Posts Tagged ‘politics’


My friend Leslie called yesterday:  “I’m worried about Hillary’s health.”  I talked over her: “Jeez, don’t worry about it. It’s walking pneumonia. The rest is just right wing blather to make her look old and doddery and frail. They gave her a big-ass dose of antibiotics. She’ll be fine.”

Leslie pressed on:  “Well I mean, last year when I had pneumonia, I had to go to bed for two weeks. I would wake up in the morning and make breakfast for the kids, and then I had to go back to bed.” I snapped back: “Well, that’s not an option.”

Then I took a breath. Oh.  When Leslie said she was worried about Clinton’s health, she didn’t mean she was politically worried.  She meant she was worried about her as a person. She was worried about the fact that Hillary Clinton must feel horrible—weak, thirsty, feverish, ready to cough up a lung—and yet she has to get up before the sun, make speeches at the top of her voice, and embrace thousands of strangers like second cousins on Thanksgiving Day. That must suck. How is it even possible?

Right. Leslie was worried about Hillary in the way that compassion dictates—concern for your fellow human.

Well, that was unimpressive. That I blew right past the suffering of this poor, overstretched woman and went right to counting votes in North Carolina. Later, after the dinner dishes were washed, I snuck a peek at the news. The CNN headline: “Hillary Clinton Stumbles–Will Her Campaign Follow?” The Washington Post led with: “Hillary Clinton’s health just became a real issue in the presidential campaign.”

Let’s set aside for a moment the crassness of overshadowing the fifteenth anniversary of the nation-stopping tragedy of 9/11 with a breathless account of a respiratory illness and consider this: Just last week, the headlines were things like:  “Clinton Campaign Wants to Humanize Hillary” and “Hillary Clinton: Campaign Attempts to Humanize Her Again.” The worst of this batch came during the Democratic Convention: “Bill Clinton Praises His Wife’s Feminine Side.” Ok, ick. And from the New York Times no less.

But here’s a news flash for all of us—members of press and members of the public alike—humans live in bodies. Humans are bodies. There is nothing more humanizing than having a head cold. No matter how hard we struggle and argue that we “don’t have time to be sick,” we don’t have a choice. We shiver and sneeze and cough until the coronaviruses run their course and decide they are done with us.

These presidential campaigns are brutal. They are inhumane. They are—indeed—unhuman in some very fundamental and creepy way. And we hate them for it. We hate the poll-tested messages, the spin rooms, the inaccessibility and craven manipulation of the electorate. We hate the size, the scale. We hate the money and the advertising. We hate the glitz and the confetti and the phony carnival of the balloon drop.

And we should. Somehow, in the deep recesses of our cynical hearts, we do know that a government of the people, by the people, for the people requires actual people. And people come with all the inconvenient frailties of the mortal, animal bodies that we’re born into. That includes head colds and menstrual cramps and poor eyesight and foggy thinking when we’re exhausted.

Of course, we can’t talk about this without taking note of the skin-crawingly gendered nature this conversation. We love to use women’s bodies—in all their glorious humanness—to question and marginalize and cast doubt on the competence of their (our) minds.(I’m thinking about Hillary Clinton’s dash to the podium after using the ladies room in an otherwise all-male debate.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve watched enough West Wing to know that it’s a bad idea for presidential candidates to cover up major, chronic health issues. But Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia is a chance—among many—for us to take a breath and re-set. We say we want authentic candidates—and elected officials—who represent us and who understand what we’re going through out here in the provinces as we muddle through our days sleep-deprived and rumpled and plagued by head colds. That said, though, we have to grow up. We can’t have it all. We can’t have the perfectly polished, elegantly coiffed, gaffe-less candidate who is also authentic and empathetic and real.  Real is real. And sometimes real gets a nasty case of pneumonia.

