Writing Stories & Cultural Appropriation

Do stories belong only to those who are in the story? Who has the right to tell stories of minority cultures, vanished cultures? Is it only the members of that culture? Can anyone else tell those stories in a valid way? When does it cease to be storytelling and become cultural misappropriation? (Or, in the reverse, when does it cease to be cultural misappropriation and become storytelling?)

The examples in this Slate article, Going Native, are extreme, obvious examples of cultural appropriation — a white person actually pretending to be Native American to cash in on the tragedy and poetry expected to be inherent in the stories of Native Americans. And this is not fair to real Native Americans.

The real victims are Indian citizens and writers. People who have for so long been denied the opportunity to express themselves. There are many Indian writers with stories to tell that are ignored because they do not fit the preconceived notion of tragedy and cheap melodrama that make books like Love and Consequences so appealing.

It is wrong to take on the identity of someone from another culture. It is ethically, if not legally, fraudulent.

If you stick to the most basic morality and keep your own identity and write about other cultures, where is the line drawn between storytelling and cultural appropriation? Is it different if you are from a minority group and are writing about the majority? Can someone from another culture ever authentically tell stories of a different culture?

Ursula K. Le Guin pulls it off beautifully. She uses her experience growing up as the daughter of anthropologists/ethnologists studying the Native Americans of California to write wonderfully crafted stories of other cultures. With one important difference. None of her cultures are on Earth. Her works are labeled as science fiction because they all take place on other planets, with alien cultures.

Is there space for writers to stick to Earth and the amazing variety of cultures and people found here? I don’t know. What do you think?

Unexpected death in a book

I’ve been reading The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith, this week, and I have decided I can no longer bear books where a young child dies. The death of the child, while central to one of the story’s threads and to her mother’s behavior and emotions, is by no means central to the story.

And yet, I find myself unable to forget it. The death of a child used to be commonplace, and we can see in contemporaneous fiction that mothers took it with varying degrees of equanimity. Having almost lost my children (at different times and for different reasons), I find that the death of a child is not something I can contemplate with equanimity. It is taking over the book for me. I cannot tell if that is intentional on the author’s part — it may be, but at this point in the book (I have not yet finished it), that is still ambiguous.

It is hard to write accurate historical fiction without including the death of a child,as it was so common before the advent of modern medicine with its vaccines, antibiotics, and scientific knowledge. I am tempted to stick with inaccurate historical fiction, or at least that with only adult characters. On the other hand, that would not have kept me from beginning the book, as the book jacket is inaccurate as to why the painter began her important work that is at the heart of the story. In the book, she begins the painting in response to her daughter’s death. On the book jacket, she is merely haunted by the image of a young girl she saw. Rather a large difference.

Quirky Quotation

“Where do you get your ideas from, Ms Le Guin?” From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?

Ursula K Le Guin in the introduction to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters

Writing Poetry

Note: This is a talk I gave at a writing group in 2010 on my poetry writing process. I’ve made some minor changes for publishing here.

First Draft

Getting the Words Down

How I write poetry: I always start a poem with an image. Sometimes, I see something that strikes me. Sometimes an image just pops into my mind. Sometimes I use a prompt. I prefer picture prompts or short, two or three word prompts. Looking at the striking object or the prompt, a phrase and a general feeling will come to me. I usually use that first phrase as the first line of the poem. Then I build on that line with more lines, using the general feeling as a guide to them. Usually, for longer poems, I’m telling a story.

After a line or two, I have a sense of which form I want to use for the poem. I want to mention here a few things about forms. I have a set of forms I like to use. If I read a poem in a new form I like, or read about a new form, I usually try to write a poem of my own using the form to see if it fits my style. Using forms really improved my poetry, because a form is a pattern, and provides patterns that are pleasing to the reader. I’ll talk more about specific forms in a moment.

Occasionally, I won’t pick a form after the first couple lines. I’ll write the whole poem in free verse, then go back and fit it to a form. I usually do this when I’m not sure right away what I’m trying to do with the poem. I’ll discuss a little more about how I do this later.

I often go back as I write and change already written lines to fit the further lines, and how the poem is developing. This is a little tricky sometimes, because with or in addition to the form, I always try to have a syllable or meter pattern going on. Some forms are defined by these patterns, some are not, and if I’m using a form without a pattern, I try to make sure I create one of my own.

