Just when it seems the darkness will never end, a glimmer of light appears.
For some, the holidays are light and life; for others, the commercial cheer and over-the-top celebrations drive them down a rabbit hole. For me, they are some of both, light and dark, but as we emerge from this annual turning point, I find myself welcoming the return of my abnormal life.
We have just turned the calendar from December to January, a new year as well as a new month. We have just come through the month of shortest days (Dec. 7 through Jan. 4). The sun is now coming up earlier each day and going down later, and we are finally at the point where that’s perceptible to the observant.
This week we will be looking back at another kind of turning point one year ago, where an outgoing American president inflamed a crowd of people his opponent had mistakenly named “deplorables” four years before and encouraged them to storm our national capitol. People died and were maimed; people fled and were shamed; people raged and were held back from totally destroying something precious to the commonwealth; people were stunned and awakened to the real dangers inherent in democracy.
It was an important event that boiled up from an even more important fact of American life: the disparities in wealth and income, social status and education, freedom and quality of life created by our economic system have not been offset by our democratic form of government and have become intolerable, destructive. Some of us want to punish the perpetrators of the event, but how can we take to task the politicians on both sides of the aisle who gave away American jobs to foreign countries, who freely handed global traders the rights to wreck economies around the world? A Democratic president gave away NAFTA, one of the bigger turning points of the last three decades, but where it all started was as unforeseeable as where it might end.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre / the falcon cannot hear the falconer,” wrote W. B. Yeats in 1919, the opening lines of his knee-breaking poem “The Second Coming.” Joan Didion, the California-born writer whose life and works we’ve been celebrating after her death last week, used this poem to title and nail down the essence of her first successful collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I was awakened by the book, but the poem has affected me more over the years. I have returned to it over and over since first reading it in a bookstore in Arcata while doing fieldwork in Redwood National Park.
I read Didion’s urban essays in my tent at night, but the poem, which both centers and frightens me, took up residence in my heart and still lives there. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” Yeats continues. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Whoa.
Is our country turning, turning in a widening gyre? Do democracies eventually come unwound? Or is there work to be done, holding ours together, rewinding the loose strands? Another great American writer, this one rural and educated, faithful to the last drop—Wendell Berry—titled one of his multitude of books Another Turn of the Crank. And to the extent that he keeps turning out work, working with others to encourage the work, as well as keeping his hand to the actual plow, I find more guidance there than in Didion. More help in keeping the soil of democracy turned over, working toward next year’s crop, than fallowed and abandoned.
We, with our one-way lives, tend to see the world linearly, but on this planet we are turning, always turning. Turning back to my abnormal life, advocating better recognition of the connection between people and planet, of the necessity of human hands working well-watered soil to bring us food, I’m picking up Wendell instead of Joan. It’s a new year. Let’s take another turn at the crank—this old tractor may start back up yet.
Trudy Wischemann is a half-assed optimist who writes. You can send her your favorite knee-breaking poems c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.