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You Are the Conscience of This Nation

Nothing in my experience is comparable to what has been taking place across this country.

Protestors took the Philadelphia Center City streets on January 26, 2017 in two large demonstrations as Trump and the GOP met to plan their attacks on the working class in the coming year. (Photo: Joe Piette / Flickr)

“I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action.”

— Malcolm X

I don’t sleep much these days, you know? Not for a while now. Insomnia always gets a piece of me this time of year because the sun is up only about as long as a well-punted football and the light deprivation takes its toll, but it’s different this time. It’s cruel. I don’t sleep so much as I fall into a stupor, twenty minutes here, half an hour there, maybe two hours at night if I’m lucky. It’s not sleep, not really. I don’t dream, but I see things.

Last night, I thought I had it licked because I was just so tired. I went to bed early and was out before the pillow got warm. I saw an elderly couple sitting at a time-battered kitchen table. They were counting pills with arthritic slowness, knuckles fat with pain. The husband counted them out and the wife cut them in half, pausing only to carefully sweep the crumbs from the cutting into tender little piles. I could see their breath in the cold air. There was no food on the stove. A pill got away from the husband and rolled toward the edge of the table. I lunged to catch it and threw myself out of bed, smashing my face into my nightstand. As I lay bleeding, the clock told me an hour had passed since I’d closed my eyes. Only an hour. I cleaned myself up and went back to work.

The back of my eyelids should come with those parental warnings you get at the movies. Oh, the things I see. A teenage girl, staring at the locked door of a shuttered Planned Parenthood clinic, unable to get the free screening that would catch her early-onset cervical cancer as a man in shadow hoards the sidewalk holding his Bible triumphant screeching, “Praise God!” I see an ocean, slick with oil and choked with plastic beneath a smokestack sky as it creeps up the beach, through the seawall, across the road, down the block, over the hill, inexorable and voracious in its ponderous wrath. I see the eyes of war orphans like dull lamps staring hopelessly through barbed wire at signs reading “No Entry.” I wake to their screaming. An hour has passed. I go back to work.

Lately, however, I also hear things during these long bouts of wakefulness. The mutter of distant thunder, a growl of engines, the hum of a high tension wire. I close my eyes then, fully awake, fully aware, and I see you. You at the Women’s March shoulder to shoulder with millions in more than 600 cities. I see you laying your body down to defend sacred waters. I see you telling an armored cop that Black lives matter. I see you under the crass oblivion of airport fluorescents bellowing for the freedom of friends and strangers because justice knows no borders. I see you in New York and Washington DC, in Los Angeles and Boston, arm in arm, immediate in your righteous fury.

I see this and smile, because it is real. Nothing in my experience is comparable to what has been taking place across this country. Something is out of joint? Bang, immediate thousands, and then thousands upon thousands, there in peace and noise to speak with one voice the simple syllable that is the beginning of freedom: No. The comforting fiction of the coming savior has been abandoned at last. You are the one you’ve been waiting for. You have been here all along.

Do not relent. Understand, as it seems you do, that we are at the precipice. The Periodic Table itself is in disorder. Water is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, that is undistilled truth — and yet we live in a world where our leaders say, “No, that’s not my understanding of water” and refuse to be disabused of the nonsense they call “alternative facts.” What I see behind my eyes when I try to sleep — our elders rationing medicine to afford food and heat, women scourged of their rights, children rendered to offal in the waffle of a combat boot, the planet itself little more than an untended tombstone at the far end of space — is the truth of this existence lurking around the next bend in the road.

You are the other truth. You are the conscience of this nation. You are the flour and the yeast and the heat and the rising bread. You stand between what I see at night and what I know at dawn. You’re it, you’re everything. The Democrats won’t save us, nor will the Greens or the libertarians, and like Diogenes I despair of finding an honest Republican in the daylight. Instead, I found you, and you found each other, and this cannot stop. If it does, my dreams will become truth visible even with my eyes nailed shut.

“The good rising fastball,” said Tom Seaver, “is the best pitch in baseball.”

Rise. Give them not a moment’s peace. Wherever they are, so must you be with your bull-throated roar and no quarter given. This is the answer, right here in hand. It has already begun. No need to search, only to sustain. Dog their steps, make every breath they take a gasp. Be there, be everywhere. We can all sleep when the work is done.

Back to work.

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