“Across the Great Divide” is a wonderful Sunday radio show on KPFA that we usually catch when we’re on our ritual trek to the ocean. It’s full of heart and good tunes, and today it caught me upside the head with a perspective shift. I love it when that happens.
Kevin Vance, the host, put on an album by Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer called “Get Up and Do Right,” and I heard a banjo intro that could only belong to Pete Seeger’s “Well May the World Go.” I expected to hear Pete singing what I hope somebody will play at my memorial service some day, and reflexively grabbed a kleenex. Instead, over those well-loved notes, came words spoken by Pete’s banjo, channeled by Cathy.
“It is amazing that we spent 65 years together and you never gave me a personal name. You made me your third arm, but you never gave me a name.” (Who doesn’t know that BB King’s guitar was named Lucille?) “You hung me on the wall when you testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but I was waiting for you when you came home defiant and strong, exhausted and confused, and most importantly, more American than you had ever been—and now, where are you, Pete? Nobody really knows what to do with me any more, and I still don’t have a name.”
I’ll bet that banjo really did have a name. I don’t know how to pronounce it, but when I hear those first notes, my heart jumps with recognition and love.
The deepest tragedy of the Book of Job isn’t what happens to the title character. He gets his sheep and goats, sons and daughters back without turning a hair, and even his boils seem to be forgotten. The great misfortune is that God loses a valuable debating partner. By the end, it’s clear that Satan has been defeated and has likely stalked out of Heaven, disgusted that the old man would go to such lengths just to win the argument.
We’ve inherited that high-school mentality. When our debate team tangled with other schools over “Resolved, that we recognize Red China,” there was no compromise, no consensus—it was win or lose. The same dynamic extends through court cases, Congressional battles, marital strife, barroom brawls, right down to kindergarten squeals of “Is not!” “Is too!”
God is depicted as ultimate good, Satan as irredeemably smelly. Both, to my mind, were equally infantile. Two creatures of reputed omniscience and omnipresence, they should be able to see a few examples, over the course of human history, when opposites can come into harmonic convergence, where synthesis happens, where black and white produce the rainbow. Instead, it seems that this duo’s only all-embracing power has been as omnivores.
In 56 years, Elizabeth and I have had our share of challenges, pitched battles and painful absurdities, but no one has ever “won.” Winning is a losing proposition. Whatever the rift, it’s not settled until both of us can own the final words as they’re spoken and can live with ourselves in the speaking them.
I wouldn’t know how to do a workshop in consensus or how to write the bestseller. I only know we’d damn well better learn to forego the spider’s fangs of winning, lest we all see our asses fall off. An anthropomorphic God who said “If there’s problems with this guy, let’s try to improve him. Let’s work on this together” would be a God who’d deserve my deepest respect.