Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: Kristine Wook, Cristina Eisenberg, Nathen Domlo, wusa9.com
By Seamus Cashman
“There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy, we sow anonymous benefits upon the world, which remain unknown even to ourselves, or when they are disclosed, surprise nobody so much as the benefactor.”
Robert Louis Stephenson, in his 1877 essay, ‘An apology for idlers’.
Before I began this essay, I had completed a short text on personal outcomes of pandemic lockdown through 2020-21 here in Ireland. To my surprise, and somewhat reluctant recognition, a primary outcome was the strangely viscous experience of my having becoming an ‘Idler’. But Stephenson’s wit in the above quotation is valuable. My childhood was pre-mobile phone, pre-landline phones in our village, no streaming apart from valve daytime radio; school holidays were stay-in-bed-time, reading books; comics were forbidden. Reading was not ‘idling’ so long as chores were completed or at least broached.
This past twelve months, I have fully indulged the unseasonal all year sunshine. I sat behind my large front window pane, welcoming daily the springtime birds and flowers. Passing cats nested in my tiny wilding front garden; occasionally pandemic walkers passed by and returned; nothing to distract. I could read, write, think. But most often dream or simply be, good intentions floundering. Ireland seems a very quiet place.
Last week, I read the contributions to this series with a growing sense of fear for US America’s anguish, fear of the uglinesses staining its layered political, social, economic and educational divisiveness; and most of all, fear for America’s poor.
IN the 1970s, I worked for several three-week stints in the US, an editor playing at being a salesman, travelling by car, train, bus or plane from New York and New Jersey to Orono in Maine, to Richmond, Kentucky, to Utah, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana and states in-between. I visited libraries and department heads in third level colleges, public and private, promoting very expensive books and reference materials. Everywhere was new to me, America itself, its occasional ‘dry counties’, its glamour and fluent positivity. All was alive, energised, and seemingly prosperous. Of course it was. These colleges post-1968 were full of the excitements of student life, and academics seemed unpressurised. It was not only a kind of simplicity that flavoured the atmosphere, but a visible unquestioning expectation.
IN the 1980s however, another visit included a sightseeing road trip up Montana and Wyoming, preceded by the revelation of Los Angeles’ underbelly with Tom Hayden whose The Lost Gospel of the Earth I had published. This time I encountered outrageous poverty, both urban and rural. How had I been so unseeing?
My question now is: why have governments at both federal and state levels in wealthy America, in positive energetic America, in admired America, so utterly failed America’s vast poor. I can understand why the US didn’t make inroads on Black poverty, for power was always White. But that same White power has in fact failed all of the poor. Very rich America.
I had lived in Tanzania, in the 1960s — one of the poorer countries in the world. But the abject poverty off passing highways that I encountered on that US trip was difficult to understand. Dirt roads, decaying unpainted frontages, unwashed shop windows, no sidewalks, dirt pathways. Yet, there were two extraordinary moments. It was a festival day in a small town and people wandered about main street among the braziers cooking turkey legs. My colleague John and I got a giant one each to chew on as we strolled.
We noticed a small gathering at a corner just a little up the street. We drifted over. A man perhaps in his 60s, in full cowboy gear, leant against the corner of the wooden house telling stories: narratives of earlier times, of cattle drives from Texas to Montana, and of coal trains passing through on their way south. After some twenty minutes, a singing voice reached our ears above the general bustle. John a keen singer nudged us toward the voice. At another corner stood a young perhaps fifteen/sixteen year old singing the blues. She sang without accompaniment, and her gorgeous, subtle voice was filled with sorrows and hopes. We remained listening for a long while.
As we drove off we wondered at the town’s obviously deep rooted poverty, but also at those soundscapes of hope and culture, one in story, one in song. I cannot remember the name of the little town. I suspect the story-teller and singer may have moved on. But the town probably remains poverty stricken, ignored and unaided.
Untrammelled capitalism seems in practise a greedy and selfish economic base for society. It provides a governance unwilling to practice social responsibility. And billionaires, or whatever it is that the word suggests to us today, do not make governments for the people. Money is power and money uses power for money’s interests. Such money loves only itself, its ‘entitlements’; it has failed utterly in its responsibilities to American democracy.
But what can one do in the face of the power of fear, of anger, of potential and real threat? That is for many a troubling question. Firstly perhaps, a simple action: one might overtly and consistently link the word ‘rights’ with the word ‘responsibilities’. That second word is too much hidden, unacknowledged or, in fact, silenced. Secondly, go inside the self and console it; find a conversation that will enable it towards an inner contentment. One needs to focus on whole questions, not partial ones. People, with very few exceptions, are not reducible to ‘beasts’. That is too easy, and unwieldy. There are always reasons for human behaviour, as there are for one’s own behaviours. Nosce te ipsum remains a key principle. Ignoring such reasons as these has contributed much to discontent, and has proved over decades a core deficit in the political management of the world’s democracies. For the individual, the primary valid approach to confrontation is to firstly engage with happiness of the self, or lack of it. How otherwise might we understand the ‘other’, no matter the scale of the issues. We need allow our selves to ferment.
I quote from a conversation in Emergency Magazine online in 2020, titled ‘Fermentation as metaphor, an interview with Sandor Katz’):
A good example of fermentation in our time is contained via the thoughts in this following verse from a twenty page ‘Poemathon with Older People’ which I recently assembled and edited (for Poetry Ireland with the Global Brain Health Institute, Trinity College Dublin and Neuroscience Ireland) from individual lines submitted by ‘Older People’ in response to a first line, which is repeated here as the first line of this verse:
Intrepid intruder, stalker of unwashed hands,
I am not defined by my age, I am defined by what I do
to heal the planet
I look out to the world of this storm with a cairn’s eye
I listen more deeply to the heartbeat of the Earth
We are not broken, just bent out of shape
I especially love the second and fifth lines. And when I connect the verse with a salient quotation about death, from an Indian film, The Second Best Marigold Hotel, as best I can recall the wording, ‘There is no such thing as an ending; you are just leaving the story’, I realise – again – that we already have the means in words (and in images, music and other art forms) to cope with our present contexts, but we need to find wise ways in practice.
As for possibility and hope, I once edited an ‘About Place’ journal issue with the title, ‘Peaks & Valleys’. WORLD is all peaks and valleys, and this pandemic has been in its entirety an opportunity for fermentation. I am reminded of an artist friend who lived in ‘darknesses’ for extensive periods, disappearing, self-isolating, eventually returning and looking barely alive. No, not drugs at all, just ‘descents into dark places’ of mind and soul, places I was told, ‘Where you have never been.’
As this lockdown continues here, I hope soon to add to my writing, reading, listening, idling, and being, the idea of ‘going out to other places’. And a hoped for question on possibility is: What might I do to change the planet? After fermenting self-content, even happiness, that may change for me to: What small thing will I do, and try to do differently?
Seamus Cashman, Swords, Co Dublin, Ireland