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The Idea of Democracy

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation …  shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

 

I hardly know how to begin. As I write this updated intro to a post I ran last year to observe America’s Independence Day, the SCOTUS has ruled to allow Trump’s Muslim Ban, to permit businesses to discriminate against LGBQT folks, and to silence labor. At this hour, America doesn’t much resemble a democracy. With children being kidnapped from their parents by our border agents–families smashed and lives destroyed–America doesn’t feel much like the nation of immigrants the Statue of Liberty celebrates. With Trump complaining that courts and due process are “bothers” he wants to dispose of, America, land of the free, seems to be sliding into a dark abyss. And now we have a seat empty on the Supreme Court, with the very real threat that it will be filled by someone who will further savage our democracy.

And yet, I harbor hope that the millions and millions of Americans taking to the streets to fight these attacks on our freedom, to uphold our most-cherished beliefs will prevail.  Because the idea of democracy, however flawed it has been and still is, is worth all the energy and love we can put into it. Because we who fight are its last, best, and only hope. It has always been so. (June 29, 2018)

“Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree,” engraving by John C. McRae, 1867.

I have to confess, the history of the American Revolution failed to stir my imagination in high school. Those godawful powdered wigs. The morality tale of Washington fessing up to chopping things down with his little hatchet. Snooze-inducing stuff like The Stamp Act (which turns out not to be boring at all).

The American Revolution. I chalked it up to one big yawn. Especially when compared to the high drama, pathos, and moral imperative of the American Civil War. With its roots in the question of extending/ending slavery, its families divided North and South, and the terrible carnage at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh, the Civil War had me at hello. I crushed on Abraham Lincoln, that hero of the scruffy cheek; the wise, sad eyes. He epitomized all that was kind and brilliant and just—his own life an enduring reminder that poverty is a condition and not a character flaw.

I first borrowed Irene Hunt’s now-classic YA novel Across Five Aprils from my school library in fourth grade. It was a book I would take out five more times before moving on to middle school. If I’d been awarding points for best American conflict, the score would have looked like this:

Civil War: 100

American Revolution: 0

So I was not prepared to be especially moved by the TV series John Adams (HBO, 2008) based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name.

Note to self: It’s important to re-examine one’s assumptions from time to time.

John Adams put me in another set of shoes, in another time. Made me think in new ways. Moved me to reassess old prejudices. And stirred something in my soul. Perhaps one just has to live long enough to appreciate what an enormous, pain-in-the-derriere struggle it was to forge a new nation from 13 wrangling colonies who saw eye to eye on very little. Crazier still, a representative democracy.

For what could be more egotistical, more foolhardy than to declare this fledgling union a democracy in defiance of a Europe still dominated by monarchies and old aristocrats? What living models could the colonists turn to for guidance? The Corsican Republic had a written constitution toward the end of its short life—little more than a decade—but was crushed by the French in 1769. All else was monarchs and oligarchs.

Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest would have to cobble together their new government from the ether of political philosophers’ ideas. Men like Aristotle, Thomas Paine, John Locke, and Baron de Montesquieu. It was Montesquieu’s argument for an independent judiciary that Madison pressed for in the drafting of the Constitution.

Through the Looking Glass of Time

Not surprisingly, historians in every era since have weighed in on what the founding fathers concocted.

Writing in the wake of his extended visit to America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville credited the rise of equality to greater economic opportunities from increased trade and commerce, the cheapening of the nobility by the royal sale of titles, and the abolishing of primogeniture. He admired much in the new American democracy: the way everyone shook hands with each other, the considerable number of people active in public life, the fabled New England town meetings where all citizens were entitled to a say in civic matters. He pronounced America’s four-year cycle of presidential elections a “revolution.”

Yet, de Tocqueville had his concerns. In a society of equals, he feared, the majority would always hold sway and silence minority opinion and rights. He observed this “tyranny of the majority” in the North where free black men who had the legal right to vote were often prevented from doing so by the white majority. He also noted, “I know of no country in which … there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”

Boston University political scientist, historian, and activist, Howard Zinn, weighing in 150 years later, viewed the American Revolution through the lens of progressive 20th century sensibilities.  Zinn claims the Founding Fathers received more than their due of adulation, and debunks them as democracy’s true

Shays Rebellion

heroes. While admitting they led the War for Independence, he takes them to task for their motives, stating it was not for equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness they fought, but for a government that would “protect the property of slave owners, land speculators, merchants, and bondholders.” The true revolutionaries, he says, were men like the soldiers of Pennsylvania and New Jersey who mutinied against their gentry officers, George Washington among them, for the luxurious treatment they enjoyed. Men like Massachusetts farmer, Daniel Shays, who led a revolt against the seizure of homes and farms for nonpayment of extortionate taxes.

Harvard historian Alex Keyssar notes: “It’s hard to argue that we were a democracy while slavery existed or while African Americans were denied the franchise.” To that, one could add the suffrage in 1776 did not admit white men who owned no property, Native Americans, or women of any station.

Two things jump out at me as I read these assessments:

1) Persons and events of historical note are almost universally held to account by the standards of the historian’s day. De Tocqueville, for example, was untroubled by women’s exclusion from the suffrage and did not view it as an inequality because, like his peers in the 1830s, he believed women did not belong in political or economic life.

While there’s no denying that the fledgling America excluded all but propertied, white, Christian men in its concerns for democratic rights, in this the founders were no more backward or reactionary than the world they inhabited. Judging the value of what they created by the measure of modern progressive sensibilities is like decreeing Shakespeare sucked as a playwright because he reflected the prevailing attitudes of 1600, and failed to champion political and social equality for women, Jews, and Moors. In holding the past to a standard it had not yet dreamt of, we may miss what was truly revolutionary in the moment.

2) Almost everything at the hour of its invention is but a poor prototype of what it may become.

Indeed, ratification of the Constitution was held up because a number of the original framers and state delegates insisted it include a list of individual rights. In 1791, such a list was added—ten amendments known as The Bill of Rights specify restrictions on the government’s power. The Constitution, itself, outlines a process in Article V for further amendments to be made through the people’s elected representatives. In the past 226 years, seventeen amendments have been added, including the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery at the close of the Civil War.

History, quite fortunately for historians, always has a tidy beginning, middle, and end, but all the living present ever offers us mere mortals is uncertainty.

The Real Gift of the Founders

John Adams does not paint the founding fathers as heroes of epic stature or selfless idealists. Adams, himself, is portrayed as something of a pompous curmudgeon, riddled with vanity and insecurity, but his dedication is undeniable, unrelenting.

“The Declaration of Independence” John Trumbull

When asked to view John Trumbull’s now-iconic painting, The Declaration of Independence, a mammoth work that depicts Congress gathered in stately fashion for the presentation of the draft document, Adams takes a brief glimpse, then turns away. “It was never like that,” he tells Trumbull.

