Today, on my 11th day of quarantine, I’m wondering whether it’s a bad thing to use nostalgia as escapism.
C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel (yes–he wrote a science fiction trilogy, back in 1938) Out of the Silent Planet has a fascinating take on the uses of nostalgia. The book is clunky and not terribly good, but it has some really interesting elements in it. In fact, I wish Lewis had stuck to this kind of writing rather than move to the kind of popularized theology which later made him so famous; he might have gotten much better at it, and even as it is, he introduced some fascinating concepts. As an example, when the protagonist Ransom (whom Lewis supposedly modeled after his friend J.R.R. Tolkien) arrives on the planet Malacandra, he finds himself among a group of beings called Hrossa and learns from them about a way of life that is in many ways opposed to life on the Silent Planet–earth.
One of these differences involves how a hross views life experiences and the memories they create. As the hross called Hyoi explains to Ransom, “A pleasure is full-grown only when it is remembered. [It is ] not as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing…. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah is the last part of a poem…. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?” This point is almost immediately muddied by the conversation that comes after it (Lewis clearly did not develop clarity of exposition until sometime later in his career), so let’s do the unthinkable and simply take it out of context in order to discuss the nature of nostalgia itself.
Nostalgia poses a bit of a difficulty for me. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself embarrassed about a growing tendency towards nostalgia. For example, I’d be saying things to my students, or to other young people around me, and suddenly I’d stop and say, in a rueful tone, “Man, I sound just like my grandmother talking about the old days.” That was enough to shut me up. But today, I’m wondering whether that was the wrong response.
The term “nostalgia” is interesting. The “nost” in it is Greek and comes from the word “nostos” — to return home, while the “algos” is apparently Latin and refers to pain (as in “neuralgia” — “pain due to damaged nerves”). So the word, a fine example of macaronic language (meaning a mixture of languages in one word or expression), actually means “pain in returning home,” but we use it in a difference sense, to refer to a sentimental affection for things past. Perhaps pain in the return home isn’t too far from its meaning, in that nostalgia is often bittersweet: we remember with fondness things from long ago, and lament that they are indeed in the past and no longer part of our present or our future lives.
For me, there’s a bit of a shock involved in nostalgia. As my children grew up and left the house, I found myself with more time to pause and reflect on things, and I realized that I had lived well over half my life without being conscious of the passage of time. Then all at once, it hits you like a ton of bricks. I had my “aha” moment concerning this realization on a business trip (remember business trips? there’s some nostalgia for you!) to San Francisco a while ago. My colleagues and I were discussing the city as we ate some delicious sushi.
“I was here a long time ago, but it sure has changed,” I volunteered.
“When were you here?” asked a colleague.
“Hmmm, it was—” I stopped when I realized that it had been well over 25 years since I’d been to San Francisco. The idea that I could have been walking and talking, indeed sentient, 25 years earlier, hit me hard.
And that conversation happened ten years ago now.
I’ve gotten more used to nostalgia recently, and I wonder whether the current pandemic has helped that along. But I wonder how healthy it is to indulge myself in old I Love Lucy episodes, or to watch all of Downton Abbey, or even, if I apply this to my taste in literature, to read centuries-old books. Is my nostalgia–my attraction to the past–an honest attempt to make sense of my life and to enjoy it fully, as Hyoi the Hross describes it in Lewis’s book, or is it merely retreating into a past that has nothing to do with an alarming present and an even more frightening future? Is nostalgia living one’s life to the fullest, or is it avoiding life itself?
It’s a fascinating question, one worthy of many a late-night discussion among friends and colleagues, complete with a few bottles of wine. What a shame that the pandemic that makes the question pertinent also makes getting together to discuss it an impossibility.
However, that’s what “Reply” and “Comment” buttons are for, and I look forward to reading some of yours below.
I want to refer to a day many years ago, back when the world was normal and my kids were still at home. It was a weekday afternoon, and I was making chili for dinner, chopping up ingredients at the kitchen counter. My daughter, a high school student who was also taking classes at the local community college, breezed through the back door, walked through the kitchen, put her books down on the dining room table, and returned to the doorway to say, “Mom, the kids in my school are so stupid. I mean, they’re just so dumb that I get worked up about it. I actually think I’ve gone through the Stages of Grief about their stupidity.”
“What?” I had been dicing bell peppers, but I put down my knife and looked up at her. She had just come home from her college psychology class.
“Well, we were learning about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory about the stages of grief, and I realized that the kids I know are so annoying and stupid that I’ve gone through all those stages about them.”
I asked her to explain, and she went on. “So, the first stage is Denial. I start out thinking, ‘I cannot believe these people are so stupid. Maybe if I ignore them, I won’t have to deal with them at all. The extent of their stupidity actually scares me, so I’ll stay away.'”
I nodded and said, “Go on.”
“The next stage is Anger. I get angry at their stupidity, because they frustrate me, and they make me anxious. I’m just mad that they’re dumb and they don’t care about changing.”
I waited for her to continue.
“Okay, then comes Depression. I seriously get depressed about how stupid they are. I begin to think that they’ll never be anything but stupid, no matter how much I — or anyone else — tries to help them. It makes me sad that anyone can be alive and so dumb.”
By this point I had nothing to say. It’s always a little overwhelming the first time your child shares a truly interesting thought that you didn’t plant in their brain.
