A few years ago, I attended an interfaith religious service—Christian, Jewish, Muslim—not long after some hoodlums had smeared feces on a nearby mosque. I went because the announcement said there would be cookies, not so much because my going would show solidarity or make a statement. I learned my lesson about “statements” in 1974 when I threw myself into the women’s movement, which threw me out ten minutes later, after I “stated” that I liked my job but I’d rather be a stay-at-home mom. My next “statement” was to resign from activism altogether and change my party affiliation from Democrat to Independent. The world yawned, and I began showing solidarity with Groucho Marx and adopting his 1951 “statement” about not wanting to “belong to any club that would have [him]… as a member.” But—back to the Interfaith Service—I don’t mind, statementwise, being perceived as someone who would rather participate in interfaith worship than throw shit at mosques.
The service featured shofars making startling noises, which is evidently the point of shofars. I’d already been startled to the point of heart failure by an explosion of tympani sounds during the choir’s pre-service rehearsal of “Let All Things Now Living,” set to the sweet melody many of us, especially church-camp alumni, know as “The Ash Grove.” So ungentle and unexpected was the tympani’s entrance that for a beat or two I thought something had actually exploded. It hadn’t, and my pulse returned to almost normal, but it occurred to me that the interfaith gathering might be a bit more vulnerable to mischief than, say, a worship service at my own church, First Central Congregational (UCC), which hasn’t blown up even once since it was built in the early 1900s. Maybe it’s the calming effect of old oak, stained glass, traditional choral music, and soft lighting. But the interfaith event, having been widely publicized, might well have attracted the type of lunatic who as a child tormented the family cat. So went my thinking, at least, until the welcome distraction of shofar-blowing.
Note the phrase type of lunatic. I use it for convenience, knowing full well that you don’t have to be crazy to be dangerous. Not for lack of trying, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to refer to people in clumps than to become personally acquainted with everybody in the world. Sadly, due to the limitations of language and friendship, I default to clump-speak.
Before her baby talk became intelligible to adults, my grand-niece Desi had an astonishing vocabulary of Desi-invented words. She was extraordinarily fluent in nonsense, as I thought of it, but maybe she was creating the sort of lexicon we might all have to use if we couldn’t categorize things, including people. As a general practice, this approach would lead to communication chaos. No one could order pizza or get directions to the loo.
There was a time during the civil-rights movement when many well-meaning people took great pains to not allude to race. We thought it was impolite to notice skin color. Being “color-blind” was the politically correct sort of vision before, to my immense relief, Black became Beautiful. I remember a farcical conversation during the color-blind era with a classmate called Judy. We’d taken a difficult English-lit test and had just received our grades. The dialogue went something like this:
Me: I studied like crazy and got a B-minus. What about you?
Judy: I got a C. Only one person [out of forty-seven in the class] got an A.
Me: Wow! Who was that?
Judy: You know, Jeff. Sits in the third row. Tall. Dark hair.
Me, totally at sea: I have no idea who… uh, whom you’re talking about.
Judy, frustrated: You know, Jeff! He had on Levi’s and a red sweatshirt yesterday. He, um, wears John Lennon glasses.
Me: Oh, you mean Jeff, the only African-American in the class?
Judy, looking nervously around to see if my gaffe had been overheard: Yeah, that guy.
Clumping might be a linguistic necessity, but it leads to false assumptions and the resultant misinformation. Think “rock star,” and it’s a short mental hop to illicit drugs and indiscriminate sex, assumptions that are patently unfair to drug-shunning legends such as Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, and Gene Simmons and his Kiss.
Failing the litmus test
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said recently that the Democrats shouldn’t make abortion a litmus test for membership. I struggle with the idea of any litmus test for party affiliation when there are only two of them—parties, I mean. It’s difficult to imagine that there are only two kinds of people in this country: (a) those who believe in free-market capitalism, protectionism, tariffs, free enterprise, fiscal conservatism, a strong national defense, deregulation, restrictions on labor unions, and traditional values based largely on Judeo-Christian ethics; and (b) those who don’t. Once I asked my dad, a lifelong Republican, how many times he had voted for a Democrat. He looked thoughtful, puffed on his pipe, and finally said, “None.” But he had to think about it.