Once I have a poem, I read it again as an editor, making sure that it flows the way I want it to. Sometimes, especially if I’m just dashing something off for practice, I’ll leave it here. Otherwise I’ll keep working on it. If I’m not happy, I set it aside. I don’t always finish a poem in one sitting. I write notes to myself about where I see the poem going, and what I hear in it already, and then I set it aside. I’ll come back and work on it more later.

Punctuation in Poetry

Just like Prose

A period is a full stop, a comma is a pause before a new phrase or idea. A long dash is used as a pause, but not a full breath like a comma. Or think of it like this: A period is to start a new idea entirely, a comma is to insert a new idea without finishing the old one and a long dash is to add a comment to the idea. And just like prose, colons set off lists, and semi-colons separate the items of the list if commas are used within the items. These last two are used rarely. Also, avoid the temptation to punctuate the end of every line. The end of a line (and a stanza end, too) is a natural break, and a pause, so you don’t need to add anything unless it fits naturally.

Form and Meter


First, a little about meter. Mary Oliver explains it much better than I can,  so this is from page 36 and 37 of her book, A Poetry Handbook. Emphasis hers.

  1. In metrical verse, each line of the poem can be divided into feet, and each foot into stresses (syllable sounds), to reveal the overall rhythmic pattern.
  2. The process of dividing a line into its metrical feet and each foot into its individual parts is called scansion.
  3. An iamb, or an iambic foot, is one light stress followed by one heavy stress.
  4. Five iambic feet strung together create an iambic pentameter line.

Be sure and read the book for the wonderful examples — when I read them, the lightbulb just went off.

Poetic Forms

The forms I share here are just my favorite forms that work best with my writing style. There are lots of other forms out there, some of which I have tried. Each poet needs to work out for herself which forms work best for her. You can find forms by searching on the Internet, or in books. I particularly like Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms by Babette Deutsch and A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry by Mary Oliver. Both these books have lots more information on poetry than just the forms, and I highly recommend both of them.


Three lines, using syllable count. I like it for writing short descriptions of an object.





A repeating form. It’s a French adaptation of a Malaysian form. It’s good for telling stories, particularly ones with repeating themes. Each stanza is four lines. After the first stanza, each stanza’s 1st and 3rd lines repeat the 2nd and 4th lines of the preceding stanza. The final stanza uses the 2nd and 4th lines of the preceding stanza and the 1st and 3rd lines of the first stanza, as couplets, either the lines of the preceding stanza and then the lines of the first stanza, or vice versa. I letter the stanzas, and number the lines, so I can keep it all straight. There are usually 4 or 5 stanzas, but there can be as many as the author likes. No rhyme or meter is necessary, but I often try to use a meter (either the same one for all lines, or alternating. Using an alternating meter pattern means the pattern will reverse in each stanza, e.g. tetrameter/trimeter in the first stanza becomes trimeter/tetrameter in the second, and so on.) You will see variations on this form, particularly in the final stanza. When repeating lines, you can change a word or the tense, or change punctuation, but each repeated line needs to be essentially the same as the original.





B1 A2


B3 A4


C1 B2


C3 B4


D1 A3 or D1 C2

D2 A1 D2 C4

D3 C2 D3 A3

D4 C4 D4 A1


A nine line poem using syllable count in a pattern:










The first and last lines are identical. I like rictameters for describing a scene, or a brief story.

Syllabic Verse

From Mary Oliver: “The number of syllables in each of the lines in the first stanza is exactly repeated in the following stanzas. . . . Because of the strictness of syllable-count, and the inevitable variety of stress-pattern, syllabic verse creates a music that is highly regular and at the same time filled with engaging counterpoint.” I like syllabic verse for subjects that do not lend themselves to repetition and yet I want a regular pattern to fit the story to.

Writing a Poem

I want to walk you through my process of writing a poem with an actual example of a poem I wrote in response to a specific prompt: a photo of a blue lake among sand dunes and it was supposed to be a four line poem.

It started out:

Cool water, shaded

A blue gem hidden between sand dunes

What a precious treasure.

It was only three lines and a little dissonant and without pattern. I decided to use a meter. Changing the first line to

Cool water, shrub-shaded

was more descriptive and in iambic trimeter (three feet per line). The middle line was in iambic tetrameter (four feet per line) and I decided that would fit the rhythm I wanted better. So I rearranged the lines, looking for tetrameter, resulting in:

A blue gem among sandy dunes

Sky reflecting, shrub shaded,

Cool water for thirsty drinkers

What a precious desert treasure.

