Article 25

“Uneven Surfaces”

In Uncategorized on 01/25/2016 at 12:11 pm

Uneven Surface sign

What We Need is In-for-Structure

By Mary Pierce Brosmer


So, what of uneven surfaces? We are ON them and IN them: treacherous times when patterns of somebodies and nobodies are in rapid re-arrangement. Along with the victories there is backlash: violence and fascistic cruelty lurking among the respectable and the well-heeled as fully as among the less calculating killers. I’ll try to connect the dots in a sea change moment in history until they resemble something consoling and (possibly) coherent, a pointillist painting, a few cautious steps on Uneven Surfaces.


Structures of both nature and culture are in flux, whether deteriorating, or jumping to a new phase state it’s impossible to tell from moment to moment. We read of sinkholes, melting glaciers, super-bugs, power grids vulnerable to cyber-attack. A medical professor laments, “Advances in technology have eclipsed our ability to train for them” (not to mention pay for them).

Lately I’ve been trying to tease apart some uneven surfaces in noticing this world in flux, loosely framed as, “Is it possible that the obsessive clinging to traditional structures for their own sake – without regard to the people and values they were created to serve – is because they are imploding, perhaps causing their implosion?

  1. The most overtly “successful” among us are those adept at legal structures and business hierarchies, strategies for winning, even if the win perverts justice, destroys natural resources, legitimates theft. The repeated motif of Congressman Boehner’s swansongs was his pride at being a “guardian of the institution.”And, what, I said in my head every time I heard him, about the people the institution was created to serve? Boehner’s leadership reminded me of a teacher-colleague who argued passionately that our job was only “to teach the curriculum as written.” He outlasted me in the system by a decade and took his pension, in pious (and safe) service to a list of readings and tasks created decades ago by people he’d never met, while all around him had bloomed new and beautiful poems, novels and short stories that might have more ably inspired the actual human, diverse students serving whom was our real job.

What astounds me is the way that reduction of systems to ends in themselves doesn’t even serve the systems. The “art” of the deal, the way political has little or no relationship as a word to its original meaning because it’s been severed from its end: bringing groups together to achieve the best for the most. Philosopher David Hume wrote, “The moral imagination lessens with distance.” An incalculable distance has evolved between laws and morals, systems and the people in them.

  1. Walking into the garage of my son’s house in Atlanta in still-hot October, I came upon an odd sight that has haunted me and that seems to embody this severing of the moral imagination from the means intended to express it. A long cockroach, the whitest white I’ve ever seen in a living creature, almost fluorescent white, was molting, finishing with a few tiny squirms the shrugging off an old shell. Something about the cold white flesh, while certainly in its own natural order, showed up in my imagination as what is left of human relationships after centuries of “life” captured in structures for their own – not humanity’s – sake. As, I intuit, was a dream I had that became a poem about what is left of meaning and story and music, in schools dominated by “standardized” tests.


Hidden Meanings


I dream I am teaching poetry underground

in not so much a cave, as a series of tunnels.

Fifty or more teenagers sprawl around

smoky fires and flickering computer screens.


I stand in the tallest tunnel and ask for a poem.


I ask for a poem and five boys rise,

plugging in amps.

Amps alone are their instruments.

There are no speakers, no guitars, keyboards

certainly no words. A blur

of inchoate noise fills the tunnel.

“Thank you,” I say, knowing

they have given what they can.


Scaling back, I ask for a word

and someone offers, “Bird,”

as if calling it up from a distance.


Uncertain what to make of it,

I ask one of the old questions:

“What makes it a poem?”

A girl in a lateral-branching tunnel

calls out, “Language interest.


“Good”, I say. “Good. Anything else?”

“Hidden meanings,” says one of the musicians,

his face pallid in computer glow.


“Yes, yes,” I say, “but not too hidden.”

(This I consider an important lesson.)

“Anything else?”

They look at me expectantly,

most are sitting upright now.


How about story?

As in: an old woman hears

a bird and remembers tears,

something funny someone once said at supper,

supper itself, things crunchy in her mouth, smells,

how her mother’s hand felt on her face, music.


“I’ve heard of supper,” murmurs a boy in the back.

“Someone my uncle knew cooked actual food and

handed it to people on plates … he thinks

this happened often in those days.


“I saw a picture of that on the internet,”

volunteers a faraway student,

but someone interrupts,

“I say let’s get back to the original

Point – that is the word, ‘bird.’ ”


OK, yes, let’s circle

around that word again.


The tunnel seems to widen

and students flow forward,

easing around the largest of the fires,

computer screens provide back light.


Bird, birdie,

watch the birdie,

fly, sky, clouds

eclipse, moon,

dancing, stones.


Words pour in from all quarters.

That we will make something of them later,

I trust, for now we are making something

of ourselves


In my dream of teaching poetry underground.


  1. Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia, etc.) has written that families need both love and structure in order to raise psychologically healthy children. I fear that love, in the structures in which we raise peoples, shape cultures, has gone underground. Speak of love, even hint at its existence (not to mention its presence as an ordering principle in all scripture) and you will be laughed out of the room, not taken seriously as a participant in any organizational endeavor. Take, for example, this e-mail a condo neighbor of mine received from a long-time board member. The writer, a self-named “man of god,” is responding to my friend’s suggestion that we, in our microcosmic world, have monthly conversations to learn ways of creating community across our differences and sometimes conflicting needs, learn ways beyond the many-decades-old “blue book” of bylaws and “legal declarations.”

