The photo above is "Sad Dreams on Cold Mornings" by Joanne Leonard, 1971. It was part of an exhibit I saw at the S.F. Museum of Modern Art. To me, it evokes restless nights not just of sad dreams but wakeful anxieties also. I've had more than a few lately.
Before I get started, I want to tell you that the day smells like moist hay, the hills are yellow and the sky pale gray, and it’s gentle and comforting in a way. (Don’t worry: the rhyming is unintentional.)
And now I’m going to backtrack briefly to last week’s San Francisco trip. Since Monte does all the driving when we travel, sometimes I read to him. The book this time was Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt. Judt is a brilliant historian who is currently suspended in the hell of the fatal neurological disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He describes himself as “a bunch of dead muscles, thinking” but his thoughts are incisive, the breadth of his knowledge vast, and he certainly has a lot to say. I had been reading his memoirs in the NY Review of Books and decided to buy this new book of his, which I believe he wrote as a parting message for his own two sons and for other young people who have to navigate into a future that at the moment seems ominous.
"Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today," says Judt."For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest...The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears 'natural' today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth." In this book he seeks to give the next generation a different way to think about values, politics and the state.
So Tony Judt was our companion as we drove up to the Bay area, and we found ourselves immersed in the events of world history since World War I, acknowledging the folly of making economics the ultimate basis for policy and politics, and mostly pondering the idea that western democracies seem to have lost sight of the positive virtues of collective action. Judt writes about the growing inequalities within and between societies, our increased difficulty in comprehending what we have in common with each other, and the ways in which fear and uncertainty are used to manipulate people. Not a very cheerful book, but thought provoking. It's a call for a new conversation about social democracy and political involvement; I'm sending it to my daughter and her boyfriend. (Sort of like passing along a hot potato. Here. You're up next.) But it’s a worthwhile read.
I’m looking for answers, you see, as I drift ashore without shelter of sure. My searching leads mostly to confirmation that there is reason to be worried, but no big answers yet, only vague thoughts about small acts and long-term possibilities, and it is quite evident that the effort of the individual has to be projected onto a larger screen and linked together with others for the collective good. That's why I liked Tony Judt's book -- it reminds us that we're all in this together and there are institutions and processes already in place that urgently need to be rethought and reinvigorated but at least there's something to start out with. (I envy those who have unshakeable religious faith, but even in my church-going days I somehow got the message that we were responsible for most of our own messes.)
Anyway, I told you already about the garage sale we went to in San Francisco, a peculiar assortment of things being sold by a woman named Diane who claimed to be a maker and finder of charms and was indeed quite charming. She also explained that she had the ability to recognize the magic or sacredness of certain objects, although those are not the words she used. It was that some objects were capable of bringing blessings, sort of like a cross between a lucky charm and a religious artifact. Case in point: Henry, the paper-maché (or maybe wood and plastic) rooster, complete with feathers. That's him on the left, in her kitchen, where she was gracious enough to invite us in to show us more wares that we didn't buy. With a ceremonial flourish of her hand, our charm-maker uttered her wishes for our well-being, and the rooster crowed. Who knows what unpleasant twists of fate we may have thus warded off?
I couldn't help but wonder if she really believed this. Elsewhere on a table I noticed a framed black and white photograph of a tall, elegant African-American woman dressed as though for church or high tea. She was marching for civil rights, and a caption at the bottom said the date was 1962. “That’s my mother,” said Diane. “I just lost her last year.”
It all got me to thinking about what we will stand for, fight for, live for. And about the things that we believe in, the things that elevate us, motivate us, that somehow keep us going.
I'm thinking about it still. Especially in the middle of the night when I should be asleep...