At the close of each year I try and reflect on the 12 months past and envision the 12 months to come. While I generally agree with Dodai Stewart’s eloquent summation of why 2010 was, to use his tone, fucked up I also can’t help but feel there is something positive to glean from each passing year. True, at the conclusion of my reflection the best thing I get from 2010 may be that I managed to make it through relatively unscathed. But is there not always the chance that there is some redemptive event or happening that has been overlooked? I concede this is not likely, but what the heck – can’t hurt to grasp at straws for a bit.
As for the year ahead? At the start of each year I like to dig through books and find some bit of wisdom that can help guide my approach to living throughout the year. Last year I found great hope and solace in the poems of Wendell Berry’s. They grounded me to the earth and reminded me that life is about building, building and building.
In previous years I’ve taken guidance from Sherman Alexie, E.B. White, Willa Cather, Martin Espada, and Ursula K. Leguin. Over the past three or so months I have been stuck on three ideas: bravery, honesty and love.
Honesty: Being honest with oneself, ones community and with the world. Can you do one without the other? While a lie is an explicit form of being dishonest, what are the more implicit ways we can be dishonest and what is the cost?
Bravery: What is it to be brave? Is being brave like being courageous in that it is being afraid of something but doing it anyway because it is the right thing to do? Is there a cost to being brave and if so what is it and is it predictable?
Love: How does one grow the power of love within to the point where, on the day to day, you feel its white hot intensity? Are love and heartache faithfully interconnected? To love with white hot intensity all those around you, your passion, your visions, your work for justice and to write the wrongs in the world put you at risk for incomprehensible heartache? Or is it remorse….does love work in tandem with remorse?
Like most times when I am wrestling with these sorts of ideas and questions I have turned to books and the writings of some writers with far more well ordered minds then my own.
I picked up a collection of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and flipped the pages to a poem called Conscientious Objector. The poem opens with the line “I shall die, but that is all I will do for death”. Death is that mass of injustice that hangs over us, occupies our past, present and future. But I am the resistance and I shall never sell out those who write the map to liberation or assist the mass. “Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death? Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me; never through me shall you be over come.”
While this expresses bravery, I think this also expresses honesty. The most honest person I can be is the person who will be unceasingly true to the values I hold and the vision of the “city” we will build. Never through me or because of me will these plans be compromised.
In my thinking about bravery I have found plenty of writings to go back to for inspiration. I re-read the Grapes of Wrath and the Dubious Battle, both by John Steinbeck. The bleak ending of the Grapes of Wrath is also hopeful. In misery and defeat a fire is lit that spreads to start other little fires.
But it is in a series of books that I have read and re-read countless times that I found a bit about bravery that has stuck in my head. Many people have been bemused by my love and borderline obsession with the Harry Potter books. I find great guidance in many matters through fiction. Fiction writing is a wonderful way to express ideas and concepts with which we all struggle.
In the fourth Harry Potter book a boy, Cedric Diggory, is killed by the primary villain of the series, Lord Voldemort. It is the first major character death in a series that is, in essence about lateral death and that kind of Death that Edna St. Vincent Milay writes about. Lord Voldemort represents a remorseless, hateful, bigoted and violent idea that is so destructive and corrosive that there is no choice left but to fight against it. No matter how afraid, the characters must fight and they do so willingly. Not with out fear and second thoughts, but they do fight.
At the end of book four the Albus Dumbledore, the wise and fatherly figure to Harry and a powerful wizard pays tribute to Cedric while delivering a speech to Harry and his fellow students.
“Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”
It is not lost on me that drawing on books such as the Harry Potter books for inspiration and strength risks being silly and weird. But it can not be helped. It is what it is.
The ideas of remembering Cedric is something like remembering all those people, past and present whose bravery, love and honesty and inspiration have laid plans for our “city”. And when I am faced with what is easy and what is right, I should remember them and do what is right. My father used to say that the most radical idea in America is the long memory. I am beginning to see the power in that idea. I will have to be brave in all parts of my life, not just in working for a better world, but in all aspects of living. Taking on what is right, even if it is not easy, using the power of remembering all those who have come before me and their good intentions for me.
Love. Love is such a simultaneously under-explored and over explored idea. Love can be mutated and manipulated to be an excuse for all manner of hurtful and dangerous things. But Martin Luther King Jr. knew that love could be a force to be reckoned with if channeled and embraced. Hate is corrosive, love is restorative. You don’t have to love your enemies; you just have to have an abundance of love for what you dreams, for the collective aspiration to live in a better world.
The Harry Potter books are filled with references to love and its power for good. Dumbledore in different ways throughout the series tries to convey to Harry that the greatest weapon he has is his ability to love. Implied in what Dumbledore is saying is also that Harry can feel remorse and that remorse is, at times, part of love just as grief is. But it is love that gives Harry and his friends the power to fight evil such as the world has never known. Love blossoms and spreads while evil withers. But it takes a long time for Harry to realize that the abundance of love in his life: the love of his mother which saved his life when he was a baby, the love he has for his friends and the love they have for him is indeed their most powerful weapon.
It is the white hot love of life and what is good and beautiful that can bind you to others and compel great changes, leaps forward and transformations.
In the next year I want to know each of these things: honesty, bravery and love in new ways. I want to share in this exploration with others of course in the hopes that 2011 is a banner year for all.
Filed under: Writings | Tagged: 2011, Harry Potter, new years | 1 Comment »