"Grumblers and Fumblers"

As a nation, do we know who we are any more? We used to be a melting pot, an amalgam of cultures, beliefs, habits, even jokes. We were varied, but we blended into a unique American identity. Somewhere along the road to tomorrow, however, we stopped melting. We cooled toward each other instead. We lost our shared identity.

Maybe we need more soul, more magic. One photographer has written, “One of the many things that I learned as a child from my Choctaw grandmother in Mississippi ... is that the world we live in today is far too cold, logical, analytical, scientific and ordered for my taste. Where did the mystery about life and death go? Where's the bliss of aesthetic chaos to be found today? Honestly, where's the magic?”

Photography is a good place to look for magic. At one time photographs were said to capture a soul and freeze it into celluloid and salts. This belief originated in folklore, with the feeling that mirrors were said to steal souls, so that breaking a mirror breaks the soul. Some cultures, like the Mayan, believed that mirrors lead one to another realm where Gods and ancestors can converse. Perhaps this is why cameras are banned in many hispanic churches. In other cultures, when someone dies all the mirrors are covered so that the soul can't be imprisoned in them. (No joke: when my mother died at age 47 of a stroke, family members covered all the mirrors in the house. I promptly uncovered them, but that's another story.)

Playwright David Rabe takes a more cynical view of how we now mirror ourselves. In “Goose and Tomtom”, he writes: “The ancients might have had some consolation from a view of the heavens as inhabited by this thoughtful, you know, meditative, maybe a trifle unpredictable and wrathful but nevertheless “UP THERE” - this divine onlooker. We have bureaucrats. The air's bad, the ozone's fucked, the water's poison, and into whose eyes do we find ourselves staring when we look for providence? We have emptied out the heavens and put (ourselves) into the hands of a bunch of aging insurance salesmen whose jobs are insecure.”

Those of you who know me recognize that I am not hawking religion or even necessarily nationalism. But belief in ourselves, in our shared vision, may be essential for us to survive. If our young experiment in democracy is to continue it must identify itself, understand itself, see itself as a community of interests. As Dr. Seuss said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

Stephen Sondheim once described us as “tumblers, grumblers, fumblers and bumblers. Goodness and badness. Man in his madness”. That may well be true, but we had best redefine ourselves if we expect to have a tomorrow. We need to be united by more than despair. As a reviewer wrote of Sondheim's "Assassins", "Sondheim has taken on the American Dream, challenged its validity, exposed its falsehood....He has taken on the promises, the lies and the deceit of politicians, the social injustices, the anger of the losers and the deprived". Another reviewer pointed out "A shadow America, a poisoned, have-not America...(Sondheim) will wave a gun in a crowded theater, artistically speaking, if that's what is needed to hit the target of American complacency".

I hope we are more than complacent, deprived, and depraved. I hope we can eradicate the poison that has infected our philosophical and political landscape. But we need to make a start, to be better than we have been recently. As the Tao Te Ching teaches us, “A journey of a thousand miles begins at the spot under one's feet.” Can the United States lift up its feet? For all our sakes I certainly hope so.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2009