Thursday, December 3, 2015


Hamlet pertains to everything--everything in life that is most essential, if we are willing to look beyond our ordinary existence into the "extraordinary."  Hamlet is only one of many tragic heroes in the history of drama, but unique in so many ways, not the least of which is that he speaks anew to each generation.  Both the nature of his mind and his dilemma are contemporary and universal. 

In all other tragedies before Hamlet, each tragic hero has a clearly identifiable "flaw," which Aristotle, first literary critic, says contributes to a downfall--a feature in all tragedies since the birth of Greek drama. Macbeth’s is ambition; Othello’s is jealousy, King Lear’s is pride, and so it goes—until Hamlet. All other tragic heroes before Hamlet could have changed their fates by reflecting on their situations and themselves, thereby acquiring a bit of self-knowledge, with which they may have been better equipped to make different choices and thus avoid tragedy. Hubris, a kind of pride or inability to even imagine they have any flaws, prevents them from doing so. Not so with Hamlet.

Hamlet, however, exhibits a great deal of self-knowledge, as he thoughtfully examines both himself and his situation. He finds he has only two choices, revealed in that most well-known of soliloquies in all of drama.  His fate comes not from his own ego, his subconscious or hubris. It is dictated from beyond the grave by the ghost of his father, King Hamlet, who comes to seek revenge for his “murder most foul.”  He reveals that he was killed by his own brother, Claudius, who lusted for crown and queen. And so Hamlet questions: “To be or not to be." Is he to ignore his father's command to avenge the murder and “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or is he to “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them”? He will, of course, choose the latter, which means he will also die. Killing a sitting king is treason, and who will believe a ghost told him to do it? 

Hamlet is presented with “outrageous fortune”: an unexpected development not of his own making, not due to a flaw or a wrong action.  The task is thrust upon him, and so he agonizes, “Oh, cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.”

Some literary critics, feeling compelled to find Hamlet's flaw (since Aristotle said it must exist) have determined that Hamlet "thinks too much," which prevents him from action.  While this is true, he has much to think about, doesn't he? He is in grief over his father’s recent death and his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” to his murderous uncle; in confusion at the appearance of his father's ghost, in dread of fulfilling the command to avenge his father's murder; and in sorrow at the rejection of his lover, Ophelia. He must contemplate it all to try to sort it out. Yet, he thinks logically and determines that, before he kills the king, he must have proof “more relative” than a ghost’s appearance (which may be the devil’s trick).  All of this thinking takes time, is necessary, and is not a flaw at all.  

Although we may never be in such clear and present danger as is Hamlet, we too, at some point, (and maybe at many) face a seemingly irresolvable dilemma not necessarily of our own making. We too must either bear a crisis in silence, or “take arms against" it. These are always our only two logical choices for life's problems--large or small. At first, however, we may wish we could somehow, in some way, escape our fate, as does Hamlet: 

     Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt
     Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
     Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
     His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!

We too must struggle to understand what is at stake, and must make decisions which have grave implications. For Hamlet, it becomes foremost to find the truth--admirable!  He thoughtfully and creatively arranges a visiting troupe of actors to put on a play which involves the murder of a king by a brother who has also seduced a queen, and in the same manner described to Hamlet by the ghost--ingenious! Hamlet will watch the king during the performance to see any evidence of his guilt when a similar bloody deed is reenacted before him. The play will be “the thing to catch the conscience of the king.”

Throughout Hamlet, there is a many-layered motif of observation. The guards observe Hamlet when the ghost appears. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern observe Hamlet to discover the source of his “antic disposition.” Polonius and the King observe Hamlet and Ophelia. Polonius spies behind the curtain in the queen’s chamber, and Hamlet observes the king watching the so-called "play within the play." Also, Hamlet begins and ends with keeping the watch.  In the first scene, the palace guards keep watch on the battlements. In the last scene Prince Fortinbras (the next ruler of Denmark and foil to Hamlet) gives orders to, “Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage,” where he can be viewed and honored.  

