An old man, serene, liked by his neighbors-he greets passersby, and envies them their innocence. That is what they have, he muses, if they have not been submitted to a test.
– Czeslaw Milosz
The following words came to me during the night that was the Eve of my birthday. I had sunk pretty far into depression (Pandemic? Turning 70? February cold? Growing fascism in our country? Impeachment acquittal? All the above?) in the day earlier. It seemed as if the message, in answer to my desire for some sort of epiphany on this milestone occasion, came to me from the dreamworld, though I was semi-awake receiving it. The words – and I’m aware of the clear associations they must have for any sentient American reading them – came out of the real pain in my soul that thus far had not formulated itself into words.
America I can’t breathe
Your knee is on my neck.
America I can’t breathe
Take your knee off my neck.
I must stay true to the soul that is my “other,” that speaks the things that nobody – including me – wants to hear, the “other” that is my inferior, my unwanted reminder of my vulnerability, my Gloomy Gus who just can’t walk the sunny side of the street today, can’t do her part to reassure me and others that the daytime shared version of reality the media presents us with, and that we mostly defer to, is real. Thus, though my words recall the murder of George Floyd and other black men and women at the hands of police, my soul testifies that people such as me, white and middle class, are being suffocated, too. We must – now! – stop “innocently” colluding with our own murder.
Earlier on my birthday eve, chatting outside the Cafe with a 75-year-old man I’d just met, we touched upon the topic – so popular among our peers – of vaccinations. He told me almost confessionally, “My daughter got my vaccine appointment.” Familiar words! These loyal daughters with their screen at-homeness and great patience are huge blessings for those in my generation who have them. Some daughters, I understand, sat for periods of hours, refreshing the screen over and over until they scored an appointment. No one shifts the blame to the obvious – the hastily prepared websites aren’t working! And beyond that, why are we forced to rely on websites that clearly work better for younger people who’ve grown up with computers when it’s old people who are most vulnerable to the virus?
We are, all of us, free to ask for and get help from children or friends, or from an unrelated young person who wants to pose as an “aid” for an over-75er. Or now, I understand, by posting on social media, where a Friend hearing your case may be able to make the right contact. Though Upstate NY winter prohibits our queuing up outside vaccination sites before dawn like the elderly in Florida, we’re free to drive to Albany or Buffalo to get our vaccine – if we drive and if we have a car!
Could we instead of just joining the rummage-sale-frenzy to get ourselves vaccinated, look at the bigger, systemic picture? Why are the vaccination websites so poor? When you’re shopping on Amazon, does this happen to you? Can it be that we are “served” by a privatized healthcare system – that just doesn’t give a damn about people, but only profit margins? Is it time for clueless liberals to connect the dots, to realize, we, too, the chosen middle class with our degrees and careers, white skin and valuable connections, are fully implicated in this disaster? We’re not more intrinsically valued by the oligarchs than George Floyd. We aren’t valued by them at all! And since this is nakedly so, can we then sit down and talk about our options? Our options – socialist, Christian communalist, anarchist, utopian – have been seriously imagined, proposed, studied, and debated for centuries. They’ve inspired revolutionary thought and action and communal experimentation. They have not – yet – changed the direction of history toward being beneficial to human culture and community, but who are we – especially now – to say this couldn’t happen, and give up?
Governor Cuomo’s currently in trouble for suppressing numbers of nursing home deaths in the pandemic. Not to excuse him for the cover-up, but this is more politics! For when did we become a society that cares for its old members? What would happen to our society if it became unthinkable to solve the problem of the burden of the old and infirm with ghettoization into nursing homes, something that by now everyone takes for granted? In fact, many of my slightly older, forward-looking, practical-minded friends are eying or have already moved into retirement residences as that first step; then its on to assisted living, followed by nursing home, the grave, etc. The advantages – if you can afford them – are many, and you can completely avoid becoming a burden to your children.
Are the old, along with the mentally ill and the physically infirm society’s burden? Oh, no, we hasten to protest; liberal conscience forbids ageism! If that’s so, if liberal conscience forbids us to objectify the elderly, can we agree that conscience, in regard to aging and old people, just as in regards to race, is a failure? For it seems helpless to prevent a definite exclusivity under its smiley-faced cloak of good will and tolerance.
I’m simply not built well for proving my worth. I have to ”rest my case.” That there is a case to rest is the problem. When we have to “prove” our worth – even when we just feel as if we must – we don’t know if this defensiveness is consequence of a personal insecurity or of something imposed upon us collectively. Why do we not know we’re included in the community of human beings, in the brethren, in the connected wholeness of creation so that any hint of someone being a burden – or a deplorable! – is seen for what it is – sign of a failed culture?
Just as infants can’t help the fact they represent new life, new beginnings and hope for the future, we who are aged can’t help it that we embody the presentiments of what’s in store for all men and women. In a proper society, that remained within bounds set by human commonality, the aged, no more than the dependent infant, could be conceived of as burden.
