Sunday, January 25, 2009

What We're Here For

{Note: I'm told this is way too boring a picture to entice anyone to read. When I expostulate - It's ironic! See? Is it really tedious of the sun to rise every day and grain to ripen? Or is it really miraculous and the tedium is just us not seeing it? They still say it's too boring - so please imagine, I don't know - an explosion here, a supernova, something . . . }
For Martin Luther King Day this Monday we make what has become our traditional fare: Civil Rice and Bein's (from Brazil? a.k.a Moros y Chrestianos or Black Beans & Brown Rice).  For something new, we combine different recipes to invent Golden Squash Spoonbread.

And while we're cooking, I tell the junior inhabitants about my first time teaching King's "I Have a Dream" speech to a freshman English class - meaning to use it merely as an example of the persuasive use of figures of speech - how, in preparation, I'd read the speech through several times, identifying metaphor, symbolism, alliteration. One of the other teachers had a videotape I thought I'd show. Popping the tape in without previewing it, leaning up against the wall at the back of the room to watch it with my class . . . I was overcome.

There was so much more going on than figures of speech.

"He was a great American," I tell my children, who are my own embodied hopes for the future - I tell them this over and over every year because there are only so many things you ever manage to get through to your children but this is one I want them to know: "Standing for freedom, speaking for truth, dreaming big enough for a whole nation and generations to come, that's what it means to be an American.  That's what we're here for!" My children nod, gentle-eyed, reaching out to pat down my arms that have been wildly gesturing.

But it's not the great thundering roll of the clauses of King's Dream that take up residence in my mind this week. It's some of the more presumptuous phrases in that commencement speech I read at the beginning of the year. Like when Wallace talks about trying to find something redeeming in the bawlingly ugly others who impede his path:
But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college. . .

And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line . . .

I take those words with me next day to the Food Bank - where there are too many new faces. The paper mill that for generations has shaped this town is now closing. Many, most and then all the jobs - gone.

One young man came in this week – there were three of them together – guys from the mill - but this young man is obviously used to leading the way, walks in with a swagger, every movement of chin and hand enunciating competence and cocky self-possession.

He hates being at the Food Bank, hates having to fill out the forms. “I’ve never had to do this before. I didn’t think I’d ever do this. But there’s no food left,” he half-chokes on the disgust rising in his throat. “My boys are hungry.” Two of them, preschool-aged, I can see from the forms, and he is the only adult in his household. “I have to feed them,” his voice makes it clear he’s not asking for sympathy. He’s not even really talking to me, just keeping himself company, keeping his courage up, getting through what’s necessary. When I start to explain the monthly procedure – “I’m not coming back next month,” he cuts the air with his hand.

Please. Do not tell him his lost job was meaningless.

Or prate about “daily tedium.” (And are there somewhere jobs utterly free of the tedious?)

I am so impatient when outsiders presume to dismiss the experience of others - as meaningless and drudgeful, or as some kind of rural idyll - without living it themselves. Though I've been guilty of this comfortable make-believe myself.

One of the summmers I spent living with my grandparents in their very, very small town in a high dry mountain valley, I regularly biked with my cousin around all the streets and out along the frontage road where my uncle and his crew were building a new highway.

I liked stopping to snap pictures – a black-eyed Susan against a heavy sky, the immodestly pink projections of milkweed above glinting water, fallen-down barns, abandoned hayricks in a field of blond grasses, rusted farm implements – so picturesque to my suburban “back-East” eyes – so backward and soon-to-be-escaped to my cousin who hated seeing them, shrugged at them, skated her eyes over them.

But one afternoon I was out alone, my cousin working at her job at the front desk of the Prehistoric Fremont Indian Museum.  She and I had spent the previous summer going out with the team of archaeologists to the dig – finding a grinding stone and tiny fire-blackened corncobs - out on the foothills above our grandparents’, great-grandparents’ few acres.  So strange to see our family's homeplace as another people’s homeplace.  So strange to re-discover a town  as it was threatened by the new highway going through. Discovered and destroyed almost at once.  And my cousin's dad, my uncle, the local head engineer for UDOT, the kindliest of kind men, as chief perpetrator.  