Apocryphal or not, it may be the truest and most profound line of the series. For it was not an ideal democracy ordained and presided over by godlike geniuses that was the great gift of the founding fathers, but the idea of democracy. An idea that has fired imaginations and shaped the dreams of men and women for the past 240 years.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

The idea of democracy has inspired men and women like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sangar, Barbara Gittings, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Gloria Steinem, and millions more whose names have not made the history books. It has informed labor unions, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, The Rainbow Coalition, and the LGBTQ Rights Movement. It has given rise to events such as The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, Selma, Little Rock, Stonewall, the anti-war protests of the 1960s, and Standing Rock.

The Center for American Progress writesThe activists and leaders of these movements believed deeply in the empowerment and equality of the less privileged in society, the primacy of democracy in American life, and the notion that government should safeguard the common good from unchecked individual and commercial greed.

The idea of democracy.

No Great Idea Goes Unchallenged

It would be disingenuous to suggest the struggle for democracy goes unchallenged. It is and has been challenged every day since the ink was still wet on the Constitution. John Adams, himself, took potshots at it during his presidency. Afraid France would make war on the new nation, and distressed by increasing press attacks on his administration, he passed four pieces of legislation in 1798, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, granting greater authority to the federal government, especially the president.

The last of the four laws, the Sedition Act, allowed Adams to define what constituted treason including writings he deemed false, libelous, or malicious. He intended to silence the newspapers and pamphlets he felt unfairly criticized him. Twenty-five men were arrested and imprisoned, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, a newspaper editor.

Backlash was immediate. Adams actions were rightfully considered abuse of his powers and a threat to free speech. Jefferson’s party gained control of Congress and the presidency in 1800, where they let three of the four Acts expire. (The Alien Enemies Act, though modified, has survived into the present and was used as an argument to intern Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War II.)

Fifty-seven years later, on the eve of the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that “a black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect.” In what has been called the worst decision the Supreme Court ever made, it was decided that black Americans whether enslaved or free were not and never could be U.S. citizens.

Shortly after the Civil War, Myra Bradwell applied for admission to the Illinois Bar, but was denied admittance by the Illinois Supreme Court because she was a woman. Bradwell appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause protected her right to practice law. The Supreme Court disagreed: The 14th Amendment did not apply and therefore the decision was up to the state of Illinois. Bradwell’s gender was a critical factor for several SCOTUS judges. Justice Bradley noted: [the] natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life… The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.”

“The Creator” has often been used to justify denying various groups of American citizens their democratic rights—women, people of color, LGBTQ folks. It was a cruel irony that black American soldiers sent to fight Hitler in World War II returned home only to suffer the fascism of the Jim Crow South.

In recent years, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC has allowed corporations and their billionaire CEOs to drive America’s destiny by heavily funding extreme right wing candidates who do their bidding, and financing hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads against any candidate who supports environmental protections, stricter gun laws, or checks on Wall Street—even though most Americans support these things.

Greed, racism, misogyny, homophobia—the idea of democracy has always been challenged. Yet, its promise continues to energize millions of Americans to protest, to strike, to risk imprisonment for their beliefs. Witness the recent #FamiliesBelongTogether actions across the country to stop the horrors at our southern border, the 2017 Women’s March, the constituents speaking out against “Trumpcare” at Town Halls, the No Wall No Ban protests, the Climate March.

The idea of democracy, it seems, refuses to lie down and die. As John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad says in The Grapes of Wrath: “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

The Task Before Us
At Standing Rock Camp

Two days after the 2016 election, author Neil Gabler, heartbroken, wrote: America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.

Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on  Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on                                                                                          Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

I understand Gabler’s despair in that moment. Empathize with it. Elected officials, especially presidents, and court justices are significant for the power they wield, the good or ill they do to ordinary Americans. They may even threaten the institution of democracy itself. But they can never kill the idea of democracy. It remains impervious to all their blows, their attempts to enslave us for their own greed and aggrandizement. As long as we dream democracy, the idea lives.

We stand at a crossroads. It’s not the first in our history. It is likely not the last. Like our country’s founders, we find ourselves in the living present with all its uncertainty. And the one grand idea they left us: the idea of democracy.

It is up to us to push forward this idea while protecting all that is precious and at risk—freedom of the press, voting rights, civil rights, the environment, healthcare, the social safety net, our public lands, our public schools. It’s a long list at the moment.

Just before finishing this post, I took a trip to that most democratic of all institutions, the grocery store—everyone comes to the grocery store. As I stood in line to check out, I watched the people. Old people, young people, families with kids. Latinos, whites, blacks, Asians. Some people were doing the week’s shopping. Others were grabbing a six-pack of soda and chips. It’s Monday of a long holiday weekend, so people’s faces were more open, their smiles a little wider, their laughter more generous.

I thought about the hopes each of them may harbor. How, basically, everyone wants to live a life free from fear. A life where they have a home and food, and the means to procure both, with a little money and time left over for what they enjoy. How everyone needs to feel respected, a citizen, a voice with a say. A person whose life matters.

That is the idea of democracy. That each of us matters. That we all have a say.

(Featured photo by Franck Prevel)

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The Idea of Democracy

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation …  shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

 

I hardly know how to begin. As I write this updated intro to a post I ran last year to observe America’s Independence Day, the SCOTUS has ruled to allow Trump’s Muslim Ban, to permit businesses to discriminate against LGBQT folks, and to silence labor. At this hour, America doesn’t much resemble a democracy. With children being kidnapped from their parents by our border agents–families smashed and lives destroyed–America doesn’t feel much like the nation of immigrants the Statue of Liberty celebrates. With Trump complaining that courts and due process are “bothers” he wants to dispose of, America, land of the free, seems to be sliding into a dark abyss. And now we have a seat empty on the Supreme Court, with the very real threat that it will be filled by someone who will further savage our democracy.

And yet, I harbor hope that the millions and millions of Americans taking to the streets to fight these attacks on our freedom, to uphold our most-cherished beliefs will prevail.  Because the idea of democracy, however flawed it has been and still is, is worth all the energy and love we can put into it. Because we who fight are its last, best, and only hope. It has always been so. (June 29, 2018)

“Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree,” engraving by John C. McRae, 1867.

I have to confess, the history of the American Revolution failed to stir my imagination in high school. Those godawful powdered wigs. The morality tale of Washington fessing up to chopping things down with his little hatchet. Snooze-inducing stuff like The Stamp Act (which turns out not to be boring at all).

The American Revolution. I chalked it up to one big yawn. Especially when compared to the high drama, pathos, and moral imperative of the American Civil War. With its roots in the question of extending/ending slavery, its families divided North and South, and the terrible carnage at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh, the Civil War had me at hello. I crushed on Abraham Lincoln, that hero of the scruffy cheek; the wise, sad eyes. He epitomized all that was kind and brilliant and just—his own life an enduring reminder that poverty is a condition and not a character flaw.

I first borrowed Irene Hunt’s now-classic YA novel Across Five Aprils from my school library in fourth grade. It was a book I would take out five more times before moving on to middle school. If I’d been awarding points for best American conflict, the score would have looked like this:

Civil War: 100

American Revolution: 0

So I was not prepared to be especially moved by the TV series John Adams (HBO, 2008) based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name.

