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The Year’s Last Day

By Joseph Ross

 

Soapstone Valley Trail, Rock Creek Park

 

We have come to the year’s last day, the end of 2010. Like any year in human history, 2010 brought us moments of rich joy and episodes of significant suffering. Whether we think of 2010 through the lens of the whole world or the lens of our own families and friends, each year is layered with life, in all its shades.

On the world stage, we saw wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan and we watched with growing anger as an oil company and its friends created a monumental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. We saw an earthquake in Haiti and felt the frustration that so much good will does not seem to have helped Haitians enough. We watched political turmoil in many countries. We saw an exhilarating World Cup in South Africa. We watched miners in Chile wait for rescue and finally escape the collapsed mine that could have killed them. We saw millions suffer from floods in Pakistan. We lamented a Florida minister’s threats to burn the Koran. We learned that Liu Xiaobo of China would receive the Nobel Peace Prize, but we would not see it because he sat in a Chinese prison. We watched WikiLeaks emerge as an international issue and we saw the end of the ban on Gay and Lesbian Americans serving openly in the military. And these are just a few of the world events that come quickly to my mind.

We lost many people who were important to the wider world, including historian Howard Zinn, Miep Gies, who hid Anne Frank from the Nazis, singer Lena Horne, Ronald Walters, who helped end lunch-counter segregation and journalist Daniel Schorr, just to name a few.

In the lives of our own families and friends, we all experienced many successes and accomplishments, losses and disappointments, most of which will never be public. Time tends to hand everyone the wide array of hopes and fears which humans experience.

The question for me is always this: How do I respond to the joy and suffering of the world and in my own life?

Do I fall into cynicism and despair that I cannot bring an end to war and torture? Do I sink because I can’t heal Haiti? I answer these with a clear “no.” Some will say that we should just ignore the problems we can’t solve, precisely because we can’t solve them. I don’t find that satisfying at all.

We can each do something to make the world more kind and gracious. Whether through our careers and vocations or our own creativity, we can each move the world toward justice. We may not see its movement but we can still be part of the urging.

We can consider those around us and listen more. We can grow in our regard for those in suffering parts of the world if we read more. There is always something we can do. If we simply choose to see the world as it is, learn why it is that way, and then act in some way toward goodness, we can each be a hand in healing ourselves, our families, our world.

This is my New Year’s wish for 2011. That I, and we all, might take more seriously the need to respond with hope to the world and the events of our own lives. We can do so much if we cultivate hope.

Thanks for reading and reflecting with me this month.

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By Joseph Ross

 

Boulder Bridge, Rock Creek Park

 

 

As 2010 comes to an end, I am brimming over with gratitude. I hope you are too. I have to admit, this December Guest Blogger gig has been great fun for me. I’m thrilled that the series on Hope enriched so many people. I am grateful to the poets and writers who participated: Naomi Shihab Nye, Naomi Ayala, Phil Metres, Kim Roberts, Tala A. Rahmeh, Jericho Brown, Alan King, Sarah Browning, Melissa Tuckey and Brian Gilmore.

I’m grateful also to Jefferson Pinder, Cool Disco Dan, (whom I don’t know personally) Mo James, and Niki Herd for letting me probe and praise their art and poetry. I’m also grateful to all who read and reflected on the various posts. I urge you to keep reading The Basin Blog.

I owe a great word of thanks to Randall Horton, editor-in-chief of Tidal Basin Review and Melanie Henderson, Tidal Basin Review’s managing editor. Randall’s support is solid and appreciated. Melanie dealt with my crazy questions and changes while she organized each post’s text and photo in an elegant and simple way. They, along with others who work on Tidal Basin Review, deserve all of our thanks for the gracious and important journal they’ve begun. I look forward to reading Tidal Basin Review for years to come.

I’ll post a truly “final” word about hope tomorrow, the year’s last day. I hope the coming year brings everyone who reads these words more joy than sadness, more goodness than disappointment, more hope than cynicism. 2011 is almost here. What will you make of it?

