Monday, December 6, 2021

BACK TO BLOGGER

I am back at the beginning with blogs and Blogger. It has been a long march. I started out in 2004 when the second Bush was re-elected. To my stupefaction. In my doubt and confusion I started wandering around the Internet and stumbled into Blogger, where I played around until I was invited to create a blog and give it a name. I called it, naturally, The Bush Diaries. It took the form of a daily, somewhat irreverent, hopefully funny, but never unpleasantly hostile letter to the man I thought should never have been voted into the Oval Office. 

How quaint that looks, in retrospect! How benign a president seems the man who took us into those disastrous wars (on terror, in Afghanistan, in Iraq) from whose repercussions we have still not fully extricated ourselves. If I thought that was bad, just look what followed! I wrote (almost) daily in The Bush Diaries for about five years--until I woke up one morning with the day's entry roiling in my head and realized with dismay that I was waking up every morning with Bush in bed with me. 

I hastened out of there. The Bush Diaries morphed very naturally, very comfortably into The Buddha Diaries (a healthy change to a more benevolent and beneficial B), and I continued my (near) daily habit of posting reflections in my blog for several more years. It was anything that came into my head or happened in my life on any given day. I liked it because it was not a private "journal"--I have never be attracted to the idea of "writing for myself": I do it to communicate with other people, no matter how few, to share my observations about art, movies, religion, politics, what moves me, or sometimes what leaves me cold.

So I have loved this curious habit, blogging, and will soon have practiced it for 20 years! Amazing. Some of my entries have been edited to appear later in book form: The Bush Diaries, Persist, Mind Work, and so on. Many, perhaps most, have simply wafted off into the remotest areas of the blogosphere, never to be seen or heard again. Which is okay. They did their job. They were read by a surprisingly large number of people, world-wide (I used to keep a map to show me where my readers were). There were responses, comments, objections, agreement, sometimes praise...

And now here I am, back to that proverbial square one again. The Buddha Diaries died a natural death. Old age, perhaps. I had also begun to feel uncomfortable, taking the Buddha's name in vain. I never really called myself a Buddhist, just an "aspiring Buddhist." I was certainly not preaching Buddhism, nor was I remotely entitled to. So there was that. 

And then I found myself writing these letters to my father. And writing them, I decided at one point, why not put them out into the world as (another!) blog. The title "Dear Harry: Letters to My Father" was an easy choice.  So, as you see, I started posting them. At last count there were nearly 100 entries in the blog, and there were many more that, for one reason or another, did not get posted. I found myself with enough of them, a collection with a kind of cohesive arc of time and topic, to make a book. That looks like it will happen, but in the meantime here I am with this blog, "Dear Harry," and it doesn't seem to want to stop.

I started out by saying that I'm back at the beginning. That's partly due to changes that have taken place with Blogger. I had to hire tech help to add the "subscribe" box at the top--something that was easy to accomplish with my own limited skills in "the old days." I have just spent hours trying to work out how to open and manage a blogroll--that used to be easy, too--and now that I've succeeded, I realize that I have forgotten or lost contact with all my former blog chums, the ones I had on my blogroll and who were kind enough to post me on theirs. 

I am a long-term a fan of The Dharma Bums--now The New Dharma Bums--so that's where I have started. (Hello, Robin!) But I know that I have lots of work to do to in order to catch up with my blogging, hoping to reconnect with old friends and make some new ones. I have made a commitment to launch myself into this new activity, but I'd also appreciate the help of readers/bloggers who share some of my interests and attitudes and would like to connect. So I'm sending this out as an invitation to bloggers and non-bloggers alike: I'd welcome your interest and suggestions and look forward to hearing from you--whether by comment on "Dear Harry", on Facebook, or by email at peterclothier at mac dot com.

Please pass this on (if it interests you) to others who you think might share your interest. Meantime, I hope to connect with you in the blogosphere.


