Tag Archives: history

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

My friend and bandmate, Terry, loaned this book to me. She said that I would really enjoy it. She was right.

The book is a work of historical fiction, with some mysticism woven in. It is about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who gets stuck in the space between death and rebirth. Having recently read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which goes into a lot of detail about the bardo state, I was able to relate to this book on a deeper level.

The book is a quick read. It is essentially constructed of short snippets of text, some from historical sources and others fictionalized to reflect the consciousness of the characters. Stylistically, it works very well, and the inclusion of the historical references definitely added a level of verisimilitude to the work.

One of the things that I got out of this book was the affirming of the fact that every single person, every life, has an impact on the world. We may feel that our existence is insignificant; but that is not so. Throughout our lives, we have an influence on every other living being with whom we come in contact.

What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.

(p. 71)

One scene in the story I found particularly interesting and creative features a military officer stuck in the bardo and attempting to communicate with his wife in the form of a letter. His words express the emotions associated with being trapped in a dismal space, desperately longing to move on.

O my dear I have a foreboding. And feel I must not linger. In this place of great sadness. He who preserves and Loves us scarecly present. Since we must endeavor always to walk beside Him, I feel I must not linger. But am Confin’d, in Mind & Body, and unable, as if manacled, to leave at this time, dear Wife.

I must seek & seek: What is it that keeps me in this abismal Sad place?

(pp. 137 – 8)

The last passage I want to share is an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s consciousness, where he is contemplating the transitive nature of life, how we emerge from non-being into being, and maintain a state of constant change through our short sojourn in this life.

I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

(p. 244)

As I think about this passage, I think about all the changes I have gone through in my life—some major and others so subtle they were barely noticeable. And I think of the changes I have seen in the people around me, and in the world as a whole. It is the single constant, and the one thing for which we can be certain. We will experience change throughout our entire lives. And when we reach the end, it will be yet another change and transition as we cross the threshold into the bardo.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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“The Revolt Against the Law” by Umberto Eco

I have been slowly working through Turning Back the Clock, a collection of essays by Eco. As I read this essay, there was a passage that really struck me.

… and, even before his guilt was decided, the masses in front of the TV were gloating over his humiliation and disgrace, as if watching a variety show in which the amateurs make fools of themselves. It was bad—bad for those who emerged innocent and bad for the guilty too, because the price they paid was higher than that called for by the law.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 182)

As I read this, it dawned on me just how much, as a society, we do this here in the US. I confess that I have been guilty of this myself. When I hear that someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum has been “accused” of some wrong doing, I have been quick to use that to justify my pre-established conceptions about that person. People on the left do it with Trump, and people on the right do it with Hillary. We have gotten to a point in our collective culture where what we accept as the truth is that which supports the beliefs that we already have. It’s a dangerous place for us to be in as a society.

One of the reasons I read is because it allows me to reflect upon myself, and I am humble enough to recognize when there are areas where I can improve as a person. This is one of those areas. Now that I am aware of this tendency, I am going to try not to engage in it. I’m sure I’ll fall short, especially as Mueller forges on with his investigations, but it’s about progress and not perfection.

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“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 07

This graphic series continues to impress me. A lot happens in this installment, and I could certainly write extensively about it, but will focus on the two aspects which stood out most prominently for me.

While Shadow is driving, he picks up a young woman named Sam who is hitchhiking. As they are driving, they get into an interesting discussion regarding Herodotus.

Shadow: It’s like he’s writing these histories, and they’re pretty good histories. Loads of weird little details. And then there are the stories with gods in them. Some guy is running back to report on the outcome of a battle and he’s running and running, and he sees Pan in a glade… and Pan says… “Tell them to build me a temple here.” So he says… “Okay.” … and runs the rest of the way back. And he reports the battle news, and then he says… “Oh, and by the way, Pan wants you to build him temple.” It’s really matter-of-fact, you know?

Sam: I read some book about brains, how five thousand years ago, the lobes of the brain fused, and before that people thought when the right lobe of the brain said anything, it was the voice of God. It’s just brains.

Shadow: I like my theory better.

Sam: What’s your theory?

Shadow: That back then people used to run into the gods from time to time.

I had read Herodotus back in college and remembering liking his histories. Probably something I should read again at some point. But what struck me the most about this section is how, in the past, people did have more interaction with their gods than they do today. I think it is because we have become more distracted by the trappings of our manufactured societies. We have replaced our old gods with new gods, gods of science, technology, commerce, and so forth. Which segues nicely into the next section I want to share.

In this scene, Shadow is watching television in a motel room, and a goddess manifests as Lucille Ball on the TV. She intimates to him that she is one of the new gods, who are the future.

Look at it like this, Shadow: we are the coming thing. We’re shopping malls, we’re online shopping. Your friends are crappy roadside attractions. We are now and tomorrow. Your friends are yesterday.

