Thursday, December 31, 2009
2009 was the four hundredth anniversary of Galileo Galilei's telescope. Galileo (1564-1642) was a scientist, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and physicist. He was a "wonderer", and this "wondering" quality encouraged him to think differently from his fellow Pisans. When he was a child people said, "He has stars in his eyes."
Copernicus (1473-1543) was also a "wonderer". He looked up into the sky and wondered: "What if the world doesn't act the way people think it acts? Maybe the earth revolves around the sun." He wrote down his wonderings but didn't publish them because he couldn't prove them and because he was afraid, fearful of the power of the Church. Italy was like a quilt in those days, sewn out of patches of city states, each city state with its own laws and government. The only thing the city states had in common was a common religion, the Catholic faith, and the Church was a powerful influence.. The Church believed the Bible taught that the earth was the center of the universe. To go against this belief of the Church meant the possibility of suffering and punishment.
In 1609, Galileo heard about an instrument that could make small things big and bring faraway near. He wrote: "A report reached my ears that a certain Fleming had constructed a spyglass...Upon hearing the news, I set myself to thinking about the problem...Finally, sparing neither labor nor expense, I succeeded in constructing for myself so excellent an instrument that objects seen by means of it appeared nearly one thousand times larger and over thirty times closer than when regarded with our natural vision." (The word telescope was coined two years later, in 1611.). This instrument helped him use his senses, reason, and intellect to show people that Copernicus was correct - the earth and the other planets moved around the sun.
Each night, Galileo looked up and out into the night sky and wrote down everything he observed. He published his observations in a book that he called "The Starry Messenger". He sent telescopes and copies of his book to all the kings and princes of Europe. When he was a young man he had entertained and amused people with his brilliant observations. The people would say, "Galileo is our star!" Now his brilliance made him Chief Philosopher and Mathematician to the Medici court.
Galileo wrote: "I hold the sun to be situated motionless in the center of the revolution of the celestial orbs while the earth rotates on it axis and revolves around the sun.". His belief about the way the world worked differed from the Church's belief. He stated: "I do not feel obliged to believe the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use...He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations...If they (the ancient philosophers) had seen what we see, they would have judged as we judge". The Church disagreed with him and brought him before the Inquisition.
He was tried by the Inquisition and found guilty of heresy. "Namely for having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture; that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and the earth moves and is not the center of the world, and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to the Holy Scripture" (June 1633 Rome). He was condemned to spend the rest of his life locked in his house under guard. The stars that had been in his eyes since his birth in Pisa went out. Later, he went blind.
Galileo's ideas lived on, as truthful ideas do. On October 31, 1992, three hundred fifty-nine years after he was sentenced by the Inquisition, he was pardoned by the Church. His blind eyes opened the eyes of others and helped them see. The wonder of his genius is a star that guides us still.
I am writing a story about two brothers growing up in Clarendon County, SC during desegregation and the early Civil Rights Movement so I am using the Guide to help me journey back to that time and place and listen to the stories of the people and see the sights on the land as they were in the 1930's and 1940's. On one of those journeys I discovered a story from a trail to Scott Lake in Clarendon County, a place near the Liberty Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church where meetings were held in the 1940's and 1950's that led to local court cases which helped bring about the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregating public schools. Here is the story as it was written by the FWP writer.
"The trail leads around the lake through virgin timber and dense undergrowth. Here rises the vast bulk of an INDIAN MOUND (R), 1 m., 50 feet high and 800 feet in circumference. Legend recounts that it is under the curse of an Indian girl deserted by her lover. Atop the mound is the SITE OF FORT WATSON, a British Revolutionary post. In 1780 General Francis Marion decided to capture the fort. Bombardment was out of the question, for the Americans were out of artillery, but Colonel Maham, one of Marion's officers, proposed building a log tower higher than Fort Watson. Hidden by the trees, men hewed logs and the tower was erected in a single night. At dawn a shower of lead poured down into the enemy enclosure, effecting a quick victory. The scheme was used several times in later Revolutionary encounters."