The character of Hamlet in Shakespeare's time was unconventional, to say the least, which is only one of the features of the play that accounts for its universality and continuing relevance. I believe Shakespeare speaks more fully of the human condition in Hamlet than in any other of his plays.  Hamlet is the existential "everyman" in an absurd situation—LIFE, which has been said to be “a rock and a hard place.” Hamlet is representative of humanity, and Denmark is a microcosm of the world in which we observe, “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts…accidental judgments, casual slaughters…deaths put on by cunning and forced causes…and purposes mistook.” Sounds like the evening news! 

In all dramatic works, as in life itself, there is a turning point. Hamlet clearly states his pivotal moment (although often overlooked by critics as such) when he accepts life and death on their own terms: “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” He does, of course, accomplish his mission impossible, kills the king, and is himself slain, but not before he asks his friend Horatio, the only person who can bear witness, to tell his story aright to the world.

Here, I am reminded of James Baldwin’s insight: “…while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell; it’s the only light we've got in all this darkness.”

The play, and specifically this play, IS the thing that catches our conscience, challenging us to find in the characters and situations LIFE writ large, magnified through its ritual and pageantry so that we may observe and recognize our own reflections.

I am Hamlet; You are Hamlet.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Addition: January 2016:  Donald Trump recently said, if he shot someone in Times Square, his numbers would still go up. The implications: He believes he has total and ongoing immunity for his behavior/statements, and that most of his followers have the twisted mentality to sanction random murder to see him as president.  These are the makings of a dictator/tyrant:  ignoring such implications in blind devotion is prerequisite for tyrants to rise to and to stay in power.  Of course, it is uncertain whether he really would have such immunity and the current level of devotion in such a situation or that he would be a dictator.  He does, however, say whatever some people apparently  want to hear, which further confirms not only his arrogance to do or say whatever his ego blurts out without a thought to any consequences, but also exploitation of some of his followers worst tendencies. There is something amiss here with the will to be divisive and a refusal on the part of his supporters to see the danger of a Trump coming to power.  Some will say whatever he says is "just a joke," and not really a big deal. Maybe, but, at the very least, it says a great deal about his judgement--if anything more needed to be said!

Donald Trump, an arrogant, immature and egotistical celebrity, has been able to influence and attract many potential voters who must confuse bravado and the privilege of power and wealth with the capacities required for presidential leadership.  Pundits note that people like him for his honesty. They say he is “genuine," says what he means and means what he says. He doesn't care what anyone thinks, apparently another characteristic able to stir the masses. He is charismatic in an anti-hero kind of way, with an ability to articulate for his followers their deep-seated resentment toward the present administration and all others who are scapegoats for their discontent, which is all understandable, and maybe inevitable, for a certain American imagination--that of the attraction to the cult of personality.

And he has captured that imagination, at least at this early date, with his independence, self-reliance and the attainment of the American Dream, but not in the sense once described by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose thoughtful definition of self-reliance had more to do with inner strength and character than appearance.  Appearance is what celebrity is all about. There are more than a few reasons to believe that a Trump presidency would perhaps be a point of no return for America. 

Currently there are many who believe his approach would be a successful one, (if they have thought that far ahead). Others question: Would he ever be willing or able to work with his own cabinet, let alone the Pentagon, congress, states and other nations with any amount of tact, diplomacy, effectiveness or respect over the long haul? The Donald (a moniker which may be an indication of...something!) doesn't come off as interested, or even able, to build consensus, cooperate or compromise (that being a liberal quality, or flaw, depending on what so-called "side of the isle" you sit on). It seems he'd rather build walls (and not just ones to keep immigrants out). So far, he has not significantly addressed specific issues, or laid out substantial, workable policies and strategies. Apparently, then, people are not enamored with, or seem to care about the content of his platform (if, in fact, he has one) and are more interested in his tweets defending himself at even the slightest criticism (thin-skinned is not a recommended trait for a president).

