Category Archives: Journal

The Hunger Games: When People Are Desperate

Early in the first book of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, Prim. In a post apocalyptic North America, Prim is marked by a “reaping” ceremony.

The ceremony chooses youth to participate in an obscene game where desperate teenagers are forced to kill each other for the amusement of a corrupt empire’s elites. (The series alludes to the “bread and circus” of the Roman Empire’s arena games.)

As Katniss ignites a resistance movement, she becomes the symbol of a downtrodden people finally rebelling against the sins of a bloated, selfish aristocracy.

In one scene, an old man defiantly raises his hand in the salute that came to define those resisting evil. He would be killed and so would many others, as the elite answered with the only weapon they knew—physical power.

But his defiance is a beginning.

Another scene begins with only a muttering, barely discernable. Then figures rise out of the mist, marching to what they know will be death for many of them. But they are desperate.

They carry their explosives toward a huge hydroelectric dam. They are not so much attacking people, though the structure’s guards will die in the dam’s rupture.

They are attacking a symbol of an evil wealth built on the backs of forgotten, powerless poor.

They march on, their front ranks decimated by the guards’ firing, but eventually their sheer numbers prevail. They set their explosives and try to escape, but regardless, the timers have been set.

The dam explodes, and in the capital, haunt of the wealthy, the lights go out.

The theme of The Hunger Games is not new: a people may overcome when hope ignites enough willingness to suffer for a greater good. The old narrative of helpless people resisting the overlordship of a corrupt elite entices us with its stark portrayal of injustice.

I’m uneasy with the violence of the series, if violence is intended as the ultimate answer to wrongs. Nonviolence, a part of countless protests from the American civil rights movement to others in eastern European countries and other parts of the world, mark a higher way to resist evil.

This kind of resistance wishes not to demonize but rather to change both powerful and powerless.

Capturing Time; Freeing Time

“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”

—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

We walk a fine line, some of us do, between wasting time and constricting time.

A properly scheduled life boots us from too much laziness. On the other hand, a time too constricted prevents us from the idle moments we need to wander and imagine and recuperate.

I’m a morning person. I spend a lot of the morning writing. Then the afternoon traps me. Neglected tasks stare me in the face, the tasks I need to do but hate.

Well, why not work on those tasks in the morning when I’m more enthusiastic about life in general and save writing, which I love, for the afternoon?

Because I end up bypassing the writing. By afternoon the demands of life have captured me, and I can’t return to morning’s freshness, when my imagination leads.

So, I set out an afternoon schedule: a group of chores from which I can pick one, or on good days, two. Enough time for exercise.

But—some days, or afternoons, I laze and do what I want. No hard and fast rule about them.

Perhaps I can incorporate the quote attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr: “Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In other words, to know when to push and when to let go.

Vacations by the Inch

My husband and I once took an Alaskan cruise. We felt like gilded age tycoons. We could relax on the deck or in sheltered salons with ocean views. Feasts were provided, all kinds of food, in myriad settings: buffet, sit down, café. Art sales. A library.

We decided this type of vacation, besides being too expensive, didn’t suit us. For the first day, it was okay, but after that, the luxury seemed artificial and unsuited to our frugal mind set. Besides, it was fattening.

If we ever wanted to experience life at sea again, we decided, we would sign up for a tramp steamer. Meanwhile, we opt for short vacations—a weekend at some out of the way (and affordable) lodging, close to hiking, for example.

Plus, after a time of intense activity with obligations and meetings, sometimes we take a day off. Eat out for lunch. Read all afternoon.

Almost every day, we stop in the late afternoon, enjoy tea, play scrabble, and read.

Vacations by the inch.

Born on Third Base

Chuck Collins, heir to a wealthy trust fund, decided at age 26 to transfer his wealth to four grant-making foundations. He made this decision after working with a group of mobile home owners struggling to raise money to buy the land where they parked their trailers.

Collins could no longer justify to himself his advantages over the “99 percent” (including those mobile home owners) because he was born wealthy. He had paid his college expenses out of his trust fund, yet had seen that fund double during his college years.

He likens being born wealthy to being Born on Third Base, the title of his book. He did not earn the education or the upper class home or the security and safety that would forever give him an advantage over the 99 percent, even if he gave away his money.

However, Collins is not interested in shaming the wealthy. His goal is to convince the wealthy to become partners in building a more just society.

He points out the benefits reaped by Americans of a few decades ago which grew the economy of the country: GI education bills, cheaper college tuition, affordable mortgages for homes, workers’ wages that were not so unequal to those of their bosses, higher taxation on the wealthy.

He believes some redistribution of income is only fair, since the wealthy have themselves benefitted from subsidies for years: tax breaks, for example, which amount to a subsidy for the more well off. He favors a “GI Bill for the next generation.”

He wants the help of the rich in creating a tax system in which the wealthy pay their fair share. He hopes to persuade them to understand “the shortsightedness of an economic system that funnels most income to the few.”

