Shakespeare’s most perplexing villain is Iago. What’s his motive? He has too many. He’s passed over for promotion. He suspects Othello has tupped his wife. There’s the race thing, and a great British actor even proposed that Iago had the hots for Othello. When foiled, he refuses to speak of any motive—I think because he doesn’t know, and in 500 years we haven’t figured it out.
Grab any one of the Capitol rioters, and you’ll probably hear the same. They’ll surely have a laundry list of motives, and we promote that simplicity by calling them fascist knuckle-draggers or white supremacists. But I’m not sure that they know, nor am I sure that my fellow progressives know either.
My mother might have voted for Trump. She certainly disliked foreigners, government handouts, and she decried that North Omaha was overrun with all those Blacks—she was terrified when she had to go there. But the strongest political statements I heard repeatedly: (1) In the early 1930’s, the farmers down the road were “on relief;” the government gave them a bushel of oranges, and their kids were playing catch with the oranges. (2) We lived in a two-room, rat-infested shack with no running water, my dad had abandoned her, she worked but paid out a lot for daycare, and applied for welfare: that office told her she could only qualify if she quit her job. (She didn’t: she trusted me, at the age of six, to take care of myself.) I heard that endlessly in her diatribe against welfare. And she liked politicians who said what they thought. Though hard to tell about Trump: she also had a strong bullshit detector.
She hated the fact that others were getting welfare, oranges, and sympathy, and she wasn’t, even though she worked like a mule. She’d have hated it more—hated progressives more—if someone had charged her with “white privilege.” Even if it came with elaborate footnotes and statistics.
She was a decent woman. We had our fights but we loved one another. And yet I feel she had many characteristics of the folks who demeaned themselves at the Capitol. Above all: the desire to see something—anything—happen.
When I was a kid, we couldn’t get fireworks in Iowa. We had to go down to the Missouri border and bring them back. And I loved to blow up cans. It really meant a lot to blow up cans. Otherwise, I was amazingly well-behaved for my neighborhood, but I loved to blow up cans.
For the rioters, it’s beyond that childish joy. But I think that’s there. In my mind, Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech, though in fact he never used the word malaise, put the thumb square on the sore spot. We don’t know where it itches, but it itches like hell. Progressives itch one place, reactionaries another, but it’s utterly maddening.
To my mind, it’s being oversold on the American Dream, promising reward for exertion plus fabulous sex, and feeling someone’s getting something for nothing—not billionaires, as they’re the proof of the pudding, but the poor, who get pennies but tons of sympathy. Of course that’s debatable. To some, the bottom line is race or sex or cis-ness or age. For me, it’s mostly money. Is it more virtuous to speak up against “white supremacy” or to lobby to change the tax codes that make the rich richer and the poor very pissed off?
In any case, understanding your enemy is not the same as compromise on the issues. It’s looking for other passageways in the labyrinth. If we can’t somehow find a common ground with our adversaries, we would surely do well to start arming ourselves. They have a head start.
I don’t see “hate” as the starting point of madness. Of course it’s a virus that lurks in us all, but very few get a thrill from succumbing to the infection. There are reasons for “hate,” sometimes stupid ones, sometimes true, though often misplaced. It’s not born in the baby, nor do I think it’s effectively taught. It springs from reaction: where?
I feel we need to do a much better job of understanding our enemy.
I am mesmerized by things I see regularly that are never the same twice. The ocean is with us every Sunday, and today she was like the wonderful album cover from Tijuana Brass, “Whipped Cream.” (Remember vinyl?) And several times a week we end the day upstairs by our bedroom fireplace, and the flames invent a new ballet every time. Fire, water, air and earth, they are vast and timeless and we are tiny transient blips. And when I see a magnificent photo of a part of the universe, I fall down the rabbit hole of feeling like a fleck of dandruff.
I have a hard time creating reasons why we matter. If I create a really good dinner, what difference does that make on Alpha Centauri? Or if Conrad and I collaborate on a magnificent epic lovemaking, does that register on Saturn’s moons?