Donald has not only lowered the bar for national civility and decorum, he has done away with it altogether His "bluster-effect" and permanent facial expressions of disdain and anger have further revealed America's under-belly, with its juvenile, vindictive and snarky sarcasm--the norm on social media. He has insulted whole groups--Mexicans, as well as individuals--Senator McCain, Rosie O’Donnell, and, recently, Fox News's Megyn Kelly, with his off-the-wall, crude and vulgar remarks. Yet, his followers see him as eminently fit to represent America--to be our face to the world?  Are we to believe he is a “patriot,” (a neo-con catch word), and will be “phenomenal to women” (whatever that means), as he has recently proclaimed?  It seems there are those who stand in awe of his hutzpah, while others cringe at the hubris.

Observing the "bread and circus" of his candidacy calls to mind the aphorism: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time," especially those who rely on critical thinking to make judgements. The opposite of critical thinking has raised Donald to popularity--emotionalism.  Logical fallacies abound in all political campaigns; in Trump's they reign supreme.   

His opinions may sound like facts. They may feel good to those who have the same ones in private, but have been discouraged from revealing them in public (because someone might call them on it, or be offended).  Now, however, offending people is entertainment, and serves as a cathartic for many.  Donald's delighted followers can say, along with Donald, “If you don't like it, too bad!" Demeaning and randomly diminishing anyone and everyone is what he does to the great approval of many.  

It has been said, and not only by conservatives, that political correctness is now taken to the extreme, as it seems to pander to "overly-sensitive" minorities, and prevents us from "telling it like it is," not to mention throwing a wet blanket on our sense of humor. The reason political correctness came about in first place was that “telling it like it is” (or like people think it is) is mostly rooted in stereotypical perceptions which do not take individuals' or group experience into consideration. Some people still think/believe that a particular group (religious, ethnic, racial, etc.) can be defined in a few words (good or bad). Is this another reason Donald has endeared himself to many? Keeping it simple, avoiding nuisances works better for the masses.  It seems so. The thing is, not only does he avoid political correctness, he blurts out whatever comes to mind at the moment about a person or a topic, which is not the same as "telling it like it is."  No, he describes the world according to Donald--but not the world most of us want to live in.   

We have heard his promise of "going back." I would like to suggest that we might at least want to go back to a time when a presidential candidate--say, Thomas Jefferson, would not have called Martha Washington (or any other person) a “fat pig,” or a president--say, Abraham Lincoln, would not have (for the fun of it) diminished the legacy of a captured Union or Confederate soldier. It's a given that there are many problems to be solved, issues to be worked on, legitimate challenges to the present administration's achievements and/or failures, and alternatives to be explored.  

Mostly what we've heard from Donald are shallow, adolescent  responses and off-handed remarks which play to his audience, like a side-show carnival act, portraying everything in the world as a "disaster, the he can fix single handedly.  We don't have to worry about the "details." He knows more than Isis, the generals, experienced civil servants, diplomats and certainly much more than you and I do. He will take care of everything--trust him! What other  president has ever done all that he has promised, even if he intended or tried to, but no other leader, except for tyrants have claimed to know everything and will take care of everything if we just trust them. Heads up, folks! 

Presidents do not have (should not have) the full power to do anything they wish, but can certainly change the conversation and direction of the dialogue nationally and internationally to our detriment.  In Trump's case, it seems to be going in the direction of an irreversible uncivil and dangerous divisiveness of the American people. Whereas someone like Bernie Sanders suggests unity of all Americans against the greatest threats to our democracy (which is alway fragile, despite what we think--read a little history). 

Some admire, cheer on and approve Donald’s lack of political correctness. They would like to "go back" to the days when everyone wasn't so "sensitive," a time when they could "call a spade a spade," which, by the way, was also a time when all manner of discrimination and racial, sexist and ethnic slurs were the norm which inevitably leads, on the part of some, to acts of violence. Certainly, those who abhor political correctness are not okay when lack of it targets them. With the tables turned, they are quick to protest that they were being "persecuted," (e.g. "angry, white males" or "evangelical bigots" and would attribute it to political motivation). 

At its core, political correctness is common sense and common decency, with emphasis on the "common" good. Although it has swung to the extreme in some cases, and deteriorated in some cases  to focus on "micro-agressions" (petty complaints). Essentially political correctness can be understood as consideration for others and respect for an individual's or group's situation and experience.  Isn't it also based on a certain decorum among civilized human beings, use of polite references, awareness and thoughtfulness of our words and deeds. These attributes are the tools for and the means to peaceful interactions across the board, the creation of good will, and can even reflect kindness and compassion, or in another catch word “values" (and even virtues). 