Sunday, December 5, 2021

BLACK AND WHITE

I first learned that I was White when I was 43. Until then I just blithely took the color of my skin for granted and assumed, I suppose, that everyone else did the same. Oh, I knew that there were different races of the human species, with skins of different hues, but I was never much bothered about what that might mean. Harry and Peggy had visitors from different parts of the world--a Black bishop from Africa, a Japanese priest--and welcomed the young people my cousin Hugh brought in from his Oxford days, Monu, from India, Graeme from South Africa.... I myself had a friend at Cambridge, an Arab from the Lebanon. I even had a brief love affair with a beautiful Parsee woman I met when I lived in London. More love on my part, I fear, than on hers! But I never really thought of myself as a White man until 1979.

This thought came up yesterday as I wandered through an exhibition called "Black American Portraits" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I'll be talking about that in a minute. Meantime, though, let me explain how I discovered I was White. Well, am White still, actually. Curiously it was a man called Charles White who helped me understand. And he was a Black man. Sorry if this begins to sound confusing!

Charles White--I knew him as Charlie--happened to be teaching at Otis Art Institute when I arrived there as Dean, and soon as Acting Director when the Director who hired me left what appeared to be a sinking ship. It was a time of difficult transition and I was soon bearing the brunt of the challenge to keep the school afloat, and Charlie was the best friend I had. He was unfailingly at, and on my side. We used to go out for lunch together a couple of times a week and Charlie insisted on my joining him for his habitual three martinis. I got to know him as a friend long before I got to know his contribution as an artist. Which is a part of the story.

Charlie left Otis at the same time as myself, in 1979, when it merged with another art school in distant New York. He was already severely ill. I knew enough about his life's work by now to understand that it had received virtually none of the critical attention it deserved; and casting about for where my life would take me next I applied for a fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation for a study of his life and work. My application was approved--and this is when I began to discover I was White.

A trained academic, I started out along the usual research path--in the library, searching for magazine articles, critical reviews, books... and soon discovered this was pretty much a dead end. I turned to Charlie for help and started on a series of interviews that lasted several months. I'd drive up with my tape recorder (yes, we still had them!) to his home in the foothills up behind Altadena and we'd sit and talk about his early days with the WPA--the Works Project Administration--that kept many artists busy in the days following the Great Depression, recording American social history in photographs, paintings and drawings, murals...; and about his years in the 1950s in New York at the time of the great "Negro" cultural resurgence with such like-minded colleagues as Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Lorraine Hansberry, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and a host of others. It was exciting stuff.

But Charlie died in 1979. I was left with my tape recordings and little else to work with, and it struck me with sudden, convincing clarity that the dominant culture in America had always been, and would continue to be White. The only recourse I had was oral history--to go out there into an "art world" I had never known existed, a world of artists, critics, historians whose work had been sidelined by the headlong rush of the American (read, predominantly White) mainstream. I began to follow the bread crumbs Charlie had laid out for me, heading off to the South Side of Chicago, Harlem in New York, Jackson, Missisippi, for God's sake, to meet with artists like John Biggers, David Driskell, Eldzier Cortor, Jacob Lawrence--fine artists of whom, in my ignorance, I had never heard. 

Which is how I discovered just how White I was. I was not merely self-conscious, venturing up beyond New York City's (then still) safely bourgeois West Side into the depths of Harlem. I was, I confess it, actually scared. Would I not be mocked for my whiteness on those streets, if not actually mugged by angry Black men? (This was the 1970s, Black Panther days!) Still, I went. In many places I was the only White face in sight. And... despite my ridiculous fears, I found myself surrounded by nothing but warmth and welcome in those places. I was greeted by artists, curators, writers, with nothing but genuine eagerness to meet and talk. And I felt honored by their generosity.

My take-away from that year of discovery was gratitude, of course, but also an undeniable sense of humility, even shame. I had always thought of myself as a nice, broad-minded, liberal sort of chap and I was confronted with something I had never dreamed I nurtured secretly within me: my racism. There I was, a writer about art and artists, a critic, living with and working on assumptions I had cheerfully made about American art that omitted a whole culture that had remained invisible to me--largely because I had never bothered to look; a culture that remained, insistently, invisible to the powerful and increasingly commercial mainstream. 

