Who was Cassandra?
In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters
of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo
loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed
that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow
Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well,
you know what happened.
the cassandra pages
words, pictures, and a life
Monday, March 31, 2003
(yesterday) We’ve stopped for gas at the Betty Beaver filling station in Fonda, New York. Unlike the stations lining the strip up in Fultonville, where prices were as high as $1.75 per gallon, Betty Beaver offers us $1.61 and a view across the Erie Canal, flowing high with the spring run-off along willow-lined banks. The Canal is about the only picturesque thing left in Fonda. The downtown is all but abandoned. I notice that an old brick church I’ve long admired has fallen in on its foundations over the winter, and except for one family emerging from the pizza parlor in one of the old storefronts, and a few kids buying creemies at the dairy bar, just opened for spring, there’s no activity at all.
I’ve been doing an unofficial flag count as we drive. When we crossed into New York, the flags – many at half-mast -- became more numerous, along with occasional bedraggled yellow ribbons tied around trees, and “We Support our Troops” and “God Bless America” messages on the moveable-letter signboards in front of businesses, VFWs, and churches. Only one Episcopal Church in Hudson expressed anything slightly ambiguous: “Pray. Pray Real Hard”.
Maybe it’s the mud and last piles of rotten, gravel-crusted snow, but what we notice the most is how depressed these areas seem to be. Despite the plethora of fast-food franchises on the Fultonville strip above Fonda, local businesses look like they’re really hurting. When we stop for a sandwich next door, I wander over to the Copy Cat Gift Shop. Two small American flags top a “God Bles Our Troops” sign, with missing letters, watched over by a collection of dusty clocks, baskets, and haphazard Easter bunnies in pink and yellow plush. It looks like nobody’s been inside in months.
But in this town with its romantic history of slow-motion transportation on the Canal, the new icon is the internal combustion engine. Despite the apparently slow local economy, the second-biggest category of businesses on the strip are car dealerships: each one has a bigger, shinier display of the largest pickup trucks and SUVs available, and plenty of people are wandering in and out of the rows, looking. Nowdays the big deal in Fonda is the NASCAR racetrack. The local McDonald’s is filled with stock car memorabilia and a big “Welcome Race Fans!” banner, and even here, at Betty Beaver’s, gas sales are supplemented by the “Chrome Shop” inside, selling fancy hubcaps and hood ornaments. Betty is patriotic, too: she’s a cartoon beaver with a buxom, star-studded chest, a short red-and-white-striped skirt on her cinched waist, buck-teeth and long eyelashes, and she wields a gas pump under her motto: “Get the Fever, Fuel with the Beaver.”
It’s an easy target -- this simplistic marriage of flags and gasoline, patriotic and race-day fervor, high-octane engines and male adrenaline. But I’ll pass this time, and just carry my own depression up the Thruway. I can’t deplore international cultural ignorance and then allow myself to engage in liberal, urban bashing of smalltown America and its obsessions too, especially when I know it all too well from the place I grew up. I know the combination of boredom and hopelessness that keeps people revving those engines all their lives, keeps them in front of the blue flickering tubes at night, or fascinated by cars going round and round a track, where the greatest exictement and biggest fear is of spinning out, out, out of control toward an unpredictable, fiery fate.
Friday, March 28, 2003 Our primitive response to the despicable regime of Saddam Hussein represents not only a failure of more than two centuries of American democracy to distinguish itself from the way the world has always worked, but it also represents the failure of more than 2000 years of Christianity to offer the world what St, Paul referred to as "a better way." We are faced with present evidence of Gandhi's conviction that "Everyone knows that Christianity is a religion of peace, except the Christians." What a terrible shame that is.
As an American and a Christian, I must live with the burden of that, remembering that others will die because of it...The war may well mark a monumental failure of Christianity but it does not mark a failure of Christ. The failure of Christianity is not a failure of its substance but of its practice. As Alfred North Whitehead said: "It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but that it's been found hard and not tried." Douglas Theuner, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire
We're leaving after the noontime Friday vigil to go visit family. It will be interesting to hear and feel what the atmosphere and atitudes are like in a far more rural area than this. I'm also sure we'll be experiencing major withdrawal from fast internet access to the news. Will try to post from there ...we'll see...
