“Until you have seen the Sistine Chapel, you can have no adequate conception of what man is capable of accomplishing.”
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
New Years is either the best or worst holiday of the year, depending on your frame of mind on December 31. There are years in our lives that, in retrospect, we celebrate with great cheer while other years it’s refreshing to finally put them in the rear view mirror and hang up a new calendar to welcome a fresh start. I’ll be honest, for a liberal white man in America, 2017 sucked. I have never felt so out of step with the leadership of my country or ashamed of the actions of a minority of my brethren for their hateful voices and sexist, racist behavior that fuels a divisive unproductive rhetoric and short-lived trajectory. There were many changes in America in 2017 and almost none of them were in the direction I think the majority of Americans want it to go. We face important challenges as a country and as a planet, and if compromise and reasonable discourse is not possible then real solutions seem even more out of our reach.
On a Sunday morning, December 31, 2017, I am waking up to a temperature of -16 degrees F in Minneapolis, minus -27 degrees Celsius. This is air temperature not wind chill factor. On a frigid morning like this its hard to put in perspective our impact on our climate. If you believe in the science of climate change or not, I have several questions? What is lost personally if global warming has been proven as the most likeliest of facts based on evidence that climate change is real? What personally will you sacrifice by accepting climate change as a very real and dangerous possibility? How would your life be diminished by creating the opening for the possibility that we need to change our technology and our economy? Is the cost of holding on to your beliefs that climate change is not real worth the chance that you were wrong considering the potential impacts to your children, your grand children and the world at large?
If all the ice covering Antarctica, Greenland and mountain glaciers around the world were to melt, sea level would rise about 70 meters (230 feet). It will take thousands of years for this to occur, and yet to put that in one tiny perspective, Vatican city sits at an elevation above sea level of 62 meters. St. Peter’s square is only 18 meters above sea level. The four warmest years on record globally were 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
We live at a time when too much dialogue scoffs at the credibility of science. People want to believe that vaccinations aren’t safe, that GMO food is not identical in nutrition and health benefits to “organic” food and that global warming isn’t real, only because it’s so much easier to remain firmly entrenched in our familiar beliefs, surrounded by other people who look and sound exactly as we do.
A question too few ask is what role should art play in inspiring scientific solutions to the most egregious challenges facing humanity? How does art support science and science support art? I believe the two are connected in the constant need for growth in the human experience.
The Paris Climate Accords, have been accepted as reasonable by every industrialized country in the world, except our Denier in Chief, President Donald Trump. He has set a goal to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrialized levels. Is that possible? I don’t know, if we achieve that standard, the world’s oceans rise 40 to 50 centimeters by 2100. It may not sound like much, but if the climate warms by only 2 degrees or more C we risk setting a reaction in motion that won’t stop releasing methane frozen in arctic tundra soils, releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that will create a permanent one way ticket to a future where large portions of Asia, the middle east and Africa will become uninhabitable and global ice will decline over time to swell ocean levels to unthinkable levels. It’s estimated that approximately 1/3 of the world’s population lives at an elevation of 100 meters or less above sea level. And yet we have too many people who wake up when its -16 degrees F in Minneapolis this morning and want to pretend that just because weather can still be frigid that climate change is not real.
It’s hard to know in the midst of change, whether the gestation is worth the painful birth and whether the patience required throughout a long nurturing will yield something better. A wine-maker never knows whether that year’s bottles will age into something miraculous, a teacher can’t know what their impact will be on a student’s life and must maintain the steadfast belief that change is not only possible but highly likely. So it is on the journey of creating new ideas for a better society.
In matters of education, love, art, wine and the future of the world, an article of faith must surround what is most important in our lives even more than science. Science is a way to help make more educated decisions that are, by their very nature, imperfect and will need constant correction based on better newer insight and information. It doesn’t prove science is wrong. It proves it is human.
It is through faith in trying to do the right thing, using the best information we have, that we will nurture hope through conflict, protect the fragility of human confidence during uncertainty and foster from belief a better reality. 2017 was a difficult year to be a male white liberal scientist poet in America. The daily bombardment of insanity to depravity that played out in the media became exhausting and depressing. I can only hope all the trash we aired in 2017 will be a turning point to creating something better. Maybe 2017 will mobilize the silent majority that hopes for a better future. A majority who believe that through acceptance of diversity, social justice will create a better community in which to live. Those that want a democratic system based on rule of law that doesn’t solely worship at the feet of the almighty dollar but also values sustainability, protects the environment and fosters the arts. People who are willing to hold government accountable and pursue change of an economic system that enriched the 500 hundred wealthiest people on the planet with another trillion dollars in one year at the expense of impoverishing a generation of young people under the burden of soaring housing costs, under employment, un-affordable health care and student debt. The “haves” partied hardy in 2017 on the backs of the have-nots. And if you’re wearing your gold 2018 hat and tooting your own horn, you best look around at those who aren’t celebrating with you and ask why?