That culture was on glorious, multifarious display at the museum yesterday. The work on view was not exclusively by Black artists, though primarily so, but it documented the rich, complex and often exuberant diversity of Black life in America. There were, of course, the two famous, magisterial portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively. I found myself deeply moved by these, recalling how much great, historical potential had been literally stolen from this pair by envious people bent on destroying them. And then the larger portrait show, where I found images by artists I'd been privileged to meet in connection with my Charles White project--Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, David Driskell--along with countless other lesser-known artists whose work was new to me, but equally impressive.

My thought on leaving the show was that the influence of the predominantly White, predominantly commercial mainstream is still powerful in America, but that it is at least under siege. The respect shown by this exhibition to the community of Black artists, and indeed the Black community at large, is belated, perhaps, but still welcome. We know from the unabated stream of tragedies relayed to us by our daily news sources that there is still an unconscionable amount of work for us to do, but this exhibition was a refreshing and inspiring reminder that the work has surely begun, and that the creative energy that inspires and drives it is unstoppable.



Saturday, December 4, 2021

RIGHTS--AND WRONGS

Dear Harry,

I have written to you before of my distress about the political and social culture of my adoptive country. Imagine, now, a father buying his 15-year old son a semi-automatic pistol--for a Christmas present! Imagine the son posting a picture of his new toy on social media and describing it as his "new beauty." Imagine the mother of that son taking him out the next day for target practice at a shooting range. Imagine those parents being called in to the school when their son is discovered making a drawing of shooting victims and appending a big grin of approval, and even then refusing to take him out of school. Imagine, hours later, that son pulling out his pistol and shooting numbers of his classmates--four of them fatally.

Can you even begin to imagine such events, Harry? Over here they come as a shock but no surprise. The worship of guns is pandemic here in America, the political protection of guns owners and the industry that supplies them with weapons is sacrosanct. The terrible, persistent occurrence of tragedies such as this one is apparently no deterrent to a political culture that cowers before the fanaticism of a relatively small number of gun owners and their addiction to a "freedom" they believe is guaranteed by the Constitution. 

As with the current deadly epidemic and the stubborn refusal of millions of Americans to follow the most simple, elementary precautions that could stop it in its tracks, it comes down to the question of individual rights. What I learned from you and from the social environment in which I was raised is that those rights come with the responsibility to observe the rights of others. My choices necessarily affect the lives of those with whom I co-exist. If I insist on remaining unvaccinated and not wearing the recommended mask, I will be the one who passes on disease to my fellow-citizens, resulting quite possibly in their death. Guns in the hands of demented, ill-adjusted teenagers result in the deprivation of life and liberty for those they harm or kill. 

Yet a significant number of we Americans--and yes, Harry, as you well know, I am one now--continue to assert their individual rights without regard for those of others. Witness, too, the years-long attack on abortion rights. I know you'd hate the notion of abortion. But I'm equally sure you would share my view that the right to make one's own choices should not extend to determining the right of others to make theirs.

Most of the people I know are those who share my view, and I like to believe that the majority of my countrymen and women view the insanity around us with dismay. We are held hostage by a political system that has ceased to work, as intended, "for the people." It has been hijacked by a ruthless and fanatical minority; and it needs to be reformed, if the country is ever to be better served by an effective, rational, and compassionate government.

Sorry to bother your eternal rest with such inanities! But it's thanks to your own social conscience that such things trouble me as they do.

With love, Peter

Thursday, December 2, 2021

THE BEATLES

Dear Harry,

I wonder what you thought of the Beatles. Their music was certainly a global phenomenon when you were, what, middle-aged? You must at least have known about them.

That's an odd question, I know, but it occurred to me as Ellie and I watched the three episodes of the new Peter Jackson  documentary based on footage from their last sessions as a band and their now legendary rooftop concert, the last time they were to play publicly together. 

