Who's that rapping, rapping at my chamber door? It's America calling, it seems. And a guy from Switzerland and a few people from Canada and Australia. It's noon Saturday and the Maine air is warm and wet from our passing backlash of Hurricane Ophelia as she slides off south of Cape Cod. We need the rain.
There is a circuit in my brain that plays pieces of songs appropriate to every moment. I course through life with my secret soundtrack running. Often I blurt out these lyrics to the amusement, annoyance or dismay of my friends, family, co-workers, customers, readers. Today, of course, there is John Fogerty: “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”, but also the darker, sadder, “Who'll Stop The Rain?” Bob said it best: “every distance is not near.” John Eddie sums up every event, every life, too: “there's only moving on, and the good and bad that brings.” Rain, love, sorrow, loneliness, loss, despair. Stop me. I hear Neil Young tuning up. It never stops.
So I write these little essays for a little newspaper. The Wiscasset Newspaper. Circulation fifteen hundred (correct me, Editor Gibbs, if I'm wildly off the mark). They'd like six hundred words. I try to keep it around twelve hundred. Usually it's fourteen to sixteen hundred. Sometimes the managing editor complains. Sometimes readers complain. And I wrap scraps of my life story, my childhood, my workplace adventures, the conclusions I reach as I distill experience through the loops and reversals and reconsiderations of time and thought--I wrap these bright, hard seeds in a soft dough of song and poetry and language convolutions built for no other reason than the joy of seeing my words stand in a formation never before built quite like this or that. Some people like it, sometimes.
I write on deadline. Monday night I started around ten o'clock. With time out for Nightline and some of Charley Rose, trips to the bathroom and for the beer that begat the bathroom visits, I finished proofreading about four in the morning and E-mailed the product, securing my twenty-five dollars before I sought sleep for a few hours. Wednesday night I sent a copy to commondreams.org. They published it Thursday, but I didn't wake my computer Thursday evening, so didn't see myself there until Friday.
Thursday I left work early to bathe. My partner and I were expected at the home of a recent customer for dinner. He does dinner well; I don't. I'm not antisocial, but I am, to a degree, and in a way that is much more common than all you normal, regular persons know or understand, probably asocial. I don't enjoy parades, weddings, graduations, christenings, prayer meetings, parties or ritual fellowship or fraternity. It's particularly difficult to do the dinner business when you've been a ridiculously committed vegetarian (nearly vegan) for thirty-five years. “What? No fish?” So I took a little baby to hide behind. My nine month old (cute, smart) grandson gave me cover.
And we all did pretty well. I ate the vegetables, Karter had milk and bread and some slop from a jar. My partner complimented our hosts on their cooking, their home. I held up the baby when it was my turn to participate. Talk over coffee turned, as it must, whenever four liberals (or two liberals, a radical and a social misfit iconoclast) assemble, to the dismay, the disgust, the horror one feels at what our country has become under the control of the rich, religious and ruthless and the abdication or sellout of its conventional opposing party.
We agreed on the conditions. Our hostess said she felt the need to do something beyond complaining, do something more effective than crying. I said I didn't send money to anybody, I didn't march or petition. My wife stood on a bridge and witnessed against the war and I commend her for it, but that's not my style and I doubt any passing motorist changed his mind for her effort. I said I thought the best thing anybody could do was to take what opportunities each life, each day, each human interaction offered to speak a decent, humane, informed truth. Talk to your postmaster, your neighbor, your family. Don't let the universal default sentiment of “Support The Troops” stand in its surrogate role of “Support The President.”
All we have is our voices and our bodies. Few of us will risk our lives for truth or decency, and not just because of fear or lack of strength, but because there is no opportunity for me here on a crumbling country road in Maine to attack Donald Rumsfeld with a fence post or to force Barbara Bush at the point of an electric prod to live for a week with one of the poor black families she thought were enjoying such a good deal in the shelter.
But we can risk our reputations. We can put our comfort on the line. We can say, loudly, in the October sunshine outside the store or post office, “President Bush is stupid, incompetent, uncaring. Condoleeza Rice is a liar. America is reviled the world over for evil done in our name, with our money, with our acquiescence.” Our neighbors will object. Many will not listen, others will argue, still others may shun us. But consider my life since that dinner Thursday evening, since I opened my E-mail Friday morning.
I have so far received two hundred, thirteen E-mail messages about my essay Sugar For Sugar, Salt For Salt, Go Down In The Flood, Gonna Be Your Own Fault. Many of the persons writing to me are second or third generation readers; my piece is in heavy rotation on the E-mail forwarding circuit. It landed on some Ozark discussion board where my syntax is being debated as vigorously as my politics. Posters there are defining the mind and heart of this “Cooper” as they find them evidenced by his words.
