By contemporary British graffiti artist, Banksy.]
" . . . in a time lacking in truth and certainty and filled with anguish and despair, no woman should be shamefaced in attempting to give back to the world, through her work, a portion of its lost heart."
~Louise Bogan, 1897 - 1970
Poet Laureate of the United States, 1945-46
When my heart is aching for the world's lost heart, I turn to novels, essays, and poetry. If you are feeling sick at heart, one writer you can count on to repair some of the damage is Barbara Kingsolver. Never shamefaced, Kingsolver is a consistent advocate of common sense and social justice. Embedded within the narrative of her novel, Animal Dreams, are a number of letters written to the main character, Codi Noline, from her sister Hallie who has involved herself with life - risking work in Nicaragua. Codi, conflicted and searching for meaning in her life back home, wonders how it is that her sister is "not afraid of loving and losing," how she retains her composure and determination, always moving forward with certainty. Hallie writes back:
"What keeps you going isn't some fine destination but just the road you're on, and the fact that you know how to drive. You keep your eyes open, you see this damned-to-hell world you got born into, and you ask yourself, 'What life can I live that will let me breathe in and out and love somebody or something and not run off screaming into the woods?' . . .the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can't say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That's about it. Right now I'm living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides" (Animal Dreams, 224, 299).
Hallie's metaphor of being on the road and knowing how to drive reminds me of the E. L. Doctorow passage that Anne Lamott quotes in Bird by Bird: " 'writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you are going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you" (Bird by Bird, 18). Life can work that way too.
Even more compelling than the driving metaphor is Hallie's description of running down the hallway of hope, touching the walls on both sides. I can almost remember that sensation from childhood, the rush that came from stretching my arms out to touch both sides of a narrow corridor at the same time. Likewise, I recall the intoxicating sensation of running outside, trailing my fingers along the borders on either side of an overgrown path or between two rows of tall vegetables in the garden. The current summer movie, The Last Airbender includes a similar scene, filmed from overhead so that the audience can see Aang, the little Child Avatar running between two hedgerows, arms outstretched, fingertips spread wide.
Hallie's simple hope for the world -- elementary kindness -- resembles the wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "Please -- a little less love, and a little more common decency" (from the Prologue of his novel Slapstick). I guess calling it common decency is just an ironic play on words, since experience teaches us that it is one of the most uncommon sentiments available, despite being so necessary to peace and order. All we have to do is glance around -- international strife, national crisis, local incivility, anywhere at all -- to see how right Matthew Arnold was when he wrote in 1864 that "the general practice of the world" reposes not on common decency or common sense but on very inadequate ideas:
"The mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them. On these inadequate ideas reposes, and must repose, the general practice of the world. That is as much as saying that whoever sets himself to see things as they are will find himself one of a very small circle; but it is only by this small circle resolutely doing its own work that adequate ideas will ever get current at all. The rush and roar of practical life will always have a dizzying and attracting effect upon the most collected spectator, and tend to draw him into its vortex . . . But it is only by remaining collected, and refusing to lend himself to the point of view of the practical man, that the critic can do the practical man any service; and it is only by the greatest sincerity in pursuing his own course, and by at last convincing even the practical man of his sincerity, that he can escape misunderstandings which perpetually threaten him" (Matthew Arnold, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time").
It's helpful to remind ourselves that the world often seems crazy and inadequate because -- guess what? -- it is crazy and inadequate at certain times, in certain places. Speaking of inadequate ideas, too bad Arnold has to sound so classist and masculine, but what can we do at this point, aside from overlooking his gender exclusivity: "mankind," "himself," and so on? Perhaps he knew not what he did. It does seem that he's trying to say the same thing as Louise Bogan (above) about giving the world back its lost heart, about upgrading to "adequate," about leaving everything that we touch somehow better than the way we found it. We have to keep trying to do that, to stay collected and sincere, to stay within that small circle of seeing things as they are if at all possible, to keep running down the hallway touching the walls on both sides.
So how to keep hoping? How to figure out what to hope for? How to keep from selling out to the general churlishness?
Send answers soon!
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