Once in a great while we encounter art that deeply moves us, opening pathways for the heart and spirit to learn. Such work takes many forms: a line of poetry or music or paint, a picture evoked from strokes on canvas or a shard of space-time captured on camera. Often such works convey potent metaphors that draw viscerally on experiences personally understood or vividly imagined.
Our forum on civic engagement overflowed with such art, rendered in the fellows’ reflections and stories, in their soulful expressions peering out of the WDYDWYD project, and also in what we said and did in our shared space for disciplined reflection, to borrow a phrase from Russ Mawby.
In a workshop that deeply touched me, Sally Hare read Parker Palmer’s description of the soul:
The soul is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth, and fade into our surroundings, the wild creature we seek might put in an appearance. We may see it only briefly and only out of the corner of an eye-but the sight is a gift we will always treasure as an end in itself.
This metaphor-the wild soul peering out from the dense underbrush-stayed with me through the conference. I could feel the fellows’ animal spirits gingerly stepping around and through our dialogues about the meaning, purpose and practice of civic engagement in communities across America and around the globe. How could our exchanges be so inspiring and life-affirming while retaining such a heartbreaking quality? Our souls were there in the shadows, behind our words, reminding us that we work to create justice and beauty in a world that keeps our dreams just beyond reach. We feel so incomplete as individuals and communities; yet for one another we remain our best hope. We see both the magnificent perfection and the utter brokenness of nature, especially human nature, as in Hamlet’s famous lines:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?
Early in the conference, the planners asked each participant to use markers and water colors to replicate small, multi-colored squares, each unique, on larger pieces of paper, one special art project assigned to each member. These puzzle pieces would be combined at the close of our gathering to form a beautiful picture.
Ah-hah! A perfect metaphor for civic engagement. How easy to sit around drinking coffee, talking about civic engagement! But to try to do it? To try actually to complete a small task requiring us to engage as a community? I failed Arts and Crafts as a child. I could never color inside the lines; still can’t.
These were my thoughts.
Could we weave the promised tapestry?
We could not. When we gathered the tiles, many, like mine, were crudely finished. Many squares were simply missing, like gaps in a smile. At the engagement conference, we could not engage! We saw half, or maybe, if I am generous in my description, two-thirds of a mosaic. And yet… something vital became visible. Reflected within our fractured vision, we saw the face of civic engagement in America. The picture told of half-caring, of lip service, apathy, and yet also of striving together, dreaming, seeking community. The perfect, complete tapestry appeared in spirit as a latent, unrealized ideal; the work’s vibrant unwillingness to resolve conjured the shared dream persuasively. Something to regret; something to rejoice.
I thought of the wild animal, the shy spirit of a community, visible and invisible, an extraordinary gift, one just beyond reach. We could not help but see: this is America, a masterpiece of missing parts. We longed for the courage to be still, to let the wild animal come. This is courageous leadership, courage that, too often, we lack.
After forum, on facebook (the internet’s face-space of civic engagement) I read a posting by a high school classmate, one I haven’t seen for more than thirty years. He lambasted Obama, complaining that the President had said and done “nothing” about the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan. That statement seemed incorrect. Quickly I discovered a short speech Obama had given the day after the tragedy expressing empathy and promising aid to Japan. Before I could post this link, I read more than a dozen responses to my classmate’s original comment. The messages were filled with the kind of vitriol I detest: questioning Obama’s citizenship and other offensive attacks. A smug round-robin of Obama hatred. Wow, I thought. My ‘friend’ is not my friend, and I don’t like his friends. Mulling the situation over, I considered unfriending him.
Why should I subject myself to this? With one click, I can shut down this flow of painful nonsense, and be alone in my universe with many who think like me.
This was my thought, my inclination: to walk away from difference.
Then I remembered our conference on civic engagement… I imagined 100 million conversations like this one, across the nation. Rather than sever the connection, I posted several links to Obama’s remarks. My posts inspired further attacks. If it was untrue that Obama had done and said nothing, it was definitely true that that he hadn’t done or said enough; so said the haters.
Sigh. Civic engagement’s rubber touching down on my particular road. The global rendered painfully local. Bumpy, and completely trivial. Pointless? What difference could this possibly make? And yet… now my ‘friend’ will have to unfriend me; otherwise, he will have to live with my different views along side his rant, and I, with his. Civic engagement, one thread in the infinite tapestry, one strand, or perhaps two, winding through a noisy wood, waiting.