Half of Us

Today is International Women’s Day.  We need to pause a moment and think.  We can’t change the past, but we can improve on it.  I think it’s fair to say that historically—before the Enlightenment anyway—domestic arrangements were the product of evolution rather than intention.  Like religion, however, domestic arrangements have a difficult time keeping up with change in real time.  By the time healthcare improved and women’s chances of surviving childbearing grew, men had become set in their ways.  Even now we still have trouble getting a female on a presidential ballot in “the most advanced” country in the world.  The week before International Women’s Day Elizabeth Warren stepped out of the race.  The rational world is so desperate to get the anomaly out of the White House that it hasn’t really dawned what a lost opportunity this was.

Although for most of history their roles have been hidden, half the advances of the human race belong fairly to women.  Males often have difficulty admitting that they require help, or had any assistance getting to where they are.  In fact, though, we know they had mothers and those mothers helped make them who they were.  Many of them had spouses who kept the situation stable enough that they could go on and follow their preoccupations.  History, unfortunately, would record only the names of the men.  In the western world this was often reflected in the changing of names during marriage.  Domesticity comes with a price, but it can be balanced out.

Capitalism, it seems to me, rewards the greedy.  Instead of evening things out so that those who don’t have the same opportunities can be cared for, our economic system rewards selfishness.  I often wonder if women would’ve been so suppressed had a more humane measure of human worth been adopted.  When I think of billionaires whose names I’ve never heard of before, I always mentally add, “they wouldn’t be billionaires if the rest of us refused to play the game.”  It’s only because we agree to an arbitrary and artificial valuing system that we allow the obscure to “own” far more than the rest of us.  Women, it seems to me, would know the realities of this way better than most men do.  What if the value system we shared measured worth in having had a mother?  It’s something we all share.  Yet in this nation we still haven’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment.  The time has come to ask ourselves what’s really important.  Today should be the answer.

Leaping Years

Maybe it’s just me, but February seems long this year.  Wait, it’s leap year!  But that doesn’t explain it all.  Today may be a gimme—another day in what has already been a long year—but the calendrical weirdness began with the dates of our moveable feasts last year.  Thanksgiving fell as late as it possibly could—November 28.  Since it is the fourth Thursday of the month, and the latest fourth of any day is the 28th, there can never be less time between Thanksgiving and Christmas than there was in 2019.  For those of us who measure time by the days off work we’re allotted, the holiday season felt rushed.  And since New Year’s Day fell on a Wednesday, HR departments all over were scrambling to figure out how to make it a long weekend.  Wednesday is the Easter Island of holiday dates—too far from land to reach any second day.

By the time we could kick up our heels for a weekend it was already two work days into the new decade and business really began in earnest only on January 6.  Epiphany, according to those who follow circumcision-style New Year.  January ended on a Friday, and had this not been a leap year, so would’ve February.  A month with 28 days, after all, is a proper lunar-based one.  The other months were lengthened to stoke the egos of emperors and others who thought they were lords of time as well as space.  But this year we’ve ended up with an extra day of February.  I want to use it well, and as I look at my list of things to get done on a weekend (generally far longer than my list of things that I accomplish in a work week), I begin to think maybe this should be a holiday (and I don’t mean that sexist Sadie Hawkins tradition).  But it’s already a weekend, so HR’s off the hook.  This time.

We could use a few more holidays.  Every January I look at the sparse allocations of days off for the coming year.  There are normally ten of them, spread unevenly across twelve months.  There are long spells when, if you need a mental break from work you have to cash in precious vacation days.  Leap years make the total number of days even longer.  You get an extra work day but not an extra holiday.  Our lives revolve around our special occasions.  Yes, there’s not really a “holy day” to correspond to the necessary intercalary day to help us keep up with the sun.  Still, it feels like a missed opportunity to me.