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The Imperative of Gratitude

full moon

What a tangled up snarl of a November it has been.  On one hand, it is November! The trees shot forth their last bright flames before settling into winter bones. And I love Thanksgiving above all other holidays. Of course, there’s the food—daydreaming over recipes, returning to old favorites, jostling for the oven. But there is also the gathering together with no purpose other than conviviality and gratitude.  A call to gratitude is about as close as we get to holiness in the secular waters where I and most of my friends swim.

And yet, there is a long shadow cast over this November. Since the brutal Daesh (let’s call them that, shall we?) rampage of November 12 and 13, the media has blanketed us with terrorism reporting. Every day is filled with news of another attack, another lockdown, another shootout. This alongside the news that an Oregon college student was assaulted in a racially motivated attack over the weekend, Black Lives Matter activists were shot in Minneapolis by white supremacists, and Western Washington University is closed after students of color were threatened online.  Oh and yes, our last hope for any kind of half-feasible climate agreement that might at least slow the earth’s incineration is dependent on the erstwhile leaders of the world pulling up their socks and getting down to business in Paris next week, a city that is more than a little distracted.

I’ve heard it argued that we have no business counting our bougie blessings while the world is consumed with injustice and oppression and violence. And under the circumstances, that’s a pretty compelling argument. The call to outrage and fear and retribution seems a lot more appropriate under the circumstances, and it offers our amped up limbic systems something to do. And plus, I’m kind of in love with my outrage. It makes me feel less powerless, and it obliterates all those pain-soaked emotions like confusion and heartbreak and grief. By staying high on outrage, I can keep moving at 70 miles-an-hour and not stop to feel what’s really happening.

I know that gratitude for my clannish family and home-grown squash and working hot-water heater and relative health and silly joyous pets and meaningful work and whip-smart colleagues and dry socks and a decent haircut and ridiculously thorough education and big street trees and beautifully maintained parks and clean water and fierce sparkly friends and dry firewood and books of heart-stopping poems (some written by those sparkly friends) and a watchful mountain and a curvy river and a brilliant husband and stunning daughters contrasts my abundance from the want and suffering of many of the world’s citizens.

Sometimes it’s just easier to be outraged than really feel how unjust it is that I have so much when others have so little. Yes, it’s definitely better to be infuriated than guilty and confused.

But it is a dangerous business to plunge fully into the pool of outrage. It is blinding and deafening and disconnecting. It feeds on self-righteousness and certainty and locating and demonizing the other. It whips up hysteria and loves a good mob.

Gratitude, on the other hand, is a call to close looking and affection. Yes, it can tip into sentimentality and self-congratulation (which don’t look that bad in contrast with mass brutality), but gratitude also ties us to the world, even in all its brokenness. Since the Paris attacks, I have seen several people return to Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which was published in The New Yorker right after 9/11. Here it is:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

(translated by Clare Cavanaugh)

Yes, there it is. Wine and strawberries and the thrush’s gray feather in the face of suffering and brutality and capriciousness. And it is not just comfort that Zagajewski offers us, it is an imperative.  We must praise the mutilated world because the future depends on the actions we take out of gratitude and connection—and, yes, love—in addition to the actions we take out of outrage and holy indignation.  I am reminded of a stunning insight by the painter and mythologist Martin Shaw: “I have not a clue whether we humans will live for another 100 or 10,000 years.  We can’t be sure.  What matters to me is the fact we have fallen out of a very ancient love affair – a kind of dream tangle, with the earth itself.  If, through our own mess, that relationship is about to end, then we need to scatter as much beauty around us as we possibly can, to send a voice, to attempt some kind of repair.  I think of it as a kind of courting – a very old idea.”

So this Thanksgiving, I am challenging myself to keep the fire of righteous indignation burning while I kneel at the hearth of gratitude. Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll slice the pie.


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On Praying for Kim Davis

Kim Davis

I spent the last few weeks (mostly) detached from Facebook and Twitter.  I’m not taking a moral stand here. I just needed a little time to hear my own mind. The snowballing outrage that plows through social media can’t be good for the imagination. Or the limbic system.

