I have completed a long-overdue update to my list of published poems. Click on the ‘Poetry’ tab in the menu bar to see the list, with updated links to the poems that appear online. Thanks to everyone who has encouraged these poems and read drafts along the way to publication. All readers and all comments are greatly appreciated. Thank you for spending some time with my poems.
I was born on a Thursday. Thursday’s child has far to go, according to the nursery rhyme. Originally, that meant the child would go far in life. In modern times, the phrase has caused people to think the child has suffered a setback right from the start. I have felt evidence to support both interpretations, yet I remain optimistic. I have been fortunate and privileged for reasons beyond my control.
The hospital in Atlanta where I was born lies four blocks from a small brick building known as Ebenezer Baptist Church. Its minister was not at the church on the day I was born. He was in Alabama, leading the third—and ultimately successful—attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. The minister led a group of marchers to protest the abuse of civil rights of African Americans. When he and his followers reached the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech that has taken on the title, How Long, Not Long. It’s the speech in which King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I have seen that arc curving through my life, searching for the point at which it will intersect the ground where we walk.
We walk on ancient ground. Roads near my birthplace bore Cherokee names because they followed the routes of Native American trails. The house I lived in as a child sat on a battlefield where we found Civil War projectiles in our garden. Our predecessors left marks on the land. We incorporate those marks into the world we build, or they fade altogether and are forgotten. What will become of the marks we make?
Many cities in the southeastern U.S. have a road named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cities honor the man so we don’t forget his name. Yet other things we do dishonor what Dr. King taught. The privileges that one race enjoys over another, based on implicit bias and written into laws, municipal zoning ordinances, school funding decisions, and corporate policies have been slowly undone, but they are not gone. Their effects persist, as does the bias that produced them. It’s as if we’ve decided in the past half century that some of Dr. King’s teachings were wrong and we’ve politely ignored them. His metaphor about morality bending toward justice, for example. Our failure to incorporate morality into justice in matters of race suggests that we’ve discovered a different natural law: the arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice like an asymptote, approaching but never touching it. Dominant culture has driven the meaning out of Dr. King’s words even though we still pay lip service to them. This is what we do with Native American names for roads and rivers, honoring a people who were driven from their own lands so our predecessors could secure the privilege of land ownership for themselves. And us. We honor to make ourselves feel better about dishonoring.
Roads today bear new names, new markings. A road in Washington, DC now bears bold yellow letters, taking up all of the lanes and stretching blocks. The letters spell out BLACK LIVES MATTER. That’s easy to write or say; our challenge is to honor the statement. Our challenge is to honor Dr. King by doing more than naming roads for him or erecting a monument. Our challenge is to recognize the ground on which we stand, and the present moment of our individual and collective standing, as the moment when we finally bend the moral universe sufficiently to intersect justice. Dr. King asked how long it would take to realize the moment. He concluded, “Not long.” It has probably taken longer than he expected, and certainly longer than he hoped.
I share a date in history with the March from Selma to Montgomery. The speech after the march was a watershed moment in the history of the Civil Rights movement, and the birth of the idea that morality was still only approaching justice. Thursday, March 25, 1965. Thursday’s child has far to go. Now would be a good time for the moment Dr. King envisioned to arrive. Let’s make sure it does.
Risk is the chance that something can go wrong, that something bad can happen. The term “risk management” is a misnomer. No one can manage risk, only do things to reduce its likelihood or severity. We can’t manage risk, therefore the field of risk management focuses on managing controls designed to reduce risk. Effective controls can help prevent bad things from happening.
When we think about the possibility that something bad will happen, our thinking can skew our judgment about controls. In his excellent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes errors in judgment such as the “possibility effect,” which causes highly unlikely outcomes to be weighted disproportionately more than they deserve. Conversely, the “certainty effect” causes outcomes that are almost certain to occur to receive less weight than their probability justifies. Kahneman writes, “When you take the long view of many similar decisions, you can see that paying a premium to avoid a small risk of a large loss is costly… Consistent overweighting of improbable outcomes—a feature of intuitive decision making—eventually leads to inferior outcomes.”
