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Posts tagged ‘justice’

O is for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was first published in Russian in 1962, in English in 1963. I originally had another book in mind for O, (On the Road) but given the current political situation, I feel this is a book to remind us of the dangers of a totalitarian government. It’s as hard a book to read as any, not for its length (it’s little more than a novella at 150 pages) but for the presentation of the brutality of life in the Soviet prison system. It portrays a government that represses people not for crimes they’ve committed but for political advantage and retribution, raising a virtual cudgel over a populace with little recourse for defense, terrifying people who understand that the next person accused might be them.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a political prisoner, a man falsely convicted of spying at the end of World War II. This one day in his life is a day like every other, a day closer to his freedom if he can survive the quixotic events that threaten his safety at every moment. He’s woken up ill, one more misery to add to his usual bleak condition. Too late for a place at the infirmary, he trudges with the rest of his unit out of the camp to a construction site. There he engages in the mindless work of building a brick wall. In the Soviet gulag, building a wall in such freezing temperatures is a Sisyphean feat. Nothing works correctly unless the laborers work at a feverish pitch, tasks nearly impossible to achieve because of the primitive quality of their tools and materials.

Shukhov is always hungry, tired, cold, and undernourished. His bed is uncomfortable, his clothing inadequate, his shoes thin, his life monotonous, and he has little to look forward to except surviving this one day. To anticipate anything else is futile; the gulag is not a place for daydreams but for enforced effort. Yet he fosters friendships among other prisoners and guards, trades favors for food, and carefully navigates a complex hierarchy that safeguards him from extra punishment. He manages to augment his small stash of contraband. He engages in conversations about the meaning of life, whether there is a heaven, and how small luxuries comprise happiness in the gulag.

Throughout the day, we see the prisoners reduced to insignificant parts of the system by which they’re incarcerated. Shukhov and the others are treated as though they are disposable, with only superficial concern for their well-being. They awake to a relentless regimen of being identified as a number, getting searched, marching across a frozen landscape, enduring manual labor in subfreezing conditions, and marching back to the dormitories at night. Eating is a crucial part of the day and Shukhov manages a few extra rations, a blissful moment. Lying in his bunk at night, he counts the number of days left to bear before he will be free. It’s been one day, like all the rest, and a day unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in fact a prisoner of the gulag and wrote about it in other books, notably The Gulag Archipelago. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the only book he was able to publish in the Soviet Union. All his other books were published in the West because of the political controversy surrounding his work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the body of his work, but like fellow Russian, Boris Pasternak, did not accept it for fear of reprisal at home. Though the book appears to be critical of the Soviet system, Solzhenitsyn’s political position about his country was complicated, a situation I’m not qualified to address.

I remember being so transfixed by this grim, spare account of Soviet incarceration that I sat at a rock concert with my hands around the book, reading. Certainly I was shocked by such hardship imposed on men but also by the callous attitude of a system intent on meting out punishment without or regard for human rights. Every word beat against my heart. To live in a country like the United States where human rights are analogous to our concept of democracy, and compare it to a totalitarian government where people are less important than bricks, horrified me. The book anchored my sense of the inalienable right of justice not only because our Constitution says we are so entitled, but because my understanding of humanity anchors my foundation of decency. That our current president abridges such rights without regard for the Constitutional independence of the three branches of government and without consequence makes me fear for our democracy. It all beats against my heart.

I look forward to learning about your favorite O fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for O:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Signet Classic

 

I, Wanderer

The commencement address at your university is supposed to inspire the graduates to go out and conquer the world with great deeds and a vision of peace for mankind. Or at least get a decent job and pay the bills. I panicked when I graduated from college. It was the moment when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t attend my college commencement; the motivating keynote address never reached my ears. If college was a five year delay before starting my adult life, then the day after graduation was an immediate decline into uncertainty and failure. Nearly everyone I knew was ready to start grad school in a few months (or had already begun,) or had a terrific entry level position in a job that would lead to a productive and independent future. So I thought. So they thought.

 

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I’d been lazy about my life till then, getting homework and assignments completed but without the incentive of solid accomplishments that would look great on a resume. I’d worked too, at a bunch of dead end jobs that kept me fed on fried rice and thin sandwiches, housed in roach infested apartments in the run down sections of a graceless city. The idea of being a Writer had only been sustained by marginal success in college. I’d earned a degree in creative writing validated by a few essays and short stories noteworthy for nudging by professors toward possible journal submission. But there were no jobs in the classified section of the paper advertising for entry level writers. (Yeah, if you’re 40 or under, you don’t know what that is – no worries.)

Over the next decade I fell into a roll call of aimless jobs. Employment in a few dead end trades paid bills until marriage; then children sidelined me even further from any serious expeditions toward a writing career. Not wanting to risk my sons’ safety at daycare, I stayed home with my young children, dodging regular work until they were in elementary school. For a person full of remorse over many squandered opportunities, that’s not one of them. I’m not attempting to persuade you that my decision was the only one you should also consider, but for me, it was right. I nurtured my children with religion, play, music, trips to beaches and nature parks, sports, Scouts, theater, picnics, friendships, fun, and challenges.

