My last pre-pandemic outing was to Lawton to attend a reading from my favorite living poet, Naomi Shihab Nye of San Antonio. I have been a fan for 35 years. Seeing and hearing her was special. She puts words together very well.
But unlike many modern American poets, she spends little time making arch observations to turn her life into a joke or engaging in elaborate word play to prove her acuity and to impress professors.
The St. Louis-born daughter of a Palestinian refugee father, whose family home was confiscated by an Israeli settler, Ms. Nye has adopted as her particular mission the portrayal of her Palestinian relatives as human beings who experience the same daily trials and triumphs as the rest of us.
She will point out the obvious: Palestinians, as Semites, cannot be anti-Semitic. But in a country where criticizing the Israeli government is deliberately warped into such an accusation, the obvious sometimes needs to be stated.
In person, Ms. Nye’s appearance bore out the evidence from book covers. Her eyes sparkle – not from levity, as engaging as she is, but from an inner seriousness, a permanent state of engaging the realities of the world, a certain, focused gravitas.
As noted above, Ms. Nye does not write like most Americans. Hers is that international voice of an adult, not the trivial sniping of a smart-aleck youth.
Her cousins could not have found a better scribe to document the glories of daily life, the wow moments worth remembering from mundane routines and happenings as normal as any experienced by others.
Who’d’ve thunk it? Why, they are just like us – except for the oppression of occupation, the repression of basic human rights and the ever-looming awareness that they can be detained [if lucky] or shot [if not] if they protest their lot – or dispossessed of home and belongings depending upon a soldier’s whim.
No mere bagatelles, for her, no flights of fancy toward foolish frolics. If she tries to forget the occupation, the horror and headlines pull her back.
American immaturity – as epitomized by the infantile egomaniac chosen by a minority to run the country – might be a natural outcome of our favored location. We have not experienced the bombings, occupations and wholesale destruction of our way of life that befell much of the rest of the world over the past 110 years. We have inflicted some of that damage – in good faith and bad – but experienced very little ourselves.
So, the mature gravitas exhibited by the rest of world becomes a fringe, outlier illness in the land of the free-from-thought.
Someone I respect flat out denounced environmentalist – “tree huggers” – because we [son of a birch with a redwood mother – as Jim Bush sings] “think they’re smarter than everyone else.”
Reminders of the human-generated destruction of the only planet we have are inconvenient interferences in the daily routine.
One of my first environmental actions originated with the discovery by two professors of unsafe drinking water. They collected the water, paid for the tests and publicized their findings. Then, straight out of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, they were stunned when townspeople reviled them for exposing the danger instead rising up to demand the city provide safer water.
Trained to ferret out and respect facts, they could not understand that most people preferred trying to maintain good relations with the local oligarchy than protecting the health of their children.
One of the professors retreated into academia – and was much respected for his teaching. The other continued trying to educate the public, was once likened to a “mad dog” in the local press and died much too soon – before seeing the victory achieved in a related campaign.
Did they think they were “smarter than everyone else?” Well, on the water matter, they did have more facts. They were better informed. They knew their subject. Townsfolk choosing not to believe the facts did not alter those facts one bit – and many among the opposition also switched to bottled water because “it tastes better.”
The professors’ gravitas was not appreciated. It was an abnormality, something to be avoided at all social costs. The dangerous consequences of condoning comfortable conformity were preferred to admitting an imperfection – that prompt action on their part could have corrected.
Presidential cowardice and the greed of corporate socialism have relied upon America’s consumerist shallowness to demonize those people who seriously want to save lives during the coronavirus outbreak. American workers are “human capital stock.” Not to worry, the loss of some of this “stock” to save corporate profits will be offset by other “human capital” taking their place.
Among this “human capital stock” are college athletes. The wailing and gnashing of teeth in this state over the possibility of shortened college football schedules should be embarrassing. People have died, are dying, are sick and the rest of us remain at risk.
No, no. Get those athletes back to school – whether the campuses are open to other students or not – and get them practicing. Athletic department budgets depend upon their money-making sports.
