Gazing From Afar at Wasted Days

HAMPL (1)Patricia Hampl’s latest book, The Art of the Wasted Day, carries readers aloft on a tranquil travelogue, packed with side trips, vignettes and what Hampl calls the divine details.  

Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hampl shines as Saint Paul’s literary royalty, artfully chronicling her travels, from smoky Czech cafes to a quirky Welsh vale and blissful houseboat cruise along the Mississippi.

The meandering pilgrimages follow the Roman idea of honorable leisure. Hampl doesn’t rush her journeys, choosing instead to pace her trips and this book’s flow with fine meals and many reflections. By book’s end, she illuminates what she’s learned, sharing the brilliant whys and ways of wasting one’s days. This is a journey worth taking, a book worth reading.

I confess, though, at times I struggled to stay with Wasted Days. It should have been easy to glide along with Hampl’s fine words. I can hear her cool smooth voice flowing across the page. Reading this amid the overheated cacophony of impending elections, I felt like a rebellious high schooler, challenging the teacher about whether this book was relevant. Do wasted days and leisurely dinners matter when pipe bombs keep popping up in politicians’ mailboxes?  The potential dangers of these elections loom over me like a horror movie. How can I think about leisure?

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Photo: Alec Smith

Hampl admits she also struggles between leisurely solitude and daily busyness. She writes of her ‘skittery mind” wandering on a meditative retreat. She owns up to her endless to-do lists and compunction to be the dutiful girl, the writer who completes every task. She trudges through a blizzard to her university office so she won’t miss office hours. Arriving to find that’s school’s been closed, she stays, and wonder of wonders, a student shows up. He’s relieved she can help him with the essay he can’t write. He confesses that nothing has happened in his life, growing up in Fridley. He has nothing to write about. Hampl reassures him that she wants to read about his Fridley life.

Ordinary life, in Fridley, in flyover land, in Iron Curtain countries, matters, Hampl writes. The little events, daydreams, loves and excursions, the conversations around the kitchen tables, they matter. The small stuff defines our lives. This luminous writer persuades readers that we don’t waste our lives taking time to daydream along the river, to look at a butterfly, or sit at the kitchen table, talking until the coffee grows cold. Instead, we waste our lives by rushing, by always doing, never beginning to slow. Never reaching solitude.

Her Paris Review essay, I Have Wasted My Life, offers a concise version of the book’s central theme. The essay’s title comes from James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”  Decades ago, Hampl thought the poet meant he wasted his life focusing on the little details of butterflies, horse turds and cowbells. Later, she re-considers, deciding that Wright is laughing at the worker bees, those of us who clog our lives with endless scurrying and skittering, to-do lists and worries (those elections…).

After the death of her husband, whose presence drifts through this book like silvery fog, his features intentionally indistinct, her grief achingly clear, Hampl sees the poem in a new light. She understands that it’s only when the poet rests in the hammock, in solitude, his mind “rinsed of ambition,” that he is able to take in life’s fine details. Only then, does Wright realize he was wasting his life by not seeing the life around him fully. Once he opens himself to the butterfly, the horse turds, the cow bells, the poet can exult in his joyful wasted life.  

I begin to let Hampl’s words and meaning wash over me. I reread descriptive passages, beginning to slow down. I think about the graceful meals, the transcendent trip down the Mississippi. My eyes and mind roam the pages, content to visit a quieter place, a place I often gaze at from afar.

This reflective book offers a peek through velvet curtains to an intentional life, distinct from the madding swirl. I can see Hampl, sitting quietly at her yellow kitchen table, the coffee going cold, her mind lost in thought, open to the world.

By book’s end, Hampl’s travelogue transported me to her calmer place. I see that the vignettes, the little episodes of a life that may seem like throwaways, are worth attention. Really, they are the stuff of life.

As Hampl notes, “The history of whole countries, of an entire era and even lost populations, depends sometimes on a little girl faithfully keeping her diary.” The diaries and divine details matter. Hampl’s pilgrimages matter. Just as the places where stories and books live matter.  Places such as the East Side Freedom Library, the home of community histories, cultures and people, Karen weavers and African drummers, Hmong Archives, union members and environmentalists, this common ground gathering spot, this library matters.