Terry Gross, host and executive producer of NPR’s Fresh Air, recently interviewed a onetime feminist who now considers herself “post-binary.” My voter-registration card says “Independent” because there’s no litmus test for being, by definition, nonpartisan. Someone who is uncomfortable with ambivalence might develop one, in which case I’d have to declare myself a post-independent Independent.
Since I read Martin Buber’s classic 1923 book I and Thou, I have tried, and have occasionally succeeded, to not clump people but to treat each individual as, above all else, a sacred soul—regardless of political affiliation, gender, color, age, IQ, occupation, or capacity to irritate the hell out of me.
“When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly,” Buber affirms, “God is the electricity that surges between them.”
Clearly, dualism is a dead end. The universe is a vast and wonderful array of shade and nuance. There are more microbes—which are neither plant nor animal—than all other living things put together. Some scientists even consider viruses to be “nonliving organisms.”
“People desire to separate their world into polarities,” writes the late Joy Page—“dark and light, ugly and beautiful, good and evil, right and wrong, inside and outside. Polarities serve us in our learning and growth, but as souls we are all.”
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There are three principles in… being and life: the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and [all others]… is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber
INTRODUCTION: 3 WRITING ESSENTIALS
From the forthcoming handbook Writing for Humans, by Mary Campbell, Annagrammatica.com
The person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet.
IF YOU WANT TO
- write joyfully and efficiently, and
- create documents that are readable, informative, maybe even fun to read… and that support your organization’s brand
…THERE ARE THREE ESSENTIALS:
- Love of writing
- Respect for the reader
WRITING CREATES HOSTILITY
…when the writers don’t enjoy writing
…when the writing distances readers—through boredom, fear, intimidation, or obfuscation (lack of clarity)
WRITE FOR A BETTER WORLD
Written language has the potential not only to build goodwill, promote understanding, and facilitate communication… but also to heal breaches planetwide and advance the cause of peace and prosperity. As the shadow side of that power, language can also be divisive, distancing, and inflammatory. 
When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees. Hostility in the air has social costs.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet. With more than four billion web pages at our fingertips, language is ubiquitous. “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.
When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light. —Martin Buber
THE HABIT OF HELPING
For writers, the first habit to cultivate might well be curiosity, particularly when the question is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or invigorate a relationship than to hold in thought the question “How can I make your life better?”
Let’s set aside for now the distinctions among types of relationships—personal, social, familial, business, professional, and any others that are based on roles. The Golden Rule doesn’t stipulate status, age, or gender. It doesn’t counsel us to “do unto other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 do unto you.”
And we are, after all, talking about habits, which are so much easier to form if the behavior always applies. I recently overheard a discussion about whether you should use your turn signal if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. I mean, really. It’s not exactly a hardship to press down on that little lever. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might be helpful, based on the lane you’re in or, perhaps, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk?
Seek to serve. Cultivate the habit of helping all the time. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.
WHY SMART PEOPLE DON’T WRITE WELL
In over forty years as a writer, editor, and instructor, I’ve worked with men and women in the public and private sectors; small, midsize, and large companies; federal agencies and public universities; and a score of industries and professions, from architecture and broadcasting to science and technology. I’m still not sure why many intelligent, articulate people—strong leaders who are brilliant in their fields—communicate so clumsily in writing. I have a few theories, however.
Each industry and profession has its peculiar jargon, some of which is necessary—it’s the language that colleagues and clients understand. But that doesn’t explain why media releases, annual reports, newsletters, and even advertisements are unfriendly and offputting, often in direct contrast to branding efforts meant to portray an organization as warm, caring, and trustworthy.
Smart people sometimes defend their poor writing by saying that they were too busy becoming experts in their particular disciplines to learn the discipline of writing. But if that were really the problem, these smart people would also be mute, rendered unable to speak by the same preoccupation.
Nonwriters naturally make mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation—the mechanics of writing. That’s why God made editors. But when writing fails to communicate, the cause goes deeper. It might signify
- lack of focus; disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message. See Essential Number 2, Clarity.
- lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled. See Essential Number 3, Respect.