Last night, I came back. I was glad to witness the hijinks of the hive mind. And I missed the peephole into my friends’ and colleagues’ lives even if I don’t get to see them in the flesh very often. Not surprisingly, the outrage machine was still running at full tilt, this time over Pope Francis’ private meeting with Kim Davis—the Rowan County clerk who made herself famous by refusing to issue marriage licenses in protest over same-sex marriage—and over a picture that Cheryl Strayed posted of herself with Hillary Clinton saying “IStandWithPP”(as in Planned Parenthood) and using the hashtag #pinkout.

Poor Cheryl was not only called a baby-killer, but the Bernistas also came out in force, chastising her for supporting Hillary and accusing the former Secretary of State of all kinds of nefariousness. The hissy over the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis was much bigger. My Facebook feed was filled with crestfallenness on one side and I-told-you-soishness on the other.

Pope Francis Arrives From Cuba For Visit To D.C., New York, And Philadelphia         My first thought was “Cheryl Strayed is a grown woman and a fully enfranchised citizen of this country. She gets to stand with, take photographs with, support, celebrate, drink with, or vote for anyone she pleases. So back off.”  But my feelings about the Pope and Kim Davis were more complex. I have to admit, I was disappointed. I have a well documented #popecrush. I enjoyed every second of his tour of the East Coast—riding around in a stylish black fiat, talking about economic and environmental justice, kissing babies and stopping the car to bless the suffering. For g-d’s sake, John Boehner resigned during Pope Francis’s visit. I didn’t want that magic nimbus to be punctured with an image of the people’s hero meeting and embracing that sadsack hater, Kim Davis.

But after I wrestled my limbic system out of the grips of outrage, I had to admit a few things. The first is this – Pope Francis has every bit as much agency as Cheryl does.  In the same way that she gets to put her arm around whatever damned candidate she pleases, Francis also gets to give out his special pope rosaries to whomever he wants.

But it goes deeper than that, too.  While he was here, Pope Francis also visited with prisoners in an overcrowded Philadelphia jail. In his address, he said: “I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own.” hands

I know. It can hardly be argued that Kim Davis, though she did spend 5 days in jail for contempt of court, was swept up by the prison-industrial complex that incarcerates thousands of men of color and decimates communities. Like most of my friends in cyberspace and life, I’d rather see the Pope comforting those men than some backwater county clerk that refuses to issue marriage licenses to people who love each other. But poor ol’ Kim Davis must be suffering in her own way, too. This is not the world she signed up for. Last month, she turned 50 years old. How was she to know that the black and white world that she was born into where boys married girls and everything else was off-screen would go the way of the rabbit ears and in its place there would emerge a 3-D technicolor world where love means love and the greatest athlete on earth rocks a cocktail dress and boys paint their nails and girls go to Army Ranger school? Some people are slower to adapt than others. We know this.

I’m not suggesting that Kim Davis should not have to issue marriage licenses or that she shouldn’t be held in contempt or even that she shouldn’t have to withstand a little ridicule. But I am saying that she’s a sad, confused, failing human just like the rest of us. And just like the ones that Pope Francis has promised to minister to.

One of the things that moved me the most about the Pope’s visit was that he kept asking people to pray for him. That gesture was both humble (as John Boehner said: “Who am I to pray for the Pope?”) and entitled in the best sense of the word (It is our birthright to reach out to one another for love and succor.). As Pope Francis himself said: “To pray for a person with whom I am irritated is a beautiful step forward in love.”  I guess I’ll do just that today. For Pope Francis and for Kim Davis.

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On the Question of a News Fast


From time to time one of my friends announces she is going on a media fast. She (or sometimes he) cuts herself off from the barrage of outside stimulus in order to reconnect to her own mind or body or spirit.  While I admire the discipline, my reflexive reaction is always: I could never do that.

I wake up reading the news and often go to sleep reading it. I try to finish off the day with a novel or a poem, but I am not always that disciplined. And I won’t even tell you how many times a day I look at Twitter. It would be undignified.

