Ramble: Discovering Jean Toomer

Excerpted from From http://english307formsofmodernshortstory.web.unc.edu/files/2014/03/Karintha-and-Becky-from-Jean-Toomers-CANE.pdf

A bit about Jean Toomer:
Jean Toomer was born on December 26, 1894, in Washington, D.C. Toomer studied at
the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1914 and at the College of the City of New
York from 1917 to 1918. He also went to the Gurdjieff Institute in France.
After graduating, Toomer spent the next four years writing poetry and prose and was
actively involved in literary circles. In 1920, he taught school in Georgia, which ended up
becoming the foundation of his later book, Cane, along with bringing him back to his
Southern roots. Cane centers on the landscape and Southern people he saw in Georgia.
After Cane was published, Toomer was considered a leading figure in the Harlem
Renaissance. Cane brought Toomer great acclaim, and he was ranked in the same
category with Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, famous African American writers.
Jean Toomer died in 1967 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Select Works from Toomer:

Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
O cant you see it, O cant you see it
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
. . . When the sun goes down.
Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty,
perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their
knees. Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with
their grown-up girls. God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men. The young fellows
counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This
interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good
to her.
Karintha, at twelve, was a wild flash that told the other folks just what it was to live. At
sunset, when there was no wind, and the pine-smoke from over by the sawmill hugged
the earth, and you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front, her sudden darting past
you was a bit of vivid color, like a black bird that flashes in light. With the other children
one could hear, some distance off, their feet flopping in the two-inch dust. Karintha’s
running was a whir. It had the sound of the red dust that sometimes makes a spiral in
the road, At dusk, during the hush just after the sawmill had closed down, and before
any of the women had started their supper-getting-ready songs, her voice, high-pitched,
shrill, would put one’s ears to itching. But no one ever thought to make her stop because
of it. She stoned the cows, and beat her dog, and fought the other children…. Even the
preacher, who caught her at her mischief, told himself that she was as innocently lovely
as a November cotton flower. Already, rumors were out about her. Homes in Georgia are
most often built on the two room plan. In one, you cook and eat, in the other you sleep,
and there love goes on. Karintha had seen or heard, perhaps she had felt her parents
loving. One could but imitate one’s parents, for to follow them was the way of God. She
played “home” with a small boy who was not afraid to do her bidding. That started the
whole thing. Old men could no longer ride her hobby-horse upon their knees. But young
men counted faster.
Her skin is like dusk,
O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk,
When the sun goes down.
Karintha is a woman. She who carries beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.
She has been married many times. Old men remind her that a few years back they rode
her hobby-horse upon their knees. Karintha smiled, and indulges them when she is in
the mood for it. She has contempt for them. Karintha is a woman. Young men run stills
to make her money. Young men go the big cities and run on the road. Young men go
away to college. They all want to bring her money. These are the young men who
thought that all they had to ho was to count time. But Karintha is a woman, and she has
had a child. A child fell out of her womb onto a bed of pine-needles in the forest. Pinneedles
are smooth and sweet. They are elastic to the feet of rabbits… A sawmill was
nearby. Its pyramidal sawdust pile smoldered. It is a year before one completely burns.
Meanwhile, the smoke curls up and hangs in odd wraiths about the trees, curls up, and
spreads itself out over the valley…Weeks after Karintha returned home the smoke was
so heavy you tasted it in water. Some one made a song:
Smoke is on the hills, Rise up
Smoke is on the hills, O rise
And take my soul to Jesus
Karintha is a woman. Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened
too soon. They will bring their money; they will die not having found it out… Karintha at
twenty, carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Karintha…

Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
…When the sun goes down.
Goes down….

Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She’s dead; they’re gone away.
The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on her
Becky had one Negro son. Who gave it to her? Damn buck nigger, said the white folks’
mouths. She would’nt tell. Common, God-forsaken, insane white shameless wench, said
the white folks’ mouths. Her eyes were sunken, her neck stringy, her breasts fallen, till
then. Taking their words, they filled her, like a bubble rising – then she broke. Mouth
setting in a twist that held her eyes, harsh, vacant, staring. . . Who gave it to her? Lowdown
nigger with no self-respect, said the black folks’ muths. White folks and black folks
buyilt her cabin, fed her and her growing baby, prayed secretly to God who’d put His
cross upon her amd cast her out.
When the first was born, the white folks said they’d have no more to do with her. And
black folks, they too joined hands to cast her out. . . The pines whispered to Jesus. . The
railroad boss said not to say he said it, but she could live, if she wanted to, on the narrow
strip of land between the railroad and the road. John Stone, who owned the lumber and
the bricks, would have shot the man who told he gave the stuff to Lonnie Deacon, who
stole out there at the night and built the cabin. A single room held down to earth. . . O fly
away to Jesus . . . by a leaning chimney. . .
Six trains each day rumbled past and shook the ground under her cabin. Fords, and
horse- and mule-drawn buggies went back and forth along the road. No one ever saw
her. Trainmen, and passengers who’d heard about her, threw out papers and food.
Threw out little crumpled slips of papers scribbled with prayers, as they passed her eyeshaped
piece of sandy ground. Ground islandized between the road and the railroad
track. Pushed up where a blue-sheen God with listless eyes could look at it. Folks from
the town took turns, unknown, of course, to each other, in bringing corn and meat and
sweet potatoes. Even sometimes snuff. . . P thank y Jesus. . Old David Georgia, grinding
cane and boiling syrup, never went her way without some sugar sap. No one ever saw
her. The boy grew up and ran around. When he was five years old as folks reckoned it,
Hugh Jourdon saw him carrying a baby. “Becky has another son,” was what the whole
town knew. But nothing was said, for the part of man that says things to the likes of that
had told itself that if there was a Becky, that Becky now was dead.
The two boys grew. Sullen and cunning. . . O pines, whisper to Jesus; tell Him to come
and press sweet Jesus-lips against their lips and eyes. . . It seemed as though with those
two big fellows there, there could be no room for Becky. The part that prayed wondered
if perhaps she’d really died, and they has buried her. No one dared ask. They’d beat and
cut a man who meant nothing at all in mentioning that they lived along the road. White
or colored? No one knew, and least of all themselves. They drifted around from job to
job. We, who had cast out their mother because of them, could we take them in? They
answered black and white folks by shooting up two men and leaving town. “Goddam the
white folks; goddam the niggers,” they’d shouted as they left town. Becky? Smoke curled
up from her chimney. Nobody noticed it. A creepy feeling came over all who saw that
thin wraith of smoke and felt the trembling of the ground. Folks began to take her food
again. They quit it soon because they had a fear. Becky if dead might be a haint, and if
alive – it took some nerve even to mention it. . . O pines, whisper to Jesus. . .
It was Sunday. Our congregation had been visiting at Pulverton, and were coming home.
There was no wind. The autumn sun, the bell from Ebenezer Church, listless and heavy.
Even the pines were stale, slicky, like the smell of food that makes you sick. Before we
turned the bend of the road that would show us the Becky cabin, the horses stopped
stock-still, pushed back their ears, and nervously whinnied. We urged, then whipped
them on. Quarter of a mile away thin smoke curled up from the leaning chimney. . . O
pines, whisper to Jesus. . . Goose-flesh came on my skin though there was neither chill
nor wind. Eyes left their sockets for the cabin. Ears burned and throbbed. Uncanny
eclipse! fear closed my mind. We were just about to pass. . . Pines shout to Jesus! . . the
ground trembled as a ghost train rumbled by. The chimney fell into the cabin. Its thud
was a hollow report, ages having having passed since it went off. Barlo and I were pulled
out of our seats. Dragged to the door that had swung open. Through the dust we saw the
bricks in a mound opon the floor. Becky, if she was there lay under them. I thought I
heard a groan. Barlo, mumbling something, threw his Bible on the pile. (No one has ever
touched it.) Somehow we got away. My buggy wa still on the road. The last thing I
remember was whipping old Dan like fury; I remember nothing after that – that is, until
I reached town and folks crowded round to get the true word of it.
Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She’s dead; they’re gone away.
The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on her

