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Thursday, February 05, 2004



In my last mailing, I wrote my despair at the state of the world. I questioned if art could really move us forward towards peace and justice, or was just “crooning over the wounds”. I asked: What gives you hope? Or how do you continue to act without it?

I want to thank all those who responded, by email, mail and in person; with poems, hard evidence, and sharply argued conviction. Those who shared my despair, and those who vehemently disagreed with it. Hearing from you helped move me from paralysis to engaged dialogue, and the faint renewal of hope. When some of you said that my voice is a source of your hope, I was humbled. The editor in my head snapped: “What more do you want? If people are fed by your work, stop whinging and just get the goddamn poems out there!”

Some of you reminded me of the enormity of the work before us, and the history of lies and concealment we need to dismantle. See Alan Allport’s response below, referring to William Blum’s book, “Killing Hope”. This gave my editor more fuel; “Are you ready to get back to work now? Or did you want another month to be a tragedy queen?”

Thank you Ray Rayzin and Bill Mandel, for talking me into the broad and long view of history. Thank you Vivek Anand, for gently pointing out that: “If my work doesn’t remake the world NOW, I don’t want to do it anymore,” is its own small brand of megalomania.

Below is a selection from the responses I got. I’ll start with Maxine Hong Kingston - I had the marvelous chance to put my question to her at her reading at Modern Times Bookstore last week. Because only a few people came to the reading (WHY?? Are we so blasé about the cultural wealth of the Bay Area that we can ignore great writers in person at our local bookstores?), I received the gift of a thoughtful, slow, heartfelt answer that became a dialogue with the other featured writer, Lawrence Smith. I scribbled notes on a scrap of paper from my wallet – here’s my reconstruction.

From Maxine Hong Kingston:

“The faith comes and goes – but the evidence is there – of the power of art, the power of communication. I’ve just returned from a 30-city book tour, and everywhere, even in Texas, the Midwest – the demand for peace was so strong, the anti-Bush-ness so high.”

She spoke of seeing firsthand the growth and healing from writing, in her workshops with war veterans. Finally, she described her experience with the women’s Code Pink peace vigil outside the White House, where she, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, and other leaders, were arrested for protesting Bush’s wars. She evoked the experience they all had of a palpable energy, rising from their collective presence, an energy that caused the counter-protestors to fade away, that moved the police to treat them with gentleness and respect even while handcuffing them. She said: “Poets and fiction writers can capture these moments – ideologues cannot. The feeling goes away, but by telling it, again and again, we let people know that it happened, that it is possible.”

From Bill Mandel, elder statesman of 20th century US radical activism, leading Cold War-era Russia expert:
“I do not feel as discouraged as you about the situation in the world, or in this country. The immense demonstrations in San Francisco and elsewhere before the invasion of Iraq, and the two million who turned out in London, had no precedent in history in opposition to a war BEFORE it began.
“The American people are, regrettably, not unwilling to kill others abroad, but, since the Vietnam War, they are extremely intolerant of loss of American lives. That, too, has little precedent in history. The only case I can think of is that Sweden turned to a policy of neutrality several centuries ago, when it was a major European power, in consequence of the devastating losses it suffered in its invasion of Russia.
“I can tell you that it was unbelievable little more than a decade ago, that the Black people of South Africa could win out against the vastly better armed white minority, and do so without the loss of tens, if not hundreds of thousands, in a civil war. History is advanced one step at a time, and liberation from colonialism was a gigantic step.
“It was just as unimaginable in my country, when I was already a man of fifty, to conceive of Blacks sitting in the cabinet, never mind that African-American women would be judges in our courts.
“I accepted unthinkingly, until I was 35, long-married and with three children, the traditional prejudices against homosexuality and lesbianism. It is not only in the United States that immense progress has been made in public attitudes about that, despite the long way there is yet to go.
“I cannot predict that humanity will not be destroyed in a nuclear war. But the fact that that has not happened in the half-century since the capacity to do so has existed, says to me that no ruler capable of starting such a war has been that kind of lunatic, despite the lesser horrors they commit.”

From Rochelle Robinson

”I truly appreciated your words. They were raw, naked, truth for me. I want to share with you words that I shared with some sisters in the community when I forwarded your essay to them.
”As I sit here, mind wandering, not wanting to be here but someplace else with my thoughts, I read the essay below by Shailja Patel. It seemed to jibe with my feelings at the moment. The kind of despair and dismay I've been feeling around the dehumanizing events that have shaped our global community, and the kind of community it has created or not created for us who are at least conscious of what is going on. The kind of despondency that prevents us from challenging/responding to/acting upon the various and most overwhelming issues (healthcare, unemployment, education, lack of resources, hunger, poverty, homelessness or near homeless, the list is almost endless).
“Always someone else's problem, "not mine." The ways that we go about our lives, which often leads us to forget about the pain and suffering of others, the struggles that our communities of color, women of color face daily with very little support. I think about all the resources that we have collectively and wonder, why is it that we don't pool them together, why is it so piecemeal, contingent upon our moods and attitudes. Why our calendars are filled with activities that lead us away from communal action.
“We need time to ourselves, for sure, but what about time for community. What is community? How do we live it, be it, maintain it, and challenge what has been wrong with the way it exists that leaves many outside of it? Who gets to choose, what is the criteria? How do we challenge each other without being divisive? As I write this I am conscious of how uncomfortable this feels, to expose naked thoughts and truths that can open others or shut them down. How uncomfortable this may be for you to read this.
“If I had more time to sit with my own thoughts and censor myself, I think I might not express these feelings, they might forever be hidden in the recess of my soul and consequently, would tear me apart. But here they are in all their madness and chaos, pure, unadulterated...Please take a minute to read on. I just wanted to interrupt this message, not prevent it from being heard. I respect Shailja's candor and her need to share her thoughts with "community." “ Peace RR

