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Posts Tagged ‘parenthood’

Aging into van Gogh

starry night

 

Last week, I dragged Violet to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  I took her to New York for a few days to celebrate her birthday, and it was a tornado of  12-year-old exuberance—Mama Mia, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Times Square at midnight. For me, going with Violet was like going to New York City for the very first time. Nearly the only motherly insistence I displayed was that we spend a morning at MoMA. Well that and also that she balance her chocolate croissant intake with at least an occasional lettuce leaf.violet in grand central

While—not surprisingly—Violet raised the requisite eyebrow at Al Reinhardt’s all black painting and—surprisingly—was not all that into Andy Warhol’s soup cans, she did plop herself right on the floor to take a long look at Jackson Pollock’s Number 31, 1950.

I—as always—was drawn back to the room that holds the van Goghs, the room that holds The Starry Night.  It’s strange, really. I was never attracted to van Gogh when was I was younger.  In fact, I didn’t think about van Gogh at all beyond “postcard material” and “pretty sunflowers.”

But now, whenever I’m in New York, I find myself making a pilgrimage to pay my respects.  And I adore the painting of Postman Roulin at the Detroit Institute of Art. I’m trying to understand why. Somehow they speak to where I am in life. There’s something so tender about them. There’s such unmasked affection for the material world.  Especially The Starry Night feels like a grasping, it feels like trying to capture water in your hands.  There’s the nestled town, the ominous cypress, the boundless sky. And van Gogh holds it all.

Now, when I look at The Starry Night, I get it. I don’t feel as bold or as certain in the world as I once did.  The world feels fragile, and I feel cracked.  But those fissures and bruises make both the sleeping town and the bursting sky all the more precious. The painting brings the massiveness of the universe and the coziness of human co-habitation into intimacy but not collision.  The best we can hope for, really. So earlier this week, there I was, weeping in the middle of hundreds of international tourists, trying to hang on to the moment where my 12-year-old daughter  first lays eyes on a painting that cracks the world—and my middle-aged heart—right open.

So there’s this, a poem from a few years ago about the painting of Postman Roulin:

postman roulin

 

 

And It Appears that—Once Again—All the Blues Are On Hand

But now, I spend my time searching for a wisp

out of reach, for even serviceable French,

for enchanté & desolé.  For a moment stamped

here & now.   What is it about the mind made visible

in the cracked cornflower wall?  It’s a tell,

Monsieur R, you could be a sea captain

but for your bead-blue eyes, not horizon-weary

but nearsighted and sparking for a brindle-back.

 

Sixty percent will say their favorite color

is blue.  I wonder.  Is it for blueberries

or baby powder, a sky-sick Navy or love

for the Saxton sea? Is it for a grandmother’s

gentian or latent loyalty to Napoleon or the steel

of the last century?  Half-buried porcelain

or just an empty palm to declare a milk-sotted truce?

I wonder. Could I have been a sea captain

 

but for mal de mer & bald-faced failures with a compass

& two psychics who raised the flag of drowning?

You could be a police officer gatekeeper jail keeper key

keeper, keeper of the peace.  Zookeeper?  Maybe.

But not anything close to a stable keeper or a bar keep—

you must be something requiring the I-mean-business blue

of the state (or its proxies).  For me, it’s an outright search for nouns.

 

The neighbors called Van Gogh Fou Rou for a reason—

all that mal de tête in the fierce night sky.

My littlest little girl: what does it feel like to be a fish?

I reply: wet.  But, I can’t say:  the mind splinters

& insists you could have been an astronaut.

(But what of airsickness and vertigo

and grief for the spinning  blue planet?)

 

I could recall the sea blue wall if only the sea

were such a color, rendered by a foreigner, a mad man, a maker

of the blue of nations the blue of warhawks and love, doves.

The blue of oblivion.  Of the mind peeling off in gritty, lethal flakes.

I could have been a clam digger. You, a conductor, a chancellor.

A postman is better anyway.  Amongst splintered women

& salty dogs.  Ah, Sacré bleu! you can smell the mind

run amok.  You can hear it smoke.