Thursday, March 27, 2003
Robert Fisk's commentaries are the most powerful journalistic writing I've seen coming out of this war. Today's post "It was an outrage, and obscenity" is emotional, shocking, irrefutable...after daytimes of visiting hospitals and bombing sites, he reads a biography of Thomas More in the evenings, hunkered down in a Baghdad basement somewhere with a pile of apples and bananas.
These days I am often asked what I did in Tehran as bombs fell during the Iran-Iraq war. My interlocutors are invariably surprised, if not shocked, when I tell them that I read James, Eliot, Plath and great Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez. Yet it is precisely during such times, when our lives are transformed by violence, that we need works of imagination to confirm our faith in humanity, to find hope amid the rubble of a hopeless world. Memoirs from concentration camps and the gulag attest to this. I keep returning to the words of Leon Staff, a Polish poet who lived in the Warsaw ghetto: "Even more than bread we now need poetry, in a time when it seems that it is not needed at all..." Nafisi says he reminded his students, during the Iran-Iraq war,, of Nabokov writing poetry in Russia "while guns roared and the Winter Palace was stormed."
The preciousness of beauty: in the garden today I spotted a clump of white snowdrops emerging from layers of snow, mud, and leaves. When I was young, it was always special to find these first signs of spring and bring a few into the house to my grandmother. She was a masterful gardener who gave me not only her love for growing things, but an awareness that gardening is an extension of hospitality, a gift to anyone who passes by even without entering the yard, a way of creating serenity for others. Today I remembered my grandfather, still strong at nearly 90, detaining me at dusk as I was leaving for the long six-hour drive back to New England, and asking, "wouldn't you like a clump of snowdrops?" So of course I waited while he got the shovel and dug them and wrapped them carefully in plastic and in brown paper. Fifteen springs later, they're still blooming.
Wednesday, March 26, 2003 “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people…of the characters and conduct of their rulers. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees for the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust is insidiously betrayed, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have disputed, and to constitute abler and better agents, attorneys, and trustees.” John Adams, second President of the United States
Tuesday, March 25, 2003
I hadn't seen all the pictures of casualties and U.S. POWs that Al-Jazeera has been showing, and when I clicked on these pictures I was literally blown back in my seat. I've looked at a lot of war pictures this year, and I thought I was prepared, but these are really visceral, so be forewarned. On the other hand, I wish they were being broadcast into every American home. Instead, they are being censored in the mass media and the websites that supply them are being shut down, while the images are simultaneously shown repeatedly throughout the Arab world. We all make our own icons -- how many times did we see the planes crash into the Twin Towers, or the shuttle blow up? -- for our own purposes. How about if we suppress our squeamishness and take a look at the reality of the rest of the world, including what is happening to our own children that have been sent to fight?
We had 29 participants at the interfaith service today - a record. The feeling in the room was solemn, sad, and very present. These are good people who care deeply, and I am always thankful to be among them and to have the privilege of leading. I read a passage from Paul's letter to the Romans that ends, " do not repay evil with evil", and immediately afterwards, although the reciter and I had not conferred, we heard a reading from the Qu'ran with the same injunction.
We also heard a moving reflection by a Lutheran pastor who has just come off three years of serving in Jerusalem. She read an account of a dream that she had written to her husband this morning; he is still working there. In her dream, she was inside a church with many other people, when a crowd of armed soldiers came in. Voices were raised. She was wearing her clerical collar, and didn't want to get involved. But finally she started shouting, "No arms in this church!" . The soldiers hadn't left before she woke up. "Not too hard to figure that one out," she said. "War and conflict are penetrating right into our lives of faith, and even the church is no longer a sanctuary for any of us."
After that I read Rachel Corrie's words, and made it through.
Monday, March 24, 2003
How can it be such a gorgeous day here with so much horror going on elsewhere in the world? It is, as ee cummings said, "mud-luscious", a true spring day, the first when I've been able to get out into my garden. Lots of damage from the heavy and deep snow, lots of dieback and even loss from the extreme cold. But it's glorious and hopeful to be out there and see my green friends poking their heads up again.
