A friend of mine has a burn scar, like a violet, asymmetrical puddle on the left side of her face. When we were in college, she bought a cheap seat on a train that snaked across Europe from Paris to Hungary. Awaking from a snooze in the late afternoon, she thought she saw red flames. The passengers around her were reading, playing cards, sleeping.
She had a little discussion with herself. Because really, what do you do? Clear your throat and make an announcement? Yank the emergency cord? And what if you’re wrong? Usually when you think you’ve seen a fire, you haven’t. It’s the sun setting like a smear in the window several seats ahead of you.
As she was considering, she smelled smoke. Feeling a wall of heat move up the aisle, she yelled, “Stop the train!” Someone else called out in German. There was a pandemonium of voices in different languages. People lunged toward the front of the car. A stocky man and woman quarreled in the aisle, pushing and shoving, screaming words she didn’t understand. Behind them everyone jammed the passage, thrusting, heaving, desperate to get to the doors, unable to move forward. Panic stricken, the clot of people who couldn’t move pushed someone down. Several people fell.
My friend wrenched herself up and wedged herself into the stream of people in the aisle. A woman, whose big straw hat tilted at a jaunty angle stabbed her with a red umbrella. But eventually she reached the door. The train was rocking crazily, the fields, racing by, green and blurry. People behind her shouted and pressed against her. In the car ahead, some were hurling themselves through the open door. She couldn’t see where they landed or what happened to them.
My friend leapt from the open door. She balled herself up and rolled into a silent ditch filled with flowers, which she tells me she recalls with manic clarity. Opening her eyes, she saw delicate, slender purple iris, pink lilies with tiger faces. At the bottom of the gully stood a group of tall, prickly looking scarlet cone flowers. In the field on the other side of the ditch she could see squat green plants set in rows across the ashy soil. Far above her, the sky traveled on, absurd blue, and in the vast silence she heard the iterated chirp of a single bird. She lay listening for a long time. Eventually two firemen picked her up tenderly and moved her to a stretcher. There were a lot of fatalities—people who didn’t jump from the train. It took over six months for her to recover enough to come back to classes.
What I know about her, what little anyone can know about a friend, the one tenth of the ocean liner you see sailing above the surface, is funny and garrulous. She tells about the fire as if it happened to another woman, a long time ago. When I saw her recently at a conference, I reminded her of the train story. Eventually we drifted into a discussion of politics. She mentioned that Jim Lehrer, at the end of his News Hour, is still screening the faces of American service men killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I told her I always felt stunned by the spooky silence that accompanied their photos. We talked about the rising cost of health care, bad jobs numbers, and vented our rage against Wall Street. We narrated stories about unemployed friends and bemoaned the growing gap in this country between the very wealthy and the poor. We mentioned the shocking changes in weather all over the globe.
The two of us spoke quickly, in code, speeding up feverishly as we became more certain that we still agreed with one another. We circled in an angry groove of conversation. We held the Other Side responsible. We referred to George Bush, his lies about WMD’s, his incompetence after Hurricane Katrina, weakening of environmental protection, tax cuts to the super rich. We ticked down our lists. And then we had to leave for other appointments.
Later that day, I felt haunted by a peculiar emptiness as I realized that the two of us had simply rehearsed a script. What of her marriage, her children, her career as a lawyer, her personal discoveries and changes? I felt hollow, bereft, like a peach growing without a seed inside. We had substituted political speech for our own experience. The truth is, I was beginning to feel the bankruptcy of name calling, circling and re-circling the same angry political accusations in the company of friends who agree with me.
Fast forward. It’s months later, late August, 2009, the blistering dog days of summer. Our basil, which has grown waist high, needs to be cut for pesto. The hedges should be trimmed again. Afternoons are so hot that when I step through the door of my study onto the patio, I feel like a candle, melting. I don’t sweat, but my shirt is damp in ten minutes. Most of our neighborhood has cleared out to go on vacation. We have a different President now and a different set of policies. A different set of citizens opposes his policies than the citizens who opposed George Bush’s. They have been showing up around the country to disrupt and drown out town hall discussions. Some of them appeared at a meeting in Colorado yesterday carrying guns. “They” are the political right.
