Thursday, November 12, 2009

We Shall Love One and Other

Migrant Mother
photo by Dorothea Lange

"To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses-that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things."
-Pablo Neruda, from "Childhood and Poetry"

I usually find Newsweek sadly lame. Spending time recently in various medical waiting rooms, I've been exposed to countless noxious substances like contrast dye for my brain-scan, various flu viruses, In Style magazine, Golf Digest, and Newsweek. With not a National Geographic, The Nation, or Highlights in sight, I perused this week's (actually next - 16 November) Newsweek and found an editorial by Julia Baird that was of interest: Seeing Dignity in Poverty, Dorothea's Lange's politics of respect.

Ms. Lange's photographs are mesmerizing. Her work-and that of her fellow FSA photographers- has been an important influence in my life. I will never forget the moment I cracked open Agee and Evan's brilliant Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and out fell truths that sharpened my teenage mind to justice and injustice and what it means to be human.

Ours is a terribly confused culture. We miss essential moments, attend to illusions, and deny our connection. While crying out about how blessed and Christian we are as a people, Americans are practicing an entirely different set of values. We reject the idea that we are our brother and sister's keeper while, at the same time, employing a religious moral foundation to infringe upon human rights and attempt to "reform" (or failing reform, to discard) those among us who do not fit our narrow view of the acceptable. Damn dear reader Red Tara, I am so pompous.

One thing I know to be true is that it is so much greater a test of your humanity and your courage to be poor. To be poor in America is to be stripped of your dignity and to have assumptions made about your essential humanity. There must be a reason why the misfortune of poverty has fallen upon you. You are obviously not one of the "chosen people". Perhaps you are not even American. Yeah, maybe if you don't like it here/can't make it here, you should just leave. As Americans we are raised and rallied to believe that we have been "chosen" for the winning team, to lead the world, to provide its moral compass.

As the health care reform debacle and the global monetary crisis demonstrate, we Americans are"not so much no more" the chosen people nor arbiters of morality. Rather, we are the formerly entitled who must now awaken to a world in which we are merely another group of hominids trying to make our living.

Will this old/new state of affairs lead us to a greater sense of connectedness? Will we discover the truth that we are all each others keepers? It is so hard not to be cynical.

As a young woman I studied 17th century French theatre. Moliere's Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope are favorites (Le Bourjeois gentilhomme aussi). I was in agreement with Moliere's Alceste, “…Mankind has grown so base, I mean to break with the whole human race." Ridiculous social conventions and the absurd significance placed on position and perception seemed to be unchanged in the intervening centuries. I renounced human-kind (except for a series of hot boyfriends- do not get me started on the latitude given to beautiful men in my life) and prepared myself for life as a curmudgeon, a true misanthrope.

Alas, dear reader, I kept falling in love (much like Moliere's protagonist) and I continue to do so. This falling in love with people kind of jacked my whole "unabomber-cabin-in-the-woods-I-want-to-be-alone" deal.

On an individual basis humans are exquisitely lovable. One on one I want to smooch you all.

We are also extraordinarily thick-headed and resistant to change. If you pay attention to history, always a fabulous idea, you see the regularity with which we repeat failed plans and political strategies. We relive the same plot over and over and over. Our memories are so short that it all seems entirely original. Every day feels novel, shiny bright, or terrifying depending on how the news waiter/waitress tells us we should feel.

We are either completely myopic or possess tremendous powers of denial as we move through our lives imagining that they are unique, all these moments we are spending- no one has ever felt thus, loved thus, been this sad, faced this crisis, lost so much, been as joyful, written this blog post.

I think we are weird.

My dogs have a stronger true north on their moral compass (all dogs share one compass). Like Dug in Up who says, "I have just met you, and I love you," they are willing to pitch in with your lot and see you through or go down trying. As the beloved Ani sings and dogs know "we are not here to see through each other, but to see each other through." Nevertheless, or perhaps therefore, we are amazing creatures. And we do have a deep well of compassion from which to drink- to get all cliched and stuff.

Each morning I wake not knowing who will win the battle between my inner misanthrope and my Pollyanna love child. It is all so very disorienting -that is until I see my son or I look at that face above or notice my neighbor Crazy Mary passing by on the street muttering epithets under her breath or read your blog. Then I remember that I just met you and I love you and that "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together"- So we must all be walruses.

Photo Source

With our majestic tusks and stately whiskers, we are imbued with tremendous dignity.

Updated 11/16/2009 to add that the universe conspires to delight. Right now in my green and pleasant town you can see Dorothea Lange's 1939 photos of Oregon during the last great depression. For details visit here.

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