But ‘precious’ is too long, so I changed it to ‘lovely.’

A blue gem among sandy dunes

Sky reflecting, shrub shaded,

Cool water for thirsty drinkers

What a lovely desert treasure.

You’ll note that the poem goes straight from disorder to tetrameter. I couldn’t have done that a year or so ago, but when I started trying to use meter and syllable count in my writing, the easier it became. Now I just need to have a meter or syllable count in mind, and the lines will usually match what I want, or be very close.


I love lists. I love making them, I love looking at them and adding to them, and I especially love checking things off. Who doesn’t love lists? And now I’ve learned that I am not alone in loving lists.

Last week, Brain Pickings had an article about lists, and Susan Sontag’s musings on lists. She said:

I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence, my compulsion to make “lists.” The things (Beethoven’s music, movies, business firms) won’t exist unless I signify my interest in them by at least noting down their names.

(Sidenote: If you don’t read Brain Pickings, you should. Every day is a new article, a gem of a post about some unusual aspect of literature, history, science, or all three at once. The blog as a whole constitutes an excellent list of things everyone should know and discuss, but don’t.)

And lists and blogs come together beautifully on TYWKIWDBI with the annual Best Blogs list. Like unusual, thoughtful blogs? You can find them on TYWKIWDBI’s Best Blogs of 2013 list.

Guest Post: The Big List of Different Types of Poems by Kenney


Poetry (Photo credit: Kimli)

From Lizbeth: The following is a guest post by Kenney Myers. It originally appeared on his blog. I already wrote about poetic forms in modern poetry, and I thought this was a nice summary of many of the formal types of poetry.

When it comes to poetry, there are more formal types than the casual reader may realize. There’s definitely more to poetry than the rhyming sentiments in greeting cards, though many of those verses do adhere to one of these style forms. The poetry types listed here are a mere sampling of the many different forms out there, and can serve as an interesting starting point for a deeper study of poetry and its many styles.

  • Haiku – Comprised of three unrhymed lines with rigid syllable requirements, the Japanese haiku poetry form generally contains a season word and often focuses on nature. The syllable scheme of five morae for the first line, seven for the second and an additional five in the final line can present an interesting challenge for new poets.
  • Limericks – With five lines and a standard verbal rhythm, limericks are almost always humorous and are known for being quite bawdy. Vulgar limericks are certainly not uncommon, despite the fairly rigid format of five anapestic lines.
  • Sonnets – Immortalized by the classic works of William Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay and other masters of the form, sonnets are fourteen-line lyric poems that typically have one or more conventional rhyme schemes.
  • Villanelle – With nineteen lines, five tercets and a final quatrain on two rhymes, the villanelle is a challenging poetry form. The first and third lines of the first tercet also repeat alternately as closing refrains on the succeeding stanzas and the final couplet of the quatrain.
  • Epics – The sweeping poems detailing the heroic exploits of a strong figure are called epics, and are generally quite long and very serious. The Odyssey, Beowulf and Mahabharata are all examples of famous epic poems.
  • Couplets – Couplet poems are made up of two-line, rhyming stanzas. Couplets are commonly used in greeting card verses, though there are also some famous literary couplets.
  • Elegies – Melancholy in tone, elegies are poems written in remembrance of a particular person after their death. These memorial poems are thoughtful and respectful, generally detailing the accomplishments and good qualities of the departed subject.
  • Free Verse – Free verse poetry, or vers libre, can be written with or without a set rhyme scheme, have no fixed metrical pattern and no style requirements. Modern poetry publishers tend to favor free verse styles over the more rigid, formal formats of the past.
  • Lyric – The word “lyric” doesn’t just refer to the words of a song, though song lyrics are usually considered a lyric poem. The true definition of a lyric poem is that it expresses the feelings and thoughts of the writer, and focuses largely on emotion or opinion.
  • Ode – Long in length, meditative or thoughtful in nature and almost always in a serious tone, lyric poems feature an elevated style and the structure of stanzas is formal.
  • Quatrain – The format of a quatrain requires that the four lines adhere to a specific scheme. The second and fourth lines must rhyme and contain roughly the same number of syllables in order to retain the metrical style and verbal rhythm associated with the quatrain.
  • Rondeau – French in origin, the rondeau contains ten or thirteen lines with two rhymes, and the opening phrase is repeated twice within the poem as the refrain.
  • Sestina – Six stanzas of six lines each and a three-line envoy are the stamps of a sestina, with the last words of the first stanze repeated in a varied order in the other stanzas and also recurring in the envoy.
  • Romanticism – Poetry focused on the concept of love with an emphasis on the poet’s personal experience in love or romance falls under the “romanticism” style of poetry.
  • Pastoral – Poems that celebrate a rural lifestyle in the bucolic wonder of nature are referred to as “pastoral” poems. Nature untouched by the encroachment of modern civilization is the focus of a pastoral poem, with Milton’s pastoral epic Paradise Lost being one of the most famous examples.