Spent the morning planning tomorrow's interfaith prayer service. Each month I do a reading, along with the prayers and meditations. Am considering reading from Rachel Corrie's writings. But every time I try to read the words out loud, I start to lose it -- and I can't do that in a service. So, I guess I'll practice until I can, it's what needs to be read and thought about:
When I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in a role of human rights observer, documenter, or direct-action resister. They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul. I know that the situation gets to them - and may ultimately get them - on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity - laughter, generosity, family-time - against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of death. I felt much better after this morning. I spent a lot of time writing about the disappointment of discovering, somewhat first-hand, the degree of evil of which we are still capable. I should at least mention that I am also discovering a degree of strength and of basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances - which I also haven't seen before. I think the word is dignity. I wish you could meet these people. Maybe, hopefully, someday you will. Rachel Corrie, 2/28/03
Sunday, March 23, 2003
My church got a new interim Rector three weeks ago. We've gone from a conservative evangelical from the Plains to an Eastern academic liberal. And since this is an Eastern academic liberal town, it feels like an enormous relief -- although certainly not to some. After many years of never hearing a social justice sermon, we have had two in a row: deeply heartfelt pleas to examine ourselves and our relationship to the real Gospel. Today the assistant preached, and left most of us in jaw-dropped amazement at the passion in her words. She spoke about the sickness in our culture; our obsession with violence, guns, and sex; our self-centeredness; our tremendous anxiety; our turning away from the true problems of the world -- and asked us where we stood.
(One immediate thought: are even the clergy so intimidated by church patriarchy and hierarchy that it takes the physical absence of a former Rector to give another permission to speak truly and deeply from her heart? Or did the events of the last week simply move her to speak with special passion and authority today?)
As a lay person, I've been actively working and organizing for peace and cross-cultural/interfaith dialogue, within and outside this congregation, for more than two years. There's been minimal clerical support, and reasonable support from the congregation itself. Last week I got up and announced the global candlelight vigil for peace, and we had a pretty good contingent that evening. Today I made a short speech describing a conversation with my close Muslim friend this week where she told me, "This is a test - God is testing all of us." I said I agreed with her and with the sermon, in which the witness of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer was mentioned. "We have all been given an opportunity," I said, "to examine our own relationship to our faith and to actively respond, rather than reading about people who've been in this position throughout history. Perhaps we should be grateful. And surely, at the very least, we can come together and pray for peace."
What was most interesting to me was the feeling in the room. Some people were moved and were in tears, and others were serious, sympathetic, and right with me. A few -- mostly Republican men -- looked openly hostile. But most seemed attentive yet uncomfortable. Between the sermons and these announcements, our "nice" Episcopalian atmosphere was being shaken. People were being called to self-examination in a far more immediate way than is normal for this parish, even during Lent. There was an almost palpable sense of people's inward writhing, wishing perhaps that they could just write a check and assuage their conscience -- but knowing that path was probably not going to be offered this time.
Increasingly, I'm coming to understand better what Bonhoeffer called "the cost of discipleship". Part of that cost is a sense of isolation, while paradoxically being motivated by an ever-growing sense of compassion. Of course, for Bonhoeffer, discipleship went all the way, and what I do is really paltry by comparison. Today's sermon stated, "We are asked to take a stand, and we must not be afraid." It's astounding how few people are willing or able to do that. I've always wondered about the regular citizenry of Nazi Germany -- how could they have been so silently complicit? Tragically, we are seeing how. People turn away because they are afraid, and because despite their years of sitting in pews listening to religious scripture, or in classrooms studying human history, when it comes down to it they lack the moral backbone to make their lives count for something beyond themselves. We are creatures bent on self-preservation, and the cost of being something other than that is high.
Saturday, March 22, 2003
Meanwhile, spring is coming to my village. On Thursday the ice started to break up in the river, and apparently it flooded the home of a family of beavers living on an island near the bridge. But these are resiliant, well-prepared refugees. Looking down, we could see six beavers swimming, hanging out on the bank and on big chunks of ice, and chewing sticks. It was hard to tell if they were already engaged in rebuilding, or just waiting out the high water to see if they could go back home. Maybe I can tell when I go back down to check today. In the trees outside my house, huge flocks of suddenly-returned redwing blackbirds are making a huge joyful racket -- and yesterday I spotted some pussy willows in the swamp. Maple sugarers say the sap is running intermittently. So it's coming -- and after this winter, not a moment too soon.