I can’t help the writer who has no message or whose motive in writing is something other than to serve (inform, inspire, comfort, or entertain) readers. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time, the problem with poor writing is one I can solve:
LACK OF ENJOYMENT—WRITERS WHO DON’T LIKE TO WRITE
Many uninspired writers believe that writing is fundamentally different from speaking. One of the most strikingly intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know—an architect with a warm manner and a ready wit—goes into an altered state when he has to write something. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re disintermediating, and it’s all downhill from there. Whatever the topic, it inevitably involves harnessing relevant data, addressing critical elements, strategizing broad-based solutions, and optimizing tailored interactions.
I’ve wondered if there’s a virus—maybe originating in Washington, D. C.—carried by a mosquito that flies around offices looking for people who are about to write something. Maybe these people release an enzyme that makes the mosquito think “Dessert!” The virus’s telltale symptom is a writing style that you’d expect from someone who was raised by a pack of patent attorneys. No one, as far as I know, has died from this virus. In any case, I’ve developed a remarkably effective cure, which I’ll administer throughout this handbook. Meanwhile…
If you want to start writing better right now, take these simple steps:
- Decide how you want to serve your audience.
- Decide what you want to say. You can make an outline if you want, although it might actually be a delay tactic that will sabotage your progress.
- Have fun writing your first draft. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases. Do NOT edit as you go. Just write what you want to say.
- Start reading the work of writers you admire. You don’t need to study it; just read a lot of it. Their style will rub off on you with no effort on your part.
Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…. If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born. —Martin Buber as quoted in Narrative Means for Sober Ends, by Jon Diamond, p.78
Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a prominent twentieth-century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator. Born in Austria, he spent most of his life in Germany and Israel, writing in German and Hebrew. He is best known for his 1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou), which distinguishes between Thou and I modes of existence…. Buber characterizes Thou relations as dialogical and I relations as monological. In his 1929 essay “Dialogue,” Buber explains that monologue is not just a turning away from the other but also a turning back on oneself…. To perceive the other as an it is to take them as a classified and hence predictable and manipulable object that exists only as a part of one’s own experiences. In contrast, in an I relation both participants exist as polarities of relation, whose center lies in the between. —Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
 “In an atmosphere of suspicion… we may … become unduly cautious in our communication.” J. William Pfeiffer, Conditions That Hinder Effective Communication, 1998; http://home.snu.edu/~jsmith/library/body/v06.pdf, accessed July 28, 2012
 Studies consistently show that “human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”
 It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. Whether or not that’s true, stopping to analyze your output interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.
P.S. What’s So Bad About Buzzwords?
Call it jargon, corporate-speak, academese, buzzword blitz—by any name, it’s lazy at the very least… it’s usually discourteous… and, at worst, it’s verbal bullying.
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 36
Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Case Studies in Poetic Living — Riley
Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1 …
Case Study No. 2 — The Life of Riley
When I met Riley, in 1995, he was living in a charming duplex — one of three that surrounded a grassy courtyard, where there were eucalyptus and grapefruit trees and flowering shrubs. By September of 1996, he — and his plants and antiques and yellow Labrador retrievers — had outgrown the small duplex, so he bought a three-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac near a park in the central area of Tucson.
Riley and I had much in common: Both of our fathers had the name “Horace,” neither of us had a spleen, and both of our mothers were antique dealers. It was from his mother, Rachel, that Riley inherited his love for antiques. Rachel had given him, or he had bought from her, many of the chests of drawers, art prints, rugs, pieces of crockery, and century-old bottles he collected… although, when I was living in Tucson, he and I spent a great deal of time at antique fairs and in antique malls, and his collections have probably doubled in the fourteen years I’ve known him.
Riley is not what you’d call religious, though he almost unfailingly practices the principles set forth by Martin Buber in his 1923 book I and Thou. (See Lesson 33.1, “What Do You Want?”) He beholds the world, in all its particularity, with reverence, although he does not care for cats and he has periodic attacks of road rage.
Here is an example of what I mean by reverence, as it applies to Riley:
I have an oak rocking chair, a modest little thing that has served four generations of Campbells. The chair had been smashed to smithereens (“shattered fragments,” from the Irish Gaelic smidirīn, diminutive form of smiodar, “fragment”). I would estimate that this chair was in at least twenty smithereens, some of them no larger than a toothpick. I had given up on finding someone to repair it, but I kept the pieces anyway, in a grocery bag.
