When my daughter was about five, we passed a street evangelist in downtown Portland screaming about the fires of hell. He scared my little girl, and she began to cry. I was angered that a man trying to tell people about Jesus was having this effect on her. Jesus had welcomed, not frightened away children.
I walked up to him and told him that he was frightening my daughter. He was startled, telling me that was not his intention. I suggested that despite his intention, that was his effect. Perhaps, I offered, he might be gentler in his approach and convey more of the good news to passers-by.
In this current atmosphere of inflammatory rhetoric, it is too easy to loudly attack one another. I hope that we might be aware that though we may intend to counter lies we are hearing, it may be having a different effect. Perhaps we are only increasing the tension, adding our own collateral damage.
After a night when a presidential candidate painted the United States in desperate chaos, riddled by illegal immigrants, violence and despair, I began to reflect on the view of the world we each carry inside day by day.
I thought back to the early 1980’s, a time of turmoil and economic uncertainty for me, a single mother trying to get by on a part-time faculty salary. My world view was one of pessimism, largely shaped by personal experience at the time.
Pioneer Courthouse Square was being overhauled in Portland, and they had sold bricks to raise funds for the construction. I had bought one for myself and one for my daughter, a $30 extravagance at the time. As she and I walked downtown talking about the bricks, she asked me how long they would last. I told her they would be there for quite a while. “Then we can bring your great-grandchildren down to see them,” she replied.
She had a completely different sense of the future that brought me up short. She envisioned the generations to come while I was mired in a view without a future. I decided that day to try to hold onto her vision and put aside my own.
Right now so much literature, television and film is centered on an apocalyptic view. Some politicians imagine a perfect past and posit that only a retreat can restore hope. I try to look ahead to a time when renewal takes precedence over isolation, when my great-grandchildren can read in their history books about the rebirth, not the death throes, of our country.
I guess I have been introspective from a very early age!
We used to sit in a circle at birthday parties to play a game called Telephone. The first person would whisper a secret to the next person. And so it went around the circle, each child whispering what they had heard to the next. The last child would loudly announce what she had heard and the first child would repeat the phrase which she had used to start the game. What had started as “Betsy wants a new dress,” could end up as “bet you won a nude guess.” We found it hysterically funny.
In the current breathless atmosphere of reporting called “breaking news,” tidbits of information, without the safeguard of checking for facts, are constantly broadcast and retweeted, reposted and generally spread willy-nilly from one person to another.
Unfortunately, by the time the truth is finally available, we don’t have time for it. We are already playing the next round of Telephone.
Yeats titled a poem “After Long Silence,” and went one to say “it is right.” He was writing about a different subject, but I have always liked the quote. It seems appropriate here as I begin to put words out into public after many years of keeping them to myself.
I have been thinking about Adrienne Rich over the last several months, particularly this week as her collected poems are published and reviewed. I first heard of her when I went to a poetry reading she did at Harvard (Lowell House, I think) when I was an undergraduate in 1967 or 1968. In those days, I was an English major and went to hear as many poets reading as I could. I knew nothing about her except that we shared a May 16 birthdate, hers 18 years before mine.
She seemed tiny to me, standing next to a grand piano reading her words. She read clearly, somewhat shyly I thought. I remember nothing about her poems, just her presence which was compelling in a way I could not have understood.
She has accompanied me for years since, snippets of her poems’ ideas and bits of lines running around my mind. Right now, in this poisonous political climate, I recall “Transcendental Etude,” from her 1978 volume Dream of a Common Language. “But there come times—perhaps this is one of them when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die”
Reality is not sound bites, Pokemon Go, “celebrity,” or a popularity contest. Truth matters. Speaking the truth always matters. May we all continue to find the courage to stay in messy, challenging, confusing, complicated reality and not retreat behind quick, dangerous solutions always being offered up–in various disguises– in such times.