The Impermanence of Human Life

We are helpless in this world.
The years and months slip past
Like a swift stream, which grasps and drags us down.
A hundred pains pursue us, one by one.

Girls, with the wrists clasped round
With Chinese jewels, join hands
And play their youth away.
But time cannot be stopped,
And when their youth is gone
Their jet-black hair – black as fish’s bowels –
Turns white, like a hard frost.
On their sun-browned, glowing faces,
Wrinkles are etched – by whom?

Boys, with their swords at their waists,
aaaClutching the hunting bow,
Mount their chestnut horses
On saddles linen-spun,
And ride on in their pride.
But is their world eternal?
He pushes back the door
Where a girl sleeps within,
Gropes to her side and lies
Arm on her jewel arm.
But how few are those nights
Before, with stick at waist,
He goes shunned and detested
The old are always so.

We grudge life moving on
But we have no redress.
I would become as those
Firm rocks that see no change.
But I am a man in time
And time must have no stop.

Yamanoue Okura
Circa 700, Japan

Veteran’s Day – More than fighting

This Veteran’s Day I am thinking about the legacy of veterans that goes beyond wars and weapons, to the ideas that compel people to take up arms, and to the wisdom that is gained through experience, especially such transforming experience as war.

Germany, in the early 1930s, was a shithole country. Not that our current president would categorize it that way – most of its residents being white – but it had debts that it could not pay. It rang up those debts in the first World War and thought it might be better to commit further atrocities than to pay off those debts. It was correct. Germany was allowed to prosper after the second World War, regardless of its offenses against the human race, in part because of the Marshall Plan.

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George Marshall

 

Unlike the behavior after previous wars, the Allies did not confiscate the land and property of the Axis powers, or subjugate their people. Instead, the United States government from 1948-1952 gave roughly $100 billion in today’s dollars to rebuild their economies.

 

On June 5, 1947, US Secretary of State George Marshall spoke these words to the graduating class of Harvard University:

 

The modern system of the division of labor upon which the exchange of products is based is in danger of breaking down. … Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is not directed against any country, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Any government that is willing to assist in recovery will find full co-operation on the part of the United States. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.

The plan had bipartisan support from the Republican Congress and Democratic White House.

From the early 16th Century until the end of World War II, Europe’s militaries conquered or subjugated almost every other country on Earth and fought continuously against each other. Other than the warfare that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia, and Russian invasions of Crimea and Ukraine, Europe has known peace for seven decades.

The changes in America were profound as well. Before the second World War most Americans were isolationist but as we learned the interconnected nature of human society in the 20th Century, we developed more globalist views. The realization that all the people of the world have more in common that opposition has brought peace and prosperity that the world never knew during millennia of nationalism. The wave of nationalist movements in the US and across the globe today pose a threat to the internationalist policies that we pioneered and whose value have been proven by experience.

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On This Day – The Sutton Hoo Helmet



On this day in 1939, over 500 fragments of a helmet were discovered on the property of an English woman named Edith Pretty who had hired archeologists to excavate 18 burial mounds located on her property.

 

The pieces were originally reconstructed in 1946 and put on display in the British Museum. In recognition of this find, Winston Churchill offered Ms. Pretty the “Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.” She declined.


A further excavation in 1967 unearthed more pieces and in 1971 the current reconstruction was put on display.

From Wikipedia:


“The Sutton Hoo helmet is a decorated Anglo-Saxon helmet discovered during the 1939 excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial. Buried around 625, it is widely believed to have been the helmet of King Rædwald; for whom its elaborate decoration may have given it a secondary function almost akin to a crown. The helmet is “the most iconic object” from one “of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries ever made,” and one of the most important Anglo-Saxon artefacts ever found. Its visage, with eyebrows, nose and moustache creating the image of a man who is then joined by a dragon’s head to become a soaring dragon with outstretched wings, has become a symbol not only of the Dark Ages, but also “of Archaeology in general.” Excavated as hundreds of rusted fragments, the helmet was first displayed following an initial reconstruction in 1945–46, and then again, in its present form, after a second reconstruction in 1970–71. Along with all the other finds from Sutton Hoo, the helmet was determined by a treasure trove inquest to be the property of the landowner of the site of the ship-burial, Edith May Pretty. She subsequently donated all the objects to the British Museum, where they were conserved and put on display; in 2017 the helmet was on view in Room 41.”

Independence Day

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another
and to assume among the powers of the earth, 
the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, 
a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal, 
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are 
Life, 
Liberty 
and the pursuit of Happiness. 

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,
it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, 
and to institute new Government, 
laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, 
as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for 
light and transient causes; 
and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, 
while evils are sufferable 
than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. 
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, 
pursuing invariably the same Object 
evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, 
it is their right, 
it is their duty, 
to throw off such Government, 
and to provide new Guards for their future security.