This Tuesday, Patricia Hampl, artist of the wasted day, will talk about the importance of stories and place at East Side Freedom Library’s Fourth Anniversary Benefit Celebration Tuesday, October 30, 2018, 6:30 – 8:30 PM, East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul 55106  Tickets are tax-deductible. Please register in advance.

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Human Proof Fence

Sixteen years later, Beth Cleary and Peter Rachleff remain haunted by ​what happened to three girls. A 2002 Australian film, Rabbit Proof Fence, traced the mixed race Aboriginal girls’ escape from a re-education camp in 1931. The girls began walking home, 990 miles through harsh country, determined to get back to their family. Molly, Daisy and Gracie trudged alongside what was the world’s longest fence, built to protect grasslands from rabbits.

IMG_20180912_135722Motivated by the girls’ desperate trek to freedom, Cleary and Rachleff organized an art exhibit, Human Proof Fence, premiering this Friday, October 26 at East Side Freedom Library. Five Twin Cities artists have created works for the show, with support from the Marbrook Foundation.

In a sense, each artist or their family have faced Human Proof Fences, formidable barriers between homes they had to leave and their chance for better lives. Wars drove some from their homes. Others had to flee because of oppression. 

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Ger Yang’s art on permanent display at the library shows a modern Human Proof Fence, between the U.S. and Mexico. His mural makes every trip down the library’s stairs a journey, where visitors see experiences common to some East Side neighbors, including Hmong, Latinx, African and other communities. Yang will unveil a new 3D artwork for the Rabbit Proof show.

IMG_20180912_132600Aye Lwai and Rosie Say are Karen women whose tapestries tell stories of homesickness and re-adjustment. Their modest tapestries are woven snapshots of lives past and present, the dog Say had to leave behind,  a peacock symbolizing the queen, a hand above the tipped scales of justice, fishing and snowflakes. Their stories, written in both Karen and English, add background to their art. 

 

IMG_20180923_184101250Xicana artist Pacha Galavíz will add a mobile and acrylic painting focused on displacement and whiteness. Galavíz’s goal is to inspire  other Latinx artists especially Xicano youth to create and express more.

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John Matsunaga will exhibit works from a photo book in progress about his family’s internment during World War II. His parents were 11 and 13 when they and their families were among the 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated in the American Southwest. In February, the library mounted his photo exhibit, Nidoto Nai Yoni, Nidoto Nai Yoni: Forgetting and Remembering the Wartime Incarceration of Japanese Americans. Holding his mother’s high school yearbook from the incarceration camp, Matsunaga mused about what happens to this history when all who were incarcerated are no longer alive to tell their truth.

We need to remember the stories of Americans incarcerated by our government because of wartime xenophobia, just as we need to remember the stories of refugees, including our Hmong and Karen neighbors, the stories of immigrants from Latin America or Africa, and all those who’ve been locked in or kept out by fences.

Inspired by the story of three Aboriginal girls, this Human Proof Fence exhibit opens doorways through border walls and barbed wire fences, revealing pain and loss, memories and hope.

Human Proof Fence Opening Celebration and Discussion, Friday, October 26, 2018, 7:00 – 8:30 PM, East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul 55106 651-230-32946 Free and open to all..

When is enough enough?

Turquoise and lemon, lilac and orange, rose and gold. From across the room, the pretty painted circles and shimmery ribbons bejeweled with rhinestones look sweet.

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part of Melanie Bethke’s When is Enough installation

I walk closer, checking out Melanie Bethke’s vibrant art. Then I spot the shell casings. Dozens and dozens of dull brass spent shells strewn on the carpet, sprawled amid the dainty ribbons. Each casing once held a bullet. Each colorful circle holds a name and age. Benjamin Wheeler 6 yrs. Angel Luis Candelario Pedro 28 yrs. G.V. Loganathan 51 yrs. Steve Berger 44 yrs.  Alyssa Alhadeff 15 yrs.

