“Death wins nothing here,
Continued from PART 1
Rodger told himself in particular that “women rejected” him and therefore deserved punishment while knowing nothing about these anonymous women’s personal realities. And most damning of all, the mental model on which he relied convinced him that destroying life was the only way to conquer life. The possibility that he might discover joy and live peacefully outside his extremely narrow conceptions seems to have never occurred to him.
I had undertaken the completion of Journey through the Power of the Rainbow in the first place partly to help individuals, in general, construct healthier perspectives for looking at and dealing with existence as we know it in the 21st century. Rodger’s deadly rampage was a vicious reminder––not that anybody required one with the civil disruptions in Ukraine and Syria still disturbing the collective peace–– that humanity itself still needs to “get the work done” when it comes to dismantling belief in violence as a solution to disagreements or disappointments.
An Affirmation of Humanity’s Potential
News of the massacre on May 23 shoved communities across the globe even deeper into pits of despair already made fatally toxic by escalating conflicts, the intensification of climate meltdown, and the heartbreak of #BringBackOurGirls. Yet, in one of those strange ironies that no one can ever anticipate, news of Angelou’s death gave the global village a reason to celebrate her astonishingly triumphant life. Hers was the towering example of a mental, spiritual, and literary model that affirmed humanity’s potential to transform the self-consuming shadows of emotional chaos into the healing light of inspired affirmation.
She had spent almost nine decades “getting the work done,” creating a legacy that enhanced rather than diminished people’s capacity for embracing faith in life. In Angelou’s own words, her mission was “not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Her example had been set as beautifully as a Thanksgiving table covered with a feast of grace large enough to feed an entire neighborhood. It should be easy enough to honor that example simply by enjoying the splendid wonder of its incredible beauty.
4 June, 2014
“My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.”
The death of author Maya Angelou on May 28 and the murderous massacre in Isla Vista in Santa Barbara County, California, on May 23, 2014, occurred within a week of each other. Both forced me to turn my attention away from work on the final proofs for Journey through the Power of the Rainbow, Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry. Then both, in the end, for different reasons, persuaded me to remain as focused as I could and to get the work done.
That last phrase in particular––“get the work done”––stood out because I recalled Angelou using it when noting how prolific James Baldwin (as an author of novels, plays, poems, essays, short fiction, and screenplays) had been in comparison to Ralph Ellison (celebrated during his lifetime mostly for a single history-making novel and collection of essays). Angelou acknowledged Ellison’s towering achievement with Invisible Man but also felt Baldwin deserved recognition for the more extensive body of critically acclaimed work. Therefore, upon her passing, those words thundered through my skull with the full volume of her majestic articulation: “Get the work done.”
It was a wholly different matter in the case of the misogynistic implosion that Elliot Rodger unleashed in the form of a psychotic detonation that took the lives of six people, wounded seven more, and scarred countless others. The introductory essay in Journey through the Power of the Rainbow talks about how the book was inspired largely by social media’s adoption of a certain quote that might have helped Rodger change his troubled mind. It is one that encourages individuals to seek, claim, and celebrate their innate value as human beings rather than suffer from––or make others suffer from––delusions of rejection and insignificance.
The Man in His Mental Mirror
Rodger acted from the perspective of a mental model––or image of the world held in his mind–– that gave him a lot of misleading assumptions and generally bad information. He assumed his experience of college life must necessarily mirror that of the stereotypical representations so often depicted in popular films and TV programs. Otherwise, it meant either he was failing as a human being or others were failing him.
He convinced himself that being a virgin at the ripe old young adult age of 22 was a reason for self-condemnation. He persuaded himself––while enjoying forms of privilege and luxury unknown to most––that others disliked him when he probably spent too little time actually communicating with anyone to learn whether they truly did or not. Or to determine if it mattered as much as he apparently thought.
Please Click to Read Part 2: Maya Angelou, Elliot Rodger, and Getting the Work Done Part 2
“When the soul looks out of its body, it should see only beauty in its path. These are the sights we must hold in mind, in order to move to a higher place.” --Yusef Lateef, from “A Syllogism”
How could I have known, as a nine-year-old child growing up in Savannah’s Hitch Village project, that Yusef Lateef was speaking light in the form of music directly to my soul through his saxophone and flute when I first heard his masterpiece of an album The Blue Yusef Lateef? I could not have imagined that years later, while seeking the timbres of my own creative voice out in the world, his would find me again. It happened this time as I sat in the window of a hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, the haunting blues-heavy moans of “Juba Juba” swelling the room as the vision of a young black man looking up at stars through a jail cell hole-in-the-wall unfolded before me.
I do not recall what prompted my recollection of the song. It may have been because I was alone in the city and just as uncertain about my ability to survive there as I was certain I was not yet ready to leave. The more I heard it, the more the image of the boy in the jail cell came into focus. His thoughts became my thoughts. They communicated to me that his name was Juba and he was waiting for his dead father’s friend Elijah to come get him.
Between Juba’s words and the music that flowed with them, it was impossible to resist picking up a pen and notebook. Maybe I would create some lyrics to go with the moon-shredding laments on the track (provided I would later learn by the group known as The Sweet Inspirations). Once I started writing, I did not stop until the story later published as “I Can Hear Juba Moan,” in the book I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, was completed.