Hearts are Dark

For the most part, reading introductions to literary works is tedious.  Since this edition of Heart of Darkness was brief enough, and the introduction wasn’t as long as the novel, I decided to follow through.  I’m glad I did.  I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s classic before, but it was helpful to have pointed out before this reading just how much darkness is in the story.  Drawn in by Kurtz’s famous last words, I suspect, many readers make the heart of the darkness the life lived by this contradiction of a man.  An individual who’d set himself up as a deity, and who pillaged the region for his own gain.  A man who wasn’t above using terror to acquire his ends.  An enigma.

But in actual fact, the story is about as full of darkness as an early Bruce Springsteen album.  The story begins at sunset and ends at night.  There is darkness to the Europeans’ dealing with the Africans throughout.  Even Marlow participates in that interior darkness that seems present in all people.  Delivering the deceased Kurtz’s letters to his still grieving fiancée, he meets her as darkness is setting.  He lies about her beloved’s last words, preferring to preserve her feelings than to reveal the truth uttered upon the deathbed.  There are layers of interlaced darkness here and Conrad never gives a definitive statement about what it really is.

We live in dark times.  I suspect that, for someone somewhere, that will always be the case.  The corruption of our government is so blatant and obvious that we seem to have fallen under the shadow that must’ve driven Conrad to pen his novel.  When living in darkness it helps to have a guide who’s been there before.  No matter what evil Kurtz has perpetrated, he’s treated as a god by those he oppresses.  He knows their suggestibility and preys upon it.  Although slavery was no longer (officially) a reality when Conrad wrote, the attitudes—embarrassing in the extreme today—lingered.  Even more embarrassing is the reality that they linger even today.  Not just linger, but assert themselves and then deny that they exist.  This is the heart of darkness, I believe.  We cannot allow others to live in systems that don’t kick money back into our own.  Trade on our terms, with our worldview being the only legitimate one.  Like so many writers, Conrad has been made a prophet by history.  And we all know the horror.

Reading Education

Perhaps like me you’re afraid of the news.  Not because it’s fake, but because it’s real.  Then every once in a while curiosity gets the better of me and I uncover my eyes.  Sometimes you can’t help but see.  With the utter mess we’re in over here, it’s difficult to keep up with news from other countries we know.  I’ve lived in the United Kingdom and I’ve worked for British companies.  Needless to say, I wonder what’s going on over there from time to time.  Lately I’ve been getting auto-replies to my emails to British colleagues stating that they’re on strike.  I asked a friend in the UK about this.  It used to be the professorate was treated with some regard in Her Majesty’s domain.  Not being a financially minded person, I haven’t been aware of how deep or devastating our capitalism-induced recessions and depressions are.  Apparently they’ve been bad enough to derail even British higher education.

Compensation for the professorate has been eroded away.  Their pension plans have been depleted.  Knowing the problems we have over here with professors refusing to retire, I was surprised to learn the UK has the opposite problem—professors unable to afford to retire.  Now, lecturing isn’t physical labor, but class preparation (and committee work) take a considerable amount of effort.  I could see not retiring if it meant lecturing only, but with everything else required, not retiring would be, well, exhausting.  As over here the root of the problem is that higher education is the route into which many smart people are steered.  You’d think it’d be a wonderful problem to have too many highly educated people.  It’s not.  With advanced study comes advanced debt.  And limited employment prospects.

There are nations in the world where higher education is deeply valued.  Where educated people are respected.  Ironically, the nations enamored of capitalism aren’t those places.  The only learning that’s required is how to get money from someone else.  Beyond that, the rest is commentary.  British higher education has fallen on hard times since I read for my Edinburgh doctorate.  Schemes have been put in place to ensure faculty are being productive.  Yes, there are some lazy ones.  The majority, however, pull their weight and then some.  And now they’re being told they must do so until the grave.  No retired professor wants to spend her or his old age bagging groceries at Sainsbury’s.  And so they’re going on strike.  If only the world valued knowledge more than money there might be some news worth reading.

Amendments

Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.