Donald’s tone, language, demeanor and intent can not be taken for other than mean-spiritedness by those who are his targets. His attacks are approved of and applauded by some who may see themselves as victims, some who undoubtedly get a great deal of their "news" from narrow main-stream media, (all other sources are seen as corrupt), ranting radio talk show hosts or publications whose vitriol creates divisiveness, resentment and conjures up conspiracies and takes extreme positions, ignoring facts in favor of fiction and false claims.  

 “Let's take our country back.”  Does that mean back to how wonderful it was when George W. Bush left office?  or back to the pre-civil rights era in the early 60’s, when the Confederate flag was first hung at the state house in North Carolina as a protest against those liberal, bleeding-heart “crazies” who dared to support the newly instated law of the land--civil and human rights. Yet their is the pretense that it stands for nobles oblige.  What "side" has ever lost a war gets to hang a their flag of protest (except in swastika graffiti)?

Some conservatives speak of a lack of values in America today (and it appears to be true if one takes media for reality), but is most often referenced in response to the granting of human/civil rights, as if only they understand and employ values rightly. Is respect, compassion and understanding among these values?  I don't see Donald's followers talking much about values. The truth is some individuals and factions (not limited to party or religious affiliations) are selective about values--about how they behave toward and speak about others not like themselves. Unfortunately, this behavior and language is also based on stereotyping, judgement and may include angry responses, unfair accusations, sarcasm, insults, threats and sometimes worse. These are apparently some of the "values" embraced by Donald Trump and his followers. 

If we could think of national/contexts as analogous to our smallest common contexts: that of our closest relationships and associations--people with whom we live and work--we might we get a different perspective. The approach that has been shown to be most effective and successful within these  contexts involves: 

  • acknowledgement and/or inclusion of all members
  • effective and civil communication
  • mutual respect and appreciation, as well as support and help

Isn't this the approach needed for getting along in everyday life with our spouses/children; in the workplace, in addressing any disagreement/conflict; for organizing events, and in many other situations?  

Getting along and surviving in our everyday relationships requires listening and compromising. One person imposing his or her will on all others, or blaming, shaming and name-calling does not work unless it is through power and control, and of fear of retribution. Getting things done requires an awareness of how our words, behavior and decisions may affect and the situation. A climate of mutual cooperation; concern and care for all members--kindness and generosity of spirit can go far. As members of a family (or any group association) we need recognition/acknowledgement of our abilities and contributions to support to strengthen whatever weakness exists and a plan to address difficulties that arise. We also need to look to ourselves when things are not working to see what part we play in the difficulty. 

Yes, this approach may be the ideal (not always the reality), but isn't that what we would want for ourselves, our children, families and friends? If we said to members of our family, bosses, civil and church leaders, as Republican leadership expressed first thing in Obama's administration:  that we will block and undermine at every turn their endeavors, will be uncompromising, will demonize (as in Trump's birther myth), and to bring under suspicion their every motive, thought, word, deed or action, then how would life be for us? 

Of course, there are instances when firm decisions and actions must be taken by a person in the group for the good of group, which may hurt, offend and/or cause resentment. However, these actions, hard choices and decisions have to be well thought out, dispassionate, for the right reasons, and certainly would not involve red-faced scowls, angry shouting, vulgarity, hurled insults, blame and defensiveness ala "The Donald." This approach results in more conflict, escalation and divisiveness--whether within a family, workplace or a nation. Critiques and complaints without suggestions for alternatives to problems are counter productive. If this approach does not work in our everyday lives and situations, how would it be effective in politics and global situations? 

While politics has always polarized people, used mud-slinging, rhetoric and negative strategies to win or win over, to divide and conquer, there is something a bit different in Trump's approach. There has, at least until recently, been a certain stature to the office of the presidency and a respect given to the process and to the ideal of democracy, despite party affiliation.  In a president, I had thought we have looked for a demeanor of thoughtfulness, not impulsivity; maturity, not adolescent whining and ranting; global awareness, not isolationism; cooperation and compromise, not unilateral actions; consideration of the many, rather than the few--or in his case, the one!  