Note to self: It’s important to re-examine one’s assumptions from time to time.

John Adams put me in another set of shoes, in another time. Made me think in new ways. Moved me to reassess old prejudices. And stirred something in my soul. Perhaps one just has to live long enough to appreciate what an enormous, pain-in-the-derriere struggle it was to forge a new nation from 13 wrangling colonies who saw eye to eye on very little. Crazier still, a representative democracy.

For what could be more egotistical, more foolhardy than to declare this fledgling union a democracy in defiance of a Europe still dominated by monarchies and old aristocrats? What living models could the colonists turn to for guidance? The Corsican Republic had a written constitution toward the end of its short life—little more than a decade—but was crushed by the French in 1769. All else was monarchs and oligarchs.

Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest would have to cobble together their new government from the ether of political philosophers’ ideas. Men like Aristotle, Thomas Paine, John Locke, and Baron de Montesquieu. It was Montesquieu’s argument for an independent judiciary that Madison pressed for in the drafting of the Constitution.

Through the Looking Glass of Time

Not surprisingly, historians in every era since have weighed in on what the founding fathers concocted.

Writing in the wake of his extended visit to America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville credited the rise of equality to greater economic opportunities from increased trade and commerce, the cheapening of the nobility by the royal sale of titles, and the abolishing of primogeniture. He admired much in the new American democracy: the way everyone shook hands with each other, the considerable number of people active in public life, the fabled New England town meetings where all citizens were entitled to a say in civic matters. He pronounced America’s four-year cycle of presidential elections a “revolution.”

Yet, de Tocqueville had his concerns. In a society of equals, he feared, the majority would always hold sway and silence minority opinion and rights. He observed this “tyranny of the majority” in the North where free black men who had the legal right to vote were often prevented from doing so by the white majority. He also noted, “I know of no country in which … there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”

Boston University political scientist, historian, and activist, Howard Zinn, weighing in 150 years later, viewed the American Revolution through the lens of progressive 20th century sensibilities.  Zinn claims the Founding Fathers received more than their due of adulation, and debunks them as democracy’s true

Shays Rebellion

heroes. While admitting they led the War for Independence, he takes them to task for their motives, stating it was not for equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness they fought, but for a government that would “protect the property of slave owners, land speculators, merchants, and bondholders.” The true revolutionaries, he says, were men like the soldiers of Pennsylvania and New Jersey who mutinied against their gentry officers, George Washington among them, for the luxurious treatment they enjoyed. Men like Massachusetts farmer, Daniel Shays, who led a revolt against the seizure of homes and farms for nonpayment of extortionate taxes.

Harvard historian Alex Keyssar notes: “It’s hard to argue that we were a democracy while slavery existed or while African Americans were denied the franchise.” To that, one could add the suffrage in 1776 did not admit white men who owned no property, Native Americans, or women of any station.

Two things jump out at me as I read these assessments:

1) Persons and events of historical note are almost universally held to account by the standards of the historian’s day. De Tocqueville, for example, was untroubled by women’s exclusion from the suffrage and did not view it as an inequality because, like his peers in the 1830s, he believed women did not belong in political or economic life.

While there’s no denying that the fledgling America excluded all but propertied, white, Christian men in its concerns for democratic rights, in this the founders were no more backward or reactionary than the world they inhabited. Judging the value of what they created by the measure of modern progressive sensibilities is like decreeing Shakespeare sucked as a playwright because he reflected the prevailing attitudes of 1600, and failed to champion political and social equality for women, Jews, and Moors. In holding the past to a standard it had not yet dreamt of, we may miss what was truly revolutionary in the moment.

2) Almost everything at the hour of its invention is but a poor prototype of what it may become.

Indeed, ratification of the Constitution was held up because a number of the original framers and state delegates insisted it include a list of individual rights. In 1791, such a list was added—ten amendments known as The Bill of Rights specify restrictions on the government’s power. The Constitution, itself, outlines a process in Article V for further amendments to be made through the people’s elected representatives. In the past 226 years, seventeen amendments have been added, including the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery at the close of the Civil War.

History, quite fortunately for historians, always has a tidy beginning, middle, and end, but all the living present ever offers us mere mortals is uncertainty.

The Real Gift of the Founders

John Adams does not paint the founding fathers as heroes of epic stature or selfless idealists. Adams, himself, is portrayed as something of a pompous curmudgeon, riddled with vanity and insecurity, but his dedication is undeniable, unrelenting.

“The Declaration of Independence” John Trumbull

When asked to view John Trumbull’s now-iconic painting, The Declaration of Independence, a mammoth work that depicts Congress gathered in stately fashion for the presentation of the draft document, Adams takes a brief glimpse, then turns away. “It was never like that,” he tells Trumbull.

Apocryphal or not, it may be the truest and most profound line of the series. For it was not an ideal democracy ordained and presided over by godlike geniuses that was the great gift of the founding fathers, but the idea of democracy. An idea that has fired imaginations and shaped the dreams of men and women for the past 240 years.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

The idea of democracy has inspired men and women like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sangar, Barbara Gittings, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Gloria Steinem, and millions more whose names have not made the history books. It has informed labor unions, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, The Rainbow Coalition, and the LGBTQ Rights Movement. It has given rise to events such as The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, Selma, Little Rock, Stonewall, the anti-war protests of the 1960s, and Standing Rock.

The Center for American Progress writesThe activists and leaders of these movements believed deeply in the empowerment and equality of the less privileged in society, the primacy of democracy in American life, and the notion that government should safeguard the common good from unchecked individual and commercial greed.

The idea of democracy.

No Great Idea Goes Unchallenged

It would be disingenuous to suggest the struggle for democracy goes unchallenged. It is and has been challenged every day since the ink was still wet on the Constitution. John Adams, himself, took potshots at it during his presidency. Afraid France would make war on the new nation, and distressed by increasing press attacks on his administration, he passed four pieces of legislation in 1798, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, granting greater authority to the federal government, especially the president.

The last of the four laws, the Sedition Act, allowed Adams to define what constituted treason including writings he deemed false, libelous, or malicious. He intended to silence the newspapers and pamphlets he felt unfairly criticized him. Twenty-five men were arrested and imprisoned, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, a newspaper editor.

Backlash was immediate. Adams actions were rightfully considered abuse of his powers and a threat to free speech. Jefferson’s party gained control of Congress and the presidency in 1800, where they let three of the four Acts expire. (The Alien Enemies Act, though modified, has survived into the present and was used as an argument to intern Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War II.)

Fifty-seven years later, on the eve of the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that “a black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect.” In what has been called the worst decision the Supreme Court ever made, it was decided that black Americans whether enslaved or free were not and never could be U.S. citizens.

Shortly after the Civil War, Myra Bradwell applied for admission to the Illinois Bar, but was denied admittance by the Illinois Supreme Court because she was a woman. Bradwell appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause protected her right to practice law. The Supreme Court disagreed: The 14th Amendment did not apply and therefore the decision was up to the state of Illinois. Bradwell’s gender was a critical factor for several SCOTUS judges. Justice Bradley noted: [the] natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life… The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.”