Some of it is my intrinsic fear of missing something.  I worry that if I am away from my devices for more than a few hours at a time, some piece of world-changing news will have happened, and I will not have been there in the know and alert to its significance.

But some of it is something else. I feel some sort of deep obligation to bear witness to what is happening out there in the world. I feel as if—from my position of comfort and safety—the least I can do is face up to what is happening to others who live intimately with violence and repression and environmental degradation. I feel like it is my responsibility to do my very best not to bury my head in the sand.

But my resolve is weakening. There have been months of what we call “bad news”—terrorist attacks and natural disasters and police shootings and political scandals. The weight of human suffering is almost unbearable. I am willing to tolerate that though–painful as it is–in order to keep my eyes open and my heart awake.

But there is also an undercurrent of breathlessness that reeks of glee and cynicism. And that is what I find to be untenable. We don’t have a television at home, but whenever I go to a hotel room and turn on the TV, the scrolling red banner that runs under the newscaster makes my heart jump. It makes me think: Something horrible has happened. And my whole body goes on high alert. Then I remember that the red banner is always running. That the TV news gets what it needs—us—not by reporting but by creating fear and drama.  It taps right into our reptile brain, bypassing the genteel frontal cortex.

My own dear state of Oregon has been gripped by a political drama of unprecedented proportions this week. Everyone I know was glued to their phones and radios and Twitter feeds. Each hour offered a new hit of salacious gossip and blanket outrage. Every day was more surreal than the next. I found myself battered from one moment to the next and have landed—hard—in a pile of uncertainty and sadness. I have found myself unclear about how to even analyze what happened or what should have happened. I will say this:  A media driven by the need to stimulate our worst, most primal instincts at an ever-increasing speed will never serve the needs of a pluralistic, deliberative nation. It will never serve a society made up of human beings with their frailties and idiosyncracies. If everything is fair game, there will always be more to attack, to tear down.

This is not to say that I entirely blame the media. I blame the ravenous market that can never have enough – enough money, enough power, enough attention. But I also blame myself. I blame myself for my own addictions to speed, to gossip, to the adrenaline of crisis.

So maybe my friends are right.  Maybe a news fast is the right thing to do. I sure feel as if my own mind and imagination could use a break. But I also wonder if—in the marketplace of ideas—I need to make a purchasing decision. I need to take my one and only bargaining chip—my attention—out of the mix.

So while I still wholeheartedly believe that it is my—our—obligation not to turn away, I am not sure the news media is the must trustworthy intermediary between us and those who we want to honor.  I don’t trust the intentions of the news media at the moment, and I am not even sure I trust my own.

So I think I’ll join the ranks of those who take breaks from the fray. I’ll give my adrenal system and my overtaxed mind a break. And when I come back—which inevitably I will—maybe I will come back with more imagination about how we my genuinely connect, about how we might more humbly and rationally bear witness.

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Shaimaa el Sabbagh In Memory of Shaimaa el-Sabbagh

1984 – January 24, 2015

Who will honor the city without a name
If so many are dead and others pan gold
Or sell arms in faraway countries?
-Czesław Miłosz

Like millions of Americans, I woke up on Wednesday to a front-page photo of a man carrying a mortally wounded young woman across a Cairo street. Oddly, I hadn’t heard a thing about the story despite the fact that the photograph—and the others that accompanied it—had already captured the attention of much of the rest of the world. The young woman was Egyptian mother, poet and folklorist, Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. The young man was her friend, Sayyed Abu el-Ela, a lawyer and activist. On the afternoon of January 24, Shaimaa and Sayyed and their friends were part of a small demonstration intent on delivering flowers to Tahrir Square in remembrance of the fourth anniversary of Arab Spring. The police fired on the group, Shaimaa was hit, and she ultimately died on the street in Cairo.

Shaimaa 2

Shaimaa is one of thousands of Egyptians who have been killed by police since the 2011 uprising, including 17-year old Sondos Reda, who was killed the same day as Shaimaa at a demonstration in Alexandria. As we mourn the deaths of Sondos and Shaimaa, we can’t help but also recall the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, also at the hands of the police.

