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Chapter 1: A Second Chance Story

ClevelandAdventures in Dreamland
Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, November 22, 1963, 2:30 PM. I am sitting in the sixth row on the window side of Mr. Kadatsky’s sophomore high school English class. As usual, Kadatsky is searching for signs of imaginative life among the desks.  He is imploring us to wake up and pay attention, to the tall tales, fantastic ideas and metaphors swirling around us in the room.  But the bell is only a half hour away, so I am lying low.

For me, hiding out in these parts is a matter of survival. For most of my emerging-into-my-funky-self adolescence I have been hunkered down in the comforting cave of a waking dream state.  But, Kadatsky’s exhortations and passion make it extremely hard to withdraw, anywhere.  It’s not that I don’t, sort of, like the guy, but every time I come in here, I’m thinking, “What metaphors, what stories?”

Anyway, twenty minutes before the bell, Kadatsky turns to last night’s reading assignment. New subject, same intensity.  Eyes bulging, almost yelling, he is railing away about this guy Kurtz going up some river into the heart of darkness and all this amazing extra symbolic stuff we could “glean” from it if we would only pay attention. So here I am sitting, watching the clock, stressing, not only because I haven’t read the story, but also because I know he knows… But the clock is ticking and I’m thinking, ”If I keep my head way down, maybe I can disappear long enough to avoid the mortifying moment of truth."  But, of course, the head down thing is sending up a big bright phosphorous flare that illuminates my empty head for all to see. I can hear him coming down the aisle, ostensibly telling the class about the deep psychology of Kurtz’s journey, but all the while, homing in on me.  

When I feel his hand on my shoulder I know my goose is cooked.  It seems about a million years until I hear a voice.  Surprisingly, it’s not as close and threatening as I expected. Actually, It comes from across the room.  Very strange!

“Mr. K could I have a word?  I lift my head and see Kadatsky’s dark suited back moving away towards Mr. Cross, the school counselor, standing by the door  

I can’t believe it.  I am seriously saved.  In a few minutes the person who pushes the school bell will be flexing their fingers.  

Weirdly though, when the clock clicks 2:55, the bell is silent.  A few minutes later, Kadatsky returns.  He is clearly not the same man who left.  By this I mean he looks awful.  More like the haunted Kurtz than our Mr. K.  As he gets closer we can see the shinny tracks left by tears---lots of them.  The room is frozen in silence. Kadatsky crosses his arms holding himself very intensely. Its almost as if his whole insides would spill out onto the floor if he weren’t doing it just that way.   He clears his voice and blurts it out.  

“The President has been shot.”

Bricks and Tears
Bainbridge Island, Washington, November 4, 2008, 8:00 PM. The moment that the polls close in eleven western states CNN projects Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.  I am sitting with my wife and friends, mouths agape, tears streaming, hearts beating, feeling decades of invisible, protective “won’t get fooled again” skepti-scales peeling, falling, floating like volcanic ash to the floor.  The commentators have shut-up, acquiescing to the TV montage of spontaneous crowds everywhere--- Chicago parks, New York streets, the White House gate, London, Tokyo, Nairobi, Morehouse College, They are singing “ Yes we can” around the world.  Einstein was right.  Time truly is a mutable thing--- I can see it bending right here, in this man-on-the-moon moment, where the impossible dream and the facts on the ground are somehow aligned.  Sitting there, we all know the harsh world will still be there when the sun rises, but when Congressman John Lewis tearfully says, “I never thought I would live to see this,” we know too that it will be a new day.  

Holding hands, Barack, Michele, Malia and Sasha step out on to the big blue runway. No rock and no confetti, just lots of smiles and tears, the simple strains of the Denver convention anthem and the cheering of thousands.  Barack beams and says, “Hello Chicago.” When the tumult subsides he speaks about the” arc of history,” a union in search of its unfulfilled promise of perfection and the real change that is personified by this stunning moment.  Most importantly, he speaks about the change that is needed, the change that is coming, if and only if, “you join in this work block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand in a spirit of service”

In this moment I feel Kadatsky’s tears mix with my own.  I revisit the confused and hardened heart of a young man wanting desperately to believe in a world where beauty and compassion and cooperation could have an equal chance to be heard, to be valued, to manifest in the world—but knowing differently.  In this frozen flash of time, I look over my shoulder and see the rusted trash bin of history that I have been dragging with me on the journey from 1963 to now.   I catch glimpses of Martin, Bobby, and Malcolm---the burning cities, the wars, the squandered wisdom, and the failure of imagination. I wonder, what madness allowed us to hold out hope for a different story of the world?  But we did.