“The Creator” has often been used to justify denying various groups of American citizens their democratic rights—women, people of color, LGBTQ folks. It was a cruel irony that black American soldiers sent to fight Hitler in World War II returned home only to suffer the fascism of the Jim Crow South.

In recent years, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC has allowed corporations and their billionaire CEOs to drive America’s destiny by heavily funding extreme right wing candidates who do their bidding, and financing hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads against any candidate who supports environmental protections, stricter gun laws, or checks on Wall Street—even though most Americans support these things.

Greed, racism, misogyny, homophobia—the idea of democracy has always been challenged. Yet, its promise continues to energize millions of Americans to protest, to strike, to risk imprisonment for their beliefs. Witness the recent #FamiliesBelongTogether actions across the country to stop the horrors at our southern border, the 2017 Women’s March, the constituents speaking out against “Trumpcare” at Town Halls, the No Wall No Ban protests, the Climate March.

The idea of democracy, it seems, refuses to lie down and die. As John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad says in The Grapes of Wrath: “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

The Task Before Us
At Standing Rock Camp

Two days after the 2016 election, author Neil Gabler, heartbroken, wrote: America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.

Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on  Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on                                                                                          Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

I understand Gabler’s despair in that moment. Empathize with it. Elected officials, especially presidents, and court justices are significant for the power they wield, the good or ill they do to ordinary Americans. They may even threaten the institution of democracy itself. But they can never kill the idea of democracy. It remains impervious to all their blows, their attempts to enslave us for their own greed and aggrandizement. As long as we dream democracy, the idea lives.

We stand at a crossroads. It’s not the first in our history. It is likely not the last. Like our country’s founders, we find ourselves in the living present with all its uncertainty. And the one grand idea they left us: the idea of democracy.

It is up to us to push forward this idea while protecting all that is precious and at risk—freedom of the press, voting rights, civil rights, the environment, healthcare, the social safety net, our public lands, our public schools. It’s a long list at the moment.

Just before finishing this post, I took a trip to that most democratic of all institutions, the grocery store—everyone comes to the grocery store. As I stood in line to check out, I watched the people. Old people, young people, families with kids. Latinos, whites, blacks, Asians. Some people were doing the week’s shopping. Others were grabbing a six-pack of soda and chips. It’s Monday of a long holiday weekend, so people’s faces were more open, their smiles a little wider, their laughter more generous.

I thought about the hopes each of them may harbor. How, basically, everyone wants to live a life free from fear. A life where they have a home and food, and the means to procure both, with a little money and time left over for what they enjoy. How everyone needs to feel respected, a citizen, a voice with a say. A person whose life matters.

That is the idea of democracy. That each of us matters. That we all have a say.

(Featured photo by Franck Prevel)

Got Heart?

Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.     (Helen Keller)

My husband and I were enjoying dinner at a local pub restaurant recently when a woman’s voice pierced the cozy bubble of our conversation.

“I have no social conscience.”

This admission, calmly stated, shocked me profoundly. That there are people who have no social conscience, who feel no concern for the suffering of others, is certainly not news to me. My inbox and the nightly news supply ample examples of cruel indifference:

Credit: PA
  • GOP efforts to pull the plug on children’s health insurance (CHIP).
  • Paul Ryan’s campaign to bankrupt Medicare and privatize Social Security.
  • Police officers gunning down black teens “armed” with nothing but a smartphone.
  • The governor of Michigan leaving Flint residents to drink lead-poisoned water after he changed the city’s supplier to save money—a serious health crisis now in its fifth year.
  • The blind eye the Trump administration turned toward the residents of Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricane disaster—a blind eye that ratcheted up an initial death toll of 17 to a now-staggering 1,000+ by the most conservative counts.
http://www.today.com

Clearly, far too many people don’t give a rip. Our Congress is filled with them.

No, what shocked me about this statement, I have no social conscience, is that someone would admit to such callousness casually, publicly. I turned in my seat as far as I dared to see the speaker: a well-dressed woman in her fifties, eating dinner across from a man whose slack-jawed expression suggested he, too, was startled by her confession.

What is Social Conscience? What is It Not?

What is social conscience?

Collins Dictionary defines it as “the state of being aware of the problems that affect a lot of people in society, such as being poor or having no home, and wanting to do something to help these people.”

Collins appends this arresting note: “The social conscience, or more correctly the social heart, has come to regard the survival of the fittest as a barbarian conception.” Exactly.

http://www.today.com

Wikipedia distinguishes between the personal and the social:

“While our conscience is related to our moral conduct in our day-to-day lives with respect to individuals, social conscience is concerned with the broader institutions of society and the gap that we may perceive between the sort of society that should exist and the real society that does exist [italics are mine].”

So, the person who pays her bills and takes dinner to a neighbor recovering from surgery; who contributes to the local playground used by her children and doesn’t cheat on her taxes—she considers herself an icon of morality.

But she tips her hand when she votes for someone like Georgia’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who among other atrocities, brags “I’ve got a big truck in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself.” (Note: You really owe it to yourself to watch his new campaign ad here. It beggars belief.)

Conscience, in this instance, is all about the personal, the tribal. I, me, mine. Totally missing is any feeling of connection to people one doesn’t know, a sense of common humanity.

Which is why we now have children being torn from their parents in alarming numbers by U.S. border control agents. (One would be alarming, but there are HUNDREDS, soon to be thousands.)

People fleeing political violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala arrive at our southern border, having traveled up to several thousand miles, only to have the children they sought to protect snatched from them by border agents and driven off to god knows where. These parents tell beyond-horrific stories of being restrained while a stranger carries off their terrified child. The children old enough to talk, scream, “Mommy! Mommy!” The infants can only sob.

Ross D. Franklin/AP 2016

Some, maybe most, of these children will never see their parents again. Detention facility operators for non-U.S. citizen kids admit it’s often impossible to locate the parents after the children are taken by agents. This violence happens so quickly, there’s no time (or effort made) to create proper records. An infant can’t even reveal her name. And there’s no real plan for the future of these kids. They are simply regarded as the ‘casualties’ of a war on immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says of Trump’s new “zero tolerance” policy “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

What Does a World Devoid of Social Conscience Look Like?

In her 2017 book Democracy in Chains, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean gives us a well-researched look at the people who would transform our democracy into a dog-eat-dog world of predators and prey, devil take the hindmost. At its center is the vision of a man named James Buchanan for whom the 1955 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education (calling for the end of segregation in public schools) was the last straw, a government incursion too far in what he believed should be the freedom of the minority (the rich) from the needs and wishes of the common rabble (the majority).

An economist, Buchanan joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in 1956 where he founded the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy. Sounds patriotic, doesn’t it? Very Founding Fathers and all. But its aims were to undo representative democracy and scrub the public from every institution. It is the direct antecedent of today’s far-right, Koch-funded Heritage Foundation, American Legislative Exchange (ALEC), Cato Institute, and dozens of other Orwellian-titled think-tanks and foundations where a democratic name has been purposely selected to disguise the very anti-democratic philosophy of its members.

