There is something rotten in Denmark: transforming life, scholarship, and writing toward a more sustainable paradigm —or —you’ve got the craft skills, now what are you going to do with it?

DSC_0032By Karen Walasek
Anyone alive who is paying attention knows that we are on a crash course toward climate destruction and that the burning of fossil fuels is the key culprit. Any writer who is paying attention to the adjunct market post 2008 meltdown has noticed that adjuncts are not paid a living wage. There are a great many articles on the extractive crushing of the creative class, the war on education, non-whites, women and the environment. Our food is literally killing us as the militarized mindset of ever increasing pesticide use (let’s kill off the bad guys with bigger and bigger guns) is touted as the only way it can be done, but says who? Writers, of course. We are the ones making the culture, but do we take our role seriously enough? Have you thought about it? In what ways does your writing support or enable the paradigms of destruction that are racing us closer and closer to the tipping points of planetary collapse?

When I left Goddard with my MFA certificate in hand granting me all the rights and privileges associated with that degree, I had the gnawing sense that there was something rotten in Denmark. No offense to my Goddard colleagues, professors or even Shakespeare, but it bothered me that one could craft a beautifully articulated blueprint for a dying planet that could be considered a literary masterpiece that left its readers filled with remorse and hopelessness. It is as if in our esteemed postmodern world we were all subjects of some grand cultural machine that we inevitably had no control over. The only thing that mattered to this machine was how expertly we crafted our sentences while passively describing the rising waters of Anthropocene’s doom and gloom. Oops, stop! You used a cliché. You don’t want to use a cliché, that’s blasphemy! And yet the paradigms that promote a dying planet are not blasphemous? How did we get here and do we know what we are doing? Pardon me for drawing unsubstantiated conclusions, but something tells me there’s a disconnect in the mind of writers that has a heavy sprinkling of denial, and it’s not that we are creative dreamers and have our heads in the sky. It’s something far deeper and darker than that. Who among the numerous MFA programs out are there are talking about the responsibility of the writer in promoting social change?

What about that doom and gloom, no-way-out scenario? Is there something disingenuous and inherently passive in those action scenarios that promote a survival of the fittest paradigm, only to pull a bad sarcastic cosmic joke in the end with a “Guess what! Nobody is fittest, nor a hero, and we all die; hearty har, har.” And we call that believable, realistic, or noteworthy, while anything that falls outside this paradigm is Pollyanna, Mary Sue; or heavens forbid, idealistic or romantic chick lit!

In his book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff makes the point that the words and metaphors we choose shape how we think. My first stop post Goddard was a M.Ed. in education at Portland State University where I dabbled in rhetoric, conflict resolution, sustainability and indigenous nation’s studies. It was here that I also came across the work of LeAnn Bell in a Storytelling for Social Change class. Bell used storytelling as a tool for addressing racism. She categorized stories as dominant, concealed, resistance, and emerging (or transformative). Most of the stories in popular Western culture fall into the dominant story category. They tell us that those wolves on Wall Street control the world and that our planet is dying and we are helpless to do anything about it. They are the ones that say money is the only thing anyone cares about and life is nothing more than a complicated a con game. If we want to follow the plot twists, all we have to do is follow the money. The concealed stories, of course, if I dare get political here in my professional essay, the concealed stories include those like the ones that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are telling. The concealed story is the one that David Graeber tells in his book, Debt the First Five Thousand Years, where he reveals how monetary debt and true obligation are NOT the same thing. The resistance stories include those of Black Lives Matter or the ones about that tribe of brave indigenous people in Brazil who are literally fighting for their lives to stop the Bela Monte dam. (

I think as a writer the most important question I can ask myself is “Whose story am I telling?”

Read More at: The Writer in the World

Musings on Brutality

Photo 17It seems like people are waking up. But that does not mean what they are waking up to is new. When I was 20, all of my friends knew it was suicidal to travel through the deep south. There were horror stories dating back decades. Possession of LSD or pot was dangerous, but just being a long-hair in the south was cause for brutality. What we didn’t necessarily realize was that we had chosen our appearance. We made a decision to look like outsiders, but we were ignorant to the underlying meaning. Making ourselves outsiders (through our dress and hairstyles) was a symbolic action. We sought solidarity with all people but especially anyone who was treated differently because of the color of skin, economic status & mobility, religion, ethnicity because they too were brother and sister and they were being wronged, segregated, brutalized all around us. We took on their load as our own.

Many of us had no idea that this was the deeper message at the time. What was important to us was our belonging our tribe. We were free. We could build a new world, a world built on love and acceptance and peace. Even those of us who did not rally or protest, even those who were not artists or musicians, joined this movement. Even if we did not all know what the movement was about.

