A poem I have loved a long time has been swirling in my head these last days, and I have been trying to figure out why. There may be no reason for it. If your brain is anything like mine, you have a Nonsense Channel that broadcasts 24/7/365. Sometimes, the signal is weak, a snatch of song or an advertisement jingle playing in the far corner of your mind. Other times, the signal is like a klaxon, and it doesn’t have to make sense. Just the other day, and for no reason whatsoever, I had Arnold Schwarzenegger yelling “Get to the chopper!” in my head, and it wouldn’t go away until I got the chance to use it in a joke. Someone said, “Let’s get going,” and I fired out the Arnold line, and everybody laughed, and the signal went away. So it goes, right?
The poem in my head has definitely been playing on the loud end of the spectrum. I memorized it many years ago, and have lately been whispering it to myself by rote:
Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep too soon
Come wake me up. Come any hour
Of night. Come whistling up the road.
Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.
Make me get out of bed and come
And let you in and light a light.
Tell me the northern lights are on
And make me look. Or tell me clouds
Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.
See that I see. Talk to me till
I’m half as wide awake as you
And start to dress wondering why
I ever went to bed at all.
Tell me the walking is superb.
Not only tell me but persuade me.
You know I’m not too hard persuaded.
The poem is called “Summons,” and is by a man named Robert Francis, who was a devotee of Robert Frost. It means many things to me. In my courting days, I would give this poem to a girl if I really liked her and wanted her to know it. After I learned what love is, I kept it to myself, because it felt too huge inside me to share. In it, I find my youth – reckless, night-happy, open to anything and bursting with life – as well as my wisdom – reckless, night-happy, open to anything and fully aware of the value to be found in all that surrounds me.
So why did my mind decide to start broadcasting this poem all of a sudden? Part of it, I suspect, has to do with the fact that I have not yet shared it with my wife, whom I adore, who is all of my reasons, and whom I have thought of ceaselessly since these lines began rotating through my head. I will take care of that tonight. But I am a writer of politics, a chronicler of the times, and if personal history is any guide, my mind has a larger motive at work.
“Summons” is about love, simply. The voice in the lines could be a man, a woman, black, white, gay, straight, American, immigrant, old, young…the person being addressed could likewise be a man, a woman, black, white, gay, straight, American, immigrant, old, young…there is no evidence to prove or disprove any assumption. The person asked to come stomp on the porch could be a lover, a wife, simply a friend, or even a stranger; the relationship is not established, which leaves the work wide open to any and every interpretation.
But it is above all else about love: love of the open heart, of the one who comes with that summons, of the moonlight and the night, of the wild urge to run and see and breathe and be, of the drive to experience all there is to be found, and not alone, but with that un-named other who is loved as much as the moonlight and the night and the lighting of the light.
The lighting of the light. That is the hook for me, always has been.
It is about love, an emotion and a devotion that has been sorely lacking in this country of ours, and I think, perhaps, that is the reason behind this particular broadcast. Five gay teenagers – Tyler Clementi, Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown and Seth Walsh – killed themselves in the last month after enduring a sustained onslaught of bullying because they were gay. A Town Supervisor in New York wants bodies removed from a local cemetery because the deceased were Muslim. Tea Partiers in Medicare-funded scooters want to annihilate funding for the care of other people’s woes, because those other people are not them.
It goes on.
America is hard. Nowhere in human history has any place made the deliberate choice to take all comers, to throw open the doors to any and all who want something better and are willing to play by the rules…probably because doing so is an invitation to bedlam.
Think about it: this country opened its arms to (or stole outright) people from every point on the compass, and in the aftermath is this ultimate hope that the founding concepts can encompass all the baggage of hatred, racism, bigotry, rage and ancestral violence that made the American idea attractive in the first place. Let’s throw ’em all together, African-American and straight-up African and Latino/Hispanic and Native American and Russian and Indian and Chinese and Japanese and Vietnamese and Laotian and Cambodian and Korean and Albanian and Serb and Croat and Montenegran and Greek and Italian and Turk and Saudi and Egyptian and Iraqi and Lebanese and Palestinian and German and Irish and Scot and English and French and Cajun and Sunni and Shia and Kurd and, oh yeah, Sarah Palin’s good ol’ White Americans who think they’ve been here forever because, well, they tend to be not so bright on history…
…throw them all together under a Constitution and a set of laws, and hope it all works out.
That’s America, especially today. It’s a bloody mess, a mix of every race, religion, tribe, faction and long-long-long-standing grudge that has ever existed on the planet, right here, right in your neighborhood, and all around you at all times.
It is one hell of an experiment we are all a part of, more mind-bogglingly complex today than the genius of the Framers could have ever encompassed. But somehow, the genius of those Framers created a framework to hold it all together, to give it a way to self-improve, to become a better place. It is your country, and mine, and no amount of cynical obfuscation or wedge-issue politicking or media-driven divisiveness can alter that fact. We are outrageously complex as a people, and all we have in common are a few old pieces of parchment telling us our primary right is to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Ridiculous to think that is enough. Ridiculous to think that love is the solution to what ails us, no matter what John Lennon says. Ridiculous, but possible. Love isn’t the answer, but it is the beginning.
Love your country.
Love your fellow man and woman.
Love the possibilities before us.
Love what we have done.
Love what we can do, together.
Light that light.
It is all too easy to despair of America in these dark days. But I am waiting for America, for all of us, to show me despair is not in us. I am waiting for someone to stomp on my porch, to bang on the door, to light a light, to tell me the walking is superb. I’m waiting for you, because you are the one you’ve been waiting for all this time.
Come on, America. Show me. You know I’m not too hard persuaded.