“That’s when I start Bargaining. I say to myself, ‘Oh, they may be stupid in this class. They may be stupid in all their classes, but maybe they’re good athletes. Yeah, they’re probably great at football or basketball or volleyball. They’re in band, so maybe that’s what they’re good at. See, they’re really stupid, but there are ways to compensate for that, aren’t there?”
She paused a moment, then finished by saying, “But I always end up Accepting their stupidity. I just factor it into my plans, sometimes I even use it to get what I want, and then I move on to something else.”
She stood up, grabbed her books, and went upstairs to her room, leaving me staring after her. I had nothing to say in the face of such brilliance, but she didn’t even notice.
Every single thing she’d said made perfect sense, and I promised myself one day I would write about it.
And now, 15 years later, awake at the crack of dawn because I can’t stop thinking and fretting and worrying, I realize that we’re probably all going through the Stages of Grief about the Coronavirus, and I’ve finally made good on my promise.
P.S. If you’re looking for more stuff to read, check out my friend John’s blog: TomatoPlanet! at https://ininva.com/. John’s been doing this blogging stuff since way before it was cool, and he’s got some great stuff there.
Although it sounds strange to say it, I am optimistic today. Of course, being in quarantine, my optimism comes and goes in erratic waves–often I am depressed, and worried, and downright frightened about the future. But this morning, I can see a silver lining, and I want to take a moment right now to share it with you, my readers.
I am more hopeful about the survival of the human race today than I was a week ago. Now this may seem strange when we consider that we are facing a pandemic that threatens a large portion of our population. I am terrified that deaths will start to climb fast in the United States, as they have elsewhere (is anyone else addicted to the worldometers coronavirus site)? It’s a scary time to be alive, there’s no doubt about it. But I need to share with you that this morning, I see some real hope for our future.
In the last week, we’ve seen sweeping change occur in the blink of an eye. We’ve seen schools close, athletic events — both professional and amateur — cancelled, and even restaurants and bars shut down. All of this has happened voluntarily, so to speak. No one’s out protesting in the streets about these closures, because we all know it’s necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Strangely enough, these changes have happened at the behest, not of the federal government, but of state and local governments. I applaud the courageous governors who have made these tough decisions, just as I deride the lack of leadership at the federal level. I am proud of our local community leaders, too, who are stepping up and not only following but also preparing to enforce these new rules, should any enforcement be necessary. In the last week, the federal government has become, a kind of inconsequential afterthought, a lazy bystander watching all these changes take effect. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to say that Washington has become irrelevant in the past last week.
And this is why I am optimistic. For eight years now, on and off, I’ve worked for change. I realized long ago that if the human race is to survive the threat of global climate change, we will have to make drastic adjustments in the way we live. During most of that time, I have been pessimistic about the possibility of enacting any change. To put it bluntly, in the eight years I’ve been working for systemic change, I’ve been able to achieve very little: the sum total of my labors at this point is getting myself elected to my tiny community’s city council and, if I am to be honest, this blog. It’s not much; in fact that’s a pitiful list of accomplishments. But this past week I have seen that change is possible, and that’s what gives me hope on this cloudy, cold spring morning, sitting at my desk in the middle of a pandemic.
Look at it this way. We are entering a very frightening period. Things are changing every moment. But the point is, we are capable of change. By the time we get through this coronavirus crisis, each one of us will have changed. More importantly, the country as a whole will change, too. Look at how much we have already changed in the span of a week. In a year’s time, we will be a more collective society, one in which we look out for each other even in the midst of isolation. We will begin to rebuild our federal government, which has been systematically dismantled over the past forty years, because we see now how very much we need it. We will create a global health system that works to prevent pandemics, that stops infectious disease before it can gain a toe-hold. We will change in other ways, too, which no one, especially me, can predict.
This shift will not happen all at once. In fact, it may not happen in my lifetime. But my children, who are young adults, are watching this change, this revolution, occur in real time. And because they are experiencing sweeping changes now, they will know throughout their lives that radical change is a real possibility, one which doesn’t rest on the charisma of one political candidate or another, but on a society of intelligent and educated people who heed scientists, and which is motivated not by profits but by safeguarding the lives of those they love. This generation and the next will remember these lessons, gaining important knowledge about the flexibility of the society they live in, and that knowledge will guide them into the future.
Change isn’t always good, though, and we should prepare ourselves for the probability, indeed the certainty, that things will get much worse before they get better. As the federal government rebuilds itself, it will make mistakes. Personal liberties have already been curtailed, and that is a serious matter. But sacrifice is often necessary for survival. By the time we emerge from this crisis, everyone–Republicans and Democrats alike–will look a whole lot more like Socialists, and that’s a good thing. We are experiencing a powerful correction, one which is painful now, but which just might allow us to make it into a future that requires nimbleness rather than ideology, that places the value of human lives higher than that of profits.
So that’s why I’m optimistic on this cold, gray morning. Perhaps it’s also because I’ve received proof of the kindness of strangers in the face of this crisis: James, from the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, has read my blog and offered to replace my poor little knitting bag as soon as he is able to get back to the Museum. That’s a wonderful story–and right now, there are millions of stories like that happening all over the world. Focus on these stories, readers, whenever you need a break from the news.
