Distractions

The past week I have been distracted by the possibility that my country would once again go to war in the Middle East/Central Asia—in Persia. The thought transfixed me and kept me up at night. I have no control over the policy of my country—besides the meager franchise I exercise. Who, after all, is going to listen to a 59 year old English teacher? That said, I have little doubt that policy, even policy set by people with greater expertise than I possess, has been ramshackle and reactive over the past 50 years. Longer. Without a clear and positive vision of what we support—say, the spread of human rights—my country ends up defining its mission in terms of what it does not want—not communism, not Islamic Fundamentalism, not terrorism. When a positive goal is enunciated—we want the free flow of oil—that goal tends to be acted on only in a self-serving and too often militaristic fashion.

Too often this misses the point. Those with the oil want to sell the oil. Naturally, they also wanted to possess the oil first, and then, of course, to sell it.

But this is true of any commodity, or anything one has that is valuable, whether that is a resource found under the ground or made by the work of hands. And even if one does not wish to sell—to escape the cycle of commodification—one wishes control over that which one possesses or makes.

I am sitting in a museum while I write this. I am surrounded by works of Alexander Calder. They are gifts, but he also sold them. There is a fabulous photograph of his workshop in this gallery.

I wonder what distracted him, if he was distracted by the world around him?

When I look at any of the works of art at the National Gallery, I do not immediately think of the dates and the events that were taking place in the world at any given time. Art is timeless in a way. And it is not. I am reminded that horror in the world was never limited to acts of overt war, but that it proceeded—and proceeds—in an endless stream of cruelty and misfortune. And yet, in all times, there has been art.

Maybe we keep art in a box—even when it responds directly to the events of any given era (as contemporary art more pointedly and more often) does. Artists (and writers) also have something which they make. Maybe they need to stay in a box, to ignore the world and engage in the process. This seems like a fairly effete vision of art. While there is something self-serving about making art (my vision!), art only lives when it enters the world, partakes of the world, and reflects the world in all its grizzly terrible presence. The horrible beautiful world.

So, I am reminded while I am distracted, to include the world in my work, even as a reflection in some fragmented shards of a broken mirror. This too.

Naming it

My friends are pointing fingers, locking their anger on that man, laser focused, sharpened wits at the ready. Especially today, the day after he mocked the woman who stood up and made her claim. And yet, it is never one man who makes the hatred possible. It takes a thousand voices, a million. And they are ready, adamant, and they will do more than vote.

The easy comparison has been to the fiendish orator from the 1930’s in Germany. But are we not living in the Weimar Republic, trounced and wounded and in the middle of a seemingly intractable economic crisis, with people wheeling barrows of devalued currency to the store for bread. No. We are great. We gather to watch football in the fall. We go to the beach in the summer. Our lives are country sweet.

And yet, when one man strokes the match, we burn, ready to ignite a fire that can be seen across oceans—or at least into the homes of those who would stand against our righteous anger. If he throws the match, we provide the kindling and hardwood to guarantee the night will not take us.

And we are, somehow, inexplicably, afraid. Of what? Of whom? Of the stranger. And he brings evidence—these families torn apart by them, those strangers to our great nation. Or this woman, whom he mocks for being imperfect. And all the while, the danger comes from so much closer. For every brown and black assailant, there are a thousand who look like us, who live in our homes and worship at our churches. Are we afraid of them, of the familiar danger that sleeps next to us?

Perhaps, but how much would it cost us to put an end to that? How many families would be torn apart if we laid bare the terrible secrets that line our streets like so many comfortable white fences? Not him. Not one of us. And yet, that is where the danger waits.

And so, because we face an unnamable threat, because we dare not speak its name, we are ready to foist our fears, whole and significant, onto others. Or even take them upon ourselves—blaming the crimes we daily face on ourselves. Not smart enough. Not cautious enough. Not brave enough. Too foolish. Too sexy. Too brazen. Too forthright. Too outspoken. And we do not turn to those we love and say, “Stop. Stop yourself. Stop your friends. Stop the faceless brigades of those who look like you. Stop.”

Until we do, until we stop those who would persecute our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our daughters, our sons, until we name the true source of our gnawing fear and endless recrimination, until we demand a true accounting for the actions, not of a few, but of the many, and stop blaming the hurt, the wounded, the abused, the battered, the raped, and the killed, until we recognize that it is not that man, or those strangers, or those women. We need to do more than hold that man accountable.

It is time for us to hold ourselves and our men accountable. It is time to name the fear. And act.