Since I first saw the images and started reading about Shaimaa, I cannot get her out of my mind. I can’t stop thinking about her five-year-old son, Bilal, and about her friends who held her as she died. Shaimaa was doing what poets do—using the power of metaphor to re-assert individual memory and spirit  into what seems a chaotic and inhuman system. She was carrying flowers into the public square to honor the dead. She was speaking the symbolic language of remembrance and hope and rebirth. And she was shot down in broad daylight in the process.

In the cascade of daily tragedy, it is tempting to succumb to the series of “yes buts.” Yes but Shaimaa’s death was not as brutal or violent or horrific as this other act of brutality or violence or horror. Yes but this killing was not as ruthless as the one that happened two weeks ago or yesterday or this morning. Yes but Shaimaa was not tortured quite as torturously, so we dismiss her death as not quite as senseless and not quite as deserving of our attention and move on to the next horrific tragedy.

I am stepping out of the yes but stream. I am declaring my refusal to participate in the ranking of brutality. Not only is it soul-crushing, but it incentivizes those who trade in shock and terror to become ever more imaginative and callous in their campaign of broadcast thuggery.

Rather, I am going to look to Shaimaa’s life—and her sacrifice in death—as a window into the wondrousness that is the human spirit. One of the things I most want to remember about Shaimaa is that she once spent months touring the Nile Delta studying and writing about traditions and practices for making flatbread. And that in November, she supervised students who studied and performed the traditional Alexandrian dances that surround a birth. And that she wrote an ode to her lost handbag:

What might she be feeling right now
Maybe scared?
Or disgusted from the sweat of someone she doesn’t know
Annoyed by the new streets?
If she stopped by one of the stores we visited together
Would she like the same items?
Anyway, she has the house keys
And I am waiting for her

I am going to remember that she chose to celebrate the small rituals that give humans meaning in the face of turmoil and murder.shaimaa 3 I am going to remember that she was courageous not just on the day that she carried flowers through the streets of Cairo but on all the days before when she stood for what is life-giving in the face of what is brutal and destructive.
Last year, Tilda Swinton gave a talk at the Rothko chapel where she said: I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to ourselves. Shaimaa el-Sabbagh spent her all-too-short life on the side of dissolving injustice and mending hope, and that is how I am going to remember her.

There are no platitudes to offer a five year old whose mother was murdered as she laid down flowers of remembrance. To quote Pope Francis on his recent trip to vissilenceit victims of the hurricane in the Philippines: “All I can do is keep silence and walk with you all with my silent heart.”

But for poets—in the United States and abroad—silence is exactly what we cannot keep. We cannot keep silence while journalists are being beheaded and arrested, while cartoonists are being executed in their offices, while poets are being shot down in the street. We must keep making and writing and painting. We must keep protesting and laying flowers down as offerings. We must stand for that which creates in the face of so much that destroys. We must stand on the side of mending what is broken. We must stand with Shaimaa.

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Ask Not.


My husband, who is a certified wise guy, posted on his Facebook page this morning:  “Ask not what poetry can do for you, ask what you can do for poetry.”  Now, I get it.  It’s a week for inaugural wisecracking and Monday morning quarterbacking, and some thoughtful reflection on the role of poetry in inaugurations and in public life generally.  Like here and here.

But as much as I love, admire, and respect that wise guy, his reversal of President Kennedy’s famous challenge, has been bugging me all morning, and I spent my walk into work wondering why.  I actually think that his smarty pants reversal is the problem.  That’s what we do all the time.  We ask what we can do for poetry rather than letting poetry do for us, letting it work on us in some real way.  We spend our time thinking about what poetry we are going write and how our brand of poetry is going to save the art from the wreckage that is modern life.

If David’s certification is from the College of American Wise Guys, my certification is this:  I’m a Certified Work Horse.  I like to ask what can I do?, and then I take joy in doing it.  So, I get it.  It’s an American truism – stopping being takers and start being makers.  But, in this case, I think we could take a little more and pause for a little longer before we start making.