And one more thing–if you find this post helpful at all, feel free to share it on your own social media page. Who knows? It could help someone who needs a dose of old-fashioned optimism.
Just a couple of days ago, on Saturday morning, March 14, my husband and I and our dog Millie left Frankfurt, Germany, to return to the United States. We were relieved–so relieved!–to be on that morning flight, despite the fact that we were returning to the wrong airport and were facing many extra hours of driving to get to our home, where we would then seclude ourselves from all social interaction for the next two weeks.
Let me back up to the beginning. Late last year, my husband asked me to go with him on a trip to Europe to show our dog Millie at Crufts, the biggest dog show in the world, and certainly one of the most prestigious, which is held in Birmingham, England, each year. Although I have, over the past two years, developed a profound distaste for traveling, I said yes. This would be a chance, perhaps my last chance given my bad attitude, I told myself, to visit friends overseas and to indulge myself in two and a half days of museum immersion in London. Most of my career has been spent teaching English literature, and so I could not resist the lure of literary museum-hopping coupled with the chance to see friends we normally see once every three or four years. So on March 1, just two weeks ago, we packed several suitcases, our dog, and her large crate into our truck and headed downstate to the airport.
I knew about the Covid-19 outbreak, and to be honest, I was a little concerned. But it seemed that it was contained in China, and so despite my misgivings, we went anyway. I tend to be a bit hyper-aware, perhaps a little over-dramatic, so I’m sure my nervous jokes about getting stuck in Europe went largely unheeded by friends and family. In fact, I want to go on record here that my daughter, wise beyond her years, warned me we were taking a risk and that we could actually get stuck in Europe for a time. But I had a plan if we did, I said: we would rent a camper and hunker down in empty campgrounds. I brought extra prescription medication, and a good bit of knitting. I made sure I had good books to read on my Kindle app–but all of these things, I told myself, were just insurance against an outlying possibility of the virus ramping up and cutting off travel. I was not seriously preparing for a pandemic. I do remember saying at my last band practice before our departure, however, that I believed the coronavirus would change the way we live our lives in the future. I had no idea the future would be arriving so quickly.
Our trip proceeded well. We had purchased disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, and I wiped down all surfaces I could–in hotels, airplanes, trains, everywhere I could think of. I washed my hands carefully and well. I used the sanitizer several times a day. I kept my distance from people. The museums I went to, with the exception of the British Museum, were not hugely popular (more on these in a later blog), and I did not attend too many crowded events, apart from one afternoon in a pub and Crufts itself. As the trip proceeded, we began to refrain from handshakes and hugs, nodding to our friends or laughingly bumping elbows with them when we greeted them. But I kept a wary eye on the figures coming out on the virus’s spread, and by the midpoint of my ten-day trip, I just wanted to get back home to my pets, my home, and my routine.
That’s when weird things started happening with our Lufthansa reservations. We kept getting notifications that our return flights were cancelled. By the time we reached our last destination, Bruges, Belgium, we’d been cancelled three times, and we had to spend a couple of hours on the phone to rebook our flight home. First we rebooked for Friday, March 13–and then that flight got cancelled. We rebooked for Saturday, heaved a sigh of relief, and went to bed. It had been a good, fun, and largely productive trip, but we would both be relieved when we got back to the States.
Some hours later, at three in the morning, I was wakened from sleep by a call from my sister, who often calls me accidentally. I didn’t answer the phone, but when it buzzed again, I picked it up. In a panicked voice, she told me about Trump’s speech and said I had to get home immediately. My daughter texted me next, and then both of my sons. We spent several panicked hours on the phone until I realized, along with the rest of the world, that American citizens would be allowed to return even after the travel ban began. We heaved a sigh of relief and went back to bed.
We spent a lovely last day in Bruges, even though I was somewhat on edge and just wanted to be on a plane home. But we would be leaving to spend the night at the airport hotel the next morning, I told myself, trying to be calm. We began to studiously avoid crowds, and bought groceries instead of going out to a restaurant for dinner. Then, at 6 pm, just as we were entering the sauna of our hotel in an attempt to relax, we received the text saying our Saturday morning flight to Detroit was cancelled. It is not too hyperbolic to say that at that point my head exploded, and I had a first-class meltdown, leaving me a pulsing mass of panic, worry, and angry impotence.
Let me say this: frustrating as it was to try to deal with Lufthansa over the phone, they were patient and helpful in getting us on a flight home when we talked to an agent in person. Because that’s what it took to get us passage home: a drive to the Frankfurt airport without any reservations, taking a number, waiting two hours in the lounge to talk to an agent, and then working through all possibilities. We had left out of Detroit: we would not be able to return there, because only a few cities were accepting European flights after the ban commenced. We gladly accepted a flight for the following day to Chicago–what’s a few hours of driving when you’re trying to get home, after all?–but there was no room for the dog we’d brought with us. We got on a flight for Sunday, which supposedly had room for the dog, but then it appeared that she would not be allowed to fly on that flight after all.
I now understand what marriage is all about. When my husband faced the very real possibility that his dog would not be allowed to come back to the States, he had a first-class meltdown. I calmed him down, and he would later reciprocate when I erupted in a furious, scathing, expletive-filled political diatribe in Chicago, when we were herded like cattle into enormous lines for Covid-19 screening, which seemed expressly designed not only to batter our souls, but to spread the disease easily and efficiently throughout a room filled with close-packed travelers. After more than 39 years of marriage, I have discovered the secret of a successful marriage, so newlyweds, pay heed: a good marriage consists of two people alternately calming the other down, talking him or her off an emotional cliff, and expressing a sometimes false optimism that everything will be okay.
