T for Tom

This World

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on June 28, 2018

A world of neglect and the things we do to each other

“Just help us out”

Never enough to gain favor

Only gains to our savior

As everything trickles up.

 

Like a dam held up

We don’t ask for much

But asking, it seems,

Is uncouth.

 

Just a meal or fair rent

Is a chance to survive

To say nothing of what happens

When we nearly die.

 

But that I think is the point

That while children are crying

   And homeless are starving

   And mothers are working

   And soldiers are dying

   And workers don’t sleep

   And families cant eat

We shouldn’t feel good about living.

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On Hopelessness

Posted in america, Europe, Prose, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on June 28, 2018

Snow drifted softly to the ground as I walked the streets of St. Petersburg, covered in white everywhere except for a few recent footsteps in the snow by the people walking in every direction up and down under the dim light of a lamppost in the winter night. I was at the mercy of the guide to my side, but also to the whims of this frozen nation and its people, its principled foray into modernity based squarely on its resistance to change – I couldn’t speak Russian and hardly knew the alphabet, and so couldn’t learn much to help myself during this week long voyage into a great northern Christmas. Were it not for the few people with me at different times, I wouldn’t have eaten well or even much, and certainly would have been left to my own silence and thoughts there in the cold.

Though for the sake of speaking, I learned, there was much helplessness to go around. On just the first night of five, I had been taken to dinner by a young woman my age who was lucky enough to own a vehicle and who drove me across the bridge into the city and to a warm, deep red colored restaurant where we shared borsht and a beer. Her name was Tanya, and you wouldn’t know her from a European or an American if you passed her on the street, and especially if you heard her speak. She had large, open eyes set under a head of dark, almost black hair, and could have easily been the girl next door. I asked her why she was here in St. Petersburg and how she learned English so well, and she told me that she had lived in Germany for a couple years while studying but had to return to work. I asked her if it was her choice, but she said it wasn’t. “It’s hard to stay away, and since my studies were paid for, I had to come back and work for the company that provided it.” I asked her when she might expect to be able to travel again, and she said she didn’t know. “It doesn’t really work that way.” Getting any more of an answer was the first time I had been stonewalled. I would learn over the week that her impenetrable spirit was less the will of the people and more the will of the state, and it found its way into everyone there.

My second guide was a few years younger than myself or my guest the previous night. Her name was Anna, fittingly, and she had bright, almost red, brown hair that seemed to sparkle. We met in the afternoon at a coffee shop down Nevsky Prospekt, and I couldn’t help but think that the shine was from her infectious smile or the sunshine outside that lit the snow-covered ground and turned it into an upward facing mirror. Like Tanya the night before, her English was easily understood, though she carried a more typically-Russian way of affecting her words. As a sign to her age, she was dressed head to toe in a full-length purple parka, accented with purple gloves. She took me to the Christmas fair in the middle of the promenade that occurred in the daytime during this January week, the time of Russian Orthodox Christmas. We talked about traditions and watched the skaters in the ice rink, before she mentioned that her brother had been in the Russian army. As I was in the American army now, I wanted to know what she thought. “The Russian Army is mandatory for most men.” I didn’t know what she meant by most men. “Well, there are those that are can pay their way out of it, though they’re not supposed to,” she said. “But that’s just the way a lot of things go.” She jumped back into talking about Christmas as if nothing had happened, and before long offered to enter a bar mid-afternoon to take a shot of vodka, simply as a means of warming up. It was truly just the way things had gone, and appeared to continue.

Eventually I asked her to see something different, to get into the thick of St. Petersburg. I’m not sure if it was naiveté or youth or both, but she had a tour guide’s knowledge of two art museums just off the prospect – she knew of their existence, but seemed uninterested in the reasons why. She did make sure to remark on St. Petersburg’s first Starbucks that had just opened and which we passed on the way. Shortly we arrived at an unremarkable building and turned into the center hallway. “This is the John Lennon museum,” she said. “We have to go into the building to maybe enter.” The halls were painted with graffiti and on the doors of one entrance was a plaque to John Lennon himself – “In the name of John Lennon – the Temple of Love, Peace, and Music.” We walked up a staircase to an empty hallway where a printed sheet of paper was taped to a bell – “ring to enter.” But no one answered. “It’s often closed, and there are no times,” said Anna. “We can go to a different museum across the street.” And just as quickly we left. It was just the way of things.