And for the support of this Declaration, 
with a firm reliance on the 
protection of divine Providence, 
we mutually pledge 
to each other 
our Lives, 
our Fortunes 
and our sacred Honor.

Eleazer French’s Arm

 

At a 90th Birthday Party for my Aunt Lorraine last weekend, my cousin Bob loaned me a book that looks like something out of an old movie. Genealogical History of the French and Allied Families, written by Mary Queal Beyer in 1912, is the kind of book they just don’t make anymore. Even then, there were only 200 copies printed. It’s been read around the family fire for so long that it smells like smoke. It is a treasure trove for us French family descendants, going back to the Frenches who fought at the battle of Hastings in 1066. 

One of the stories included in the book takes place at the Battle of Bunker Hill, in 1775, where our ancestor Eleazer French lost his arm to a cannonball. Rather than leave a trophy on the field of battle, he carried his arm home with him. New Englanders are sturdy stock. Eleanor W.F. Bates wrote the following poem to commemorate that event:

When dewlling on the heroes of field, redoubt and trench,
Shall we not tell the story of young Eleazer French?
  With fowling piece and powder horn
  Under the clear June starlight borne,
  They labored till the early morn
     On Bunker’s honored height;

  Long hours the pick and shovel plied,

  And each who, weary, stepped aside,
  Found eagerly his place supplied
     Throughout the summer night.
  No stouter hearts of stronger frame
  Were there, with patriot fire aflame,
  Than those from Dunstable that came
     To battle for the right.

  And when th’ invading force was met,

  With powder grime and bloody sweat,
  The farmers’ flitlocks paid the debt
     They owed to Howe’s great guns.
  Muskets of old-time minute men!
  Ye told the story once again,
  How tyrants doubt and falter when
     Assemble Freedom’s sons.

  Full soon they heard the bugle call

  And saw the young Eleazer fall,
  Where sped the British cannon ball
     Upon its path of harm.
  “Fall back! keep safe from further ill!”
  They shouted; he, unconquered still,
  Quoth stoutly, and with steadfast will,
     “No! not without my arm!”

  The severed limb all bleeding lay,

  But he who fought that glorious day,
  Took it upon his anguished way
     And left no trophy there;
  Racked with fierce pains and bitter qualms,
  Fainting, and stunned with war’s alarms,
  Bravely he bore off both his arms
     To show what soldiers dare

Oh ye who sing our heroes of parapet and trench

Fail not to tell the story of brave Eleazer French!

Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc

 “By far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”
Mark Twain on Joan of Arc

When Mark Twain wrote Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in 1896 he was 61 years old and madly in love with his teenage heroine. While reading this book more than a century later, it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm.

It was the last novel published in his lifetime and he considered it his best. The reasons are obvious: the maturity and detail born of more than a decade’s research show the expert hand of a master of his craft. But what makes this book his favorite is his love for its subject. It’s hard to imagine Twain loving any of his characters more than he loved Joan of Arc.

“She was sixteen now, shapely and graceful, and of a beauty so extraordinary that I might allow myself any extravagance of language in describing it and yet have no fear of going beyond the truth.There was in her face a sweetness and serenity and purity that justly reflected her spiritual nature.”

George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his play Saint Joan, writes of Joan and Twain, “She makes her creator ridiculous, and yet, being the work of a man of genius, remains a credible human goodygoody in spite of her creator’s infatuation. Mark Twain writes his biography frankly in the form of a romance.”

The artist and his muse

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was originally serialized in Harper’s Magazine under the name of the Sieur Louis de Conte, the story’s narrator, because Twain was worried that his reputation as a humorist would prejudice the audience against the seriousness of the story. Genius is a hard thing to hide though and it was recognized as his work almost immediately. Although not as well regarded in his time or ours as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, there is no lack of genius is this book. It is genius inspired by adoration. As a man who had publicly repudiated religion, he was able to find a nearly-religious devotion to The Maid.

Near the end of his life, Mark Twain formed a club for girls aged 10 to 16 with whom he corresponded and hosted at the manor he named Innocence At Home in honor of his “Angelfish.” He wrote that the club was his “life’s chief delight.” It might seem creepy for an old man to find comfort in the company of girls but that’s an attitude retroactively applied from an age that has sexualized childhood. I believe Twain’s delight came from something much simpler: memory.

“As, she was so beautiful, and oh, so sweet! I had loved her the first day I ever saw her, and from that day forth she was sacred to me. I have carried her image in my heart for sixty-three years – all lonely there, yes, solitary, for it never has had company – and I am grown so old, so old; but it, oh, it is as fresh and young and merry and mischievous and lovely and sweet and pure and witching and divine as it was when it crept in there, bringing benediction and peace to its habitation so long ago, so long ago – for it has not aged a day!”