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No Word for War


Trying to explain it to them
Leaves one feeling ridiculous and obscene.
Their houses, like white bowls,
Sit on a prairie of ancient snowfalls
Caught beyond thaw or the swift changes
Of night and day.
They listen politely, and stride away

With spears and sleds and barking dogs
To hunt for food. The women wait
Chewing on skins or singing songs,
Knowing that they have hours to spend,
That the luck of the hunter is often late.

Later, by fires and boiling bones
In steaming kettles, they welcome me,
Far kin, pale brother,
To share what they have in a hungry time
In a difficult land. While I talk on
Of the southern kingdoms, cannon, armies,
Shifting alliances, airplanes, power,
They chew on their bones, and smile at one another.

- Mary Oliver, 1972

My thoughts have been restless for days, in turmoil over the tragic violence that has claimed so many lives and damaged others in the quiet, lovely town of Tucson, Arizona. What does the senseless, polarized assassination of citizens and elected officials alike mean for our democracy, for the human race? Does our national shock and quick readiness to memorialize, to call for a verbal peace among political factions, mean we are inured to events like these, too ready to cleanse and forget? Random violence, once infrequent in our national awareness, is now nearly as common as reports of corruption and fraud among our leaders. How numb I feel. How helpless to engage the problem.

The question I consider is the invention and survival of barbaric violence in the construct of the human psyche: there it roots, like some kind of weed. Noxious and vile and fully able to profligate or abide in a vacuum in the dark, for ages if need be. Why? What is our answer?

When I read Mary Oliver's poem, I think of how context defines us. When we work to survive, we work together. When we work to dominate, we work in opposition. When we work to annihilate, we work in secret. The very restrictions and controls it would take to keep the general populace safe are anathema to our cherished principles of self-governance. But when we are without self-governance, and waltz with chaos and paranoia, are we still deserving of those rights?

The question of self-sustaining economies and business for profit in all things meets the burden of community care, the cost of treatment for those that require intervention. The unhinged roam freely, raining destruction in their solitary insanities. Whose responsibility IS the gunman's mental health? The city, the family, the state, the church, no one's?

And so we bury the dead. Those souls - children, brothers, sisters, husbands, friends, wives - who died participating in the very democracy that protects the gunman's right to bear arms, which allowed him the freedoms to act without reason or rule of law. My heart demands change. We must, or perish the many at the hands of the few, work together to survive together. We are community.

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