Some think Donald will "take our country back." But what country are we taking back?  If we could go back to at least the civility toward and respect in public and private life; if we could go back to aspiring to behave, speak and carry ourselves in a more dignified manner; if we could go back to thinking of ourselves and our leaders as role models for the young. If we could go back to thoughtful debate and exchange of ideas and ideals. If we did not see people who don't agree with (or don't live as we do) as enemies and demons--treating others as we would want to be treated (Golden Rule and Biblical teaching) then, by all means, LET'S GO BACK! 
I would rather hear Donald, and every other presidential candidate say,  "Let’s take our country forward.” Let’s look to the future, not the past. Let's go forward with civility, aspiration, dignity, courage and a little touch of humility. Let’s go forward with those needed attributes we would ideally use within our own families, in our work places and in our places of worship. Let’s go forward toward realizing the potential envisioned by our founding fathers (and believe) that we are all created equal, with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015


Doves call
Summer breeze
Rustling leaves

Distant bell over sleepy town
Lobster boat chugs the harbor round

Beyond grassy meadows
Immense sea glistens early light
Birds take flight

Monday, April 13, 2015

For Suzanne

passed away suddenly - March 2015
There you were with gifts
Basket filled 
loaf of bread, candle and wine
a feast for friends
the real treasures?
the sustenance of your smile, your warmth, your joy
I see you on the beach that night
moon rising over the incoming tide
Lighting the tin lanterns against the wind
when it was you who were
light and warmth in the dark and cold--
No gifts or fire needed

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Worry Doll

Finn took the one-inch square, rainbow-striped bag from his shelf, pulled open the drawstring and turned it over. Six painted, wooden matchstick figures fell into his small hand. I watched him delicately pick up one at a time to look at. “What are those?” I asked, reaching for the little scroll that fell out with them. 

“They’re worry dolls, Nonna!” Finn said in a tone suggesting that I should have known exactly what they were. I read out loud from the paper scroll. "According to legend, Guatemalan children tell their worries to the dolls, place them under their pillows at night, and all worries are gone by morning."

Give me a few dozen, I thought, but said only, “I didn’t know that. Shall we put some under our pillows tonight?

“Of course we should!”

When it was time for bed, Finn picked out three of the tiny figures for himself and gave me the other three. Grandmother and grandchild each whispered our worries to the dolls and placed them under our pillows. Then I opened the evening story book and read until Finn’s eyes began to close.

I should have been tired enough to sleep too. But, as was my habit before sleep (if sleep comes at all) all the things there were to worry about crowded my mind: my husband’s progressing disease; my dear friend’s terminal illness; my regrets about all the things I might have done, or done differently, or not done at all! I started to think about the random violence, pain and suffering that was happening right then all over the world--in war zones, in cities and towns-- while I lay in a warm, safe and comfortable bed. As if that weren’t enough to keep me awake I began to focus on the effects of aging and inevitability of my own death.

Why do I do this? What were the three worries I had whispered to the dolls? I didn’t remember, but I wondered if more people than I might imagine were also worrying at that moment, or did I alone have such a negative state of mind by nature?

The senses of body and sharpness of mind fading and dulling, and with more life behind me than in front, I tried to come to terms with the losses: of friends, family, youth, beauty and energy. Where was my youthful motivation for looking ahead and welcoming each challenge with strength and enthusiasm as I once had. With all that, and the progression of my husband’s Parkinson’s quickly diminishing his health and former self, there was the sad sense of slowing down. I now took more time to do things that had once been done without a thought, and with facility and speed. Also, my forgetting a word here, a name there, left me hoping those were not the first symptoms of the dreaded “A” word disease.

I recalled how my father used to go out with his shirt inside out (I did that the other day), and how he once got into his car to drive to the donut shop and found himself in the back seat. About that same time I noticed how slowly my mother was walking, with an obvious sense of caution and uncertainty, and her admirable attempts to “keep up.” Now they both are gone, and oh! the many regrets and things left unsaid and undone.

