Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Quick Unedited Thought on New Years Eve

I passed a cemetery on the way home tonight. It’s where Jimmy Hendrix is buried and only a few blocks from my house. It was twilight, and in the fading light, the trees that lined the perimeter of Greenwood Memorial Cemetery mesmerized me. They were firs, those tall and stately trees that give Seattle the nickname, The Emerald City. But just before dark, they looked black, like shadowy sentinels, guarding the graves whose headstones were barely visible in the lawn behind.

 Jimmy was somewhere over there, resting under a marble dome supported by columns. I bet he would be appalled by the pomp. There is a rectangular slab of marble under that dome that bears his name, a place where those who remember him and make the trek to Renton, Washington, leave guitar picks, and carnations, and sometimes an empty beer bottle.

And I thought of Jimmy, and the fact that he was dead, and that today was the last day of the year. And I looked at the trees and thought of all of the dead in Greenwood Cemetery, and then of my friend whose father lay dying at this very moment, somewhere on the east coast. I remembered my own mother’s death, being with her as she died, and begging her to let go and stop breathing. It was difficult for her to give up and say goodbye.

I watched the trees as they passed by my car window. It was at that moment that I wondered if they were the living spirits of the dead. Perhaps when the soul is tired of living underground, it travels through the soil to the roots of the trees, where it rises up the trunk and up further to the branches and out to the leaves where it lives again. It’s a nice thought.

We spend too much money encasing the dead in coffins like mini Egyptian mausoleums, to preserve our bones and decaying flesh from the dirt and the worms, when all our souls crave is to be set free, maybe to find some tree roots and to live again. No one knows. But there is one thing for certain, all of us will find out on day.

I will go with the theory that one day, when the space creatures come to earth, and I am speaking of that imaginary day light years from now, and they open our coffins to peer inside in hopes to evaluate what our culture on earth was like, similar to the archeologists opening those Mayan, or Mycenaean tombs, they will ponder the silliest things. Were the remnants of fabric clinging to the bones, silk or wool? What was the significance of the plastic remains of breast implants, or why would a human have a titanium knee joint? And what about the jewelry? Why was a diamond or ruby rock prized and buried with the dead? They will put the jewelry, and anything else they can salvage, into space creature museums for alien lovers of interstellar history to stare at and wonder about the people of earth.

And for those who believe that there is no more to life than what they accumulated and horded and saved, then this is my guess of where all that stuff will go- to some special galactic exhibition of the Treasures of Earth.

And for those who believe that their soul will not die, that if released from the confines of their coffin, it will travel to the trees and stand guard in the night as a reminder of what will come to everyone, they will understand what I feel, that it is not at all an ending, but a beginning of something new. Life in another form- maybe not a tree, maybe not on this earth, but life renewed like the dawn of a new year, the transition of tonight, into tomorrow. Tomorrow is nearly here. Isn’t that why we celebrate?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Knowledge is Good"

The late 1960’s and the early 1970’s was a glorious time to be in college, and most students had no plans of ever leaving the safety of the university nest. In 1969, the Viet Nam War raged on nightly during the TV news hour. My older brother, who had been drafted after graduating from college, was somewhere near Dnang, just in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was the turning point of the War.  He returned home to North Carolina the next year, the same year I entered Duke University. That was the year that the Selective Service System for the United States conducted the first draft lottery. Drinking and drugs were rampant across university campus’, and no one was sober when those first birthday numbers were pulled on December 1, 1969. The lottery winner earned immediate entrance into the war upon graduation. Everyone fled to the safety of the university and tried to stay there as long as possible.
As a woman, I was not part of the draft. I entered college with the intention of being a math major. In 1969, in an effort to produce critical thinkers, Duke University instituted a new core curriculum to insure that their graduates had a depth to their education that included a wide range of subjects- the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences. This trend was the educational rage of the seventies, a continuum from “the second half of the twentieth century (when) it (the university) added the function of providing a haven for the arts.”
Since the 19th century, Harvard, the Duke University of the North, had forged the way in higher education, setting the precedent of what would be taught in all universities across America. The year that I entered as a freshman, Duke followed Harvard like an eager disciple, reinstituting into their curriculum requirements, foreign language, English composition classes, as well as those core curriculum courses.
Fortunately for me, during that first fall semester, after tracking a solid F+ in freshman Calculus (still one of the highest grades in the class), I had the good fortune of ending up in the hospital with mononucleosis, probably acquired at one of those lottery parties. I was allowed to drop calculus with no penalty. I immediately changed my major to religion and art and settled into a liberal arts dream education. I had no idea what I would do upon graduation. I wasn’t alone. During those war years, we just wanted to stay in college. I immersed myself into the philosophy, music, religion, and art of the middle ages, and floated through four years of educational bliss.
One advisor tore up my registration card. I should take a computer course, he advised. He demanded to know what I expected to do upon graduation. Do upon graduation? I was being educated. That was enough. But this professor, my advisor, was ahead of his time. There was a change coming in education.
In 1969, Duke eschewed any subject taught for the express purpose of attaining a job. That was the role of technical schools. Course work such as journalism, for example, was for the state university (read this with an effected northeastern blue blood accent).  Remember, at that time, computers were the size of buildings, and taking courses in this new area of study meant spending countless hours working on punch cards. No, that was not for me. I was philosophizing with Erasmus, walking in Maria de Medici’s shoes while Renaissance madrigals swirled through my brain. What would my work be? School, of course. I continued on to graduate school, knowing that, if I was not able to find a job as a museum director, I would teach. These were the Animal House years:
Jennings: Teaching is just a way to pay the bills until I finish my novel.
Boon: How long you been workin' on it?
Jennings: Four and a half years.
Pinto: It must be very good.
Jennings: It's a piece of shit. Would anyone like to smoke some pot? 