 

Blessed are the bored & brindled. The lovelorn

& the seasick.  Blessed are the stern & right,

the silvered & the split. The iced-in stars, the warhawks,

the doves. En Francais: beni. Blessed is the smoke.

Blessed is the fire and last cold spark.

Blessed are the blustering & the brackish.

Blessed is the forgetting.

Beni soit l’oubli.  Beni soit le bleu.

Blessed is the blue.

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Tales from the Thicket

Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life

Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life

So last week—along with seemingly everyone else in Southeast Portland—we found ourselves in a battle with lice.  Over the past few years, it seems like every school listserv is abuzz with warnings about head lice outbreaks, regardless of the age of the kids.  There are all sorts of theories about why lice infestations are so much more common now—climate change, resistance to the pesticide treatments.  In fact, one woman told me she thought the lice problem was worse now because kids all had their heads bowed over their smart phones, so they were touching each other, crown to crown.

 

Anyway, we launched into action, using a multi-day treatment made up of a mix of oils—olive, tea tree, rosemary. I’m as squeamish as the next person, but as my friend Mark—whose wife is battling cancer—says, this is an obstacle we can overcome.  We went through the first treatment, no problem.  Sure it was messy and time-consuming, and the girls hated the long periods of sitting while I combed through one hair at a time. I complained to David:  They don’t tell you about this in What to Expect When You’re Expecting.   But really, in the scheme of things, no big deal.

 

I really started thinking about the strangeness of humans, though, during the second treatment.  Violet had asked a couple of times over the preceding days:  What difference does it make, anyway? Why would it matter if everyone just had lice in their hair?  My answer was pretty straightforward:  Because it’s disgusting.

 

But during her second treatment, I’m combing and combing and not really finding anything.  By the end, there were just two or three miniscule black dots, so small almost that I could almost not see them at all.  As she got up to head to the shower, Violet offhandedly observed:  They’re so tiny. I think they were probably just born today.  Then, she hustled off to rinse the smelly oil out of her hair.

 

That sentence stopped me in my tracks.  In fact, it was one word: born.  The lice were just born that day.  They were a creatures that were born and then died all in the same day.  And suddenly, if lice were something that were born, I felt differently about them.  I felt a different sense of responsibility.  Truth be told, I felt a different sense of kinship.

 

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not a fan of Violet’s theory of universal lice infestation.  I do not want to live in a world where we are all host to whatever manner of creatures come along.  But to some extent, we already are.  I don’t like to think about dust mites, and the whole probiotic craze that is intended to seed the digestive tract with micro-organisms has hit every mainstream magazine.

 

But Violet’s off-hand observation about the baby lice—as I had started thinking about them—reminded me of our place in the universe.  Or really, made me wonder about it.  It made me feel both bigger and more callous—spending hours in the quest to kill less than 10 tiny bugs; and smaller—as I think about how miniscule we are compared to the planet, the solar system, the universe, as I think about the relatively few days that we are granted between the time we are born and the time we die. It filled me with wistfulness about the frailty and mystery of life itself, and made me laugh out loud about what we decide we must doggedly eradicate.  For a minute, Violet and her baby lice got me all mixed up about what is beautiful and what is ugly, what is tender and what is revolting, what is earthly and what is divine.

 

Her baby lice sent me searching for a poem I read last fall by the tremendous and under-appreciated Atsuro Riley. And here it is:

 

Thicket

 

We come gnawed by need on hands and knees.

 

As a creature (nosing) grubble-seeks a spring.

 

As bendy-spined as bandy snakes through saltshrub yaupon

needle-brake.

 

For darkling green;

for thorn-surround.

 

This absorbing

 

quaggy

crample-ground.

 

Of   briar-canes (intervolved with kudzu-mesh) and mold.

 

Of   these convoluted vines we grasp to suck.

 

To taste the pith —

the lumen the cell-sap pulse.

 

To try to know

 

some (soursharp) something about something.

 

Lumen is as lumen does.

 

‘A little room for turmoil to grow lucid in.’

 

In here where Clary set her cart-tongue down (and dug, and brailled).

In here where Tynan breathed.

 

We grasp to suck to taste what light.

 

Let loose the bale that bows us down.