Couldn't sleep much last night. And, frankly, why should I have the peacefulness of sleep when my country is bombing a foreign country, terrorizing its residents, killing its poor conscripted soldiers ("I felt kind of sorry of them," said one generous American officer in today's news, "they looked like they hadn't had much to eat."), on the basis of flimsy lies and hypocrisy? "To eliminate weapons of mass destruction". Yep. And to do so, we get to unleash the most horrific display of the same that the world has ever seen. Sorry, world, only America gets to have the weapons, only America gets to control the playground. I saw a photo yesterday of two protesters holding a sign that had a map of the world, with every country colored-in with the stars and stripes, and at the top it said, "The American Dream". Since that's not MY dream, or a dream ever held by anyone in my family or anyone close to me, it makes me cringe with shame and go limp with horror and helplessness to stop this war machine operating in our names.
At our Friday vigil yesterday, one woman held a sign that simply read," Madness. Madness. Madness."
Was anyone besides me stunned by Richard Perle's editorial in yesterday's Guardian? His title: "Thank God for the Death of the UN." What a display of arrogance. I wonder if these self-styled Christians have ever read the books of Kings or Chronicles, and what the prophets had to say about overreaching power, pride, and self-righteousness. And even leaving aside the prophets - these are books of history, and they tell what happened to that long, long succession of kings that came after David. It wasn't exactly pretty.
Excellent interview, though brief, with journalist Chris Hedges on NPR. A friend sent the transcript. He is talking about the myth-making that happens in time of war: "...we don't look at ourselves in wartime with any kind of self-criticism or self-awareness. We have become good. We have become the saviors of the planet. I mean, this flies in the face of tremendous opposition and anger towards us across the globe. But, you know, even our allies, the French and the British, when they criticize the effort, we turn on them. And, you know, for instance, I find--the jokes about the French on the late-night shows, I don't find them funny. They're racist, and they are a symptom of our narcissism, the fact that we now stare into the pool and see only our own reflection, and a symptom of that racism that is always the flip side of nationalism."
Thursday, March 20, 2003
Can you feel it? The tension as the short, brittle hours count down; the faint but palpable cries from faraway hearts?
I am brittle today too: edgy, irritated, snapping at my husband uncharacteristically, realizing I need to handle the porcelain teapot with extra care. I can’t bear what’s about to happen.
Those who aren’t pacifists apparently can’t understand this pacing, these sweaty palms, the sickness inside. They don’t share the sense of personal responsibility and complicity I feel in the face of war, genocide, and execution.
But neither can I understand how someone can send another person’s child into war, or how they can face even a single morning knowing they’ve caused the deaths of innocent civilians, let alone another human being. I cannot fathom war-as-theory, war-as-game, or victory in war as something thrilling. I can’t imagine what kind of perversion of the human spirit creates a person who can plan to launch the greatest destructive force the world has ever known, and then claim to "sleep like a baby".
What I do understand is the agony of a beautiful activist friend who seems to be wasting away before my eyes. "Are you eating?" I ask her.
"Yes, I’m eating," she tells me. "I look haggard because I’m not sleeping. I can’t sleep because this thing is breaking my heart."
And so I’ve spent the day -- this day that feels like an ultimate Good Friday -- trying to work, trying to do "normal" things, well aware that nothing is normal, that it may be a very long time before the world feels normal again. As a pacifist and a liberal Christian, I’m wracked by two conflicting emotions: the desire to be peaceful and centered and to have the ability to pray for the innocents, for the soldiers, and for Bush and Hussein and all the other leaders whose policies I abhor -- and an intense anger at everyone who has contributed to bringing us to this abyss. On this day of self-examination I don’t exempt myself. Somehow it doesn’t help in these final hours to know that I’ve been a dedicated antiwar activist, to know I’ve tried. All I have to do is look around at my comfortable home, or hear the oil-burning furnace come on, or draw some clean water from the tap. All I have to do is walk over to the filing cabinet and take out last year’s tax return with my signature at the bottom, authorizing the use of my money for whatever purpose my government decides. What percentage for tanks and bombs and depleted uranium shells? I could do the math and figure out my personal subsidy. If I really wanted to go crazy, I could do the math.