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By Joseph Ross

  

Poet and friend, Melissa Tuckey closes out our series on Hope. Melissa’s poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies. Her chapbook Rope As Witness is awesome. She lives with her husband and the best dog in America in Ithaca, New York.  

 

Melissa Tuckey

 

 

THAT HOPEY CHANGEY THING
 
I once heard Cornell West speak about hope.  He said hope was not to be confused with optimism, and he defined optimism as something like the naïve version of hope, as in, “the Iraqis will welcome us with open arms (2003),” or “we can give tax breaks to the rich and the money will trickle down to the rest of us.”  West related hope to the blues: it’s what keeps you going through the dark times.   Hope is essential for social change, whereas optimism is naïve and dangerous.  In the midst of the Bush administration, thinking about hope this way helped me realize that disappointment does not destroy hope, even though hope gets thin at times and we need one another to keep it going.   
 
During the Bush/ Cheney regime, I rediscovered Gil Scott Heron’s 1980’s album/CD, “Winter in America” and played it over and over again.   The song “Winter in America” matched my despair and the “revolution will not be televised” reminded me to turn off the TV.   There is one song on the album that kept my hope stoked and made me want to dance in the street. The song Johannesburg—“Brother, sister, woman have you heard? from Johannesburg?” Looking back on history, it’s inspiring to remember that it was on the heels of the Reagan years that South Africans overturned apartheid.  It may have been Winter in America, but the sun was still shining.   Thinking back on that time, it was grassroots action both in South Africa and around the world that brought about change.   No one gave it to anyone.   A well-organized movement brought it about.
 
I admit I am among the disappointed, 30 years after Reagan, it’s still winter in America.   We continue to export jobs and weapons and torture.  The banks have been bailed out, but help is slow to arrive for homeowners.   700 billion dollars were gifted in tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans at a time when the President’s debt commission is recommending deep cuts in programs that serve the rest of us.  The dream act was deferred.  Hate television is polluting our conversations.  Still there is reason to hope. 
 
In the election of 2008, hope ran against cynicism and fear and hope won.  President Obama won the election by running a campaign that pledged itself to hope and change and a record number of voters responded coming together across class, and race, and age to do what seemed impossible.  Together we made history.  We did so against despair, deeply entrenched racism, a sense of powerlessness.  We elected a man who promised change, health care, an end to unjust wars, and more.  We voted with hope that our children’s lives would be better than our own.
 
As a progressive, I find myself critical of many of the choices made by this administration and its centrist conservative politics, and I’m not going to pretend to find these policies inspiring, but I still feel hope when I remember election night in Washington, DC—the honking, hollering, celebrating that was “YES WE DID.”   I still feel hope when I remember Aretha Franklin’s hat.  My hope is in the millions of people who came out to vote to expand the promise of what it is to be American.  The future of this country belongs to us. 
 
When the cynicism returns, when I hear what’s-her-name taunt “how’s that hopey-changey thing working out?”  I just smile and say fine, then I put on my headphones…

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The Sky Is Not Falling

By Joseph Ross

 

Brian Gilmore is an attorney, poet, journalist, and all-around clear thinker. In the excerpts below, from an essay of his, he tackles hope, Reagan, the social contract, and the election of 2010. This is a longer than normal posting but it’s well worth reading. Below, I have posted excerpts, so assume any awkwardness is mine, not Brian’s. Brian’s heart is in Washington, D.C. although he is currently teaching at the Michigan State University law School in East Lansing, Michigan.

 

Brian Gilmore, photo courtesy of TSE, 2008

 

Postscript, November 3, 2010: No Eulogy for Hope

        “Keep Hope Alive…”
                 – The Rev. Jesse Jackson
   
I remember the night when Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States.  I was in the alley behind my house with friends and we were chugging vodka mixed with powdered orange juice.  I was a teenager, a recent college dropout, and someone who was sure the world had come to an end when Reagan rose to power under the political banner that expressed a hatred for government. 