And now this summer, there was a small museum up the canyon, with artifacts we'd seen in the dirt, and exhibits telling the story of these people that came before.  A summer job for my cousin and the reason I was alone that afternoon. It came over me, that afternoon, biking around alone, the sky heavy with rain that wouldn’t fall, standing at the end of the town, looking out over the irrigated fields of purple-flowered alfalfa – how full this place - and every place - was.

Even in that tiny town, every house was already an echo of habitations that had been there before, and at that very moment every house full with its people past and future, and morever inside every person a whole world of yearning and fear and everything they had ever seen or imagined. That for each of them, as for me, each was the center of a private story, the center of the universe. Like that passage by William Blake  - 
The Sky is an immortal tent . . .
And every space that a man views around his dwelling-place,
Standing on his own roof, or in his garden on a mount
Of twenty-five cubits in height, such space is his Universe:
And on its verge the Sun rises & sets, the clouds bow
To meet the flat Earth & the Sea in such an order’d space:
The Starry Heavens reach no further, but here bend and set
On all sides, & the two poles turn on their valves of gold;
And if he move his dwelling-place, his heavens also move
Where’er he goes, & all his neighbourhood bewail his loss.
Such are the spaces callèd Earth & such its dimension.

That's what I was thinking about, standing in line at the grocery, standing at the front desk at the food bank, hearing the words of that commencement address re-echo in my mind.  I do not live in a county particulary remarkable for the glamour of its people. But at the grocery story I don’t see anyone “stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman.”

The people I see in the grocery lines, the people who come into the food bank – and sometimes these are the same people in this struggling mill-town - but even in the most ravaged faces, teeth stained or lost in fistfights or pitted by meth use, there are things worth seeing – sudden grace, a lovable curve of the eyelid, a humorous quirk – traces of past sadness and happiness left in their faces.

And the vulnerability of other people’s hands, the unbearably familiar intimacy of the half-moons in their fingernails, moles on the back of their hands. When they bend over the counter to fill out their forms I sometimes get a catch in my throat at the sudden image I sometimes get of each of them as a child, some other mother’s darling, first-graders first learning to write their names.

I don't believe it is my liberal arts education that shows me these unbidden images. I don’t think that “us here in prestigious colleges” are necessarily any better prepared to live in this world with a sense of sacramental awareness of every moment being
on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
What are we here for?  I remember the howling wilderness I’d feel whenever we’d have to answer in humanites' classes that particular riddle among life’s eternal questions – i.e., what is the value of studying the humanities? (Did engineering professors ever ask their students to discuss the value of a tech degree?)

Don't get me wrong - I loved my experience studying English lit. But I’ve always been struck that the only other place I heard such impassioned rationalizations for the value of the whole enterprise was the summer I worked at a company called Shutters that manufactured (guess . . .) shutters.

You know? - shutters? - those aluminum rectangles some people fasten to their siding on either side of the window? Not the great, wooden, heavily-hinged protections against weather and odd shrapnel that you can see on the stone farmhouses around Namur in southern Belgium. These shutters performed no obvious function.

But my boss could (and would regularly) spout on about their contribution to the aesthetic and therefore psychological well-being of the family, which contributed to county-wide health and social stability, not to mention property values, the state’s economy and the underpinnings of Western democracy. And of course my liberal arts education usefully trotted out the appropriate Shakespearean tag: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much. . .” (à propos even if my boss was a balding middle-aged bantam.)

Because we want to be involved in what matters.  We want to do what we're here for.

This week in the grocery store I was in line behind an older women – somewhat fuddled – counting, re-counting her change and then burbling on with a question and something she needed someone to confirm. The clerk was brisk and bright and helpful.

“Sorry about that,” the clerk said as I came up to the register, the old woman tottering out towards the door. “She comes in every day, just needs someone to talk to. Lonely I guess,” the clerk shrugs, laughing through her bad teeth. “But that’s what we’re here for.” 

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