You might say the engine of civil conversation, which should be moving America into the future, is on fire. Meanwhile, those of us on the train are screaming and pushing one another down. Much about this country needs to be fixed—the economy, health care, our roads and bridges, our terror at terrorism, racial inequality, education, melting glaciers. Our future looks dim. But more and more we are withdrawing into partisan groups which do not talk to one another. So are our representatives in Washington. Democracy depends upon discussion and compromise. Our deep division is a scandal that threatens democracy.
Several weeks before George W. Bush ordered the attack on Iraq to bring about regime change, as he called it, my husband and I marched against the war. Sort of. We were in Paris. It was February 14th. The early evening was bitter cold and because the Metro was undergoing repairs, it was cluttered with scaffolding. We were going to celebrate Valentine’s day with a special dinner. Emerging from the underground around five p.m. we glimpsed a river of French men and women, young and old, pouring down Boulevard Mutualite. People walked, rode bicycles, waved flags from the backs of trucks. They wore scarves and berets and layers of sweaters. Slender, beautiful young people left their shirts open, defying the stinging wind. Ragtag dudes hoisted bed sheets with slogans. Pregnant women sang. Professor-like figures trudged along in full length coats reading books. A child wearing mittens led a puppy on a red leash.
The first time I protested a war, I was twenty. Mike Burton, the editor of our campus newspaper at Wheaton, joined me in the lunch line. He had come from a class in modern philosophy, and as I ordered a hamburger, he quietly effervesced about Heidegger. Then he slipped me a copy of Time magazine, opened to a picture of an American soldier’s astonished face as he took a bullet to the stomach. The caption reported that the soldier was twenty. I was stunned. My age.
I glanced at the photo, stepped out of line, and, feeling I might throw up, wandered off to the ladies room. When I returned to the lunch room, Mike, who was by nature courtly and generous, apologized, but went on to make a case against the war. The authorities–President Johnson, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara–and our administration at Wheaton– argued that if we pulled out of Vietnam, that country would turn Communist. If Vietnam turned Communist, a string of other countries in the region would follow suit. This was known as The Domino Theory, which Michael had been arguing against for a year. I paid for my cheeseburger, then scraped it into the trash, listening while he turned the fire hose of his powerful logic on me. Shaken as I was, I hung on for dear life to my skepticism. How could any of us know? We weren’t there in Vietnam. We didn’t possess the statistics.
I was the dutiful child of a father who died early and a mother who had heroically taken on both parenting roles. I needed to believe the parent is right. The child who rocks the boat sinks the ship. If a parent makes a mistake, at least she might have an idea about how to fix it. How could McNamara, who was reputed to be a genius, who had been head of Ford, who had access to so much information, be mistaken? How could any of us who had not run the world, guess at its complications?
Like many students at the time, however, I was reading philosophy, taking what I understood of it to heart, struggling to comprehend the stunning, recent deaths of my own father and my brother. Reading Sartre and Kirkegaard and Camus, talking about them until late at night, some of us began trying to act, not as a person “should,” but authentically. I wanted to take my freedom as an individual seriously, to feel each moment honestly as it passed. I forced myself to imagine what had happened. For months I saw the boy’s picture, heard the crack of that gun, felt fire as the bullet tore open his gut, and watched his entrails spill onto the soil.
The year before that, as president of my freshman class, I was expected to appear in a routine ROTC ceremony to review the cadets. The truth is, as I considered this, I was mainly absorbed by what to wear. The morning dawned, cool and crisp and full of blue sky, as only the Midwest can be. I had bought a white suit with gold buttons. I could ill afford to buy new clothes, but I justified the price by thinking of the occasion as a responsibility. The suit with its gold braid looked vaguely military to me. For two weeks I kept it hanging on the handle of my closet door, so I could admire it. That morning after taking a shower, I tore off the sheltering plastic and put it on for the first time. I pulled on white gloves. I stood in front of the mirror looking like a million dollars.
Then reluctantly, I began to pay attention to the war inside me. I knew some of my friends believed our support of the Saigon government was immoral. I gnawed on carrots for a while and paced my room, wracking my brain about whether I should go through with the ceremony. I phoned a friend and told her I felt torn between opposing duties. I had been summoned by the college administration and I wanted to fulfill my responsibilities as class president. On the other hand, I had been horrified several weeks before, when one of my close friends had shipped out to fight in Viet Nam. On the other, other hand, I knew my distress at his leaving wasn’t proof the war was wrong.
