaks.


The commonplace divergence of two ways
respects itself and forces men to choose
the roads they travel. Each choice means they lose
the other way, the speculative days
they might have lived, companions they’d have met
and shared these journeys with.  But none should call
his path the poorer for the loss, for all
that he has gained in what he chose, and yet
shall gain, exceeds in its reality
each ‘might have been.”  Thus, with finality,
I go another way than yours, alone.
I ask no absolution, as my own
quietus I have made, I ask but peace,
and friendship when the bitterness shall cease.

4 January 1972

This is a sonnet written in my final year of seminary.  I can think of a particular context for the poem but now I see a larger theme.  "Thus, with finality, I go another way than yours, alone," really leaps out.

Roots Redefined

I felt I was a son of the soil,
The dusty earth of the San Joaquin Valley
Where Thompson seedless grapes were raised
Then sun-dried into raisins.
This was one of the ways
That Mother Earth spoke to me
And held me firm.

And on Sierra hillsides
Amid pine duff and fallen cones
Where firs and wildflowers also grew
And there were great slabs of granite;
This too was my terroir,
Soil of my vintage.

But there were toxins,
Perhaps not in the soil but in the air I breathed,
A miasma of true believers,
Of the resentful obedient,
And the broken soul.
Dreamers came to California
And dreams died or were surrendered.
Maybe now I understand
Dante’s judgment on the broken vow.

My grapes now grow in New Mexico,
A conscious homage to ancestors
Yet my soul’s feet are not drawn
To walk the earth between the vines
In that distant place,
That Golgotha where men were crucified
But women will not weep,
Where souls are dry and thirsty.

My garden is in high grassland
Far from the place of my first birth,
Mercifully separated by miles.

The first shaking of dust was when I left
To go to college, and another was when
I crossed the ocean for France
To return a stranger to family.
Another was the adamant refusal
To return after dropping out.
Sleeping in the streets of LA
Would have been preferable to such a death.

When I chose New Mexico and left my past behind
It was a mighty shaking of the dirt from my feet.
Perhaps it was then that the powdered soil
of the Valley no longer claimed me.

My home is here, anchored on east and west
by the Sandias and the volcanoes,
Nourished by the Rio, graced by boundless sky.
The moon is closer here; the heart is freer.
Art is valued here and some still dream.

I left the prisons of family,
Of rigid doctrine, of propriety
Without regret.  I like my life.
My garden flowers and bears fruit.
This is home.  My family now is one I choose.
No accident of birth or choice of others defines it.

A few close friends and wonderful acquaintances,
Tasks I enjoy, nourishment for the soul—
All this is mine.  Here I am eager to live
Sans peur et sans reproche.
I am free to change my own narrative.
I leave Chorazin and Bethsaida to their own fates.

3 July 2015

This is a backward look, and forward.  My roots are no longer in California; they are in the Rio Grande valley. It is a reflective, wistful, and angry poem.  I recall thinking to myself (not sharing with anyone), "What am I running from?" This was in the early 80s.  The answer that came was this: "myself." Well, I am not running any more.  I feel at home, I like myself and my own company.  All those rounds of shaking the dust from my feet and moving on...make me shake my head and let out a small sigh now.

I have been sad this evening, sensitive to abiding wounds and the drive to keep migrating.  This post is about finding peace in one's journey.

I conclude with a sonnet that is the story of almost every LGBTQ person.  It alludes to The Chronicles of Mídhris and Ian Dyrnedon, who slipped through the dimensions and found himself in a parallel world, never to return to earth.

I have a family

In truth, I have an earthly family
as Ian has a Mithron one. It works
like this. Whatever DNA now lurks
within us, here’s the charming oddity:
for all that blood or forming may have done
our kin is now the people we have found
or have found us in life’s great whirling round.
Together we hold hands beneath the sun
and moon and stars with fierce united hearts.
We have a history, a journey shared.
We face each other, souls so fully bared
that life no longer lies in scattered parts
but in a new and glorious chosen whole.
We’re a forever family of soul.

