Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Today I Am Seventy

Today I am seventy. I’m not sure I know what that means. Knowing of this birthday people have commented, “You don’t look seventy.” But what does seventy look like? What is it supposed to look like? I have no idea.

If you were to ask me what it feels like to be seventy, it depends on when you ask. Some days I think I have as much energy as I had when I was thirty-five; other days I am tired from the moment I wake up and remain tired for the day. Also, I take more naps in the afternoon than I used to. However, except for living with emphysema, I am in excellent health, but I take more pills to maintain that health than I used to, and I’m losing most of my teeth.

Today I am seventy, but I haven’t done anything in particular to reach this age. I think of all the people I’ve known who deserved to reach such a day in their lives and are dead. I read an obituary recently of a woman who never smoked and died of lung cancer at age 43. I smoked for 32 years, (stopping in 1988), and here I am, age 70. My wife believes that, at birth, each of us is given a certain number of breaths, and once we reach that preordained number, we die. This makes more sense than believing that I did something to merit reaching my 70th birthday. I know better. But I am grateful that I have reached this age. It is the best time of my life.

I would not want to be young again. I look at the young, and I know what they face -- defining their lives, negotiating the perils of marriage(s), raising children, the deaths of friends, relatives and parents, facing the prospect of not fulfilling their dreams and living with the cold knowledge of failure. One of the joys of being seventy is knowing that I have been through those stages of life -- and survived. However, I am not unmindful of the fact that I have been successful far beyond anything I could have imagined. For that I am deeply grateful.

And yet, when I look back, there is so much I regret. My painful shyness stopped me from having relationships with people I met and could have known better, perhaps - Hannah Arendt, Richard Avedon, W. Eugene Smith, and many others. And yet, who knows? Perhaps that shyness protected me. Other regrets have to do with people I hurt, some unintentionally, others with malice aforethought. I regret, also, that I was not a better parent, or a better caretaker of my mother during the last decade of her life. I can say that I did my best, but, sometimes, one’s best is not good enough. That’s life, but it is not a justification. It is a pain one lives with when one is seventy.

I am going to celebrate this day very quietly. Being a lover of wine I bought a 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape recommended by my wine seller. It will accompany a rack of lamb from Dean & DeLucca. My wife will cook the lamb; I will uncork the bottle of wine, and the two of us will have a quiet meal of complex and wondrous flavors.

This birthday is a time to experience the wonder of having lived this many years. It is a time to look back. For the first time, I am going to read the more than forty books I have published since 1968. This is also a time to express gratitude to those people who have been important in my life over these years, and I will be telling them so in various ways throughout this year.

With great anticipation I look forward to becoming eighty. Just as I could not have imagined the awe of this day, I really cannot imagine the awe of that one.

That is how it should be.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Inauguration - 2

When I was young I used to feel sorry for old people. Being young I knew that what I did was going to have an effect on the future, but old people were, well, old, and to be old was to belong to the past. I was convinced that old people were envious of us, the young, because youth was life.

However, there were also terrifying moments when I realized that one day I might be old, and being old I would be jealous of the young. How did the old live with the despair of knowing their lives were over? How did they live knowing that the only thing the future held for them was death? How awful to be old and filled with jealousy of young people and all the wonderful things they were doing.

But as I watched the pre-inaugural concert on Sunday and the inauguration itself, I did not feel sorry for myself, envy the young, nor miss my own youth. Instead I was happy to see and feel the energy and vitality of youth as a part of political life again.

And the celebratory energy of the young people at the inauguration was different than the energy we had in the Sixties. Our energy was angry, but it was also threaded with anxiety and uncertainty. We did not know if what we were trying to do - end segregation, end the war in Vietnam, change the way Americans thought about race, etc. - was going to succeed. We felt ourselves to be engaged in a battle, and the consequences could be death, as it was for some in the civil rights movement and on college campuses.

The sheer happiness on the faces of the young (as well as the old) at the inauguration is unlike anything I've ever witnessed. It is a different kind of energy, a much needed energy, an energy that is transforming in and of itself on a national scale. For people to come together in public space - not in anger, not because they're against something, not to be entertained - but to affirm changes in the qualities of our relationships to each other is profoundly different.

