Memorial Day

Today – this weekend when we celebrate the lives and deaths of our nation’s defenders, I have no words of my own. I find myself remembering the Declaration of Independence  which began our journey and by whose strength of stated purpose we are here today. When I thought of Toni Morrison’s words commemorating the September 11 dead and wounded I wanted to share them with you.  Of particular importance to me are her words to herself, “I would freshen my tongue…”  It says to me, prepare yourself before you go off to speak your mind about anything. Do not let your preconceived belief systems speak for you. Be of the mind that makes comprehension be second to compassion. Let Peace begin.


The Dead of September 11 (2001)

Some have God’s words; others have songs of comfort
for the bereaved. If I can pluck courage here, I would
like to speak directly to the dead–the September dead.
Those children of ancestors born in every continent
on the planet: Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas…;
born of ancestors who wore kilts, obis, saris, geles,
wide straw hats, yarmulkes, goatskin, wooden shoes,
feathers and cloths to cover their hair. But I would not say
a word until I could set aside all I know or believe about
nations, wars, leaders, the governed and ungovernable;
all I suspect about armor and entrails. First I would freshen
my tongue, abandon sentences crafted to know evil—wanton
or studied; explosive or quietly sinister; whether born of
a sated appetite or hunger; of vengeance or the simple
compulsion to stand up before falling down. I would purge
my language of hypberbole; of its eagerness to analyze
the levels of wickedness; ranking them; calculating their
higher or lower status among others of its kind.

Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for
a mouth full of blood. Too holy an act for impure thoughts.
Because the dead are free, absolute; they cannot be
seduced by blitz.

To speak to you, the dead of September 11, I must not claim
false intimacy or summon an overheated heart glazed
just in time for a camera. I must be steady and I must be clear,
knowing all the time that I have nothing to say–no words
stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture
older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you
have become.

And I have nothing to give either–except this gesture,
this thread thrown between your humanity and mine:
I want to hold you in my arms and as your soul got shot of its box of flesh to understand, as you have done, the wit
of eternity: its gift of unhinged release tearing through
the darkness of its knell.

Credit: First printed in Vanity Fair magazine. Reprint courtesy of the author.




Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison displayed an early interest in literature. Morrison, the second of four children, immersed herself in the close-knit community spirit and the folklore, myth, and supernatural beliefs of her culture. Storytelling was a common practice in her family; after the adults had shared their stories, the children told their own. The importance of listening to stories and of creating them complemented Morrison’s profound love of reading. She subsequently attended Howard and Cornell universities and then worked as an editor at Random house, a critic and delivered several public lectures about African American literature. Her academic career has taken her to Texas Southern University, Howard University, Yale and Princeton, where she has been the chair of Creative Writing since 1989. Morrison began her novelistic career in 1970, and was admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Letter in 1981. In 1988, she won a Pulitzer prize and in 1993, she received the Nobel prize for literature.

Big Black Dog

My big black dog was named Borus, he was the kindest, sweetest, most gentle dog. And when other dogs saw him, they tried to attack him. It was funny, he would just sit or stand while they were jumping all over him. He had this big ruff around his neck and was completely protected from any attack. He weighed about 130 pounds and everyone loved him. He visited friends, he was welcome everywhere, he was a great dog.

But I’m not writing this because of his saintliness. I’m writing for the little dogs. They saw him and they saw an excuse to attack, they saw him and they knew he was coming to get them – nevermind he wasn’t moving. Once a woman called me to tell me her son had just been bitten by him – luckily he was sitting next to me at the time.

He was a target. And it had nothing to do with him, except for his size. Size matters – rather, perception of size matters. So if someone looks more successful, lives in a bigger house, we often think they must be cannier, made of sterner stuff, have left their heart behind. Someone less well off might have a big heart, we might not look them in the eye, but we aren’t likely intimidated or given to illusions that s/he is a powerful force.

In both cases we are losing out. Both are defined by outward appearance. Just like Borus, you can think what you like. The person you pass on the street be s/he homeless or executive may be forceful or meek. Compromises in the boardroom can be as crucial to the life of the soul as eviction from any dream.

In the boardroom of your mind, who’s in charge? You are looking at something, yes, but what are you seeing?

The Mutt of Life

The other day I got a certificate in the mail. I had completed another course, had another few letters after my name if I chose to put them there. I don’t choose. My pedigree is extensive with gets and begats and doesn’t begin to express who I am or how I got here.
It’s not that the cum laude isn’t important, but the laurels pale in relation to the ground they grew in and on. It’s my experience and what I do with it that ribbons me.

We are all a mixture of genetic and experiential inputs and impulses. Every thought dictates our next action, every action dictates our results. If I let my certificate, whatever it says, dictate how I feel about myself I might as well hide behind the pedigree and be done with it.
The walk of my life needs a path and the path needs dirt and rocks. I mustn’t forget that. The days of exasperation spent in pursuit of my highest goals are the soles of my feet and the strength in my heart.
“…once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.” Tennessee Williams, “The Catastrophe of Success.”
When I look at the pulsing path of my life I don’t feel the triumphs so much as the friends and the songs. The sometimes riotous music of my peers and the eras I’ve experienced.
Part of the air I’ve breathed has been the expression of those around me. Virtual and actual. I remember how good it felt to add Bucky Fuller as one of my mentors though I never knew him or met him. Ditto John Cage.
It was a revelation to be free of my immediate influences and enter the world of possibility.