An associate sends a message to inform me my post stating my belief - that religion, that medical care, that marriage, that patriotism are each personal relationships that one develops – be it with a higher power, a professional, loved one, or a community – is ill informed and a contributing factor to the decline of civilization – in so many words.
A driver of a pickup truck maintains a distance of inches from my rear bumper. The driver is a person I cannot see through the tinted windows – I can only make out the Chevrolet logo close to my rear window (though as he (assuming a gender) sped closer I could make out the American flag whipping in the wind from the bed of the truck). I assume the driver has a problem with my car’s speed, which is at the speed limit and on cruise control.
Those are the most recent examples.
On another day the report of a terrorist attack was broadcast over the radio into a car whose driver accelerated toward a pedestrian – a woman in a hijab forced to dive into the grass. On many days a crowd on a corner in Waco held anti-abortion banners and yelled the act was ‘murder’ to the passing cars. They yelled to anyone who would listen and to those who did not want to listen. Banners said things like ‘protect the innocent’ to imply that any act on behalf of ‘the innocent’ must be the equivalent of self-defense. All with the passion that one’s salvation and everyone else’s salvation depends on it. About the time I noticed the Waco protesters (about 2 years ago) a man walked up to a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, in hunting gear and shooting a semi-automatic rifle – killing three and wounding nine – to 'protect the innocent.'
There are other times when the rage has no event to trigger it. A week ago , in a nearby town, a man angered by slow traffic in a construction zone drove off the highway slinging mud from an established dirt trail, toward the side road – where two drivers were forced to slam on the brakes has he ‘merged.’ A teacher, feeling the stress of low test scores and coming teacher evaluations in a nearby district, shouted at a peer who delayed taking roll in order to handle a ‘teachable moment’ between students arguing as they entered the room. Another student cursed when directed to turn off a cellphone, cursed again when given detention, and a third time when sent to the principal’s office.
Inside these tunnels of rage, it seems the faces around the angry person have no interior life. It is a solipsistic world. And in such a world, thoughts of violence become acceptable. This is not new. But in our closer proximity to each other it sounds an alarm bell because it is a precondition to the act.
Which seems to give urgency to the decision whether we soak ourselves in an ocean of returning (or even pre-emptive) meanness or we find a more deliberate way to realize the hurt and motivation staring back at us through a set of angry eyes that are familiar, that are us.
Else we become a circling Fury:
“disinherited, suffering, heavy with anger
. . . let loose on the land
the vindictive poison
dripping out of the heart upon the ground” (Aeschylus, The Eumenides)
The stakes for the choice grow when we realize that wise Athena will probably not descend from the sky to stop the cycle of rage returned for rage, to correct the course.
Orestes, Clytemnestra, Hamlet, Jax Teller, Lucious and Cookie Lyon keep creeping into the imagination as cautionary tales. However they are only cautionary tales when we have a background that prepares us for the reality that these are not lives to emulate. We hopefully read these cautions in public and discuss them.
In private the revenge tales can seem delicious and rage can seem empowering. It is however, a force that can be sent in any direction with no moral of its own. It can make the world seem like the one witnessed by Lady MacDuff where ‘to do harm/is often laudable, to do good sometime/accounted dangerous folly.’
We have to remind ourselves that the crime against Lady MacDuff meets with justice, the Furies find their place in the underworld, and our urge to react does nothing to create the world we want to live in. Reading gives our minds the space to heal, takes us from an existence of being controlled by a force beyond our control and connects us to each other in a way that removes the violence against ourselves as an option.
Sacred & Profane
Memory shoves the random experience in your face sometimes, perhaps as an act of chaotic creation. Many memories from earlier times I’m not sure about, the objective truth of them or if they are the same each time they reveal themselves. What I am sure about is that the present and future change whenever these memories race back to the front of the line and collide with whatever is in the process of happening.
A professor criticizes a story that the class is discussing by calling the profanity-laced dialogue ‘gratuitous.’ It is the first time I hear the words, cursing indicates a failure of imagination.
A preacher shuts off a movie being played in a parishioner’s house because the profanity is too much. It is not his house or his movie but his kids, playing in the next room, might run out at an inopportune time. Most agree this could be a problem.
A teacher picks up a young student and shakes him by the shoulders. His head rocks back and forth. The child is silent. The teacher explains that no one curses in her class.
A theologian speaks about misplaced priorities, saying people are starving, no one gives a shit and too many are more concerned about the word ‘shit’ than the starving.
Each comes to mind as I look at a book I am about to read from, as I decide whether to read a response to Etheridge Knight, a poem about missing the point, a poem about growing out of an environment of racism. Each memory comes back and the thought occurs that reading a poem when I’m sure certain words are going to send the audience on a tangent, that it’s not simply a failure of the reader. I flip forward to another poem and proceed to read.