 

— Bow down.

 

So that’s it, I guess.  In the face of the mysteries of baby lice and bandy snakes, lumen is as lumen does.  And yes, bow down.  What is left to do is to bow down.

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Lunch Illuminated

lunch

lunch

I’ve never been a fan of lunch.  I think about what I am going to make for dinner all day.  And I love making a hot breakfast, even on a school day.  But lunch, no.  When I was younger, I skipped it entirely or observed the social rituals by settling in for a cappuccino or an apple so I could visit will everyone else ate.  Now I eat lunch, but for purely utilitarian purposes.  By about four p.m., my brain cells start to devour each other, and—all thing being equal—I would like to avoid being irrational and snappish with my colleagues and my family. On weekends, I have to remind myself to stop whatever it is we’re doing to feed people before somebody has a meltdown.

One of my favorite things about my girls’ elementary school was the scratch kitchen.  It was one-of-a-kind in our district, and our ­­cook—who held rock-star status amongst the kids—prepared healthy, locally sourced, and delicious lunches every day.  I felt it was my moral duty to support the scratch kitchen by buying hot lunch for the girls, so I avoided adding lunch-making to our already adrenaline-fueled mornings.

Not so in middle school.  It was a rude awakening when Ruby first entered the world of long lines for heat-and-serve pizza and lukewarm turkey dogs.  And so, at an advanced age, I entered the ranks of the lunch-makers.  I resisted everything about it.  You have to plan ahead or the girls will end up eating leftover brown rice and last year’s Easter candy.  You have to add an additional 20 minutes to the last-minute rush of forgotten math homework and overdue permission slips.  You have to think about lunch.

Violet followed suit, and I found myself rushing to make lunches for both girls. It was a slapped together affair of turkey sandwiches and sliced apples with some little treat tossed in as an after-thought.  I wrote their names—circled with a heart—on each side of the sack, and sighed with relief that another day of making lunch was over.

But a couple of months ago, something started to change.  Suddenly my girls seem so big, and their minds seem so independent and rangy. They talked about things I didn’t even know they knew (if you know what I mean). Ruby, chatting about the quadratic equation with the check-out lady at New Seasons.  Violet, introducing us to What Does the Fox Say? weeks before it became the thing.  Several times a week, I think: Where did she learn that word? (And not just the four-letter kind.)  It dawned on me—a little late perhaps—that their daytime lives are full and rich and independent from me.

Suddenly lunch took on a little different meaning. I realized that lunch is my one foray into the mysteries of the middle school.  Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t start actually doing anything differently. I still run to the supermarket at 10 o’clock to buy cheese, and I still push apples past their peak crispiness.  I settle for store-bought cookies and graham crackers.  But, I think about lunch differently.   All of sudden, I don’t dread it.

Even though everyone is still moving at warp speed and my central position still stands (Lunch. What’s the point?), I feel differently as I wrap waxed paper around the same-old turkey sandwiches. I feel—in my body—that the turkey sandwiches are numbered.  I know there will be many more lunch hours in their lives, and they won’t involve me.  They will be nursing a cappuccino or eating a slice of chocolate cake, and I will have nothing to do with it.  Their lunches will be their lunches, and they won’t come in a brown paper sack decorated with their names encircled with a slap-dash heart.  Suddenly, I really know that my lunch-making days are numbered.  And knowing that changes everything.

 

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In Praise of the Sippy Cup

sippy cup

The other day, I called David to the front window.  I wanted him to see what I was seeing—a large man—broad shoulders, narrow little hips but an imposing belly—dressed all in black bike leathers, sporting a shaved head and a scruffy goatee, waiting to cross the street toward the park.  He walked about like you would expect him to—leaning back slightly, each step swinging from shoulder to shoulder.  But the thing I wanted David to see was that in his right hand, he was carrying a sippy cup.  A bright green plastic sippy cup with an orange lid, and he walked toward a small woman, also in bike leathers, pushing a blue plaid stroller into the park.

