"What is life? Did you read about it in a magazine? Silent lies, never giving you what you need," wrote Laura Nyro in "To a Child."
Due to my husband's illness I've been thinking a lot about life lately. Actually we were both thinking about it for a at least a year before we knew he was sick. We were talking about what to do with the rest of our lives now that things were relatively settled and the kids were grown up.
One of the things we were thinking about was "living up to your potential." I didn't have a burning desire to be a buyer that's for sure, but there aren't too many classified ads for "Angry Female Poet. Sharp tongue, endless pool of rage from which to draw. Great pay and benefits."
When I think of wasted potential I don't think of someone standing on the corner with a sign that say's, "will work for food. " I think of Marlon Brando or Orson Welles. I guess it's not really wasted potential it's more like the seed get's planted and as it's growing someone puts an invisible box over it so instead of growing straight and true and strong the limbs are constricted and distorted. What should be reaching for the sky turns and twists and strangles itself. Besides before Barry's illness, we didn't have it so bad. My job is not terrible. Sometimes it's even fun. But in the back of my mind and in the front of my mind too, there's always this nagging feeling that I should be doing more.
Yesterday a coworker told me about an internet news article about the soldiers who were caught tring to smuggle cocaine in from Columbia. I said, "So what's new. They've been doing that for years." Here's a quote from Alfred W. McCoy's book, "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia" which I read when I was in college in the 1970's: "After a decade of American military intervention Southeast Asia has become the source of 70% of the world's illicit opium and the major supplier of raw materials for America's booming heroin market." What he was objecting to was not so much the smuggling but a bit of information in the article that said that the US government has given 3 billion dollars in military aid to the government of Columbia. "We" were "helping" other countries while Social Security is going down the tubes. My response was that "we" don't help anyone. Our tax dollars are at work around the world and at home screwing us and people just like us. I sent him the link to Columbia Solidarity Campaign http://www.colombiasolidarity.org.uk/cocacolacampaign.html where you can see whose freedom your tax dollars are maintaining and expanding by paying for killing union organizers at Coke plants.
I have an image in my mind of the American Working Man as an old fashioned iron mechanical bank. The smiling worker with an American Flag in his hand is bending over. Behind him stands Uncle Sam. Everytime Uncle Sam kicks the worker in the butt, he waves the flag and opens his mouth to DISPENSE a coin.
Jonathon Kozol in his book, "The Night is Dark and I Am far From Home," writes, "It is our lot to live within a world of pain. Much of that pain is now the economic bedrock of our own material advantage. It is essential...that we do not recognize the evil that we live by...if we do..we might grow up to understand we do not need to race and run forever...We might grow up instead to feel enraged about sick people, dead black infants, napalm, war machines...to wonder what kind of government it is to which we hold allegience...We might grow up to be brave and subversive human beings."
What if you did grow up subversive and even a lttle brave? Then what?
There's that Lao Tze quote, "To know and not to act is not to know." Although I know a lot of things about "our" government and I do participate in small ways in democratic resistance verbally, in writing and by going to demonstrations, I have always felt that I don't know enough to go further. I don't mean that I'm not a college professor. I didn't want to be that or a labor lawyer which is why I was a Labor Studies major at Livingston College in Piscataway, NJ for only one semester. They are both legitimate and necessary occupations, but not for me. I mean that I can't get to the next step until I pick up the right concept. The key to the next door. What is it?
The phrase, "living up to your potential" has the hollow clang of individualism attached to it. One of the passages in Kozol's book that I really don't like is, "The New Left will to have 'no leaders' is often, in my judgement, less an evidence of faith in democratic process than a disguised form of the fear to be one." This is totally opposite to what Eugene Debs said, "I am not a... leader. I don't want you to follow me or anything else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the... wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out." This is pretty important. Maybe this is at the heart of the cultural revolution that is really needed in this country.
Friends that I have spoken to in recent months have mentioned how much humbler they've become as they've gotten older. I'm not sure that humble is the right word to use. The emphasis that our society places on the importance of the individual is a major problem.
First:capitalist society cares nothing for the individual, it's all just words.
Second: human beings need each other. No one person can live by his own labor alone.
Third: it's not individuals who move the world forward, it's groups of people.
Fourth: We are as individual as snowflakes. So what? That and 5 cents won't get you anywhere.
In the movie about the Flint sit down strike, "With Babies and Banners," I remember one of the women saying, "We weren't individuals anymore. We had the union." In Stan Goff's book, "Full Spectrum Disorder," he talks about reading Marx, "Society does not consist of individuals," and being blown away by that concept, "You can't burrow down into your little niche and look down on anyyone, because we are all in this system together." That's not becoming more humble, that's becoming more conscious.
I have grown attached to the ant as a symbol. I have 2 ant pins that I wear when I'm feeling powerful. I like Laura Nyro and Diane Arbus and Joan Didion. I like shellfish and summer tomatoes even though I'm slightly allergic to both. I like shoes-I LOVE shoes!-and pins and the color green. I sing Barbra Streisand songs in the car when I'm driving in bad weather because you have to concentrate to hit the high notes and it makes me less frightened. I like to cook. I like the city better than the country. I love Brie. None of these things will help me change the world, but they might make things more fun for the other ants.
Life will never "give you what you need." You have to demand what you need whether it's pushing for more visibility for awareness of cancer and it's causes; the lack of coordination of patient care in the for-profit health care industry; industry and war as cancer promoting entities, war, the destruction of the human spirit-whatever. You have a lot more leverage when you're standing with a hundred or a thousand or a million people than when you standing there all smily and cute and pretty and smelling nice and wearing your cute new shoes all by yourself.