Well, maybe it does. If Gaia & Co are sentient, what feeds her? My private theory is that it’s joy. I mean, what other purpose can you propose for joy? Those who have not watched animals carefully think we have a corner on this, but those who have watched animals carefully think it’s part of all life. Why shouldn’t we chip in?
Conrad and I have been helping each other with soggy bouts of depression, as who hasn’t in these times? I said, as we were watching the gulls today, that I have had a few more blurts of joy this week and hope the trend continues. The Unmaker always lurks around the corner and nibbles the green shoots of the Joy Garden, but it’s up to me to tend what grows.
Not just for me. For all of us. I can’t accept that the only force that can gather strength is hate. The oldest texts celebrate dancing, celebrate singing, our ancient expresssions of joy. Connection is the best fertilizer for joy, and we need in these solitary times to find that fizz. Zoom is weird, but it’s better than nothing. I loved meeting a friend at HardCore Espresso this morning and yakking a delighted update and miming a simlulated hug. We’re creative critters. Find the ways. Feed the joy.
In a Facebook group I’m part of, an issue arose as to whether our community was infected with white supremacy. The discussion shifted from the original question to a more fundamental one: what is “our community”? What constitutes community?
We’re not in geographic proximity. We’re not one race. We’re generally pretty liberal, but that’s not a requirement. We share some very broad beliefs, but every topic that comes up raises differences. The one thing we agree on is that we’re all subscribed to this Facebook group.
There are communities interdependent for survival: that would include families, tribal economies, intentional communities, labor unions, dictatorial juntas, etc. That’s not us: I could unsubscribe and it would cost me nothing, in fact save me a half hour a day.
There are communities that define our identity through mutual action: political parties, sports fans, demonstrators, lynch mobs, etc. The Web is great for those of us who define ourselves as “activists” but don’t want to get off our asses.
And there are those defined by their opponents with pejorative intent: I qualify as Old White Man, shoving me into the same elevator with Jeff Bezos, Rush Limbaugh, Warren Buffett, etc. (I don’t mention Trump, as he’s a community in himself.)
Some of us don’t fit. Any tribe I’ve identified with (theatre artists, professors, pagans, Quakers, polyamorists, puppeteers, novelists), I’ve always stood just outside the circle: for me that’s more comfortable. Yet I share our hunger for community. We’re tribal animals, and yet we’re enculturated to prize individuality: I want to be part of things, but no one tells me what to do. A challenging juggle.
One corollary is that we tend to depend on establishing group bonds on the basis of what we’re not. In my long-ago Presbyterian Sunday School days, we learned a few things about what made us Presbyterians, but much more about why we weren’t Catholics or Jews. In neo-pagan circles, it’s hard to pursue a discussion thread that doesn’t spark fireworks about Christian evils. As a Democrat, I can rant—probably for days—on the atrocities of the current administration, but I still haven’t absorbed the specifics of the Green New Deal. This tendency, I think, cripples us.
In the discussion I mentioned at the outset, I opted out of stating any opinion. For me, the issue is whether or not any group promotes practices that have negative effects on others, not whether the group is free of Original Sin. But that’s just me. And it’s fine with me that the group defines itself as a “community” as long as it’s through shared values, not through shared disgruntlements.
Tonight is the winter solstice, the longest night, the pivot point where we begin to see longer days and shorter nights. But tonight is also that indrawn breath that is held, not doubting that the turn will begin, but not totally assured that the light will rise. We hope we’re past the worst, but cannot be sure, so we court the future with candles and lights and bonfires. It has ever been so, for millennia.
When we didn’t have Wikipedia to tell us that when it got darker and darker the time would come when the light began to rise, we had a collective need to do something, anything, to bring the light back. Everybody knows that. But 2020 has hit us hard, and we’re tired. We’ve had an election, and that’s supposed to mean something, but there are pundits and bloviators and, of course, that big braying voice from the top, all of them saying hold on, don’t bank on it.
