“. . . love with no need to pre-empt grievance. . .” (Elizabeth Alexander)

A British travel poster from the 1930s - to visit a place that didn't exist?

A British travel poster from the 1930s – to visit a place that didn’t exist?


Elizabeth Alexander
wrote her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s first inauguration. In the foreground, the poem is, of course, about the event which few of us had imagined would happen in our lifetimes—the inauguration of our first African American President.

I’m appropriating the poem because I think its background “meaning” is infinitely more complex than simply a marker for one event.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

For the past ten days I have been depressed in a way that is both familiar and unfamiliar to me. I have not managed to write anything organized well enough to warrant posting here or anywhere else. I have written and written, but all of that stuff is either in Word documents with bizarre names on my desktop or—mercifully—in the “recycle bin.”

Most of the depression is, I think, a normal reaction that even those of you who do not have to take Prozac feel. It’s separation anxiety. Some of it is already here (retirement), but some of it is projection. Three of the people I depend on for emotional stability are going away, one temporarily, one permanently, and one either temporarily or permanently. I’m feeling ordinary sadness and fear at being left alone, albeit projected fear because their departures are in the future.

Augusta Victoria Arab (Lutheran) Hospital in Jerusalem

Augusta Victoria Arab (Lutheran) Hospital in Jerusalem

Ordinary sadness.

Then there’s a small item of difficulty in being hired for sure for the part time tutoring job I am already doing at the university. That there can be a problem with my application to teach part time at a university where I have been teaching full time for fifteen years is terrifying to me. What if they don’t, after all of this, hire me? Is my next step applying at Walmart for a job? (After all of my criticism of Alice Walton, that’s not a likely prospect.) I spent three hours sitting in the waiting room at the Social Security office yesterday to get a new Social Security card (I haven’t had one for 30 years at least) to insure the solution to part of the problem, but the rest of it is still uncertain.

This is ordinary fear.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

It is all about words.

Ordinary words.

Goodbye. Employ. Security.

Fear.

And the one I have not mentioned.

I have not mentioned it because I don’t know for sure which it is.

Dismay.

Anger.

Or Grief.

In any world of logic (which I seldom inhabit) events taking place 5500 miles from home should not cause depression. Anger, dismay, grief, perhaps, but not depression.

The Israeli project of genocide and the destruction of the Palestinian culture and society in Gaza is, I think, the background meaning of my depression. I cannot fathom it. I cannot accept it. I cannot believe it.

“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed. . .”

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Elizabeth Alexander is, I know, speaking directly of the experience of African Americans. But every day the experience of the people of Gaza corresponds more closely to the historical experience of African Americans.

The version of Niebuhr’s prayer we all know is, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

There is an enormity of difference between “the grace to accept with serenity” and “the serenity to accept.” I will never have “serenity,” but I can try to find “grace”—or (in Christian theological terms) to accept “grace” [see note below] that is freely given (by whom or what, I do not know, but I believe it’s possible).

I cannot accept with serenity the vicious, warmongering, uncivilized assertion that “Israel has the right to defend itself”—with the extension of that logic to the end that Israel has the right to obliterate an entire society.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

Americans must—yes, I will moralize and even preach—“reconsider” the words that are too easy to repeat as if they were fact.

A shirt purchased in 2003 for the weekly vigil in Jerusalem of the Women in Black

A shirt purchased in 2003 for the weekly vigil in Jerusalem of the Women in Black

Israel’s right to defend itself does not include killing hundreds of children in retaliation for the murder of three teen-agers. Or even retaliation for an almost-completely-nonlethal bombardment with rockets. Israel has experienced nothing to warrant genocide and the destruction of entire cities.

That is, nothing but the words that declare God has given Israel the land that belong(s)(ed) to the Palestinians, and the Palestinians must either leave or be killed. Words for us, as Americans, to REconsider. Because they make no sense for us as the protectors of equality and democracy.

We need to find a place where we are safe—where the ideas of equality and democracy that we want the world to believe define us are safe.

We are duplicitous enough for the entire world to see. We pride ourselves in holding “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” while we give aid in the amount of $2,000,000,000 per year to a nation that is determined either to subjugate another people in toto or drive them from their land. Are the Palestinian people created equal to the Israeli people or not?

Are we caught in a self-contradictory lie of “words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,” or are we so self-deceived that that we are willing to ask for “serenity,” when what we need to seek is “grace?”

We might not need the Prozac of “homeland security” if we stopped lying to ourselves. We are, I think, suffering from separation anxiety—our own separation from the ideals we say we believe.

[Note:  I trust if you listen to this hymn, you will be able to sort out the mild sectarianism and get to the words of the last stanza, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” The evils we deplore are our “warring madness,” from the third stanza.]

“Praise Song for the Day,” by Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962)
A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

One Response to “. . . love with no need to pre-empt grievance. . .” (Elizabeth Alexander)

  1. Margaret Merry Walcutt says:

    Harold, if nothing else, you are well organized. Fortunately, you also have good thoughts. peg

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