The next gallery was a modern art institute of sorts that was more clearly marked with neon signs and that operated a bar inside, which was a nice evening greeting. It still had the feeling of being a bit ramshackle, and I was getting the feeling that these two museums, in their disparate and near-hidden existences, persisted only so far as the state allowed them. The second museum featured pieces on the city’s subways and architecture, and was likely much less a threat. The John Lennon Museum, which I later learned was referred to by its address, Pushkinskaya 10, was much more in disguise – I never found out what was behind the doors, and steps had clearly been taken to keep it that way. There was a spirit of protest somewhere in the halls of that building, but it was under cloak and mask. But in spite of the cloak and deceit, I couldn’t help but note that I had come there and found it with a little help – we didn’t have to try that hard – and that the state, like with everything else, somehow allowed this to continue. I had the feeling that the museum itself was somehow purposefully hopeless. It evoked the sense of freedom in name and image, but could do nothing to obtain it. I believe that it was allowed to exist exactly in such that way, as a symbol to the people of St. Petersburg. We were supposed to rejoice that the freedom expressed in our dreams was allowed to exist, somewhere anyway, even if we could never have it ourselves.

I stayed with Anna all through the evening until just after dinner, where we found ourselves walking back toward the Nevsky Prospect where I’d depart on my way to meeting other students for a night of drinking. We passed church, among the many we saw along the way, but less remarkable. I had already seen the Kazan Cathedral and the Church on the Savior of Spilled Blood, the only orthodox church in St. Petersburg. With Anna now, we had passed what would be unremarkable in any Midwestern American town, a small chapel with greek architecture in the front, and a single steeple on top that didn’t rise above two floors. It may well have been a government building. But it was the year of Pussy Riot and I wanted to know what the feeling on the street was, and so I asked. “How do you feel about Pussy Riot?”

“What do you mean?” she replied.

“How do you feel about the girls being held in prison?”

“You cannot protest in a church,” she answered.

It was my turn to be confused and so I asked her what she meant this time.

“No can protest in a church, even if you disagree with Putin,” she said. “It didn’t have to be in a church.” And as if for emphasis, she added, “That’s the law.”

That’s the part that always stuck with me. The immutable law. I felt like Anna couldn’t see the possibility of absurdity in the law, much in the way that we couldn’t see into the John Lennon Museum. She came up to and in front of the point – that Pussy Riot, or just people anywhere, should be able to protest when and where they please, which is a protest – but couldn’t cross a fundamental barrier that had been erected by years of social education otherwise. Where Tanya may have some cynical grasp that she is lost to hopelessness in spite of knowing better, Anna is hopeless against the modes and methods that make her life possible. Both are reverent to the cogs that spin the wheels, but there is a difference for their place in it – hopeless to change it, or hopeless to believe it should be any different.

In Bloom’s essential, though now forgotten, incision on our own American education in Closing of the American Mind, he discusses the philosophical theory that persisted throughout the duality of the sixties, and foremost by those who opposed the rise of liberality in social education: “the [social] contract theorists all taught that the law must never be broken, that the strength of the law is the only thing that keeps us away from the state of nature, therefore that risks and dangers must be accepted for the sake of law.” And in this way, Anna accepts that things won’t get better, because she also accepts that they cannot get worse. But this is merely perception, ingrained through years of reinforcement by the state and the education she received.

In America, those who uphold the law do not want to see the way things are met with change. As described before, any change in the law indicates a move toward lawlessness, or the state of nature. In the state of nature, all things are equal, in measure to their worthiness (but, crucially, not their ability) to claim their livelihood. And for so many now, for the weak and the minorities and the poor and the sick and the ill and the mistreated and the abused, for the vast majority of the United States of America, enforcing the law will uphold a way of life that we cannot survive. It is within this system that we feel hopeless, and only by changing it can we gain hope for a better future.

It takes a long time for this idea to gain a plurality – that our best hope is working beyond the system, and not by incrementally using the same system for the purpose of great change. Over two hundred years of this system has only kept the same minority in power, and from their seats of power now they continue to call for upholding the system, above all else. Above all misuses, above all misdeeds, above all errors and grafts and abuses of and by the system, we are told that our best hope for a better future remains within the system. This is merely the social education of the American people speaking, as it always does. That our best hope is within this democracy. But have we not seen the failures of voting, in multiple elections in this lifetime alone? Have we not seen the imperiling of our existence by the officials elected to representative us? We must be reminded that they are the same ones asking now for us to remain rooted in our belief in the system, on the belief that the system works. But our education, like the system that teaches it, only serves the purposes of those giving the lessons.

It takes looking at an Anna or a Tanya to see ourselves in other places. It takes seeing these young men and women in hopeless situations. The new way forward, if we find one, will be in the understanding that we can only go ahead by removing the things in our way, if even they be the laws themselves. Some nobility within directs us to break certain laws for sake of other higher laws, but I’ll leave the defining of those higher laws to the future tense.

The last question I posed to Anna before we parted was how she could not see the virtue in Pussy Riot breaking the law. Her answer was dismissive, if not correct: “what am I going to do about it?”