It’s a joke among poets—a sadly accurate one—that no one reads poetry except other poets.  And we all suspect that even there, the reports of our reading are greatly exaggerated.  But, I think many of us—myself  included—all too often read for utilitarian purposes.  We read poems to improve our own craft, we read poems to size up the competition, we read poems to keep up with the patter on the Rumpus and Facebook and whatever other poetry water coolers are available to us.

But too infrequently do we read poems and let them “do” for us, let them work on us.  The most recent example I can think of is when Natasha Trethewey won the Pulitzer for Native Guard.  After the award was announced, I ran right out to buy the book to see what all the fuss was about.   Again, impure purposes—Who was winning prizes? How does this book work?  And, I will admit that after I read it, I was let down and left wondering. The poems were so quiet, so reserved.  I really couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about.  I was vaguely disappointed, but shrugged it off and went on.NativeGuard

But, here’s the thing.  As I went about my life, I couldn’t stop thinking about those poems, about their poise, about their truthtelling, about their hauntedness.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this:

The Daughters of the Confederacy

has placed a plaque here, at the fort’s entrance—

each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard

in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards—

2nd Regiment, Union men, black phalanx.

What is monument to their legacy?


All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—

water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,

and we listen for what the waves intone.

Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,

round, unfinished, half open to the sky,

the elements—wind, rain—God’s deliberate eye.

Even though I read the book for all the wrong reasons, it got inside me despite myself.  It worked on me, it changed me.  And though I still read for reasons that are careerist and utilitarian, I am a better person, a better citizen for having let Native Guard do for me.

We are a country of makers, that’s for sure.  And that includes poets—we make.  But, once in a while, I think it would behoove us to linger on the couch, to take a little more from poetry and to ask not what we can do for poetry, but what poetry can do for us.

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Today, I’m writing to seek your support.  As we hunker down in these last few hours of the year, it’s almost impossible not to reflect on the year nearly past and the one creeping up on us.  What are our intentions for this brand new, yet-to-be-tainted year?  Sure, I need to exercise more—a lot more—and I absolutely must better understand how to manage adolescents.  I need to call my mother more often and also keep the laundry pile from becoming a rival to the North Cascades.

question mark

But, I also feel called to start a movement—or maybe join one—a movement to undermine a tic in public discourse that is threatening our ability to solve almost any collective problem, that is corrosive to the very heart of a deliberative democratic nation.  That tic—or habit of mind or rhetorical rut—is our national compulsion to present everything with such certainty.  Anytime we make an argument—myself included—we spell it out definitively with no air holes, no rise of voice at the end of the sentence that might even vaguely suggest a question mark, no possibility that what we are saying is anything other than an absolute truth that should be obvious to any one over the age of reason.

This commitment to certainty leaves no room for experimentation, for failure, for innovation.  If it is obvious that you must agree with me or be pronounced a dolt, there can be no spirit of let’s try this and see if it works.  Let’s give it a whirl. Let’s make time for adjustments.  Let’s mix a little of that and a little of this and maybe we can make the whole enterprise better.

Nope, it’s just:  1) We must raise taxes on the 1% that are living off the fat of the land tilled by the rest of us or 2) We must wean ourselves from the nanny-state that is undermining entrepreneurship and killing the American dream.   We choose and present our positions with such moral force and certainty that any other arguments are to be met with scorn and then with outrage.

I for one am tired of the sound of my own indignation.  I am certain we need additional gun control in this country.  Absolutely certain of it, but I also wonder if there is just a tiny space to also talk about increased law enforcement and flexibility to make people feel safe in their own homes and their own communities.  I am sure in the end I will have a position—probably one very close to the one I have now—but I would like to reach that position after listening to a range of options and honestly weighing the arguments.  I would like to come to my position humbly and without disdain for other frightened and well-intentioned parents who are looking to keep their children safe in schools and malls.

