“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.” –Salman Rushdie
Monday, November 7, 2016.
Bedtime. My daughter Tara yawned and snuggled up as we read Through the Looking Glass, & What Alice Found There. Tara is seven and a half — the same exact age as Alice. When something in the story amuses her, Tara giggles: a low, soft, gutsy, all-over body chuckle. That night we opened to the chapter where Tweedledum and Tweedledee tell Alice the poem “The Walrus & The Carpenter.” At one point Tara looked up with a twinkle in her eye. “Daddy,” she said, “Can you just imagine an oyster deciding which shoes to wear?”
The poem begins:
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
“To come and spoil the fun!”
Good stories build on the tension of conflict and competition. So do bad realities.
Too often we treat bad reality as a good story. We are the crowd that gathers at the flagpole after school to chant, “Fight! Fight!” We are the target audience for reality TV, an entire genre dedicated to making people jealous and pissing each other off as a spectator sport. It should come as no surprise that the 2016 presidential election ran the same way — or that the reality TV star won.
Tara’s blonde curls spilled across my chest as she relaxed and her breath deepened. When we finished the poem I kissed her goodnight and got up to turn off the light.
In the darkness Tara sighed. Big. I paused in the doorway.
“When’s the election going to be over?”
This has been a difficult time for a lot of people.
Now it’s December. Winter is coming.
Bedtime feels like a long time ago. Once upon a time, we could all tuck in and go to sleep believing things would be better in the morning. A story or a parent’s soothing back rub was all it took. No more. Now we are through the looking glass. The distorted reflections of our fears and hurts and resentments create dark funhouse mirrors that disorient us further. We no longer agree on where we are, much less where we’re going. Reality has been reduced to what people say it is — and people are no longer to be trusted.
In the digital world the boundaries between fact and fantasy are even more blurred and distorted. Online we feel acknowledged and understood by Followers and people who Like us. We don’t have to compromise or apologize or admit that we’re wrong. This feels good so we feed the beast. We post more and more. We come to depend on how others respond. The stories we tell on social media feature us as the hero, or at least the sly narrator. It’s easy to re-imagine our lives this way. We see what we want to see and we share our vision with people who see things the way we do.
But ignoring objective reality doesn’t make it go away. There is still a physical world out there beyond the screen. In that world, putting our hands over our eyes doesn’t make us invisible. That world doesn’t care what stories we tell ourselves.
In the physical world our choices create real impacts and costs and consequences. You don’t have to believe in gravity any more than you believe in global warming or political ethics. But you ignore it at your own peril. The physical world gives you one chance to be wrong, and it will make you pay. You really don’t think gravity exists? “Fine,” drawls the Physical World, casually rolling the toothpick in its mouth. “Climb a tall building and jump.”
The poem got me thinking.
The election and our president-elect are lenses that bring our society into sharper focus.
The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.
It’s 70 degrees again today. Sweaters are still folded on the upper shelves of closets. It doesn’t feel like December. Flowers bloom out of season, dazed and confused. They are out of place. They are not supposed to be here. This is not a secret and they know it. Still they act like they belong. So it is with our new leaders.
Draining the swamp isn’t the point/ It’s not the swamp we fear/ The monsters who live within it bite/ And now they’re growing near.
Nothing that happens in this country is my fault or yours. On the other hand, everything that happens in this country is our responsibility. In the grand scheme of things, political parties don’t matter. People do.
We are making the world unsafe for people. We’re not even able to give each other safe water to drink. From California to Michigan people are going thirsty and getting sick. We distribute resources so arbitrarily and so unequally that we guarantee suffering and conflict. The world is becoming less habitable day by day.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
They said, “it would be grand!”
Yeah. Wouldn’t it be great if somebody cleaned this mess up? Or remade the world to our liking? Or at least helped us stop wishing for what doesn’t exist?
Please. Stop complaining. Quit wishing things were different or that someone else would make it so for you. Roll up your sleeves and get involved. Do something.
As Winston Churchill famously observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all those other forms that we’ve tried from time to time.” Consider that for a moment. Democracy is messy. Democracy is demanding. Democracy is for the people who show up. There is no “them” in a democracy. There is only us. In these United States that’s with a capital U. and a capital S. Doesn’t matter where we live. Doesn’t matter who we are. Doesn’t matter what we make or earn or believe. Doesn’t even matter whether we agree or disagree.
“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
“O Oysters, come and walk with us!”
The Walrus did beseech.
“A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.”
Ain’t no maid with no mop going to clean your beach. Clean your own damn beach. You with your citizenship and your smart phone. You so busy whining that you can’t be bothered to vote or call your representative or stand up and protest against the corporations and one percenters who influence campaigns by the $million.
Come campaign season everyone wants to give us a hand. Uh huh. Come dusk all the sharks want to give the little fish life rafts. Can you tell when candidates really care and know what they’re talking about? Can you tell when that “Paid for by Americans for America” attack ad is designed to con you and turn you upside down to shake the last few coins out of your pocket? (*Spoiler: No one ever made one of those ads because they care about you.)