Digital Servants: Candidates for Spiritual Discipline

Spiritual disciplines aren’t necessarily about giving up evil practices. They deal more with disciplining ourselves to control the neutral or even good things in our lives.

Food is not only enjoyable but necessary. So is our need for social interaction.

But just as we can overeat, we can overindulge in the time we spend with our digital devices.

We gain too much weight, not only from overeating, but also from eating the wrong kinds of food like refined sugar and trans fats.

We can spend time with the wrong kinds of digital input like pornography, but we can also waste time with gossipy items on celebrities.

In my case, I’m inclined to overdose on news items. In the hyper charged political climate we live in, I can spend hours following rabbit trails about our political leaders and their outrageous antics.

I try to limit the number of times I enter internet space. The early morning tends to be my most productive time for writing, so except for checking the weather, I ignore the internet, including emails. Than, after a few hours of writing, I break for exercise and checking the news on my iPad.

Unless I’m waiting for something urgent, I wait for afternoon to check emails, scanning for important items that may need a response, and deleting junk stuff. The more important reading I usually save until later in the day, when I feel I’ve accomplished more worthwhile tasks.

Obviously, if communication is a regular part of your job, or you are a parent of young children, or you work in certain kinds of employment, your routine will differ.

The point is to discipline ourselves to use our devices at proper times of our choosing. They are helpful servants but atrocious masters.

Thoughts on Reading Atlas Shrugged

I read Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, several years ago. Granted I did occasionally skim through the dialog, some of which is not dialog but long speeches. (Presenters at writers’ conferences warn novelists to avoid this type of dialog like a mortal sin.)

The main characters are Dagny Taggart, a railroad magnate, and the mysterious John Galt, who, as it turns out, has established a hidden capitalist nirvana, for such people as Taggart. As the world collapses from the weight of the undeserving masses living off the work of the brave capitalists, true capitalism lives on in this heavenly retreat.

As I read Rand’s book, I wondered what happened to people who were handicapped or became ill. Unfortunate accidents do happen to people, rendering them unable to work. Do we leave such people by the side of the road to die? Kill them, resembling Nazis executioners?

Following World War II, capitalism defeated Soviet-style communism, which Rand knew as a child and rebelled against. Capitalism is an efficient way to run an economy, as long as capitalists are understood as humans like the rest of us. Any of us can become dangerous if we have unfettered power—whether we are socialists or capitalists.

Would some capitalists, being human, if given absolute power, not be tempted to worship wealth? To accumulate wealth with little regard for worker safety or clean air and water or the ability of their workers to afford decent housing or send their children to college with the wages paid them?

Read Adam Lee Alternet’s critique of this book in Salon (“10 (insane) things I learned about Atlas Shrugged,” April 29, 2014) for some interesting observations.

Then read other views of Rand’s philosophy in The New York Times.

When We Want the Good Guy/Gal to Win, but They Don’t

The good guy or gal traditionally wins in movies and books because we want him/her to do so. Most of us want good to win. We want fairness to win. We want the oppressed underdog to win. Stories that play to this deep-seated hunger satisfy us.

More books and movies today project a dark edge. Evil may win or, as in Gone Girl, the story doesn’t have a “good” protagonist.

Perhaps we are exhausted by the violence and hatred we witness in today’s world, the seemingly endless acts of anger: ISIS, school shootings, road rage, political hatred, slaughter of children in Syria—they go on and on and on. Perhaps the new stories cater to our pessimism.

Choosing hope while working for change during times of hopelessness requires courage. Those who do so are the placeholders. They keep hope alive for better times.

 

Leaving Our Tribe

Whenever we leave a “tribe”—a group of people we’ve been closely associated with for a period of time—we may feel we’ve lost our identity on returning to “normal” society.

One combat veteran who suffered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suggested that veterans of combat be sent back together when returning to civilian life. They had formed a unit. Perhaps return to society could be done together. They would confront “normal” life as a unit, just as they faced combat together. (What It Is Like to Go to War; Karl Marlantes)

In Saudi Arabia in 2003, where I served with U.S. embassy and consulate staffs during the second Gulf war against Iraq, we had experienced a prolonged period of increasing danger to Americans. Several terrorist incidents finally led to partial evacuation of staff.

As one of those sent “home,” I experienced a strange sense of loss. My disorientation was hardly worthy of the name when compared with someone returning from combat. Yet the sensation, half of sorrow for no longer having a “tribe” of fellow colleagues facing danger together, was real enough.

I incorporated them into one character’s feelings in Tender Shadows on her return to the States from a similar situation:

“ . . . she remembered last evening in her sterile apartment. Flipping through fifty television channels from sheer loneliness and finding nothing of worth. The country she’d come back to . . . offered twenty-four-hour food service, shop-‘til-you-drop malls, and movies filled with angst and black humor. Washington allowed no ready-made community like her foreign assignments.”

For this fictional character as with others in real life stressful situations, community is the missing ingredient.