You will hear that this movement was populated by the young and naïve, like it is some sort of bad thing. Like it was what doomed us to failure. But I think we were simply trying to be childlike – children recognized the need for love, they did not need to lie, they are innocent. We knew that violence and punishment were backward. Our parents created a world for us where we could clearly see that there was a better way. And many people joined that movement for science, understanding, systems, and sustainability. We were kin to pantheistic beliefs in so much as they taught you to recognize the connection between all things, but we were not followers. We developed respect for the concept of elders, we looked for elders worthy of the title.

We found some in the native American shaman, some in writers and artists of the time. And music was understood as the pulse beat of the universe. It was loud and raw and primal, but it had heart and vision and honor. At least that is what we looked for, found and echoed. We sought a connection to the past through a modernized vision of the future. We wanted to be  connected, cyclic, sustained. We crafted ideas like deep ecology, social context, spaceship earth.

And later, I got a chance to live in the deep south, and it was sad and difficult to leave. I learned to love it before I recognized the parasite. And upon recognizing one small part, I followed its trail and uncovered the ugly truth. A truth I knew intimately when I pretended that I was a second class citizen. I guess I’d left that truth behind when I cut my hair. I did not realize that Samson’s fate was true, that when you engage in symbolic action, you become your symbol whether or not you still believe in it.

I cut my hair and outwardly became a member of the dominant society. The power of the symbol receded into the safety of my heart. Where it has brewed in a private turmoil, seeking expression through art and music and writing.

It took several years of recovery in the Pacific Northwest to see these symbols for what they actually were and are. The conclusion is simple. Like the awareness of it had been asleep. But I was not asleep. I had a lid on it. I was hidden, seeking safety. It wasn’t until recently that I felt safe enough to come out into the light and stand; ironic that this is the most apt metaphor now that I live in a region where the sun is traditionally a stranger.

But here is the true dope, friends. All this brutality, these lies and this growing militarization is not new. It was always present, sometimes under scrutiny and sometimes completely in shadow. At all periods of our history, the non-dominant group (READ: anyone who wasn’t white, male, European) has been witness and memory of this brutality. These witnesses may choose to forget, they may forgive in order to survive, but their stories are there – in resistance, in protest, often through women, mothers (the largest minority of all).

These stories tell the truth: That we are the real majority and we are enslaved. Enslaved by this idea that the dominant group has any sort of power, any sort of control. We are enslaved by the idea that we cannot voice our condition, indeed, that we, the real majority, are unable to speak, unable to be heard. We believe that we are helpless when it is us that has real the power, the number, the heart, the memory and the vision. We are enslaved by the lies we have accepted about ourselves and the lies we have been told about the dominant power. And we are all hurt by these lies. It is a divisive lie, to try and convince me that my brother hates me or is different, evil, blind, greedy, violent, uneducated, or god forbid poor – which is the worst lie of all. Because most of those conditions are beyond our control, but poverty? That’s just laziness.

Behold the dominant story

Poverty is a tool used to keep all of us enslaved. The well-off are enslaved by their fear that they will become the poor and the poor are enslaved in a structural poverty, where they believe the lie that belittles them against the dominant group.

If it wasn’t so pervasive and evil I could marvel at its perfection.

This has been visited upon humans since the beginning time. It has progressed to the point where the psychopath is in control now – like the top of some sort of career path. It should become a Meyers Briggs designation; the group most likely to become a greedy, power wielding maniac. The group that fights to die. To kill as many of as possible before they go.

My point is for perspective

We should not be outraged. We should not be surprised. This brutality is nothing new. That story is also a distraction. This new escalating brutality is an old, old parasite who has simply found a new host. We should act as healers to seek out the weakness in the nation’s constitution and focus on strengthening. That is the only way to heal. Everything else is a war. And war always kills. Invasive and violent processes only create reactions, effect to the cause and causes from the effects. An endless feedback loop of damage spreading wider and wider in direct proportion to the force and violence of each retaliatory attack. Healing is not a war.

Healing is what we need. And it is not an airy-fairy notion. Healing and love are essential aspects of the eternal feminine. And the dominant group is also at war with this. So much so that women are actually under attack. How could that be? Would you willingly harm your mother? It makes no sense. Would you kill your actual sister? Or brother? It is insane to think that we support death. So why, in the face of all this evidence we have been sold lies and they are now the status quo, why do we continue to believe what we are told?

NOTE: Image from

Abraham’s Absolution

 “I jus’ has to save a life, Miss Karen,” Abraham said, trembling. Sweat seeped into the collar of his starched shirt, buttoned tight against his Adam’s apple. “Lawd knows, Miss Karen, I jus’ has to!”

Karen Winton, a volunteer CPR instructor, recently relocated to Columbia, Tennessee, didn’t know which was more inappropriate; the ancient, exhausted, dark chocolate colored man kneeling in his frayed black suit, or being calling Miss Karen.