2 July 2015

 --the BB

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Back on 17 October I posted a photo of me in my clerical collar that was taken for a parish directory and said that on many levels I could not recognize myself in it and that it creeped the hell out of me.  The photo seemed to be from a long time ago in a galaxy far away and I think what struck me (and this was extremely personal) was a sense that it seems to me that I was desperately trying to fulfill some social expectation in the role of parish priest. Something was uncomfortable, trying too hard.  I can see it in that photo and feel it in memory and even in my body.

Not long thereafter I came across this photo and had a very different reaction.

This was taken on 8 December 1990, the day I was ordained a priest.  I am setting the Table at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.  I don't know if you can see it in this photo but I see nothing but serenity.  I believe it is objectively there and I know it was there subjectively.  One of my memories of that day was being in a state of complete peace throughout the day.  No jitters, no apprehension, just utter calm.

This photo was not posed; it was a candid shot taken by a friend.  I was not trying to DO.  I was at peace BEING.  This was not about any social role; it was a sacred role.  I was a servant of the Altar, of the Church, and of God - without effort, without falsehood.  The feelings I have when I see this photo are overwhelmingly positive. Such a great counterpoint to my reactions to the other photo, taken later in time but stumbled upon recently prior to this one.

To my left, as I type this in my office, hangs my ordination certificate, pictured above.  It is almost a year since I performed any priestly function within the walls of a church or any other ecclesiastical context.  Do I still minister?  Yes, on almost a daily basis, as I seek to live God's love as a presence among others.  I console the sorrowing, encourage those cast down, affirm the hesitant, and celebrate with the joyous.  I offer context, proclaim blessing, and occasionally swing an avuncular two-by-four upside the heads of people I care about.  I try to stand by those going through difficult transitions.  Sometimes I even mention God, but most of what I say applies with equal comfort to Christians, atheists, pagans, Buddhists, agnostics, what have you.

For all that I feel distant from Church in any form these days, this photo has reminded me of the deepest and truest aspects of my vocation and my identity.  I recognize myself in this photo, easily and comfortably, without hesitation or anxiety.  It feels good to do so.

And this final photo is me this evening, lying on the couch and playing with selfies, snapping myself with my downstairs "kids."  In the front row are Lucille, Harry, Maggie, Mimi, Belle, Barbara, and Nevsky.  In the middle and back rows are Markus, Hephzibah, Smokey, Zotney, Carlo, Anthony, Haimish, Snort, and Jeffrey.  If I missed anyone, my apologies.  The other half of the family is in my bedroom.  I certainly recognize myself in this playful old codger and it is the same person as the priest at the Altar.

Not every stage of the interior journey is fraught with peril or pain.  Some is simply a joy.

Buona notte, tutti quanti!

--the BB

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Non c'è piú Troia

This is a photo I took from the opening scenes of The Trojan Women, the 1971 film by Cacoyannis.  The film is drawn from the play by the same name written by Euripides and produced in 415 BCE.  Athens was engaged in the Peloponnesian War.  Earlier that year the Athenians had captured and slaughtered the people of the island of Melos and Euripides may have been using the legend of Troy to hold a mirror to his fellow Athenians.  If one ever wants a dramatic reminder of the cost of war, this play and this movie can help.

We focus on the women of Troy, now facing slavery in a foreign land.  Hecuba is the first to speak, she who was the queen of fabled Troy and who has watched her husband and children slain.  She has yet more grief ahead.  In the movie Katherine Hepburn plays this role quite movingly. We see her first as a heap of black rags beside the destroyed city gate, struggling to rise.


να, δύσδαιμον, πεδόθεν κεφαλή:
πάειρε δέρην: οκέτι Τροία
τάδε κα βασιλς σμεν Τροίας.
μεταβαλλομένου δαίμονος νέχου.
πλε κατ πορθμόν, πλε κατ δαίμονα,
μηδ προσίστω πρραν βιότου
πρς κμα πλέουσα τύχαισιν.
αα αα.