As the world confronts the corona virus and COVID-19, scientists and medical professionals appear to be the only ones equipped to make a rational prediction about probable outcomes in various scenarios. They have determined rather conclusively that the corona virus presents a large risk of large loss. The rest of us should heed their guidance instead of speculating about improbable outcomes.
Laypeople posting on social media have questioned the economic impact of the response to COVID-19. They cite the number of deaths from causes such as heart disease and obesity that are often preventable but that people, through conscious choices, fail to prevent. They suggest that our society accepts a certain amount of death even when death could be avoided. This line of thinking has two critical flaws. First, leading a lifestyle at increased risk for heart disease or obesity is largely a personal choice that cannot directly cause the death of another person. Second, weighing loss of life is appropriate in a very few situations, and unethical in most others. A military leader planning an invasion might rightly make a calculation in terms of acceptable loss of life. A leader protecting citizens from attack by an invader—human or viral—should not. For a leader to accept loss of innocent life when defending people from attack is unethical.
Well-written op-ed pieces suggest that the economic toll of measures put in place to flatten the curve of corona virus infection may be too steep a price to pay to prevent COVID-19. In fact, we will never know. In risk management, it is never possible to compare the actual cost of mitigation to the actual cost of unmitigated loss. Successful risk management and loss are mutually exclusive. When risk management is completely effective, its cost will seem excessive. If risk management fails, the losses it allows may be unbearable.
I worry about not having sufficient information to make informed decisions regarding the threat posed by the corona virus. I worry about my family, extended family, and friends. We face the risk that something bad will happen. Bad things are happening; the risk has become not just possible but real. And in this environment, people no better informed than me are second-guessing experts. The actions of a few people may undo effective controls and increase the risk we all face. That should worry everyone.
The brilliant journalist Rebecca West wrote, “After any disturbance … we find our old concepts inadequate and look for new ones. But it unfortunately happens that the troubled times which produce an appetite for new ideas are the least propitious for clear thinking.” Let’s rely on experts for their clear thinking during this extreme social, medical, and economic disturbance. Let’s follow their advice. When we come out on the other side of the crisis, we can get together—in person—to develop new ideas about how to do better next time. There will be a next time.
A poem I wrote late one night when my children were very young and everyone in the house was asleep came to mind recently. I found myself awake late at night, reading intermittently, and thinking about my family and friends. Everyone I know–everyone we all know–is subject to a new way of thinking about the world. About where we go, what we do, and with whom. We will get back to our old ways, and we’ll adopt some new ways of interacting. But until then–and afterward–we will find a measure of peace when we know our family and friends are safe.
All whose addresses I know,
all whose numbers I could call,
and all who rest under this roof
tonight, sleep. Chests rise and fall
in unconscious rhythms, hearts
race and slow to the adrenaline
of dreams. Not the geological
sleep we wander toward. In
relative silence rather than
absolute lies the quiet I love.
I hear God humming at his work
undisturbed by thoughts of us.
In downtown, the coffee shop is closed on weekends. Train tracks shine silver, polished twice each day. The Hall of Justice is the nicest new building in town. A lighted sign on Center Street advertises the free medical clinic this weekend in a warehouse that serves as a church.
We left our hotel in pre-dawn darkness. My wife and son and I arrived an hour before the clinic opened. The parking lot in front held more cars than for an Easter Sunday service. People waited in line at the door. We drove to the back of the building to park in a field with volunteers from three states away.
While my wife recorded vitals and completed patient histories, my son and I worked our unskilled station checking for completed forms and directing people to medical services, to dental for extractions and prosthetics, or to vision for eye exams and glasses. When I reached for one woman’s form, she shook my hand and thanked me. When my son thanked a limping veteran for his service, the man got tears in his eyes.
The rush subsided by mid-morning. I sat down, pulled out a Kindle, and started to read. A young boy waiting on his grandfather asked, “What’s that?”
More patients trickled in. A few sat with interpreters who listened and explained what to expect. A woman borrowed a pen from my son to sign her treatment form. When she handed the pen back, it was wet. My son discretely cleaned it.
The boy who asked about my Kindle watched me write in a notebook. When I saw him again he had a church pen and a pad of sticky notes. The pad advertised a payday lender. He peeled off a note and handed it to me. His message said, “I hop You a hape DA.”