“Mister Broom,” Karen said, “You don’t have to call me Miss…” but it was no use. Abraham had begun again, hands clasped, pumping into the elastic chest of the CPR dummy and counting: “one, two, three…”

Karen slipped into to a cheerleading mode, “Make sure you use your weight and not your muscles, that’s right, 30 pumps and two assist breaths. You’re doing great…”

But the tall man, folded impossibly on the floor next to the Red Cross dummy, only reached twelve before crumpling panting. He looked to Karen, his forehead resting on the mannequin’s cloth-covered arm, as if he might be sobbing, but he was just catching his breath.

“Mister Broom.” Karen said the name louder than she intended and the rest of the class looked up at her. She blushed and covered a tiny moth-hole the Abraham’s worn shoulder pad with her hand. “Mister Broom, let’s take a little break ok? Come over here and have a drink.”

Both of Broom’s knees snapped as he struggled to stand. They walked to the edge of the room and Karen offered a Dixie cup from the cooler. The dark man wrapped his long fingers around the paper cup in and drank slowly, his eyes closed. When he finished he looked directly into Karen’s eyes and said, “Thank you kind, Miss Karen.” A broad smile spread across his face revealing perfect white teeth. Karen began, “Mister Broom…” but Abraham raised his hand and said slowly, “As a youngun I was taught respect, Miss Karen. Them’s old habits and old habits don’t never die.”

“But you have to tell me why it’s so important to learn CRP at your age. I mean, meaning no disrespect, but wouldn’t it have done you more good as a younger man?”

“Well that may be so, may be so,” Broom’s eyes lost focus. He stared at nothing for a moment and then back at her. “Miss Karen, is there someplace we could go and talk?”

Karen invited him to sit in one of the padded chairs in the office, she sat in the other. Abraham peered into the dark well of his long life, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He waited so long that Karen began to worry he was sleeping with his eyes open. Karen opened her mouth and Broom began.

callout“My daddy was born in Clayton Mississippi in 1860. I was born in Athens Alabama in 1905 when he was 40. My momma was 25 but she didn’t live long after I came along, she left me and my four brothers and two sisters for my daddy to raise. He died when I was 15. Our family lived in a one room cabin near the Tennessee River.  It was small, but clean. As good-a life as we could ‘spect, I guess. Grew a little corn, fished the river, made our way as best we could. My brothers had itchy feet. So when they was old ‘nuf, they went they north like most black folk.

“They went straight north, ya hear?

“If you lived in South Carolina you’d go to New York.  But us folk in Alabama went to Chicago. That’s jus’ the way we was taught.  My daddy learned from his daddy and I learned from him. Don’t go east. Don’t go west. Taught me to follow the stars and go straight north. My sisters married local and had babies. By the time I stopped growing I was alone in that cabin. I kept the corn up, chopped wood, whatever I could do. ‘Fore long I married Della and we began havin’ babies too. I never really wanted to go too far from my home.”

Karen watched the man making his carefully measured speech. The suit, which probably fit him well 20 years before, was now easily two sizes too large. Even as the pants billowed around his stick-thin legs, Abraham Broom’s boney wrists stuck out of the jacket sleeves giving him a scarecrow appearance. The sweat had dried from his forehead leaving his skin with a waxy shine. Karen did the math, if Broom was born in 1905 that would make him 102. She had figured the man was in his 80s or 90s. She thought, this guy is a walking relic!

Karen imagined his long life stretching back before she was conceived, trying to picture Abraham Broom’s  brothers and sisters. A big family, she thought. She was an only child. And here in this small southern town she was an anonymous soul who lived alone in a studio apartment two blocks from the Red Cross office. She worked days at the nearby Saturn plant in Spring Hill, and though there were professional relationships in her life she kept to herself. She was never quick to make friends and now as a middle aged woman, she claimed she preferred her solitude.

He resumed abruptly, shocking Karen, “There was moonshiners in Parley’s woods back then,” “Hell, I ‘spose there’s moonshiners there even today. But back then, them Reese boys didn’t cotton to none of us black folks. Called us nigras, they did. Ignorant sons of bitches.” He looked up at her, “‘scuse my language, Miss Karen. I have forgotten myself: now where was I?”

Before Karen could answer he continued, “I’ve known me plenty of white folk. Mistah Sneed, the man who owned my cabin—he was a fine man. But them Reese boys was nothing but trash. They spent most nights makin’ that corn mash and most days drinking it. They was ugly-mean. That’s all there was to it.”

“When my daughter Sarah was born she was a sickly child. Her lungs didn’t work right. She always had the croup. And one day my Della calls me in from chopping and tells me that little Sarah has stopped her crying, and that’s a bad sign, Miss Karen. That signals the little one’s strength has done give out. And Della, she tells me to go fetch the doctor. Normally I would take a wide detour around Parley’s. I never had no truck with them Reese boys. But Della say ‘you hurry. Run, Abraham! I don’t think she’s gonna last’ and so I runs by the river, and I tries to be quiet.”