Be sure to let me know if I missed any!


Another note from Lizbeth: I do like a pantoum, myself, a Malaysian form adapted by the French. Perhaps I’ll do a follow-up post about my favorite poem forms.

Eyes in the Sky: Guest Post: Draft Novel Excerpt

Note: The following is an excerpt from my husband’s novel-in-progress.

Chapter 1

To get started rebuilding machines, the first thing to do is find a clay source and start building pottery (See Volume 10 Ceramics). Next, use the pottery to create charcoal (See Volume 19 Chemistry). If you can find an old dump site, you can now start finding aluminum in the garbage, and melting that and casting it into the parts needed for a lathe, a shaper, a drill press and a milling machine (See later chapters in this volume). If there is no dump available, aluminum can also be created from bauxite, or clay with the silica leached out, or even the feldspar in granite (once the quartz and other minerals are removed). However, this is more complicated (See Volume 8 Mining and Volume 20 Metallurgy).

– The Practical Encyclopedia, Volume 26, Machining, AO 945 Ed.

There are man’s laws, and there are the overseers’ laws.

I first encountered man’s laws when I was so young I don’t remember the details. I took something small that wasn’t mine, I got caught, and I learned I was not to do that again.

I first heard of an overseers’ law when I was getting old enough to go to the wilderness. My father and I were going on a fishing trip into the wilderness south of our village.

My father told me:

“When we get to the wilderness, we will pass obelisks that are yellow on three sides and white on the fourth. After that we are in the wilderness, and we must not cut any trees down.”

“Why?” asked I.

“It is an overseers’ law, there is no why.”

I asked and was told the overseers’ laws:

  1. Do not build roads or other surface transport networks more than 16 kilometers long. Trails and gravity fed canals are allowed.

  2. Transport more than 16 kilometers shall only be powered by four footed hoofed animal, human, wind or gravity.

  3. Do not build roads or buildings, farm, mine or chop trees in wilderness areas.

  4. Do not split or join atoms.

  5. Do not modify the instructions of life by unnatural methods.

  6. Do not burn the rock coal.

  7. Do not fly.

  8. Do not fish or use other resources in the ocean farther than 16 kilometers from the regular shore.

  9. Do not make machines with parts smaller than a micron.

  10. Do not interfere with the overseers’ markers or machines.

  11. Do not enter forbidden areas.

What strange rules. I had to talk to a village elder to even understand what some of them were forbidding. Burning rocks, splitting things to small to see, how would that even be possible, let alone why would anyone want to try? How does a human fly?

How would you make a machine that was smaller than a human hair? At the village machine shop, I could measure the thickness with a micrometer, and with a lathe make a shaft with a diameter accurate to a human hair, but how would you make a machine with parts more than a tenth that thickness? Wouldn’t they just fall apart?

The whole thing seemed fantastic to me, and I couldn’t believe it. I asked Master Zonder, the head of the village metal shop, where I was apprenticed, where the overseers laws came from, and he gave me a story.

Generations ago, people filled the Earth. They built towers to the sky. They flattened fields. They built wide roads. Their clamor went into the sky and the overseers heard. The overseers said: “We will wipe humans off the face of the Earth.” The humans said, “No, give us another chance.” The overseers replied, “Then there will be rules.” and so the rules came to be.

Rules are meant to be tested. Especially by teenage boys freshly out of their parents house and living in the boys’ bunk house. Our parents spent much more time telling us other rules. The obelisks should have told me the overseers were no fantasy, and had I thought about that, maybe what happened next might not have. Afterwards I remembered that our parents also didn’t spend much time telling us not to stick our hands in the flame of a fire.

