So Bright and Clear and Pale in the Afternoon

When I was hungry, you fed me…

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m like Jesus Christ

Jolie Holland, “Mexican Blue” (2006)

I recently learned that my niece was about to be evicted. (Well, she’s not exactly my niece — as these things are, it’s always more complicated.) She and her two small children and their father were living in a literal flophouse, with broken windows, sleeping on crates, and they were about to be put out on the street. Fortunately, some family members were able to race to Ohio and scoop them up into some kind of safety.

Things are not good in America.

At about the same time, the nearly most dreaded thing happened: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew her last breath. For decent people everywhere in America, this is the one nightmare that kept us awake since November 8th, 2016. Conservatives will gloat at our liberal tears, and properly so — they lied and bumbled and tortured their way toward the precipice of an almost inconceivable triumph.

This is the Big One. And they earned it — at the cost of their souls, maybe, but what is a soul worth anyway? As Tommy said of selling his soul to the Devil in O Brother Where Art Thou?, well, “I wasn’t using it.”

Truly.

From the bottom-most turtle to the very toppermost, the world is in misery today. Even the president of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is a miserable black hole of joylessness, despite getting nearly everything he has ever wanted to clutch in his stubby little rapist fingers. What does one make of a time like this?

It might feel close to impossible to press forward when all seems lost, especially after the death of Ginsburg appears likely to consign Americans to decades of judicial dictatorship and all of our efforts look to be for naught. Yet somehow we keep getting up after being knocked down. I absorbed the body blow of the SCOTUS news and, in a few hours, integrated the unthinkable into my understanding of the world. It’s now a thing. As with almost any grief, nothing will ever make it not a thing.

We find a way forward, even through the dark of the desert or the wilderness. As the German sociologist Max Weber once said of political disappointment and, indeed, tragedy: “It is very probable that little of what many of you, and (I candidly confess) I too, have wished and hoped for will be fulfilled; little, perhaps not exactly nothing, but what to us at least seems little. This will not crush me, but surely it is an inner burden to realize it.”

I don’t want to be crushed, but it’s hard not to be sometimes.

I have been thinking over and over of the song “Mexican Blue” by Jolie Holland. I listened to it while taking a cab from Manhattan to Brooklyn on New Years Eve in 2008, to spend a loathsome night with a bunch of cosmopolitan elites for whom the economic catastrophe then enveloping the world was an amusing abstraction. (Finance, an MBA from the EU instructed me, is the circulatory system of the world economy… Cool!) My grandmother, who was like a mom to me, had just passed away, and I had spent the last few weeks trying to put affairs in order for our devastated family in North Carolina and West Virginia. I had just lost one of my jobs and faced the imminent prospect of my other one ending. And my academic career seemed to be over before it began.

It was, in short, a pretty dismal moment in time. I don’t claim to understand what Holland was really talking about in the song, but it felt to me like a warm and empathetic dirge, a funeral march for a lost loved one. She talks about the lost one’s songs, sounds, dreams, mysteries, and light:

Your light overwhelmed me
When I lay beside you sleepless in the night
And when you dreamed my guardian spirits appeared
And the moon stretched out across your little bed

I like to think she is talking about an ill parent, friend, or lover, covered in moonlight, who continues to glow despite being in the grip of suffering, waning and thinning. Holland feels sheepish about evoking the New Testament and comparing herself to Jesus — “when I was hungry, you fed me” — but of course this line was meant to be universally applicable. Even God needs someone to show unprompted, unasked for, completely undeserved grace and kindness from time to time — as this person did for her.

“Stand tall, with your feet on the ground,” Holland says. In thinking the unthinkable, facing the chasm of total and remorseless loss — unemployment, illness, homelessness, grief — we have to find some way to stand on our feet when there seems to be no good reason for doing so. Where we find that plantedness in gravity is almost impossible to say. But there is something that tells us mercy exists out there, in the grace and generosity of strangers, sometimes even of our enemies — something that says miracles of love remain possible. We’re going to need a lot of them to get through what’s lying ahead.

Anyway, here is a roundup of our reading recs from recent weeks, picked by our editors.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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