Monday, October 28, 2013

Voices from the Cemetery

My mommy and daddy live in the cemetery.  They tell me that I need to behave.  They say I’m a very naughty child and they want to lock me away in a dungeon.  I tried to hide, I tried to run.  I like to draw lots of pictures with crayons and markers.  Mommy threw them all away.  No one must see them.  I love my mommy and daddy, and I hear them whisper to me though an iron gate.  Their voices tickle my ear, make me giggle.  Sometimes they cry and groan.  Daddy beat me when he was sad and touched me in a bad place when he was mad.  Mommy was quiet.  On nights such as this one I like to climb the large sycamore tree that hangs over the cemetery and talk to my mommy and daddy.  They must have thought me real naughty when I wielded that axe.  They live in the cemetery because they’re naughty too. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Succubus of Kettlewood Estates

Be on your guard if you stay overnight at Kettlewood Estates.  You won’t succumb only to the magnificent view of the Chesapeake.  Passions stir in dark places, at the nexus of lust and pure evil.  She’s not who or what you think she is, and it won’t matter if you’re youthful, virile, in the twilight of your years, or dry to the bone; if you’re a heterosexual male, you won’t escape her demonic wiles, the dark power of a sinister spirit.   Poe once wrote that there’s nothing more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman.  Well, there’s nothing more beautiful than this shrouded figure that glides through the air and lures foolish men to the flames of hell.  But she’s no corpse; she’s not among the “living dead.”  She's not one of the many ghosts from the Civil War that haunt this region—she’s much worse, a malevolent force in the guise of a stunningly beautiful and irresistibly sensual woman. Her face is pale as ash, with wanton eyes as black as coal, and dark streaks running down her eyes—are these tears or Satan’s branding?  Her long flaxen hair is almost as pale as her face.  Don’t follow her upstairs, lads.  Fight the urge to kiss those dark lips, for they’ll lead you straight to perdition where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Leave the state of Maryland if you have to, and never come back.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Puerto Rico and the Legacy of Las Casas

I’ve been in San Juan, Puerto Rico since Thursday afternoon, soaking up the sun and returning to my academic roots after a long hiatus.  A highlight today was ensconcing myself this morning at a restaurant table with a seaside view to enjoy breakfast.  Why am I in Puerto Rico?  I organized two conference panels on the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, a “Protector of the Indians,” for the annual Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, and contributed a paper on my use of Las Casas’s writings in a comparative genocide course I teach at the University of Minnesota.  Fittingly, Puerto Rico is the location of this year’s conference.  Las Casas spent over a decade in the Caribbean, including a brief stay in San Juan in 1521.  Years later when he penned his Brevísima Relación de la Destrución de las Indias he would not mince words about what happened on this island paradise.  The Spaniards committed atrocities against the hapless natives, laying them on “gridirons made of twigs and tree branches to roast them and setting loose savage dogs, and afterward oppressing and torturing and ill-treating them in the mines and other labors, until they had consumed and worn away all those poor innocents and slain them.”  The Dominican’s moral courage and dogged determination to protect the Amerindian population from the ravages of his fellow Spaniards have preoccupied me these past couple of days, as scholars have gathered here from different disciplines to discuss his legacy.

Above all, though Las Casas was a flawed human being, rather cantankerous and combative, and though for a time he supported the African slave trade only to repent from this hypocritical stance years later with a contrite heart, what amazes me was the ability of this individual to stand up against the imperial system, indeed the zeitgeist, and, like an Old Testament prophet, condemn crimes against humanity committed by his own people, even as he appeals to the conscience of his contemporaries, including no less than Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, who eventually supported new laws to curb abuses in the New World.  Las Casas was a voice crying in the wilderness, but he was not alone.  Little did parishioners realize when Dominican preacher Antonio Montesinos entered the pulpit one Sunday morning in Santo Domingo what was in store for them. “There is a sterility of conscience among you on this island [Hispaniola],” he boldly declared, “and a blindness in which you live.”  He went on with a series of questions that seems to echo in eternity, or at least into our present day: “Are these not men?  Do they not have rational souls?  Are you not obligated to love them as yourselves!  Don’t you understand this?  Don’t you see this?  How can you be in such a profound and lethargic sleep?”  Such sermons made an impression on Las Casas, who had a profound conversion experience, giving up his life as a slaveholder and entering the Dominican order, much as an English sailor named John Newton, two centuries later, would condemn the “evil institution” that he had benefited from and go on to become an ardent abolitionist and pen “Amazing Grace.”
I didn’t come here just to talk about Las Casas, however.  I’ve enjoyed this brief time in Puerto Rico, and, honestly, I’ve attended only the conference panels I organized so as to have plenty of time to roam the shoreline, walk the streets of downtown San Juan, and take photos of some historic sites.  I did show up at a reception in the lobby last night, however, so I could get three or four free glasses of wine.  (Not long thereafter I met some people from the conference when I sat down to play an abandoned grand piano, mildly tipsy, though I had no interest in networking with scholars this weekend.)  It’s a bit humid for my tastes here, but it’s spectacularly beautiful.  My participation in this conference isn’t merely an excuse to visit Puerto Rico; after all, it comes at a busy time of the year and it's difficult to set aside the weight of the world while I'm here.  I haven’t attended one of these conferences since 2004.  Many things have happened since then, including military service and overseas deployment.