It is especially wonderful to have youth in the White House, and I mean the President and the First Lady, not their children. One of the important things a president does is set the emotional tone for the entire country. The tone set by the Obamas is one of love for each other, one of pleasure in clothes, in sports, in people. They are comfortable in their bodies. And President Obama's smile can brighten a day for the entire country.

So I am thankful to the young for renewing the spirit of this country, for bringing joy into the public arena, for affirming the good, but not in any narrow moralistic sense. I am talking about that universal good which can be evoked by something as simple as a smile that starts in the soul and floods into the eyes and raises the lips upward and opens to reveal the teeth while looking at the person next to you.

Smiles like that are powerful political statements.

© 2009 Julius Lester

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Inauguration

It was a day of more emotions than I think I have ever experienced. I had not know there were so many shades of wonder, astonishment, joy, and disbelief. I started watching television around 10:15, around the time the Obamas arrived at the White House for coffee with the Bushes. I don't know why my eyes teared up at that moment, but they did. There were many such moments but there are two that stand out on this day after.

The first is the relief that flooded my body as George Bush boarded the helicopter, and later, the plane that took his pathetic self back to Texas. He liked to talk about good and evil, never imagining that there were many of us who saw him as that evil. For eight years we had to listen to that sniveling voice, we had to look at that smirk, we had to endure his ignorance and his world-view that allowed for no questions, no doubts, no learning. In another era he would have been locked in the pillory on the town square, and we would have walked by and thrown garbage at him.

Didn't it feel good to wake up today and know that George W. Bush was not in the Oval Office and Barack Obama was?

The second moment that will endure in my emotional memory is not any of the speeches or the pageantry, (excluding Aretha Franklin's hat). What will endure is the sight of those millions of people standing in the cold cheering this enormous change in the quality and nature of the political leadership, cheering themselves for getting involved and making a difference. What will endure is the sight of all those people, especially blacks and whites, side-by-side, united, sharing the same experience, and part of our nation's problem has been that there are too few experiences that blacks and whites have shared as equals. Let yesterday be the beginning of many thousands.

Part of the political genius of Obama and his advisers was that they organized outside the confines of the Democratic Party. Obama's vision brought people into the electoral process who had been indifferent because no one spoke to them. Obama's vision energized young people who had become cynical because all they saw on the political scene were childish adults with the most narrow of self-interests committed to the triumph of ideology over people.

I loved looking at the joy and the tears on the faces of people in the crowds. My wife observed that the reverence with which many of them held small pictures of President Obama was as if they were holding saints' cards. Joy and reverence are infectious emotions that have spread throughout the land like a healing balm soothing our many wounds from these past eight horrific years.

As I live with the emotional memory of those millions of people on the mall in Washington, joy pouring from their bodies as if it were a radiant light, I realize that the revolution we fought for in the 60s is finally over, and we won.

All of us. We won.

We won.

© 2009 by Julius Lester

Monday, January 19, 2009

Thoughts on the Day before the Inauguration

When I was young, seven, eight years old, I liked to listen to old people talk about their lives. I would look at them and wish I could see the images inside their heads as they told me about their lives. My maternal grandmother was born in the 1880's, and I was in awe of the changes she had experienced over the course of her life. (But she never adjusted to the idea of electricity, refused to have her house wired, but finally, in the late 1960's she gave in, and for the first time, she had electric lights. Shortly after, however, the house caught fire and burned to the ground. She survived, regretting her decision to get electricity when she'd lived for almost ninety years with a wood stove and kerosene lamps).

Yesterday as I was thinking about the inauguration (which is only 18 hours and 46 minutes away at 5:14 p.m. EST), I realized: I have become that old person I talked to as a child. I thought about my childhood in the 1940s and 1950s when racial segregation was the law, and we had no hope that it would ever go away.

