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.