I thanked the boy and wished him a happy day, too. He smiled big. His grandfather, wearing new glasses, called to the boy. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s find your sister and go home.”
In the last years of his life, my father wrote a series of emails to my oldest son, the oldest grandchild in the family. Dad copied me on his emails. He told me he would like for all of his grandchildren to read them when they became old enough to appreciate the stories. I assured him I would see to it.
The stories Dad wrote describe his experiences in World War II. They are not stories of combat, intrigue, high adventure, or tragedy. Instead, they tell about ordinary aspects of the life of a soldier. He wrote in a matter-of-fact tone, his voice pitched to a young reader, but aware that others might read as well. Only on further consideration does a reader appreciate the context in which a citizen-turned-soldier earned such stories.
Dad grew up going to the movies. They provided a major form of entertainment during the Great Depression. On Saturday afternoons in the 1930s Dad enjoyed cowboy westerns and space adventures and other action films. Each movie had a hero, and each story implied something about heroism. The concept of heroism Dad learned from the movies led him to title one of his WWII stories “Never A Hero.” He believed he didn’t do anything special during the war. I believe he was wrong.
What the movie heroes in the 1930s all had in common at the beginning of each film was an unsure outcome. The heroes proceeded with partial knowledge at best, and they encountered various perils. Most prevailed; some did not. They all accepted great risk. As my father and millions of his contemporaries embarked on periods of service in World War II, none of them knew the outcome of his or her experience, the peril they would face, or whether or not they would prevail. In the face of great risk and an unknown outcome, simply doing one’s duty is a form of heroism.
I saved each of the emails Dad sent to my son. To honor his wishes, I have shared them with his younger grandchildren. However instead of simply forwarding the emails, I compiled them into a book and have given a copy of the book to each grandchild. They can read it now, and again many years from now when they might have a different understanding of their grandfather’s role in one of the major events of the twentieth century. Whenever they read it, I hope they hear a familiar voice.
The book I compiled for Dad’s grandchildren may be of interest to others. A hardback version is available from the self-publishing site, Blurb.com, and a softcover edition is available on Amazon. Whether a reader knew my father or not, one who enjoys memoir, a description of life in the first half of twentieth century, or an inside account of enlisted army life in World War II might appreciate his story. I’m grateful he shared it.
It was a great experience attending The Frost Place Poetry Seminar in Franconia, New Hampshire in early August. This was my second time at the seminar, and second time reading poems in the barn behind Robert Frost’s house. See one of the poems I read, “Right of Way,” which first appeared in The Timberline Review.
In addition to writing, learning, and reading, I worked in a morning of trout fishing on the Ammonoosuc River in White Mountain National Forest. Not a bad way to spend a week in late summer.
Do we need another essay on gun control? I don’t know, but none of the ones so far have done much good. Here’s my contribution to the subject: Risk Management, Tyranny, and Guns.
The first eulogy I had the honor to deliver was for my uncle. It was hard. On the way out of the church sanctuary, my father told me I had done a good job. I thanked him and said, “Just wait ’til you hear yours.” He got a good laugh out of that.
Dad passed away in December, 2015. Over a beautiful April weekend we held a memorial service to bury his ashes next to his parents’ graves in Atlanta. Twenty or so family and friends got to hear the eulogy I wrote for Dad. He never heard it, but I did tell him how I felt about him before he passed away. He and I had a very good understanding of each other’s opinions, and strong mutual respect. I’m sure he knew how I felt, yet I am thankful to have told him. Never miss an opportunity to tell someone you love how you feel about them.
Dad’s eulogy was even harder to deliver than the first one I presented, but it was a pleasure to write. I share it here for those who were not able to attend the service, or those who just want to read it and think of Charles Marsh. He was a good man. Maybe someday I will find out he got to hear his eulogy after all.
We’ve had an awful lot of controversy over a variety of topics for quite a while. A few of the subjects transformed almost overnight in light of recent events. An essay I wrote this week, Stand in the Light, tells what I think about all the controversy. No one subject in particular, just controversy in general, why we get drawn into supporting some things against our better judgment, and encouragement to think about how we think about things. Maybe it can help us deal with other subjects better than we have dealt with those that have dominated the news in recent weeks.