Riley took the bag of shards home one day, not long after we met, and brought the chair back to me in one perfect piece within a week. If you could see it, I would defy you to find any trace of smithereen. With the limited tools then at his disposal (he now has a large workshop and a respectable, manly set of tools), he put every fragment back in its place, seamlessly. He had had to replace one of the curved back pieces, but he chose the oak so carefully and stained it in such a way that it is impossible to tell the replacement from the corresponding back piece on the other side.
There was a small, dark, discolored area on the seat that, as far as I knew, had always been there. Riley said, “I could have fixed that, but it’s part of the character of the chair” (or words to that effect). “The character of the chair” — What a concept! Riley taught me to see into the souls of inanimate objects.
Living in southern Arizona, Riley can garden year-round. When I visited him recently, he took pride in showing me the new raised garden beds, the brick walkway between them, the automatic watering system, and the handmade compost bin. That’s another thing we have in common: We can ooh and aah about compost.
In precisely the same way, he approached the restoration of a broken-down Hoosier cabinet and the reconstruction of an Eastlake bed (similar to the one pictured above), converting it from three-quarter size to full size.
I think he must have been a Druid in a previous life, because he has great reverence for wood, especially oak, and for all growing things, whether they’re in pots or in forests. There are dozens of potted plants in the house and dozens more on the covered patio. The vast majority are from cuttings he took from his own plants.
A little scary
In 2001, my sweet Monica, a medium-size mongrel my boys and I had rescued from the Humane Society, died at the age of 13. Riley buried her — reverently — in the bit of yard west of his house and planted three rosebushes over her grave. The roses are the color of coral, and they flourish every year. Riley has planted mesquites and acacias, asparagus fern and ivy, prickly pear and jalapeño peppers in the large back yard and the smaller front yard. Everything grows for him. He would no more neglect the care and feeding of a plant than he would of his yellow Labradors, Truman and Dani.
Riley sometimes refers to himself as “anal-retentive,” but he’s not, really — not quite, just as he is almost but not quite a perfectionist — because he can laugh at himself. Every job he undertakes — from making salsa to building a bookcase — is done lovingly and systematically, and he never hurries.
There is, however, a teensy suggestion of anal-retentiveness that is evident in the storage of his clothing, which is regimentally folded, or hung, according to type, color, and so forth. It’s a little scary for someone like me, who can never find socks that match.
More Riley facts
Riley always pays his bills on time and he never spends money he doesn’t have.
He knows the names of all the members (and the instruments they played) of every blues or rock band that performed from the 1950s through the 1990s. He owns, I am guessing conservatively here, 120 blues albums on CD.
He has a complete set of books by Mark Twain, signed by Mark Twain.
He was something of a rogue in his youth, and that’s all I have to say on that subject.
He is loyal. If you become Riley’s friend, you are Riley’s friend for life. Every spring, until recently, Riley went with five or six other men on ten-day backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon. He is one of the younger guys; several of his elders have developed back problems or knee disorders, so most of their hiking these days is done in the mountains that surround Tucson.
Riley has a graceful, athletic, quietly reassuring way about him. He is confident but never (hardly ever) arrogant. Without having to work at it, Riley lives more poetically than almost anyone I know. As his mother once said to me, justifiably proud of her son, “Riley is a gentleman, literally, in the best possible way — a gentle man.”
When he’s not at work or on a hike, you might find him refinishing furniture in the workshop, mulching the garden, reading science fiction, or (in season) watching college sports on television. Sometimes he takes Truman and Dani for walks along the dry bed of the Rillito River (there’s a trail about a quarter-mile from his house).
The Wallace Nutting photos, shown above, are typical of the kinds of framed prints Riley favors. He has dozens of prints of that ilk, including several Wallace Nuttings, usually in lovely antique oak frames. But despite all the art, the antique furniture, the valuable glassware (which I won’t even begin to describe) and pottery, and the lovely old rugs, the house is neither museumlike nor cluttered. It feels, and looks, comfortable, soft, pleasing in every way… unless you are allergic to or don’t like dogs.
