Thursday, August 06, 2009

CONTENT WARNING: If you are easily offended by political or cultural opinions other than your own, please do not read this eletter.

I Will Worry, I Suppose, But I Will Not Hate Nor Will I Fear
August 2009 email newsletter, Vol. 2, #006

I will not live in a shroud of fear. I will not wander in a cold night fog of rumors. I will live with some sort of hope. And trust.

Today, I photographed the dried husk of a locust clinging to a stick that my parents use to stir the ashes as their trash fire burns down.

Five minutes later, I photographed the pale, discarded skin of a snake dangling 10 feet or more above me in the fork of two large branches in a large shade tree. In the light breeze, the thin skin (discarded as the snake grew) moved slowly back and forth. While the husk seemed somehow otherworldly, the snake’s skin seemed eerie. I was uncomfortable; snakes, no matter what I “know” intellectually, stir two instincts in me: run, kill.

We have a president and a congress duly elected by the majority of voters. He and the voters who elected him give me hope that we can actually solve some of this nation’s cultural and political problems.

Some people genuinely agree with his policies. That’s fine.

Some people believe they will lose a lot of influence and money if his ideas succeed. Some people, for whatever reason or reasons including racism, simply hope he fails. Many of these people fail our country by twisting truth out of shape to improve their own chances of “winning.” Some tell big lies; too many people with real but culturally and politically unjustified fears believe the lies. Fear cripples us. Fear of anything “different” and fear of losing whatever we have, however great or small or real or imagined.

Are people who fear and people who hate (isn’t hatred a product of fear?) so much that they won’t accept a progressive nation really any closer to being “democratic,” with the lowercase d, than those people in so-called third-world countries who have feuded for centuries? This win-at-any-cost approach insults the democratic concept, and the very thought of civilization.

I, a white man, will not isolate myself from the world. I will be a part of the world, not in any big way, surely, but in simple daily acts.

Even if, some days, that act is just in remembering.

I remember, as a child in the Methodist church in the early 1950s, riding in a crowded car with other children and a couple of adults one Wednesday night to attend another church, and sitting in the car watching rain slowly fall through the halo of light from a streetlamp as one of the elders went inside the church. He came back and told us we couldn’t go in because the people in the church were black and “some of the parents” at our church might not like us going in.

Later, in the early 1960s, as an older teenager, some of us skipped church one morning and drove around, ending up outside another church, an older, well kept, white frame building where a black congregation sang familiar hymns. We parked, and listened to the singing come from the open windows until the people inside noticed us and began to stare and stir. Finally, I remembered that this was just a very few months after white men bombed a black church in Birmingham and killed, if I remember correctly, four little girls. I drove away, so that we would not cause any more discomfort.

As an adult in a late 1980s trip to Washington DC, I walked to a corner near the National mall early one evening to catch a cab. I wore a business suit; the black man standing on the corner was, perhaps, a little older than me. He wore a clean white t-shirt and clean, creased jean, and had stood there for at least as long as I could see him as I walked down the block. Several cabs passed. He looked at me, frustrated, and said, “I’ll bet you get a cab before I do.” I agreed with him. I raised my hand. A cab stopped. I stepped back, and gestured for him to take it.

Some days, the simply daily act is touchable. More often than not, it has nothing to do with race. It’s trying to help a young woman get off drugs, or helping publicize a fundraiser for a nonprofit that battles child abuse, or spending seven hours at a local high school talking with a graduating senior who’s had more than her share of problems, but who dreams of being a writer.

There are, potentially, more simple acts than there are people. We never know which ones will really make a difference in someone’s life, but some of them will.

Not long ago, I read a quotation by the often, and rightly in many ways, maligned Robert McNamara, a major architect of the U.S. war in Vietnam, who said, “All the evidence of history suggests that man is indeed a rational animal but with a near infinite capacity for folly . . . In the end he plugs away obstinately with the only building material really ever at hand: his own part-comic, part-tragic, part-cussed but part-glorious nature.” In the same story, filmmaker Errol Morris said of McNamara, “If he failed, it is because he tried to bring his own idea of rationality to problems that were bigger and deeper and more deeply irrational than he or anyone else could rationally understand.”

I will not live in a shroud of fear, nor wander in a cold night fog of rumors. I have my own fears, of course, for our world and for our country and for myself. My own greatest personal fear, perhaps, is that I will find myself homeless with my clunker of a car broken down in a desert night, and that I will die there, alone and quickly forgotten without having made any lasting impact, however small, on the world. Until then, I will live with some sort of hope. And trust.

The snake’s discarded skin waves in the breeze like a flag from the past. The dried husk of the locust still clings to the stick that my parents use to stir the ashes. Tonight, other locusts cry noisily in the dark. I think that our daily acts can be poetry; then I think of the Leonard Cohen quote someone shared with me a couple of days ago: “If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”