Buchanan & Friends’ targets include: ending public education; privatizing or eliminating Social Security and Medicare; shutting down the U.S. Postal Service; eliminating the minimum wage and laws against child labor; closing the EPA; cutting off all foreign aid; scrubbing employer-provided pensions; a total nix on rules that would constrain how a person gets wealthy, and a prohibition against taxing that wealth other than for military expenditures.

That is the short list.

So, who will pay for the interstates, highways, and bridges required to transport the goods made in the factories of the rich that increase their wealth?

Far more important, what becomes of the 90% of America’s children who attend public schools if public education is axed? That’s millions and millions of kids.

No public schools, no minimum wage, no prohibitions against child labor. What is the “dream” for this brave new world, devoid of all social conscience? Five-year-olds working for fifty cents an hour? For how many years? Until they die? It certainly eliminates any need to worry about retirement savings, Social Security, or Medicare. I can hear Betsy DeVos and Paul Ryan salivating right now.

The Nazis had an assembly plant buried deep in the Harz Mountains, Mittelwerk, where slave labor—Jews, Communists, homosexuals, Poles, and other Nazi targets—manufactured the weapons used against the Allies. The system was simple. A person was worked day and night in the underground tunnels until they dropped dead. Then they were tossed into an incinerator. As the Nazis liked to point out: Labor was expendable. There were always more where they came from.

Mittelwerk

It should come as no surprise that James Buchanan was the architect of the new constitution for CIA-backed dictator General Pinochet’s authoritarian regime in Chile (1973-1990), a constitution Buchanan liked to brag was unbreachable, a template of the one he hoped to write for America when enough states could be “bought” in elections to demand a rewrite of our constitution. (As of November 2017, 28 GOP-dominated states are calling for an Article 5 constitutional convention to review and rewrite our founding document. Only six more states are needed to begin this process.)

Buchanan died in 2013, but his vision lives on and is well-funded thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, a decision that made it a slam-dunk for dark money to buy politicians. Your representatives are now, in many cases, their representatives.

The Great Divide

The question in all this that really nags at me—has been nagging me as far back as these lines I penned at age 14—is this:

What motivates one man to plant a garden

And another to build a bomb?

The Great Divide between those who care about the welfare of other people on this planet—who believe because we are all human beings, we are all connected—and those who blatantly don’t is a very hot topic these days, judging by the headlines in my Google search. For instance, relative to polls in the 1990s, Business Insider reported, Republicans are now much more likely to say poor people have it easy, while Democrats are less likely to say so.

And people who don’t take a “one-world” view of humanity are much easier about “letting it all hang out” than in recent decades. Perhaps they are feeling empowered by having a nationalist, racist, sexist, homophobic, war-junkie at the helm.

What motivates one man to plant a garden

And another to build a bomb?

Proactiva Open Arms, March 2018

Why do some of us look at news footage of Syrian parents weeping over the dead bodies of their children and, knowing what agonizing trauma it would be to lose our own child, feel their grief? More frighteningly to the point, why do some of us not?

The Great Divide. What is it? Where does it come from? Perhaps the most telling answer to this question was given by Baptist minister and former Republican congressman J.C. Watts while he was campaigning for Senator Rand Paul in 2015:  “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good.”

I think that assessment can be stated more broadly, beyond general party lines that are specific to the U.S., because social conscience or lack of it is a global issue. I would say: The person with a social conscience believes people are intrinsically good and we are all connected, whereas the person without a social conscience believes humanity is basically corrupt and it’s everyone for themselves.

When I shared this with my daughter, she mentioned an observation her dad once made: The divide can also be seen as those who believe there’s enough for everyone versus those who see life as a zero-sum game. “If you get something, I lose something. So piss off and die.”

The Business Insider article also mentioned that decades of research has shown that feeling threatened makes people more conservative. If the Great Divide were that simple, though, every progressive, liberal, and middle-of-the-roader in America would be wearing a John Birch Society button right now because, absolutely, make-no-mistake, we who have a social conscience feel threatened.

Perhaps Dr. Seuss nailed the problem perfectly in his book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! 

“The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! 
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason. 
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. 
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. 
But I think that the most likely reason of all 
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”

But if, Baby, You’re the Bottom, I’m the Top

No one wants to be at the “bottom of the barrel.” And people feeling the threat of that slippery slope can be dangerous. Before the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment, the poor whites of the South comforted themselves with a false sense of superiority—at least they were “better” than black people who had to be slaves—but when slavery ended, these people got real nervous. What if freed to reach their true potential, black people turned out to be just as smart, talented, and capable as the smartest, most capable whites? Frightened they might find themselves at the bottom of the bottom, these poor whites became the roots of the Ku Klux Klan.

This fear permeates everything. Happens everywhere. In Michigan, where I grew up, the Upper Peninsula had very few black people but some number of Native Americans. Every slur that is directed toward blacks elsewhere in the U.S. was slung at these Native Americans—dirty, lazy, irresponsible.

Race and ethnicity are the major hammers fearful people throw, but religion can also be a weapon to suppress others, to keep someone else at the bottom of that barrel. The misery that is ISIS was egged on by Al Qaeda to exploit the struggle for supremacy between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Who will be relegated to the bottom?

Question: Why does there have to be a bottom?

Answers I have heard all my life:

Because there’s always been one.

That’s just the way people are.

But people are a lot of ways. They dash into burning buildings to rescue strangers. They save fleeing refugees when their boats capsize at sea. They volunteer at homeless shelters. They place a Black Lives Matter sign in their yard. They understand that if we don’t all work together and take care of each other, we and the planet are doomed.

What Part of “People Don’t Throw People Under the Bus” Isn’t Clear?

Little by little we’ll go,

No matter how far the distance is

 We are not shaken.

Little by little we’ll go

And meet our destination.

 That’s the beginning to a poem written by Joyce Chisale, a Malawian girl who dreams of becoming a doctor (and poet).  Girls in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, are only given free basic education to the age of 13. After that, parents must pay the school fees—$100  USD per term. Joyce’s father makes $40 USD a month, painting, welding, and offloading cargo.

Joyce’s great-uncle stepped up to pay the first two terms of her school fees, but was unable to continue funding her education. He had his own children to provide for. So, Joyce—a student her biology teacher calls “an exceptional girl”—was forced to leave school. She was heartbroken.

© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

And then someone with a social conscience—MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell—in conjunction with a whole lot of people with a social conscience, UNICEF, stepped in to help Joyce realize her dreams. The K.I.N.D Fund was established to provide, among other things, scholarships for girls to go to school. Many hundreds more people with a social conscience have since donated to this fund, and thanks to everyone involved, Joyce and many other girls are continuing their education.  (To see what Joyce is doing now, watch this May 2018 interview with O’Donnell here. It will make your day.)

Thankfully, wonderfully, the gift that is Joyce is being opened. But what about the millions of children around the world who could be “exceptional” if only they weren’t being bombed, shot, and starved?