It’s difficult to admit privilege without it feeling like you are negating your own hard work and accomplishments. Privilege is largely invisible to those that have it. I won the lottery at birth. I was born white, male in the early 1960’s in the United States of America, into a middle class family, with college educations, in the suburbs of Minnesota where public education was a pillar of the community. I graduated from high school at a rare time of no active war that the United States was participating. There was still a draft like prior generations of men in America, but no active conflict to cause conscription into a military conflict, like the generation of men just a few years ahead of me, that saw their lives forever changed during the Vietnam war. I graduated from high school at time when you could still work and pay for a college education at the University of Minnesota with wages earned from summer employment, something impossible today. I entered the work force at a time as computer technology was just starting to unlock the power of productivity, information sharing and communication, guaranteeing an economy that would grow over time. In the history of the world, there are few other games of chance that have rewarded so richly. So when my fellow white, male Americans persist through their hateful to foolish behavior in reinforcing the stereo type of white men as ugly Americans, with vain language, vulgar sexist behavior and a much more dangerous pandering to extremist right-wing ideologies in an attempt to hold on to their power that came not solely as the result of their own hard work alone, but as their birth right from a complete lottery of chance rigged in their favor, it can feel like we have lost ground as a society in creating a more enriching, sustainable world for our children. A generation of children that is much more diverse, complex and disadvantaged than the one I grew up in suburban America.
All is not lost. I was reminded of the importance of living in the moment yesterday when during a restorative justice circle in preparation for 2018, the circle keeper started with a simple request: “Don’t count your days, make this day count.” I choose to use art as inspiration in my life to help me preserve through challenging times. I feel that art instills wonder, wonder instills kindness, kindness instills understanding. I believe it is with understanding that we will shape our future. I don’t pretend to have any of the answers, and yet I am open to new ideas. I have faith that the current generation of young people will shape a better world than the one we are bequeathing to them. I don’t think they have on the same blinders as their parents and will steer their own course. They no longer believe the American dream, that they will have a future of greater prosperity only through hard work. I believe they see that their accomplishments are only impactful when working cooperatively in their community to foster real change at a local level that can grow to something greater. It is the current squandering of America’s opportunity for leadership that is most disheartening at the present. This too shall pass. And the political will shall shift to something more sustainable as more and more people watch what is happening on a global scale and ask what can I do to make a difference in my community?
Michelangelo was a poet as well as a genius sculptor and painter. He wrote a sonnet four long years into the painting of the Sistine chapel. Though this sonnet loses some of its humor and rhyme in its translation into English, it shows how faith and hard work power our greatest achievements. For even a man who claims he is not a painter, created one of the greatest paintings of all time. The Sistine chapel was Michelangelo’s first fresco, proving you can get it right the first time, even on achievements that may seem impossible at first if you believe in yourself and those around you. Can we change our world? I believe we can, if we look for wonder in all that surrounds us. Wonder will open the door to understanding that the impossible is possible.
Michelangelo: To Giovanni da Pistoia
“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel”
Translated by Gail Mazuur
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.
Hope smiles from the threshold of years to come, whispering; “It will be happier.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson
The New Year
by Henry Wilmarth Hazzen (1842 – 1899)
As speed the years in their unceasing roll,
A sense of newness fills each breaking morn;
And aims, by which we would our lives dorn,
Fresh impulse gain from out each anxious soul.
Yet with each falling night misgivings come
From partial failure, warding off dismay
By new resolves that wait the coming day,—
When, lo! the Fates our purpose will benumb.
Master is he, thus conscious of life’s stress,
Who, year by year thro’ toil, a path has found
To best from better, as its vantage ground;
And he whose mission, too, has been far less,
To strive in sunshine, than in shadows grope,
Still finds his heart replete with youth and hope.
In Memoriam (Ring Out, Wild Bells)
by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892)
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room
Because their spirits can escape beyond
The place that holds them in respectful gloom
To seek the Lord beside the frozen pond.
There He will make their laughter into bells
And turn their breath to incense. He will show
Shadows of magi on the distant hills
And flights of angels shining in the snow.
He will make rushes sing and grasses dance
To the intrusive music of their chatter,
Whispering in their ears that, just this once,
They too can walk as He did, on the water.
Oh, may the year to come be full of these.
Small serendipitous epiphanies.