What I did not confess to my friend, or even to myself, was that I loved the idea of standing at attention on a reviewing stand, looking spiffy in my white suit as the wind blew gently through my hair. I wanted to be seen. And also, I probably did not quite understand that the ceremony involved role playing. If I had declined to review the troops, the school would quickly have substituted the freshman class vice president. But I proudly hung onto the notion that they had summoned me, personally. After a long, tortured, semi-honest debate with my friend, I said goodbye, put the phone down, and dashed off to review the troops.
Would it have made a real difference if I hadn’t?
To me, it would have.
To the school? I doubt it.
Now we know what to think about the Vietnam War. Even Robert McNamara, toward the end of his life, said he knew. The War was ugly, unjust, unnecessary, foolish. It squandered our young men, and ravaged Vietnam and its people with napalm. At the time, it felt—and it was— morally complicated. In the late sixties and early seventies most of us Baby Boomers brashly dictated morality to our parents, those people who had lived through a depression and fought honorably in World War II. We had ethical objections. Okay. True. And they have been shown to be more justified, than even we realized at the time.
But the fact is, even after I turned against the war, my protesting was not as altruistic and righteous as I sometimes claimed. Even at the time, I knew I was profoundly self interested. I didn’t want the men I loved to go to war. We marched, we yelled, we stabbed our fists in the air, we drank scotch to numb ourselves as we watched our chances in the TV lottery for the draft, we celebrated, or we mourned, and some of us linked hundreds of safety pins together into chains so we could remove a pin every day until our men came home. The signs said, Make Love Not War. For Love read Sex. Part of the reason we argued so aggressively that the war was wrong was that we wanted what people our age always want—the chance to get on with marriage, children–the business of living.
The Vietnam War drove a wedge between the generations in my family, because both sides were absolutely sure we were right. Several times a year I visited my mother, who after ten years of surviving as a widow, had married my stepfather and gone to live with him in Dallas. During the day my mother and I gallivanted around to museums and stores, never mentioning politics, but one night at dinner, my step father, who was usually mild-mannered and openhanded, began ranting against the spoiled, presumptuous, out-of-control youth who were taking over buildings on campuses.
I got up from their dining room table, pretending to clear the plates, and walked around their kitchen, fuming. I stuffed a red plaid dish towel into my mouth. In truth, at the time, I wasn’t sure about the war. But their staunch, unflinching refusal to think or to investigate, to consider alternatives, drove me nuts.
After while, I came back, sat down, and explained to them that Josh and Mike and Larry—young men from Wheaton my mother had frequently fed, quick-witted and decent young men, kids like me, looking forward with pleasure and hope to their lives—should not have to die because selfish old menlike Lyndon Johnson had power to order them to war. The implication was that my mother and stepfather were equally as selfish and twisted.
“I’m sorry,” my mother said sweetly, “that your generation isn’t willing to sacrifice.” She meant as her own generation had sacrificed in World War II, for the sake of the country.
“That was a moral war!” I shouted.
“Daddy Jim served in the army,” my mother said, beaming at her new husband.
“Not at the Front, Sweets,” he rumbled modestly.
“We’re not exactly fighting Hitler!” I snapped.
“We’re fighting Communism,” Daddy Jim announced in the voice of reason.
“ This war has nothing to do with America’s self interest.”
“Do you want this country to go Commie?” he asked me pleasantly.
My mother, alarmed by the possibility of all-out conflict, turned to me. “Paula called. She wants to take us to lunch.” This made me feel like a trophy that my mother wanted to show off to her new friends in Dallas.
“I have to grade freshman themes,” I said coldly.
“Lunch at Neiman Marcus!” she coaxed.
“Maybe some other day.”
A cold, wall of ice grew up between us.
For years we stood on opposite sides and glowered at one another. We spoke to each other about the War in pre-fabricated, ready-made slabs of language that we had probably picked up from political rallies or television, or our separate churches, hers conservative, mine liberal. After that, the subject of the War flared up only occasionally, but it always lay beneath the surface of our visits, the implacable war that defied civil discussion.
Why? What was at stake?