As I pondered this, I recalled sadly when my wife and I recently went to Cherokee. We went into some of the “Native American” gift shops, and they were all filled with manufactured garbage from China that was supposed to capture the power of what was once a mighty spiritual system. It was depressing. I could not find a single item that was actually made by a Native American craftsperson. I ended up buying only some locally roasted coffee.

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“A.D. After Death: Book Three” by Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire

This final installment has been sitting on my desk waiting to be read for a while now, and I finally got around to it. It is fairly long and I knew it would take me at least an hour to read it, so I was waiting until I had enough time to savor it.

As with the first two issues, this one is very text intensive. The story is extremely complex, dealing with memory, guilt, and cycles of rebirth in a post-apocalyptic landscape. And while I am feeling that the post-apocalyptic genre is getting a little hackneyed, this story is really fresh and interesting.

Jonah, the protagonist, has been undergoing treatments that prolong life indefinitely. The problem is, his memory gets more distorted after each cycle (the term used for the treatment). At one point, he conjures a memory of when he first went for the treatment. He is explaining to a woman Inez about why he decided to take the treatment.

I look down at my hands, as if there’ll be an answer there. “I suppose because I’m just… tired of being afraid all the time. Tired of feeling like my life is an egg I’m balancing on a spoon day after day. Because I just live in fear, and this…” and here I look up at her, “this just isn’t who I want to be.”

This paragraph made me think about people today. It seems that many people live their lives in fear, which is fueled by 24-hour news and social media. Not long ago, I had to turn off all my news sources. It had become toxic and made me feel bad most of the time. And like Jonah, I do not want to live in fear.

One of the most powerful moments in this book was when Jonah remembers his mother’s death. He recalls the horror reflected in his dying mother’s eyes, and undergoes an epiphany where he fully grasps why she was so horror-struck at her moment of death, as her psyche was flooded with memories.

And the terror in her eyes… the horror at knowing the truth.

But that’s where I was most wrong. I saw that now. All this time I thought the horror was at remembering–at seeing herself as she was, rather than how she’d hoped to be at the end.

But I knew now that wasn’t the case at all; she hadn’t been horrified at remembering.

She’d been horrified that she forgot in the first place.

That she’d lost her place in her own story.

I knew this to be true, because I felt that way now, felt it with every cell in my body.

Having watched someone close to me suffer the mental deterioration associated with Alzheimer’s disease, this concept haunts me. The thought that it is possible to forget everything that is important to you, all the experiences that make us who we are, is infinitely terrifying to me.

Towards the end of the tale, Jonah is contemplating death, and he realizes that to fully understand the experience of death is beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend.

I thought of children, how impossible math is to a baby, or physics to a toddler, and I got the feeling that whatever death was, it was beyond my perception entirely.

Death is the ultimate mystery. In spite of all the mystical texts written about dying, regardless of all the near-death experiences, the truth is, we really do not know what happens. It will forever remain a mystery for us during our lifetimes.

One last word about this book: The ending is very ambiguous, but in a good way. The author carefully leaves the ending open for interpretation, and I love that. Too often writers feel the need to wrap up a story all nice and neat; but life is not really like that, and this story reflects the unknowns in life that we must interpret through our own experiences. I won’t say any more, because I am not one who likes spoilers.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff.

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“March: Book Three” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This third volume concludes the trilogy, and it does so in a powerful and moving way. The story climaxes with the escalating tension in the civil rights struggle, which includes the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, where John Lewis was nearly beaten to death by Alabama State Troopers.

There is so much relevant and important commentary in this text, that I struggled with what to cover in my post (hence a lapse between when I finished reading and when I wrote this post). Rather than try to cover all the socio-political issues addressed in the book, I figured I would focus on a couple of sections that really stood out for me personally.

The first thing that really resonated with me personally was a section about the press and their focus on the white volunteers who were involved in the civil rights movement at the time.

There had been several complaints about the white volunteers trying to take over. It also left a number of people sore that the press had focused much of their attention on the white workers, often identified by name, shown working alongside nameless blacks.

(p. 53)

I had experienced something like this personally when I lived in South Florida and I went to protest the repatriation of Haitian refugees at the INS offices. I was interviewed by the news and featured prominently on television because they wanted to know why a white American was out there protesting with a large group of black Haitians. For me, it was a basic human rights issue, and I have to say I felt pained that the media chose to focus on me and not on the Haitians who were literally fleeing for their lives from the Duvalier regime.

The next thing that really struck me deeply was a conversation between Lewis and Malcolm X. Malcolm stressed that the real issue of the civil rights problem is economic, that it is the disparity between the rich and the poor, a rift that continues through this day and is the cause of much of the suffering around the world.

Malcolm talked about the need to shift our focus from race to class, both among one another and between ourselves and the white community. He believed that was the root of our problems, not just in America, but all over the world. Malcolm was saying, in effect, that it is a struggle for the poor–for those who have been left out and left behind–and that it transcends race.