Capitalism: Neither God nor Satan

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s incisive book, Strangers in Their Own Land, portrays citizens in Louisiana caught between watching the industrialized devastation of their beloved state and their need for jobs. “It’s the sacrifice we make for capitalism,” one says.

Some of us see capitalism as some kind of god that we must serve. One may also worship socialism or money or government. In fact, all, it seems to me, are neutral, capable of either evil or good, depending on the type of allegiance we give them.

A saying of the early Christian missionary, Paul, is often quoted as “money is the root of all evil.” That is not what he said. He said “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil . . .” It’s the love of money (or capitalism or government or whatever) that is the problem.

Capitalism is neutral. It can be used for good: money from individuals pooled to form companies and create jobs. Or it can be used for evil: the extraction of maximum profit no matter what ecological or human damage it causes.

Government, I believe is similar. It is neither good nor evil in itself. Rightly used, government protects us from foreign enemies, crime, and economic predators. It can create programs that serve its citizens, like social security, in a way that private industry can’t.

Wrongly used, it can take from workers in order to give to the wealthy. Without adequate oversight, its resources can be wasted or riven with corruption.

Workers, needing jobs, tend to worship capitalism and hate government. Others, seeing only the tragedy of ecological devastation, tend to reverse their worship.

In fact, worship is a poor choice for either. Better is a watchful use of both.

You’re Not From Here, Are You?

As I shopped in a supermarket in my northwest U.S. community, a woman asked me where she might find a certain item. I gave her the information.

“You’re not from here, are you?” she responded.

I admitted my birth and rearing in Nashville, Tennessee. It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived all over the United States and in several foreign countries for decades. The accent remains.

I was reminded of my origins when I read an article in The New York Times, “The Passion of Southern Christians” (April 8, 2017) by Margaret Renkl.

One paragraph especially moved me, reading it as I did after returning from a church service a week before Easter. The service had reminded us of Jesus’ disciple, Peter, and his actions following the arrest of Jesus by the authorities.

Fearful of consequences if he was seen as a Jesus person, Peter denied all connection with him. One person thought Peter had to be a follower, though, because his Galilean accent betrayed him.

Renkl wrote: “I have a lot of sympathy for Peter these days. Here it is nearly Easter, and for the first time in my life I don’t want anyone to know I’m a believer. To many, ‘Christian’ has become synonymous with angry white voters in red hats, personally responsible for handcuffing all those mothers and wrenching them out of their sobbing children’s arms.”

Yes, I’m a Southerner, still following Jesus, the person I first learned about in a church in Nashville, Tennessee. So it’s not just my accent but my religious persuasion that may mark me as “not from here.”

Despite the accent and the religion, I didn’t vote for Trump. As Renkl writes, “Watching Christians put him in the White House has completely broken my heart.”

On the other hand, with Renkl, I believe in resurrection. The accent matters no more in the Christian faith than those early differences between Jew and Gentile.

So What’s Wrong with Doubt?

In a thought provoking article, Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, spoke with a Christian pastor, Timothy Keller: ( “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?” December 23, 2016).

Keller makes the argument that faith and skepticism are not necessarily opposites. Reasoning can, and probably should be, a part of faith. He also answers in the affirmative that he and most people of faith struggle with doubt at times.

Keller says, “Neither statement—‘There is no supernatural reality beyond this world’ and ‘There is a transcendent reality beyond this material world’—can be proved empirically, nor is either self-evident to most people. So they both entail faith.”

Useless wars, religious and otherwise, have been fought between groups, each certain of their reasons for killing the other. The author Ron Hansen was quoted as saying, “the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.”

Mystics, whom we hold to be especially close to God, have nevertheless spoken of a “dark night of the soul,” a moment of despair that they must work through.

According to the Christian New Testament, even Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” when he was suffering crucifixion.

Faith that is tested can be a stronger faith for that testing.

What Minority Do You Belong To?

Though hate crimes against American Muslims (or people perceived as such) have increased, recent news has focused on the increasing numbers of hate crimes against American Jews.

David Harris Gershon, a writer for various publications, wrote an article in November, 2015, about American hatred of Muslims from the viewpoint of a Jewish American.

Some of his remarks seem especially prophetic today:

“. . . I have watched the growth of our nation’s post 9/ll Islamophobia with not just heartbreak for Muslim Americans, but with a tinge of fear, knowing this hatred could easily boomerang and hit any group—including Jews—if allowed to continue.”

Gershon wrote after an armed band of men, some masked, stood outside a Muslim center in Dallas. They were there, they said, to protest the Islamization of America, as well as Syrian refugees, and Islam in general. Obviously, any Muslims coming to worship there would be intimidated, which no doubt was their purpose.

Whether against Jews, Muslims, Christians, persons of color, Suni, Shia, Hindus, evangelicals, tea partyers, liberals, conservatives, or any of the thousands of religious and political communities known in the world today, hate is hate.

And every one of us is a member of some minority.

Here is Gershon’s article.