From Alan Allport, UK:
“In amongst the Mike Moore-type literature, have you come across William Blum, in particular not his (comparatively well-known) ‘Rogue State’, but the much more detailed and sombre ‘Killing Hope: a history of US military and CIA interventions since the second world war’?
“That latter book has been a terrifying eye-opener to me. It documents a continuous succession of atrocities perpetrated by the superpower, continuous through every single administration, JFK no less one whit than the rest, which wrenched away hopes of democracy and freedom, and (re-)installed tyrannies (or strengthened existing ones against struggling efforts at freedom), all over the world. The events are essentially my lifetime. Practically all of them are familiar to me. But I had NO IDEA to what extent they were manipulated by the (usually or wholly covert) activities of CIA, but including military invasion, assassination, bribery, torture, incitement to genocide… There is no horror that humans are capable of, that is not included, over and over.
“The current administration is not pursuing policies so radically different from those of the past 58 years. They are simply more blatant about them.
“I do not believe that Americans have the faintest idea about this. The only hope is for them to know. I realize that most people do not read books! But at least among those who do, I feel it is incredibly important that they get to hear about this book.”
From Jessica Roberts
“i think what keeps me hopeful about art... sometimes... when it works... is the effect that others' art has had on me. yours, for example. how it not just brightened my day or brought tears to my eyes, but made something clearer -- even something as simple as how others view the world. without art, we would be so much in darkness about the experience of others. i think your sprinkling of quotes attests to this...

“that said, i fled san francisco a year ago this week feeling pretty hopeless, specifically about the bloody situation in bayview/hunters point and the mission. i moved to a town of 30 people near death valley and never looked at a newspaper or tv. life was joyous and simple, walking amongst wildflowers and writing poetry.

“but then i fell in love, and was reminded that with attachments come responsibilities. i am attached to the world, and therefore responsible. sort of like "the little prince." i am incapable of living a life where i quit caring about my fellow human beings. (and even in that town of 30, there were quite a few troubled and grieving human beings.)

“i can't stop caring. pain is a fact. no matter how far i flee, it is still there -- even if not in the present. so i believe that the best i can do is accept it. as thich nhat hanh points out, rejecting/being angry about world hunger does not change the fact of its existence. it can only be changed once we accept it.

“and then there is the eternally hopeful idea that by changing ourselves we _do_ change the world. which is also very strictly true, all organizing/rallies/etc. aside. at this point in my life i believe that there is more merit to making a deep change in an individual than a surface change in, say, an economy. (easy to say when i have enough to eat -- but don't all these economic woes spring from a basic lack of humanism?)

“i don't know. i don't know anything, really. but there does seem to be this imperative, which pushes me on. through the winter, as it were. the children playing outside my window right now, unaware of me watching, perfectly content to amuse themselves by climbing on picnic tables and jumping back off, arms akimbo... i don't always see a reason to go on, but i was not given a choice.”

From Joel Sokolsky & Michelle Gerson (and now, little Esther Rose Gerson Sokolsky):

“My wife and I have just brought a new baby girl into the world. We would not have done so, if we were convinced that the planet was truly headed to hell in a handbasket... we may joke that that's exactly what is happening from time-to-time, but we don't really believe it. In
fact, we believe in the possibility that it is our child that will aid in the effort to turn the tide.

“This may sound a bit "pollyanna"? But one as articulate and possessed of the ability to stir one's emotions with just her voice, as you are, needs to be cognizant of the fact that you yourself are providing some hope to those who listen to you. You bring more attendees to the events in which you are featured, and in doing so, you educate that many more people to the crimes being committed in the world. Whether you realize it or not, in your effort to continue "fighting the good fight", you are in fact, instilling the very hope in others that you are searching for in yourself.”

Finally, I received this in the mail, from someone who didn’t name themselves, with a post-it note attached, on which was written, in tiny handwriting, “your voice starts the dancing”. Whoever you are, thank you.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
for hope would be hope for the wrong thing;

Wait without love
for love would be love of the wrong thing;

There is yet faith
but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought,
for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light,
and in the stillness the dancing.

T.S. Eliot
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