Racial segregation was not only signs indicating where blacks and whites sat on buses, what entrances we used at movie theaters, and where we were not allowed to go at all. Racial segregation was an ethos, a culture of racial superiority so deeply embedded that it was taken for granted by blacks and whites. It was a way of life that governed every aspect of dailiness, one that could be enforced by any white person, even a child, against any black person. The system of racial segregation that existed was, in short, a form of fascism practiced by the government and the majority white population. Even though I grew up under such a system, looking back it is even hard for me to believe that it existed, but I still carry the wounds that cannot heal.

When I look at Barack Obama, I see a man who grew up in a world in which legal racial segregation had become something read about in history classes, a man who does not remember the lynching of Emmett Till, a man who did not put his life at risk so that the words "with liberty and justice for all" would mean what they say, and I am thrilled that he knew none of that.

Yesterday's concert at the Lincoln Memorial ended with Beyonce singing "America the Beautiful," and she sang it with such tender love, with such emotion, a love and an emotion I do not have because of the time and places in which I grew up. But tears came to my eyes as I watched and listened to her, and I am so happy that she is able to express such love for this country.

I feel blessed that tomorrow, one week from my 70th birthday, I will witness this incredible change in the American ethos from the matter-of-fact psychological and physical violence of the racial segregation of my childhood to an American ethos in which a black man spoke to that which is good and decent in people, and they have responded with their hopes and dreams for what we in the early years of the civil rights movement called "the beloved community."

I know that I am going to cry tomorrow as Obama takes the oath of office and as he delivers his inaugural address.

I know, too, that I will not be the only one crying.

© 2009 Julius Lester

Saturday, January 17, 2009

January 17, 2009

*** I am recuperating well from the surgery I had on January 9th. I am still waiting to learn the results of the biopsy but am confident it will be negative.

***It is bitter cold here in western Massachusetts with the temp reaching -17 two nights ago, and more snow is expected tonight and tomorrow. This is how it should be in New England in January.

***Two days and thirteen hours until the inauguration. A friend came back a few months ago after living in France for two years. She brought with her a bottle of champagne which she has been saving for a special occasion, and that occasion, she decided, is to toast President Obama and a new era in United States history. January 12 was "Coming of Age Day" in Japan. Tuesday, January 20, will be Coming of Age Day for this nation.

***For those of you who may be curious as to what I sound like, I was interviewed this week by radio station WBUR in Boston. Click on the link to hear some of my thoughts on the coming Obama administration and to see a few of the photographs I took in the South in 1966.

In last Sunday's "New York Times Book Review," there was an essay-review of a book, Little Rebels: A Collectioin of Radical Children's Literature . The reviewer, Caleb Crain, referred to "High John the Conqueror", a folk tale I'd retold in my Black Folktales (1969). I wrote a letter to the NYTBR in response to his stupid remark. In case the Times does not publish it, here it is:

"In Caleb Crain’s essay, 'Children of the Left, Unite!' (Jan. 11), reference is made to my retelling of the 'High John the Conqueror' folk tales (Black Folktales, 1969). Crain characterizes their inclusion in Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, the subject of his essay, as 'Inappropriate' because the anthology’s editors give 'no warning' that the tale 'deploys the N-word with gusto.' The High John the Conqueror tales originated in slavery when 'the N-word' was a part of the ordinary speech of blacks and whites. Its use in this (and many other tales from slavery) show how the 'N-word' was used by slaves to show affection for each other as well as to make class distinctions between those who worked in the plantation owner’s house and those who worked in the field. How the word was used revealed much about the sociology of the slave community. And yes, the word was often used with 'gusto', and appropriately so."

Julius Lester

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Books Read, 2008 - Ones I Liked - 1

First, the mysteries. Three writers stood out for me this year, one very good, the other two extraordinary.

Margaret Coel writes a series set among the Arapaho of Wyoming. Until the most recent book the series had featured a Catholic priest and Arapaho woman lawyer. Coel bases her mysteries on historical incidents in Arapaho history, which gives them an added interest. Her plots are strong, and her descriptions of the land are quite good. Like most mystery series, it is best to read her novels in order of publication because the central characters, the priest and the woman lawyer, evolve. You can find a chronology on her website.