One reader found me to be “a very sick, disturbed person.” But I've had two marriage proposals, one request to father a child, at least two suggestions of sexual congress not intended to produce issue. One generous (if incorrect) gentleman called me “The Mark Twain of Maine.” Although one fairly full of himself regular on that Ozark board found my characterizations of Barbara Bush “unhelpful”, nearly a quarter of my E-mails singled that paragraph out for special praise.
Obviously, this all makes me feel very good. My life has not wound around as pleasant a garden path as I'd tried to lay out for myself for the last several years, and there is an undeniable pleasure, bordering on joy, in receiving accolades for what one says, particularly if you try very hard to say the things that you feel represent yourself as you are. The ego laps long at these waters.
But also in these messages I find the answer to the question I considered at dinner the other night. Trust your heart; enable your voice. The intensity of the frustration so many decent, thoughtful, empathic persons feel and the sadness that descends when there is no productive outlet for these feelings is the foundation of the tremendous response my essay has brought me. There is anger, certainly, at the administration, at the entire Bush family and its cronies, at the limp, lame, laughable Democrats. There is appreciation for my metaphors, for my style, for the source of my title which two readers so far have connected to its roots in American music. I appreciate that.
Beyond and better than that is the overwhelming feeling of relief expressed by almost every letter writer. I have said what they feel. These are men and women from scores of states, several other countries. Doctors, lawyers, architects, social workers, students (only a few, sadly), retired military men, writers, editors, and mother after mother and grandmothers beyond counting. Grandmothers who use vulgar words and language, apparently sensing it's ok to speak freely and plainly with me. Two hundred, twelve of two hundred, thirteen persons are relieved and delighted and excited and empowered to hear one odd old guy in Maine express the very things they feel.
Shouldn't they be getting this direct talk from the Democratic party? Shouldn't the great newspapers of our nation say that the president is a fool, his handlers are corrupt, the moneyed interests that put him in power are dedicated to ruining the nation that was once the best hope of humanity? They should, but they don't. So clever (a generally very high level of composition and few spelling or grammatical embarrassments in my incoming mail), honest, honorable, caring Americans have to find each other in chartrooms, on posting boards and by forwarding what they discover to friends and family.
In the absence of leadership we keep the country together by holding on to each other electronically. We comfort each other. That's good and necessary and readers, all rank strangers to me, have comforted and enriched and encouraged me this weekend. But that's easy. The hard thing is to stand up, to stand out, to be the one in the conversation, the group, the room, the meeting, the organization who says, impolitely, loudly, often: “This is bullshit!” Ask the good grandmothers of America.
I write sometimes about babies and dogs and trees and about the Great Wooden Penis my late friend Austin and I carved out of a pine log for our lady postmaster one cold December night. These are well-received essays and everything in them is true and tells a story and makes it just a little less likely that someone could not find something about my life resonant with his own. But every half dozen columns or so a force moves through me that I cannot resist. I am called, I suppose, to risk offending, to annoy editor or publisher, to plainly say that the emperor and his daddy and his ghastly old mother (yes, America has it's evil grandmothers too), his friends, his allies, and the technicians and planners who write the software and set the switches and power the relays that direct the undoing of America under the putative leadership of this little plastic bobble-head president, all these men and women are worse than naked. They have soiled themselves. They smile and shake hands. They pray. But they have corrupted themselves and the filth will splash on us and we do not deserve it, least of all the poorest among us.
I say these things and I am enriched and encouraged by the breadth and depth of the audience desperate for this and more of it. I ask everyone who has written to me to make his or her own loud shout at the crossroads. More than an echo will reward you.
The late Townes Van Zandt said, “There's the Blues, and there's 'Zippidy-doo-dah.” But there's the New Orleans Jazz Funeral tradition, too. It's been hard times and sorrow, to be sure, but maybe, with the war losing popularity, the stagnant stink of the last three weeks still heavy across the land, that grinning idiot face booking television time in a series of incompetent attempts to shift the blame to local officials, we've turned the corner. The body is in the ground. We're turning for home, we can lift our voices, cut loose, let freedom ring.
You must know Bruce Springsteen's great song, Badlands. It's a pretty grim description of a troubled existence in a terrible place in a hard time. But it's also one of the most upbeat, positive, engaging, joyous songs I know. Play it for yourself. You'll feel better. Then stand up and spit.
For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these
Chris Cooper writes an editorial page column, Fixtures And Forces And Friends for the Wiscasset [Maine] Newspaper. He lives in Alna, Maine; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.