1.1 Chopping to find out

Arthur, one of my friends and I decided that we needed a cabin in the wilderness, next to our favorite fishing stream. To get there we biked about twenty miles, left our bikes in the woods off the trail, screwed our aluminum tube walking sticks together,1 hoisted our backpacks and started hiking towards the stream.

As we walk thru the forest, we use the walking sticks to keep the spider webs out of our faces. The walking stick are also used for keeping our balance, and as an extra weapon to fight bears, wolves and mountain lions. The first weapon is the pepper spray. The weapon of last resort is a stainless steel knife using Natal’s second to last design2. My father told me when I was eight that humans are a very defenseless animal without a weapon, but with a weapon very dangerous. Every eight year old is given a knife, and it is carried everywhere at all times outside of town. Boys wear their knives even when skinny dipping in Hyalite reservoir, and from what we can see with binoculars, so do girls.

That afternoon we passed the overseers yellow and white obelisks marking the start of the wilderness. We camped that night by the stream. The next morning, we got out hand saws and started.

By noon we had a good start. We’d cut up a dozen trees (some standing) (first violation), and started placing them for the cabin (second violation).

My friend Arthur commented, “I told you the overseers don’t know and care about cutting down a few trees and making a cabin.”

A minute later, the machines came from the sky. We heard them first, sounding like a strange wind. We looked up and saw two fliers, each big enough to fit about a dozen humans inside. The fliers came down and hovered over the trees. By this time we had fled the unfinished cabin and were taking refuge in the woods.

A booming voice came from the fliers, saying: “Do not cut down trees in the wilderness. Do not build in the wilderness. Leave the building site.” Then some strange creatures leaped out of the fliers that looked sorta like a picture of a centaur I had seen in a mythology book. They look about like someone had grafted the top half of a person onto a horse, and shrunk them down to the size of a large dog, and made the whole thing out of aluminum. They had two hands and four feet, and a head attached to the front. There were maybe a dozen, and they moved fast. They threw all the trees that we had cut down into a pile on the cabin. Two of the centaurs sprayed some kind of bubbles that looked like frozen whitewater in a circle around the cabin.

The cabin burst into flames. I don’t know how, since most of the wood was green, but in five minutes all the logs were burned to ash. After the flames died out, a centaur pulled out a bag and filled it with water from the stream, and doused the ash thoroughly.

I felt a sharp stinging in my leg, like when I get a splinter from a piece of wood. Then the centaurs leaped up above the trees to get back in the door of the fliers. The booming voice said: “Do not cut down trees in the wilderness. Do not build in the wilderness. This is your warning.” The fliers left, and quiet returned to the forest.

Arther and I dug through the ash to find the partially melted ax head (paying for it would be months of allowance), and then headed home quietly in awe.

1.2 A Melted Ax

The day after we returned, I went to the metal shop to recast the ax head. Master Zonder saw me getting ready to melt the ax head.

“What happened to it?” he asked picking it up and looking at it.

“I accidentally melted it in a fire,” I lied.

“What kind of fire?” he asked.

“Just a campfire.” I answered.

“Do explain, truthfully,” he commanded with narrowed eyes.

“Just a campfire.” I lied again.

“No,” he said as he inspected the frozen drips, “a campfire would have just make it bend a little, and wreck the temper. Parts of this were liquid.”

I confessed what happened. Master Zonder looked amused, and said “Well, if the overseers already punished you, there is no point in me adding to it.”

1 It is rather hard to fit a full sized walking stick on a bicycle, and so like many things, they are made to be taken apart.

2 Thor Natal was a woodsman and hunter who lived by the Mackenzie river. His second to last design is the most widely used type. His last design failed testing and was buried with him.

News from 1843: Swedish teenager succeeds where British engineering fails

English: Drawing of the mechanical calculating...

English: Drawing of the mechanical calculating machine designed by Pehr Georg Scheutz in 1843 and completed in 1853. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1823, Charles Babbage began construction of his difference engine (an early calculating machine) with a grant from the British government. Twenty years later, it was still unbuilt.

In 1833, Georg Scheutz, a Swedish lawyer and translator, was so inspired by Babbage’s difference engine that he decided to build his own. In 1837, his teenage son, Edvard, age 15, offered to help his father turn his designs into reality.

“By the summer of 1843 he (Edvard) had succeeded in building a working machine.