We throw so many, many people away. Because they are poor or of another race or another religion or another “tribe” or a girl or …  We throw people away. Day after day.

Syria, Feb. 2018: A heavy bombardment kills at least 100 civilians, 20 of them children, in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to be preparing for an imminent ground assault.

According to the Middle East Children’s Alliance, 1,518 Palestinian children were killed by Israel’s occupation forces from the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000 up to April 2013. That number means that one Palestinian child was killed by Israel every 3 days for almost 13 years. In the following year, 2014, nearly 600 Palestinian kids were killed.

Headline in The Guardian, January 16, 2018: Yemen war: 5,000 children dead or hurt and 400,000 malnourished, UN says

We throw people away. We throw children away. To lack a social conscience is to be okay with this. To be like Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life: “They’re not my children.”

But we cannot afford to look away. The problems we face—environmental chaos, pandemics, undrinkable water, famine, chemical warfare, nuclear threats—will require we ALL work together, that we care for others as ourselves. Indifference, or worse, is not viable. 

“I have no social conscience.”

In that sentence, this one echoes: “I am liberating man from the degrading chimera known as ‘conscience.’” The speaker is Hitler.

Wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, do what you can. Now. The world desperately needs you. It has never needed you more.

And the Awards Go to …

This week, I’m interrupting my regularly-scheduled post to both thank a few bloggers and to pass my appreciation forward to a few more. I’ll be back next week with the kind of heartfelt rant you’ve come to expect from me on some aspect of the human condition.

And now, without further ado …

Every time I’ve been about to leave town for the past two months, my blog has been nominated for an award by my fellow writers from the blogging community. It’s lovely and touching to be recognized—as I’m sure these bloggers know—for a job that often feels like shouting into the void. You might start a blog for this or that reason—perhaps as a step toward book publication—but somewhere along the way it becomes a labor of love. Your name is on it. Your soul is in it.

When I was an angsty teenager, I wrote a poem with the line I was born with a voice in a world with no ears. I’m still angsty. I still have a voice. But now I know there are ears out there.

So today, I set aside suitcases, laundry, and pack lists, to say THANK YOU for reminding me of that Cammie Adams at Silent Screamer who nominated me for the One Lovely Blog Award; and Cindy Kolbe at Struggling With Serendipity who did the same for the Sunshine Blogger Award.

You ladies rock!

The One Lovely Blog Award                        

The Rules:                                                             

  1. Thank the person who nominated you.
  2. Share 7 facts about yourself.
  3. Nominate 15 bloggers and inform them of the nomination.

Okay, here goes.

Seven Facts about Me:

1) I hate talking on the phone. The whole disembodiment of it drives me nuts and strangely renders me tongue-tied with people I’ve known forever. If I can’t talk to friends face-to-face, preferably over a glass of Italian red, then I’d rather “chat” by e-mail.

Copyright 2018 The Doorpost Blog

2) I date my fierce attachment to social justice to a nursery school incident. At three, I was a year younger than everyone else in the class, and having no siblings (yet) I was used to dealing only with adults who, though they could be strict and demanding, were rarely capriciously unfair. In short, I was not prepared for bullies. So when John R. swooped down and grabbed the train I was playing with, announcing “You can’t play with this!”, I was gobsmacked. And furious. I seethed in silence behind a chair for the rest of that morning and many days after. I’ve never forgotten the burn of feeling helpless in the face of tyranny. It made me a fighter for fairness.

3) I come across as fairly gregarious, and I’m skilled at getting conversations going among people at parties, but I’m actually quite shy. That said, I’m wildly interested in people—what they do, why they do what they do, how they choose to present themselves publicly.

4) Related to #3, I’m forever making up stories about people I see in coffee shops, on the street, in the park. I practically imagined an entire novel once from the seeming tension I felt between two men sitting at different tables in a London Soho breakfast place. By the time I paid my bill, I had them planning a major terrorist op, waiting only for final instructions on their linked cellphones. I must admit, I felt a little jumpy walking out of that café and down the street even though I knew I’d made up the entire plot. My husband thinks this is endlessly funny.

5) I used to teach first grade. A wonderful age group. When you announce, “It’s time for math,” they actually cheer. Try that in fifth grade.

6) I make a marvelous lemon pie, but I’ve never been able to master getting the meringue topping to seal at the edges. I always have this sad little gap between the crust and the meringue after an hour.

7) I would define grace as a state of being where you can breathe normally through any crisis, no matter how difficult the situation or how long it lasts, while continuing your work and never giving up hope. I haven’t achieved that state yet, and maybe I’ll die trying, but it is what I strive for. 

My Nominees for The One Lovely Blog Award:

Cindy Kolbe:  Struggling with Serendipity

Lori Knutson:  LoriKnutson.com 

Neil Scheinin: Yeah, Another Blogger

Lauren Greene: Lauren Greene Writes

Leslie Kluchin: lesleykluchin.wordpress.com

Cyndi Pauwels: CL Pauwels At Large

Max Powers: Maxpower’s Blog 

Susan Ekins: Women Making Strides

Susan Roberts: Susan’s Musings

Rohit Byahut: BeBloggerOfficial 

Clarissa Gosling: My Musings About the World

Shan:  Getoutoftherecliner

Nina Romano: ninaromano.com

Kyrian Lyndon: Kyrian Lyndon, Novelist & Poet 

Davy D: Inside the Mind of Davy D

The Sunshine Blogger Award

And I quote: “The Sunshine Blogger Award is given BY bloggers TO bloggers who inspire positivity and creativity in the blogging community.”

The Rules:

1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and link back to their blog.
2. Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.
3. Nominate 11 bloggers to receive this award, and write 11 new questions.
4. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your blog.

11 Questions for Me:

Q: What corner of the world are you from?

A: LOL, I never thought of the Great Lakes as a corner. I was born in Cincinnati actually, but grew up a mile from Lake Michigan before I escaped to the East Coast. The day I arrived in Boston, I went down to the North End and dipped my hand in the Atlantic. I had made it out. I had arrived in the place of my dreams. Now, I’ve been here longer than I was “there.”

Q: How long have you been blogging?

A: Almost three years now. My first post went out at the end of August 2015. Right after I built my website—talk about learning curves. Whewheee!

Q:Why are you blogging?

A: Like many bloggers, I have a book I’m seeking representation for. Though I had a good response on my initial query, several agents mentioned the lack of social media presence and specifically, the lack of a blog. So, I researched several dozen blogs, looking for a template of some kind. What did I like? What didn’t I like? I found my ideal in author Michael Gruber’s blog—a monthly essay of some real thought and merit.

Q: What do you like best about blogging?

A: What I mentioned in the intro to this post—a platform to speak in this world about things I consider important. Which is basically the human condition circa now. Blogging takes tremendous time away from writing fiction, it’s true, but I’ve realized over the past three years that it also strengthens me as a writer—of anything, everything. Watching the news on MSNBC, my husband often jokes that I need a “box” like each guest on the panel has. For now, my blog is my box. I don’t subscribe to the idea that authors should never speak up for fear of offending potential readers. Not speaking out when it matters is what allowed seven million people—Jews, Communists, Poles, gays—to be murdered in Hitler’s Germany. From where I sit, you don’t throw people under the bus to get ahead. And you don’t remain silent in the face of atrocities.

