What am I looking for to get my day going? Information to spark the brain? A needle to inject righteous indignation into my sleepy heart?
The flag is coming down. You know which one. I read columnist Nicholas Kristof’s “Tearing Down the Confederate Flag Is Just a Start.”
“America’s greatest shame in 2015 is not a piece of cloth. It’s that a black boy has a life expectancy five years shorter than a white boy. It’s that the net worth of the average black household in 2011 was $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to census data. It’s that almost two-thirds of black children grow up in low-income families. It’s that more than one-third of inner-city black kids suffer lead poisoning (and thus often lifelong brain impairment), mostly from old lead paint in substandard housing. More consequential than that flag is…”
How many of these kids never even arrive at the moment in their lives when they must choose, say, between my university and another? When I take attendance on the first day of classes, I’m going to count at least four additional students missing from the circle of twenty white students facing me. These four will represent the roughly 20% of the North Carolina population who are African-American and who will not study poetry with me this fall.
A clear thought, a strong feeling, a wholesome intention: that’s what I was seeking. Now, as the day begins, I know that I am more than an aging body.
What comes before The New York Times? The traditional Jewish prayer said upon waking could come first: modeh ani lifanecha, melekh chai v’kayam, sh’hehazarti bi nishmati b’hemla, rabba emunatecha; I am grateful to you, living, enduring Sovereign, for restoring my soul (neshama) to me in compassion. You are faithful beyond measure.
But if I don’t feel it, I can’t say it. What do I often feel as I first become aware of myself in bed in the morning? Helplessness. Why can’t I get one night of uninterrupted, restorative sleep? Anger at myself. When it comes to sleep, I’m incompetent. Fear. How will I function, my brain lead, today? Modeh ani: grateful am I. Nope. I can’t make myself say what I don’t feel.
Oh, the luxury of slow, academic June mornings. The first day of fall semester still far enough in the distance, I’m free to choose how to spend the early waking hours of a Thursday.
I return to The New York Times and “Who’s Speaking Up for the American Worker,” written by Beth Macy. Not a topic that usually interests me. And it’s unlikely that I’m the American worker she has in mind. But I could use a few more words to continue the process of firing up my brain.
Now that the Senate has given President Obama the authority to fast-track negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Macy wants to draw attention to those who have suffered from previous free trade agreements:
“Unfettered free trade has not only put the Henry County region near the top of Virginia’s unemployment rankings for more than a decade, but it has also ushered in an era of soaring food insecurity and Social Security disability claims.”
Writing about her presentations on tour for her book Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, Macy shows the audience a black-and-white slide of “a ragamuffin girl, circa 1969. When the economy was good, her mother soldered airplane lights at a local factory. When it was bad, her mother picked up under-the-table jobs like waitressing and babysitting for other people’s kids.”
“That little girl, now 51,” Macy continues, “was the first in her family to go to college, and she threaded the needle of early trickledown economics quite by luck: She came of age when it was still possible for a promising poor kid to go to college solely on Pell grants and other need-based financial aid.”
“That little girl in the picture is me, standing in the driveway of a ramshackle house in Urbana, Ohio. I did not grow up to become an economist spouting theories of creative destruction. But I’ve spent the past several years telling the tale of the people left behind, teetering in globalization’s wake.”
How many of my students, this fall, will be burdened by loans it might take them decades to repay? A poem can’t cancel their debts. Might it at least offer them, if only for a moment, the gift of intimate, honest connection to others in an environment where corporations have no say in who gets to speak and who is heard?
I will try to keep in heart and mind awareness of the forces that condition my students’ lives when I meet them this fall.
I am more than this body, more than the good fortune that enables to me to receive the daily New York Times. I receive the soul which God restores to me (by means of the newspaper?) in the morning. This morning, I understand the soul belongs personally—exclusively—neither to me nor you nor them. It belongs to the Divine. That, writes James Kugel in “The Double Agent,” his essay on Psalm 42, is one of the “sometimes ignored or misunderstood” meanings, in the Bible, of “soul.” We share it.
The modeh ani prayer concludes with these words: rabba emunatecha, You are faithful beyond measure. This morning I hear these words differently: great (rabba) is Your faith in me to act in a way that recognizes and respects that every living being shares the same soul, no matter what a divided and dividing society says.
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Written by: Richard Chess
Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry,Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.