Second Prize winner, National Poetry Competition, 2001 Published in Backwork, Peterloo Poets, 2002
“Dickens is dead!” Beneath that grievous cry
London seemed shivering in the summer heat;
Strangers too up the tale like friends that meet:
“Dickens is dead!” said they, and hurried by;
Street children stopped their games – they knew not why,
But some new night seemed darkening down the street.
A girl in rags, staying her wayworn feet,
Cried, “Dickens dead? Will Father Christmas die?”
City he loved, take courage on thy way!
He loves thee still, in all thy joys and fears.
Though he whose smile made bright thine eyes of grey –
Though he whose voice, uttering thy burthened years,
Made laughters bubble through thy sea of tears –
Is gone, Dickens returns on Christmas Day.
by Charles Algernon Swinburne (1837- 1909)
Chief in thy generation born of men,
Whom English praise acclaimed as English-born,
With eyes that matched the worldwide eyes of morn
For gleam of tears or laughter, tenderest then
When thoughts of children warmed their light, or when
Reverence of age with love and labor worn,
Or godlike pity fired with godlike scorn,
Shot through them flame that winged thy swift live pen:
Where stars and suns that we behold not burn,
Higher even than here, though highest was here thy place,
Love sees thy spirit laugh and speak and shine
With Shakespeare and the soft bright soul of Sterne
And Fielding’s kindliest might and Goldsmith’s grace;
Scarce one more loved or worthier love than thine.
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.
Evidence by Mary Oliver. Copyright Beacon Press 2009.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
And lo a star arose in the east
only it was the sun
and three wise guys or goys
spied it and exclaimed
Behold, Great God Sun
creator of light
creator of all life on earth
without which we would live in darkness
forever and ever
Great God Sun
bringer of the only light we know
and the only god we have visual proof really exits
the only god
who’s not an invention of our desperate imaginations
seeking some way out or up
beyond certain death
Great God Sun
creator of night and day on earth
there are no gods before you
a babe was born in a manger
by immaculate conception or spontaneous combustion
and there was great rejoicing
out there in the desert
and the babe arose and spake
in a loud voice
Yeah man it’s a fact
I am born of the God the Father great god Sun
and I am his Holy Ghost on earth
which he in his heavenly wisdom
sent to you in the form of light
and I am that light
which is love on earth forever and ever
How To Paint Sunlight by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Copyright 2001.
Again the native hour lets down the locks
Uncombed and black, but gray the bobbing beard;
Ten years ago His eyes, fierce shuttlecocks,
Pierced the close net of what I failed: I feared
The belly-cold, the grave-clout, that betrayed
Me dithering in the drift of cordial seas;
Ten years are time enough to be dismayed
By mummy Christ, head crammed between his knees.
Suppose I take an arrogant bomber, stroke
By stroke, up to the frazzled sun to hear
Sun-ghostlings whisper: Yes, the capital yoke—
Remove it and there’s not a ghost to fear
This crucial day, whose decapitate joke
Languidly winds into the inner ear.
The day’s at end and there’s nowhere to go,
Draw to the fire, even this fire is dying;
Get up and once again politely lying
Invite the ladies toward the mistletoe
With greedy eyes that stare like an old crow.
How pleasantly the holly wreaths did hang
And how stuffed Santa did his reindeer clang
Above the golden oaken mantel, years ago!
Then hang this picture for a calendar,
As sheep for goat, and pray most fixedly
For the cold martial progress of your star,
With thoughts of commerce and society,
Well-milked Chinese, Negroes who cannot sing,
The Huns gelded and feeding in a ring.
Give me this day a faith not personal
As follows: The American people fully armed
With assurance policies, righteous and harmed,
Battle the world of which they’re not at all.
That lying boy of ten who stood in the hall,
His hat in hand (thus by his father charmed:
“You may be President”), was not alarmed
Nor even left uneasy by his fall.
Nobody said that he could be a plumber,
Carpenter, clerk, bus-driver, bombardier;
Let little boys go into violent slumber,
Aegean squall and squalor where their fear
Is of an enemy in remote oceans
Unstalked by Christ: these are the better notions.
Gay citizen, myself, and thoughtful friend,
Your ghosts are Plato’s Christians in the cave.
Unfix your necks, turn to the door; the nave
Gives back the cheated and light dividend
So long sequestered; now, new-rich, you’ll spend
Flesh for reality inside a stone
Whose light obstruction, like a gossamer bone,
Dead or still living, will not break or bend.
Thus light, your flesh made pale and sinister
And put off like a dog that’s had his day,
You will be Plato’s kept philosopher,
Albino man bleached from the mortal clay,
Mild-mannered, gifted in your master’s ease
While the sun squats upon the waveless seas.