Now…Who Was I?

Ours is a time of hyper-distractibility. Don’t have a smartphone? How do you get your texts? Send your instant photos? Check email, the weather, stocks? How do you know how far you’ve walked since noon? Which way is west? How many friends do you have on Facebook? How many followers on Twitter?  Are you keeping up with everyone’s tweets? Do those 140 characters tell you all you need to know?  Does that 20-second sound bite reveal enough of the daily news? Sure it does. No it doesn’t.  Doesn’t matter. Most of the news is sad and frightening. And besides, what can any one person do? Want to relax? Is that even possible? The stress to conform is overwhelming.  It’s not just what you wear, or the coffee you drink. It’s everything anyone points a finger at. ‘Buy this, get this, be this.’ He who hesitates is yesterday’s news…and the day after that, no one even cares. Does your need for entertainment overwhelm?  Is this a sign of weakness—or disease? Not to worry. There’s always the zillion-dollar pharm conglomerate…. with drugs thoughtfully suggested—their effects dramatized—between episodes of your favorite prime-time show. Available also on cable. Or Hula. Or who knows where. Reality TV is real…don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No need to peek behind the curtain. Who could make this stuff up?

Who?  An opossum named Pogo offered a conclusion from another generation: “It’s us.”

Amid this clamor and shove, St. Louis recently attempted the truly subversive: a time out to listen…to think about context. It gave people the opportunity to ask questions…and develop a personal response… to discuss a course of action. It took the form of a two-day humanities festival—free and open to the public. While the events could have been better publicized and better attended, they served as a very respectable start to what’s been promised as an annual event.

On April 13 and 14, in conjunction with the Missouri Humanities Council, the University of Missouri—St. Louis (UMSL), Webster University and the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis hosted events at their campuses.

The Saint Louis Humanities Festival opened with a presentation by Shelton Johnson, a novelist and Yosemite park ranger of African American and Native American descent. He gave a presentation: “Gloryland: Literature and Interpretive History as Tools for Social Change.” Johnson’s appearance at UMSL featured readings from his novel, Gloryland (2009) about African American members of the US Calvary, known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” in the segregated U.S. Army. The book is a fictional memoir of a Black Indian from South Carolina who becomes a Buffalo Soldier assigned to patrol Yosemite in 1903. In writing the book, Johnson called upon years of research as well as his own understanding as a ranger of Yosemite National Park to give voice to these men and their struggles.

The second event on April 13th featured Brian Turner, a poet and veteran. His introduction by David Clewell, former Poet Laureate of Missouri, professor and Director of Webster University’s Creative Writing program, was a full foot past riveting and in the best tradition of oral storytelling. Turner read from his 2005 collection, Here, Bullet as well as his second poetry collection, Phantom Noise (2010). Turner holds a MFA from the University of Oregon and also served seven years in the US Army, including one year as an infantry leader in Iraq and deployment to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Turner was joined by three other US veterans who participated in Missouri’s Warrior Writers Project, sponsored by the Missouri Humanities Council. After their readings, the veterans joined Turner in a panel discussion to talk about their experiences as soldiers and writers. Imagine: turning to the humanities to find the way back from war…the way back to the self.

The third and final event of the two-day festival was a screening of the documentary, “Battle for Brooklyn,” followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Michael Galinsky.  The film chronicles the fight between the residents of Brooklyn, New York and the developers behind Atlantic Yards, a massive urban project that threatened to destroy their homes. “Battle for Brooklyn” was produced and directed by Galinksy and Suki Hawley, whose previous documentaries include  “Horns and Halos” (2002), “Radiation” (1999) and “Half-Cocked” (1994).

Didn’t make it to the festival? Read the books.  Watch the movie.

Log on and listen to the event at Webster University.  The pacing is humane, the dialogue, personal. Once you’re past the administrative welcomes and intros, you might be amazed by what you hear:

And after that? Do something truly subversive today: take time to think. For yourself. Keep it all a secret until you need it again.  Until you think you recognize a cultural behavioral disorder.

It’s not too late to remember who you are.

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