We somehow got seats on the Saturday flight–I’m not sure how that happened, but bless the agent who tried one more time to get them for us and for Millie and found, I’m sure to her surprise, that she could. Cross your fingers and toes, I texted all my family and friends, that we would actually get on that flight and make it home.
The next morning, we got to the airport, and, amazingly, things begin to work out. I realized that we were actually going home. I thought I would feel relief, but instead, as I looked around and saw groups of young Americans, whom I recognized as teenage foreign exchange students returning to their homes in the States, I felt a wave of sadness rush over me. These students were being sent home, their overseas experience rudely truncated–just as their European counterparts in the USA were. The grand experiment of intercultural exchange, begun in the years after WWII, seemed to be over, cut off in the blink of an eye. My son had been a foreign exchange student in Germany, and we hosted an exchange student last year. I had to swallow hard and blink back my tears as I realized how lucky they both were to have the experiences they did.
Staring out the window as the plane took off (in the longest takeoff roll my husband, a former USMC pilot, has ever experienced–the 747 was loaded to the gills with Americans going home), I felt another tidal wave of sadness. Don’t get me wrong–I was ecstatic to be going home, it was all I wanted, and I was willing to put up with any amount of traveling to get there–but I knew I would not be coming back to Europe soon. In fact, there’s a real possibility I will never go back. Like the stock market, world travel is now experiencing a “correction.” It has been too easy and too cheap for too long. We have not been calculating the real costs of transatlantic travel–the economic, the environmental, and the public health costs of gallivanting about the globe–and its future will surely appear profoundly different from its past. Just as we look back to the glory days of commercial aviation, when one dressed up to travel, when seats were comfortable and spacious, when meals on board were tasty and the presentation of them mattered, we will shortly look back to the recent past as a time when international travel was as easy, and nearly as cheap, as trip across the state. Musing on this, I took a few photos from the plane, already nostalgic.
And so we landed in Chicago, only to stand in the long lines to get admitted to our own country, and then more long lines to get screened for coronavirus. We were told not to take pictures; if we did, our phones would be confiscated. (This is not the place for political discussion–this post is already too long–so suffice it to say that much more than the travel industry is being harmed by Trump’s ineffective and damaging reactions to the coronavirus pandemic.) Three hours passed as slowly as possible. My back began to hurt, and my shoulders ached from the straps of my bag. We fretted about our dog, who we knew would be out of drinking water after her long flight in her crate. Twice the crowded room broke into spontaneous song: the first time, “Sweet Caroline,” and the second, “Hallelujah.” It was a nice gesture, but the songs petered out fairly quickly. It’s hard to sing when you’re tired, worried, and sad.
The homeland security officers, WHO workers, and Public Health workers (whom I’ve rarely ever seen in uniform before) were working as hard as they could, but they were understaffed, slammed by a horde of travelers arriving, somewhat panic-stricken, all at the same time. To be honest, it was barely controlled chaos. We were lucky in that we arrived early in the day at O’Hare, and so were not crammed body-to-body, and we only had to wait in line three hours. But I really wouldn’t wish what we experienced on anyone, except perhaps Trump himself.
While I was waiting for my husband to get a rental car to take us, first to a hotel to get a few hours’ sleep and then to Detroit to pick up our car so we could return home (a four-hour drive that would be followed by another four-hour drive home), I experienced a trivial loss, but one which pushed me over the edge into tears. I am a devoted but not terribly accomplished knitter, knitting wherever I go because it helps me soothe my overactive nerves. On Saturday night, after 10 hours of flying and four hours of waiting and collecting baggage, loaded down with a large dog and two heaped luggage carts, I was pacing back and forth outside the terminal as snowflakes drifted down from a sullen night sky, when I suddenly realized that my knitting bag was missing. I tried not to cry, but the tears came–and I’m still choked up about it, to be honest.
It’s not just the bag, or even its contents: the sock I was in the midst of knitting, my cell phone charger, or my Go Navy water bottle (a gift from my daughter). It’s not even my unread copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. It’s the symbolism of the thing. I’d purchased the bag at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome four years ago, on my first trip to Italy to visit my daughter, who was then stationed there. Then I added buttons from each literary museum I went to: for example, from the Jane Austen museum (“I ♥ Knightley”), and many others, including a new one with a portrait of Charles Dickens that I’d just bought when I went to the Dickens House last week. I’d gotten one button from a former student, as well as a couple from my foreign exchange student. Inside the bag was a skein of yarn from Dresden that she had picked out and sent to me, which I was making into a sock using needles that my husband had bought for me from a knitting shop in England. In essence, my ragged little knitting bag was a hodge-podge of multiculturalism, a soon-to-be relic of a time when the world was small, and familiar, and comfortable. It’s fitting that I’d lose it at the very end of my trip, and I can appreciate the dramatic logic of such a loss, but I’d give anything to have it back again. It’s as if a part of my world, of everyone’s world, is represented by that small, ragged bag, which is now gone forever.