This conference is an effort to reconnect with my 16th century roots, so to speak, after years and years of teaching other topics and abandoning research.  In a way, I’m an academic in my heart of heart; I can walk the walk and talk the talk, and for the most part I enjoy this life.  Yet I realize that I'll never be a normal academic, given other life experiences and, well, some self-confessed oddities.  Nonetheless, I’m somewhat in the game now, as scholars want to put something together next year and asked if I’d be interested in publishing papers in these panels and help make the Dominican’s life work more accessible to the public.  2014 marks the quincentenary of Las Casas's conversion, when he relinquished his land grant of slavesno better sign of an internal change of heart.  I’m not sure if I’ll be a part of this project, as I’m no Lascasista.  In fact, I’m quite outside my linguistic ken in taking on a subject such as this.  Two things I can affirm, though:  (1) Las Casas is a Mensch, even a hero of mine, well worth consideration and (2) this trip to San Jose, however short, has been a welcome respite from the rigors of this semester. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Lurking in the Darkness

Demons and ghosts lurk in the darkness. So they say—you know, people who believe in such things or at least want others to believe in them.  I’ve never seen them myself, but I believe it.  Why not?  Anyway, this phenomenon no longer frightens me as it once did when I was a child, for I too find my place in the dark.  These figures creeping in the wee hours of the night or in shadowy corners or in dim-lit upstairs hallways are not menacing.  They emerge from their Cimmerian gloom not to harm.  No, we have enough to worry about among the living.  I can identify with tortured entities sulking over paradise lost and apparitions desperate to unburden their souls.  Life has lost a bit of meaning for me, though to be sure I find solace in family and friends and creative outlets such as writing and music.  But I also find sanctuary in the darkness.  Wraithlike, I lurk in the shadows, on the fringe, out of sight.  Perhaps I’m cursed, perhaps it’s my choice.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Great Red Maple

Under her warm branches lovers and dreamers would gather to embrace and dream.  Lost souls would find solace.  Wide-eyed individuals with big ideas for a better tomorrow would sketch out their thoughts, collaborate with one another, and reify their visions.  They couldn’t resist the tree’s magnetic draw: leaves aflame with the richest, deepest hues of autumn, igniting passion and creativity.  The great red maple was larger than life, and getting larger still, for each time a poet finished a stanza, or an artist completed his canvas, or a philosopher discovered a new insight, another branch would grow, inviting more and more folk to assemble under its protection and forge a new path together.  Each moment a musician strummed a new chorus, or a speaker inspired his audience, or a politician placed the common good over ambition, the trunk thickened and the leaves expanded.  Small minds shackled by the past say you can’t change the future.  It's a waste of time trying to create a harmonious community, for the foibles of humanity will always subvert the efforts.  But those who venture into the woods of October just might forgo the past, form a broader perspective, find other possibilities.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Pumpkin Patch

The kids gathered around the pumpkin patch anticipating another fun event and eager to pick out and take home the biggest, brightest pumpkins, as the orchard staff had promised them. You couldn’t ask for a more wonderful fall day.  The sun, leaves, cornfields, and clouds conspired to give a magnificent golden glow across Harvest Valley.  Tucked inside this arboreal paradise is Jensen’s Apple Orchard, a favorite weekend site just three miles off the Interstate; once its doors open in September, families, school children, and lovers of autumn come to enjoy the delicious fruit and foliage of the season.  Fifth graders from Allenby Christ Lutheran Elementary School had enjoyed the last couple of hours running through the corn maze, moving cautiously through the Haunted Barn, taking a wagon tour of the apple orchard, eating honey crisp apples, and drinking Momma Jensen’s apple cider.  What these youngsters couldn’t know, of course, as they reached for their orange gourds, was that their teachers, a teacher’s aide, and the bus driver lie dead in the back of a shed.  After the proprietors of Jensen’s Apple Orchard had drugged them with free samples of pumpkin spice coffee, they strangled them to death, ever so careful not to shed any blood.  Now they were about to grab these hapless children and offer them as burnt sacrifices to appease their pagan ancestors, who, they fervently believed, had suffered for centuries at the rapacious hands of Christian marauders.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Haunted Trousers

Jerrold was convinced a ghost haunted his corduroy trousers.  Every time he put them on something strange would happen.  They would gyrate, pulsate, and sometimes even percolate.  A little investigation revealed that the specter either inhabited the pants only at the time Jerrold was wearing them or, for whatever reason, chose to lie dormant inside the said pants until the time came every morning for Jerrold to slip them on.  We haven’t yet addressed the grotesque sounds emanating from Jerrold’s pelvic area, leading to the suspicion that more than one ghost haunted the corduroys.  One day by happenstance our protagonist discovered that his denim jeans were likewise haunted, as were his khaki cargo pants and the nice polyester slacks he bought from Sears the other day.  Sometimes a residue or stain would be left behind, as if somehow the spiritual realm crossed over into the physical.  What these ghosts want is not clear, so Jerrold recently hired a paranormal specialist to launch a further investigation.