The idea of the profane as a failure of imagination never quite goes away. Yet in a diverse room the idea of one mind containing both profane and spiritual thoughts never goes away either. Those of us who’ve studied literature know the time discussions devote to a character’s complexity, the onion-like layers of motivations and experiences. We also know the tendency to reduce a real flesh and blood person to a simple definition – that person was a lone wolf, that person was uneducated, another person was set up for success, this one has a good heart, this one doesn’t care. It seems our crime of treating our neighbor like a cardboard cutout has infected our ability to hear the words, to understand that a person can in one moment hold The Beatitudes in one part of the brain and in a rage-filled thought about an injustice that makes him or her want to curse the author of those same Beatitudes.
It’s being human – something that seems to get lost in our desire to simplify, to work with a set of rules that is easy to predict, easy to explain and easy to apply across the board – with a consistency far from human.
There’s a scene in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five where Vonnegut’s narrator, writing about his story from outside it, says to a reader, “It is short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Indeed. Time seems to make less sense the more honest a story of war or atrocity is told. Homer would say it in his Homeric Similes to those who hadn’t witnessed the Trojan War. And Time O’Brien would write it later in ‘How to Tell a True War Story,’ that ‘often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t.’
We now have enough tellings of real truth versus the spewing of facts that we should be inoculated against the misuse of numbers and details arranged to manipulate rather than inform.
Yet, here we are.
We’re often stuck trying to satisfy cries for writing that is straightforward and linear when the truth is anything but. ‘Why can’t you just tell a nice story,’ someone will ask. Or, ‘Why does your poem jump around,’ another will ask. And I’ll find myself walking a tightrope between the ‘true war story’ (I’m counting life in the Culture of Fear as a war story of its own) and the war story an audience wants to read.
Honest writing resists the desire to alter its picture for the desire of an audience.
It’s a tenuous situation these days, in a time when the audience can shop for its facts on the open market as if they are commodities. But it raises the stakes of the story that needs to be written and of the discipline needed for readers to open stories outside their comfort zone.
It is that – or we soon find ourselves walking out of our own self-contained bomb shelter that we’ve bunkered in for decades as a defense against ideas, only to find a world that looks nothing like the facts and stories we’ve been telling ourselves.
I. Driving to the gym, I caught the red light at the busy intersection in the middle of town. This time of morning the main drag filled with traffic heading toward Fort Hood and the light favored the East West traffic. A long pause for those of us driving North. I looked around, at the still dark storefronts, the sunless sky lightening like a movie screen, at the trees coming into view, and up at the power lines now covered in the bodies of blackbirds, appearing like stitches in the screen’s fabric.
II. A policeman, weeks ago, in a casual lunchtime conversation, said public safety cannot rely on having the police stop everyone – if everyone wants to commit a crime. We depend upon a public that chooses not to commit crime, by holding a belief that lives are better by not veering left of center, not driving out of turn at the intersection, not invading the boundaries of the neighbor’s house – all for the sake of reaching our destination.
There are institutions that reinforce these images. The media illustrates citizenship through its human interest stories and fear through the crime coverage. Schools reinforce lessons on consequences and the idea of empathy for fellow citizens. Families keep an eye on each other’s kids. Or perhaps this is the way it used to be. Distrust creeps in when an officer crosses the line or when the community feels wronged. Talk radio vilifies teachers or vilifies the media for its perceived bias. The institutions that keep things predictable if not right show their cracks. People begin to wonder what other lessons they’ve learned are wrong. The stitching begins to unravel.
III. Rereading Woodrell’s masterpiece Winter’s Bone, which is a great lesson in what happens when the marginalized realize that the shared culture does not seem to include them and, as a result, create their own shared cultural values. There is a scene (one that John Hawkes plays masterfully in the movie) in which Uncle Teardrop and Ree Dolly are pulled over by Sheriff Baskin. Woodrell has been building his own sense of the sacred, where ‘not telling’ becomes a value greater than law enforcement, greater than religion. ‘Not telling’ keeps a person alive, and provides for the family. Woodrell drives the point home through the actions of Teardrop who responds to Baskin’s order to get out of the truck by pointing a rifle back and asking ‘Is this going to be our time?’ He is sure by now that the talking of law enforcement got his brother killed and obeying this command seems trivial by comparison.
More than simple action movie bravado. The old rules of the tribe offer nothing. The values from church and school of respect for elders, respect for the institutions offer nothing. The sacred becomes something the marginalized community creates from the world they know.
The stitches unravel. This new sacred knows nothing about a social contract or a common good – perhaps because the common good was not truly believed by those in power to begin with.
This is where we are, in a side of the road staredown with a society that should have been looking out of the common good. Is it going to end with the collateral damage of the things that do work or do we figure out how to talk again about the common good?
IV. The blackbirds are still gripping the wires, hanging out above the intersection in our small town. It’s migration season. Blackbirds in myth are considered directional guardians pointing to the mysteries concealed in the Underworld, mysteries often missed as we drive by self-absorbed, indulging conspiracy theories on the radio. Here’s hoping we learn to pay attention, to learn how to stitch.