So this place was under a curse, not only the legendary curse of the indian girl deserted by her lover but also the curse of a people deserted by neighbors, the curse Jim Crow. And so this place was the site where other kinds of fighters in another kind of revolutionary war, fighters who were ministers and farmers and people of the land named JA and Mattie DeLaine, Levi Pearson and Harry and Liza Briggs, fighters who gave their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies to build a movement that was hidden in the South Carolina soil but that poured down on Jim Crow like a shower of lead from the sky, a Civil Rights Movement that would lead to victory over segregation in the South, though not as quickly as the victory of the old swamp fox Francis Marion and his compatriots.
As a writer, I am wandering the paths of the FWP writers, learning the stories, the people, and the land of my state in the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's, trying to see and feel through the eyes and hearts of two boys growing up on a farm during those times of great hope and great fear, wondering.
I choose to wander with him, to revolve around his center, and to be eccentric with him. I hope you'll wander with us. Be eccentric! Be an asteres planetai!
The new idea that I discovered is a philosophy, the philosophy of Interiorism, a way of thinking, being, and doing in the world that teaches that "truth is to be known by introspection." I understand it as a way of looking inside of things to find their essence.
Oliver Sacks, the wonderful neurologist and writer, helps me further understand Interiorism in the preface of his great book, "Awakenings," a story of the patients at Mount Carmel Hospital in New York who were afflicted with encephalitis lethargica just after World War I and had been "asleep" until the spring of 1969 when Dr. Sacks helped them "awaken" with a remarkable drug called L-DOPA. In that preface, Sacks refers to his patients as "worlds" that require "not a static and systematic formulation, but an active exploration of images and views, a continual jumping-about and imaginative movement". A philosophy of Exteriorism is interested in those static and systematic formulations, in those things that can be observed on the outside. Interiorism, however, is interested in seeing people as worlds and in exploring the inside of these worlds with imagination.
It is a serendipity to find out about Interiorism in Ms. Leach's essay. To find a name and a meaning for thoughts and feelings that I have had for as long as I can remember is a wonderful thing. My culture has attempted to teach me that "Vederi Quam Esse," that to seem to be is more important than to be. But something inside of me rebels against this teaching and turns it upside down. Interiorism helps me raise my fist into the air and shout out, "Esse Quam Videri," to be is more important than to seem to be, and look for the essence of people, places, and things.
I am working with Bala. He is eleven years old. As I look into his eyes I can see intelligence and empathy, a good combination of traits in anyone at any age but especially in someone so young. His big smile warms me as much as the sun does. When he smiles, it is as if my heart is basking in sunshine, as if my soul is standing in the sunrise. All during the day we play a game called "Foda". He calls out my name and if I say "foda!" then I am safe. If I forget to say "foda," however, and answer, "Huh?" instead then he gets to thump me three times on my forehead. Each time he gets me, he giggles as he thumps me. His giggles make me laugh. The Koran teaches that those who make their friends laugh are worthy of paradise. If this is true then he will have a prominent place there. In stature he is small and thin but in heart he is as big and broad as this field in which we are standing.
In one hand we are holding small gourds that have been cut in half and filled with millet seeds. In the other we are holding small hoes that the Malinke people call "dabos." We are walking side by side, digging holes in the ground, dropping three tiny black seeds into the earth and covering the seeds with a fine layer of rocks and dirt. The ground on our mountain is rocky ground and the land seems to have more stones on it than soil. It is a miracle that things grow here, that things grow so well here. But they do. We are planting with hope that good rains will come and help the seeds grow into whole, full stalks of millet. I am enjoying learning the life of a Malinke farmer. Bala is my teacher. This is his field.
There is a commotion below us at the bottom of the field, the shouting of children and the barking of a dog. We look up from our work, lifting our hands to our faces to shield our eyes from the glare of the sun.
"What's happening?" I ask.
"A squirrel," he answers.
"A squirrel is in the ground."
"What are the children doing?" I ask again.
"We're going to trap it. Let's go!"
We run to the children. I watch in wonder as they go about trapping the squirrel. They are standing around a mound of dirt, a mound that is taller than they are, a mound that is covered with squirrel-sized holes. The dog is barking and digging in one of the holes. In ways that seem as familiar to them as brushing their teeth, the children begin to use rocks to block the holes around the barking dog and chop the ground around him with their dabos.
"There it is!" yells Bala.
With one swift motion he reaches into the whole, grabs the squirrel, and pulls it out of its hiding place.
"Wow", I say, astonished that my little friends are so adept at finding meat for their evening meal.
