In the background was Gaza, and ISIS, and the Ukraine, and Ebola, and climate change tipping points, and Ferguson, and visceral racism, and on and on. When I came home, it was back into this nasty political culture that is my poor State of Wisconsin in an election year with huge stakes and money corrupting the whole process.
Whew! And I think I appreciate more than ever that the work of culture
- of art and writing, of poetry and narrative, of new stories that can help shape meaning or offer new insights - is becoming crucial to how well we will move through this time of ecological and global crisis. Because, you know what? It's all a little overwhelming. It's all beyond the rational understanding of a species in crisis.
Watching the nation's reactions to the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson MO is revealing of where many of the fault lines are buried - tense and ready to explode - in many of our communities. Competing narratives played out on TV and the Internet. How one framed the story revealed more about those telling them than what actually occurred in the street that day. The old narrative based in racist stereotypes emboldened some harsh reactions, intensified by a militarized police response, and instilled anxiety in some of us over potentially new fuel poured on sparks we feel in our own cities, certainly here in Milwaukee.
But other narratives won out in part because we don't believe the old ones anymore, are weary of them, want another story that brings us together in these troubled times rather than fragmenting us further and setting us against one another.
You can dwell on the few looters, or you can dwell on the candles and peaceful marches and pleas for authorities to deal honestly with what occurred that day - the killing of an unarmed young black man by a police officer who fired into his body at least 6 times.
You can address the question of justice. You can frame it in an account of what it is to be a young African-American male in this country. You can probe yet again the history that has brought this about, try not only to understand those socio-historical forces, but to overcome them with a little forthright honesty and integrity about our past.
I grew up in a household that harbored deep racism. I remember what that felt like.
I don't think we get to the bottom, or the foundations, of our crises with yet another logical explanation of why they occurred, or another brilliant analysis. Sometimes one poem does it - gets you right in the heart and you suddenly see things in a different way. Or one story becomes so compelling that it haunts you into changing how you view reality. We begin to "see" differently.
We face a world of woe right now. So many of us feel overwhelmed, as if we can hardly bear another crisis, and then 3 more burst into the day. What underground forces are causing such restiveness? What is shaking our world? Does anyone reading this doubt that we are headed into an enormous transition for life on this planet? And we don't have a clue yet how that story is going to turn out.
So, we peer... We peer into... We try to see. Not explain, not get into the head, not write another thesis. We tell a story, we show an image, we shape a verse - for what cannot yet be explained or completely understood. We can name or describe many of the elements of our multiple crises, but to see where we're going? To know how this story is going to turn out? Not so much.
From before there was writing, people in ancient cultures told stories. They painted images on cave walls. They created myths and cosmologies that helped them find their place in their world. Their lives were harder, more unpredictable, a whole lot shorter, and less "rational" than ours. But we still feel the magic when we come upon their narratives or their works of art. Something of that immediacy with their world still really resonates with us - in this age when we have distanced ourselves from mystery, from wonder, from a relationship with the natural world around us which we are so good at destroying.
We need some really good stories now. We need some heartbreaking laments and some profound new insights. We are not bereft of them. They are being created all around us. We just have to get them out from the noise and fog of the culture into the light of day, into presence in our hearts, the kind of stories that inspire us to hang in there, keep searching, keep asking the right questions.
So we write and we draw and we tell stories and we spit poetry and we try to find our way - by peering - by peering into - by peering into deeply - then stepping into the unknown - which is the only place where we will find the direction of this new story.
I cannot offer adequate praise for Ellen Bass's poetry. To learn more about her work: http://www.ellenbass.com/
I first encountered The Peace Poets as part of a program where I was speaker in Amityville NY. They took the roof off the place. For more, visit them at: http://thepeacepoets.com/