Ramble: Triumph always Trumps Truth

A sudden realization has occurred – well maybe not so sudden since we are all aware of this truth: We humans don’t argue to to reveal the truth, we humans argue to prove we are winners. It isn’t about facts, it is all about winning and imposing our views on those we see as others; on those we see as the losers. At it’s heart debate is never about being right, and it is all about being righteous.

Yes that is right we are all inherently bullies; no matter how kind we intend our reign of tyranny, our goal is to impose our self-woven patterns of reality.

We desire victory so we can impose our version of order and control on the world around us, because by doing so we feel stronger; And feeling stronger makes us think we will survive. The most basic urge of any organism is to survive. The more any creature feels under threat, the more desperate it will become to win the battle. Triumph will always trump truth.

The same is true of human ideas and human ideals. The more those ideas and ideals are under relentless attack, the more the community that hold those ideas and ideals will feel physically threatened by the arguments thrown at them. You cannot change another’s mind by telling them they are wrong. You cannot destroy an idea by calling it names. If you feel the need to tell someone they are wrong – step back and ask:
“Why does this other think this is worth fighting?”
“What in their life has convinced them that this has value?”

Instead of having arguments we need to remember to have conversations. Instead of dismissing other’s as purely wrong or purely evil or purely cruel because we cannot understand their history of living, we need to step back and simply ask them:
“Can I buy the first round of drinks?; And you can tell me about your journey and how we ended up here today.”

Ramble: Spark

Where does it all begin?

That eternal nagging question of what was before I remember remembering?

There is the seed and there is the tree. Yet what comes first the seed or the tree? And does that even matter at all?

Isn’t there something before the seed? A mystery beyond our poking and measuring? A spark that ignites into being and life? A spark that becomes seed, imbues seed, consumes seed, and becomes root and leaf, transforms into tree, and in turns becomes spark for the next cycle of becoming and being.

What am I but a spark? Drifting in the darkness captured inside the dust of dead stars. Bond by gravity and weak quantum attractions to molecules and masses. What am I? Why am I?

Where do I go when it ends?

Ramble: Godless

godless(ADJECTIVE): Not believing in God.

I find the Oxford English dictionary primary definition of godless rather amusing: they capitalize the word god. Implying that godless is not to believe in the monotheistic Abrahamic God. Psst – it really is the lower case version of the word because it is general disbelief in god(s) of all stripes and flavours.

Looking at other dictionaries gets even more amusing since godless also means “evil or wicked”. “to be profane”. And a synonym of godless is atheist. A the joys of language – judgement passed without even making an accusation.

Now just to be clear I am not an atheist. An atheist is one who believes there is no god. It is an absolute conviction that there is no greater being, no creator, no primal consciousness of any kind. And well I just don’t know that, and I think we can never know the truth of that. And I think it doesn’t matter. That makes me an agnostic.

agnostic(NOUN): someone who does not know, or believes that it is impossible to know, if a god exists.

While I don’t know if there is a god at all, I am absolutely certain there is no such thing as a personal god. A god that walks along with you to guide and protect your life. After all, if god will protect me from all harm because of my faith, and protect your from all harm because of your faith. What happens when we go to war?

There could be a god, a creator, prime-mover. I just have no proof there is one. And even if there is one (or dozens) – a god has no need to spend their time monitoring and judging my actions. What a waste of an infinite mind to act as a cosmic voyeur tsk-tsking everything the little people chose to do in private. “Oh my god did you see that he put his thing in her thing and they had pleasure! And they aren’t even married”

That type of observation isn’t godly – it is simply being a peeping tom. Tsk tsk.

