T for Tom

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.

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An Open Letter

Posted in Prose, Trying To Get Published, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on July 26, 2017

An open letter to my parents, their friends, and strangers like them:

Did all your dreams come true? Do you have everything you’ve ever imagined and more? I imagine you must be sitting there in a broad, window-lined living room, a small dog at the foot of your lounging sofa, the room dimly lit with ornate lamps, the spaces filling with the sound of Sinatra and a crackling fire while you or your spouse finish cooking in the kitchen where all the countertops are marble and the stove is electric. Somewhere in the garage are two SUVs and a stable of camping equipment for the many vacations you’ve taken and the many more you plan, miles of American highway that never stand in your way from the time away with your family. You return, you always do, because of the obligations of work and family, and spend the days in between your weeks alternately going to work and walking into church. The pension is growing, and there’s no need to worry when the boy and girl both need football equipment for their summer teams (soccer for the little girl, of course) because you’re on track for your third promotion and should have yourself set up quite nicely by the age of 55. No, nothing else could be needed.

Is that why you won’t let us have anything? Are you sitting there in that living room right now thinking, no, there’s nothing else the world could have or do, and so I will do everything I can to keep it just this way? Because I can’t think of any other reason to support the ideas, policies, and moral politics of a corrupt body that willfully, purposefully, and cruelly works to malign, injure, and put to death millions of people swiftly and at once.

If you are sitting there comfortably on your way to a rich retirement (and I don’t think you are), how did you get there? I believe you had opportunities, plural, rich opportunities in a world with less competition – when an entire race (or many entire races), gender, and age group are not allowed to gain employment in the only few sectors that pay salaries commensurate with a single family’s needs, do you feel that you fairly competed for the things you enjoy? Do you think that you got to that home, the two vehicles, and the recreational time by being treated equitably? If you think it’s been fair, you should look around. It hasn’t been, has never been fair, but the world is not ready to quit changing.

I have a strange fear, a real deep fear, that I’m wrong – you aren’t sitting there with a book in hand, staring out the windows at the light snowfall, dreaming of your upcoming beach vacation. You’re standing over the work desk, driving a truck cross-country, tossing boxes into the delivery truck, loading fish from the dock, or chopping trees. When you’re done you head home to a two-bedroom house with a five-member family, a kitchen without a stove, and only one car to drive the family. Worse, no car. Your marriage is tense because the bills are paid paycheck-to-paycheck while the children beg for more. Worse, no bills are paid and the children are still begging. And to top it all off, you remember sitting there in your parents living room – that same one I imagined for you – where the Christmas tree is lit, the presents stocked underneath, and you wonder why you don’t have the same. And worse, in your wondering, you believe the best way to get it is by getting back to that world where it seemed so possible – the world where everyone else (those weirdos with their dark skin and gay lovers and young punk hair) are stifled, put back in their place.

I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish you had the open-ceiling sunroom, afternoon sky gently illuminating your cocktail hour. I wish you had the trim garden outside with the veranda where you entertain your guests, telling jokes about the 18th hole. I wish you had the dreams of your fathers fulfilled just as they imagined for you. Because it would mean that these things were possible, in spite of the immigrants and the homosexuals and the millennials.

Because the immigrants and the homosexuals and the millennials aren’t going anywhere. This is their world to inherit. You and your friends have held on longer than usual, the benefit of growing medical science. There is reason for grievance – at the age now where you’ve either secured the healthcare you need through riches, or by simply living long enough to own state-funded Medicare, your choices and decisions and feelings about others (everyone else) is that they don’t deserve it. It might be even worse. Maybe you know they deserve it, too, but because you can’t think of a way for both of you to have it, you’ll selfishly deny them to keep your own. I can think of a few ways, but me and my generation, haven’t been allowed the clout of decision. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.