The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head —
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.
But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat —
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn’t any feet.
Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.
Older people are better at crap detection. They’ve sorted out their differences on the block and played until the streetlights came on. They’ve touched the pancake griddle while it was hot. They’ve been fired, they’ve had their hearts broken, and so on. They know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This is why every generation of parents says something like, “You have to work hard to get what you want” and every generation of young people thinks something like, “Nah, I’m gonna get rich and famous just because I’m rad.”
Growing up today is different. Parents treat children like veal. They don’t let the kids out of the house, so more and more young people are growing up on the Internet, where it’s increasingly difficult for everyone to sort out what’s true and what’s not. It’s no wonder that Facebook has a bunch of fake news in its feeds. It’s no wonder that digital natives increasingly believe everything they read. It’s no wonder that political candidates and Facebook executives say whatever serves their interests in the moment. Are you one of those adorable naïfs who think Facebook and other social media platforms are “free”? If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, the sucker is you.
You can find great independent music but you have to seek it out and listen. When the media plays the not-so-greatest hits we have to work harder to find the good and the true in politics, business, and community. You can find trustworthy people and tools, but you have to know what you’re looking for. In Tara’s room there is a picture of all of her classmates’ hands in a circle with a message of friendship. We have a country full of hands that belong to people who want to help and protect. Find them.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.”
We are so easily distracted. It’s hard to open my laptop without getting a notification that takes me out of my game for at least a few minutes.
So here’s a story that has nothing to do with the poem or bedtime. A couple years ago I visited Boston. Amazing. To walk through Boston is to live the history of our country. My friend Rocco told me to meet him at The Warren Tavern for a cup of clam chowder and a pint in the same room Paul Revere and George Washington visited. Rocco teaches at the nation’s first public school. I was surprised to find him sitting on a stool at the door checking IDs. Teaching doesn’t pay.
Rocco and I talked about learning and leadership. Our country’s first leaders didn’t say or do things to get followers. Or — for Christ’s sake — to be liked. They believed what they believed. They got to the point and they stayed on point. They used rhetorical devices to make the point, not to obscure it. When they spoke to their audience’s fears it was to tell people to get over that shit because We Have Big Things To Do Together and Those Things Are Worth DYING FOR. They did the right things because they were the right things to do. They challenged the public to join them, come up with a better idea, or fuck off. They inspired then and they continue to inspire now. And the results are in. Their clarity and direction created the most prosperous, powerful republic in the history of the world.
“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
“Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!”
“No hurry!” said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.
What a polite audience. We are, as my grandpa used to say, fat dumb and happy. We don’t demand much from our leaders.
“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed —
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”
“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?
Everyone wants to eat and no one wants to be eaten. Food chains don’t work that way. Life doesn’t work that way.
“It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf —
I’ve had to ask you twice!”
“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”
“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
I thought it was a joke/ When I heard the wise man say/ That some of us are predators/ And some of us are prey/ But in the end the rape’s result is honestly deduced/ The scars remain/ They limn the pain/ Whether you’re fucked or cleverly seduced.
If a billionaire is aiming a gun at you and ruining your children’s financial future, does it really make a difference if he talks sweetly, or boldly, or looks like he feels sorry for you while he’s doing it?
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.
There is danger in losing our faith in our union. Faith in our union is what makes our union our union. This is true in every social system and in every relationship. People get married and stay that way if and only if they believe in the idea of sticking it out with each other.
We all belong to a We. We depend on each other. United we stand, divided we fall. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Benjamin Franklin put it best: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” This bond is spider web strong and spider web frail. If we believe, we create a powerful nation that can conquer enemies foreign and domestic. It lives in us just as surely as we live in it. But the moment we stop believing it’s gone. When we give up on our nation and our institutions and each other, there is no more We. We are nothing but our selves.
That’s when we tell ourselves our own bedtime stories.
Once upon a time there was a tribe of folk/ Who sailed the ocean blue/ Under the sun/ So much fun/ To share with mates so true/ But when they passed the Isle of Fear/ They heard the sirens’ song/ A panic descended/ Their hopes and dreams ended/ From there they navigated all wrong.
The sky turned to black/ The pirates attacked/ At least this was what the crew feared/ So they claimed as theirs/ The passengers unaware/ And what little money they had/ “Desperate times,” they said, “call for desperate measures,”/ “Sorry we’re stealing your treasures”/ “But for you and your sow”/ “Which we’ll barbecue now”/ “We’ll make this ship great once again.”
A little girl came up from below/ Her curly blonde hair/ Defying its bow/ Standing on deck/ She said, “What a wreck!”/ “But what a wonderful show!”/ And then ever so calmly/ She dove into the sea/ While everyone stopped to stare/ They begged her come back/ But with a smile and a ‘Thwack!’/ Her tail slapped the water/ She was the sea’s daughter/ And in a blink she was no longer there.
I closed my daughter’s door. I closed my eyes and bent my head.
“Goodnight America,” I whispered. “Will you be here in the morning?”
But answer came there none.