Q: Where would you like to travel?

A: My husband and I love to travel. All our spare (ha-ha) money goes into roaming the world. We always stop in London for some part of each trip because London is the home of my heart. Theater, bookstores, museums, galleries, parks, pubs—it has everything, and the people are lovely. We’re also very fond of Italy, the south of France, Paris, and Greece. That said, I would really like to spend time in Denmark, Ireland, and India. I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit a place called Pondicherry?

Q: What would you do if there was no chance of failing?

A: Ride a motorcycle. I’ve tried. I had a little Honda Rebel bike and a learner’s permit and all that, but I went to sleep each night imagining a dog suddenly running out into the road, the lurch and skid of the bike as I slammed on the brakes. So if I was guaranteed I would never have a motorcycle accident, and be splatted all over the road, I’d definitely be biking.

Q: Favorite season?

A: I’m summer baby all the way. Any day in a tank top and flip flops is a GOOD day.

Q: Favorite food?

A: Tough question. Probably some kind of veggie stir fry with shrimp or scallops in it–Chinese or Indian spiced. I eat yogurt every morning with half a sliced banana, a sprinkling of almonds, raisins, and sunflower seeds, topped off with blueberries and raspberries. I never tire of it.

Q: Favorite music?

A: I came of age with the Beatles. They were an amazing creative force. Their music defined a generation. As for a single song, I’m not sure you can improve on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” And I have a decidedly soft spot for Mozart.

 

Q: Favorite book?

A: Wow, out of the thousands I’ve read, it would be hard to pick one. I don’t think you can express the power of longing to shape us, drive us, any more forcefully and succinctly and hauntingly than F. Scott Fitzgerald does in The Great Gatsby. That green light at the end of the dock—what it means—who doesn’t understand that? Who could forget it?

But if you want to talk writers, I still think Will Shakespeare sits at the head of the table. More than 400 years later, he still speaks to us. His plays have inspired countless retellings from West Side Story to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Shakespeare catalogued with rare perception—and this is important, with mercy—the universal human experiences of jealousy, greed, fear, love, ambition. Who has done the depths of moral confusion better than the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet?

Q: Favorite quote?

A:

“Keep walking though there’s no place to get to.

Don’t try to see through the distances,

That’s not for human beings. Move within,

but don’t move the way fear makes you move.”

(Rumi)

It sits in the place of honor above my desk. I try to learn from it every day.

My Nominations for the Sunshine Blogger Award:

Cammie Adams: Silent Screamer

Marion Ann Berry: My Name is Marion Ann

Lori Knutson: LoriKnutson.com

Lauren Greene: Lauren Greene, Author

Leslie Kluchin: lesleykluchin.wordpress.com

Cyndi Pauwels: CL Pauwels At Large

Susan Roberts: Susan’s Musings

Kyrian Lyndon: Kyrian Lyndon, Novelist & Poet

Neil Scheinin: Yeah, Another Blogger

Grant Leishman: grantleishman.com

Robin Lyons: Robin’s Research Blog

11 Questions for my Sunshine Blogger Award Nominees:

  1. What is one thing you have learned about life this past year?

2. What was your first paying job?

3. Who was your favorite teacher in elementary school, and why?

4. If you write fiction, which genre(s) do you work in? OR if you don’t write fiction, which genre(s) do you most enjoy reading?

5. If you were going to a costume party this weekend, who or what would you like to dress up as?

6. If you were to start a charity, what would be its purpose?

7. Which TV series do you feel has the best writing?

Bianca Sparacino

8. If you could be an animal for a day, which animal would you be and why?

9. Name three of your all-time favorite films.

10. What is one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for you?

11. What is one of the kindest things you feel you have ever done for someone else?

That’s a Wrap, Folks

There are many great bloggers out there, but everyone mentioned here is something special. To all my award nominees, I say: Keep blogging. Keep raising the voice that is uniquely yours because, as it turns out, the world does have ears.

Everything Takes as Long as It Takes

“A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much on the future.” Albert Einstein

 

Note jotted to self on the edge of a cryptic crossword: One day you’re 30; the next, you’re 60, and yet 10 minutes can seem like forever.

Time. The thing that waits for no man. The tyrant that keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking into the future. A specter that haunts, often causing us to feel when we’re doing X, we really should be doing Y.

Case in point: Being a writer, I have a zillion connections to other writers out there. Mostly what I hear falls into one of three camps. 

  1. I’m not writing right now.

2) I’m not writing enough right now.

3) I’m writing 2,000 words a day right now, but the rest of my life is going right down the toilet.

These may read like mere declarative sentences. Trust me, they are not. Each one is packed with enough angst to blow the pin right out of a grenade. What’s missing from these words, but explosively present is: Time.

Let’s take another look at these statements when we give voice to the elephant in the room.

1) I’m not writing right now. It worries me that so much time is going by without my writing. How much more of my life will I waste not writing?

2) I’m not writing enough right now. I write too slowly. Stephen King writes like 200 pages a day. I’ll be 90 when this book is done.

3) I’m writing ten pages a day right now, but the rest of my life is going right down the toilet. I don’t have time to write and have a family. What am I going to do with the kids? The dog? We can’t live on take-out forever. Oh god, I missed the car payment again. And I don’t have friends anymore. No time.

Well, other than the fact that Stephen King writes six pages a day, not 200, the stress about time expressed here is very real. I hear it often from others. I feel it every day myself.

Tick, tick, tick. Time is fleeting. Tempus Fugit—there it goes!

In the Age Before Time

When I was a kid, in that golden era after the invention of the wheel and before the advent of Facebook, my friends and I used to spend whole afternoons in the garage looking for the little key that tightened our roller skates. If we found it before dinner and got time to actually skate, that was a bonus. We were together, hanging out. What more mattered?

Sometimes we rode our bikes around all day, just seeing what was up at our regular haunts: the school playground, the little park six blocks over, the drugstore, the ravine. We weren’t disappointed by what we found—usually nothing. We were just cycling through our world, enjoying the freedom of independence.

Like most kids, I had a few chores. Setting the dinner table. Cleaning my room. I didn’t enjoy them, but I didn’t dread them. My mom would call, “Time to set the table,” and I’d have to put down the book I was engrossed in, or pack up the game I’d been playing with a friend, and go slap down those knives, forks, and spoons. But I never watched the clock. I never thought, “Oh crap, I’ve just blown ten minutes setting the table.” And I certainly never thought about those tasks when I wasn’t doing them. I just did them and resumed what I’d been doing or started something new.

Just taking things as they come—when does that change?

Expanding Responsibilities 

Does time start to feel like the enemy when our responsibilities expand beyond laying out the flatware?