It was the tenderness that caught my eye—the outward markers of rebellion, yet carrying a sippy cup and pushing a stroller, going back to the car (or maybe the bike) to making sure there was juice for the playground.  It was that scene that I wanted to point out to David, the sweetness of it, but the thing I remember about it now was saying the word—or words I guess—sippy cup out loud.  Just after I said it, I felt the zip of surprise, followed by a deep well of sadness.  It actually brought tears to my eyes.

Yes, because of the sweet biker couple, but more because I realized I probably hadn’t uttered those words aloud for years.  I hadn’t said sippy cup or binky or teething ring in recent memory though my life had once revolved around making sure my bag was packed with a snarl of plastic totems that kept our life functioning and peaceful. At the time, it felt like that was my life.  That parenthood meant carrying a bottomless bag so that I would never be without juice or wet wipes or a ziplock full of Cheerios.  But now, it isn’t.  It is something else.

There must have been one day that was the last day that I carried that enormous bag.  There must have been one last morning that I poured apple juice for the car.  There must have been an afternoon that I took all the sippy cups and donated them to Goodwill or gave them to a friend with younger kids.  I don’t remember now.  But I do know that those days that seemed like they added up to an eternity—those days full of spills and plastic and Cheerios—slipped by in an instant.

And I know these days will too.  A few weeks ago, a friend asked me what I had done over the weekend.  I replied I drove children all over creation for sporting events.  Then, I washed socks.  She said quietly:  I miss that.  I was a little a skeptical.  Really, I said?  Even the driving?  Even the socks?  Yes, she said.  Even all that.

And I know now that she is most certainly right.  If a biker and his sippy cup can reduce me to this puddle of nostalgia, the day will come when I will miss the 9 am soccer game in the driving rain; when I will long for someone to ask me for help with her Algebra, as ill-suited as I am to offer it; when I will wish that somebody would sing along with Rihanna at the top of her lungs in front of my bathroom mirror while I try to get ready for work.  I will feel then about muddy soccer socks the way I do now about the illusive sippy cup.  I will be one of those women who smiles wanly in the grocery store and whispers it goes by so fast.

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There are days, weeks, and—if we are very, very lucky—sometimes years that we spend just going on about our business.  We go to work and the grocery store.  We grouse about the President and—Lord knows—about Congress.  We bicker with our spouses and then laugh uproariously at the antics of our children or our pets.  We feel a twinge of pain or guilt at the sight of a homeless vet begging on the highway off ramp and rifle through our purses for change.  We sigh at the misfortune of the neighbor who lost a brother to suicide or the town that was flattened by a tornado.  We wince at the small cruelties of children and Hollywood starlets and politicians.  But mostly we go on, shrouded in the veil of “normalcy.”

But inevitably some time—and it is inevitable, really—the shroud is ripped, and the world is revealed in its rawness.  Sometimes we are struck by its broken and jagged beauty.  Sometimes we are on the pointed end of its cruelty.  Sometimes it’s both.  We look around and wonder how it is that everyone else is going on about their business—the working, the shopping, the bickering.  We wonder how it is that they can be that blind.  And our pain and our awareness are both excruciating and blessedly vivid.

But usually it fades, doesn’t it?  Each day that goes by, we get more used to the new status of things.  We become resigned to the scar that was once a bleeding wound.  The dull ache creeps toward the background instead of obliterating everything in the foreground.  And slowly, slowly, we put the shroud back on, even if what we now call normal is new.

The poets I admire most are the ones who refuse the shroud.  The ones who bear witness.  The ones who look directly into the face of private suffering yet transform it into a mirror on the human condition.  The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz is—or I guess was—unflinching in his witness of individual human suffering and yet his poems never stop there.  They are civic and collective and create a fearless catalogue of cruelty that now belongs to us all.  As Helen Vendler said of Milosz: “the person is irrevocably a person in history, and the interchange between external event and the individual life is the matrix of poetry.”

I have spent these past days immersed in the suffering of adolescence—its confusions, its demons, its dangers.  Once again, Milosz has been good company and good counsel:

“Normalization,” (Czeslaw Milosz translated by Clare Cavanaugh):

This happened long ago, before the onset

of universal genetic correctness.

 

Boys and girls would stand naked before mirrors

studying the defects of their structure.