Babbage had demanded the highest precision in the manufacture of parts for his Engine, and British technology, which was the most advanced anywhere, was stretched to its limits and beyond. Edvard’s machine has a rough wooden frame and was made using a simple lathe and hand tools by a young man with craft skills. A Swedish teenager had succeeded where the best of British failed.”

from The Cogwheel Brain, by Doron Swade, 2000 (p. 197)


The Many Variations of Elizabeth


















And many, many more for many different languages and spellings. I find it completely fascinating that 1 name can have so many different variations, nicknames, and spellings. Some of the variations don’t even look related! Like Bettina and Liz.

Do you have a name with many variations and/or spellings? Please share in the comments.

Sunday Service: Sweet Survivors

Note: This is a transcription of an old sermon I found. It really speaks to me, despite being given almost thirty years ago. I am sharing it here with permission of the author, Rev. Tom Owen-Towle. What follows is the citation he has asked me to provide: This sermon was originally given by the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle at the UU Professional Religious Leaders Conference in Oceanside, California, on January 17, 1983. You can find his books and information at http://www.tomo-t.com/.

Sweet Survivors

My task is to share some reflections on religious education for an uncertain future with a particular focus on the prophetic component of our UU faith.

Recent interviews have documented that American children and youth live with enormous anxiety about the future. They experience a world which is technologically sophisticated yet impersonal and remote. They see adults, the world power wielders, often leading “lives of quiet desperation”, despoiling the environment, making morally questionable choices, and plunging humanity every closer to the brink of nuclear oblivion.

I am not referring to the normal anxiety that accompanies growing up, even growing up in tumultuous times. Our offspring sense these times not just to be difficult but downright ominous. They are not coping simply with fundamental fears but with pervasive unease.

Some young people don’t even anticipate a future at all, let alone shaping a future. When the future is imagined, it is usually bleak. Therefore, all the futuristic studies and perceptive prognosticators can’t really assuage the visceral angst and interior fright of our children.

Dorothy Soelle, a native of Germany, describes the robust European peace movement by reminding us that her own parents had said they didn’t know anything about the building of the death camps. She then says: “Will we have to tell our children that we didn’t know about the dangers of the nuclear weapons build-up?”

The fact is that our children already know. They see it in the media, they hear it in our voices, they feel it in their insides. They know that they are living in a world where thermonuclear disaster is a real and constant threat.

They are understandably cynical, sad, bitter, and helpless. They feel unprotected. They harbor doubts about planning families or are unable to think ahead in any long-term sense. Not just our youth feel this way. The pre-teenagers do too. I have talked with children, others as well as my own. who are despondent about their tomorrows.

If eschatology is the theological discipline which literally focuses on the study of “last things”, then we are the parents of a generation of precocious eschatologists, children who are not immersed in some science fiction but are paying close heed to global evidence.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not unduly romantic about children. I know too much as a parent and professional. They’re hardly innocent creatures, but, my point is, they don’t run the world yet. They don’t even own their own refrigerators. The future is not yet in their grasp. To a large extent, they still bank on us, their elders, for models, tips, and savvy.

A colleague of ours, Forrester Church, in musing about his very young children, writes:

“My daughter is now one and a half. My son just turned four He told me last month that he did not want to grow up. I finally got out of him that what he was really afraid of was turning four. He didn’t want to be four. He didn’t know anything about being four.”

What scares our older children, you see, is not so much the unknown as what they already know in the marrow of their souls. Interpersonal violence and international strife are not foreign to them. They can’t be weasled into the shallow optimism of an obsolete liberal philosophy which mouths “onward and upward forever”.

Tennessee Williams once penned the somber phrase: “the future is called perhaps . . .” In the minds of our young, that’s no idle description. For them the future is not a certain reality or an assumed probability; it is more like a possibility, a perhaps.

However, I don’t want to attempt any predictions. I really have no idea whether or not we will enter a 21st century, or, if we do, in what economic or moral shape. Do we have a long haul ahead of us, a full lifetime for those in this room, tomorrows for our children’s children? Who knows? Our UU faith only assures us that while the precise number of our days cannot be measured, the quality of our moments can be enhanced.

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
All the king’s horses,
and all the king’s forces,
couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

Our religious heritage reminds us that power politics and brute strength will not reconcile our humpty-dumpty global village. Neither will noble sentiments, promises and forecasts — only compassion, daily, detailed compassion will heal our brokenness, redeem our time.