The first of the extraordinary novelists is Fred Vargas, Fred being short for Frederique. Vargas is a French anthropologist and one of the best-selling novelists in the world. Unfortunately, only three of her novels have been translated from French into English, and I despair that my French will ever be good enough to read the books that have not been translated.

Her character is Paris police Chief Inspector Adamsberg, a man who functions almost entirely by intuition. Thus her novels are as far from police procedurals as is possible. Indeed, her novels are characterized by an almost aimless meandering quality, and one's interest is held not only by the most perplexing mysteries but also by the panoply of unusual characters. Vargas excels at novels with multiple and quirky plot lines that, somehow, all converge in the end.

A few quotes from Seeking Whom He May Devour:

"That's what makes human beings so hopeless, really. They cling to the worst things they've known."

"Camille rather liked Suzanne who took verbal crudity to an incandescent intensity that could only inspire admiration -- Camille's mother had taught her to consider vulgarity as a way of coping with life."

"Yes, of course he [Adamsberg] was in love with Camille, deep down inside, in the unknown country you carry along inside you like some private but alien submarine world. Yes. And so what? Nothing says that you have to put every one of your thoughts into action."

From Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand:

"You love someone, you've got to give something, haven't you now, but if all you want's a good time, you don't have to."

"At eighty-six, the old woman was capable of giving herself without stinting."

From This Night's Foul Work:

"Spring is capricious, Adamsberg thought, you can't expect her to arrive punctually on the morning of 21 March, when you think of the astronomical quantity of buds she has to deal with, not to mention all those larvae, roots and seeds, things you can't see but that must certainly take up a huge amount of her energy."

"She was a tall, rather angular woman who moved around cautiously, as if she was surprised to find herself alive. Her chatter was composed of the most trivial non sequiturs, some pointless, some completely odd, and she could evidently keep it up for hours. In a sense, it was a work of great artistry, a lacy network of words, woven so fine that it contained only holes."

"If something feels sudden, it's only the end of a long hidden process that one may not have been aware of."

"The world of fantasy fills the gaps in people's knowledge."

The other extraordinary writer I read last year was the Swedish mystery author, Henning Mankell, but I will write about him another time.

On a personal note, I am going to have minor surgery on Friday, but any surgery means major pain to accompany recovery. So the next period of silence on this blog will have a discernible reason.

© 2009 Julius Lester

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Story Do You Live By?

Each of us lives by stories - those told to us and about us by family members, those we have about ourselves that no one knows but us, stories friends tell about us, etc. But generally there is an overriding story to our lives, the theological story - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, agnosticism, atheism - the story that creates a sense of order in our lives, that helps us understand who we are in the face of the universe and eternity.

As an American my story includes a belief in democracy and individuality. As a black person born in 1939 my story includes growing up under racial segregation in the south, which inflicted wounds that still throb. But being born in 1939 I came of age at the dawn of the 1960s, and my involvement in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement are important elements of my story. But nothing in my story enables me to understand the story in the lives of the people in this item from Saturday's New York Times:

"Criminals believed to be linked to witch doctors killed an 8-year-old albino boy in eastern Burundi and took two of his arms and a leg, a rights group and an official said Friday. Killings of albinos, whom many central Africans believe to have magical powers, have increased in the past year to support a growing trade in albino body parts. Three men with machetes attacked the boy in Cankuzo Province, said Kassim Kazungu, head of Burundi’s Albinos Association. The killing, which occurred Thursday, was confirmed by a prosecutor in the neighboring province. Mr. Kazungu said six albinos had been killed in Burundi since last September, while a seventh is missing. Smugglers in Burundi are believed to take albinos’ organs and limbs to Tanzania, where witch doctors use them for charms. In Tanzania, at least 35 albinos, mostly women and children, were killed in 2008, according to the Tanzania Albino Society."

The thing about stories is that not all of them are good. And, all too often the stories we have about others - Burundis about albinos, Arabs about Israelis, Israelis about Arabs - end with the deaths of those whom we demonize in our stories.

We need to start telling new stories.

© 2009 by Julius Lester