Beliefs can be held tightly, loosely, widely and long. They can be shared, guarded, unspoken, questioned, defended, preached and shattered. How do we acquire our beliefs? What do we use them for? Could we live without them? What happens when they are challenged?
Sometimes, beliefs refer to assertions and theories of which we may be less than certain. Alternatively, beliefs may refer to certain truths that need no proof. Beliefs can change the world we live in, and the way we see it.
The theme of the 2010 Wisconsin Book Festival was Beliefs. In the Festival’s honor, we asked a handful of authors, poets and other thinkers from across Wisconsin to reflect on the role beliefs have played in their lives.
In this issue of On
- Essay: The Home of Belief
- Essay: I don’t believe in Everything
- Essay: See What grows
- Essay: Together a Family
- Essay: Five Myths about Poetry I used to Believe in but don’t Anymore
- Essay: The Path
- Essay: What a Seaman Believed
- Essay: On the Existence of Unicorns
Essay: The Home of Belief by David Rhodes
Neither memory nor imagination can have beliefs on their own. They’d like to, but they have to wait until they get married. Then they can have all the beliefs they want.
It’s Nature’s Way: The fertile memory raises up already-experienced events, and the imagination enters them. Once inside, the imagination happily scrounges for scrap lumber to build mansions in the sky and the infrastructure to get to them. Successfully endowed with the duel inheritance of enchantment and verisimilitude, Eureka!, beliefs are born.
If you encounter a half-grown belief and ask where it comes from, it often refuses to answer. Beliefs have attitudes and are ashamed of their sentimental, fun-loving parents. They want to appear independent, confident and cool—grounded in eternal principles. After all, beliefs know, whereas their parents only remember and imagine, staring at each other with dreamy eyes.
Beliefs don’t care for such nonsense. They like to hang out on darkened street corners with similar beliefs, where they intimidate passersby. They’re tough, territorial, demand loyalty from other members of the group, and fight with belief gangs on the other side of town. Not all gangs of beliefs are bad, however. Some help coordinate community services and exhibit endurance, which many consider quite valuable.
The repeated expression of identical ideas forms an implacable shell that protects the more vulnerable individual beliefs until, with maturity, they harden all the way through. In this state there are remarkably few resemblances between individual beliefs and their daydreaming, frivolous parents. Many beliefs actually forget they have parents.
Probably for that reason, it took a long time to discover that beliefs didn’t just rise up out of the ground fully formed. Less than 300 years ago, John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume studied some beliefs and found they originated in sensory experience. Beliefs, it turned out, were vulnerable to biological need, social insecurity, vanity and plain old wishful thinking.
When word got out, many gangs of beliefs revolted. The resulting schism gave rise to a new denomination of beliefs that tried to honor their parents without conceding a smidgen of attitude. These new beliefs called themselves propositions and their style of intimidation differed from other beliefs. They also wore less brightly colored clothes and devised more elaborate gang rituals.
As beliefs and propositions get old, however, many stray from the certainty that accompanies early and middle-age. They lose their attitude and some even move back home with their parents. Memory, imagination, belief and proposition sit in rocking chairs on the back porch and fondly watch the world go by.
I think I remember when days like this were followed by days with lots of rain. The hay would get wet and everyone would be upset.
Just imagine if a certain star were assigned the job of signaling when it was about time to rain. Signal detectors could be made out of strands of hay and everyone would know when to drive their car into the garage.
It’s going to rain tomorrow, I know it.
If I’m not mistaken, there’s roughly a 60 percent chance of precipitation sometime between 8 a.m. tomorrow morning and midnight, provided atmospheric conditions do not change before that.
Pass the lemonade.
David Rhodes is an author based in Wonewoc, Wisconsin.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Sometimes in our country, I think people believe everything, which is essentially to believe in absolutely nothing. I don’t believe in everything.
Ask most people a question about their beliefs and you will get a puzzled look in return. They are hesitant to share, don’t want to be challenged, and instead of answering, often ask “well, what do you believe?”
