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November 2016

The importance of hope

Commons 1

Earlier this month, in response to the American election, Rebecca Solnit gave away free copies of her book Hope in the Dark (Haymarket, 2004) -- which prompted me to pull my own copy of the book down from the shelves for a second read. If, like me, you're feeling daunted by the rise of hard-right politics on both sides of the Atlantic, Solnit's incisive book is a tonic indeed: optimistic, yes, but clear-eyed, sharp, and insightful.

"To hope is to gamble," Solnit writes. "It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

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On the difference between true and false hope:

"In The Principle of Hope, [Ernst] Bloch declares, 'Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope is its most dedicated benefactor' and speaks of 'informed discontent which belongs to hope, because both arise out of the No of deprivation.' The hope that the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes will come to you, that the American dream will come true, that electoral politics will reform itself, is hope that paralyzes people's ability to rebel, to reject, to critique, to demand, and to make change. False hope can be a Yes to deprivation, an acquiescence to a lie. Official hope can be the bullying that tells the marginalized to shut up because everything is fine or will be. In its dilute forms, false hope is not far from despair, for both can be paralyzing. But despair can also be liberating.

"Blind hope faces a blank wall waiting for a door in it to open. Doors might be nearby, but blind hope keeps you from locating them; in this geography, despair can be fruitful, can turn you away from the wall, saying No to deprivation. And this despair in one institution or one site can lead to the location of alternatives, to the quest for doors, or to their creation. The great liberation movements hacked doorways into walls, or the walls came tumbling down. In this way, hope and despair are linked."

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But how do we maintain hope when the challenge in front of us appears so overwhelming? Solnit reminds us of this:

"After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork -- or underground work -- often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

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"Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power."

Hope in the Dark is available here at 50% off until January. I recommend it highly.

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Commons 8The passage above is from Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, 2004). The poem in the picture captions is from The Crooked Inheritance by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors.


From the archives: Beauty, grace, and morning mist

Tilly on the rocks

"The beauty of the world...has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.''  - Virginia Woolf (A Room of One's Own)

Tilly on the Rocks

"When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."
  - Buckminster Fuller

Tilly on the Rocks

"You can have the other words –- chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it."  - Mary Oliver (Winter Hours)

Tilly on the Rocks

I know nothing, except what everyone knows -
If there when Grace dances, I should dance.

- W.H. Auden ("Whitsunday in Kirchstentten," Collected Poems)

Tilly on the Rocks

As Tilly and I climb through the morning mist and dawn breaks over Nattadon Hill, I am grateful for beauty. Determined to fight fiercely. Attempting to live gently. Striving, always, for grace.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

On October 3rd, 2013, a boat carrying approximately 500 African migrants was wrecked near Lampedusa (an Italian island near Sicily), causing 366 deaths. Awa Ly, a Sengalese singer born and raised in Paris, wrote the song above in reaction to the tragedy -- and as an appeal for more help for migrants and refugees as the crisis continues.

"The video," says Ly, "tells the story of a man who decides to leave his country for more promising horizons. He is a teenager when we see him packing his luggage, but it is as a grandfather that he climbs onto the boat that will take him away...and to his death. Thus his life is summed up in single day: teenager in the morning, man in the afternoon, grandfather in the evening. The difficulties of everyday life are represented by the beauty and hostility of the desert; the acquisition of the knowledge and experience are represented by a baobab tree. [Sengalese hiphop singer] Faada Freddy and I are the 'storytellers' in the film. Like the spirits, we sing into the ear of the traveler to dissuade him from leaving home."

Below: A sequence of songs performed by Faada Freddy for Le Ring in France. Freddy is an alt-Gospel, Soul and hiphop singer from St. Louis in Senegal, making music entirely out of percussion and voice.

Above: "La fille sans nom"  by Breton singer & harpist Cécile Corbel with Faada Freddy, from Corbel's new album Vagabonde.  The video was filmed in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and le Finistère, Brittany.

Below: American singer/songwriter Alicia Keys performs her song "Hallelujah" on an Italian television program. The song was written for her short film "Let Me In," supporting people around the globe forced to flee conflict and disaster. The song & film were released earlier this year on World Refugee Day, as part of the We Are Here movement.

"I want us all to imagine if we were the refugees," says Keys; "as if we were the ones torn from the arms of our families and loved ones. While some seek to stoke the flames of division and turn us against our fellow neighbors, we’re here to make the case for love and compassion. How would we feel if it were happening to us?” 

Hand in hand


On beauty and balance

Woodland Gate

I'd like to end the week with a final passage from Beauty by John O'Donohue (1956-2008), a philosphical/spiritual/poetic examination of the role of beauty in all of our lives:

"Our times are driven by the inestimable energies of the mechanical mind," O'Dononhue noted, "its achievements derive from its singular focus, linear direction and force. When it dominates, the habit of gentleness dies out. We become blind: nature is rifled, politics eschews vision and becomes the obsessive servant of economics, and religion opts for mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame. Instead of true leadership which would be the servant of vision and imagination, we have systems of puppetry which are carefully constructed and manipulated from elsewhere. We never know who we are dealing with; hidden agendas operate to deepen our insecurity and persuade us to be hopeless. Our present dilemma is telescoped by in this wonderful phrase from Irish writer and visionary politician Michael D. Higgins: 'This acceptance of inevitability in our lives is consistent of course with the suggestion that there is but one vision of the economy, an end of history, the death of ethics, and an appropriate individualism that eschews solidarity and any transcendent public values.'

"Yet constant struggle leaves us tired and empty. Our struggle for reform needs to be balanced with a capacity for celebration.

Woodland Color

"When we lose sight of beauty our struggle becomes tired and functional. When we expect and engage the Beautiful, a new fluency is set free within us and between us. The heart becomes rekindled and our hopes brighten with unexpected courage. It is courage that restores hope to the heart. In our day-to-day lives, we often show courage without realizing it; it is only when we are afraid that courage becomes a question. Courage can tap into the heart of fear, taking that frightened energy and turning it towards initiative, creativity, action and hope. When courage comes alive, imprisoning walls become frontiers of new possibility, difficulty becomes invitation and the heart comes into a new rhythm of trust and sureness."

Sentinel

Go here for O'Donohue's thoughtful discussion of beauty, Celtic mystery and the formative power of landscape on Krista Tippett's radio show. It was one of his last interviews, and well worth a listen...particularly right now. We miss you, John.

Woodland CompanionThe passage above is from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (HarperCollins, 2004). The poem is from To Bless the Space Between Us (Doubleday, 2008). All rights reserved by the author's estate.