The anger persists, and toward mid-afternoon I realize a lot of it is anger at that particular kind of high-testosterone male aggression that is fueled by revenge. It cannot see the victim, cannot empathize, cannot imagine another way other than striking out with violence. It feeds on itself and on talk with other like members of the species, enlarging, encouraging, exaggerating, moving inexorably toward a violent, cathartic release. These are the 82% of Republican men who give Bush his biggest support in the polls. They’re the young men in souped-up cars who yell obscenities at us as we stand for our street-corner vigils. They’re the guys who perpetuate our culture of violent video games, movies and TV, tune in to Fox, and can’t wait to watch the U.S. kick Saddam’s ass.
This is the maleness that has given rise to, and perpetuated, all patriarchal systems. Theirs is the personal patriarchy that treats women as property but insists it is only protecting them. Theirs is the patriarchy that institutionalized oppression of women, and allowed slavery, and fought tooth and nail against emancipation and equal rights for any groups other than itself. It is the patriarchy that destroyed native cultures, and gave rise to colonialism and empire-building. It is the patriarchy that chooses theory over empathy, the patriarchy that always knows best
I believe that what we’re seeing now are the last, desperate acts of the remaining believers in patriarchal systems. How ironic that we are witnessing a confrontation between George Bush and his cabal -- the ultimate inheritors of the Western tradition of unfettered white male power -- against Islamic fundamentalists, determined to hold onto the last vestiges of an Eastern tribal tradition rooted in male dominance and fearing nothing more than equal rights and freedom for women. And if the fundamentalists sound incredibly backward, then how deluded and hypocritical are the westerners, with all their talk of liberty and freedom, which must be "preserved" or established through violence, militarism, and repression of free speech and civil liberties! If this is democracy, who would want it?
Israel, that highly-touted democratic experiment set down among the Arabs, has been, until the invasion of Iraq, the last gasp of western colonialism. It daily becomes less democratic in direct proportion to its increased militarism, violence, oppression, and paranoia. And so does the United States. The men and the ideologies currently ruling these two countries are cut from the same cloth, and their hubris and errors are the same.
Meanwhile, independently of these dramas, the world has for more than a century been slowly and painfully moving toward a different paradigm -- one that honors equal rights for all races and for women, and cries out against exploitation, oppression, injustice, and war. This process can be delayed or even arrested for a time, but there is no stopping it, short of annihilating the human race altogether. We need only look at the growing anti-globalisation movement, or the Catholic Church, or the worldwide opposition to the Iraq War, to see the shockwaves and what they portend. Dying patriarchies reveal themselves by their insecurity and their reliance on disproportionate use of force. Consider the massive security surrounding each G-7 Economic Summit, or Israel’s apparent need to drive bulldozers over young women, or kill six-year-old Palestinian boys armed with pebbles -- or George Bush’s need to use overwhelming military force to disarm a country already weakened by sanctions and lacking any equal ability to fight back. These shameful displays of aggression aren’t far removed from clubbing seals.
Yet I believe the days of patriarchal power are numbered. The ranks of women and men in all cultures who understand and voluntarily choose a different way of being are increasing. Threatened people will instigate huge battles to maintain the old systems, and for a time it may feel that we are going backwards. It’s unlikely that these changes will happen in our lifetime; perhaps they will take another hundred years or more. But the ultimate trend is clear.
If I am going to deal with my own anger constructively, perhaps I can dredge up some compassion for people who sense, even dimly, the threat to the only system they know, the only way of being they can comprehend. Like dumb, cornered animals, they fail to recognize sincerity, refuse cooperation, lash out in loud rhetorical barks, exaggerate the degree of provocation, and attack pre-emptively. They are locked in a cage that only they can see. How horrible it must be to experience life this way, whether you are Osama bin Laden, hating and fearing the West with its personal freedom, its emancipated women, and its lack of understanding of all the traditions and values you hold dear, or George Bush, thinking that friendship and loyalty can be bought with dollars, terror quelled by violence, and true democracy established by the forced occupation of a sovereign people and the repression of your own.
The world sees through them both, as it begins to see with clearer and clearer eyes all patriarchal systems that promise protection in exchange for economic or political or sexual submission. On this eve of destruction, perhaps we can try to look forward, far forward, seeing these terrible and tragic events as part of the death-throes of patriarchy: a crucial step in the long unfolding of God’s true plan -- not of Armageddon -- but of real freedom and justice for all the earth’s people.