Let me share some invitations to all of us, youth children and adults alike, a few specific ways in which we might be prophetic witnesses and moral gadflies in this new year, in our uncertain future. In religious education terms, I am sharing some basic components of a compassion curriculum.

Before I offer some particulars, I must divulge one of my underlying assumptions for religious education. I believe that the acquisition of knowledge is second to its use. Truth is in order to goodness. Whatever learning takes place in our intergenerational faith community is to be employed in the service of compassion.

Therefore, in our UU religious education, we don’t merely affirm, we adhere, we fasten ourselves to the values and vision we study. Our religion is not for the unfettered spirit; it is for the individual whose life is claimed by bonds not bondages, service not servitude. We seek truths, we find some wisdoms, we incarnate our discoveries in our lives.

As teachers and learners, as children youth adults partnering a compassion curriculum, my first invitation is for us to become sweet survivors. As the folksong goes, “Carry on, the sweet survivor . . . carry on, my lonely friend, don’t give up on the dream and don’t you let it end.”

I mean “sweet” not as a cloying or saccharine but as in kindliness and gentle, good humor. I truly believe that we must become sweet people, sweet as in merciful, for only the truly tender can be fully strong. Adrienne Rich writes:

“. . . gentleness is active, gentleness swabs
the crusted stump, invents the more merciful,
instruments to touch the wound beyond the wound. . .”

I call upon us to become “survivors” because I contend that the universe ultimately belongs to the endurers, to those who are willing to persevere, carry on, kick up a spiritual storm and moral fuss all the way home.

Sweet survivors are those who believe that the best we may ever do in our lifetimes is to increase the odds of a lovelier world, and they go forth to do just that, to increase to the odds with all the power they can marshall.

Sweet survivors are those who, along with Albert Camus, contend that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Sweet survivors do not major in archaeological digs into yesteryear or flights of fancy into tomorrowland. They are convinced that the future will be different only if we can make the present different.

Sweet survivors are of durable spiritual stock, courageous over the long haul. They know that prophethood means being called to faithfulness rather than success, faithfulness to a moral vision before and beyond them. For prophethood is not a strategy but a way of being, a way of internal, interpersonal and international existence, day after day after day. Sweet survivors have that vision. They embody that vision.

The torch of living hope and detailed compassion must be passed on by sweet survivors to sweet survivors to sweet survivors.

My second invitation is for us to become star-throwers.

Loren Eiseley tells a story which helps me feel the powerful pertinence of moral witness in the messy midst of life’s contradictions. That great naturalist once spent time in a seaside town called Costabel and, plagued by his lifelong insomnia, spent the early morning hours walking the beach.

Each day at sunrise Eiseley found townspeople combing the sand for starfish which had washed ashore during the night, to kill them for commercial purposes. It was, for Eiseley, a sign, however small, of all the ways the world says no to life.

But one morning Eiseley got up unusually early, and discovered a solitary figure on the beach. This woman, too, was gathering starfish, but each time she found one alive she would pick it up and throw it as far as she could beyond the breaking surf, back to the nurturing ocean from which it came.

As days went by Eiseley found this woman embarked on her mission of mercy each morning, seven days a week, no matter the weather.

Eiseley named this person the “star-thrower”, and in a moving meditation he writes of how this woman and her predawn work countered everything that Eiseley had been taught about evolution and the survival of the fittest.

Here on the beach in Costabel the strong reached down to save, not crush, the weak. I like to think of our UU forebears, many of them, as star-throwers. I like to think of those of our spiritual kin who have stood at the shoreline of history, stood against the surf and the tide, and against all futility have reached down to affirm life, no matter how small and insignificant its form.

Star-throwers, my friends, are neither affectionate people oozing sentimentality nor activists snorting venom. They are loving protestors.

As Robert McAfee-Brown put it: “I love, therefore, I protest . . .” Pro-testari means “to testify on behalf of, in the name of, for the sake of . . .” The connotations are clearly positive, not negative. Gandhi stated it similarly: “Every confrontation should afford both sides an opportunity to rise above their present condition.” I ask us, as shapers of the future, as comrades in pursuing a compassion curriculum, are our spirits secure enough and sizeable enough to support the benefit of even our foes?

I appreciate the way William Sloane Coffin describes the attitude of reconciling compassion:

“In this world, we cannot tolerate the intolerable. Jesus never did, so why should we? But like Jesus, we have to hate the evil more because we do love the good. If we hate the evil more than we love the good, we end up damn good haters and that is not our idea. We want to hate what we think is evil, but we want to do it out of such love for the good that the evil becomes intolerable.”

