— Ecclesiastes 1:9, 10
If I had to pick one book of the Bible as my favorite, Ecclesiastes would be the odds-on favorite. The Poet’s sense of what it means to be human, with its rich mixture of hope and despair, has always spoken to me. Like a lot of folks my age, my first introduction to the Poet’s words was in a Byrds’ song. Turn, turn, turn.
Speaking of music, it was forty years ago two days ago that Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, perhaps the most original rock record ever made, first took to the airwaves. I still have the original vinyl record, complete with paper cut-outs, that I purchased as a ten year old. On June 3, twenty years ago, I bought the CD as soon as the record store opened. The BBC aired the first part of an anniversary documentary where they recruited musicians to go into the Apple studios and remake the songs using the same equipment as the Beatles did in 1967, which is less powerful technologically than the Garage Band program that came with my MacBook. The narrator commented that some of the artists recruited dropped out because it was too complicated. What was done could not be done again.
It was forty years ago today that the Six Day War began between Israel and its Arab neighbors. I’d never noticed the chronological proximity of the two events until this afternoon. I don’t know of even one of the forty years since when the fighting has not continued. NPR is in the middle of an excellent five part series on the causes and consequences of the war. What was done is being done over and over and over.
Three years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, only one major U.S. building project in Iraq is on schedule and within budget: the massive new American embassy compound.
The $592 million facility is being built inside the heavily fortified Green Zone by 900 non-Iraqi foreign workers who are housed nearby and under the supervision of a Kuwaiti contractor, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report. Construction materials have been stockpiled to avoid the dangers and delays on Iraq’s roads.
“We are confident the embassy will be completed according to schedule (by June 2007) and on budget,” said Justin Higgins, a State Department spokesman.
Here are few more details from The Nation:
On the other hand, the latest is that the facilities for the 8,000 people scheduled to work in the vice-regal compound will be completed on time next year. Doubtless the cooks, janitors and serving staff attending to the Americans’ needs and comforts in this establishment, which is said to exceed in luxury and appointments anything Saddam Hussein built for himself, will not be Iraqis either.
According to Knight Ridder, “US officials here [in Baghdad] greet questions about the site with a curtness that borders on hostility. Reporters are referred to the State Department in Washington, which declined to answer questions for security reasons.” Photographers attempting to get pictures of what the locals call “George W’s Palace” are confined to using telephoto lenses on this, the largest construction project undertaken by Iraq’s American visitors.
Our government’s assessment that a fortress is somehow the way to freedom leads me to my best new thing of the day: discovering poet Wislawa Szymborska, also thanks to the folks at NPR. (Here are some of her poems.) She was born in Poland in 1923 and has lived in Krakow since 1931, living through World War II and the Soviet occupation. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Here’s part of what she had to say in her acceptance speech:
All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.
Regardless of the angle from which any of us views the state of affairs in our country and in our world, we have those who would call themselves leaders proclaiming their superior knowledge of The Thing To Do as reason why they should be in charge. We have allowed ourselves to become accustomed to the definition of a leader as one who does something (anything), rather than one who thinks and discerns. Szymborska continues:
This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
I don’t know. Those are not merely words of ignorance, weakness or failure. On the contrary: they are words of hope, relationship, and imagination.
The world – whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? We just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world – it is astonishing.
There has always been wars and arrogant leaders and death and disease and love and hope. In our turn, turn, turn what is new is us. This is our time. Perhaps we could do something other than repeat what has come before by saying we don’t know what will happen next.
I don’t know.
P.S. — There’s a new recipe.