The artwork’s  Sensible Gun Reform banner reads like a timeline of pain: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (SC) 6-17-2015, Inland Regional Center (CA) 12-2-2015, Pulse (FL) 6-12-2016, Harvest Music Festival (NV) 10-1-2017, First Baptist Church (TX) 11-5-2017, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 2-14-2018.

Bethke’s pretty and pointed installation is on exhibit at East Side Freedom Library through October 17th, along with other political art.

Nikki McComb has been using art as a catalyst for change for almost two decades. Her black and white photos challenge viewers to think about other people’s pain. By a chain link fence puffy with Mylar balloons, stand a somber man and child. The man holds a sign, DANA WAS MY WIFE. Another photo shows four children, elementary school aged. No smiles. Each child wears a T-shirt with a big red X over a gun. Two girls hold a sign, LET ME LIVE

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Nikki McComb photograph

The messages in this political art show are straightforward, not subtle. When it comes to gun violence, there’s no point in being coy. As Bethke’s colorful installation proclaims, When is enough enough? NOW

Panel Discussion on Gun Violence and the Possibilities of Reform, Monday, October 15, 2018, 7:00 – 8:30 PM, East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul 55106 651-230-32946 Free and open to all.

Men in power; women will rise

Once again, the Senate is choosing to ignore a credible woman and reward an angry man.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford quietly told her painful truth, just as Anita Hill had twenty-seven years earlier. And just as Clarence Thomas lashed out in fury, so too did Brett Kavanaugh. The Senate, then and now, shrugged its shoulders, and let the bullying men have their way.

It’s likely that by Saturday, two of the six male justices on our country’s highest court will have faced credible accusations of sex harassment or assault. How supreme is that?

The Senate is siding with Kavanaugh to cement Republican judicial power for decades. This morning’s vote to move Kavanaugh one step closer to his dream job is the Senate’s way of telling women we don’t matter. It doesn’t matter if a man tries to rape us. It doesn’t matter if a man exposes himself to us. It doesn’t matter if a man lies to Congress. He matters. We don’t.

But women will remember.

Next month, we will remember this craven Senate when we vote in the midterms. Two years from now, we will remember this shoddy Senate and the wretched president who mocked Dr. Ford when we vote in the presidential election. The 2020 election will mark the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. The vote is our voice. Men in power, in the Senate and in the White House, have chosen to ignore our voices now. Kavanaugh’s victory will be Pyrrhic.

The men who hold power now, the men try to mute and mock women’s voices, they will hear our vote.

And women will rise.

Always Another Country

What does it mean to be from a place?  Always Another Country, Sisonke Msimang’s memoir of exile and home tells the story of a “little girl who cried every time it was time to leave for another country.”

The daughter of a guerilla fighter forced to flee his native South Africa and a Swazi mother, Msimang grew up in Zambia, Kenya and Canada before coming to the U.S. to attend Macalester College. It’s not until after graduation that Msimang moves to her ‘home’ country, South Africa, where she realizes “that I look like I belong but I don’t.”

Throughout her childhood, Msimang longed for stability. It’s a coming of age story of someone trying to figure her place in the world. As she and family moved, Msimong observes life as an outsider, with clear-eyed insights.

Living in Canada, she saved money to buy a bike, so she could fit in with girls who snubbed her. When her family moved back to Kenya, a young boy stole Sisonke’s prized bike. Bystanders force thief to return the bike and apologize. At age 14, Sisonke had perspective to understand why the thief looked at her with disgust: She was rich enough to have a bike while he barely had food.

When she first arrived in Minnesota, she saw a man masturbating in his car and then another  man stalked her. She realized, “America is just like Kenya which is just like Canada which is just like Zambia which means there is nowhere in the world any of us can go to be safe… because when you are a girl, Trouble is always just around the corner…”

At Macalester, Msimang reveled in political action with her Sistahs ‘n’ Struggle poetry troupe, who believed that “with the guiding spirits of Steve Biko and Malcolm X, we have discovered blackness.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 2.10.11 PMIn South Africa, she was flummoxed when she fell in love with Simon, a white Australian man, whom she eventually married. The storyteller doesn’t flinch from her moments of pain. When she gave birth, her first reaction was shock: How could her baby be so white? She writes about becoming a homeowner and “complicit in “the South Africa Inc,” classist system of the wealthy using poor people to maintain posh homes and lifestyles. Parenthood forces Msimang to face the chasm separating her comfortable affluence and the poverty of many native South Africans, including the young nanny caring for Msimong’s child. The fear of South Africa’s widespread violence spur Msimang’s move to yet another country. Now, she and her family live in Perth, Australia, where Msimang works for the Centre for Stories.

