It was early morning, but I’d eaten some chocolate late in the afternoon, so I was awake. Attempting lemonade from insomniac lemon, I tuned into On Being, and listened to Krista Tippett interviewing Paul Muldoon here, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet, and poetry editor of The New Yorker. Near the end of the interview, when asked, at the age of 64, what he thinks of humanity, Muldoon responded,
“What it means to be human? … The thing I know now… is not even how little I know, but how I know nothing in fact. I thought, I know nothing about anything, and the things we thought indeed were verities — from Pluto being a planet… never mind the question of the universe… Yet I suppose we must try on this tiny planet… to do our best however often we might lose sight of it, and try to be kind-ish to one another while we’re still here.”
Personally I wouldn’t say I know nothing. I know a lot, though often it’s contradictory knowledge or doesn’t add up to as much as I thought it might. Sometimes things I think I know prove to be plain wrong. I used to think that understanding Marx and Lenin, then Mao, then the Buddha, then Cheryl Strayed gave me some important keys to understanding humans. All of this has helped some, but really I still don’t get it. That is, us. I don’t get us. Let alone, myself. Still, like Paul Muldoon, I wonder about what I know, and don’t, and I try to be kind-ish as best I can. And I’m always glad for company in this, my apparently never-ending endeavor.
In these shortest days of winter, my mood is seasonally in accord with darkness. I take my big dose of Vitamin D religiously every day rain or shine. The small things I Can do something about, I Will. My moods shift easily like sand from pleasant to anxiety-filled. Back and forth they go. Lately I’ve spent more time than usual with a variety of friends and have felt connected and loved, then suddenly unmoored and adrift in agitated, dangerous seas. This is my version of reality. Not exactly bipolar but maybe some pale version thereof.
When I was young, I thought I got it. As a child, it was simple — play, candy, and staying out of trouble. By trouble I mean my brother zeroing in on me for target practice with rubber band missiles or hands-on assault or insults. By trouble I mean my parents’ anger at me for some infraction. For my father the infraction seemed to be … I’m actually not sure what, but definitely something that displeased him, or else, why would he call me an idiot? For my mother, my infraction was my tendency to melancholy, a lack of cheeriness. Staying out of the way of rubber band missiles, pronouncements of my inadequacies, and occasional corporal punishments was my goal. What I got was that play, candy, and staying out of harms way was the life I wanted. Also I liked school. Until high school.
In inverse proportion to my teenage understanding of life (perhaps at 2%), 98% of my high school senior class wore “Bomb Hanoi – Goldwater for President” buttons. I was a teen Democrat. That. And dating boys. I’d fall in love with them easily on the first date, or just before the date, contemplating it. (“love” for me was probably pure hormones, but oh, I was SO clueless!) By the second date, I was bored and no longer interested. My mother, excited every time there was a new possible romance, wanted to know what was wrong with me. I didn’t know. My goal was to get through those years by laying low, and trying to get to the other side, where I hoped some kind of grown up wisdom, heretofore a total mystery, awaited me.
Vietnam, civil rights, drugs, sex, and rock ’n roll awaited me. It seemed people were waking up out of some national and historical stupor. I felt I was too. Miraculously I was on the same “page” as hundreds of thousands of young people.
When I became a left-wing activist and participated in the writing of a political newspaper called “The Movement” my parents were mortified. I’m certain they held images of having their daughter’s life destroyed by a new HUAC committee (as some of my father’s young friends had been by the original HUAC), but I wasn’t the least bit worried. In fact, I didn’t feel in danger. I felt my life at last had meaning. My ideas about Revolution were also romantic and I truly understood very little (maybe 4%) , except the 100% of me that saw injustice and cared about justice.
Like my comrades, I believed that if people just knew the truth of the military-industrial complex, racism, and sexism, of course they would change. People would be against corruption, bigotry, discrimination, and war. Wouldn’t they?
Unlike some of my comrades, I was not ready to join an armed insurrection. Instead of buying a gun, I bought a one-way ticket to Europe. The French took me in. There was never a more lost girl. Six months later, broke and exhausted, I returned, first to Phoenix, then to San Francisco, where in short order, I became a nurse.
Fifty years later, here I am. Knowing more AND less than I knew at eighteen. I line up with the Dalai Lama regarding kindness as religion. I don’t believe in many things — re-incarnation, heaven, hell, a patriarchal God, any patriarchal story line in any of the world’s great religions, cultures, or governments, or any kind of dictatorship, including the dictatorship of the proletariat.
I do believe in meaningful work, love, and community, but find them elusive for myself, and probably for most people in varying degrees.
I feel a kinship with the Syrian refugees, and am horrified at the large numbers of Americans who think Donald Trump or one of the other only slightly less horrible Republican presidential candidates have anything of value to offer America or the world. Through Trump and his supporters, I see how Hitler ascended.
I suffer from insomnia and a sense of impotence to help make the world a better place. Neither stops me from trying. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and be sorry I didn’t give it my best shot. I’m not sure I am giving it my best shot, but as Sylvia Boorstein once said, “If we could do better, we would”, so I guess I am giving it my best. Now, I rely on these guides and mentors: Robert Reich, Bill Moyers, Krista Tippett interviews, everything Maria Popova has to say, and share, and Tara Brach’s buddhist-based wisdom to get me through my days and nights. Also writers, especially women writers.
I only know tiny steps to take. Come to think of it, ants (who have invaded my home) take tiny steps, and as a community, they are very effective. New Year’s Eve I’m having a gathering of humans (hopefully not ants) where we’ll sit around and listen to a podcast of a Krista Tippett interview with Terry Tempest Williams. Here. Then we’ll use a talking stick to guide our conversation, to listen better, to talk from a deeper place. It’s my current one tiny step.
ps… from my anti-war activist days, this beautiful poem by Ho Chi Minh, which still resonates, though not as completely as it did then. Turned out to be so much harder to unite than we’d hoped for. Still, regarding Vietnam’s struggle to gain independence from post-colonial US aggression, with our many tiny and often awkward steps, we played our part.
Song of a Thread by Ho Chi Minh
My mother is a blossom,
My body is soft,
I am cotton.
Once I was so weak
I could be torn to pieces,
Whenever I was touched
Even by gentle breezes.
When I became thread,
I was still not strong,
I could not do anything by myself.
Who says a single thread is strong?
The longer I am,
The weaker I am,
Who pays any attention to a single small thread?
But, there are many millions like me,
We come together in criss-crossing patterns
We weave together into beautiful cloth,
Stronger than silk and more lasting than leather,
Who would dare tear us apart now?
That’s real force,
That’s true glory.
All people unite!
To be free we must fight!
Working hand in hand we weave
Tapestries of victory!
Note: Translation by Lincoln Bergman, with the assistance of the Union of Vietnamese in the United States.