Although I myself continue to do all the things I have always done, it is with increasing effort, not only to accomplish them, but also to appear as though nothing is different. I, for instance, try now, as my mother once did when walking, to keep up with younger people. Is it better if my family notices and asks if I need help with things, or if no one notices?

In a recurring dream I am standing at the top of a long stairway I must descend. It is open on both sides, no rails and each individual stair impossibly steep, like an Alice in Wonderland scene--no way down or back.

When I get to the point where my thoughts twist themselves into self-perpetuating loops, I prompt myself to initiate another evening ritual: counting my blessings. It is a noble effort to displace the worries with all the things to be grateful for, which are very many. After 45 years of marriage, (or shear madness, as we sometimes call it), my husband and I remain together, support and love one other. We laugh a lot (about eating and drinking ourselves to death in retirement), and live comfortably within our modest means. Both of our sons have found creative work (without our having had to pay for college educations--their choice). They love their work, and make a living at it. I still have my dear friend whose enthusiasm for life, even as she prepares for death, is a shining inspiration. I am grateful that I have interests, plans and projects which keep me from from boredom and despair. 

And there are our joy-filled grandchildren, Finn and Sula, beautiful, bright, happy, healthy--the most cherished blessings.

I look forward to and love being with my family. When I visit, I am welcomed, feel useful and valued for the love and warmth, both given and received. Worries are pushed, at those times, to the periphery. Finn’s joy and interest in everything lifts life above the ordinary into another realm, and he is pleased to have me near him. “I love you, Nonna,” he says, sometimes with his eyes closed, ready to drift off into that angelic state of sleep so visible on a child’s face.

At bedtime the night after we placed our worry dolls under our pillows, Fiinn called to me, “Oh, Nonna, look! The worry dolls--we forgot." He reached under the pillows to gather them. Then, with wide eyes, “Hey, but I still have my worries; they didn’t go away." He told me of his fears--having bad dreams that the house is burning down. I felt that twinge of compassion one feels for children when they begin to realize that there is no magic. Then, remarkably, he observed, “Well, the scroll did say it was a legend, didn’t it Nonna?”

“Yes, yes it did,” I agreed, with the sense that I was more child and he more adult, “but a worry does not mean the thing we worry about is going to happen." The thing was, I didn’t entirely believe that myself. I have known people whose worst fears had been realized, and they bore a sorrow I can only (and do) imagine.

Finn and I, nevertheless, decided that we would again tell the dolls our worries and try again. “Nonna, I am afraid to go to sleep and have bad those dreams. "Dreams, dreams go away.” Finn said earnestly with his eyes tightly closed.

“Well, we know what to do for that?”

“Go to the other side of day, right Nonna?”

After stories and songs, if Finn still feels uneasy, we sit up on the bed and I start an incantation. Finn and I get into the cross-legged position, our hands, open and turned upward on our knees. “Close your eyes and let your body melt, like a stick of butter in a pan. Now, let’s go to the other side of day. Take three deep breaths--slowly, in and out, in and out, in and out." Then I chant a Latin prayer learned in childhood, “Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,” * to lend an air of mystery and magic. The words are accompanied by hand gestures that Finn imitates, pushing day away in the seven directions, ending with our hands crossed over our hearts.

“I feel better, Nonna.”

I looked at him, and felt tears welling, “Nonna has to leave tomorrow, and I’m very sad. I won’t see you for a while, and I’ll miss you so terribly.”

“You’re leaving tomorrow, Nonna?”

“Yes, sweetie.”

With his innocent, wide and wise blue eyes, he looked straight into mine, “Well, Nonna, it’s not tomorrow now!

I felt my heart would stop.

Then we lay down holding hands and listened to the quiet. After a few minutes, Finn was asleep. It’s not tomorrow now, indeed. Why did I place my worry and sadness on him, as though he were my own little worry doll? Yet, instead of his taking on my worry, he nullified it with the wisdom, clarity and truth of innocence.

No, it’s not tomorrow now, and it's not yesterday. There is only "the present where time touches eternity," and that is heaven on earth. I fell asleep whispering the rest of the Latin prayer: dona nobis pacem.**

* Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world
** Grant us peace.