There is continued concern that some opponents might get an extra week or two of practice and put our boys at a disadvantage. The notion gets floated that a coach who expresses concern about returning to school too early might just be trying to convince the parents of recruits that he has their interests at heart. It is almost inconceivable that he actually is concerned about the welfare of his young charges.
And as with other Trump apologists, none of these clamorers for catastrophe tell us just which athletes or coaches they deem expendable to the bottom line. [If we could just be assured that it would be that fourth-string walk-on or the old coach nearing retirement.]
European countries, governed by serious adults, moved quickly under national leadership to shut down gatherings, enforce isolation, try to help workers financially and establish uniform guidelines for re-opening their economies.
In the United States, a mentally-failing president and his party, prioritizing profits over people’s lives, not only fail to provide national leadership, but also work vociferously against efforts by governors to save their constituencies. President Trump has encouraged his red-hat hooligans to storm state houses and threaten elected officials and other truth-tellers.
Shortsightedness – infantile instant gratification – dominates the Republican response. It is as if they – rightly – fear that allowing people to think about the seriousness of the situation could lead them to realize the long-term consequences of submitting to more of their oligarchic rule.
And far be it from them to encourage an examination of current standards. Cal Coolidge’s “return to normalcy” is still the cry of corporate socialists. Their “normal” overlordship suits them just fine.
The recent adventures in isolation provided all of us with the opportunity to examine our lives, study our priorities, address our true needs versus more trivial wants. The commotions created by the Trumpistas demonstrate how frightening such self-examination is to many of them.
Yet, acquiring gravitas is a dangerous proposition – and not just from the standpoint of becoming a social outcast.
Watching the wholesale destruction of the planet and the glee with which 50 years of environmental protections are being cast aside by Ed Abbey’s aptly named “greedheads” does not feed one’s optimism. [How can a Swedish teenager have more gravitas than the adults who are supposed to ensure her future?]
Watching a president of the United States stoke stochastic terrorism by demonizing everyone he perceives as “different” and then witnessing the often-deadly results of that bigotry does not build a sustainable community with our neighbors. [You’d think someone who deliberately paints his face orange would be more sympathetic to those without pure white complexions.]
Watching the COVID-19 death toll top 100,000 in America while a president tries to break 100 on the golf course can be overwhelming. [He cheats, of course.]
Watching the American government that represents us cage small children …
Taking stock of the situation, developing gravitas can trigger irreversible cynicism or immobilizing depression. Seriously, the problems facing us are serious. Those on the environmental spectrum threaten civilization.
Some of my serious-minded friends currently suffer from information overloads. Their gravitas has become a grave illness. But I’ve seen some of them bounce back before and rejoin the fray, their adult approach to life part of the re-burnished weaponry they wield against forces of deliberate ignorance and downright cruelty. There is always room for them at the barricades.
Having caught up on pending projects, maybe we can spend the rest of our down time making thoughtful assessments of where we are and where we want to go.
In recent weeks, Cristina Pato, ever my favorite eclectic Galician bagpiper, has thought about the pandemic in ways that most Americans would rather not.
Observing first that, “You have to be serious to build trust,” she later wondered in La Voz de Galicia, “How many of us will be able to find the energy to at least correct habits that we know did not lead us to anything?”
Sure, it is common wisdom that what happens to us is often [though not always] less important than our reactions to those circumstances.
But Ms. Pato is correct that these dire times do offer opportunities:
“We are doing things we would never do before [wearing masks, keeping our distance … ], things we don’t even know how to do, and that we learn as we go along. In all professions, in all kinds of life, we are all learning something every day. Perhaps that is the most beautiful thing about this historic moment.
“So in those days when it seems like one’s life experience no longer matters, I try to think of the idea that all those qualities that have cost us so much to develop can be transferred to this new stage. We just have to keep trying, trial/error, improvising, until we come across our ‘new particular normalcy.’ For the only tool we have to build our future is that: not to lose hope and continue to improvise ways to survive with who we are.”
Many people encounter skeptical realists such as myself and conclude out of hand that we are naysayers, cynics, pessimists. But it is our belief in education and the power of personal growth and development that keeps us going. And we are darn serious about it.
It is time for America to grow up, put away the heroes of our comic books and kiddie lit – along with our childish selfishness – and develop the gravitas necessary for survival in the 21st century.