“I did not realize you are such a naif. If you think your suggestions below will ameliorate the anger, hatred and meanness of your coolaid (sic) drinkers, you don’t know much about sin or if you prefer, the dark side of human nature. From 35 years of dealing with people like this in my churches, I can tell you there is nothing that will work to calm them.”

That Ben Carson and Donald Trump are ascendant because of their outsidership reflects the points I’m making that the larger We is sickened by laws and rules, pardon the pun, trumping purpose and meaning. Meaning, love, vulnerability, justice, service are so very seriously underground as to be thinned to abstraction (as in my dream: all amps, no music).

  1. In Cincinnati city politics, Issue 22, which purported to be a way to “support our parks,” seemed to me emblematic of the inverse relationship between substance and structure, in this case infrastructure. I’ll admit to being sucked into “supporting our parks” to the extent of signing the petition to put the issue on the ballot. (Being solicited outside the mailroom of the condo complex where I live, by a former Cincinnati mayor and Ohio congressman, may have contributed to my careless signing. By the way, such “solicitation” is very definitely against the RULES. But rules in cultures which are in love with them for their own sake, are always run by people with little or no compunction about bending or ignoring them for those they consider “somebodies.”) Fairly quickly, however, I became alert to the fact that, it was not the parks, as in what’s left of nature in the city, that was being “saved” rather the permanent tax would be available to build structures IN nature, not humble toileting and teeter-totters, but Disney-esque beer halls and the like which the powers that be determined would “save our parks.”

I could frame statewide Issue 3 the same way, and will. Our betters (those with $2 million each to invest) proposed to do us the honor of building structures to keep marijuana use, medical and recreational, “safe,” not to mention profitable. Yeah, like the big banks (our other betters, those job-creators, cautious investors of our money) can be relied on to be good stewards of our economy (see 2008).

  1. Looking at popular culture, I have wondered about the significance of the zombie meme: death-in-life repeating itself in television series, film, music, fashion. A friend told me of being invited to a niece’s zombie wedding, which would feature the bride and groom in shroud-garb, and – wait for it – DEAD flowers. If ever there were an expression of what we know but don’t acknowledge, rising from the unconscious, the fixation on the living-dead, or dead-living is a hammer to the head.
  2. You might remember the film, Shawshank Redemption, in which a long-time prisoner has become what they call an “institution man,” so at home in the death-in-life structure of the prison that, upon his release, he breaks parole so that he will be returned. So thoroughly has the learned helplessness of “rules-only” living captured him.

A friend and I had matching experiences – hers more recent, and mine a few years ago – as everyday expressions of this variety of learned helplessness and moral distance.

My friend was on her way to in Washington Park when, crossing Elm Street, she caught her sandal between cobblestones and pitched forward, landing heart and sternum first, breath knocked out of her body. A man using his cell phone to roust a sleeping homeless man from the steps of Music Hall, offers to “call someone” to help her. Her breath returning in gulps, she declines. My version of this story was that I was riding my new Africa bike in Kennedy Park when I pitched forward virtually at the feet of three teenagers, cell phones in hand. Not one of them moved toward me or offered touch, help, as I lay tangled in the bike. They did offer to call 911, looking down on me from what I experienced as an inhuman distance.

  1. Here is my only idea about righting the relationship between structures, systems of all kinds, and the lives and values they were created to serve (and not vice-versa).

First, to keep always in the forefront the fact that, in both nature and culture, systems are created by the impulse of life, to make more aliveness possible.

Next, to remember this inevitable spiral: creation of safe places and protective systems for the vulnerable all too often leads to those places becoming “hell holes.” Think only of the devolution of the word “asylum” from “safe place” to the shudder meanings of “asylum” as a place of hopeless holding, overwhelming need, lack of care for all involved, cruelty and neglect.

Preventing this horrible set of unintended consequences is possible only by ongoing (regular, non-gimmicky, emotionally authentic ) spiritual-emotional stewardship. In one of many attempts to “legitimate” such stewardship practices I began calling them an “In-for-Structure.”Rendered in this slide from a talk I gave at The New Hampshire Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.



The abstract for the talk:

“In health care we have we have created system-wide infrastructure for managing all aspects of delivery of care, while completely failing to create systems for caring for the system itself, or for those who deliver care. In this plenary session, Mary Pierce Brosmer will offer a modest proposal for creating an effective and responsive system-wide organizational operating system for your hospice.”

Organizational operating system, and regular practice of a personal operating system for listening to and acting from the intelligence of the whole (by creating space for every one of its parts) as it moves through time and space, and NOTHING, no aspect of the operating system allowed to become set in stone, idealized and sacrosanct, sacred yes, but not desecrated by rote application.

May Swenson wrote a poem, “Distance and a Certain Light,” the final verse of which is

“In any random, sprawling, decomposing thing

is the charming string

of its history – and what it will be next.”

Those with brains wired and hearts stunted by institution – think first last and always – are unable to follow the “charming string” of the thing their fear has caused to decompose, toward the life of “what will be next.”

And so very often call themselves “men of God”, but what God?



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