WHAT A PORCH IS FOR - Mike Riddell
It was a difficult week. It started with the U.S. election. Then Leonard Cohen went and died on us. Finally I visited a dear friend who is dying of cancer.
There’s a broken shard of a lyric from Joni Mitchell that is uncomfortably lodged somewhere in my intestines:
Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
The sharp edges of it irritate my soft tissue, causing me pain of a sort that’s not quickly silenced.
And these days I’m feeling it all the more. A sense of loss; a feeling that something sacred is draining from our community. On my better days, I convince myself that it’s not lost at all, just hidden. Sometimes precious things get covered over, and can be revealed by taking the time to find and restore them.
I’m not even entirely sure how to name what I’m grieving. It might be decency, respect, kindness, or tolerance. But I suspect it’s properly called justice. During my days of childhood innocence, the idea didn’t exist — apart from a selfish desire to make sure I got my fair share of what was available.
At the age of five, it expressed itself as outrage when my handmade trolley was confiscated by teachers. When I was twenty, it seemed somehow unfair that I found myself serving time in a Moroccan prison on drug charges. By the time I’d made thirty-five, I was beginning to experience compassion — feeling the pain of others who suffered through no fault of their own.
It took a long time for an anger at injustice to rise in my soul, despite the fact that I’d been an activist for many years before. Anger is a raw force with many faces — it is more often destructive than constructive. I imagine I was in my mid-forties before I started to understand that the best part of my anger was generated by a sense of loss.
In general terms, I think it evolved into an approximation of what Walter Brueggemann calls “the prophetic imagination.” By this I understand him to mean that you can measure the present against a vision of what the future might hold — what indeed humanity is capable of and is called toward. This creates a hugely generative gap, a chasm of despair and longing.
The dream of something better was a long time coming, but once it lodged in my heart it was inescapable. It became the catalyst for dreaming of something more. I dreamed of something deeper and richer, not for myself, but for all of us bound together by our humanity. The sneaking suspicion grew: We are better than all this.
I discovered the positive face of grief. There is pain in comparing what is against what might have been. That hurt can either drive us into our shells, or motivate us to enlarge our horizons. To be personal for a moment — and we are sharing this conversation on a porch after all — the rape of a close family member brought me to dissolution.
Certainly there was something precious lost in that, something unfixable. I faced a choice between bitterness and acceptance. In the words of Robert Frost, “I took the road less travelled by.” By breathing my way through the moments, I discovered I could survive. Those around me could survive, though it was survival at a cost.
I also learned that brokenness may engender acceptance rather than a quest for revenge. When visiting my family, my temptation to rage about this injustice dissolved in an unexpectedly gentle sorrow, which encompassed all of us, including the perpetrator of the rape. Believe me when I tell you this was no wishy-washy dismissal of the tragedy, but rather an owning of it.
Sometimes it takes great loss to awaken great desire. I find myself now hungering after the goodness in people; prospecting for kindness. The environment of the West poisons us all. We are the product of a social and economic experiment called monetarism — one that easily turns us into competitive rats, biting each other for the sake of winning some reward.
This week I’ve also been to see the darkly beautiful Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. It has reminded me what has been lost in recent decades. Mostly it seems to be the simple human compassion that comes from pausing long enough to understand ourselves, and to recognize the wonder of others. If we have anger, let us turn it against the structures that diminish our potential to find community.
It may be that the grand dream of justice is as simple as having respect for the wonder of existence. When we discover ourselves, when we honor our environment, when we treasure the wonderful variety of people and creatures who accompany us on our journey, then it as natural as breathing to work together for good.
The sense of loss, of being misheard and neglected, of being shut out — that grief may awaken us to a resolute hope, should we choose to allow it to. I suspect a little unplugging is vital to such a transformation. We need to disconnect from the false dreams of fame, wealth, dominance, and prestige, before we become capable of recognizing the larger dream of justice.
A porch is a good place to sit and swap a few stories as we ponder a way forward. We have as much time as we need to be human, and sharing songs and laughter is as good a means to uncovering what’s lost as any number of lectures or appointments. When an archaeologist discovers a precious relic, she takes time to brush away the soil so that it might be recovered intact.
These days I find myself to be something of a trash collector — looking for that which is broken or discarded, and trying to see what it was part of and if it might be restored. A lot that is precious can be casually forgotten, and only later recognized as vital to an honest life.
Our dear Kiwi friend, Mike Riddell, knows what The Porch is for. You can join him there – and read more of his thoughts in the second issue – by clicking here.