On the Sunday following the tragedy of September 11, I read Pablo Neruda’s poem ‘Keeping Quiet,’ which was sent to me by one of our members. I’ve used it at several 9/11 memorial services since:
“Now we will count to twelve / and we will all keep still / for once on the face of the earth…”
I wish there was a way to write this letter and to be quiet…together. I’m tired of the ways our politicians are using words about 9/11 to promote their own candidacy. I want to quote Neruda’s poem to them. I’m tired of the way language is being twisted pretzel-like by politicians on all sides; I want to quote Orwell. Obfuscation is rampant.
It’s not that I don’t realize that the election-season process is extremely important. I do. This is, indeed, the most dramatic, important, far-reaching presidential election in my lifetime—from F.D.R. on. It’s not that I need people to think my way. I don’t. But I need to know that people are actually thinking, and I don’t get a sense that they are. So it’s getting more and more difficult to listen to deceit. I remember the Burl Ives character in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof talking about mendacity. The word shot out from him like a cannon: MENDACITY!
I’m over-tired of the wrenching anguish that comes over me when I learn about another suicide bombing that has taken the lives of innocent children and other non-combatants; the deep grief I feel every time I listen in silence at the end of the News Hour and look at the photographs of our young dead soldiers, kids in uniform, some as young as my grandson. I’m bothered by the fact that lately I can sit and watch without weeping, afraid I’ve started to accept it, though there’s a voice inside me that’s still screaming for the madness to stop.
I hear Dylan Thomas shouting: “Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Yes, I know the poem is about dying, it’s about facing a father’s death. But it’s also about our need to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ of truth, knowledge and understanding.
I don’t mean to add to the difficulty of this time we’re going through. I want to acknowledge my own struggle with it. I want you to know that you are not alone—just as I need to remind myself that I am not alone in it. We’re witnessing a different kind of war. We’re not involved, as citizens. We don’t have ration cards as we did during WWII; we’re not being asked to sacrifice, to pitch in. We’re being told to sit in the armchair and watch it on television, to read about it every morning in the New York Times, without any sense that we’re engaged.
Then, when citizens stand up and speak out, when they take to the streets to demonstrate the freedom which is inherent in this nation, others say they’re being unpatriotic, as if ‘going along’ is patriotic!
“If we were not so single-minded /about keeping our lives moving, /and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence /might interrupt this sadness /of never understanding ourselves /and of threatening ourselves with death… Now I’ll count up to twelve /and you keep quiet and I will go.”