Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When Singing is all you Have

Imagine Vermont; population 620,000 living, for the most part, in relative peace and security.

Now imagine a major earthquake leveling every building in Chittenden County, damaging most others across the state, killing about 13,500 outright, and destroying all highways, ports, and airports. Imagine the suffering in the intense winter cold without fresh water, heat, food, or medicine. Imagine watching your loved ones slowly dying of flu, dysentery, and untreated wounds; or suffocated under tones of crushed concrete.

Except for the cold, this is the situation in Haiti, relatively speaking. It is a catastrophe that is almost unimaginable to those of us reading the news in the comfort of our living rooms.

To Jim and Ann McGarrell, the proportions of this disaster are not unimaginable. The loss of your child (artist Flo McGarrell) is all too real, and all too tragic to bear--the result of a terrible series of coincidences in a country that has known more than its share of despair and tragedy. Our hearts go out to you, your immediate family and close circle of friends.

There are dozens of stories circulating on NPR, on YouTube, and word of mouth about individual stories of heroism, of stoicism, and of survival.

The ones that have struck me the most are the stories of people gathering, usually at nighttime, in parking lots, fields, and even in roads; sharing what little food and water they have, and...


Sometimes they sing hymns, sometimes patriotic tunes like their national anthem, and sometimes simple folk-tunes handed down through the generations.

I am reminded of Jacques D'amboise, the well-known principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, who gave eloquent testimony to Sen. Jim Jeffords Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. He told of an imaginary tribe of iron-age hominids, sleeping outside and seeing, for the first time, the Perseid Meteor Shower. The songs and dances they created to celebrate, or perhaps ward off this extra-terrestrial display of the gods, was something he started to re-enact in the senate committee room on Capitol Hill. "Ooh!" (step, step, step) "Ahh!" (step, step, step).

Singing, especially communal singing, creates community. It bridges relationships among people. It helps them to share their joys and their woes; to celebrate their successes and acknowledge their fears. It helps heal a wounded body. It certainly heals a wounded soul.

Clearly Haiti, and many other countries besides, need much more than singing in order to survive. But singing is what they are doing now. For many, it's all they have.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Embracing Gray: a Tribute

Several days ago I woke up and the Vermont landscape--so famous for its many shades of green, blue, and, depending on the season, red, yellow, and gold--was all gray.

It wasn't just one shade--it was many shades of gray. Snowflakes falling from leaden skies were just short of pure white. Nearby roofs and pavement were just short of pure black. Nearby trees were a dark gray, and distant trees and buildings were a light gray. It was a day designed to teach one to appreciate how much "color" there is between black and white.

The day matched my mood. It wasn't so much that Christmas was over, the year and decade were coming to a close, and that the days were their shortest and the nights their longest that put me in a gray mood.

It was learning that two Vermont legislators, Ira Trombley and Rick Hube had passed away unexpectedly last week. I didn't know either too well--at least not well enough to call them friends. But I did know Rick well enough to seek him out in the legislative cafeteria and pass the time chatting with him about the arts, education, the creative economy, and even things like wind-farm and cell-tower design.

Rick Hube was a Republican; one that all the editorials and tributes written about him said was unafraid to cross the aisle and vote for issues that he felt strongly about, despite their being not part of the Republican agenda. My own interactions with him led me to understand a lot about his humor, his healthy skepticism of any kind of rigid, doctrinaire approach to an issue, and his overall patience with his fellow man. He was a legislator that certainly charted his own path, a behavior that, for those of us who follow local politics, is not all that unusual for many a Vermont politician.

Outside Vermont, it is common to refer to Republicans and Democrats as polar opposites; to refer to states as being either "red" (Republican) or "blue" (Democrat); for one party to be "pro" an issue (pick one!) and the other to be "con." We have allowed our society--or more accurately, allowed our media--to paint people's positions on issues as falling extremely to one side or the other.

I am from Vermont, therefore I am a liberal democrat--according to my extended family who live in "red" states. They also truly believe Howard Dean to be the reincarnation of Lyndon Johnson and can't understand why I laugh so hard at both suggestions. In truth, like many in the Vermont State House, I think of myself as moderate.

Sure, like me, Rick had some hot button issues about which he had strong opinions, but in general, he was a reasonable person who listened well, asked good questions, and voted his conscience. His world was anything but black and white; and he was certainly comfortable with shades of gray.

As I consider the coming legislative session, the challenges facing us not only in Vermont but across the country and even across the globe, I have think that sooner rather than later our society needs to learn from people like Rick Hube how to embrace the many colors of gray.

Rick was patient and understanding (at least in his interactions with me). In a world dominated by extremism and fundamentalism, in which our economies and our environment have been placed so precariously at risk, we must all practice patience and understanding if we are to avoid catastrophe. Only then will we be able to push past shades of gray and emerge into a world in which the full spectrum of colors is once again available to be appreciated.

As I said, I didn't know Rick Hube all that well. But in his memory I will continue to embrace--nay, celebrate--the color gray in all its shades for as long as it seems to be the only color palette we have to work with.

Happy New Year!