“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”
— David Bowie
Richard Adams, author of the incredible Watership Down, passed away on Tuesday at age 96. He joined among the departed of 2016 Harper Lee, Daniel Berrigan, Joseph Medicine Crow, Muhammad Ali, Rob Wasserman, Prince, Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, Pat Conroy, Vera Rubin, Cyril DeGrasse Tyson, George Michael, David Bowie, Rashaan Salaam, Edward Albee, Glenn Frey, Michael Ratner, Maurice White, Pat Summitt, Umberto Eco, Michael Cimino, Toots Thielemans, Patty Duke, W.P. Kinsella, Gordie Howe, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Morley Safer, Janet Reno, Tyrus Wong, Gary Shandling, Harry Wu, Ralph Stanley, Mose Alison, Melvin Laird, William Trevor, David Meltzer, Phife Dawg, Geoffrey Bowie, Paul Kantner, Alvin Toffler, Gwen Ifill, Eli Wiesel, Ursula Franklin, Bobby Hutcherson, Gene Wilder, Arnold Palmer, Leonard Cohen, John Glenn, all but three members of Brazil’s Chapocoense soccer team and the entire Alexandrov Military Ensemble of Russia.
That’s only a portion of the list. It’s the best I can do without grinding my teeth.
Richard Adams invented a word, did you know that? “Tharn.” The word describes what a rabbit will do when it gets pinned down by headlights in the middle of the road. Rather than flee or fight, the rabbit will freeze on the spot, eyes wide, ears laid flat, and await in despair the onrushing lethality of contact. “Going tharn,” Adams called it. I don’t know if it qualifies as onomatopoeia, but as far as words go, it sure sounds like what it is.
The people we have lost this year are one thing; the events that filled the days with dread and sorrow are another. The attacks in Turkey. The bombings in Belgium. The bombing in Lahore. The Pulse massacre in Orlando. The police shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and so many other Black people and other people of color. The killing of five Dallas police officers, followed by the killing of three more officers in Baton Rouge. The bombings in New Jersey and New York. All the bodies in the streets from all the other slaughters that shock us for a day and then disappear. Flint and the lead. The continued incarceration of 2.2 million people in this nation alone. The expanding wars. Aleppo. The melting ice caps, the encroaching oceans, the floods, the fury of an ecosystem that appears ready to shake us loose like so much water off a dog’s back. “We’re killing the planet,” people claim. Wrong. We’re killing us, and everything else that lives and breathes here. The planet will be just fine, thanks.
There was also, of course, the election and the pestiferous campaign that birthed it. It has long been argued wisely and well that all the land-of-the-free “Exceptional Nation” crap we’ve been spoon-fed since grammar school is only a convenient mist to obscure a fell truth: The United States is a machine designed exclusively for the purpose of extracting wealth. Be it through war, fear, plunder or genocide, our history has been one long cashier’s check written in blood to a small cadre of profiteers neither you nor I will ever meet.
In 2016, that cadre decided to cash that check once and for all. They stopped dickering around the edges and went flat-out for the brass ring, and they got it. The entire campaign disgraced on a daily basis the basic notion of national discourse, and the corporate “news” media lapped it up with slaver running from their jaws. When all was said and done, virtually the entire government of the United States of America became a wholly owned subsidiary of fascists, nationalists, brigands, conspiracy freaks and murderers.
It’s enough to make you go tharn.
I could spend this space trying to prop up a dozen reasons for going on, for fighting the good fight, for not laying down and taking it. That’s a hard argument to make after a year like 2016, compounded all the more by one immutable truth: 2017 will be worse. Depend on that. This is the Monster’s Ball now, and they came to party. All three branches of the federal government will become actively hazardous to your health and mine 20 days from now, and the hard rain to come may make what we have already endured seem like a pleasant garden shower by comparison.
So why bother? Because the idea you fight for matters as much as the reality you face, and because there are are actual glimmers of resistance and justice amid the pain. I see Standing Rock, where Indigenous Water Protectors stood — and will continue to stand — their ground against seemingly insurmountable odds (#NoDAPL has resulted in the suspension of pipeline construction, and Water Protectors have indicated they will keep resisting any future attempts to revive construction as part of a long-term struggle against colonialism). I see Black Lives Matter becoming a powerful, enduring movement, which, in 2016, released a slate of effective and revolutionary policy proposals filled with the promise for genuine change. I saw Bernie Sanders run a national campaign that fired up generations, and I see him still. I see Joe Arpaio looking for work, and I see a number of progressive ballot initiatives across the country winning the day, to the benefit of millions.
My father died in February, and 2016 was like some long waking nightmare ever since. What’s the old joke? “The beatings will cease once morale improves.” Well, the beatings have been ceaseless, and morale is a bad joke. You find yourself clinging to small, strange things, no matter how ephemeral or diaphanous they may seem. One of my lifeboats in 2016 was a quote from the Greek poet Aeschylus: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
I plan on using that lifeboat in this brave New Year, along with any others I can scrounge. In our own despair, against our will, comes awful wisdom. I am no rabbit, and I will not go tharn. I can’t. Neither can you.
I got a message from a friend today, the same one I’ve been getting for weeks: “How can I make a difference in this political mess?” My reply is below. May it be of use to you, or to someone you know experiencing the same feelings:
The temptation is to GO HUGE because there is so much to do. My suggestion is to start within reach of your arm and work your way up. Volunteer at a food bank because people are going to need it. Volunteer to be an escort at a Planned Parenthood because women’s rights are going to be under unprecedented assault. Let it be known that your home is a sanctuary for any undocumented immigrants if the round-ups start. The connections you’ll make doing those things will take you into harder and more important work, but those things of themselves are hugely important … and when you realize that you are actually capable of helping, your capacity to help will grow exponentially.
Going tharn is for rabbits in the road. Not us. Not this year. No.