I can only answer for myself. If I’d had a real conversation with my parents, they might have won, because, in my heart of hearts, I wasn’t as sure of my own position as I pretended to be. And my identity as a member of my generation—rather than theirs– rested, in part on my stance on the Vietnam war. What was at stake for me in holding my position against my parents was dignity, called dignidad that brilliant Spanish concept, self-respect, a sense of my own nobility as a human being. Like most children, I needed to define myself as separate from my parents, which I did in some ways I knew were arbitrary. But this, I felt, was not arbitrary. It was a matter of morality.
Even though it turned out I was right about the War, in my demonization of my parents, I was, perhaps, more at fault than my mother. I disdained her for her opinion, and I am sure she never felt contempt toward me for mine. The scorn I felt for the other side helped me to barricade myself against real discussion. What I’d have risked by having a real conversation with my parents was this: if they had convinced me, I would have needed to change. To change would have meant to stop being the self I recognized. I did not want to stop being myself. I wonder whether that deep fear of changing is what prevents us from talking to one another?
My parents were driven by anxiety about change. Although I did not understand it at the age of twenty-three, my mother had her own history, which pre-disposed her to see the Vietnamese War as she did. She was a teenager during the depression, when her parents lost a good bit of their farmland. In 1933, for $60 a month she taught twenty-two kids in a one-room school house in rural Minnesota. My father dropped out of university. After they married, they wanted something they could count on at any cost, something that would not change. No wonder they joined the Christian fundamentalist movement.
Any form of gambling or card-playing became for my parents a symbol of the kind of financial and moral risk they abhored. Shortly after they were married they spent a blowout weekend at the cabin of some friends on Lake Miltona, a resort close to Parkers Prairie, where my father served as Postmaster before he took over the general store from his father. Apparently during that weekend a number of couples, including my parents, had celebrated the mild June weather by drinking and dancing and playing cards on the grassy slope above the Lake. My father had grown up with these folks and when he brought his farm wife home to the town, she had, apparently, passed the test. They’d been swimming, the women in their bright-colored, flowered post-World War II bathing suits with pleated skirts, the men loudly daring one another to pull off their shorts and skinny dip. For Saturday night dinner they splurged on butter and eggs and meat and told ribald jokes and bet 25 cents a game on bridge. The next day they skipped church, lingering at the beach until afternoon.
That evening, as my parents drove back to town, they regretted the money they had lost, not much, but needed to pay their $10 a month rent. They were slightly hung over and ashamed of so much drinking. Later that night, in a solemn ritual that my mother could still describe when she was 80, they climbed downstairs together to the furnace, opened the door to the red-hot coals, tossed their playing cards into the jaws, and watched the flame eagerly leap up to devour the pack. After that, my parents never allowed cards in the house. They renounced parties at the beach and alcohol of all kinds. They dedicated themselves in public in the Baptist church to a life of fundamental Christianity.
My parents’ love of stability and permanence may have been what made my father design and build two houses for us with his own hands. He knew the plumbing and electrical systems were reliable. He had put them in himself. The first house he built was in Minnesota. The second was in Lincoln, Nebraska where my parents moved the family so my mother could find a job and so after my father–who was terminally ill–died, we kids could attend the University of Nebraska. None of us went to school at the University. But we could have. What my parents wanted was insurance. If we needed it, it was close by.
I watched my father build our second house. On a spring day when the fledgling leaves were budding on the dogwoods, I stood beside him at the edge of our new lot line on the outskirts of Lincoln and watched an earth-moving machine slowly roll onto our land. The din of the machine made us plug our ears. I could feel vibrations in my feet. As its jaws bit cleanly through the grass, I felt as if something inside me were flying together. The way to start building a house, I understood, is simply to subtract earth.
For months afterward, whenever I wasn’t in school or doing my homework, I was helping to raise the walls of our house. My father let me practice pounding nails until every time I whammed the head three times, the shaft would fly straight in. Every time the hammer hit home, I felt closure. There. That’s done. That will never come out. I still hear the clang of my handsome father’s pounding, and I can feel the rhythmic swing of his freckled right arm as he nailed the raw studs in place. He was going to die, going to die, going to die. For himself, he wasn’t afraid. He wanted to finish this house before he left us. I suspect he wanted to anchor the studs of that house to the foundation of the universe.