I raised my sons and I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

The next derailments happened because I pursued a different creative path, first doing occasional art work while the kids were small, and then as a full bore career because it became the path I traveled. At-home work as a free lance artist eventually led to paid art teacher positions through a city rec program and as a volunteer artist at my son’s school. [I don’t know which of those words paints a funnier picture: “free” because of how little I got paid by people who thought they were doing me a favor by letting me do something constructive with my time by designing logos and signs for their businesses, or handmade invitations for their weddings; “lance” because I felt pierced by every person who paid me less than promised after demanding more work than we’d agreed upon; or “artist” because I never got to sign my name to a single piece of artwork. Still, inks and paints were used, and I was never lashed to a mast to do the work. And yes, I do know that “freelance” is a legitimate word without the separation.]

Those experiences segued into a stint as a commercial artist in a studio where I learned to paint designs for active wear (bikinis, board shorts, Hawaiian-style shirts) under pressure and with peculiar requirements, like board shorts with no orange hues as the owner of the company simply didn’t like orange – damn that the buying public at the time, teenage and college boys, loved it. I also found that office politics in a commercial studio is the norm, that stealing creative proprietary product is standard, and jealousy of anyone else’s artistic skills the motive for lies (Art director, “She didn’t paint that,” pointing to what was clearly my design – everyone had seen me paint it and it was my identifiable style) and theft (“I did,” as she held aloft a barely altered piece of my work and claimed it as her own.) More than one artist has stated that commercial studios raze your soul, but maybe you have to be there to understand such truth. Too many episodes down that miserable path and I gave it up, with great relief.

At any rate, I took what I’d learned, to paint fast and accurately, and marched off to the first of several positions as an art teacher in private schools. I’ll leave out the administrative/business dealings and report only that I loved working with kids, kindergarten to twelfth grade, and exposing them to the creative energy that every child owns. You just have to help them unlock what’s percolating there, show them how to hold a brush, why paint colors contrast better with some colors more than others, how to move a pencil to craft the line they envision in their head. Children can learn to capture what they dream and record it as painting, drawing, original print, sculpture, collage or ceramic art. It’s a remarkable experience when a child hangs a work of art on the wall and says, “I made that!” Yes, with my guidance, but a few thousand kids did in fact make thousands of pieces of art. Many kids went on to become fine artists, designers, sculptors, art teachers, architects, art historians, commercial artists, and all manner of professionals and lay people whose lives are touched and enriched by exposure to art. I did that!

Art is a primal urge, evident by the 20 – 30,000-year-old treasures deep in European caves on rock walls that could only be reached via precarious scaffolds. Just imagine: wrapped in bearskin, walking on grass sandals, you hide behind boulders or as high in trees as the slender boughs will afford you. When you drop to earth, you tread softly so as not to awaken bad spirits, enemy tribesmen, or stalking predators twice your weight, and trek until you find the tiny hole in the embankment. You push aside the branches that keep its secret, enter the darkness, and plunge through space, uncertain where you will land or if safely. Or at all. Once there, you light a fish oil lamp in a shell, pick up a ragged-edged twig, a dollop of red-brown ochre, and a stub of charcoal. You may be famished and thirsty but nothing, not even desire to calm urges for food, can keep you from the calling of the muse, born before you were conceived. You pay homage to the spirits whom you revere and fear by creating massive images of horses and bison on rock ceilings reached only by standing on a rickety ladder built of broken limbs. You ask for blessings and success. You do what you’d come for: you paint.

I taught children to create art and I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

Eventually a roadblock stopped me. They are meant to. A horrendously unjust situation developed and I couldn’t control or reverse it. A kid cheated on a project and her parents demanded that I take the blame for her poor judgment by insisting I not be rehired. They were rich enough to hang a noose woven of dollar bills. Truth to power is a noble cause but sometimes you just can’t win and I didn’t. I lost the art teacher position in the school where I’d built their upper school art program. Knowing that it was up to me to heal, I sought a creative outlet. Still teaching art, I returned to my first love, the one I’d identified as a child. I began again to write. Finally I knew what I needed to know after college graduation: it was up to me to write my own commencement address, so here it is:

Do whatever you do as well as possible. Make deep and wholesome imprints on earth and in the hearts of others. When you go, it will be all that is left behind. Listen to your adversary and be vulnerable to change, because you may have made the first mistake. Compromise is often the most fair but sometimes justice is not. Work at granting forgiveness and be grateful to those who have afforded you theirs. Stake high standards for yourself, slightly less for acquaintances, and none for those who are unable. Be authentic in voice and action, and do something instead of nothing at all. You were not born when your parents were; stop blaming them for the miseries of their lives. Be angry and then make something wonderful from your anger. Forge friendships as if you are forging new stars. Hold family as if your life and theirs depended upon it. Fix what you broke and then help someone else fix what they broke. Build something new and keep what’s old in good repair. Bless those around you for their presence in your life. Thank God in whatever way you find meaningful. Do this every day. And harbor no regrets.

D is for Dares with Dreams

I’m writing this post on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech as it was presented at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. It’s fitting that this entry be more somber than others in the Alphabet of a New Blog series.

Many of you reading this only know Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement from history books, documentaries, news articles, TV broadcasts, and the like. I knew Dr. King from my place in the generation to whom he addressed his concerns. Too young to march with him, I later spent my college years singing “We Will Overcome” and rallying against continuing inequalities, the heady sense of social justice and righteousness fresh from the earlier Civil Rights marches. I worked on behalf of lowering the voting age to 18, figuring that a man deemed old enough to fight and perhaps die for our country should be considered old enough to vote. I’m still proud of my contribution to that success. It cost me a semester of perfect university grades to help get that job done, and I don’t regret my choice. (more…)