So that’s my story of my escape from Europe. I’m sleep deprived, highly emotional, and under house quarantine for two weeks, and committed to practicing social distancing for much longer than that, if necessary. But I have my cats and dogs, my books, my knitting (no knitter has only one project going at a time, after all), my classic movies, and — importantly– this blog, which I will be updating, I hope, two to three times a week. I can’t promise profound thoughts, but maybe that’s a good thing. In these times, one needn’t be profound. For now, let’s all just try to be present for each other in any way we can.
I am a fairly devoted listener of ’40s Junction, a channel on Sirius Radio that plays songs from the 1940s–except when they don’t. (To my lasting fury and frustration, I discovered this year that the station ceases its normal operations on November 1 and, for the next six weeks, plays “holiday music.” Now, I don’t know if the program managers decided that the people who listen to 1940s music are the same ones who enjoy endless Christmas carols, but if anyone from Sirius is reading this, here’s a hint: they aren’t.) One thing I’ve found out by listening to ’40s Junction is that if one listens long enough, one can discover some real gems. I mean, we all know “Blues in the Night,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” and “String of Pearls,” but occasionally this station plays some songs I’ve never heard of, despite living in a certifiable time warp for my entire life. And so today I’m taking a break from politics and pessimism to discuss four of these little oddities from the past, complete with YouTube links, so that you can listen to them and judge for yourself. Above all, I’m curious about my readers’ reactions to these songs, so please do leave your comments on some or all of these songs.
I will start out with a song that has a catchy rhythm and some very interesting lyrics: “The Lady from 29 Palms.” It seems to have been recorded in 1946 or so, and there is an interesting reference to the explosive attraction of the lady in question, who is compared to “a load of atom bombs,” which, coming so soon after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is highly insensitive, to say the least. Yet it has a great sax line in the beginning, and with its really clever rhymes, I’d say this is a song that’s worth listening to.
Next on my list is a very odd little song that shocked me when I first heard it. Unlike “The Lady from 29 Palms,” “Who’s Yahoodi” is famous enough to have its own Wikipedia entry, which certainly bears checking out. Hop over there, and you can read about the song’s origins on the Bob Hope Radio Program, when announcer Jerry Colonna got tickled as he introduced one of Hope’s guests, the young violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin. Colonna made fun of the name, continued his joke through later programs, and eventually, it became a popular meme, although memes hadn’t been invented yet. In 1940, songwriters Bill Seckler and Matt Dennis made a song out of it. The U.S. Navy also got some mileage out of the situation, naming one of its research programs “Project Yehudi.” I’ve linked to the Cab Calloway version, but there are several other versions, including an astoundingly antisemitic one (I know–the whole thing’s kind of antisemitic, but this version is really takes the cake). As with “The Lady from 29 Palms,” the song itself is catchy, with the kind of finger-snapping rhythm that makes tunes from this era so appealing. In addition, the song’s many references to secretive, spooky people who are there, but not there remind me of those Dr. Who beings, the Silence, who watch and influence human events, but are never seen by humans. Added to these odd but intriguing lyrics, there’s some enjoyable big-band music, with the necessary saxophone solos and brass rhythms creating a memorable song. How it disappeared is a mystery–unless, of course, the Silence got involved in the whole thing and wiped it from our collective memories.
The next two songs are about body-shaming. In a way, I’m surprised they found their way on the air at all in the present day, given the changing climate and hyper-awareness about body images we’ve seen in recent years. The first, “Lean Baby,” was recorded by Frank Sinatra and was very popular. But the Dinah Washington version is even better, so you should check that one out, too. Clever yet brutal lyrics make the song interesting, and once again the music is quite catchy. On the flip side of this “appreciation” of thinness is “Mr. Five-by-Five,” arguably the most successful of the songs I’ve mentioned here. At least seven singers have recorded versions of it, the most recent one in a 2013 movie (Gangster Squad), according to its Wikipedia entry. Here’s a version by Ella Mae Morse recorded in 1942. Again, there are some devilishly funny lyrics that, inappropriate as they are, make you laugh out loud–if you’re by yourself.
So, readers, what do you think about these four songs? Politically incorrect, a fascinating trip down memory lane, historical footnotes, or just oddities? I’m not sure what to make of them, but I am grateful that they are preserved, inappropriate or not, for us to listen to, consider, and critique them. So, thanks, Sirius Radio, for the memories–even if I have to put up with two months of Christmas music to get them.
We are facing an ecological emergency, and too little is being done to address the consequences of climate change. As individuals, our actions may seem inadequate. Yet every action, however small, can lead to something bigger. Change comes only as a result of collective will, and we can demonstrate that will by showing that we desire immediate political, social, and economic action in the face of global climate change.
Ecohats are not a solution, but they are a manifestation of will made public. Based on the pussyhat, a public display of support for women’s rights, Ecohats display support for immediate political action to address the need for systemic change to deal with climate change. They are easy to create; simply knit, crochet, or sew a hat in any shade of green to show your support for the people and organizations that are dedicated to addressing the issue of climate change, then wear it or display it with pride and dedication.
Like many other people, I have been very worried about the direction we’re going–not just the United States, but the world in general. Populism–which in its most innocuous form is little more than cheering for the home team but which can be so much more insidious and damaging–is on the rise, and partisanship seems to have infiltrated many western governments, causing us to question the efficacy of democracy itself. Couple this with the imminence of climate change, and the future of human civilization seems dire indeed.