My father was not afraid to die, because he felt convinced of the one most essential and final thing. With absolute certainty he believed that to be absent from us was to be present with the Lord. We would all eventually be reunited. Both my parents repeated that often. As a result they faced his death with bravery that—especially since I’ve been a parent—seems inconceivable to me. My father never became an invalid. He was looking for adventure until the week before he died.
The kind of certainty that buoyed my father was esteemed among my fundamentalist people and it was strengthened by hymns and the fundamentalist culture. We sang about blessed assurance. We lustily harmonized, I’m a child of the King, and When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there. These convictions, of course, obligated us to be happy. We kids sang, Jesus wants me for a sunbeam and I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart! Our private dialect and pot lucks and prayer chains and Christian school reinforced the certainty my fundamentalist parents so prized. We lived in a feedback loop.
Above all, our language defined us, bolstered our certainty, and set us apart from the mainstream culture. We were washed in the blood of the Lamb. We bore witness to the faith, and let our lights shine before men. We wanted to fully surrender to the Lord. Jesus knocked patiently at the door of our heart. We repeated the same words and images until we knew, we knew the world through those images. My parents tended to live the way they talked. We said grace before meals. Before long car trips we prayed for safety. My parents quite clearly loved one another, and they got along famously. I had no inkling then, of course, that their fervent beliefs and language could be called an ideology. I thought it was just obviously and simply the truth.
Years after my father died, when I was in my twenties and visiting my mother in Dallas, she had the dial tuned to a radio preacher, as she often did all day. She loved to feel awash in the music and language of fundamentalism, which by then had started driving me bonkers. We were making turkey sandwiches for lunch. The preacher was praying. Oh Lord, shower your blessings right now on our radio audience. And we just thank you that you have adopted us as your sons! I was reflecting on why the Lord never seemed to adopt us as daughters, when out of the blue, my mother remarked, “That preacher is a godly man.”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
She looked at me strangely. “His language.”
I had never before heard my mother comment on language. I had never realized that she understood so clearly her own language choices. There’s a code, she was warning me. Follow the code. I was sailing in dangerous waters. By then I was reading Moby Dick and Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the difficult, radiant poems of Emily Dickinson. I had already apprenticed myself to these masters. I was, indeed, sailing in fresh waters—beyond clichés, out into the deep, ferocious ocean of the English language. To me the waters felt, not dangerous, but heady and freeing.
My mother was right. There is a code. The idiom my parents spoke was a language of fundamentalist protest against modernism and consumerism. Back then, it was the dialect of people who had almost no power. The fundamentalists I knew felt they had little control over politics and they tended to be lower middle class. Their echo-chamber language tended to be limited to religious ideas. But with the political mobilization of the fundamentalist right in the mid-seventies, the dialect of fundamentalism became a language of power and it took on a new, political dimension.
Ideological language, whether it’s the language of religion or of politics, deals in prefabricated slabs of words. A phrase can frame and define a whole issue. The phrases are often metaphorical. The metaphor makes an argument which isn’t surfaced, which smuggles into the conversation a hidden assumption.
Language is endlessly shifting and perishable. But consider idioms like death panels, or the war on terror, or government takeover of health care, or socialized medicine. These phrases imply whole ideas. Take death panels, for example. This term argues that the authorities under the new health care bill—those who decide which medical procedures can be reimbursed and which can’t–are definitely going to pull the plug on someone, and it might be on your loved one. Of course, insurance companies, who are currently the “deciders,” sometimes pull the plug by refusing coverage. But death panels banishes discussion about these questions. It puts the rabbit in the hat. It obscures questions with a clever phrase.
The political right is not alone in its use of ideological language. The left refers to itself as the progressives and refers to conservatives as the lunatic fringe. It frames its own agenda as tax relief and its proponents chant. Yes we can! Prefabricated, ideological language is nothing new, but increasingly it takes the place of discussion, not only on the streets, but in Washington. Both the liberals and the conservatives, whatever that means anymore, both the Republicans and the Democrats hire linguists to shape language. They scheme ways to distort language about political issues in favor of their positions. They repeat the new cliches until they seem “natural”. They lock us into points of view before we open our mouths. And since by and large we listen only to news that confirms our biases, we lock ourselves ever more firmly into our prejudices.
