I was on the tarmac in Las Vegas, gazing from my window seat at the dusty prospect below. Ten yards away, three robust men in fluorescent pink-and-green vests and orange jumpsuits crouched in the shade made by the roof of an empty luggage-wagon, resting between loads.
The youngest jumped up and walked to a spot directly opposite my window. He pointed at something on the ground. From my perspective it resembled a small tangle of straw. Talking and gesticulating, he returned to his companions. One followed him back to the spot, then knelt down for an inspection. After a few seconds, he extended his index finger carefully, the way you urge a parakeet to perch on your hand. The bit of straw jumped onto his finger: an insect! The man tiptoed back to the wagon, extending his hand to his companions. The third man placed his own finger parallel to his coworker’s, and for a short time—gently, gently—they passed the insect back and forth hand-to-hand. Then, moving in slow-motion, the rescuer swept his hand back, keeping it parallel to the ground, then swooped it through the air, top-speed. With the energy of that boost, the insect took flight. The four of us watched until we could see it no longer.
I have always been touched by evidence of delicacy, of gentleness, in men whose work entails physical skill and force. I think the sweetness of that contrast for me has something to do with having lost my father in childhood, with my faded memories of ladders and brushes, clanging metal, the chemical smells and soiled rags of his work as a housepainter, with the image of him kneeling down to meet my small self face-to-face. Now it seems to me a parable: the omnipresent possibility of grace even in the hardest places, of beauty surrounded by dust.
Something is happening to me. I can scarcely bear to read the news, that compendium of availability cascades in which the compulsion to repeat whatever bit of fatuous received wisdom occupies the top of the hour takes precedence over considered thought, a felt sense of reality, a healthy respect for the depth of our own ignorance. I am each day more interested in justice, kindness, and transparency; and each day less willing to believe that politics as it is practiced in the realm of money and media will advance any of those conditions.
When I’ve shared this with friends, a surprisingly large number of them have reported the same gathering sense of transformation.
Before you lob accusations of escapism, allow me to say that I am thoroughly familar with the argument that we have a duty to consume the headlines, that it is a form of citizenship all of us must exercise. I absolutely agree that an uninformed democracy is unlikely to be a democracy at all. I read, I listen, I study the world and think about what it means. I just don’t focus my study on information as commodity, the fast-food kind that addicts with an excess of faux suspense and urgent emptiness. What interests me now is the considered opinion that has taken time to produce and deserves time to integrate, and the habits of mind that are learned through what might be called slow media.
For a long time, I have been counseling controlled consumption of mass media, especially sounds and images beamed by commercial enterprises from the center to the margins, animated chiefly by the need to fill time between commercials. I have seen too much of the consequences of media poisoning. I think of the young people who ask for advice when I speak at universities: What can I do, they ask me, to avoid becoming cynical and depressed? Before I answer, I ask how much news they are consuming, whether via TV or online alternatives. Their lists astonish me. I tell them to go on a media diet—cold turkey if they can, or a severely limited dosage if they can’t live without it—and see if that helps. So far, the answer is always yes. At any age, mainlining media-driven fear paralyzes and demoralizes us. I haven’t mainlined for a very long time. My challenge now is to get myself to consume even a tiny dose, and I feel on the verge of abandoning that.
Instead, I value my refusal to collude in the colonization of my own mind by a system dedicated to the commercialization of absolutely everything and to distracting the populace from noticing what is being done in our name. Awareness is fragile. That tangle of straw that owed its flight to the unearned grace of three burly men who took the time to notice: that is my mind, and yours too. The parable of the baggage-handlers has a moral. I like the way William Carlos Williams expressed it in his poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”
When we are awake, our true condition is radical amazement as described by Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for authentic awareness…” Whatever nourishes this feeling, that’s what I want to attend to now. I have no intention of abandoning my drive to act on behalf of justice, kindness, and transparency; I know that it matters most when radical amazement fuels it.
Consider this beautiful version of “Whispering Pines” by Lucinda Williams, from the new Levon Helm tribute album, Love for Levon.”