So I understand why many of us might live in a state of worry, of fearful suspense. I know how it feels to wake up each morning, wondering what new terrible thing has happened while I slept, and how it feels to wait impatiently for the slow-moving wheels of democratic rule to right themselves, and to hope for a period in which government works for its citizenry rather than for corporations and billionaires. I, too, have lost hope at times, allowing myself to be convinced that the struggle against injustice and oligarchy is fruitless; like so many other people, I have frequently succumbed to cynicism and inertia, telling myself that any action is doomed to failure.
But that attitude is wrong. I know that now. More importantly, I feel it’s my duty to lead a crusade against this type of cynicism, even if I do so all by myself.
If you’re reading this blog post, excellent. We can work together. On the other hand, if this essay slips unacknowledged into cyberspace, read by no one at all, so be it–that doesn’t matter. The struggle is important, and it must be waged, even if by only one person, and even if I myself am that person. What follows, then, is my small own contribution in the war on cynicism–my manifesto, if you like.
The time for idle anger is over. The time for pessimism is past. We do not have the luxury to sit back and watch knowingly as the world falls apart, nodding as we say, “Of course, we always knew it would be this way. The system is rigged.” Whether it is or is not rigged is beside the point. This is a question that can be debated by future historians, much like the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Saints and scholars can debate such a question; they have that luxury. But we no longer have the luxury to debate whether government is or is not effective. We have to act, and we have to act now, if we want to save our way of life.
And actions start with beliefs, primarily the belief that when we act, our actions have effects. I believe–rather, I know, with certainty–that they do have effects. At the local level, our actions, indeed, our mere presence at meetings and councils do have an effect; I have seen this demonstrated in the past year in my role as a city councilmember. Government, at least at the most local level, works–but only if we work hard at it by electing the right people and by holding them accountable. In short, democracy is not compatible with either cynicism or complacency; yet throughout much of the last generation, our citizenry has been guilty of both these things.
Why? Because cynicism is easy. Cynicism is seductive. Cynicism is cool–so cool, in fact, that many voters in 2016 agreed that “draining the swamp” was the best thing going for a candidate who had no other ideas or attractions. So here is my advice: do not give in to the lure of cynicism. It leads nowhere but to the self, to an inflated view of one’s own cleverness and perception, to a self-satisfied egocentrism that congratulates itself on seeing the worst at all times, in all places.
Close to the climax of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch prevents a lynching from happening merely by demonstrating her own naive lack of cynicism. As the crowd of angry white men encircles Atticus, who is guarding the innocent Tom Robinson in his cell, Scout does more than anyone else to quell the murderous mob and send it home. Her simple, naive words, her attempt to connect with Mr. Cunningham on a human and neighborly level, represent a belief in innate goodness and the power of community, and it is just enough to disarm a group of angry men bent on taking the life of an innocent African-American man. (Click here to watch this pivotal scene; my apologies for the commercial at the beginning.)
That Tom Robinson ends up dying at the end of the novel for a crime he didn’t commit is part of To Kill a Mockingbird’s tragic impact. As readers, perhaps we can be cynical about that tragic message; but as actors, as characters in our own human drama and, most of all, as real-life community members, we cannot afford such cynicism. We must be like Scout if we want to survive.
Reader, I implore you: give up your cynicism. Today, I ask you to believe in something grander than your own cleverness in discovering the duplicity of others, and to act in good faith, even though no discernible good may come out of your actions in your lifetime. Be naive, if you have to. But say good-bye to cynicism today, this minute. I am certain the generation that comes after us will thank you for it.
Although I’ve never been to a literary cocktail party, I have a certain game I imagine playing at one. (The truth is, I’ve never been to any kind of cocktail party, which is somewhat disappointing. As a youngster, I’d imagined that cocktail parties, like falling into a pit of quicksand, would be a regular part of adult life, and that I would be expected to know how to behave in both situations. Obviously, I was misinformed.)
At any rate, the game goes like this. A bunch of well-read people get together and confess what books they should have read but never have. It would, for those of us who teach literature for a living, be a daring game, one in which public humiliation might lie in wait for us. Who would want to admit, for example, that they had never actually read The Grapes of Wrath? Might the heavens open up, allowing peals of scandalized laughter to descend, if one were to admit, in public, that one’s copy of The Sound and the Fury had never actually been opened? It seemed to me an amusing game to play in my mind, something like Truth or Dare for grown-ups. In an alternate version of the game, I imagine myself going through life with a large deck of cards, each of which has a title printed in large, Gothic letters on its back declaring my inadequacy: Catch-22. Slaughterhouse Five. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ulysses. The list goes on and on.
The other day, I began to work at removing one of the cards from my deck of failure. This did not occur, however, as a determined plan at self-improvement. I am far beyond that stage in my life, having settled into a lazy, perhaps defeatist, sense of who I am and what I can do. Rather, it all began with an invitation to visit a friend’s high school classroom to discuss a play I’d written about C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. The class had been reading The Screwtape Letters, and, to prepare for my visit, I reread the book.