Do the old-time thing. Light that bonfire, in whatever way moves you. I’m setting the alarm for 2 AM, and Conrad has wood laid ready in the bedroom fireplace. There will be a little thermos of hot toddy with a bit of our precious Armagnac and the iPod will have our ritual music for our Moon circles cued up. This isn’t a Moon, but Peter Gabriel is celebrating rising from the dark, and that will feel right.
Whatever works for you, do it. If not tonight, tomorrow night. Honor the dark, because it is a necessary thing, and reaffirm your bone-deep knowledge that the light will begin rising, slowly, little by little. Charlie Murphy got it right his beautiful Winter Solstice chant:
“Light is returning, even though this is the darkest hour, no one can hold back the dawn. Let’s keep it burning, let’s keep the flame of hope alive, make safe our journey through the storm.”
I can hear it in the voices of the many circles we have had through the years when we could gather together. Listen, in the safety of your own home, and you can hear it.
I was struck by a comment of Garry Kasparov during a chess Masterclass I’ve been watching. When he analyzed a game he lost, he said, he was enraged when he saw he’d made a blunder—not at his opponent but at himself. This resonated strongly with me.
My bouts of anger are almost entirely at myself. I can think of a few people for whom I’ve had long-term resentment (either because they’ve hurt someone important to me or because they’ve cost me money), but very few. Much like my mother, who once said, “It takes a long time to get on my shit list, but once you’re there, it’s damned hard to get off.”
But my shit list is very short, and most of it is me. At one time I attributed this to a fundamental cowardice: I hate confrontations. But I’ve come to see it otherwise. I think it stems from a huge sense of self-esteem: I expect much more from myself.
It’s simple to find the source of this: a mother’s love for her only child. But resulting, oddly, in an almost pathological sense of responsibility—seeing her struggle after being abandoned by my dad (which was indirectly my fault, I guess, for being born). But I hold myself to a higher standard than I expect from the rest of the human race, not that I do much better. I guess it’s only-child privilege.
How to let go of that? Frankly, I don’t know if I want to. It’s a snuggly teddy-bear I kinda take pride in, and I guess it’s not only me that clings to flaws like a second or third nose—weird, but it’s me. But that teddy-bear gets a bit smelly from the snuggle.
At age 19, I married a challenging girl, who became a challenging woman. Gifted, wounded, a beautiful floral minefield. For her, knowing me was probably, to quote a line in our play, “like mind-reading a coconut.” Or maybe a coconut rolling wildly down the freeway. How did we make it together through sixty years and counting?
I’d propose a weird word: “worship.” That’s usually heard as “I love you, you’re a god/goddess, you’re perfect, I light a candle or kill a pig for you, I dote on your merest fart!” Not my meaning. I’d say it much simpler: it’s simply the act of giving close attention to something outside yourself.
There are times when conflict seems inevitable: is it my doll or yours? As if the doll’s very life depended on the answer. But during the Cold War, I often said that if the Soviets could really hear what our criticisms were, and if we could hear theirs, and we all could manage to address them, there’d be no Cold War. That hasn’t worked on the world scene, but it’s worked pretty well in our marriage.
We both have old buried landmines. We have differences in aesthetics and temperaments. We have different modes and speeds of reaction. We have different blind spots. We likely even have different views of our similarities. What we share is a willingness to listen.
In recent years, we’ve formalized it into the Heartshare, an admittedly New Age term we picked up from an intentional family. Either of us can ask it, and it’s infrequent. It simply involves sitting down, on the couch in the living room or upstairs by the fireplace, speaking a concern or a hurt or an anger, listening and being heard. There’s no dialogue. One person talks, and when he/she’s finished, the other can respond. Both listen. That’s the challenge. Both listen and take away what’s heard. It’s incredibly hard to be that simple.
But I think that’s an aspect of “worship.” You have the respect of the other to hear and to hear in return. We don’t get that from gods, who rarely speak back, though I answer only for my own experience. But if we don’t get it from at least one fellow human, we won’t get it from gods.
We don’t often use that ritual, but it’s always there. It’s worked into our days. And would that I could speak to myself and listen. I do it in writing, I think, but that’s in masks, in costumes, in other personae. It only works when you’re naked.