It was a sad night and my friends, all young black men living in the beautiful city of Washington D.C., were sure that things we about to get very bad for all of us. We had a boom box blasting through the neighborhood, and all we could talk about was how Mr. Reagan was going to reinstitute the draft and make us all join the army. We were products of a civic culture that knew government did good things, had saved some of us from the streets, and so many of our friends, so Reagan’s rise tore apart our vision of the world.

Of course, this was my sentiment on the night of November 2, 2010. I am sure amongst progressives and liberals and Democrats and anyone else afraid or opposed to conservative politics felt the same as well. The Democrats got crushed that night and Barack Obama, their leader, and the first black President of the United States, got repudiated by some of the population for the direction of the country. He famously called it a “shellacking.” It was again those anti-government folks who were coming to town, and it was again a moment of deep reflection and disappointment for many of us who believe in other ideals.

Some said that November 2, 2010 is the day that the Republicans returned to power for generations. Others allege that it is the day that President Barack Obama’s political honeymoon ended. My African-Americans friends, some of them, blamed it on racism that was latent but real. Others deemed it some kind of people’s revolution, the people took their country back they shout. 

I beg to differ with all of those assessments.

November 2, 2010 was simply just another small skirmish in the long struggle for a “social contract” in the United States.  It was, in other words, a lost battle for those of us who believe in the ideals of Jean Jacques Rousseau in his all-important book, The Social Contract. It is usually shaped as government v. no government, and of late, it has been nasty, and cutthroat, politically.

We all know the social contract. Some of us read of it in high school and in college; others remember politicians invoking it quietly in their speeches even though we had no idea what they were talking about.  But the contract is a simple and basic idea.

It says we are here for each other, we will help one another, and we will do it with the government we formed that is our government. People will be able to find a decent job, retire and live with dignity after work, and if they run into hard times, we will help them through that hard time. They will get some medical care if they need it, and if they can’t afford it, we will help them get that medical treatment anyway. 

It is a deal between the people, a promise, and it has been something the United States of America has wanted badly and resisted violently for all of its days now. It simply cannot decide, and thus, aluta continua, the struggle continues. This is what November 2, 2010; it wasn’t some magical moment when the people spoke righteously. Most people eligible to vote didn’t even vote in the election and that fact is completely lost in the spin cycle. 

I also don’t accept the other descriptions of November 2, 2010 because I know better. The facts don’t support the idea that this is some revolution. Revolutions are about a complete overthrow; this election was not unlike many in the history of the United States. In fact, if it were accepted that because Republicans gained some degree of political power again, this were some kind of people’s revolution, this would mean that the Republicans spoke for the people.  I don’t believe that for a minute and most of the Republicans who are now headed to office don’t believe that either.

The Republicans, by their own admission, and statements, are the party of corporate power and commerce not the people. They use the phrase return the power to the people but what they really mean is, the market. This is the party that believes that corporations can provide everything if the state will just sign onto that ideal. Education, health care, clean water, clean air; leave it to corporations to provide. This is their mantra even though it has never happened in history and is not likely to happen. The last Republican President, George W. Bush wasn’t shy about telling everyone that he was a business friendly chief executive.  Most of his political brethren are as well which is why November 2, 2010 was not about the people. 

I also don’t really believe it means the Republicans have returned to power because power in the United States is relative. Republicans have some power but for the most part, power in Washington D.C. has been split when it comes to party affiliation. It rarely drifts too far before the population pounds one of the parties for seeking to dominate too much.

Was liberalism or big government dumped on November 2, 2010? Who knows? If it was dumped, which part of that big government (if it is big) was dumped? The Defense Department was surely not dumped. Military spending is the one line item in the United States that is untouchable and no one who alleged that they voted to stop the out of control spending by the government voted to reduce the making of bombs and high tech weapons. That is why I contend that this kind of big government-small government analysis is simplistic because it focuses on one part of government and not other parts that do not ever get reduced.

Was the election about racism or race? Sure, some people voted against the Democrats for one reason: the black Democrat President. But was it an overriding theme or motivating force of the election? Who knows?