Lewis was a gifted satirist, there’s no doubt about it. His characterization of Screwtape, the devil who gives advice to his nephew Wormwood, instructing him on how to secure the soul of his “patient,” is brilliant, and I found myself wondering how he had been able to create such an enjoyable character out of a devil. The answer came quickly enough: Lewis had, after all written a short book called A Preface to Paradise Lost. He must have known the poem intimately. And, although I’d never read Milton’s epic poem in its entirety, I’d read bits of it–enough to teach it to college sophomores in the British Literature survey classes I regularly taught. (Another guilty confession: I’ve taught the poem, yet never read all of it.) I guessed, and I think I’m right, that Lewis’s depiction of Screwtape owes a good deal to Milton’s depiction of Satan.
But the question remains: why had I never read Paradise Lost? After all, I’d been teaching it for decades. The omission is nothing short of scandalous. Actually, back in graduate school, I had tried to sign up for an entire class on Milton, but the class was oversubscribed, and we students were required to apply to take it by submitting a letter stating why we thought we should be allowed into it. My letter simply said I knew next to nothing about Milton, that I expected that I would have to teach his work, and that I thought that was a good enough reason to be admitted to the class.
And so I never read the whole poem. It turns out that I had gleaned enough information from my own undergraduate days to fumble through a few class days on Paradise Lost when I began to teach English literature, and so I just relied on that. Over the years, a colleague introduced me to a few of Milton’s poems (notably “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”), and then, much later, gave me his Milton texts when he retired and cleaned out his office, but they stayed on my shelf, treasured more because they reminded me of my colleague than for any interest I had in reading them.
And then one of my former students took a class on Milton, and suggested we read Paradise Lost together. Neither of us had the time, however, and the plan fell by the wayside. But apparently the idea stayed with me, because last week, as soon as I finished The Screwtape Letters, I dove into Paradise Lost, forcing myself to progress through it. I was helped by the fact that I was teaching Shakespeare, so the language wasn’t nearly as foreign as it could have been. When I found my attention wandering, bored by elaborate rhetorical constructions and erudite footnotes, I read Milton’s words out loud, and this kept me on track. I kept plodding through the poem, line by line, book by book, not worrying whether I was understanding all of it. I studiously ignored the footnotes, for the most part, but read my colleague’s hand-written marginal notes with affection.
And now I can say that I have read Paradise Lost, and that it wasn’t all that bad. I enjoyed parts of it. I hated the parts that were clearly anti-feminist, wishing someone else–maybe Ursula LeGuin or Virginia Woolf?–had dared to write Eve’s side of the story, since Milton had covered Adam’s point of view so thoroughly and unfairly. But as for filling in this gap in my education, I don’t feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The heavens did not open as I finished reading the last lines of the poem. The Angel Raphael did not come down and pat me on the back. Nor did the archangel Michael arrive with a flaming sword to celebrate my victory over the text. I simply read about Adam and Eve departing Eden, sighed, and closed the book.
Did I learn anything? Just this: those things we put off because they seem too difficult are often not that difficult after all. Perhaps other people want to make us feel that they are difficult so as to make themselves feel smarter, or more worthy, than we are. In all likelihood, they aren’t. But I realize now that reading is a skill that we must train for–much like long-distance running– and I believe that as a society our reading endurance is steadily declining. We are clearly losing the taste for, and consequently the ability to, read long and rambling texts, settling instead for shorter and easier ones, and this will have serious consequences for our intellectual and public life in the coming years. Nevertheless, I believe that if we tackle our reading with confidence and optimism–if we keep to our task, pushing forward one line, even one word, at a time–we can make it through even the densest of texts.
The best part of the whole experience is that I’m now ready to discuss Paradise Lost with my former student. And for this, rather than for finally reading the whole poem, I think C.S. Lewis would be proud of me.
In 1952, Oxford don C.S. Lewis, famous now for having written his seven-book series about Narnia, published a book called Mere Christianity, which remains one of his most popular works. Lewis himself was no theologian; although he had a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Oxford in 1922, he never pursued the study of it, focusing instead on English literature. As a scholar, he is remembered for his contributions to Renaissance and medieval literary studies, not for his forays into theology. In fact, some critics find fault with his works on Christianity; while it is true that he successfully boiled Christian theology down to its most important features, his simplification of difficult concepts may have gone too far for some heavy-hitting theologians. And yet despite these criticisms, Mere Christianity is celebrated and beloved today for being the book that brought countless non-believers to accept Christianity.
I am not interested in Mere Christianity for its Christian message, however, but rather for its ideological goal and impact. I believe that what Lewis did for Christianity–boiling it down to its major premises, its essential elements–is a brilliant tactic and could, if used correctly, help save civilization as we know it. In short, I want to urge one of my readers to write a similar book. This book, however, would be called Mere Democracy.
Why is such a book needed? The answer is obvious: in the wake of decades of corruption, party politics, winner-take-all contests, and win-at-any-cost stratagems, American democracy is ailing. Indeed, some pundits have even declared it dead. Lewis probably feared the same end for Christianity, yet, instead of giving up, he set to work and succeeded in revitalizing the Christian religion with his book.