Up from the ground—O weary head, O breaking neck.
This is no longer Troy.  And we are not
the lords of Troy.
Endure.  The ways of fate are the ways of the wind.
Drift with the stream—drift with fate.
No use to turn the prow to breast the waves.
Let the boat go as it chances.
Sorrow, my sorrow.
[Translated by Edith Hamilton]

Euripides, The Trojan Women, 98-105

This is an expression of Troy's destruction that I painted in acrylic on canvas last night.  It is a first stab at understanding my own experience of the Fall of Troy.

You see, clear back in the eleventh grade I was taking Latin and we were reading The Aeneid of Vergil.  We read books I, II, IV, and VI that year.  Book Two recounts the fall of Troy from the viewpoint of Aeneas, a Trojan prince and warrior.  The Greeks do not come off well in this version, a Roman version and part of imperial propaganda that traces the Caesars back to Troy through Aeneas.

I would have been sixteen.  One night or weekend as I lay on my bed translating for class, I came to the death of Priam, King of Troy.  His wife, Hecuba, was gathered with their daughters in a sacred space, clutching the household gods.  Priam attempts to don his long-unused armor and Hecuba says, in modern parlance, "Hang it up, old man; it's all over."  As if that moment of despair were not enough, one of their many sons enters, chased by the son of Achilles.  Their son is slain before their eyes and when Priam reproaches the young warrior he is slain in turn, sent to join Achilles in Hades, beheaded right at the altar of Zeus.  As I translated this scene I wept.  I have never forgotten this.

Decades later I occasionally joined my friend Bill for his tutoring sessions in Spanish.  One of his tutors was not familiar with the story of Troy and I proposed that my assignment for that week be translating the same scene into Spanish.  I pulled out the Latin text and one or two English translations, my Spanish dictionary, and the best grammar and style I could muster.  As I rendered that scene into formal Spanish... I wept again.

The women heading into slavery, again from the movie.

If you are wondering, yes: now that I am studying Italian I hope to translate the same scene from the Latin into the best Italian I can muster before the end of the spring semester.

Since my high school days I have read all of the extant Greek tragedies (do not be all that impressed; there are only twenty-one of them) at least once, and some multiple times.  I have viewed live theatre productions of some of them and movie versions of several as well.  I love these powerful works of art.  Beyond that, however, anything related to the cycle of Troy touches me deeply and personally.  To this day I often become quite emotional discussing this and how it moves me.  A simple phrase can choke me up.

Which raises the question--especially now when I have begun the project of rereading The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid--why does this speak so profoundly and upset me so readily?  After all, I just confessed some of this in my oral presentation in Italian class and choked up several times this past week.  I do not propose to expose all my issues here; for all my sharing, this is a public forum and I am aware of that. But I can say a few things.

Asia in general, and Troy specifically, represented a number of things to the ancient Greeks.  (The following is my impression based on things I have heard and read but I could be corrected by scholars in the classics.  Nonetheless, we are speaking about my inner reality, so my impression counts in any case.) The East was the region of the exotic and the mysterious.  It represented the Other and thus could both fascinate and repel.  The fascination for Orientalia in Western painting and music (Madama Butterfly and Mikado, anyone?) testifies to an abiding aspect of this.  Troy and Asia  represented wealth to be envied and plundered. There was also the element of the untamed, the irrational, the sexual, and the feminine.  It was Tiamat and Leviathan, the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece and Medea, the sorceress who showed Jason how to steal the fleece.  Where but in Asia could a degenerate prince be raised who would violate hospitality and either seduce or kidnap another man's wife? (I write of Paris of Troy and Menelaus' wife Helen, of course.)

The lot of the losers, then and now, is typically death, exile, and slavery.  Nowadays it may be cultural exile and economic slavery, but the themes remain the same.  As the Romans summed it up: Vae victis! Woe to the conquered!

So then, what is Troy to western culture?  It has been a major theme in western culture since the time of Homer, providing material for all the arts down to the present day.  I would say the fall of Troy represents the death of a dream.  It was portrayed in ancient time as noble and civilized.  Even in the Greek Iliad, the Trojan hero Homer appears far more noble than the Greek hero Achilles.  Something exotic and rich and beautiful (and perhaps a bit wild) was destroyed, never to rise again.  It could not be overcome without deceit and would probably have prevailed if Fate and the gods had not decreed otherwise.  The Greek victory, that must have tasted sweet after ten years of fighting far from home, proved bitter for their homecoming was a rather fruitless and ugly one.