Given that we’re together on a train, and the train is on fire, we could use some discussion about what to do. But what language can we use? What assumptions do we start with? Those of Glen Beck or those of Rachel Maddow? Talking politics with someone on the opposite side is scary. The effort to get past all the manufactured phrases requires inventing new language. It is exhausting. And the risk of offending is great. But most dangerous is the possibility that if I talk to them, I will change, the fear that drove me during my discussions with my parents about the Vietnam War. I had a compulsive need to think of myself as correct. I didn’t want to risk having to admit to them that they were right and I was wrong. If I really listened to their point of view, if I gave them a chance to convince me, I would not leave their house as the same person. I wouldn’t recognize myself.
My deepest identity depends on feeling certain of my political positions, for example that street people can be cleaned up and made productive and that it’s possible to create a health care system which doesn’t exclude fifty million Americans. So why should I talk with anyone who disagrees, especially since I don’t even know how. I have my own prefabricated language and they have theirs. Hate speech is the business of some of them who write blogs and host talk shows. But I know the people who listen to those personalities might be less doctrinaire, more capable of compassion and empathy. I just don’t know many of them. I don’t even know where to start. Hi. What a cute dachshund! Is he yours? Anything more complicated—like discussing the Middle East—and I’m out of my depth.
But here’s the rub. There’s a difference between knowing I’m right and actually being right. Feeling certain about something doesn’t guarantee that I’m right. It just prevents any connection with the other side. As I have said, in the argument about the Vietnam war, I was even less well behaved than my parents, because I disdained them.
Certainty is one of the fundamentalist values I don’t like any more. I say that with sadness. Who doesn’t long to be certain? But unfortunately, because we’re human, there’s a limit to how certain we can be of anything. At least that’s what I believe when I’m not climbing the wall with anxiety. I understand how important blessed assurance was to my father and mother, who knew my father was dying, and wanted to be sure that we kids would be safe, and that we would all be reunited. I think my parents were right. We’ll all be reunited. But how can I know for sure? The only way of knowing that is through faith.
I nominate faith to take the place of certainty. The problem is, faith is scary, at least for me. For the last several decades I have spent a fair amount of time in London. I worship sometimes at St. Paul’s, one of London’s magnificent cathedrals. A few weeks ago I was sitting on a wooden chair in the nave with a six hundred other people, listening to the boys’ choir. Their treble soared through balanced white marble columns to the dome three hundred and fifty feet above us. At the end of the service, the ranks of robed clergy filed up the center aisle toward the rear. Our triumphant voices sang All Hail the Power of Jesus Name, rising to mingle with sunlight from the balcony windows.
After the service, I decided to change my perspective, to climb to the top of the dome and look out on the city of London. I’ve decided that many times and I’ve always backed out. This time I swore to myself that I would follow through.
The stairs are shabby and cramped. As I trudged up the five hundred and thirty rickety wooden steps, circling around and around, I felt alternately nauseated and exhilarated. My legs trembled with animal terror. Several times I decided to turn back. But I was enclosed in a small circular passage. There was no room to turn around and edge down. And the steps weren’t solid, either. When I peered through them, I could see the whole precipitous, dizzying way to the bottom.
Abandoning certainty in favor of faith feels like climbing those 530 steps. But those steps have taken hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the top of the dome and, so far, they have always held.
There’s a fire in the train, sweeping towards us from the car ahead. The air is looking shimmery with heat, and the hair on my arms is singed, and I would like to say bad people are pushing and shoving in the aisles. But I’m pushing and shoving, too. My own shouting is preventing me from hearing anyone who disagrees with me. And when I think about it, I feel like I’m going to be sick. Because I don’t know what to do to stop us from attacking one another—even to stop myself. It seems to me that the impasse between factions in this country might be permanent. The standoff has been so long in the making, it seems impossible to resolve.
Then I go to a theatre conference and a tall, skinny graduate student named James with cowlicky red hair gets up and tells us he’ll be talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. I feel myself nodding toward boredom. Everybody knows that one. It’s about doing good to your neighbor. Except James, who, it turns out, is a smart cookie, has already counted on us knowing that way of looking at the story, so he isn’t focusing on being nice to the Samaritan.
He’s talking about the set-up for the parable. Although there are about twenty of us in the room, he speaks as if to each of us personally. He holds a chalk in his left hand and occasionally marks on a blackboard. He hooks his finger in a belt loop while he tells how Jesus went to the Temple so he could talk to his political opponents. After a Pharisee spotted him and asked him a smart aleck question to put him down, James says, Jesus must have wanted to attack, just like we do when we’ve strayed off our own turf. Just like I feel when I have to do more than repeat my favorite positions to people who agree with me.