What would Mere Democracy look like? Here’s my idea: It would be a modest book written in plain language that spelled out the basic tenets of democracy. Rather than providing a lengthy history of democracy and a comparison of different types of government, Mere Democracy would explain to the masses–to those very people who should be safeguarding democracy–what democracy looks like without the corrupting shadow of gerrymandered districts, unlimited corporate lobbying, and mindless populism. It would work to educate and inform, in plain language, those people who are put off by elitism, arrogance, and entitlement. In short, Mere Democracy would spell out the very least a society must do in order to remain democratic. In doing so, it would of course be incomplete and reductive; in its drive towards simplicity and clarity, it would not satisfy political scientists or sociologists; but it could, like Lewis’s book, help millions of people see their world in a new and vital way and convert them into a new understanding of the best form of government humanity has yet discovered.
Somewhere in the blogosphere today is the person who could write this book. Is it you? If so, I urge you to get started. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but the clock is ticking, and we’re running out of time.
This year, my husband and I decided to host a foreign exchange student. “If a kid wants to come to the United States in these dark days,” we told each other, “let’s do all we can to show him or her that we are not the nation we appear to be under the present regime. Let’s welcome that kid with open arms and praise the bravery that brought him or her here.” And so hosting a foreign exchange student became part of my own private resistance to the 2016 election.
We were so enthusiastic, in fact, we offered to host two students. After all, our house is fairly big, we live quite close to the high school, and, most of all, our youngest son was a foreign exchange student in 2015, and I felt that it was my karmic duty to reciprocate in some way.
Our international experiment, as I called it, did not go well–but more on that in a later post. We are down to one foreign exchange student now, and things are going much, much better, but that’s not what this post is about. What I want to discuss here is something I’ve learned from being a host parent of a European teenager, a discovery that I think needs to be shared with other Americans. And I also want to share something that I’ve learned about myself.
Here is my discovery: Europeans do not understand what is happening here. They do not know how much we despise the present regime; they do not understand that we feel our country has been commandeered by a power elite that is aiming to enslave our population through hatred, racism, ignorance, and overpowering greed. They understand that Trump has a lot of opposition, but they do not comprehend the ways in which an outdated system of voting was manipulated (in all likelihood with foreign help) in order to take over our government. According to our student, who is admittedly young but was chosen by the German government to study our culture and government while on a scholarship here, the Women’s March in protest of the inauguration was not a focal point in European news, and pussy hats are virtually unknown there. The massive resistance that is part of our everyday lives simply isn’t understood in Western Europe.
We have tried to explain certain things to her. We have said that Trump’s election was so shocking and horrifying to us and to our friends that we did not leave the house for several days. We have compared the night of his election to the day on which JFK was assassinated: a moment which showed just how awful Americans can be and how easily our hopes for the future can be wiped out. We have explained that we are afraid to watch Tuesday’s election returns for fear that the 2016 election might have been a signpost for the future, and not a terrible accident, a result of complacency, laziness, and foreign interference.
I think she is beginning to understand. But more importantly, we have begun to understand, too. We understand now that the rest of the world thinks we just made a mistake in 2016, that Americans did something stupid and inexplicable–after all, our nation has done that so often. We are beginning to see that our sense of despair and anger, our horror at Trump’s policies and the Republicans’ willingness to comply with them, is not registering across the Atlantic. Our government has been hijacked, we tell our student, but she is only beginning to understand that.
Meanwhile, I’ve learned something about myself as well.
I love my country. Of course, I am not always proud to be an American. For forty years, I have criticized the United States; I have never withheld judgment on what I see as a culture overpowered by greed, smug ignorance, and rapacious, unfettered capitalism. I know our faults and our flaws, many of which go back to the days of the Puritans, resulting in the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, and the wholesale oppression of minorities. Clearly, our history contains many things to be ashamed of.
But there are things to be proud of as well: NASA, baseball, multicultural neighborhoods that are teeming with people of all ethnicities and languages, Muslims coming forward to help Jews, Jews coming forward to help Muslims, people protesting the actions of a cruel and oppressive government by massing in the streets, in airports, and at border resettlement centers. Last night, during dinner, I shouted the word “jazz!,” to the surprise of everyone at the table, then explained that it’s the one, truly original American art form. It’s a contribution to world culture that all Americans can be proud of.
For the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to explain both to my student and to myself why I am afraid to watch the election returns on Tuesday night. Will I be overcome by despair again? Will I have to throw up my hands in disgust and say that as a country we deserve what we vote for, that our grand experiment in democracy is finally over? I’m not sure how I’ll bear that, considering how awful November 7, 2016, was for me.
But what if the opposite happens? How will I manage a blue victory, given that the thought of millions of people coming out to vote in the midterm elections to show they are not sheep, that they believe in right and wrong, that they will not be complicit with a government that is irresponsible, ignorant, and self-serving–how will I cope, given that this possibility also overwhelms me with emotion? Since the mere thought of this possibility makes me tear up–I can be very sentimental when confronted with evidence that human beings can be kind and decent–I think that either way, I might be in for some kind of an emotional collapse on Tuesday night.
(I will just add here that there’s another, minor, concern, of mine, too: I’m running for local office, and I will be watching election returns on Tuesday night to learn the results of my race. But the stakes are so much lower for that race that I am not expending much thought on it.)
So here’s to all of you out there who, like me, regard Tuesday’s election with an uneasy mixture of heavy dread and stubborn, overpowering hope. Let’s remember that we can take our country back and set it on the right path again. If we get out in strength on Tuesday, maybe that will be the very first step to re-fashioning our country into the nation we want it to be, the nation it needs to be.