"Bubakari, we want to give this to you so Fenda can cook it for your supper."
"No, no. I don't think Fenda knows how to cook a squirrel. I don't think she would like to cook it, anyway. You take it and eat it. You worked hard for it. You give it to your Mother so she can cook it for you, okay?"
After a while, the sun reaches its peak in the sky, its crecendo within the symphony of the day, and we are hot and tired. We are standing under the shade of an ancient baobab tree, taking big gulps of water from our canteens, letting the cool water run off of our faces and onto our shirts to cool us and clean us. It is time to walk back to the village because the sun is stronger than we are. We walk. Bala leads and I follow. I ask questions along our way.
"What kind of tree is that?"
"Can you eat its fruit?"
"Is there a village over that hill?"
"What is the name of that bird?"
Bala answers patiently as we slowly make our way home. We are talking but mostly we are overcome by silence, the quiet that falls comfortably after a long stretch of hard work. We are walking. As always, I am thinking and wondering.
We walk up the steep hill into our village. We see other men with dabos hanging over their shoulders. Mud made from dust and sweat is clinging from their tattered farming clothes. We hear the beat of women punding pestles on mortars, living metronomes that set the rhythm and rhyme of the village day. Afternoon meals are being prepared for hungry families. I feel a child wrap her arms around my knee and I lift her up off the ground with each step I take, both of us enjoying her way of saying hello. I observe the children in our village as they chase each other around trees and play in the public meeting place, remembering that over half of the population of our African continent is under eighteen years of age. We go our seperate ways, I into my courtyard and Bala into his. It feels good to be home.
"Hello tired one. You worked hard today!" say friends who are visiting us.
"Hello my friends." Are you passing the afternoon in peace?" I ask of them.
My wife brings a cup of water to me and kneels as she places it in my hand, following a Malinke custom that all married women must practice. I grin.
"Please don't kneel," I say to her.
She kneels anyway, partly to save herself from the scandal of not kneeling and partly to say that she loves me.
I sit down in the shade of our thatched roof shelter that our friends built for us. I bury my face into the folds of my shirt to wipe away the sweat from my salt worn eyes. I look up again and see the extended hands of my friend Baiisa. She is Bala's Mother. The Malinke custom is to bring some food to the person who helps in your field and she is honoring that custom now. She is holding a bowl of food in her hands, pounded corn the color of soft sunlight with peanut sauce poured over the top of it. It is a practical way of saying thanks for working in her son's field. As the warm food fills my belly, she gives me a blessing.
"May God return the kindness to you that you have shown to me."
I reach into the bowl for another handful of the delicious food and I know that she is the answer to her own prayer for me.
Now I am sitting on a mammoth rock up on a hill just behind our courtyard, in the shade of a mango tree. I am enjoying the respite from the midday heat. I can see my village before me. It is as if the whole village is taking a collective breath, waiting for the sun to move down on the horizon so people can go back to their fields again. I close my eyes and on the canvas of my heart my thoughts paint a picture of my Malinke friends. I see small clouds of dust rise from the dry, hard ground with each determined stroke of the dabo. I see the three tiny millet seeds fall deftly from the planting gourd into the small, hollowed holes in the ground. I see bare feet stepping over the stony field, calloused and broken from a lifetime of playing, working, and living without shoes. The dabo becomes an extension of the hand and the people themselves seem to be growing out of the ground, those same calloused and broken feet being deeply rooted in the soil. "The Lord God formed people from the dust of the ground," says Scripture. I understand this now. I see a person stooped and working, planting the field that will help his family live. He rises slowly and looks at me. I see Bala.
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Wednesday, December 30, 2009
I see your tiny feet and hope you'll live and walk these stony paths to the pump to get water.
Blessing me with your meekness and gentleness,
you are Jesus to me today.
Asking for holes in the palms of my hands and receiving you instead.
Seeking holes in my feet and finding this road winding to mud bricks and thatched roofs under baobab trees.
in the holy poverty of an unknown African village where suffering and love are found in their wholeness.
Knocking on the door for the hole in my side, I am opening it into the life of a broken child.
Listening to you,
I understand that you are an end in yourself and not a means to an end.
Looking at you,
I see that you are a beginning in yourself and a new way for me to see.
I feel you living in my heart. Suffering love.