 

Nose too long, ears like burdocks,

sunken chin just like a mongoloid.

 

Breasts too small, too large, lopsided shoulders,

penis too short, hips too broad or else too narrow.

 

And just an inch or two taller!

 

Such was the house they inhabited for life.

 

Hiding, feigning, concealing defects.

 

But somehow they still had to find a partner.

 

Following incomprehensible tastes—airy creatures

paired with potbellies, skin and bones enamored of salt pork.

 

They had a saying then: “Even monsters

have their mates.” So perhaps they learned to tolerate their partners’

flaws, trusting that theirs would be forgiven in turn.

 

Now every genetic error meets with such

disgust that crowds might spit on them and stone them.

 

As happened in the city of K., where the town council

voted to exile a girl

 

So thickset and squat

that no stylish dress could ever suit her,

 

But let’s not yearn for the days of prenormalization.

Just think of the torments, the anxieties, the sweat,

the wiles needed to entice, in spite of all.

Oh, that’s it isn’t it?  We squint our eyes and transform ourselves into monsters, don’t we?  Standing naked before the mirror, we see ourselves as damaged and imperfect and unlovable.  The heartbeat of atrocity is self-hatred. The brilliance of this poem is that Milosz reminds us that private cruelties can mutate into mob-rule and exile and genocide, yet he does not diminish the piercing pain of youth soaked in self-loathing and doubt. He holds it all, and this week, he has held me—and by way of me, my daughter—through the “torments, the anxieties, the sweat.”

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On Trembling, On Parenting

Ruby & Romeo

Ruby & Romeo

Thirteen years ago, I had been in labor for twenty-three hours, and though I didn’t know it then, I still had eight hours to go.  But I did know, as I lay there that dark morning of February 11, 2000, that I was crossing a threshold, that life would never be the same.  I knew that I was in my last few hours of what would become “before” because when those hours were over—however many there were destined to be—I would be a mother.  And from then on, I always would be.

I have a similar feeling this morning as I write in the dark hours of February 11, 2013.  Soon—at 1:06 p.m., Pacific Standard Time—I will become the mother of a teenager.  And, there is no going back.  There is no going back to her first car ride or her first steps or her first day of kindergarten.  There is no going back to the first time she laid eyes on her baby sister or said “Mama” so clearly it couldn’t be mistaken for anything else.

No.  Ruby Coy Radmacher-Willis will turn thirteen years old in a few hours.  And that will be that.  There will be other firsts that somehow seem more terrifying—the first time she gets behind the wheel of a car, the first time she takes a trip on her own, the first day of college.  Those all feel like firsts of leaving.  And in the same way that I labored and trembled through the night thirteen years ago, so it goes this morning.  I tremble as I think about the world I am slowly releasing her into.

I know this is an age-old refrain—the world always seems more perilous and fraught to the parent of a teenager than it does to the teenager herself.  Certainly, it must require more caution and care that it did when that parent was stepping over the threshold to teenagerhood.  It seems as if the challenges are more numerous, more complex.  It seems as if the cliffs are steeper and the dragons are fiercer.  And maybe they are.

But somehow having the company of all those mothers before me—and even the ones to come—helps take the edge off.  And just like I have packed hundreds of little brown sack lunches with “Ruby” written on both sides, I want to pack her a little backpack to take into her teen years.  I think I’ll include Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice because the women are strong and wily, and the dresses are beautiful.  But, I’ll also include Orlando because I want her to know that even the clear lines aren’t really all that clear, the ones between time and place and even gender.  And, I want her to know that the imagination is a force to be reckoned with.

I will tuck in a note or paw print from her dog, Maddie, because the love of an animal is a powerful thing.  It will remind her to love—and accept love—unconditionally, to always greet her pack members warmly, to be kind to those smaller or weaker or less steady on their feet.

I will include a good recipe for spaghetti sauce and a solid pot.  With those in hands, she can always feed whoever comes by and make them feel welcome.  I’ll send a photograph of her Great Grandma Edna and her six sisters to show Ruby the faces of good cooking and warm hospitality.  It’ll also remind her that I don’t have to pack everything in her knapsack because she has whole tribe of other people who love her and are also sending provisions—her daddy, her grandparents, her adoring little sister, a passel of cousins and aunts and uncles and step-siblings and friends.