James’ point is that Jesus didn’t repeat his same old positions. Instead he told a story. The story got everyone in the Temple involved in the messy, complicated aspects of being human. It got their minds off ideology and confronted them with their own bodies, with sickness, death, and their regular need for assistance. Sitting there listening to James that day, I thought, Ah ha! This is the way to talk to people I disagree with. Everyone loves a story.
Once I went to a nursing home to teach a poetry workshop. The wiry, energetic director informed me that she had invited a special needs class at the local high school to join us. This freaked me out slightly because I knew the age differences in the audience would be so huge. I wondered how I’d ever find something that would work for both groups. Soon the students arrived. The young women were showing a lot of low-cut black and purple lingerie. Many of their orifices were be-ringed with metal, and the entire bodies of several of the men were smothered in tattoos. The white-haired nursing home residents, who were wearing carpet slippers and flowered cotton dresses with zippers up the front, watched coldly as the students trooped in. Each group sat in its own little enclave with a no-man’s land of empty chairs between them.
I asked them all to close their eyes and picture the house where they had lived when they were ten. Obediently they closed their eyes. Suppose they were walking up the front sidewalk, I said. What did they smell? The greenness of grass as a father mowed? A mother cooking spaghetti sauce in the kitchen? What did they hear? Quarreling? Someone practicing scales? A record playing the Beetles? What did they see? The assignment was to write for twenty minutes as fast as they could—everything they felt and sensed.
They didn’t want to stop, but eventually I asked for volunteers to read the images aloud. Every single one of them read. They didn’t weep. Not openly. Well, not the high school students, at least. But a surprising number of them ended the session with smudged mascara. And they all lingered afterwards to talk to one another. The wiry director, who knew what she was doing, as it turned out, broke out cookies and coffee.
All the preconceived notions we had in our heads about one another got short-circuited by those stories. I, who was being paid to run the workshop, also got out of my own group for a while. It was our own stories—our own images and emotions—that gave us a way of talking to one another.
Poetry and music and other kinds of images circumvent ideological language, and they can forge connections too. I am remembering what happened in Sarajevo after they closed the opera. The opera house had been shelled until the frightened patrons stopped coming. The singers and many orchestra members, who had braved gunfire, finally gave up and disbanded. Some of them pawned their instruments to buy food. They barricaded themselves in their houses. Sporadic gun shots reminded them they had no power. Music had been their only power, and their music had been shut down by guns.
Then one day the army shot to death twenty-two citizens of Sarajevo while they were standing in a bread line. The next day Vedran Smailovic took his cello to the town square, anchored it in the dirt, and began playing. Every day he walked alone out to the square in clear sight of the gunmen, and sat down, and arranged his cello, and played. He played for twenty-two days, one day for each of the twenty-two citizens who had been murdered.
No one fired at him.
He played music. That’s all. Drawing horsehair across cat gut, he let loose the unearthly music of the great cello concertos. The long, rich notes echoed against the buildings and resonated in the central square. To the people of Sarajevo, his music was the sound of this truth: guns are not stronger than music.
Smailovic offered what he had, and so did the kids and the old people at the nursing home. The language of personal stories and the various languages of art are not ideologically coded. They short circuit politics, replacing ideology with experience. Both of them provide ways for us to connect with people from the other side.
I aspire to poetry that is stronger than guns. I want to plow the locked and infertile soil of our politicized, abused English language. I want to find new and fair and striking ways to tell what I know. What I am trying to say, in part by telling my own story, is this: we can quarry our own lives for images, instead of buying the ready-made ones from political operatives. And we can be aware, as we talk, that we might be wrong. We might even keep a sense of humor and revel in the fact that we still have something to learn. Risk is scary but along with it come possibilities that are worth celebrating.
Think of it. We might find ways to talk to one another.
My friend said as the racket of the tracks jolted her feet and hammered her ears, she realized that she was more likely to die if she stayed on that train than if she jumped. She thought she would never make it down the aisle. People were shouting, and pushing, and savaging one another. Some passengers burned to death. But she made it to the open door. The wind sucked her orange scarf away. And then she leapt.