Here's the thing that struck me as I thought about this: to my knowledge, you never took much of an interest in music of any kind--unless is was your various church choirs and the hymns and psalms we used to sing at Parish Mass and Evensong. Oh, we did have a big old upright Victrola at the Rectory--it was in the drawing room, as I recall--but did we have records? What kind were they? The only one I remember was a 78 rpm with on one side "The Laughing Cowboy" and on the other (shamefully) "The Laughing N[word]." Both sides were nothing but raucous laughter. But music? Classical? Dance music? I don't recall. Nor, given the time, do I remember listening to Glen Miller, who must have been a frequent presence on the radio in those days.

As a consequence, perhaps, I don't need music in my life as Ellie does. I have not followed popular music since the 1960s, when I was taken by bands like the Beatles and Surrealistic Pillow. I was teaching at that grammar school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when the Beatles first came to America. The week before their Ed Sullivan show appearance, one of the boys brought me a picture of the lads from Liverpool and I was quite literally shocked by their mop tops and their Teddy Boy clothes. But then I did tune in to the Sullivan show and I was immediately enchanted--by their presence as well as by their music. Along with my "What is the world coming to?" reaction, I was captivated. 

And have remained so ever since. They were a grand team, the four of them, and the songs they produced sound as good today as they did back then. To watch "Get Back"--the title of Jackson's series--was to witness genius at work. Over the course of several days of bickering, joking, smoking, mutual insults and cheerful, often witty self-parody, of misdirections, false starts and overworking, of serious practice and sudden, silly riffs, they put together a masterful last collection of songs. All their efforts came together in that rooftop concert, when all the energy and work of the past couple of weeks seemed to coalesce into a fiercely coordinated, now confidently rocking series of songs that woke the neighborhood and enlivened it with music.

It was a magical performance, Harry. Would you have loved it, as I did? I hope so, even though you were never much one for music. I think you'd have responded to the sheer genius of it, the sheer abundance of life and the fun of acting out. 

With love from your otherwise unmusical son, Peter

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

CANON FODDER

I posted a new picture of my father, Harry, yesterday. He's standing in his clerical clothes at the porch of one of the churches where he served--I think this one is Sharnbrook, in Bedfordshire. He was first called "Fodder" by a little granddaughter, too young to properly pronounce "grandfather." After long years of service to the diocese, he was honored with the title "Canon" by the Bishop of St. Alban's and awarded a canon's seat in the chancel of this great cathedral. Hence "Canon Fodder"--a sobriquet that amused him greatly in his retirement years.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

RELIGION

 My dear Peter,

The afterlife? Rebirth? Such questions! You won't be surprised--but maybe a bit disappointed--to know that I can't help you with this. It can't have escaped your notice that there are secrets that the dead can't share. (And besides, you do realize, don't you, that you're talking to yourself?) Still, we can talk about religion. I've always enjoyed doing that.

I never meant to force anything on you. Of course we were Christians, Peggy and I. That's how we were brought up. We went to church. We passed on our Christian stories to you and Flora--the birth of Christ, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and so on. You remember particularly those marvelous Peter stories, and I'm especially glad you found the hidden treasure in your name! There was just never any question about Christianity in those days. It was our whole history, our heritage. It's only recently that human beings have had the arrogance and the temerity to cast aside the wisdom of their elders without, it seems, a second thought. We were brought up to be more respectful of the past. 

You shared that respect, Peter, to judge by the guilt you felt about your loss of the Christian faith we brought you up with. It's to your credit that you did not cast the heritage aside lightly, thoughtlessly, without emotional and spiritual struggle. I wish only that you had brought those questions with me, rather than fear my disapproval. In your letters you mention your timidity in sexual matters. Yes. But don't you think it was that same timidity that stood between you and me and the conversations that you say you would have wanted? It's true that I have my part in it too. It's not that I was unaware of your loss of the faith I'd embraced as my life's work; I watched your struggle from afar, weighted down with my own doubts and guilts, and chose not to confront it. It was easier for me, as it was for you, to keep up the pretense, and for that I apologize. 

And yes, you are right about my doubts. They plagued me from the earliest days of my awakening to the responsibilities of life. You mention my running off to a monastery for fear of making the commitment to your mother and to the temporal life of marriage, children, and so on. I so much wanted to believe in God that I mistook His calling. And there was always some part of my rational mind that insisted it was all a fairy tale, that no such "God" existed, even as I was trying to convince others that He did. It was painful. It was a kind of slow torture that lasted many years. All my life, really. And--yes, again you're right--it showed up in the form of physical, body pain. My ulcers.