I believe that to be productive star-throwers we must love more than we hate. Our human proclivity is to be brilliant adversaries of much and caring advocates of so little.

Sweet survivors. Star-throwers. In our compassion curriculum, we are also called to be wounded healers, or rather admit that we already are such.

As carriers of compassion I invite us to confess our complicity in the very evils we abhore. We are impure, imperfect prophets. Yet we often tend to see evil as if it were something that arose outside ourselves. We UUs can be downright self-righteous, doctrinaire and arrogant in our moral assertions and prophetic witness.

It is important for us to realize that we are also bound up with the brokenness, alienation, and yes, violence we protest. We must confess that we are bound together in sin with others before we can grow together in love with others.

Ours is not a guiltless place. We espouse no untainted program. We are not privy to some unreal purity. Friends, we are wounded healers.

Sweet survivors, star-throwers and wounded healers. I now invite us to become agile jugglers, those disciplined in the art of maintaining balane, exhibiting equilibrium in our social compassion.

Extremists are everywhere today, whether they are hedonists overdosing on pleasure or martyrs on agony. I would invite us to balance, to be faithful to both beauty and injustice, contemplation and resistance, seriousness and joy.

First, beauty and injustice. Albert Camus put it poignantly:

There is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever difficulties the enterprise may present, I would like never to be unfaithful to the one or the other.”

The concern for beauty is not a moral evasion. It leads us firmly into the midst of all that is going on in our world. Where there is beauty apparent, let us enjoy it; where there is beauty hidden, let us unveil it; where there is beauty defaced, let us restore it; where there is no beauty at all, let us create it. All of which places us, too, in the arenea where oppression occurs, where the oppressed congregate, and where agile jugglers are called to be.

My perception is that without a sensitivity to beauty, our compassion is likely to become driven and drab. Conversely, if we bask only in beauty, we cauterize our moral nerve. Our UU mandate would have us prove faithful to both.

There is another arena in which we need to refine our juggling act. Contemplation and resistance. As the poet Marianne Moore wrote: “There never was a war that was not inward.” Our peace-making must be inward too. In shaping more merciful and just tomorrows, I invite us to honor times of solitariness, spiritual renewal, contemplation . . . fortifying ourselves for the frays. Roman Catholic compassionates like Thomas Merton have been especially agile in maintaining this equilibrium. He once said:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperating in violence. The frenzy of activists neutralizes their work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of their own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

James Luther Adams claims that the distinction between a true and a false prophet is measured by the costliness incurred. I agree, but we need to remember to pay spiritual expenses to both the realms of serenity and service. Compassion requires juggling. It invites us to pound the pavement and visit wellsprings. It calls us to contemplation and resistance in creative flow.

One final rhythm is the prophet’s life. One more juggling angle. I urge us to be serious yet joyous, intense yet cheerful, committed yet light-hearted.

Rabindranath Tagore provides the fitting text for this invitation:

“I slept and dreamt
that life was joy.
I awoke and saw
that life was duty.
I acted and behold
duty was joy.”

There seem to be too many tormented fanatics dragging about in the camp of prophets. They know passion simply as suffering. They seem oblivious to passion as love, passion as laughter, passion as joy. The effort to redeem our world is serious, to be sure, but not grim.

For me, compassion unsung and undanced is indeed a doleful, boring enterprise. Playfulness of spirit is not a frivolous and irresponsible luxury, even given the current state of the union and the universe. What we don’t need is another humorless crusader. We need laughters, singers, dancers in the ranks of the compassionate.

At the end of a brilliant concert Holly Near said sometimes she started feeling very despondent about torture, nuclear power, sexism, and so forth. Her brother smiled at her, gave her a hug and said cheerfully, “Yeah, so what else do you really have to do with your life, Holly?”

And so the final component of our compassion curriculum is the reminder we need our brothers and sisters around to needle and nudge us, challenge and comfort us, We dare not try to go it alone. We will begin to believe the things the world says about prophet. We will become candidates for early burnout. We need to place our consciences alongside those of others in the bosom of our beloved community.

We are members of the same body, a body born of grace and effort, a body with stories and visions, a body with younger and older limbs, a frail yet sturdy body . . . of sweet survivors.

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