I have a selective belief system that flows from my parental foundation, experiences as an African American woman, the personality that is Fabu, deeply thinking about myself, others and ideals, along with my faith as a Christian. I have arrived at my beliefs through decision and determination so that rather than imprisoning me, as I felt my beliefs did when I was younger, they now anchor me, as a mature adult, in the churning sea of our contemporary American society.
I say that an important part of being a unique human in the world is to take the time to explore, test and decide what you believe and why. It is as crucial to your personal development as breathing is to physically staying alive.
Fabu is a poet based in Madison, Wisconsin.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Essay: See What Grows by John Bates
I recently visited with an old friend who came from a family of ten kids. His siblings are scattered hither and yon, both geographically and professionally—a musician, a corporate executive, a biologist, a Marine colonel. All came from the same family DNA, yet they are as diverse as woodland flowers.
Soon after, I toured a number of northern lakes with several University limnologists. We visited shallow lakes full of wild rice, crystal-clear lakes with almost no plant life, lakes with fish species galore, and other lakes so different you might think they were found in different states. But they were close neighbors, sharing the same glacial history, same soils, same rain and wind and sun and seed sources and surrounding animal and human communities. The lesson was clear: Though they came from the same parentage, lakes live very diverse lives.
It struck me then how much humans are like the lake region where I live. Born within our own set of influences, humans and lakes are wildly, crazily and beautifully different. While limnologists can tease out some of what makes each lake unique, and psychologists can mine the source some family differences, the synergy that ultimately fuses each lake and each human will always be just out of reach of our objective understanding, a mystery novel without a cohesively clear plot and without a foreseeable conclusion.
How did we end up this way? Who knows? We come over time to allow certain things to grow within us, unique ways in which we come to perceive the world. And these finally become our beliefs, the ways in which we honor this life. Shaped by experiences that parents, teachers, friends and families tried to manage, our beliefs are ultimately out of everyone’s control, much like the life within any lake, born from the lake’s own remarkable shape, depth and sediments, and the wind that brought this seed but not that one. All these forces and lives mixed and boiled in a synergistic stew, until voila, a person or a lake comes alive, living in the world in a particular way.
Physicist George Thomson once said, “There is no truth. Seek it lovingly.” So I toss seeds out with all the love I can, let the forces work, and then see what grows.
John Bates is a naturalist based in Mercer, Wisconsin.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Essay: Together a Family by Amber Dehnke
On the fourth of July, our family of eight stood on the curb in the rain with two umbrellas. We giggled at passersby who were equally unprepared—soggy queens and their courts, frizzy-haired Girl Scouts, and dripping candy-tossers. We took turns holding a plastic bag open so Brady, my five-year-old brother, could rescue candy from the wet asphalt before someone else grabbed it.
It didn’t matter that the rest of us had lost interest in parades long ago, or that there was work to do at home on the farm. We all went because parades were family events. Because all of us, whether we knew it or not, were teaching my young brother to share our belief in family.
It’s how we came to enjoy movie nights at home when we couldn’t afford vacations. It’s why we’re in the audience together at choir concerts, basketball games and awards ceremonies. At church we could split up and sit in two pews, but it wouldn’t feel right. Our belief in family is why we eat meals together, squeezing so close that our knees and elbows touch. The table is barely big enough for eight people, but it seats nine when my fiancé Randy joins us.
Randy couldn’t make it to the parade, but I met him afterwards to work on our house in Osseo. There are holes in the walls, fixtures and doors missing, incomplete bathrooms. Right now, the house seems too empty and still to feel like home. But we have to begin somewhere.
We’ll start with the beliefs and traditions we learned from our families to make our own family promises. We don’t know the house’s story; but when we’re married, we’ll start our own story there.
We’ll bring our belongings, hang pictures, and find places for furniture. We know where the kitchen table will go. We’ll get one with extra leaves so when our families come over, we can all sit at the same table.
Amber Dehnke is Programs Coordinator at The Heartbeat Center for Writing, Literacy and the Arts in Osseo, Wisconsin.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Essay: Five Myths about Poetry I Used to Believe in but Don’t Anymore by Marilyn Taylor
Consider, for a moment, that strange and relatively new phenomenon we call the urban legend. Virtually everyone knows what these are by now; they’ve been defined as “stories that appear mysteriously, spread spontaneously, are usually false, and nearly always contain elements of humor, horror or both.”
