When I was a young boy I was stung by a centipede—stung, or bit or whatever it is that centipedes do. It was like a little shockwave; made my finger swell up and throb.

I didn’t know a centipede could administer something so painful; they can be nasty little creatures, that’s for sure. I’ve never looked at centipedes quite the same way since.

He (or she, how does one know?) was trying to escape off of an ant hill upon which I had put him (or her). Many human boys do such things. Why? Just to see what happens. A little gladiatorial circus.

What happened was that the ants began swarming the centipede: attacking it like a hoard of minions in a Kung Fu movie. They were probably just trying to defend their home. The centipede was fighting for its life; writhing and stinging and contorting itself in a desperate attempt to escape the onslaught. And he (or she) succeeded and began scrambling away across the sidewalk.

That’s when little boy me reached down and swept the centipede back onto the ant pile. And that’s when the centipede stung me—or bit me, like I said I’m not sure which is the right term. It hurt so much! But still I sat and watched as the ants, this time, successfully overwhelmed and killed the fierce little bug.

I’ve never looked at a centipede in quite the same way since.

Chicago | Carl Sandburg

Like many great authors, Carl Sandburg’s formative years were multifarious in quality. Born in 1878 in Galesburg, IL (his name was originally spelled -berg), he lived and worked in Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and, of course, Chicago.

Sandburg wrote for the Chicago Daily News, but was known as a prolific folk singer-songwriter, Lincoln biographer and, above all, poet.

He never graduated from college, but won three Pulitzer Prizes (2 for poetry and 1 for his biography of Lincoln).

He died in 1967 in North Carolina at the age of 89.

It was he who coined the Chicago moniker “City of Broad Shoulders”, although his actual phrasing was “city of big shoulders”. It describes the persona of the city, which Sandburg personifies in this layered celebration of his adopted home.



by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
   Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
   Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
   Stormy, husky, brawling,
   City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
   Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Let America Be America Again (Langston Hughes)


In October of 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a band of 22 men on a raid of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now WV). There was a government arsenal housed there, and Brown had hoped to arm slaves and abolitionists in a sweeping battle of southern slave liberation.

They succeeded in seizing the town, but were quickly pinned down and suppressed by Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee.

Brown was arrested, and, several weeks later, hanged for treason. His life was a spectral portent of our nation’s imminent collapse into civil conflict and prompted Henry David Thoreau to pen the following:

Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light.

The poem, “John Brown’s Body” became a Union marching hymn.

A free black man named Lewis Sheridan Leary was one of the men who lost their life under Brown’s command during the ill-fated raid. His widow Mary would later remarry Charles Langston. Their daughter Caroline would then have a son, and he would receive her maiden name as one of his two middle names. His full name was James Mercer Langston Hughes. The world would know him as the famed Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

Hughes was born in Joplin, MO, but lived most of his childhood in Lawrence, KS. In early adulthood he lived everywhere: Mexico, France, England, Chicago. He died in New York City in 1967 at the age of 65.

He was a proponent of the embrace of black identity and of a clear eyed view of our complicated national story.

Nowhere is the latter more ringing than in his poem, “Let America Be America Again.” I think you’ll find its theme very timely; both searching and amazingly resilient its longings.

Here it is.

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

The Brown Line

Around this time last year, I pieced together this  video montage from the Brown Line in Chicago. It was a percolating inside me for quite some time. The Brown is a loop-to-Northwest-side Chicago L line.

I overlaid it with music from one of my favorite artists, Van Morrison. I especially love the two descriptive lyrics. The first:

And I shall drive my chariot
Down your streets and cry
Hey, it’s me, I’m dynamite
And I don’t know why!

There really is a chariot-like quality to riding the L through the original urban canyonlands of Chicago. It’s a quasi-omniscient feel as you look into people’s lives on the second story, and peer down on the bustling streets—membership in an eclectic and transiently transcendent enclave.

We’re dynamite, but we don’t know why. I experience this sensation whenever I ride; let the Freudian analysis begin.

Of course it’s been a gray and rainy period here in Chicago, so this video also captures our current mood. (Sadly, we’ve got more of the same coming!)

Ergo, the second apropos lyric:

We shall walk and talk
In gardens all misty and wet with rain

(The Chicago motto being, urbs in horto or “City in a Garden”.)

I’m of a mind to do more such videos, possibly under the motif of “exegeting the L”; viz., providing some general commentary into what makes each L line special and some highlights along the route; set to music of course!

I’m thinking about the Green Line or the Red Line next. (Let’s rep the Southside, shall we? Heaven knows, Ferris Bueller didn’t even know it existed!)

Is this something you’d enjoy? Any recommendations? Any gems from along these next two routes or others that you’d like me to mention?

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”  illustrated by Charlotte Riley

The brilliant Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have turned 90 this month. He was a Colombian-born author who wrote such staggeringly beautiful works as One Hundred Years of Solitude & Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing has been described as “magical realism“, but it is, above all, intoxicatingly delightful.

He described his tone during an interview with The Paris Review:

It was based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories. She told thing that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness.

And he offers us a trick.

There’s  a journalistic trick that you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.

I was introduced to Marquez through this marvelous short story portraying the comical clumsiness with which the world and the church mishandle the sacred. (And maybe some of the clumsy ways in which the sacred enters our existence, too.)