A Few Days

My fellow blogger over at Verbomania (worth following!) posted a piece on the word Romjul.  In case you haven’t read the post, Romjul is the Norwegian word for the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  It’s kind of a liminal period.  Not really holiday and not really not holiday, in northern climes it’s often cold and dark and you don’t feel like getting out to do much.  In many reasonable parts of the world it’s a given that this should be time off from work.  With all the preparation that goes into Christmas and the standard convention of starting the New Year with a freebie, and the fact that the days of the week for the holidays are movable, it just makes sense.  In these developed States, holidays are left to employers.  Mine granted two days off: Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  What are your choices when they fall on Wednesday?

Romjul gave me a good feeling.  I cashed in a vacation day or two to take some time off.  The years when I’ve worked between the holidays I’ve found nobody in their offices or answering email, and that led to long hours of waiting for the work day to end so that I could actually do something productive.  In America we love our work.  At least employers love our work.  I talked to a young man who had to cut his holiday short to be into work on Monday, December 29.  He’d just returned from an international trip, but his employer insisted he be there.  There was no work he could do because his colleague whose input he needed had taken that day off.  Work is like that.

I recalled a snow day when I had to commute daily to New York City.  New Jersey Transit got me as far as Newark but the trains were shut down from there.  I had to take a PATH train that took me close to my Midtown location.  It was running late.  A woman was panicking about not being on time.  A wise, older gentleman said, “Employers just want you to show up.  They’re not looking for a full, productive day of work.  They just want you to come in.”  I believe he was right.  Employers like to make their puppets jump, no matter if there’s anybody there to watch the show.  In a civilized world, as in much of Europe, we would celebrate Romjul.  If not for religious reasons, then for simple humanitarian ones.  In late December we can all use a week off.

Conversations

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, via Wikimedia Commons

While I tend not to discuss books on this blog until I’ve finished them, I realize this practice comes with a price tag.  Reading is a conversation.  Your mind interacts and engages with that of another person (or persons, for books aren’t usually individual efforts).  I find myself as I’m going along asking questions of the author—whether living or dead doesn’t matter—and finding answers.  Materialists would claim said answers are only electro-chemical illusions spawned by this mass of gray cells in my skull, only this and nothing more.  The realia of lived experience, however, tells us something quite different.  These interior conversations are shaping the way I think.  There’s a reason all those teachers in grade school encouraged us to read.  Reading leads to an equation the sum of which is greater than the total of the addends.

I’ve been reading through Walter Wink’s oeuvre.  Specifically his trilogy on the powers.  Although this was written going on four decades ago, I’m struck by how pertinent and necessary it is for today.  As he posited in his first volume, the embrace of materialism has blinded us to spiritual realities.  Wink was bright enough to know that biblical texts were products of their times and that simple acceptance of these texts as “facts” distorts what they really are.  He also convinces the reader that institutions have “powers.”  Call them what you will, they do exist.  Throughout much of western history the “power” cast off by the church has been somewhat positive.  Christianities has established institutions to care for the poor and for victims of abuse and natural disaster.  Orphans and widows, yes, but also those beaten down by capitalism.  They have established institutions of higher education to improve our minds.  Until, that is, we start objecting that our improved outlook demonstrates that the biblical base isn’t literal history.

Churches then often fight against those educated within its own institutions.  Ossified in ancient outlooks that value form over essence, many churches take rearguard actions that we would call “evil” if they were undertaken by a political leader such as Stalin or Hitler.  Those evil actions are justified by claiming they are ordained by an amorphous “Scripture” that doesn’t really support those behaviors at all.  I’ve been pondering this quite a lot lately.  Although I taught Bible for many years my training has been primarily as an historian of religions.  I specialized in the ancient world of the northern levant, for that culture provided the background of what would eventually become the Bible.  Reading Wink, I think I begin to see how some of this fits together.  I won’t have the answer—we many never attain it—but I will know that along the way I’ve been engaged in fruitful conversation.