And in the end I guess that makes me godless. That doesn’t mean I don’t have an ethical or moral code to guide my life and my choices. I believe in the precept that we each should strive to “cause no harm.” Which is a great starting point until you end up in a conflict because you want cherry cola and I want plain cherry soda – and we can only have one bottle to share. One of us will be disappointed – and one of us will be “harmed” in some sense by that conflict. Yes it will be a minor snowflake of harm, and truly the single snowflake of harm is no great event. However, the infinite accumulation of snowflakes does tend to leave an impact of some sort. The point being that striving to “cause no harm” isn’t a complete moral code in itself. One needs more principles to navigate the complexity of humans and human interactions.

In that light my next guiding mantra is “find the greater good.” Sounds simple enough. And as slippery as all hell. What is “good” anyway? Who decides? How is it measured? And there you have me – I cannot completely define what “good” might be, or what makes something “better” than something else. Yet we all seem to have a shared sense of that concept of goodness; and what is harm. The reality is that sometimes in order to make things better there has to be a loser.

I am not sure I can take you any further in this ramble except to say there are no elegant perfect solutions to any of this. Just do your best to keep it simple and cause no harm whenever possible. And if that isn’t possible then share in the suffering.

Ramble: Nothing is Sacred – and that is Good!

No, nothing is sacred. And even if there were to be something called sacred, we mere primates wouldn’t be able to decide which book or which idol or which city was the truly holy one. Thus, the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression, because if that goes, then so do all other claims of right as well.
~~Christopher Hitchens

Sacred is an adjective used to describe a person or thing worthy of worship or declared holy. Sacred usually has a religious context, however something or someone that has been set aside for dedicated purpose can also be sacred. Anything designated as sacred is considered to be untouchable, and inviolable. In an absolute sense any critique of that which is sacred is itself an act of blasphemy.

Blasphemy is the act of insulting; showing contempt; lack of reverence to a deity, to religious or holy persons or sacred things; or toward something considered sacred or inviolable. Blasphemy is by its very nature in the eye of the beholder. If I don’t think of an object, place or person as sacred then my lack of reverence cannot be blasphemy. Yet to those that hold an object, place or person as sacred, my lack of deference is clearly blasphemy. This disagreement about what is sacred and what is profane is the heart of all conflict. And how are we to judge what is truly universally sacred?

We are simply imperfect beings living in an imperfect world. If there is a divine being somewhere out there we have no way of knowing on our own what is inviolable. We have no proof of the divine, or even the message of the divine. We simply have myriad stories of what others have declared to be the ultimate sacred message. Zeus, Odin, and Mithra have been sacred, and now are mere mythologies. When faith fades and crumbles, it is clear the sacred transmutes into the mundane. Think of all those who died because the profaned Jupiter and Apollo – their deaths meaningless punishment for an imaginary crime.

This is why it is best that nothing is sacred.

That is not say we should display contempt towards the sacred beliefs of others. There is still the need for respect for other ideas, other thoughts, other needs. I accept that there are those that feel the need for “something more”, all I ask is that they accept in return that I do not and never will share those same beliefs.

There is no god out there that cares what we individual humans think or do. There is no god out there to judge us for our greed and stupidity. We humans own our own misery and cruelty. No outside agency is to blame for the raping and pillaging of the world. If the world is to be a better place, it will only be better because we collectively have chosen to make things better. It is our choice to live as a swarm of locusts on our mother earth, consuming everything within our reach. It is our choice to leave nothing behind but our toxic excretions.

Nothing is sacred. Everything is allowed. And in the end it is what we chose to do with that freedom that matters. It is the essence of human nature to rely upon the divine as an excuse for inaction: hey not my fault! Don’t worry god will look after the consequences.

It is all just excuses. There is no god that compels us to behave, or to do. Our sins are our own. We make the choices – and we own the consequences. Fully and completely.

Time to grow up people. Nothing is sacred. And you have no excuse for the mess you are making.