Plus, it will be fun.  We—the foot soldiers against certainty—can tell each other our secrets.  We can confess that we don’t really know what to do about climate change or the national debt or tax reform.  We can swap recipes for raising kids in an uncertain world.  We can spin out wild ideas over bottles of wine and imagine an America that is so much more creative and vibrant than the one we live in now.  We can laugh at our own mistakes and crack jokes about our foibles.  We can come out of the bunkers marked with the team colors of our political brands and shake our heads together over a crazy experiment that just might work.

Doesn’t that sound like a movement worth joining?  I’m just certain it is.

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The Price of Speech

I am just in a state.  That’s not uncommon for me in presidential election years, at least not in recent ones.  It feels like the whole country is chewing nails between Labor Day and the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in years divisible by four.  That math’s probably wrong, but you know what I mean.  And, I know we’ve got it easy here in Oregon.  The candidates haven’t been through in weeks, and the airwaves are not entirely choked with vitriol and lies.

But last weekend, I had a little shot of warmth.  I had the great good fortune to spend time immersed in both of my tribes.  The first part of the weekend, I spent with 400 energized, innovative and idealistic democracy practitioners at the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.  The second half, surrounded by hordes of writers and readers at the Portland literary festival, Wordstock.  In both places, the conversation teetered between possibility and despair and not just because of the impending election.

Those were rooms full of people who believe in the power of words.  The power of words to forge connection, to move policy, to change hearts.  Dialogue and deliberation people are evangelical in their commitment to conversation as a vehicle to improve individual lives, communities, and the future of the nation.  They are developing models of inter-party dialogue and deliberative polling and viral living room conversations, all with the goal of better decision-making and a stronger democracy.

The writers are toiling away just as faithfully in their garrets and at their dining room tables, trying to get it right, to fully embody a vision of life with no tools but black marks and white space.   They, too, are trying to change the world with words.

And, that’s what democracy is about, right?  The very first amendment to the Constitution recognizes that speech is power and is central to a self-governing people.  The freedom of speech is what keeps us alert and critical and creative.

And I know we are one of the freest nations in the world for writers and citizens.  For the most part, no one’s going to imprison us for writing a poem or wiretap us for holding a community meeting, at least not right now.  But, even so, there is a gray and hazy malaise over American democracy.  All weekend, incredible civic innovators and tremendously talented writers were fretting over the economy of words—over the “business model” that makes it possible for them to do their work.  Citizen journalists and tiny non-profits are hanging on by a thread and the commitment of volunteers to keep conversation alive in their communities.  Forceful and very smart writers wonder about the future of the book and whether the newspaper will live on another year.

And yet, yet, in the middle of all this, the speech we have decided not only to protect–but to fund at obscene levels—is a phalanx of half-true and venomous political ads.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into political campaigns and outside spending groups.  In fact one estimate is that nearly $6 billion will be spent on federal campaigns this election season.   Six billion dollars.  And for what?  For ads that hit the limbic system with a shot of fear and loathing, for 30 seconds of lies about another American with whom I might strongly disagree but who most certainly is nothing but a patriot and a public servant.   Months and months of shouting, misrepresenting, and pandering. And all of it incinerated on November 6.

Meanwhile, citizens struggle to rent the community center and buy a gallon of lemonade for a public conversation.  Poets—even fine ones—work at a loss.  That First Amendment of ours was intended to create and protect a robust marketplace of ideas.  It was intended to let ideas and ideologies and thoughts move freely and equally, with the most compelling floating to the top.  But that metaphoric marketplace has become precipitously intertwined with the actual marketplace, with moneyed interests literally buying their way to top, so it is not the best ideas we hear but the most powerful ones, the ones most protective of the status quo.

So, while I dither along in my pre-election case of the jitters, I’m not just worried about who wins or loses.  Instead, I’m worried about the whole enterprise.  I’m worried that even the most committed and idealistic of us will be drowned out, will just give up.  I’m worried that there will be no space in the public discourse for civic innovations and essays and poems.  I’m worried that while I’m fretting away my October 2016, I’ll only have paid political advertising to keep me warm.

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