My view of this election like most elections in the modern era is that the election was ideological in nature, a debate in the public sphere about ideas and political policy for a micro-moment that will be over before it even starts. Millions of different factions argued and debated and expressed their view for the future but two parties in the United States are the two who always get to make the deal with the public: the Democrats and the Republicans.  

On November 2, 2010, they both sought to consolidate the direction of public and social policy for a short period of time and the Republicans were the victors. The economy is functioning poorly, the Democrats made some hard policy choices, the Republicans got pounded two years ago. The pendulum swung back. Right now, the change seems significant but over the long haul, the fight is ongoing and there will be little time for the Republicans to stave off the march of time.

In the U.S., in the modern era, as capitalism grows and mutates, and human needs become more complex, the mid-term election of November 2010 was nothing more than part of that epic struggle in the United States to establish that social contract, a bargain between the government and the people as Rousseau wrote about so well in 1762 before the United States was even born.  It is still just a work in progress and on November 2, 2010, it again took another strange turn in America and remained a work in progress.
Indeed, the period directly preceding the election of November 2, 2010 is indicative of the struggle because it demonstrated again how fierce the battle has become in the digital media age where information travels quicker than ever.  The period consumes five years of U.S. history, and it involves serious progress for Rousseau’s contract, followed by a period that will likely again prolong the struggle and force it to evolve again and again.

Thus, in November 2008, the epic ideological struggle over the social contract took another interesting turn. The Democratic Party gained further control over Congress, and the nation elected its first African-American President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama’s abiding theme: hope, became the literary and political fuel for change, and a complex intersection of the population embraced it and moved the social contract forward for the first time in a long time in a significant manner.

On March 23, 2010, hope scored a major victory too – health care reform. The United States of America passed a comprehensive health care law that covers most of the uncovered population. While it is not a government run program, some of its features provide the government with the ability to regulate the market yet in partnership with health insurance companies.   

Hope also passed a new consumer protection law in the summer, 2010, a law that is a direction reaction to the housing crisis and the conduct of the financial business sector prior to the economic recession of 2008 that ruined millions of lives. The law wasn’t and isn’t perfect but it is a start.   

But on November 2, 2010, after just 18 months in office and this kind of governing, Mr. Obama’s hope almost died.  The Republican Party took back control of the House of Representatives on the night of November 2, 2010 and also made serious gains in the U.S. Senate.  The people, it was said, spoke.

They did speak and many are unaware of the implications of their vote. The social contract is again under siege.  Those who want to damage it, or kill it, are re-engaged again. Some who want to destroy it are strategically motivated; others are emotionally lost, like those individuals who screamed during the health care debate that they did not want government run health care even though they already were receiving it through Medicaid or Medicare.

Of course, the two opposing sides of the social contract have been debating this for generations.  For most of the nation’s history, the conservative viewpoint has dominated government policy regarding the social contract. This is despite the fact that the nation was founded based upon the idea of a social contract. In the 1930’s with the rise of Franklin Roosevelt, the social contract or compact finally did gain political traction and the building blocks of that concept were finally put in place in a meaningful way.

Truthfully, the historic struggle for a social contract in the United States is a marathon and then an extra inning baseball game and then a heavyweight boxing match with unlimited rounds. It will go on even after the next set of achievements is obtained. The most important thing of all no matter the gains and losses is to never forget that the promise between a people in society is worth struggling for daily. 

Hope took a pounding on election day 2010 but it is not dead. Speak no eulogies for hope.  If someone told you when George W. Bush was ushered to the presidency in December 2000 by the U.S. Supreme Court that in 2011, a black man would be President, a woman would have served as Speaker of the House, and the nation had the beginnings of a serious attempt at health care reform, would you take it? 

I think we all know the answer to that. This is especially true for those of us who remember the callousness of those who ran the government at certain points between 1995-2006.  Here was a moment in history when those who dismissed the government as useless and something that should be dismantled were in control of it. Imagine, Microsoft being run by people who think computers to be stupid and wasteful or someone running Krispee Kreme donuts telling all who would listen that donuts are bad for you and no one should eat them.