Unfortunately for me, I allowed myself to be rescued by marriage before landing that teaching job, or running that museum. During my married years, education changed. The Animal House/Faber College ideal for a Liberal Arts Education, as expressed in the film with the words chiseled on the base of Emil Faber’s statue: “Knowledge is Good,” had given way to studies that prepared students for high paying jobs. Business courses were where it was at, while the number of university students majoring in English and the Liberal Arts dwindled.
When my first son, the computer genius, told me that he had switched his major at Duke University from Computer Science to philosophy, I was concerned. “How will you earn a living?” I asked. (I could hear the flash back conversation with my advisor from twenty years before.) “ I will be a philosopher,” he said, “ All I will need is a pair of sandals and a robe.” He ended up on Wall Street and can purchase Gucci sandals whenever he pleases. He discusses philosophy at cocktail parties.
The highest paid graduate from Duke, the year I graduated in 1973, was the lone female engineer. She was ahead of her time. My next-door neighbor in Seattle, also ahead of her time, is one of the top female employees of Microsoft. She was a math major in college. And we all know the story of Melinda Ann French, the Duke graduate who moved to Seattle, worked at Microsoft, and became, Melinda Gates.
And here I am, not ahead of my time, but back at it, in graduate school, studying for an MFA, painting and writing, with desires to write and teach writing as part of the “elephant machine,” so that my students can write and teach writing themselves. And hopefully, my novel, unlike professor Dave Jennings from Faber University, won’t be “a piece of shit.” And, when all the cocktail parties are over, where I shine with the vast compendium of liberal arts facts that are crammed in my brain, I smile and know, after all, “Knowledge is good.” Wasn’t that the point?
Jennings: Don't write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton. Mrs. Milton found him boring too. He's a little bit long-winded, he doesn't translate very well into our generation, and his jokes are terrible.
[Bell rings, students rise to leave]
Jennings: But that doesn't relieve you of your responsibility for this material. Now I'm waiting for reports from some of you... Listen, I'm not joking. This is my job!

 (Quotes are from the book: Elephant's Teach by David Myers, or from the film: "Animal House".

Friday, December 9, 2011

My Personal Mission to Burundi- Tula Holmes- January, 2012

Burundi is the heart-shaped nation, located in the heart of Africa. Torn by civil war since 1993, the world knows little of the genocide in Burundi where up to 210,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled the country. Now with HIV, AIDS and Malaria, it is ranked as one of the world's poorest countries, and in some reports, the poorest. The Batwa Pygmies have the shortest life expectancy on earth, just 27 years old. Amazingly, the youth are filled with hope- hope for a better life.
There are many orphans in Burundi. I describe it as a Country of Children. I will be traveling back to an orphanage in the mountains of Burundi, to a town called Gitega, where at the Homes of Hope Orphanage, 34 beautiful children live. Each home shelters 8 to10 children. They live as a family with a housemother, boys and girls together, from all three tribes- the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Batwa. These children are cared for, educated, and taught that they are the future of their country.
Each child’s story is heartbreaking, but they smile, and play, and love like all children. Last year, I visited the orphanage with a church from Charleston, S.C. We built a playground for the children. It was difficult for us to understand that this was the only playground in the entire country. We painted a mural of hope on the wall of their school, The Future Hope School. With the exception of advertising and political signs, it was the only example of monumental art that I saw.
In January, I return to gather the stories from Burundi. I am finishing my MFA in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook Southampton in New York. I feel that it is my mission, through my words and my art, to spread the word about my beautiful friends who live in the heart of Africa.
I would never expect to visit my friends without bearing gifts. I will bring laptops, software, art supplies, but the thing they need the most is money. Any support that you can give will go directly for the benefit of the children.
The Homes of Hope Orphanage, The Future Hope School, and the neighboring clinic are supported and run by Burundi Youth For Christ, under the leadership of Freddy Tuyizere, as part of Youth for Christ International. (Youth for Christ International, begun in the 1940’s, had as it’s first chaplain, Billy Graham.)
The message I take to Burundi was told to me by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a Compass Rose Society dinner two years ago. “We don’t have to save the world. Our only mission in life is to take one step at a time, and with apologies to the Beetles, with a little help from our friends.” As these lovely children from the Homes of Hope Orphanage grow, we are their friends and here to help as we can, so that they will be able to take the steps to rebuild their beautiful country.