I carried a full load of courses throughout college and worked 30 hours a week, but I don’t recall ever feeling harried by the clock. I didn’t even own a watch. When I was at work at the Student Union Grill, I was at work, chatting with customers as I flipped their burgers and fried their fries. When I was in class, I was in class, talking literature and history, psychology and feminist philosophy, enjoying making connections among the zillions of new ideas bombarding my brain. If I had a paper due, I started in around midnight and worked through the wee hours until I handed it in at class the next day. No biggie. Occasionally, I slept. I didn’t count the hours.

There’s a cartoon from those days. A friend clipped it for me. “This is exactly you,” she said.

But really, it was all of us. I never heard anyone angst about time. There was a healthy sense of We’re here to explore life. We worked. We played. Wherever we were, we were there.

Out in the “Real World”

Entering the REAL WORLD: Is that when time lays a stranglehold on us?

I remember going for my first big-girl job interview. You know, the one where you suit up and park your personality in neutral. The interviewer began with this zinger: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Five years? I didn’t “see” myself at the end of next week. I knew I was a writer. I knew I wanted to always be writing. But I had no timeline for my dreams.

I also knew the interviewer expected me to detail how I planned to climb some ladder I hadn’t constructed and didn’t care about. So, I gave him some garbled gab about ambitions, probably cobbled together from TV shows and articles I’d read about bright young things “going places.” Then I left. Quickly.

After that, I went out west for a while, where I discovered I need deciduous trees and seasons. Then, I came back east for grad school, which I left two years later after some serious #MeToo harassment from a prof, in a time when women were still being advised to “suck it up.” I wrote my first novel. None of this felt like wasting time.

At my second “real world” interview, for an editor’s job, the company focused on my skill set and portfolio—in short, my ability to do the work—and didn’t ask ridiculous questions. (Wherever you see yourself in five years, I can almost guarantee that’s not where you’ll be.) I got that job, and the job came with strict deadlines. I was responsible for planning, sourcing, and writing a monthly publication.

Surely, I must have felt the pressure then—time as an anvil waiting to drop on my head, like Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon.

Not really. When I was watching Late Night with David Letterman in, say, March, I never worried that I wouldn’t make deadline on the April issue. When the company started sending me on the road to give seminars for our client subscribers, I didn’t panic about finding the extra hours to prepare a presentation. I was psyched about the travel, meeting new people, and staying at legendary hotels like The Palmer House in Chicago.

Bring it on. Everything was an adventure.

Of course I didn’t have kids yet. Is it family responsibilities that send us into a tailspin, time spiraling out of control like a plane losing fuel fast?

Parenthood: Who Has Time to Think About Time?

I don’t think there are many parents out there who would argue that having kids is the busiest thing you’ll ever do. There’s something going every minute, and that’s on a slow day. Often, it’s a three-ring circus. You’re making dinner and baking cupcakes for the school fundraiser while helping with homework and maybe adding the finishing touches to a Halloween costume. I recall the blissful peace of doing my work (I was a copyeditor for Elsevier at the time) at the kitchen table after the kids had gone to bed.

Actually, kids keep you very much in the present. Their needs are of the immediate kind, rising in one moment, taken care of in the next. I never had time to worry about time. I took care of them, played with them, ferried them to friends and activities. Once they were in school, I went back to school, too, and became a teacher. By the time I had a classroom, the kids were able to do their own laundry and clean their shared bath. We did takeout one night a week. Everything still felt manageable. When I was doing one thing, I wasn’t tortured by the feeling I should be doing something else. That would come later.

What the Hell is Time Anyway?

It seems like a good moment to pause here and consider the nature of this beast we call Time. A brief Google search informs me that:

“Time is a very curious thing. Ask anyone on the street if they know what time is. They are sure to answer yes. But then, ask them to explain it to you and they will almost certainly be at a loss for words.”   (David Lewis Anderson)

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” (Albert Einstein)

“Time is the measurable unit of movement concerning a before and an after.” (Physica IV, 11, 219, b1)

Now that we’ve got that all cleared up, I’d like to offer a little perspective here.

The Earth came into being a tad over 4.5 billion years ago. Geologically violent in its infancy, and constantly bombarded by meteorites, it took 2 billion years for things to settle down and the continents we know to materialize. Latecomers to the party, it would take another 2,499,800,000 years for us to show up, and then we took our sweet time—another 145,000 years of it—to invent the wheel.

Things take time. Some things take massive amounts of time. Even on our puny human scale, it takes a long time to become a virtuoso at the violin, write a book, lose 20 pounds. We need to find a way to not only accept that, but to embrace it, enjoy the journey, and stop looking over our shoulder at all the things we haven’t done, aren’t doing, still have to do. The hour we fuss and worry that we should be doing X while we’re doing Y is an hour we won’t get back again.

For my birthday last month, my husband gave me a writing retreat. I booked four days at a hotel in the Berkshires, packed my laptop plus my current read, and left home. I set no goals—word count, number of pages. I just wrote. Not only was the time highly productive, it was tremendously relaxing. The real gift, I discovered, was not feeling like there was anything else I should be doing. I was where I was.

An Hour is an Hour

The hour we had as a child is the same hour we have now. It has neither expanded nor shrunk. So the difference in our perception—this perpetual sense of being squeezed—must lie in our expectations.

Maybe it’s not our life stage or chronological age that makes us feel we should be moving through everything at lightning speed, but the age we live in.

Less than a hundred years ago, the journals kept by farmers recount a day’s events as what happened in the morning, the afternoon, the evening. They had much to do and few “labor-saving” tools to help with the load. But they just plowed or planted or harvested as the seasons dictated and understood that when night came, the workday was over. They had to accept their limitations.

And there’s no evidence in their accounts that they fretted about what they weren’t getting done. No Oh god, I’m out here hoeing and I should be churning butter. But how am I ever going to get the peaches canned if I churn the butter? They went with the rhythm of the year—a much larger, more forgiving time unit.

I grew up in a more exacting age. We moved through life by the hours. The school day started at 8:30. We went home for lunch at 12:15 and had to be back at our desks by 1:00. Bonanza was on Sunday nights at 9:00, and the library closed promptly at 5:00.

My children grew up with the nanosecond. Their sense of timecrunch is manifest in the way they watch a movie—while texting, Facebooking, chugging down dinner, and prepping for a work conference call.

But we are still just people, and an hour is still an hour. If we try to cram three hours of to-do stuff into every hour, then we’ll always fail. If we insist on doing it all perfectly, we’ll go flaming nuts.

Very likely, there isn’t time to do everything. But doing everything is a mad goal anyway. So, forget about covering all those bases. Ignore the benchmarks “everyone else” is measuring themselves against. Stop watching the clock. Everything takes as long as it takes. Perhaps, fretting about time is the only true waste of it.

A passage from a childhood book about life in the 1860s sticks with me. The 11-year-old heroine goes to talk something over with her father. He’s repairing a clock. Scattered over his work table are springs and cogs and levers. “He was absorbed in the task at hand.”

The word on the street is that when you’re dead, you’re dead a long time.

Time is not the enemy. Time is life. It’s all we’ve got.