“Mathew Reese, the oldest of the three, saw me and called for his brothers, Samuel and Robert. They was big boys. They ran me down and held my face in the water; nearly drowned me. Then they dragged me and tied my wrists up to a big twisted sugar maple limb.”

“I still remember it to this day. I was soaked to the skin and the flies was buzzin’ round our heads. Matt, he says ‘What the hell you think you doin’ nigra?’ “

“I was scared. I was worried about my little Sarah and I tried to tell them boys, but they just laughed and said they didn’t give a damn about no black dog’s child. Matt and his brothers were piss yo-self drunk. They had willow switches and my shirt was tore off.”

Abraham rose from his seat and let his jacket slip from his shoulders. With his skinny, long, trembling fingers he slowly unbuttoned his shirt and cuffs. Karen’s neck and face flushed. She thought briefly about how bad it looked for a student to be stripping down in a closed office. Instantly the thought was replaced by the realization that this man was old enough to be her grandfather.  In an impossibly deft movement Abraham peeled the shirt from his shoulders and let it hang from his waist.  His back was covered with a Jackson Pollack of crisscrossed thick and thin pink scars reaching from his shoulder blades extending into the waistband of his black trousers. Karen struggled to think of something to say, but the image blanked her mind.

Broom had turned away from her. She sat, unable to move. He spoke to the wall but Karen could clearly hear the tremble in his voice. “It’s been 77 years and I still cry for my baby girl. I guess a daddy never gets over the death of his daughter.” He turned and began re-buttoning his shirt.

“They left me hanging there. I was passed out in the noon sun. It is a wonder to Gawd that I didn’t die m’self. There weren’t nothing a black man could do about it. I mean, the police woulda done worse. I just buried my little girl and went back to my life. But the injustice of it burned me more than those willow sticks. It jus ate at my heart and made me mean. Della told me I needed to get right with my Maker. I wasn’t sleeping. So I would get up and wander by the river at night.

Without thinking, I wandered close enough to hear them Reese boys and I watched from a safe distance. Have you ever heard the saying ‘mad enough to make my blood boil?’ Well, Miss Karen, I was out of my mind, mad with grief and my heart was black and filled with vengeance.”

“I couldn’t think a nothing else. Next night, I came back to my hiding place but I brought my ax. I hid, hardly breathing by the hole they’d dug as a privy. It stank and the flys was thick, but I waited, still. I didn’t see which one came out first and he never saw me. I split his skull open like a ripe melon. Now you would think that the forest at night was a quiet place but that’s not quite true. The night sounds are just different from the day sounds but they are there. Crickets and katydids, owls and other night birds. Them boys were already plastered; they couldn’t a heard a thing if I was standing right next to them.”

“I picked off another later on his way to have a piss and by the time the third one recognized that his brothers were gone I snuck up behind him and kilt him where he stood calling. The katydids never skipped a beat.”

“I buried the bodies in the soft clay by the river along with all my clothes and I kicked over that still and set them woods on fire. By the time I got home the pink of sunrise had streaked the august sky. I never told no one about it. I heard stories, but I pretended ignorance. Them boys weren’t no goddamn good anyway and none too sorely missed. Asides, that fire burned up a hundred acres of dry woods that summer. There wasn’t nothin’ left for evidence. People jus’ assumed that they started the fire and burned up in it.” He looked at Karen and his bottom lip trembled. He dropped to his knees and put his hands on the arms of her chair.

Abraham’s tears had dried in the cool conditioned air. Three quarters of a century and a hundred miles away from his act of retribution he bowed before this white, middle-aged, CRP instructor from Ohio and begged: “You won’t turn me in will you, Miss Karen? You know I killed them in cold blood: I couldn’t let them live. And now, before I meet my Lord I must save a life. I jus has to Miss Karen . I jus has to!”

Karen laid her hand on the ancient man’s curly black head and silently granted the only absolution she could.


whippedStory Notes: This is a story that was told to me by my wife, Karen. It was told to her by a CPR instructor named Dan from an experience he had a few years ago. The elderly negro man in Dan’s rendition called him massa Dan. This is not uncommon in the south. But when I submitted this story to my undergraduate advisor, he replied that it was totally unbelievable that a black man in 2009 would call a white man massa. It may be because the man that Abraham in my story is fashioned after is actually trying to say mister. It may be because my advisor lived his whole life in Seattle. In any case, it is also common to call female teachers by their first name preceded by miss, so it does not alter the tone and setting too much to have made that change. But so you know, he really called Dan massa. And old habits do linger in the south.

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Abraham’s Absolution by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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