A slew of equally suspect (although admittedly less lurid) legends pervades the world of poetry. They tend to spread exponentially, haunting our poetry classes and workshops, indoctrinating good poets with bogus pronouncements. Worse, they encourage a subculture of self-appointed poetry soothsayers, committed to cultivating a following of True Believers. Not only are these proselytizers usually wrong; they can also stifle a bright, creative impulse under a blanket of biases. Allow me to list a few of them for you:
Legend #1. A truly good poem must have a serious subject. A light poem tends to be dispensable.
Nonsense. What about Whitman’s wonderfully upbeat “Song of Myself”? Or Frost’s “The Road Less Travelled”? Bishop’s “The Fish”? Dispensable? Hardly!
Legend #2: Free verse is no more than cut-up prose, and the only good poem is a rhymed poem.
A hopelessly outdated belief. Pick up any good anthology of contemporary poetry, and the free verse therein will sweep you away with its music. As in:
of a tipping ship
the moon low
and large. . . (May Swenson)
Legend #3: Rhymed poetry is a throwback; nobody writes it anymore.
Nobody, that is, except a throng of our finest poets, including Maxine Kumin, Ted Kooser, A.E. Stallings, Thom Gunn, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Wilbur, Molly Peacock, Gary Snyder—all of whom write relevantly and splendidly in rhyme.
Legend #4: “Poetic license” means that grammar doesn’t matter.
It’s quite true that grammatical rules loosen up for poetry, but to say that grammar doesn’t matter is to ask for trouble. What if Elizabeth Barrett Browning had begun her most famous poem with: How does I love thee? Trouble. Clearly.
Legend #5: Poetry is autobiographical.
If this claim had legs, it would mean I’d somehow visited ancient Greece, which I haven’t; that I have a daughter, which I don’t; that I‘m capable of playing a scratch game of golf, which I’m not; and that I live in a tree—which I sometimes wish I did. Some poems, naturally, are indeed about the poet; but many more are not.
There are plenty of additional legends out there. It remains my belief that all too many broad pronouncements about poetry are, well, unbelievable.
Marilyn Taylor was Wisconsin Poet Laureate from 2008-2010 and she is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Essay: The Path by Brad Steinmetz
Being a thinker of linear means, I have often viewed the path as a straight line. I thought: if you stay on the straight and narrow path and its true way, you will be successful and you will get from A to B.
But along the journey, you may stray or lose your way; you may have to double back, restart or resume the journey at another time. Yet, you may still get to where you seek to go.
The path isn’t so straight or true as I once thought. How straight can any path be that lays on the curved surface of the earth? How straight can the path be that must climb the hills and plunge into the valleys and cross the river?
The first people who trod the path that ran along the river believed in the connections between all things. The sky was connected to the winds, which was connected to the waters, which was connected to the land, which was connected to the people and creatures of the land, the sky and the water. The path was a great circle and not rigid or straight.
The path is still there for all to use.
So, follow the path, wherever it may take you. Walk along the path, but on the way, tread easily on the earth. While on the trail, try to be true to yourself. Leave a trail, for others may want to follow.
Brad Steinmetz is a former high school teacher and the Town Chair of Bloomer, Wisconsin.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Essay: What A Seaman Believed by Anthony Bukoski
Though my mother, sister, and I endured his moodiness and anger for years, we tried loving my father. His behavior resulted from having to work a menial job to support us. Sweeping floors, oiling motors, and running conduit in a dusty flour mill is unhealthy work for a man with emphysema. It is soul-sapping work for a man wanting to know about the world, an autodidact who, at home, studied electricity, economics and elocution. He knew elementary Latin. He knew Polish. He played the accordion. Yet he was bitter. How to improve his life both baffled and I think frightened my father, the King Midas flour-mill laborer.
