Friends in Strange Places

Ad Aspera Astrada
By Striving We Can Reach the Stars

Cyberspace is filled with teenage angst. Searching for InDivIdual-ity and connection simultaneously isn’t like searching for a needle in a haystack; it’s like searching for a particular needle in a stack of needles. I am dismayed, though, at the seeming darkness and despair of teens today. The school shootings, the Goth fixation, the suicidal pleas for help are a far cry from the “trouble” of my teen years when my biggest worry was “Will dad let me use the car to go to a movie tonight?”

Of course I had my complexes and neuroses, but it turns out that those had nothing to do with being a teenager; they were just me. The things that threatened to undermine my self-esteem (“What if other people don’t like picking their noses as much as I do?”) were actually things I should have been worried about. People got quite annoyed, let me tell you, when I picked their noses.

Recently I saw the following question: “Who was your biggest source of help?I can’t answer that question because my biggest help was the constant, consistent, day-to-day help of parents, teachers and neighbors who took it for granted that children need quantity time and role models. The fact that no one stands out like a lighthouse in a hurricane only proves that my life was filled with those who understood a simple truth: when you can’t calm the storms of life, calm the child (to rip-off a Scott Krippayne song.)

It takes more than a village to raise a teen; it takes an act of God. Sure, I had my moments of feeling misunderstood and depressed. There were times when the village just didn’t have the resources, and I had to find my own help. It was during those times that I found friends in strange places: in books, in nature, even in the stars.

From Dickens, I learned that I didn’t appreciate how good I really had things. From Donne I learned that “No man is an island.” Teens sometimes feel so alone that they try to go it alone, but in looking back we see that we were always “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” From Dumas I learned that revenge does not heal and from science fiction in general I learned how to dream.

Seemingly so alone on this world, I dreamed of other worlds. I learned the stars and knew the night sky as well as I knew the backyard from which I gazed at them. Of course, like we so often do, when I no longer needed those friends I forsook them. It wasn’t until years later, out at night with my new son, that I remembered them. It was then I wrote the following poem.

A long time ago the stars were my friends.
I’d often lie in fields and look up at them.
It gave me a sense of wonder and awe
to see the same stars that the ancients saw.
Dreaming of the worlds that might circle those stars,
mentally exploring those planets afar,
I’d sail their seas and cross their sands,
climb their mountains, explore their lands.
Their rivers and forest were no strangers to me;
two suns would light up their skies,sometimes three.
Their moons were so bright that it seemed like day,
but then I’d wake up in fields where I lay
and realize it had all been just a dream,
and go back to my world of everyday schemes,
ambitions and strivings for fortune and fame;
I forgot my friends, even their names.
But now once again I see Vega’s bright light,
Arcturus’ splendor and Antares’ might.
I feel a peace as calm as can be
as once again I set sail over alien sea.
A long time ago the stars were my friends;
it’s good to have them back again.

The next time I venture out to greet some old friends it will be with a new hope: “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may; I wish I might. May I have this wish tonight?”

I wish that each troubled teen will find at least one friend, no matter how strange, who will let her be herself, who will let him shout the things he feels he can only whisper, who will be as constant as the stars.


Of Mice and Men: The Death of the American Dream

Steinbeck was a Depression novelist, and he saw it as his duty to “set down his time as nearly as he can understand it.”   He does so in Of Mice and Men  which portrays the corruption of the American dream during the 1930’s.

I have always thought Steinbeck tried to portray the American Dream simply as having something one could call one’s own, especially land.  In talking to Candy, in the book, Crooks says, “Everybody wants a little bit of land, not much.  Jus’ som’thin’ that was his.  Som’thin’ he could live on and there couldn’t nobody throw him off of it.”

One can see this Dream thought out American literature.  Jefferson’s replacement of Locke’s term ‘property’ for the phrase “Pursuit of happiness” is an early example.  Jefferson broadened Locke’s idea, but Jefferson once wrote that land “is the focus in which [people] keep alive that sacred fire which otherwise might expire from the face of the Earth.”  He was an agrarian who saw people who owned and labored on their own land as God’s chosen people.