I wish I didn’t grow up knowing I’d never have full garage or a mantel trimmed with Christmas stockings. I wish I didn’t grow up making plans to own very little, not even home to call my home, for fear of debt and the subsequent inability to move about. I wish I didn’t have to show up at work worried that my hair might make me seem out of place, or that I’ll never get promoted in time to cover my expenses because the supervisory jobs are held by boomers who never got their retirement. I wish I didn’t have to consciously, deliberately deny myself children because this world can’t sustain any more, or worse, the consequences of war and climate change would keep them from even living a full life. I wish I could sit there, like you wanted for yourself, without a worry in the world.

I am thankful, however, that you raised us in this world. Without the heartache, the unending the debt, the racism, the age discrimination, the wars on your behalf, the political manipulation of women’s bodies, the general diaspora of hate and filth, I wouldn’t be here today wishing you well. I might be just like you, in that living room telling the world to stop growing, stop changing, I like it just the way it was. I am thankful that I am eyes-open to the starving, the slaving, the shaming, the stealing, the warring, and the killing. Because I don’t want that for anyone. And that’s more important than what I do want for even just myself.

There isn’t enough for everyone to have large homes and multiple gas-fueled cars. There isn’t enough for everyone to have retirement funds or closets full of clothes or food for baby or books on the shelf or luxuries upon luxuries. There’s barely enough water on the planet as it is. We’re all just trying to survive. Those of us who suffer are catching on that the good life is an oasis, if not a myth outright. Don’t be so ignorant as to suffer and not yet be aware.

Because whether you have it now or never got it and still dream of having it before you die, I’m tired of you taking it from me before I ever even get it.

Signed,

T

On Good and Evil

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on January 26, 2017

We must remember the equal law of the universe. Perspective allows but timeliness denies the ability to see that things are as good as they are bad in equal measure. So for whichever you feel the direction the wind, hold also that it grows and shrinks for the opposite as well.

It would be easy to look around and say that things are as awful as they have ever been in a long time. But even 158 years ago, Dickens famously recognized that “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The temerity of humanity hasn’t changed much. That in our ability to see further, imagine greater, and believe brighter, there lurks too stronger fears, more powerful hate, and terminal disbelief. The limits of each end are only defined by the reach of your knowledge.

For these fears to exist now, that we headed in a doomed direction, must then be because of the greater acknowledgement that we can do so much better. Just a few hundred years ago, there was not a real testament to the power of peace, but the wellspring of harmony spreads in the modern times only as the violence of war continues to reach every corner of the earth. They are as married as tide and the moon.

The fears that bring this about are of course very real. There are genuine concerns that the climate may buckle before our children grow old. There are real people dying everyday in a war that grows only in extremities and sees no end. There are people everyday dying in poverty, left without the programs in place needed to ensure their survival in an overcrowded world. There is an entire gender that has very little control over its reproductive system. But to recognize these is to know also that a future can exist without these issues. Equal parts good, bad.

I believe that this swing of things is the direct result of the positive steps taken in the recent past. While not fully developed in practice or politics, there is an increasing public awareness to the value of positivity, charity, and peace. Negative rhetoric only increases to combat an equal measure of positive rhetoric. And out from this war of words, ideas, facts, and beliefs, we have seen only one side “win,” insofar as allow it to be a victory. And it may even be a giant, leaping step in that direction. But not long ago there was a victory for good. For all these reasons, it may be an even bigger leap than the one we’re taking now. And then it’s the good’s turn.

For this we have to keep hope alive. It is unbound by the rules of good and evil, and exists only within your heart. Hope. The world continues to conspire to make evil of art, reason, fact, and existence, but we are still alive. There is no greater reason to rejoice than to celebrate that the streets are still full of good people. And a great deal of them are taking to the streets in increasing numbers.

So there in your home, keep hope alive. There in your workplace, keep hope alive. In your churches, your synagogues, your gardens and bowling alleys, keep hope alive. Everywhere we look go and gather, there are people in the great communion of the soul, conversing, cheering, arguing, and living in the splendor the human condition. It is by its definition an awful condition to be stricken with in our existence, but that only means we can achieve an equal amount of good if we recognize and overcome its terminal end. We are not meant to be here, and so the only choice is to make good of it.

Because without hope, we will meet only our end. We’ll meet our end anyway, but let’s make the choice to do it in peace. Here’s to optimism in the new world.