New Stories
Our President elect has written and spoken eloquently on the subject of hope. While he has described it as  “the bedrock of this nation” he never speaks of hope as an end unto itself.  Obama’s “hope” is not a destination but rather the place we must pass though on the way to our remaking “the world as it should be.” In this cosmology hope is never separate from “the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us.”  For me, Barrack’s election eve summons for us to “join in the work of remaking this nation,” was more than a reminder that “the road ahead will be long,” and that we will need a “new spirit of service and sacrifice”, for me it was also a balm for a scared and hardened heart that received the first of its many wounds on November 22, 1963.  

Psychologist James Hillman describes a cynic as an idealist betrayed. I don’t recall feeling particularly betrayed back in 1963, and whatever idealism I had back then was nascent at best.  But I do remember the persistent anger that pretty much canceled the ticket I had to my refuge in dreamland. On November 4th, when Obama admonished us to “resist the temptation to fall back on..."pettiness and immaturity” I could feel the ghost of that confused and angry kid coming out of his defensive crouch. And despite the voice in my head telling me that “These are just words!” when he reminded us that “this is our time,” I could also feel the fresh bloom of a warily re-opening heart and a second chance for its expression in the world.   

There are many who say that we lost an opportunity to respond collectively and creatively to a moment of great national challenge in the aftermath of 9-11---that in the months and years following we could have forsaken the tyranny of comfort to find common ground and turn our shock and grieving to a constructive purpose. I think another of those moments is here.  Maybe not as dramatic, but no less daunting and, in the long run, probably more consequential for America and the world. When the time comes for us to respond to this to this challenge, I am certain that, “going shopping” will not be included in the call to action. I have no doubt that President Obama will invoke a very different narrative for this crucial chapter in the American story.   

It is important for us to recognize that in addition to “hope” and “community” our next president puts great stock in the power of  “imagination.”  Here is a bit of what has said on the subject.

The “…arts …teach people to see through each other´s eyes…to respect and understand people who are not like us. That makes us better citizens and makes our democracy work better ….imaginations sparked by the arts are more engaged”

For those of us in the arts these words come as a bit of a shock. A President linking imagination and creativity to the advancement of human understanding and democracy is hard to fathom.  We have been speaking in code, defensively, for so long that this straightforward embrace of the intrinsic value of the arts is truly astonishing.  But I think it should serve as a challenge as well.

In his book, The Great Turning: from Empire to Earth Community, my friend David Korten makes an impassioned plea for a new narrative, a new set of stories, to counteract the crises of environmental destruction, rampant materialism, growing inequality and degradation of democratic institutions. He calls on people to work together in local communities to create a new social structure based on cooperative, bottom up cultural, economic and political ideals.  He also asserts that the only path to this kind of a shift in worldview is to insinuate these new stories into community consciousness.

I do not think Korten’s or Obama’s visions can be fulfilled without the active participation of the world’s cultural community. This is something many communities have already discovered on their own. Over the past few decades’ artists, arts organizations, governments and funders around the globe have come to see the fundamental necessity of re-integrating of the arts into all aspects of community life. Along the way, many artists and arts organizations have acquired new skills, learned new languages and established creative partnerships in town squares, factories, prisons, shopping center, in hospitals, on the internet, in unemployment offices, universities, in war zones---you get the picture.

Barack Obama has been elected by a citizenry in search of a new kind of story --a story that navigates the narrow and precarious path between the safe and the challenging, the material and the transcendent, opportunity and responsibility.  I think Obama understands that the essential difference between an authentic story and a false narrative is in the making.  I think he knows that authentic stories are truly hand built, by and for the community that will bear the consequences of their materialization.  This, of course, is the cornerstone of effective community building.

There are many of us in the arts community who know how this works.  We have been working to build caring and capable communities for many decades. Now, we are ready to gather again with our fellow citizens in the town commons to help weave the fabric of stories that we will need to honor our histories, share our hopes, and manifest our dreams.


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