SermonsPete Seeger

AAARGH! I can’t believe I missed the Bellwether Prize deadline!

Probably the biggest “triumph” of my literary career was my selection as a finalist inpeanuts-aargh-baseball Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize a decade or so ago.  The prize has since morphed into the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.  That, dear reader, is the fiction that I write.  So far, it is the only fiction that I know how to write, the only fiction that emerges from that deep compelling place, the stories that push and butt inside me until my only choices are to write them or become mentally ill.

My second novel, Because the Angels, at 50,000 words ended up being too short for the Bellwether Prize, and I was sad about it, but I didn’t really grieve for long, because the novel was really as long as it was supposed to be, and I thought that by the next time the Bellwether Prize rolled around, I would have another novel ready.

And it was, and I missed the deadline.  And I missed the deadline because I was working with my human rights organization in Hebron for the month of October and mid-December through mid-February, so I didn’t see the Poets and Writers listing.  But really, that’s no excuse.  If I had been wanting to submit this novel for the Bellwether Prize, I should have been paying attention to the deadline, and I didn’t and now it’s too late.

AAAAARGH! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

I am trying not to lapse into magical thinking about this, as writers are wont to do.  You know, like, “Well maybe God wanted me to miss this opportunity, so that the novel will have more of an impact in another situation.”  (I confess I had plans involving clemency for Leonard Peltier.) Or “Just you wait writer-friend-who-didn’t-like-it; Ms. SuperAgent was thrilled to pull it out of the slush pile and is already optioning it off to Hollywood.”

As a spiritual discipline, I keep telling myself that neither God nor the publishing world owes me a thing.

But I also need something to keep me away from the spiral of self-loathing.  The fact that my novel might very well not have sold in another two years and I can enter it then?  Not super comforting.  That the next one I’m beginning work on might be better?  At this point it’s in such nebulous shape–in my head and a collection of notes, I have no way of knowing how good it’s going to be—it hasn’t reached the place that my other three did where everything begins to click.

I do pray that God will use my novels for good.  Since they have secular as well as religious characters and some of those characters use profanity and follow sexual mores frowned upon by most religious publishers (and I’m pretty much fine with them the way they are), I know that some people might think that strange.  But it’s true.  I really do want God to use what I write to transform situations of oppression and sadness.  I guess that prayer is the only comfort I have; it’s something I can do.

But still, AAAAARRRRRGH!  (Really there’s nothing I can do.)


In January, I wrote a Facebook post about my grief over losing Pete Seeger and the wise comments of a colleague (a young Palestinian woman from Ramallah who had never heard of him) about why I was grieving.  I felt a little “smiley hurt” reading an article in the February issue of Rolling Stone, that echoed her comments

Mikal Gilmore referred to Seeger singing at Barack Obama’s inauguration this verse from “This Land is Your Land”:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

That moment heartened many of us, perhaps discomfited others, but both reactions were validations: Pete Seeger was finally singing to all of America as its redeemed native son, as a loved and revered hero. The day he died, we immediately understood, we’d never see anybody like him again.

For those interested, I also wrote a blog post about Seeger in January:





Hearing about Pete Seeger in Palestine

I was imagining Pete Seeger’s death almost four decades before his mortality finally caught up withindex him.  Given as I was to melodrama and pathos in my teenage years, I imagined myself making a pilgrimage to his grave, via a freight train box car with my guitar, and then laying on top of his final resting place, weeping, at which point some like-minded devotees and possible family members would take me in and I would begin a new life as a folk musician/activist.

Why did I think such a scenario was likely to happen? Well apart from my being delusional, I’m sure part of it came from the Seeger persona arising from the albums I listened to until the grooves had worn thin.  I remember staring at the cover of The Children’s Concert at Town Hall album on which he is serenading a little girl in a pinafore on high stool and wishing with all my heart that I were that girl.  That he was singing to me.  I’m sure many children and adults felt that he was doing exactly that.  When he performed, when he led singing, he gave of himself in a way that eliminated the distance between performer and audience.  And when you read about his relationships with the various people he met as part of activism for civil rights and the environment, it wasn’t a far stretch to imagine that if you stopped by to see him while he was chopping wood, he might very well treat you as a friend. (And I guess my teenage delusions extended that to friends and family members.)

Many years later, after I started working for Christian Peacemaker Teams, I was listening to a tribute album put out by Appleseed Records in which various recording artists sang songs he had written or made famous.  One of them “Those three are on my mind,” about the murders of civil rights activists Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman I found particularly haunting.  He wrote in the liner notes about what it was like to be performing in a small southern church when news arrived that the bodies had been found.  And it hit me that at that time, no one in that church knew that the struggle for voting rights and an end to segregation would be successful.  In fact, it probably looked very far away.  But Seeger and the people in that church chose to keep moving forward anyway, even though they didn’t know how the struggle would end.

I wrote a column about this experience for the Mennonite Weekly Review and sent it to Appleseed records.  Months later, I received in the mail his songbook, where have All the Flowers Gone: A Sing-a-long Memoir, autographed with a message “Keep on…”  (And I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember the rest.)

My husband, knowing my affection for Seeger, bought tickets for the annual Western New York Peace Center banquet at which Seeger performed this fall.  He looked very frail, and his memory gave out a couple times when he was singing some of his old standards.  One delightful thing he remembered and sang as a tribute to his late wife, Toshi Seeger were the additional verses to “Turn, Turn, Turn” she had added for their children:

A time for work, a time for play
A time for night, a time for day
A time to sleep, a time to wake
A time for candles on the cake.

A time to dress, a time to eat
A time to sit and rest your feet
A timer to teach, a time to learn
A time for all to take their turn.

A time to cry and make a fuss
A time to leave and catch the bus
A time for quiet, a time for talk
A time to run, a time to walk.

A time to get, a time to give
A time to remember, a time to forgive
A time to hug, a time to kiss
A time to close your eyes and wish.

A time for dirt, a time for soap
A time for tears, a time for hope
A time for fall, a time for spring
A time to hear the robins sing.

It was Pete Seeger’s time to die; it was his time for peace.  I am writing from the Israeli-Occupied Palestinian Territories, and I do not see an end to the daily assaults on human dignity this occupation imposes happening any time soon.  But I choose to believe that those who care about justice and peace will overcome the efforts of short-sighted politicians who think only in terms of control and personal gain. I choose to “keep on. . .”

And I will remember that singing helps.

(Oh and just when you thought you couldn’t love him any more, you should know he donated royalties from “Turn, turn, turn” to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.)