Opinion

Letter to the Sage of Emporia: Amid new beginnings, ‘spiritual progress’ looks more like a myth

April 17, 2022 3:33 am
Spring has arrived in Kansas, writes Huascar Medina, a time of newness, growth, rejuvenation, redemption, resurrection and salvation. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Spring has arrived in Kansas, writes Huascar Medina, a time of newness, growth, rejuvenation, redemption, resurrection and salvation. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Huascar Medina is the poet laureate of Kansas.

Dear William Allen White,

We are a Kansas spring, the season when light begins to wash the cold stillness of winter away and all things living reach toward the sun and sky with aspirations. It is no surprise to me that Easter and Earth Day occur this month. It is a time of newness, growth, rejuvenation, redemption, resurrection and salvation. Do you believe in salvation or resurrection?

I read your address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Columbia University. The idea of progress today is as elusive and subjective as ever. Your speech in New York City continues to be printed today. “A Theory of Spiritual Progress” is still being read long after The Gazette Press of Kansas published it in 1910.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have my words reprinted a hundred years later. What will the world be like then? Who would find my words necessary? What parts would speak to them?

It is not curious to me that the makers of myths who wrote “Genesis” chose light as the first created thing. Light is fundamental to our existence. It doesn’t take great imagination to imagine what life would be like without light. Light is a fundamental building block in a scientific, biological sense but also as metaphor.

I am not a scientist and cannot see the world through that lens. As a poet, I must live and breathe in metaphor. It is my way of speaking and seeing. I see light metaphysically as truth, light as a unifying source; sustaining life in a deeper way.

Kansas newspaper owner and editor William Allen White was known as the Sage of Emporia. (Library of Congress)

Your poetic line on the ebbing and flowing of life upon the planet — from light and air and earth and water to grass and animals to man — so man may “glow for a time as divine light” does not reflect my growing acceptance of deep ecology. I don’t believe we are positioned atop the grass or animals to shine. I believe we are all here to absorb light as equals. I feel a deep kinship developing in me to the grass and animals around me.

At my desk, I look out my window and yellow daffodils poke through the lawn, meters before a shrinking forest line like a Dead End sign.

I planted those flowers. I dug into the earth with the intention of a gardener in the name of beauty. Looking back, I found a great sense of pride in doing so. Now, I wonder what trees were removed to give me this lawn and this house that I call home. This place, where I pretend to care for blooms.

Narcissus is the scientific name of the daffodil. I do feel a sense of narcissism attached to them. We continue to destroy the ecosystems we are a part of no matter how beautiful it may be. I believe we are like Narcissus, drowning in our own perceived beauty, our uniqueness — that divine glowing light. My thoughts will be with the Tallgrass Prairie during this year’s Earth Day.

I appreciate your quoting of a Hebrew poet in your address. Poets have a non-abrasive way of shedding light on a subject with deference and reverence. I thought about the British metaphysical poet George Herbert and his collection of proverbs, “Jacula Prudentum,” also known as “Darts of the Wise.” In his book of proverbs, Herbert wrote, “Good land, evil way.” I believe some of us are living life in Kansas this way.

I’ve always wondered if the term “life-dart” was directly related to Herbert’s book. It is so full of truths. Truth is a commodity now. We used to share it earnestly and freely amongst ourselves.

You’re one of the wise men being written about today, Mr. White. You were an honest witness to life. I want to be an honest witness, too. One day, I hope someone will look back at today and know that some of us were paying attention. That some of us lived in truth, authentic life, an artful life.

Herbert wrote, “A good heart cannot lie.” I try to be honest and good. Writing about life as I experience it, but I don’t profess wisdom. I know enough to know I know very little about living. I am merely observing, taking notes along the way, forming my own hypothesis.

Though we are in a new century, scientists are still searching with microscopes and test tubes for a better understanding of life. I don’t believe that will ever change. The ether is no longer a scientific term in use. The ether does not, in any way, carry light as proposed in your time.

I find the word ether is only ever used today by poets in need of a word other than mystery to describe their unknowing. Maybe in that sense, the ether does exist, for there is a great deal we do not know. The ether just waits for light to illuminate in its presence. For truth to pierce through.

I find the word ether is only ever used today by poets in need of a word other than mystery to describe their unknowing. Maybe in that sense, the ether does exist, for there is a great deal we do not know. The ether just waits for light to illuminate in its presence. For truth to pierce through.

– Huascar Medina

You say, “changing habits of life have changed our morals,” but has that change been for the better? I want to believe cruel customs have dropped away and have been replaced by kindly habits, but I can’t. The death penalty is not gone. Twenty-seven states including Kansas still have a death penalty.

I think of this when you say human sacrifice and torture chambers are gone. Innocent men have died under the death penalty, sacrificed in the name of justice. And I can’t imagine many things are more torturous then a parent or child watching their loved one killed for a crime they did not commit.

Child imprisonment hasn’t gone away either. We just know it by another name. In the United States there are 625 facilities that classify themselves as juvenile detention centers. As of 2020, there are 20 juvenile detention facilities in Kansas. The United States is the only nation that sentences minors to life in prison without parole. Juvenile life without parole sentences mean they will never be freed for a crime they committed as a child.

More than half the country allows this kind of sentencing or has at least one juvenile serving life without parole. A boy of 14 sentenced to life without parole will experience a different degree of punishment than a man of 55 sentenced to life without parole.

I’d argue the child has more time to redeem themselves and should be given the opportunity in the future. Kansas does not allow such sentencing and doesn’t have anyone serving that type of sentence.

Thank God. Maybe this is part of the progress you hoped for.

You speak eloquently of “determinate or purposive change,” and I am still waiting for it. As I write you this letter, I wonder what drives change. If life’s “somber forces” like evil and sin are infractions on the social code that create pain, unhappiness and sorrow, then what do we do when the social code is purposefully ignored?

What do we do when it becomes law? What does meaningful change look like? Is it worth shedding light on the injustices occurring today, or has the ether already overtaken us?

Maybe the ether is apathy.

Apathy is the science of disregard.

The more I read your work from the past, the less I feel we have moved towards progress. This affects my spirit. If you believe in God, ask him to let there be truth when you next cross paths. 

In Spirit,

HM

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Huascar Medina
Huascar Medina

Huascar is a poet, writer, and performer who lives in Topeka. He works as a freelance copywriter and as the literary editor for seveneightfive magazine, publishing stories that spotlight literary and artistic events in northeast Kansas. His poems can be found in his collection "How to Hang the Moon" and "Un Mango Grows in Kansas." He is the winner of ARTSConnect’s 2018 Arty Award for Literary Art.

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