I did not, at that moment, even recall Dr. Lateef as the principal saxophonist for the song, only the chain-gang-like rhythm that waved back and forth between unholy anguish and calmly defiant determination. Some quick research at the San Francisco library provided the master musician’s identity but more decades would pass before I managed to find the album again during the mid-1990s, this time in the form a CD that I ordered through the multimedia store where I worked. As an adult, I was able to listen to The Blue Yusef Lateef in its entirety and appreciate the various production details and nuances of performance that had eluded me as a child. At the same, I was more amazed that ever that the music had embedded itself so permanently in my consciousness.
CLICK TO READ PART 2 HERE: Memory-Song Painted Gold: for the Blue Yusef Lateef (1920-2013) Part 2
“To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity.” –The Charter for Compassion
You could say I recently received a double dose of compassion. The first came in the form of a friendly reminder from fellow wordsmith Barbara Kaufmann that the founder of the Charter for Compassion movement, Karen Armstrong, was going to be a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday program. The second came in the form of a photograph of the late much-loved actor Paul Walker assisting a group of children. Reach Out Worldwide, the organization founded by Walker, had paired the image with one of my quotes about compassion back in September and it resurfaced on Twitter and Facebook following Walker’s tragic death.
1. Paul Walker
For many, the death of the late actor and humanitarian was a shock as well as a revelation. It was a shock partly because he was so young and partly because people generally prefer Hollywood scenarios where the beautiful heroes and heroines triumph over brutal opposition rather than succumb to it. Most––would prefer that reality were a better respecter of persons. But it––like gravity, time, or disease––is not. Reality as we live it most often takes on qualities like mercy, grace, and yes, dynamic compassion, when we choose to endow it with such powerful elements.
Walker’s death was a revelation in the sense that millions recognized him from his action-hero, dramatic, and comedic roles in an acting career that spanned almost the entirety of his 40-years-long life. What millions did not know was that he did much more than lend Reach Out Worldwide his name. He gave it his living presence in dedicated attempts to alleviate suffering in the lives of others. It is neither a sentimental statement nor an exaggerated one to say that Walker apparently chose to commit as much of himself––not just his money or his time or talents but HIMSELF–– to living as much compassion as he could. Surely that is one of the better ways anyone might wish to be remembered.
2. Karen Armstrong
I first became aware of Karen Armstrong in my days as a bookseller. Her publication of such audaciously-titled works as Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1991) and A History of God (1993) were also revelatory. It seemed unlikely that anyone should come up with anything new to say about spirituality or religious practices after centuries of human beings seeking to overcome human tragedies through studied devotion to the ways of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, different schools of philosophy, and other disciplines. However, as a former nun whose writings sidestepped culture clashes to affirm the essential spiritual unity of the major religious traditions (much in fact the way definitive passages in Rumi’s poetry does) Armstrong had a great deal to say.
And she did so even as calls for “holy wars” in the form of terrorist attacks and retaliations in the form of full-scale military battles soaked the opening pages of the history of the 21st century with the blood of men, women, and children alike. Upon receiving the TED Prize in 2008, she shared with the world her vision of compassion as a tool for nonviolent conflict resolution:
“I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.”
As ironic as it may sound, I was, unknowingly, so immersed in service to a similar vision through Creative Thinkers International and diverse literary endeavors that I remained unaware of the charter for far too long. The really great news is that although the charter itself has already been composed by contributors from across the globe, the perfect time to charge ahead on the “propagation” aspect of Armstrong’s request by sharing and signing it is right now. With that in mind, I consider it not an honor but an extraordinary blessing to add my name to the ever-growing list of supporters for the Charter for Compassion.
After kicking off the Text and Meaning Series with an article on Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech in August, the latest installment is on Albert Camus’ classic book, The Myth of Sisyphus. The Text and Meaning Series is one reminder that some of the battles we've found ourselves struggling through in 2013–– as if thrashing while asleep and trying to wake from nightmares–– have been fought before. In many cases it was believed victory had already been won.
I started the Text and Meaning Series largely as a way of introducing classic works into conversations on current topics and events. It presently consists of the following:
1) Text and Meaning in Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech
2) Text and Meaning in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
3) Text and Meaning in Langston Hughes The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain
4) Text and Meaning in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus
Employing MLK’s I Have a Dream speech to launch the series made sense because the year 2013, now drawing rapidly toward its end, marked the 50th anniversary of the speech. Focusing on it also provided a way to help amplify dialogues on multiculturalism and race in America. That such dialogues must not be stifled have been made disturbingly apparent this year by several high-profile events, from the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin to the glaring lack of diversity at the Emmy Awards and subsequent reports in Huffington Post on racial divisions in Hollywood.
The article Text and Meaning in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus takes me into somewhat new territory as an author. Outside of my writings on W.E.B. Du Bois for the Philosophical Library Series and my profile on Alain Locke for Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, I’ve written very little about philosophy or philosophers. However, with November 7, 2013, marking Camus’ 100th birthday, I had to expand the scope of my focus.
It is well known that Camus generally considered himself more of a novelist than a philosopher. The extraordinary power of The Stranger and The Plague have led many people to agree with him and to think of him more as a serious author whose works in fiction and drama were heavily influenced by his study of, and passion for, philosophy. What I appreciate the most about him is what I tend to appreciate the most about all writers who achieve the levels of mastery and accomplishment that he did. I respect the way he gave such huge chunks of his life to his art. I admire the way he structured his art as a form of service to humanity. And I treasure the enduring excellence of the example that he fought, endured, and labored to provide.
4 November, 2013
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.