Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Neutral Years

The Bottle Rockets--"Brand New Year" (mp3)
The Bottle Rockets--"Another Brand New Year" (mp3)

There is talk right now about what a bad decade this has been, this first decade of the new century--9/11, economic woes, War on Terror, Rwanda, waterboarding, Wall Street, global warming, you name it. Those social observers claim that we are off to a rough start and that things can only get better.

Better, you say? I am reminded of Szymborska's poem written for the end of the last century:

by Wislawa Szymborska

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.

Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not.

Happiness and spring, among other things,
were supposed to be getting closer.

Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.
Truth was supposed to hit home
before a lie.

A couple of problems weren’t going
to come up anymore:
humger, for example,
and war, and so forth.

There was going to be respect
for helpless people’s helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.

Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.

Stupidity isn’t funny.
Wisdom isn’t gay.
isn’t that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas.

God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.

“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.
I had meant to ask him
the same question.

Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naïve ones.

Sorry, gang, but we can't blame it on the decade. Years, tens of years, hundreds of years, they're all neutral. They're just time passing.

Nope, we've got to blame it on us. I don't know that things are going to get better. They certainly haven't gotten better so far. Oh, I know, the economy maybe improving, the surges may ultimately help the Arabs to kill each other instead of us, and my family has been recycling on and off for the past year, but real improvement anywhere for a long time is pretty hard to see. A few steps up, a few steps back, here and there. That's about it.

I don't say that as a pessimist. It hasn't gotten me down. Nor am I enjoying the wallow in some kind of "told you so" penchant for pointing out bad things.

I don't say that as a realist. I'm not so shrewd an observer that I'm able to fully understand either the trends or the patterns or the how what we once did is not coming back to haunt us or the how what we will do is too little, too late.

I don't say that as a scientist, though I can see what a giant, unwieldy organism we have become, not unlike a slug that can't react until the salt is already falling in its direction, until the first few sprinkled crystals of trouble have already started to pelt our flanks.

No, I say it as the optimist that I am. No, things haven't gotten better. But it doesn't feel to me like we've given up, either.

"How should we live?" the poem asks. I don't think the answers are that difficult: with love, with caring, with sacrifice, with awareness, with understanding, with faith. But those are always going to be places we're going to have to work to get to, as has always been the case. Naive, to be sure, but what optimism isn't?

Both songs come from the Bottle Rocket's Brand New Year, which may or may not still be available. The photo of the guy is somewhat random, though his picture did come up in a search for "bad decade" images.


Daisy said...

Are those slugs planning a revolt in the bottom of the second picture?

troutking said...

No slugocide label? At least it's been a good year for slugocide Googlers.

Bob said...

Slugocide label has been corrected. My bad. Daisy, are you seeing slugs everywhere?

cinderkeys said...

Good poem.

jed said...

great post. have you heard "Decades" by Joe Walsh?