Friday, February 5, 2010
Nanook of the North Speaks
Are you snowed in there? I hollered out to my friend Bill Rutherfoord in an email. (The question was completely redundant, since he lives only an hour away in Roanoke, and I'm up to my navel here in Blacksburg.) Groundhog has declared six more weeks before help comes. Snow, sleet, and freezing rain is the ongoing refrain issuing from the radio. Some interesting comparative statistics in the local paper revealed that Blacksburg is a mere one inch behind the snowfall level for Anchorage, Alaska. Repeat: Alaska! And after this weekend's storm, we'll actually top out their measly 36.9 inch count. (A year ago on this date Roanoke had four-tenths of an inch snow total for the entire season.)
Nanook of the North, you have nothing on me.
But recurrent snow incarceration is only part of this winter's edgy discontent. The transient glow from Obama's State-of-the-Union address last week is wearing off, all too quickly. I read somewhere that the whole effort got him only a one-point boost in the polls. I hardly know which is making me feel worse anymore--snow or politics--but looking for enlightenment right now is a bit like searching for a lost sock in the dryer. Good luck with that! I suppose, I wrote to Bill, you're having a ball just painting your little heart out while the snow-chips fall?
Not really, he wrote me back. The cold has all but stopped my efforts in the basement. It's so cold I can't think, and after a few minutes of trying to paint, my fingers sting from exposure. Then there is the groundwater problem. It percolates through the foundation, rendering the studio floor an inland sea...And yes, he agreed, the post-speech glow was short-lived, but that came as no surprise and so we're back to no country, no direction, infantile obstructionist politics, the continued dismantling of the middle class, and a slick, soulless art world that hates the work of the hand. I now paint for spite. High culture is only wrecked if people like me allow ourselves to be stopped by the banality of evil....
I guess it's all about who you find yourself with in the lifeboat, isn't it? I confess I do groove on the idea of painting "for spite." Sometimes it feels like I'm living back in 300 BC, when Hindus, too, were convinced they lived in a "degenerate and unfortunate time," the lowest point in the cosmic cycle.
Maybe, I tell myself contritely, I need to spackle over all this despair and produce, say, just one good giddy thing. Even a laugh would do. Maybe it's time to bury Caesar, along with all my chronic woes and the feeling that we are living in the world's last decent days--and try, instead, to sparkle, radiate, make bright, dispel the darkness, become luminous, let the light come through. Hey! did I really say that?
So here I am, as usual looking for light in all the wrong places, when it suddenly appears of its own accord in, of all places, my email box. Someone has forwarded to me a collection of thoughts by the political analyst and activist Howard Zinn, who died just recently. The quotes are culled from his latest book "A Power Governments Cannot Suppress," in which Zinn claims that governments cannot suppress the people, who are always on the march making change inevitable. These are some of Zinn's prescriptions for reviving lost hope and remaining healthy, without becoming resigned or cynical:
" I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world."
"There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible."
We need hope, according to Zinn, and being hopeful in bad times is not being foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of competition and cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness. Perhaps, he adds, quoting Arundhati Roy, "Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
I can only hope to God, in the context of these positively numbing political and snow-driven times, "she is on her way" does not refer to Chicken Lips Sarah Palin, and her mongrel band of tea-party followers. Because, on a quiet day, as our institutions loudly crumble and collapse, I can indeed hear her breathing. And afterwards, when she pushes the podium aside and we lose the election, we will soon enough become the prisoners of her populist rebellion.