(p. 136)

I also learned from the book that Malcolm was assassinated on John Lewis’ birthday, which was February 21, 1965 (Lewis was born on February 21, 1940).

Toward the end of the book is a touching section that depicts Lyndon Johnson’s speech announcing the federal government’s enforcement of voting rights. The speech is included in its entirety and is worth reading closely, but I just want to focus on one key phrase.

The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.

(p. 242)

In the recent election here in the U.S., and in past elections, I have been sadly astounded at voter apathy and the sense that many people have that their vote does not mean anything, or that it is better to cast a protest vote to send a message to the “establishment” instead of voting for the better of the two primary candidates. While I certainly empathize with the sentiment of these people, considering the vote as something frivolous or useless will ultimately lead to the loss of its power as a vehicle for social change. We must never forget that gains are slow coming, but that progress can be torn down very quickly.

Anyway, I highly recommend this graphic trilogy to all readers, young and old. The books are inspiring, infuriating, and important.

Here are links to my posts on the first two books:

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“March: Book Two” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This book opens with an image of two hands shaking: one black and one white. For me, that sums up what this book is about: reaching across the race divide.

This volume focuses on the increased violence that blacks faced as the civil rights movement gained momentum. It can be difficult to read at times, but the message is so powerful and important, that the story must be told. One part really pained me. It was depicting an attack on civil rights activists in Montgomery, AL on May 20, 1961. A mom had brought her young boy to the demonstration and was encouraging him to partake in the violence.

“C’mon… harder, Danny! That’s my boy… git him! Them eyes… git them eyes!”

(p. 75)

It’s an image I could not shake, and it reinforced what I already believed—that racism is taught. It is something that is passed down from generation to generation. I don’t believe that hatred is a natural state, but it is something that is learned.

Another thing that was not surprising yet resonated with me is how religion is twisted and used to justify hatred. This is evident in a quote from Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett.

“The Good Lord was the original segregationist. He put the negro in Africa, separated from all other races.”

(p. 114)

Without question, though, the most powerful part of this volume is John Lewis’ speech from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The book contains two versions of the speech. The edited version, which was the one he delivered, is presented with images in the graphic novel format. The original version, which was deemed a little too radical by some in the movement, is included as an appendix and is a great historical document.

The speech itself is too long to include here, but I encourage you to read it in its entirely. I will close the post with the closing words of John Lewis’ historic speech.

We will march through the streets of the south; through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated south into a thousand pieces, and put them together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say: “Wake up, America! Wake up!!” for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

(p. 171)

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“March: Book One” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This is the first book in a three-volume graphic novel about civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis. I had heard this discussed on a couple podcasts that I listen to and it piqued my interest, so when I heard that Andrew Aydin, one of the writers, was doing a talk at a local indie bookstore, I went and listened to what he had to say. I was so moved and inspired that I purchased the first volume and had him sign it.

The book describes Lewis’ early days of activism, when he participated in the lunch counter sit-ins which were aimed at ending segregation. The stories of his past are presented as recollections from the Congressman on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, showing just how far civil rights have advanced in less than 50 years.

Before I talk about the text, I want to say something about Nate Powell’s artwork. It is excellent and visually captures the pain and emotion of that turbulent time. In addition, the choice to do all the artwork in black and white symbolically represents the contrast and division regarding race at that time in American history.

While in college, Lewis became inspired by the Social Gospel, which essentially asserted that one must apply the spiritual values from the Gospel to address social issues.

I loved the new ideas college was introducing me to, in religion and philosophy–but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Social Gospel. Here I was reading about justice, when there were people out there working to make it happen. I started to feel guilty for not doing more. I became restless.

(p. 65)

Later on, Lewis recounts his first meeting with Martin Luther King, who agreed to help Lewis try to get into Troy State University. King makes Lewis aware of the risks involved in challenging the State of Alabama and the Board of Education.

King: To attend Troy State, we’ll have to sue the State of Alabama and the Board of Education. You’re not old enough to file a suit–you’ll have to get your parents’ okay. They’re going to have to sign. But if you want to go, we’ll help–we’ll raise the money to file those suits, and we’ll support you all the way. But you must keep in mind–your parents could lose their jobs. Your family home could be bombed or burned. You may get hurt–or your family may get hurt. I don’t know what will happen.

(p. 71)

While reading this graphic novel, I learned that during the civil rights movement, an organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.) published a comic about MLK that was intended to teach young people about non-violent resistance.

F.O.R. had also published a popular comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which explained the basics of passive resistance and non-violent action as tools for desegregation.

(p. 76)

In his talk at the bookstore, Andrew Aydin told the attendees how he convinced John Lewis that the graphic novel format was the best way to tell his story. I am in full agreement. While the story itself is compelling and moving, it’s the images that make this such a visceral read. I encourage everyone to pick up this book and read it, especially in a time when intolerance seems to be rearing its ugly head once again.

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