From a February 20 story on Newsmax.com:
[A Reuters/Zogby poll]… showed [Barack] Obama, who would be the first black president, with a 14-point edge over [Hillary] Clinton, 52 percent to 38 percent, after being in a statistical tie with the New York senator last month. [emphasis mine]
I got out my 1956 World Book Encyclopedia and looked up “presidents of the United States,” found a portrait or a photo for each president, and observed that none of them, sure enough, appeared to be black. I can name, and give a fairly good physical description of, all the presidents since 1956, and I am quite certain that none of them was (or is) black.
By “black,” I mean “African American.” Ulysses S. Grant, of course, had a fine, robust black beard, but we are speaking of ethnicity here.
It appears, based on my limited research, that the official U.S. definition of an African American is “a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.” Wikipedia’s “African American” entry begins, “African Americans or Black Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.”
Wikipedia points out that the “vast majority” of African Americans now have “varying degrees of admixture” with people of Native American and European ancestry. Various courts in various states at various times have adopted other criteria: In Virginia, you were black if you had “one-sixteenth black ancestry,” elsewhere if you possessed “a single drop of ‘black blood.’”
Why it matters
In one sense, it seems anachronistic to call attention to a person’s ethnicity (even if that person is running for president), especially in the courtroom, since it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of his or her race, color, creed, sexual orientation, and so forth.
In the real world, ethnic background still matters, for several reasons:
(1) Freed black slaves—largely uneducated, ill prepared to compete for lucrative jobs, essentially powerless—were objects of pity, scorn, or hatred. All the civil rights legislation in the world cannot erase that legacy, which is with us still in many forms—poverty, educational inequity, and antagonism are just a few.
(2) Many African Americans, especially those whose ancestors were slaves, share a unique and fascinating culture, idiom, and solidarity—which is not to say that they have uniform ideals and beliefs. “Blackness” is more than skin-deep.
(3) In June 1998, three white men chained a 39-year-old black man, James Byrd, Jr., by his ankles to the back of their truck and went for a joy ride. Racism, subtle or overt, is not dead. James Byrd is.
Is Barack Obama ‘black’?
Last week, a caller to one of the conservative radio talk shows—the caller was an African American—contended that Barack Obama (who would be the first black president) wasn’t, technically, black. The caller’s rationale was that Obama’s ancestors were not slaves. His father, in fact, was a native of Kenya who had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, and his mother was a Kansas-born white woman. Thus, though Barack Obama’s skin is dark(ish), he doesn’t share the legacy or the culture of most African Americans—or, strictly speaking, the ethnicity, since most slaves were West Africans and Kenya is in East Africa.
It would be accurate to refer to Obama as a mulatto—the offspring of a white person and a black person or, more generally, a person of mixed black-and-white ancestry. The origin of the word mulatto is Spanish; it means “small mule”—a mule being the offspring of a horse and a donkey—making the appellation anything but complimentary.
“Mulatto,” according to Wikipedia, was “an official census category until 1930.” In parts of the Old South, mulattos had different, and often more favorable, legal status than blacks—which illustrates my point (and I do have one, in case you were wondering): Race is not a black-and-white issue, and the single label black hardly suffices to describe such a rich assortment of people.
I and Thou
I recommend to you the book I and Thou, by Martin Buber (1878-1965), a Jewish philosopher who urged human beings to always “meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another” (Wikipedia).
“The ones who count,” Buber writes, “are those persons who—though they may be of little renown—respond to and are responsible for the continuation of the living spirit.”
I was shocked, not too long ago, to hear a friend refer to a particular black person as “a n—-r.” (I can’t write the actual word. My parents would rise from the grave to wash my mouth out with soap. In their home, profanity might be ignored but the N-word was never said more than once; the mouth-washing was that ferocious.)
When I chastised my friend, the N-word-user, he said, “Mary, there are blacks and there are n—-rs.” I disagree with the word choice, and with the logic behind it, but I got the point. Our vocabulary is insufficient. In any case, the “particular black person” at issue was a scoundrel, and would have been a scoundrel regardless of his origin.
I would not like to see all references to diversity disappear. I do not long for a color-blind society (except in the courts), any more than I would enjoy the banishment of celebrations of Irish, Hawaiian, or Jamaican heritage. Diversity is fascinating, as are the remnants of almost-forgotten dialects throughout the country.
Still, in all human interaction, including the current lead-up to November’s presidential election, I hope and pray that each person will be assessed “not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.”