In such a human-scaled society, people would be allowed time to reflect in order to understand their fears – including those of aging and death – and be taught to do so. We would understand our fears of cancer and of dying, and even of climate collapse and mass extinction, besides being of something real, equally as images (metaphors) from our souls reflecting a more original fear. Deferred to without reflection, fears paralyze, shut us off from life. Seen through, as metaphor, we’re freed to see the deeper truth perceivable from the soul’s perspective, that is, what is happening to our humanity. The truth is, you can’t breathe either. Your soul suffocates for lack of truth just as mine does! Life in such a damaged society asks too damn much for people who are soulsick, which is why the soul – its hunger for creativity, for beauty, for tangible love, for safety in interdependent community, must be treated first!
Back in 2002, Orin and I began our coffeeshop in Utica. We were following a dream, but it’s equally true we sought a place where we could breathe. As dream, it was insubstantial, made of fairy cobwebs and drops of dew. As a “bricks and mortar” establishment, it was a place wherein we could breathe, feel ourselves included and understood. It was a protected space in which the faceless, slick and replicant corporate indoor-outdoor carpeting was not inevitable. And where you, too, for the price of a cup of (excellent!) coffee, or sometimes at no cost, can breathe. We thought others, if they caught the vibe, would know it: my voice, who I am, is welcome here. As it has happened, most people stick to the habits they’ve learned – their voices pitched to evade detection. No revolutions plotted here, as we’d hoped at first but this doesn’t change the fact….a space where people can breathe is revolutionary.
More and more our city resembles something made for cars, not people. Hardly any of our friends walk; if everyone walked, white middle class people as well as the poor, immigrant, and black, maybe tearing down handsome old buildings that are “just old” (no intrinsic worth to them) would become unthinkable. Sidewalks would be shoveled; we’d be healthier. A few years back, Orin and I had the asphalt taken off our driveway – a pet plan of ours, something nobody does in Utica! – so the dirt could breathe. The car hasn’t seemed to mind the gravel and we get to enjoy that Lucinda Williams’ car- wheel-on-a-gravel-road sound all summer.
Utica used to have a local newspaper. Not a great one, but it was ours. It informed us about each other, not only about crimes and fires, but about community happenings and new businesses, occasionally included investigative journalism, and way back, carried reviews of art openings and live music events. Today, most of the articles are generic, written by people who never heard of Utica. If our kid is a high school athlete, or someone we know dies, we can feel minimally informed about our community, but no longer can we speak: during the pandemic, the daily letters-to-the-editor page disappeared! America, I can’t breathe. Your knee is on my neck.
It took George Floyd’s video-captured death to forefront the truth of America’s racism. One’s own death, or rather, one’s failure to thrive, does not register. We don’t know there are other parts of us that have to breathe besides our lungs.
Why, in the sea-to-shining-sea vastness of so much land as America has, is it so difficult to breathe? Is it because of the manner in which we obtained it and settled it and turned it from a commons into an enclosure, an owned and privatized system of lesser or greater privilege that makes love’s total inclusivity an intolerable threat?
Unlike George Floyd, we who are white are unlikely to face a policeman’s knee on our neck. Liberal America’s knee is something different. It is a terrible consensus about who and what we will love not in the sense of sexual identity but in the sense of what it takes to be the other that you are or I am. This is our humanity’s demand on heart and imagination for which we’ve not been prepared. To speak its truth is always a risk.
My truth is this: I can’t breathe. America, your knee is on my neck. If, as I suspect, this is not my truth alone, then what is to be done? It would help if I were assured that my insignificant, largely failed, very common life matters to my social others. That cannot be as long as the voice of the soul remains suppressed, unspoken. One by one, the signs of a world kinder to human beings are dropped to make way for “progress,” for new gadgets, for asphalt, for the well-being of machines that apparently will inherit the earth. We have to get it that no human lives matter under the regime of intolerance for the soul. That intolerance is based in the correct intuition that granting the soul its natural organic authority means you will have to give up everything that makes you feel secure in neoliberal enclosure. You will have to be tested in the reality of interdependence – real but invisible – which up to now is just a word.
As long as we refuse to be scribes for our souls – to serve our creativity in some form or other – we will continue to be intolerant of the soul’s paramount truth which is, we are unequivocally interdependent and need each other humanly. We will quibble, saying, well, I’m just not creative, just not talented that way, but this is just an excuse. Every soul wants to sing. The song, though white people mostly don’t know it, is the blues.
Due to the law of interdependence, fascism will get stronger and stronger as we decline to stand up for the inherent truth of the creative imagination! The voices we heard in the videos of the Capitol Riot will increase in volume while our reasonable and ethical voices, as they get shouted over, will shrivel. What we rationalists keep in the shadow – by some psychic process that is real though not empirical – finds its negative expression in those others whose otherness we can’t see – white working class people who incomprehensibly live contrarily in a previous century. They stay on the farm or back in the home town, go to church, keep their freezers full of deer, hang Old Glory down at the courthouse, etc. and, though they may or may not be poor, did not achieve the success and status offered on neoliberalism’s generous terms.
We ought to know by now what our souls know – Rationalist supremacy is no match for Fascism! Fascism, in fact loves to make mincemeat of rationalism, as it constantly does on talk radio. Only the absurd faith in ”things unseen” – the heart’s reality – has the power to stand up to fascism. Though undoubtedly the faithful will suffer for it they also will have the compensatory joy of creative work. Is it possible that for the price of some suffering and – even more important – some taking of joy now – we might halt the ongoing suffocation of persons?