And for me?  Troy is some mythic symbol of all that wild, passionate, exotic, rich, vibrant energy in me that leads me to assert, repeatedly, que tengo alma latina en cuerpo sueco (that I have a Latin soul in a Swedish body).  No matter what my DNA may say, I am a passionate Mediterranean with little tolerance for the cold and dull (nor do I care for beer or hard liquor).  Bring me the sunshine, wine, olive oil, the savory variety of herbs; in one nod to being Swedish, throw in lots of butter.  I want music with rich rhythm that makes my hips twitch, even if I don't get up and dance.  I do not want to be tamed. (Huge understatement.)  And every situation, institution, context, or person in my life who has sought to tame me has felt to me like Greeks, stealing my Palladium, defiling my altars, slaughtering my warrior spirit, and carrying what is left of me into captivity and exile.  Troy, for me, is personal.

The three views above are of the statue by Bernini that depicts Aeneas fleeing the ruins of Troy.  On his shoulder he carries his father, Anchises, who holds the lares and penates (household gods).  At his side is Ascanius, his son.  Past, present, and future are represented and the very flesh of the three reflects--in the medium of marble!--the sagging flesh of the aged, the muscled strength of one in his prime, and the tender and slightly chubby body of childhood.  The expressions are powerful.  Ascanius seems to have the slightly lost incomprehension of a child, aware that things are very wrong but still innocent of the totality of horror from which he now flees.  Aeneas seems rather in shock, moving forward, aware yet not allowing himself fully to feel.  From one side Anchises seemed, to me, to have the the look of someone who has seen and suffered everything and knows loss beyond telling; from another angle he has a fierceness, looking forward to whatever unknown fate awaits him and his family.

When I entered the room in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, where this statue is housed, I needed no label to tell me what I was looking at.  This is in my blood.  After walking around it a bit, I stood and recited lines from The Aeneid (in Latin, of course--thank you Mrs. Wiley).  Tears streamed down my cheeks and I did not care who saw me.  All the irrevocable loss and the vast unknown future in every story, and that story, and my story was there.

We cannot live in the dream, we have to live into our destiny, much as Aeneas did.  We cannot stay in Troy, nor in Carthage.  The Lavinian shore awaits us, whatever that may be in your story or mine.  But we live with the memory of the dream and we know what has been lost (if we allow ourselves to acknowledge and feel it).  In an earlier post I wrote of how exile, loss, and journey are themes that run through my novels and also in the poems and writings I did when I was in my twenties.

Almost every time I refer to the following, I choke up.

Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
inde toro pater Aeneas sic orsus ab alto:

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai, quaeque ipse miserrima vidi
et quorum pars magna fui. 

 Queen Dido of Carthage has asked Aeneas, at a banquet, to tell of Troy's fall.  He begins with the phrase, "You have commanded me, O Queen, to renew an unspeakable sorrow."  I managed to type that in English without getting misty, but don't ask me to recite it in Latin.

For whatever complex set of reasons, some of which I understand, I bear in my soul abiding grief over Troy because Troy is a symbol of all the sorrow of my life and of the world.  At least that is how it speaks to me.

Aeneas also said, to his companions after a shipwreck, "Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit."  "Perhaps some day even these things will bring joy as they are remembered."  LOL.  I have not yet gotten there.  Nonetheless, I receive each day as a gift and rejoice to be alive.

--the BB

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Il difensore nascosto

[Spoiler alert, but by the time that book is published you will have forgotten.]
In volume eight of The Chronicles of Mídhris a devastating magical fire is unleashed.  It spreads like the shock waves of an atomic blast and lays waste an immense territory.  The flames are magenta and violet.  Its southern spread is mostly stopped by rivers but at one point where the River Gethwick meanders about the castle at Hurnen the flames, which clearly have a will of their own, gather like a giant wave poised to crash across the river and destroy Hurnen and beyond.

