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Pretty Bird

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This is one of my all-time favorite songs—for its melancholy, yes, but also for the amazing, unaccompanied a cappella voice of Hazel Dickens and for her story of overcoming poverty and finding herself an artist of the highest caliber. I thought I had included her on this blog already, but evidently I was just remembering posting her obituary on Facebook when she died in April of 2011. (Usually I link to lyrics, but the versions online are not at all accurate. “Love is such a delicate thing” gets particularly garbled. So, we’ll just have to listen.)

I first heard the Hazel & Alice (Gerrard) album when I was in high school in the mid-seventies. Probably they performed at the Laurel Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although the Laurel burned down in 1982 and was rebuilt, I remember the creaky floors and old bricks of the original church structure. I heard a lot of folk music there by the likes of John McCutcheon on the hammered dulcimer and a lot of poetry readings there by the likes of Robert Creeley. There was always something going on at the Laurel Theater, and evidently there still is, though I haven’t been there in years.

Both Hazel Dickens’s life and the continued vitality of the Laurel Theater are testaments to the enduring nature of the spirit of creativity in all manner of people and places. And yet, it remains tragic that anyone has to be born into situations like that of the Dickens family, or that artists have to struggle quite so much to survive, as reflected once again in this Salon article by Scott Timberg about the impact of the current economic bad times on the creative class. (It’s bad, very bad.)

It is this dilemma that we call the human condition—the bad and good all rolled together. And another story sent to me today (via this video) reflects this as well. It’s related to this post because it’s about a bird—not one in song, but a living creature on this earth, a magnificent bald eagle whose beak was shot off by some stinkin’ human being I can’t understand. On the other hand, there are some truly lovely human beings who have worked to give her a new beak. It seems to me that some of us work endlessly to repair the damage caused by those whose hearts are bleak, unsympathetic places.

In the meantime, a stray kitty has shown up on our doorstep. I’m pretty sure that someone dumped her—she’s about six or seven months old, not at all feral, and wanted nothing but to come in and get a bowl of grub. She was skinny as a rail except for that slightly bulging belly that indicated that whatever person had trained her to be so affectionate had not bothered to spay her. Tomorrow morning, she will have her little kitty abortion and then be back in my care. The last thing I need is another cat, but I will at least foster her until she finds a new home. If Jupiter and Kollwitz can tolerate her, I suppose we will keep her. As my mother said, “Saving these little lives is a good thing.” As the vet tech said when I took her in today, “Well, kitty, you lucked onto the best cat mom in the world.” I could accomplish worse in life.

But in this day and age, it is beyond me to understand how someone could let a cat or dog go unsprayed or unneutered for more than a second past the appropriate age for surgery. Or how someone could dump an animal he or she had so clearly treated kindly before. It simply boggles my mind.

Not that any of us is pure good. When I said to the vet today that I felt a touch of sorrow about getting the stray a kitty abortion, she said, “Don’t.” She informed me that if I had taken this little cat to Animal Services, she would have been euthanized immediately. They can’t keep pregnant cats, she noted, because they can’t vaccinate kittens until they are two months old, and they can’t keep unvaccinated cats in the shelter. They try to place as many as possible in foster homes, but they are always full. They don’t have the resources to do a spay-abortion, since there is such an overpopulation already. So any kittens under two months and any mothers-to-be are killed instantly.

We all face difficult choices. But indeed some people are more evil than others, and some people become forces of bad because they don’t stop and think. What does it mean to shoot the beak off an eagle? What does it mean to dump a pregnant kitten? What does it mean to fail to support public schools and universities? What does it mean to support tax breaks for the wealthy while the poor and the disabled and the elderly struggle? My brother said to me last week that he feels as though he is living in Weimar Germany just before the collapse into Nazism. I agreed, and I said to him, “The one thing I can promise is that I will not be one of the average folks who will cave in to the Nazis. They can kill me first.” So many disturbing things go on every day. I don’t want to be one of the ones who does them. I want to be on the side of the angels, as imperfectly as it may be possible for me to do that. Sometimes that means being too honest for some people’s taste, and sometimes I flub up and hurt people, sometimes even those I could never construe as deserving it. But I have some pretty good ethical boundaries that I am devoted to keeping firm.

One is that I actually do the job that I am paid to do, unlike so many scammers that surround me.

Another is that I rescue animals in need.

And I respect the right of people to live a decent life even if they care primarily about something other than money and even if they are born into less than ideal circumstances.

That includes artists with their connection to the holy rather than the materialistic.

May we survive.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

At the time of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was widening his scope. He had been the unquestionable leader among many important change-bringers of the Civil Rights Movement, but by 1968 he felt that enough had been accomplished for him to add poverty and war to his agenda.

Some of his fellow African American activists disagreed, just as some had disagreed about King’s devotion to non-violence. For me, both of these moves on King’s part mark his singularity.

In some ways, King’s non-violence was almost too white-friendly. Many believe that his reputation has been co-opted and rendered touchy-feely, even impotent, by the powerful who treat him as though he were not a radical. What many celebrate on MLK Day is this user-friendly Christian MLK.

But King’s inclusion of poverty and war on his agenda mark him as a social reformer of an extraordinary order. In 1968, he was attempting to organize the “Poor People’s Campaign” and had come to believe in a guaranteed income as a way to combat poverty. He stated very clearly that he sought to address issues that created poverty among both black and white. He also believed, as the video above indicates, that the Vietnam War was an enormous moral wrong, and that the powerful of whatever race that promulgated war were wrong. He knew that war was also about money. And he showed that he was a kind of Christian that is all too rare these days: one who was dedicated to justice and fairness and the good of all humans, no matter their station or situation.

Today I’m not here to debate whether there is ever a justifiable war or whether a guaranteed income would have the desired effect, but to note that Martin Luther King, Jr., saw beyond immediate, personal causes. This is so rare as to be a miracle. Just this week, Harper’s magazine, in its often devastating Index (description), noted that 57 (out of 535) members of the U.S. Congress are among the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans (info from the Center for Responsive Politics). I will bet that if you asked after the wealthiest 5 percent, members of Congress would be overwhelmingly members of the club. Most of them, it seems, find it impossible to look beyond their own self-interests in forming policy. And that is the simple and only reason I can see that we are still indulging in tax breaks for those wealthiest of Americans. It has been demonstrated over and over that that stuff does not trickle down. We are not really living in a representative government, but an oligarchy.

I don’t know what Martin Luther King, Jr., would have done in the face of today’s current political scene. He would have turned 83 years old yesterday, and it would be possible that he’d still be alive had he not been assassinated. My bet, however, is that in spite of his all-too-human fondness for silk suits and pretty women, he would have preached for us to set narrow personal interests aside for the sake of the humanity that he loved so much. He was the genuine item, and I pay him all due respect on this day, both as a non-violent activist and a radical reformer.