What are we going to do about it? Things can either stay the same or they can change. In the short term I knew there was nothing I could do about it, and parted ways with Anna to meet another Tanya, a blond. I knew it was hopeless in my five days to try and get to the bottom of the Russian existence, and so to get to the bottom of my own. I spent the rest of my time existing there in the spaces around me. If their Russian tragedies had led them to this moment, they were at least still alive. They were alive in the few art museums I had already seen, and they were still alive in Dostoevsky’s adult home, and they were still alive crossing the Neva by foot, and they were still alive in spite of it all, in spite of the system that keeps them there in that winter snow globe.

It would be hopeless to try and change that, and so we all just float on, hopeless.

Thinking of Things

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on June 6, 2018

Waking up in the frigid cold unexpectedly, or with the rising sun warming your tent. Outside are mountains or valleys or maybe cliffs and blue skies, and from the drunken stupor you remind yourself, the natural world is just outside. You can feel that you’re apart of it, and though your bones creak and the head might spin, everything orients at some point together: whatever I’ve done and am going to do next, I’m doing it out here. You’re probably alone, and you probably spent the evening watching the sun go down over the rising earth in the great distance, nothing between you both but those hills and the green forests that line them, or even better, the sandy bottom of a Chihuahuan desert that makes existence seem impossible. The only sounds from the wind gently brushing your temporary home, and you step out into the light. The memories of the night before, spectacular: you were just here because it was a holiday, but it always seemed to find ways to marvel you: the surprise fireworks show you watched from above at 7000’ atop the tallest mountain in Virginia, or the full moon that set for the only person sleeping at Wind Rock on the Appalachian Trail, or the sunset that turned the sky orange from a thousand miles away and across the full length of Arizona, so it seems, seen from a sky island while standing in a cathedral of rock, prayers sent to the heavens. Even the ones that hurt, like a surprise freeze in July at Bluff Springs Waterfall where you only brought a hammock because surely it was summer, and starting the fire in the morning meant coming back to life.

Breakfast needs to be made, the gear packed, the head leveled, water. But the air is crisp, cool when you need it after a warm night, warm when you need it after the cold. It always knows how to greet you. It remembers, just like you, everything that happened, and that’s perhaps the driving force – you’re never certain why you like to do something, something that can be so much work, seem so much hassle. But you do know that you enjoy most, above many things, looking back and knowing that you did it. You climbed the tallest mountain three times, or hiked 100 miles in the Dutch plains. You slept on the Persian Gulf and saw the sun settle in the dust, or you ran five miles at zero degrees Fahrenheit. You went down into the Grand Canyon and washed the cold cold waters of the Colorado River across your face just as the canyon walls went dark, having made it to your destination with only a daylight to celebrate having made it. Or maybe you just walked through a farm, on the other side of the planet, repeatedly. You spent your days in only the night, feeling the cold air slide off the grey stone of the buildings in the city center, lit like gothic dreams. The only light from the lampposts that guide the way through the alleys, nothing more, just the fog of breath floating in your face from the cigarette burning at your lip.

You think of these things. You think of them and you think of being younger. You’re not old now but you remember what it was like to be young, to be sad, to be free. And you stand there now, alone, out of the tent for the first time that morning, the sparkle of the dew glittering off the bead of the pins of the cacti, or rolling with the steady stream from the spring that starts out of the rock just over the grassy hill where are the daisies grow. These things are real, and they remind you of the life that flickers now before your eyes. It’s the looking back that’s so great. It’s the visions and endless streams of faces and markers and waters and mountains and fields and formations of people that have come and gone, and its romantic attachment to the idea that it’s still out there. That’s why you keep going back. You surround yourself with the wild wild world to remember that it’s still out there.

But mostly it’s the memories. Sometimes they come back one by one, and sometimes not at all. Sometimes you have look back through your notes to remember a name, or to see a place in your mind, or sometimes it only takes a song and you’re right back in that exact moment when it all came together, life music feeling spirit freedom earth joy the infinite. And at other times its all the memories all at once and it’s too much to handle. It’s the bars and the plane rides and the ice on the path and the feet in the snow and the Salzach and the flooding desert rains and the college graduations and the long slow burning glow of the sun that hangs its head every night in the shadows of the West Texas plains and just the feeling of being on the move to somewhere new, and the feeling of having it all at your fingertips. You remember it all, in clear and vivid detail, every bit as much a blessing as a curse. To always remember such joys, but to never forget the rapid pages of time and the people it leaves behind.

And in the cold morning air you reach out to grab them. You’d like to say hello, wish them well. But the only blessing they’ll have is that they live on in your memories, worthy of being not forgotten. And they’ll never know. So you must remember. Remember to remember.