Her storytelling shines throughout, particularly at the memoir’s end, when Msimang realizes that throughout her life, she always had a home. It was less about a place on a map and more about a place in people’s hearts. Her parents, especially her mother, gave Msimang and her two younger sisters their sense of belonging. True identity isn’t simply what’s on a passport. For Msimang, “it was those we loved, and not where we lived, that would make us belong.”

SISONKE MSIMANG is one of several women writers who will talk about Borders, Stories, and Transformations at East Side Freedom Library this Friday. Along with Sisonke Msimang, will be:

KAO KALIA YANG, born in the Ban Vinai refugee camp, grew up in the McDonough Homes project of St. Paul, author of The Latehomecomer and The Song Poet

VICTORIA BLANCO, who grew up on the border of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the Loft and is writing a memoir focused on the lives of the Raramuri

LINA JAMOUL, born in Syria, raised in Cyprus and England, and educated in the U.K., where she earned a Ph.D., Executive Director of MAPE, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.

Borders, Stories, Transformations, Friday, September 28, 2018, 7:00 – 8:30 PM, East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul 55106 Free and open to all.

Dear Judge Kavanaugh, about my abortion

Dear Judge Kavanaugh,

Like you, I am a parent of two. I saw your wife and daughters at your confirmation hearing, and I thought about my husband and sons.

Sixteen years ago, when our boys were young, I chose to have an abortion, I’m going public about what had been a private family decision because of you.

I’m driven by a sober sense of urgency, fearing that your impending confirmation will tip the Supreme Court and lead to restrictions or a ban on abortion. I worry some states will severely curtail abortion. I’m writing you because I believe every woman, regardless of what state she lives in or how much money she has, should be able to decide whether to continue or end her pregnancy.

Too often, we who choose abortion keep our decision quiet. I want you to hear stories of ordinary women like me who have had abortions. My story isn’t dramatic. I wasn’t at risk of death. I hadn’t been raped. I chose abortion because I didn’t want to have another child.

When I got pregnant at age 41, I knew immediately I would abort. I’d had two miscarriages before our sons were born. I understood pregnancy and parenthood.

For years, I had wanted a bigger family, a daughter. Now, I — the third of five children– didn’t want a third child. I told my husband I wanted an abortion.

He paused. “Are you sure?”

“I’ll support whatever you want to do, and I know it’s your choice, but are you sure?”  he asked.

Even now, sixteen years later, I remember the conversation, the two of us, a stable middle-class, white married couple, getting ready for bed, talking. Our sons asleep in the bedroom next door.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m certain.”

I did not want this fifth pregnancy. My mind flashed through scenes of diapers, high chairs, potty-training, playgrounds, preschool, all the stages we’d walk with another child. I would be 47 years old with a kindergartner; 59 years old at high school graduation. It wasn’t the family I wanted. I knew what being a mother means, and knew I didn’t want to do the work of parenting a third child.

The next day, we booked an appointment at Planned Parenthood.

At our local Saint Paul clinic, by the library we frequented with our sons, my husband and I sat quietly in a modest waiting room. I went through the initial check-up and tests. We scheduled the abortion before we left.

The same month, we went back to the clinic. Men aren’t allowed in the medical rooms, so my husband stayed in the waiting room. I don’t remember the actual abortion. The clinic visit went quickly, smoothly. Afterwards, we spent a peaceful afternoon playing and reading with our sons when they came home from school. I remember looking at our boys, thankful for our family. Two parents, two kids.

Over the years, my husband and I embraced the family we have. We are complete. I began volunteering for Planned Parenthood, outside the clinic where I had my abortion. With fellow volunteers, I greeted and escorted patients, buffering them from protesters, just as others had done for me.