One can trace this dream forward to Thoreau.  Although he did not own Walden Pond he went there for two years to live off the land.  The Transcendentalists like Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau all believed the Oversoul linked men to nature.  Property has always been seen as a sacred right in American history and it is encoded into the Constitution.

It is this same dream that is held by Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men.  It becomes the dream of everyone they tell.  When George and Lenny were talking about their dream place “Old Candy turned slowly over.  His eyes wide open.”  Candy’s dog had just been shot and he was upset, but when George dreamed out loud Candy wanted a part of it, if only vicariously through their eyes.

They all just wanted to have their “own place where [they] belonged.”  Crooks tells them that “If you…guys would want a hand to work for nothing- just his keep, why I’d come an lend a hand.”

In Of Mice and Men Steinbeck shows how this dream was corrupted and destroyed by the Great Depression.  It was during the Depression that America ran out of land.  Franklin Roosevelt wrote regarding an earlier mild depression that “Traditionally, when a depression came a new section of land was opened up in the West and even our temporary misfortune served our Manifest destiny.  At the very worst there was always the possibility of climbing into a covered wagon and moving West.”

This was no longer possible because all the land was opened up and settled.  Jefferson, as early as 1795 predicted that Americans would eventually run out of land and have to come up with other means of making a living.

America had been spoiled by prosperity.   Walt Whitman wrote that “Long, to long America, Travelling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only.”  He recognized that America would not always prosper.  Edward Bellamy, in Looking Backward, described American economic life at the turn of the century as a carriage.  This carriage was pulled by the mass of humanity, driven by hunger, and the wealthy few rode on top.

Jefferson again sounds prophetic when he wrote that manufacturers (later industrialists) were “panders of vice , and the instrument by which the liberties of a country are overturned.”  All this isn’t to say that capitalism is bad, but people were being made industrial surfs at the same time the land was drying up, and they had to, as Jefferson said, because they had eat.

It was a high time for some, the Charlies, Lorraines and Duncans of Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” who rode drunk on tricycles in the streets and threw hundred dollar bills to band players, but when the stock market crashed all the personal wealth and corporations crashed and so did the nation’s economy.  Without land, the people forced into industrial work had no jobs, no money and no way to get “a little piece of land.”

Steinbeck portrays all of this in Of Mice and Men.  He portrays it by letting the dream come within the men’s grasp and then it gets destroyed.  Steinbeck writes “They fell into silence.  They looked at one another, amazed.  This thing they had never really believed in was coming true.”

Even Crooks who says “I seen guys nearly crazy with loneliness for land, but ever’ time a whore house or a blackjack game took what it takes” became convinced.  It was right there in their hands.

When Curly’s wife is found dead, the first concern of Candy and George is the dream.  Candy asks George if they can still get their place and George answers “I think I knowed from the very first.  I think I knowed we’d never do her.”

In a way when George shoots Lenny he is killing his dream and realizing that life will always be the way it is for men like him.  For Lenny the dream never died, but it was an illusion he couldn’t see.  Steinbeck seems to be saying that unless one can adapt to the reality that the American dream had become an illusion he will die like Lenny.

God Is…

 [Written 10 years and 2 less kids ago]

God is the bond of love that binds my wife and I together after ten years of marriage and brings us closer every day and still leaves the best for tomorrow.

God is the purest intentions and the fulfilled potentiality of my mother and father.

God is the absolute trust my seven year old has that I will take care of him when he is afraid, the spontaneous joy of my three year old when she awakens in the morning, and the uncorrupted laughter of my thirteen month old when she finds her foot.

God is the growth that comes through pain and the key that unlocks my chains.

God is the wisdom to know what is right and the freedom and courage to do it.

God is the Sisyphian rock that none can get ride of because God is the paradox which bends all belief systems back in upon themselves.

God is the kindness of strangers and the honesty of friends.

God is the truth that hurts and the truth that heals.

God is the strength to endure persecution and the virtue not to exact revenge.

God is the Wholly Other who fulfills our Ultimate Concern.

God is the eternity that stepped into time.

God is the patience of a Redwood tree as it gazes across the centuries of man’s folly and yet still grows straight and true.

God is the Carpenter who can build straight with the crooked timber of humanity.

God is the faith that there is hope and the hope that there is love.