Thinking back to that dark night in 1980 when I drank away my worries about the future when Ronald Reagan became President, I can honestly say that this moment and the future isn’t perfect, but I will take it. I didn’t get drunk as the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives on November 2, 2010. I smiled a little because I knew the sky was not falling.

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By Joseph Ross

 

Winter in Rock Creek Park

 

For many years, when I taught high school seniors, I had a Christmas tradition I kept on the day before Christmas break. The seniors, who were often annoyed that they had to come to school on a day when not much would happen, rambled into the classroom in their usual way. When I didn’t have my normal notebook with me, they knew something was up. I told them to pull all the desks close in a corner of the room. We tried to get our desks as close together as possible. I was going to read them a story.

At first, they always laughed and thought it quaint. But these were students who, more often than not, were not read to as children, and once they saw how psyched I was, and that I would let them put their heads on the desks, (which I normally never allowed) their bravado fell and they were kids.

I began a very slow reading of the awesome O. Henry short story, Gift of the Magi. Occasionally, a student had read it before, but not often. I have to say, this story transfixed most of them. With their chins in their hands, their eyes wide open, they stared and listened intently. Often, if one of them said anything during the reading, the others shushed him. I found it so tender that these usually hardened Washington, D.C. teens yearned for a story. And no one can give out a story like O. Henry.

As most of you probably know, the story is of two young people, deeply in love, on Christmas Eve. Della has $1.87 to buy her love, Jim, a gift. But she also has the most beautiful, long hair. She knows a salon that will cut and buy her hair, so reluctantly, but with resolve, she lets it all go. It’s for Jim.

Like Della’s hair, Jim has a magnificent pocket watch, an heirloom reaching back to his father and grandfather. Jim decides that to afford something lovely for Della, he will sell his watch. And what does he buy her? A set of hair combs that she has envied in a store window. To complete the scene, she buys him a beautiful chain for the watch he has now sacrificed for her.

The story climaxes when Jim arrives home and there is Della, in short hair, cooking their dinner. She is excited about the gift she has bought him but she can’t understand why he is so troubled. He, of course, can see her missing hair and knows her gift is the combs. She cannot see the absent watch, but thinks nothing of it. When they finally reveal the sacrificial nature of their gifts, they end up holding each other, sitting in the living room as the pork chops cook.

O. Henry’s story ends in a most poetic and powerful way. He describes Della and Jim as people “…who sacrificed for each other the greatest treasure of their house.” He goes on to praise them saying, “Of all who give and receive gifts, they are the wisest. Everywhere, they are the wisest. They are the magi.”

Once I finished reading the story, I told my now-smiling-sometimes-one-or-two-teary-eyed-but-cool high school seniors, that my Christmas wish for them is that someday they too will sacrifice for someone like Jim and Della did. And that someday, someone will likewise sacrifice for them.  I still have the same wish. I wish that now for you too, reader. Merry Christmas.

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By Joseph Ross

 

Sarah Browning is a good friend, a strong poet, and a fierce activist in the D.C. poetry community. She founded D.C. Poets Against the War and the Split This Rock Poetry Festivals, which she directs. In this beautifully simple poem below, she shows hope in an unremarkable act of kindness. I hope you’re as moved by this poem as I am. ~ Joseph Ross 

 

 

Sarah Browning

 

  After Poetry and Photographs in an Anacostia Gallery                       

                         – for Fred Joiner  

Girls aged 10 read poetry. We applaud wildly,

read our own poems, drink lemonade, eat cheese,  

carve one evening of possibility in the muggy

Washington night, as portraits of a neighborhood,  

forsaken, stare down from the gallery walls.

Driving home across the river,   

on the off-ramp I spot him and just swerve: a man,

there, teetering. So thin. Quickly he is gone  

behind me. The world comes to us like this –

yes and no on the same evening.   

At the end of the reception a young man

appears beside me with a paper cup. I have not  

seen his swollen face before, not here for

poetry or art. I fill his cup   

with lemonade. He eats some cheese and some

more. No one asks him to leave.