A foreign monk who had arrived with merchants stands on the battlements with anxious watchers.  Bystanders and even a few soldiers flee as the threat increases.  The first draft of the tale, from about 1974, continues as follows:

"In clear, unwavering pure Old Mithron, which only he and the elements understood, he forbade the fire to touch Hurnen, since [H] was dead and he, Matija of Burnley and Dyrnmantle, was now master of the keep.  The violet flames hung in the air, wavering, struggling to blast Hurnen from existence.
     "'You shall not!' he cried out, and the fire withdrew, scattering crimson sparks in the air.  Then it dimmed, grew small, and faded to embers on the far shore.  The monk lowered his arms and turned to behold a courtyard full of kneeling villagers and of soldiers with swords drawn."

Evocative of Gandalf crying, "You shall not pass!" is it not?  But it is my own.

Sir Matija, as he was known among the Isseni spies and Perrine merchants, is Matthew Roger Deveril from our own world, a California boy (of sorts) with bloodlines from all over Europe.

His great grandmère, shown in the lower right, was a wise woman to whom people turned for herbs and secret knowledge.  The only thing that kept her from being denounced as a witch was her friendship with the village priest's mistress. She often went out at night and sometimes her daughter secretly followed. The little girl was enchanted by what she witnessed, though she did not understand it.  Berthe would sing to the stars. She also sometimes found an unusual plant with star-shaped flowers.

Readers of Darkslayer will understand that Ian's family were not the only ones who had links between Earth and the planet of which Mídhris was but one region.

For all that, Matt was never viewed as something special.  Yes, he was on the football team and rather handsome but he was just the good guy down the street.  It was not fame or glamor or anything unusual that appealed to Gwyn Owens but rather his solidity.  When her world was shaken he was always there for her.  Yet he was called to Mídhris as surely as she was, lured or driven by the Stars, and in his long journey there he found unusual powers and inner resources within himself. And when it came time to defend the one he loved, he stood, alone, against the Great Devastation.   For a brief while he became a mighty usjeva, a person of power.  Who knows how the blood of star singers, penitentes, gypsies, and mystics combined in him and became potentiated by the forces of that magical other world?  But happen it did, and was remembered in the arms granted to him: Per chevron Or et Vert du Roi, over all a Sword erect with a blade argent, pommel and haft Or, the blade surrounded by flames Gules.  The field or gold and olive green borrowed the colors of his lady, Gwyn, fellow student at UCLA and Terran Margravine of Wolmsley through her Mithron genes.  The sword that evokes cherubim guarding Eden speaks of his ability to establish an inviolable barrier.

We do not all get to be superheroes but we love them in our comic books and movies.

Matt acted out of a love that would dare anything to protect his beloved.  Whether we turn into heroes in the eyes of the world or not, we all have something of this in us.  Most parents strive mightily to protect their children from harm and equip them to survive (and thrive) in the world, even though we all know that no one can keep anyone perfectly safe from accidents and tragedies, large and small.  But we try.

Matt came to mind when pondering the issue of standing up to defend what matters and who matters.

I have something of a mama bear in me when it comes to people I care about.  You do not want to hurt them because I will want to hurt you.  I may not act that out but I will want to.  It is my knee-jerk response and it can be ferocious and mindless. On at least one occasion I even ran into the face of unknown danger to rescue a damsel in distress and she was only a neighbor.  I gave no thought to it; I responded by instinct.  In fact, I roared as I did so.  I am also pretty good at being there for consolation and encouragement when friends and loved ones are discouraged or hurt.

When it comes time to stand up for myself, to defend myself, to be fierce on my own behalf: not so much.  Slowly getting better at it.  The challenge is that just as I might not hesitate to roar and rush in for someone else, it does not even occur to me that I can stand up and roar on my own behalf.  An immense conscious effort is required for me to say, "No!"

Granted, I can be stubborn, self-indulgent, and passive aggressive.  Those are hardly healthy ways of standing up for myself, of defining salutary balance and appropriate boundaries.  Lots of work remains.

May we all find the hidden defender within ourselves when that is needed.  We don't usually need a superhero but we do need the courage of love.  Including love for ourselves.

--the BB