Friday, April 19, 2013

The Courage All Around

Boston could mark a point on the path to building a national community that we would like to live in.

More or less the letter I wrote to the Washington Post the day after the bombings at the Boston Marathon:


I've been struck by how many conversations I've heard (or overheard), both public and private, focusing on the suddenly imaginable possibility that we've entered a period in history when Americans face new threats from bombings aimed at civilians. This might indeed be so. Experts have predicted the possibility for years. So have novelists and screenwriters.

If it happens, it will be a different sort of mayhem than the kinds we have faced in the past as drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. It will require no more of us than has already been demonstrated by workers who work at dangerous jobs, or by victims of abuse and battering, or by children who grow up in dangerous places.

Each death from terrorism will be a tragedy. But it will also be a profile in courage of those who choose to continue living in public places. The individual suffering may be horrific, but collectively we will survive it and, even, transcend it. A test of shared courage, perhaps, but exactly what we ought to expect of ourselves.

Jeff Epton, Washington D.C

Have we finally arrived at our berserker future?

The Post edited it down a bit and headed it in a way that suggested the letter was responding to an article in their paper. But it was a response to an event, not to the relentless media coverage of the event. So be it. (See the Post's version, "Living in public after violence.")

When I heard the news about Boston, about runners and spectators, civilians randomly victimized in a terror attack, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar came to mind, as it has many times since I first read it in the early '70s. The novel tells the story of a highly urbanized, overcrowded, dystopic world--one that in reality seems to have been creeping up on us for a very long time.

Of course, though Brunner's vision could not have been accurate in most details (after all, even tomorrow and the day after seem a little hazy from here, no matter that we are standing quite close), more than a few of us seem to be living within shouting distance of Zanzibar. In Brunner's world relative innocents, shopping and dining and purposefully walking in crowded places, sometimes fall victim to berserkers, hyperadrenalized maniacs exploding into suddenly murderous rages that usually don't end until the maniacs burn themselves out.

I couldn't help wondering if we'd finally arrived at our berserker future.

What the letter meant to say, maybe

If that's our future, then we will need to make more deliberate choices to live in public places. But we should not kid ourselves on either of two points.

One, we are not heading into combat here. Plenty of people--neighbors, friends, family--already live their lives courageously. We will be required to follow their lead. No more.

The corollary to that is we should also learn that the courage shown by soldiers or by first responders is not a different sort of courage, either. Their courage is human courage, we all have it in us. Skills and strength and a little training help, too, but we can teach each other what we need to learn (and maybe fix our public schools along the way).

The Courage All Around

When Marrianne and Brendan and I first got to Washington, I'd go a couple of times a year to Bus Boys and Poets open-mic night. It was always very exciting. Most of the poets who made it to the mic were rappers. They were driven by rhymes and rhythms and an apparent need to get up on the stage and say who they were and what they cared about.

And every once in a while I'd get up and try to rumble a few lines, injecting a little blank verse, substituting assonance or alliteration for rhyme and, quite obviously, an occasional longer word when a shorter one might have done. The audience was always patient, but usually hungry for the next rapper. 

In the upshot, I learned far more from them than they learned from me. And, watching the risks they took, I learned that I needed to take more risks, too, and put more heart into speaking my poems. I wrote "The Courage All Around" for them:

Late-night honest
with myself
My boy shames me
The courage he shows
drumming at the Metro
Spare change pours in
Folded bills drifting like
snow covering his lap

Ten years old, first
sharing a buck
with a woman who asks,
then shooing her away
when she won’t stop
asking for more

He goes about his business,
a lionheart tending his
pride of intentions,
while I flinch at the work
before me, at stepping up
before you, at speaking my piece

But where he’s heading,
where heart and skill
and the company of others,
the company of you,
colleagues with an instinct
to be movement and reach

we can believe in,
that place, that thought, swells
my heart The world you will build
beckons and beguiles
and because the heart is
a complicated thing
I feel no shame here
I feel the courage all around

The point, maybe, is still another thing.

There ought to be some emphasis on what we might get, if we learn to live together with more courage. We might learn to prefer human-scale humans and human-scale events over celebrity and spectacle. We might learn to get out of the way of little acts of creativity and sharing, and to see how much such things enrich our lives and strengthen our communities.

I could lengthen that list, but so could you. I could try to prove that I'm right, but I ain't got no data.

All I know is that right after Boston, following on the heels of my thoughts about the berserkers in our future, I was suddenly excited by the thought that we really could do much, much better.