Doomed to Gloom?


February 2015

What do you think of civilization?” some journalists reportedly asked Mahatma Gandhi. “I think it would be a good idea,” Gandhi reportedly replied.


In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, flogging of a Saudi Arabian blogger, rise of terrorist threats, continuing wars and increasing economic inequality, Gandhi’s dictum comes to mind.  I wonder: What hope is there for us?  How do I (all of us) have enough optimism to get out of bed in the morning – let alone to love or work?


If I had the answers to these all-too-human questions, I’d blow off this column to eat ambrosia and sip bubbly with the gods.  Since I’ve no such luck, here are a few muddled musings far from Mount Olympus.


By optimism, I don’t mean denying our sadness and grief over the Charlie Hebdo killings and the other senseless violence from beheadings to massacres that we’ve heard of every day on the news recently.  Engaging in the “positive thinking” so often extolled as an American virtue won’t help anyone.  Especially, creative artists.  As artists, we imagine.  But, dabbling in faux optimism won’t help us make art.


In our ironic, angst living and loving age, too much optimism can be irritating. When “Breaking Bad” has been all the rage, who wants to be around anyone “breaking good?”  Take Helen Keller.  Keller was so optimistic that she wrote a book called “Optimism.”  Yet, though Keller was beloved by many, one of her biographers professed to having become “sick of” Keller’s relentless optimism.


That having been said, we need some hope – some optimism – to live and make art in the midst of the horror and terror or our time.  These days, I’m a hopeful agnostic who argues with God when I believe in Her.  Yet, my friend, feminist theologian Shannon is on to something.  “‘Hos me’ is a Greek word,” she told me, “it means ‘as if not.’” Decades ago, Shannon and her late partner Letty bought a home together.  “‘We named our home ‘hos me,’,” she said, “because we had a mortgage on it and it was really the bank’s house.  But we acted as if that wasn’t true – as if it were our house.”  If we don’t “act as if not,” she added, “we’re doomed to gloom.”


This is a theological variation of Wordworth’s poetic faith in the “willing suspension of disbelief.”  I wouldn’t for a New York minute believe that poets should withdraw from the world.  To be a good poetry or worldly citizen, you can’t turn your back on the news.  Poets witness the news.  Though cliched, it’s true: the personal in poetry, as in life, is political.  Yet, if one is mired in horror – stuck in gloom – one can’t make art.


I’ll end by confessing that I identify with a small brown bear named Paddington. The world met him when “A Bear Called Paddington” by Michael Bond was published in 1958.  Paddington arrived, with a sign around his neck saying “please look after this bear” at the Paddington train station in London from “darkest Peru.”  He left Peru for England because his Aunt Lucy had gone to the Home for Retired Bears. The new movie “Paddington,” opened in the United States last month.  “He is...different looking...”the New York Times said of Paddington.


Fortunately, Paddington is taken in by the Brown family.  He is a vulnerable bear who gets himself into scrapes – from nearly drowning in the bathtub to disrupting the opening night of a play in London.  Paddington’s, as Bond says in the postscript to the book, “a refugee in a strange country.”


Yet, Paddington’s a polite and resourceful bear.  He uses his wits to get out of jams, and though, an outsider, many people like and help him.  Though only a small bear, he’s rooted in reality.  “He {Paddington} has his feet firmly on the ground,” Bond writes, “and he has a very strong sense of right and wrong.”


We’re all outsiders, like Paddington, trying to muddle through an often hostile, unwelcoming and terrifying world.  Getting through the muddle isn’t easy.  But to make art, we must. 

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Kathi Wolfe's most recent book of poetry is The Green Light (Finishing Line Press).
She is a Senior Writer for Scene4
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©2015 Kathi Wolfe
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February 2015


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