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How can he do something as mundane as washing dishes and do it with joy? Perhaps it's because joy is a fruit, a fruit that grows on the Jesus tree, the tree that takes root in the heart when someone believes, when someone who has ears that hear, eyes that see, and a heart that understands follows Jesus. Perhaps it's because Momadu understands.
I remember him wearing a tattered, blue t-shirt with an imprint from some Baptist church somewhere in Kentucky that some missionary gave him a long time ago. It was stretched at the neck and dotted with holes and made him look poor. Indeed, he is a peasant farmer trying to eek out an existence for his family and for himself on a harsh and broken land. He is a peasant parson trying to love the Lord his God with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength, and trying to love his neighbor as himself. He is a peasant cook.
I remember his worn, dirty flip-flops on the ground in front of the door of our community house at the mission station. How much is his body like his flip-flops? It is worn from much serving, worn from trying to live out the second part of the great commandment. In Mali, flip-flops cost less than one U.S. dollar. That doesn't seem like much money to me. If my flip-flops were like his flip-flops then I would throw them away and buy a new pair. One dollar, however, can buy three days of vegetables to put into a family's sauce, so when Momadu's flip-flop strap breaks he repairs them and keeps on wearing them until they are worn out. In the same way, Momadu will keep on loving until his body is completely worn out. That will be his mark of Christ one day as he limps toward God, and God will hold him until he is healed and whole again.
I often wonder, "Who is a saint in my world today"? One time, my flip-flops were filthy dirty, caked in mud and tainted with cow manure. I took them off at the back door of our house and went inside to take a shower. After I dressed, I walked over to the window to watch the dusking of afternoon into evening when the sun hangs on the edge of the African sky like a giant, red-ripe tomato. As I looked at the sky, I lowered my eyes and saw Momadu washing my shoes. He was kneeling down beside our water spigot and washing my shoes with the simplest of elements, with water and his hands. I know for sure that Momadu is not perfect, but I know equally for sure that he is a saint. Jesus said, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God". That kingdom is in a good heart in Momadu's heart. That kingdom is in good hands in Momadu's hands. That kingdom is on good feet on Momadu's feet.
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Tuesday, December 29, 2009
feeling the hunger of underpaid workers,
serving the poor,
Willie Bentley liked to net the butterflies that flittered and fluttered around his farm and show them to his older brother, Charlie. He liked to pick the apple blossoms that dotted the apple trees in the pastures and give them to his Mother. But he loved snow more than anything else in the whole world. He loved to see snowflakes on his mittens and on the barn doors but he couldn't share them with anyone. He couldn't save them before they melted.
Willie's Mother was his teacher until he was fourteen years old. She had a set of encyclopedias in their house and he read all of them! She gave him an old microscope and he used it to look closely and carefully at all of the amazing things you can find on a farm - like flowers, raindrops, and blades of grass. Of course, the things he loved to look at most of all were snowflakes. Other children used snow to make snowballs and build snowforts, but Willie caught single snowflakes and studied them.
Willie found that snowflakes were beautiful icy crystals and that no two snowflakes that he studied were ever alike. He decided to try and draw pictures of snowflakes so he could share their beauty with his community. Starting at age fifteen, he tried to draw one hundred snowflakes each winter for three winters. They always melted before he could finish drawing them.
One day, Willie read an article in a magazine about a camera with its own microscope inside of it. He shared the news with his Mother and Father and told them that he could photograph snowflakes he he had that camera. When he was seventeen years old, his parents spent their savings on the camera and gave it to Willie. They knew he wanted with all of his heart to share what he had seen of snowflakes.
The camera cost as much as his Father's herd of ten cows, but it could magnify a smowflake to 3,600 times its actual size. During the first winter with his camera, all of his attempts to photograph snowflakes were failures. He worked through each and every snowfall but his pictures were only shadows. As winter melted into spring he had no good picture of a snowflake. He waited patiently for the next winter to bring new snow and new possibilities to photograph snowflakes and, when the snowfall began, he tried a new experiment. He used a very small lens opening, which let only a little light reach the negative, but he kept the lens open for up to a minute and a half. It worked! Willie had discovered how to photograph snowflakes! Now he could share their beauty with everyone.
- "My photographs of snowflakes will be my gift to the world," said Willie.