It’s all over the internet, so I believe it to be public domain. But, if I’m mistaken, you can link to a PDF. The above illustration comes from the talented illustrator Charlotte Riley.

Please enjoy! Continue reading “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”

Waggle Dance (Diana Thater)


Apiologists tell us that when a scout bee discovers pollen, it returns to the hive to do an elaborate dance. This dance is called the waggle dance. It’s purpose? To communicate to the rest of the hive where the food is located; especially if it is far away.

During the waggle dance, the scout runs in a straight line while waggling her abdomen, and then returns to the starting point by running in a curve to the left or right of the line. The straight line indicates the direction of the food in relation to the sun. If the bee runs straight up the hive wall, then the foragers can find the food by flying toward the sun. If she runs straight down the wall, then the foragers can find the food by flying away from the sun. As the dance progresses, the dancing bee adjusts the angle of the waggle run to match the movement of the sun. [1]

Isn’t that fascinating? They dance around the hive, and the others pay such close attention that they know where to find their sustenance. The hive survives on dancing!

Of course, I didn’t learn this from my apiology classes, but from an intriguing exhibit of American video-installment artist Diana Thater‘s work at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. (Free on Tuesdays!)

Overall her installment at MCA is really enjoyable and well executed. I found myself thinking about how interactive and playful it was; and that it felt well conceived and carried out.

It is called The Sympathetic ImaginationIt finds it’s genesis in a quote by the Nobel Prize winning South African novelist JM Coetzee:

There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.

Continue reading “Waggle Dance (Diana Thater)”

Translated Vases (Yeesookyung)



Art often seeps from the gaskets of culture imperceptibly as fluids from an engine. Not until we note the surface-level slick they’ve left do we remark to ourselves, “So that’s what flows around in there!”

The above vase, pieced-together by gilded seams, is a ceramic work by the Korean artist Yeesookyung. It is part of a series she calls Translated Vase.

These pieces are assembled from the discarded shards of Korean-style ceramics.  “She acquires her ‘ceramic trash’ directly from an elderly Korean master potter, who intentionally breaks and discards vessels that he feels are imperfect.” [per the museum label at the Smart Museum of Art]

She says of her work:

…what I am trying to do is literally ‘translating’ the … pieces of broken vases and mending their ‘wounds’… The crack, which symbolizes the wound, is emphasized with gold.

Yeesookyung describes her process as being intuitive; she does not impose any predetermined form, but, rather, works in unison with the pieces allowing the form to emerge naturally into its own unique creation. The finished works achieve for themselves a captivating asymmetry. Continue reading “Translated Vases (Yeesookyung)”

Tell It Slant (Emily Dickinson)


Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 and died in 1886 at the age of 55. Though considered one of the most important of American poets, she never published a single poem in her lifetime.

Upon her death, her family discovered 40 notebooks containing over 1800 poems. Many were of metaphysical themes—she’d attended some seminary. Dickinson was known to use non-conforming dashes and slashes and other punctuation, making it hard to print her work.

I think often about the poem below, probably through some vague acquaintance with Eugene Peterson’s book of the same title.

I believe truth to be on the mind of many these days, so too must be truth-telling.

I’ve heard you can sing her poems to the Gilligan’s Island theme song, but I’ve found it doesn’t always work.


by Emily Dickenson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Shattered Tree

“Shttered Tree” by  Otto Dix (1941)

When I first laid eyes on the above painting I thought, “Whoa, I guess Bob Ross had a dark side!”

Not quite.

The above piece is titled “Shattered Tree” and it is by the German painter Otto Dix.

Dix was part of a cultural movement-cum-art-exhibition called Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which rejected the Romantic sentimental outlook of expressionism.


While many artists, thinkers and spiritual leaders fled Germany during the instability of the Weimar era and the rise of National Socialism, Dix joined others who described themselves as “inner emigrants“—opting rather to live as ostensible immigrants within the boarders of a nation that was becoming increasingly foreign to them.

I happened upon this painting last week at the Art Institute of Chicago and snapped the picture. I’m indebted to Janis Staggs (Curator at Neue Galerie New York) for featuring the piece on her site (as I didn’t initially write down the details). She writes:

…he was classified as “degenerate” under the Nazi regime and went into an “inner emigration” in southern Germany rather than leaving the country. Dix continued to paint during WWII but focused subjects with a non-overt political nature, such as this 1941 painting entitled “Shattered Tree.”

This piece reflects Dix’s thoughts and feelings about the state of his country. It is gloomy. There are signs of death and decay. What appears to be a once-regal tree is now fracturing; cleft by brutal, destructive forces.

And I find myself resonating with the notions of inner emigration, which mirrors St. Peter’s sentiment of living as “aliens and strangers in the land” (1 Pet 2:11), connoting that one can feel like a foreigner or alien within one’s society. The term “stranger” could be translated sojourner, exile, pilgrim or even refugee. 

If we ask art to fit into our lingual categories or to say something explicitly, we will often find art loath to accommodate our demand.

Art says those things we cannot say; because they cannot be put cogently into words, can find no hearer on which to alight, and, in some cases, are strictly forbidden (streng verboten).

In this way, art can be a lonely, prophetic business; the voice crying in the wilderness! And yet art also has power to ping the cosmos; to transmit though space and time the message, “You are not alone!”, and, perchance, to be pinged back.