This year, once again I stood outside Planned Parenthood, a more modern facility that replaced the small clinic that helped me. On a brisk winter Saturday, I marched amid hundreds of other pro-choice women, men, and their children, many clad in pink, a cheery and vocal counter to a much smaller, muted anti-abortion protest.

Amid the multitude of pinks, I spotted my 25-year-old niece, smiling and bright-eyed, walking with her boyfriend and other friends. I thought about her, wondering if in a few years, she and other women will still have the right to choose when and whether to have a family.

I don’t know if any of my nieces would ever need or want an abortion. Who knows if someday, someone you know, perhaps even one of your daughters, would need or want an abortion. Will a future Supreme Court prevent women from getting what is now a safe and legal procedure?

Your nomination compels me to speak. I can’t stay silent, just hoping that other women will still be free to choose what happens with their bodies. By going public, I’m exposing myself to potential criticism, and perhaps, worse. At 41, I trusted myself to make the right choice. At 57, I trust myself to share this story, hoping it might help others– my nieces, maybe women my sons will love– to have the choice I had.

Becoming a parent is an immense responsibility, too significant to leave to chance. Parenthood should be an intentional decision. I had a choice. Every woman should have that choice. Abortion is not a political football, it’s a personal decision that women need to be able to make for themselves.

The next time you consider a case involving abortion, perhaps you will think of me, a married mother who loves her children, and chose not to have another.

Sincerely,

Kate Havelin

The saddest nine words

Losing Earth is more than a magazine story. It’s our story, the story of what’s happening to our home. We can’t ignore it.

The cover was black, with a barely visible dark gray masthead. All that stood out were nine simple words.

“Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet.”

That sentence sums up the cover story– the only story– in the August 1st issue of The New York Times Magazine.

I didn’t read Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth when it was first published. I thought I knew about climate change.

Weeks later, on a westbound flight to LA, I started reading. There’s no one shocking revelation; instead, like a thorough detective, Rich spent 18 months doing more than 100 interviews, documenting a worldwide tragedy.

Losing Earth focuses on a decisive decade, 1979 to 1989, when people could have controlled global warming. It’s a riveting whodunnit, only it’s a who didn’t do it. Who didn’t act to prevent our world from getting too hot. It’s not an expose of one party or one politician. There’s enough blame for all of us.

Presidents as far back as LBJ knew about climate change. Exxon knew. Even four decades ago, the key facts of global warming were out there. We knew that the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer our planet becomes.

Rich’s narrative reads like a horror story. If it was a movie, we in the audience would shout warnings, “Run, get out of the house, save yourself.”

Scientist James Hansen, one of the people Rich profiles, tried to warn us what climate change could do. He testified to Congress, used simple props to make his case to the public, and advised top government officials about the looming danger. Hansen told us that even a two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures would be a long-term disaster.

Most of us didn’t listen. We didn’t demand our leaders act. The epilogue notes that economics, “prices the future at a discount: the farther out you project, the cheaper the consequences.” Climate change always seemed to be down the road, not right in front of us.

And so it seems like humanity flunked the marshmallow test, the experiment where little kids got to pick whether they wanted one treat right away, or two treats if they could wait, say fifteen minutes. That famous Stanford experiment found that kids who could delay gratification, who could wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows rather than getting one marshmallow right away, tended to had better lives, higher SATs, and education levels, etc.

When it comes to climate change, we humans couldn’t look ahead. We held tight to the one marshmallow we had– our comfortable way of life, filling our cars with gas, heating our homes with coal, instead of being patient and working toward a future with better outcomes– two marshmallows of a livable world in the future.

“Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet.”

We didn’t act. Now, we are seeing the damage. We’re seeing more extreme weather, more floods, more droughts, more wildfires. George Steinmetz’s Losing Earth photos are disaster panoramas. They could be Exhibit A, documenting the crime scenes of climate change.

A new draft U.N. report suggests that Earth’s temperatures will almost certainly exceed 1.5 Celsius by the 2040s.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence that climate change is here. We can’t escape what’s happening in front of us. Losing Earth is the biography of our home. It’s our story.