- "Snow in Vermont is as common as dirt," laughed his neighbors. "We don't need pictures."
While other farmers with horse and sleigh passed him by, Willie stood by the barn and caught snowflakes on an old black tray. He learned that each snowflake begins as a speck, much too tiny to be seen. Little bits - molecules - of water attach to the speck to form its branches. As the crystal grows, the branches come together and trap small quantities of air. Many things affect the way these crystal branches grow. A little more cold, a bit less wind, or a bit more moisture will mean different shaped branches. Willie realized that was why, in all his pictures, he never found two snowflakes alike.
The conditions around Willie had to be just right for him to get a good picture of a snowflake. He stood for hours on end in his freezing barn for just the right snowflake. If he looked on his tray and found broken snowflakes, he brushed them gently with a turkey feather and sent them down to the waiting ground. Some winters he was only able to make a few dozen good pictures. The best snowstorm of his life occurred on Valentine's Day in 1928. He made over one hundred photographs during the two day storm.
He came up with creative ways to share his snowflake pictures. He gave them away as gifts for birthdays. He held evening slideshows by using a projector and a sheet hung over a clothesline on the lawns of neighboring farms. He sold them to colleges and universities. He gave them to artists to help inspire their own work. He gave speeches about snow. Magazines published his articles and his photographs. Willie the little farmer came to be known as the world's expert on snow. People called him, "the Snowflake Man."
Willie never grew rich. By 1926 he had spent $15,000 on his work and received $4,000 from the sale of photographs and slides. Other scientists raised enough money to allow him to gather up his best photographs and make them into a book. When he was sixty-six years old his book - his gift to the world - was published. Less than a month after the publication, Willie walked six miles in a blizzard to his farm to take more pictues of snowflakes. He became ill with pneumonia and died.
Jericho, Vermont built a monument for Willie in the. Center of town. The plaque on the monument says - "SNOWFLAKE" BENTLEY: Jericho's world famous snowflake authority.
Snowflake Bentley was a simple farmer and a genius. His words to us are likewise simple yet profound - "I found that snowflakes were masterpieces of design. No design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted...just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.". His life and work reminds up to put our hearts into who we are and what we do, to give ourselves and our work as a gift to the world, to leave a record of beauty that will make the world a more human place for all of us.
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Friday, December 25, 2009
Lazaro is one of our brothers in La Iglesia Bautista del Camino. He speaks little English but communicates "grande" in the language of humanity. He talks with his hands, feet, and heart. He has an amazing knowledge of American baseball, movies, and history - truly amazing considering the peoples of our countries have been cut of from each other by political ideology for over 50 years. He has an ingenious way of using his hands to communicate. To help me know how much he liked something or someone, he would put his fingers to his lips, extend his hand outward, and then place his hand over his heart. A meaningful moment for me with him came during our New Years Eve meal with his church family. We were talking about baseball and he was sharing about his love of the game. I took off my old Brooklyn Dodgers cap and gave it to him. He cried, and his tears of joy brought joy to my heart.
San Lazaro is the patron saint of the poor in Cuba. His icon is of a withered man in ragged clothes hobbling along on a pair of crutches with sores on his legs. There are two dogs at his feet licking his wounds. He is not the Lazarus who is a brother to Mary and Martha and a friend of Jesus who is raised from the dead in the New Testament story but is the Lazarus who is a beggar who is ignored by a rich man and ends up in the arms of Father Abraham when he dies. Two Cuban friends told me that for the poor he is a sign both of hope and of resistance. He is a sign of hope because his story offers the possibility that there is liberation from poverty - food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, home for the stranger, clothes for the naked, care for the sick, and visits for the prisoner. This sign of hope leads the poor to go on long pilgrimages during the feast of St. Lazaro to seek consolation and help from him. He is also a sign of resistance because his story offers the possibility that there is liberation from oppression - good news to the poor, healing for the broken-hearted, release to captives, and freedom to prisoners. This sign of resistance came from the indigenous people who were overwhelmed by the power of the Spanish state and Catholic Church but who made a saint of the Church their own saint and who came to realize that Jesus was one of them.
The Cuban Revolution came down from the mountains to the people. The San Lazaro Revolution is rising up from the people to the mountains. The Cuban Revolution taught people how to read and write. The San Lazaro Revolution is teaching people how to read the Cuban Revolution.