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By Joseph Ross

  

Continuing our series on hope, my friend and poet Alan King recounts experiences conducting a poetry workshop for troubled teens near Washington, D.C. Alan is a fine poet, as is Truth Thomas who conducts these workshops with him. Alan blogs at http://alanwking.wordpress.com and he is a terrific part of the D.C. poetry community. ~Joseph Ross 

 

 

 

Alan King by Marlene Hawthrone-Thomas

 

Putting It On The Line

by Alan King 

 

I’m challenged whenever I walk into the classroom. 

Especially every Tuesday that Truth Thomas and I conduct an hour-long workshop for the Legacy Poetry Project at the Homewood Center in Ellicott City. The project, held on a bi-weekly basis during the school year, is sponsored by the Horizon Foundation. 

The school, which opened in 2002 and currently serves more than 100 of the 49,542 students enrolled in the Howard County School District, is not the typical middle and high school. 

Unlike its traditional counterparts, Homewood operates through three programs designed to meet the individual needs of students who struggle with learning in a regular classroom because of chronic academic and behavioral difficulties. 

Among those programs is Passages, which provides transition opportunities and support for students heading back into the public school system from facilities such as juvenile detention centers. The other two programs are Bridges and Gateway. 

Bridges is a special education program for students with emotional disabilities. 

The issues of those in Gateway are behavioral. In addition to counseling, those students require social skills instruction and a positive behavior management system. 

“The Legacy Poetry Project” is part of the therapeutic services offered to students at Homewood. With a goal of teaching at-risk students the power of positive self-expression through poetry, the project exposes them to much more. During a workshop session, students read poetry, participate in discussions, or work on writing prompts. 

Field trips are also part of the program to help enhance the students’ experience with art and nature. 

“These trips have exposed our young poets to the beauty of art and have enriched the poetry that our young poets create,” according to a quote on the Horizon Foundation’s website from Homewood’s Media Specialist Anne Reis. 

Homewood’s Principal Tina Maddox agreed with Reis. 

Of the poetry workshop, Maddox was also quoted on the foundation’s website: “It is a constructive and creative way for our students to share the multitude of trauma they have experienced in their lives.” 

On paper, these teens might seem like a handful. But in the classroom, they’re inspiring. 

Like one young girl, who pinballs between poetry and fiction, and does both of them well. Then there are the two emcees aspiring for more than just the rap game. (One emcee recently made honor roll and is currently seeking college scholarships). 

At the completion of the program, students will submit their poems produced in the workshop as entries for various contests and participate in the Homewood Poetry Reading featuring their own work. 

Truth also told me that the school plans to publish a collection of student poems in pamphlet form. 

At a recent session on elocution, I watched a soft-spoken young girl overcome her fear of sharing her work aloud. When asked about her goals after high school, she said she wants to be a writer. 

And that’s when it hit me. “Learning is the discovery that something is possible,” according to the late-German Psychoanalyst, Fritz Perls. 

Learning is also a two-way street. That’s where the challenge comes in. 

Through their poems, some of our students wrestle with issues of abuse and drug addiction. They put everything on the line when they write—what I struggle with doing in my own work. 

Every time I approach the page, I’m like the soft-spoken young poet, who used to tremble from stage fright. The internal voices heckle me from somewhere in the dark, yelling: “How much you’re going to reveal, Alan?!” 

When this happens, I close my eyes and go back to a moment in the workshop when I watched a young woman write a poem to process her father’s death. 

She also wrote about alcohol and her self-destructive path that was halted by a teacher’s concern and the encouraging words of staff members. 

Then I open my eyes and know what I have to do. Put it on the line has become my new mantra. I open my eyes and the words of William Arthur Ward, the American scholar and pastor, echo through the halls of my mind whenever I come back to the page from a meditative trip.  

Those words give some context to why Truth and I do what we do and what we end up with as a result. “When we seek to discover the best in others,” the scholar said, “We somehow bring out the best in ourselves.”  

I can’t speak for Truth, but I can speak the truth regardless. For me, Ward’s words ring true every Tuesday morning.

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