Though often intolerant of things we did, he was tolerant and cared about people outside of our home. Enjoying a beer and a shot after work—my mother’s pork hocks and sauerkraut cooking in the oven—he’d talk about Baltimore or other American ports he’d visited as a merchant seaman before he had a family to care for. He’d seen Jim Crow at work in these ports where black shipmates could not enter the same taverns and cafes as he. This hurt him. Perplexed by a law that welcomed some, excluded others, he would bring up the subject even twenty years after leaving the sea. As a boy, I heard no comment in our Polish-Catholic home disparaging Blacks, Jews or anyone else. Never.
In this way he shaped my beliefs. Imagine my surprise when, in the late 1960s, my father began complaining about Blacks in less-than-charitable language. By now the Vietnam War raged, riots erupted in cities, and civil-rights’ activist James Groppi led marchers and thugs into Milwaukee’s Polish Southside neighborhood. With my father’s health declining, his life and his son’s future must have both appeared hopeless when, in February 1969, I went eagerly to hear Father Groppi speak in Superior.
Then Milwaukee quieted. The Vietnam War ended. The world calmed. What I remember about the man we tried loving were the times he’d spoken passionately in defense of, not against, others. I’ve been left with this memory. Once with the nation struggling, his beliefs faltered. After a lifetime of thinking fairly and justly, what does this mean, a few complaints, a few ugly words uttered in our home? Better to judge a man by what he’s stood for longest.
How do we acquire beliefs? We do so partly from the models of reason and rectitude we are presented when young. If beliefs are woven firmly enough and early enough, sewn from good cloth, they don’t change despite the perhaps inevitable doubting. My father offered us an example of honest, honorable behavior. The foundation he provided couldn’t have been shaken by a few intemperate remarks. We knew by then where his heart lay. If I couldn’t love him as much as I should have, I love and appreciate him for this at least.
Anthony Bukoski is an author and UW-Superior professor based in Superior, Wisconsin.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Essay: On the Existence of Unicorns by Kimberly Blaeser
In May, following a conference gathering in the south of France, I join four friends at an outdoor table of a small pub. Half-finished glasses weep condensation as we laugh our way through various topics. I slip my feet from my sandals and seek the cool of the paving stones.
You would think this particular pub moment an unlikely one for an exchange on belief—or at least a discussion that continues to resonate weeks later. But it is then I feel the presence. You see, questions of belief follow me around. Always have. Or perhaps I wear them tucked into the hems of my skirts. See? That kind of allusion—if only I could touch the hem of his garment—weaves itself into the most ordinary of moments.
The whole thing begins innocently enough, with our friend Lee explaining that his 50-something-year-old sisters staunchly believe in unicorns. He wonders how he might dissuade them. I, of course, wonder how do we know? How do we know they didn’t exist—along with dinosaurs, mastodons, and other fanciful creatures?
Vampires. Unicorns. Mastodons. Spirits. Creator. And so the conversation gallops along, crossing and recrossing the borders between play and sincerity. How, Aaron wonders, do we answer our children’s do you believe questions? Where do I stand, someone asks, on Christianity versus Native spirituality?
The talk lands at one point at Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” and his literary gesture toward everyday wonders, toward the trees blossoming richly with an essence elusive as faith or poetry. Amid the banter and lines from Baudelaire, we nudge ourselves closer and closer to declarations. I quote Ed Castillo: Indian people can hold more than one thing sacred; and translations from Rumi: There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
We are from different countries, different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and yet we all seem haunted by similar questions. What do we believe and why? Do we insist that those with whom we share our lives also share our beliefs? Do our beliefs change over time? And does that change entail some loss of faith or just the continuation of an ongoing search? Is it the belief or the search that feeds our soul?
We wind our way safely back to unicorns, then walk the peaceful darkened streets to the Hotel du Palais. The next day, Lee leads us to a statue in a small garden. The statue had been there the day before, but it had not, he swears, worn on its equine head the single horn that now shows gold in the dappled light of a Montpellier afternoon. Graciously, playfully, he concedes the existence of unicorns.
Kimberly Blaeser is a UW Milwaukee professor of English based in Milwaukee.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