It was perhaps because of this that I resisted death when it approached. I did not want to die. Did not trust that heaven awaited. I hope for you that you're like your sister--ready, when the time comes. Much easier to slip into death without resistance, secure in the knowledge that it will catch up with you anyway. I think you understand this.

As to sin, I have to admit that it always seemed to me much more appealing than abstention! I struggled with that, too. There was some devil in me that sorely longed to be the sinner. That I succeeded (mostly!) in resisting temptation might be more attributed to what you call your timidity than any moral or natural restraint!

Ah, yes, Buddhism. I'm glad you found it. Truly. I know next to nothing about it, nor did I as a minister of Christ, but I'm sure I would have found much in common with your "Than Geoff"--as I did, in Judaism, with Mike. The ecumenism I discovered rather late in my life was really no more than a confirmation of what I had always believed, that the spiritual is an essential part of the human experience, no matter what particular form it takes. Life would be a very shallow thing without it.  I'm sure the meditation that you practice takes you deep into that realm where the petty circumstances of "real life" give way to the vast reaches of the unknown. I choose to call it "God," but I'm not sure there's much difference.

I was much moved to be reminded of that last blessing that you asked for as I lay dying in that hospital bed in Cardigan. I don't actually remember it myself, of course--I was already too dotty at the time to understand what was going on around me! But I'm glad that you insisted. I do believe in the power of blessing--that one human being with a full, loving heart can pass on that fulness and that love to fellow human beings. It need not even come as a formal laying on of hands--though that was my own preferred way of conferring blessing. It can be passed on silently, by the mere fact of common presence in a sacred moment. You may be reluctant to accept it, but I believe that you too have the qualities you need to give blessing, and I would encourage you to exercise that faculty as frequently as possible as you live through your last years. It is a gift, and one that is not given but earned. If I can offer one last piece of advice it is that you look for it in yourself, and value it.

There I go, on again as usual with my meanderings. I have to get on with my "afterlife"! But before I do, I'd like to offer you one last time that blessing that I gave you every Sunday as a child, the one I tried to give you, whether you knew it or not, every single day you honored or struggled with the life I gave you, with your mother, the one you had the wisdom to ask for when I died. Bless you, my son, for who you are, for the man you have become.

With love, your father, Harry

Sunday, November 28, 2021

LOST

Dear Harry,

I woke three times last night, each time from one of those long, seemingly endless and compellingly real nightmares--and each time exhausted. I don't remember all the details--I should have sketched out the story after waking--but the theme of each was being lost and unable to find my way home. Two of them, I think--well, one, at least--involved a cell phone that refused to obey the usual commands. Someone had been fooling with it and I could not email, could not text, could not make a call to tell Ellie that I was alright, even though I had not yet been able to find the way back to my car and it was two o'clock in the morning. And two at least involved endless walking, walking, walking through strange streets and neighborhoods, unfamiliar landscapes--or scenes that had that worrying air of familiarity that you know very well but can't quite place. Which explains why I woke up exhausted. In one, I remember casting myself to the ground in utter despair, in front of a group of people I knew I was supposed to lead. I must have walked twenty miles in my sleep...

As a good Freudian yourself, I've no doubt you'd have good interpretations for my dreams. For me, the most obvious way to understand them is in the context of a letter I wrote just the other day, the one about the feeling of being lost in my adopted country, of feeling disconnected--"unmoored," I think, was the way I put it--and misplaced. No longer being "at home." 

Well, now it's Sunday morning again, Harry, and again I won't be going to church. I will, though, be going to Disney Hall for a concert this afternoon, and that's church enough for me. I'll have ample time for reflection while the orchestra does its stuff.

With love, as always,

Peter


BACK TO BLOGGER

I am back at the beginning with blogs and Blogger. It has been a long march. I started out in 2004 when the second Bush was re-elected. To m...