I’ll stick in a field guide to the plants and animals of the Pacific Northwest.  I want her to know the names of her fellow travelers, human and otherwise.  I’ll make sure she has a thick pair of socks because it’s always easier to kind when your feet are warm.

I’ll send her a good lip gloss and hanky with lace edges.   I don’t need to send a dictionary because she’s already an impeccable speller, but I will tuck in a red leather-bound journal to remind her to be curious and take notes.

And for sure I’ll include what I’ve often sent along in her lunches, a note from me that says:  “I sure love you, girl.  See you tonight—Mama.”

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Calling All Angels

 

victory angel

In the week since the almost unthinkable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown Connecticut, nearly every conversation I have had starts with a lamentation of that awful event.  We talk about our own children, our own schools, our own experiences of violence.  And that’s the thing, the shootings are almost unthinkable.  Almost.  Because in that same week, a young man open fired in a mall here in Oregon, killing two and terrifying thousands.  A few days before that, an 11-year-old and a 7- year–old held up a woman at gun point in a church parking lot.   We know that there have been mass shootings in high schools and temples and churches and movie theaters.  And yesterday, Huffington Post detailed the shooting fatalities that have taken place in this country since Sandy Hook, and most certainly the death toll has climbed even since that article was published yesterday afternoon. These murders are tragedies.  They are lives cut short, cures not found, symphonies not composed, inventions not patented, novels not written, buildings not built, gardens not grown, loves not consummated, children not born.  These are individual souls, individual dreams dashed, individual heartbreaks.

But, there is another kind of tragedy, and travesty, lurking inside the wave of gun violence and death in this country—the poisoning and undermining of society itself.  As we start to believe that we can not shop safely or go to the movies or—God forbid—send our six-year-olds to public schools, we start to retreat.  We start to believe that we can not trust our fellow citizens even in the most innocent of public spaces, and we only feel truly safe and unguarded in our own homes, preferably with the door locked and the rifle loaded. That is the death knell for a functioning democracy, for a healthy society.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day running errands for the holidays.  During those few hours, I bumped into no fewer than five friends, visited with strangers in line, exchanged a recipe with the clerk at the post office, opened the door for an elderly woman, petted an alpaca outside a shop in downtown Portland.  Those easy interactions and pleasantries give us a sense of the world.  They remind us that most people—even the ones we don’t know—are good-hearted and compassionate, that they are working to get by, worried about their kids and grandkids.  It reminds us that we are in this together, that our fates are linked, and that we’d best look out for our neighbor both because it is the right thing to do and because we want them to do it for us and our kids.

But, as more and more random and inexplicable violence takes place, we are on edge, more vigilant when we are on the streets or even in church.  And let us not choose a remedy that is nearly as fatal as the disease. Yesterday, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre said: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But it’s not really that simple, is it?  Are the good guys and the bad guys really so easy to distinguish?  Is anyone really “the bad guy” or “the good guy” in the Spaghetti Western way that LaPierre presents it?

Isn’t it more like this:  We are a country made up of flawed human beings, most of us doing our best to do the right thing most of the time?  Some of us struggle with mental illness and substance abuse.  Some of us are damaged by childhood trauma or PTSD.  Sometimes we get angry or blindly afraid.  Sometimes we make mistakes and misunderstand what is happening before us.

And, if that’s the case, introducing more and more weapons—and more insidiously—feeding anxiety and mistrust and hyper-vigilance in the public square forever transforms the public square.  It becomes no longer a place to make casual contact with strangers and offer tiny comforts, but a place to be feared and mistrusted, and strangers are to be eyeballed with suspicion and wariness.  Is it any wonder then, as we watch and listen to cable news, we hear a steady patter of mistrust and questioning of not only other people’s statements, but also their motives and even their patriotism?

As we go into these next weeks and months of paying tribute to those 26 beautiful souls and debating the ways in which we hope to make our children safer, we had best call on our better angels.   We’d better summon all the courage and imagination and good will we have because nothing less than the future of the nation is at stake.

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