An essay in five movements: 2

1.      2. Allegretto

I have seen shame and blame move at breakneck speed.  We are all each other’s informants. We are our own informants. We betray ourselves so easily now, so early, so often, that we clump together with like-minded people like a herd of buffalo ranged in a circle, defensive, fearful.  The enemy is at hand.  No, the enemy is clumped in another circle, not far off, fearing their own opponents.  And sometimes at the centre of these circles, the real enemy lurks, protected by those they have trained so well in fear.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts physical needs and the need for safety at the base. How can we ever be social—not to mention aspire to greater things, to be creative, inventive and to flourish—when those needs are constantly threatened?

Are they threatened?  

Some, certainly.  I know people who today, in what is considered one of the best countries in the world to live, fear for their lives just for being who they are.  There may not be a knock on the door in the dead of night, but people struggle on a daily basis and some die.  And yet…and yet…for marginalized groups, turning to each other builds strength and community, helps counteract fear.  Often creativity flourishes, the flowers growing up through the cracked pavement, the reclamation of what has been taken—because it is this creative spark that triumphs over inhumanity.  Again, and again, and again, it is inextinguishable.

But when the fear is less grounded in reality, community can only exist in augmenting that fear.  The community focuses on the fear, and only that fear.  Social interactions become increasingly based on common enemies, not on friends. We pour our adrenaline into the fight or flight reaction.  Creativity withers. 

This is the trap that has been set for us, and we are too often blindly taking the bait.

I have seen shame and blame move at breakneck speed.  I have seen people so eager to categorize, compartmentalize, and either accept or dismiss that they’ve stopped asking why, and listening.  And dare you go into that no-man’s land in the middle?  You’ll get shot from the front and from the rear, by both your friends and enemies. 

I understand why. There are only so many hours in a day, and life is stressful. Why spend that time with people who vex you? With people who might even hurt you?

Ten years now, I have been an orphan. It has been 18 years since I lost my mother. My parents were dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, and somehow they produced me.  I am a socialist.  I’ve only recently accepted that about myself, because where I come from, I might as well have hung up a picture of Lenin in the bathroom. (If you’ve been to my bathroom, you know why that’s an amusing thought).  But I never rebelled against my parents. Quite to the contrary—the majority of their core values are mine to this day.  Those core values included curiosity and a lively sense of inquiry, love expressed through unwavering support and partnership, the importance of community and family, pride in accomplishment but lack of overweening ego, the idea that material wealth was not an end in itself, and the idea that learning and personal growth was a lifelong process.  These values also modulated some of their less-desirable beliefs.  My parents, born in the 20s in the rural Midwest, were racists.  There is no nicer term for it.  The derogatory terms for black people that I heard at home as a young child could not help but be formative in the way I saw people of colour. There were other words—particularly for Italians, for some reason.  I would be a liar if I claimed to have completely overcome that upbringing.  Yet I heard these terms less and less over the years.  My parents, in their later years were good people who had begun to learn that these words were not acceptable (even though I am sure they still saw black people as less-than). 

In today’s world, where we are told that there are two groups of people—those who agree with you, and horrible people—would my parents be horrible people?  Would I have written them out of my life as toxic?  Well…

If I have one regret in my life, it’s that I never asked my parents questions about their lives.  I knew the basic outlines, of course, but looking back, I know so few stories.  I went recently through a box of black and white photos from their life together in the 18 years of marriage before I was born, and what I would give to be able to ask them about those photos—but I can’t.  The people in those photos look like my parents, but they are strangers.  The opportunity is gone. The stories are gone.  The photos are relics, without context or meaning.

I never asked why.

More and more, we walk amongs invisible ruins.

Let’s go for a drive, see the town tonight
There’s nothing to do but I don’t mind when I’m with you
This town’s so strange they built it to change
And while we sleep we know the streets get rearranged
My old friends, we were so different then
Before your war against the suburbs begin
Before it began
Now the music divides us into tribes
You grew your hair so I grew mine
You said the past won’t rest
Until we jump the fence and leave it behind
My old friends, I can remember when
You cut your hair, I never saw you again
Now the cities we live in could be distant stars
And I searched for you in every passing car
The night’s so long
Yeah the night’s so long
I’ve been living in the shadows of your song
Living in the shadows of your song
In the suburbs I, I learned to drive
You told me we would never survive,
So grab your mother’s keys, we leave tonight
But you started a war that we can’t win
We keep erasing all the streets we grew up in

Now the music divides us into tribes
Choose your side, I’ll choose my side
All my old friends they don’t know me now
All my old friends are staring through me now
All my old friends they don’t know me now
Arcade Fire, “Suburban War”,