Despair into hope
“What would it mean to live in a city whose people were changing each other’s despair into hope?” – Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012)
I can’t remember a year I was so ready to see in the rear-view mirror.
There were many bright spots, course – around the world, in NYC, and for my family. I’ll especially remember the inspiration of the Olympics (I’m still a sucker for a global festival), the relief of President Obama’s re-election, the power of the silent march down Fifth Avenue calling for reform of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk abuse, my son’s becoming a bar mitzvah, and the birth of beautiful new baby boys into the families of two dear co-workers.
But the tragedies of the past few months will always shape our memory of 2012. Hurricane Sandy’s wanton destruction, and the ongoing grief it has caused for so many (including our friends from Belle Harbor Manor, housed for a few weeks at the Park Slope Armory, who are still not back home, and living in far-from-ideal conditions). The very personal losses of Jon Kest & Jesse Streich-Kest. The less personal but deeply angering losses of 112 Bangladeshi lives in a preventable factory fire. And of course, the still-incomprehensible taking of the lives of those 20 kids and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. So I am ready to let this year go.
And I was glad to see the New York Times Magazine remember Adrienne Rich (and two dozen other moving “lives they lived”) with her beautiful quote about turning despair into hope, from her poem Dreams Before Waking.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, we saw so many glimpses of what it might mean to live in a city whose people were changing each other’s despair into hope. I’ll forever be grateful for Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler’s beautiful thank-you note as one example. Over the break I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Solnit writes of the extraordinary power of people coming together in the wake of tragedy (she looks at five, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina) to act collectively, take care of each other, and build powerful communities of relief that offer “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.” “The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure,” she tells us, “is the great contemporary task of being human.”
So our assignment for 2013 – what Solnit calls the demanding gifts of 2012 – is to build on those glimpses. To find meaning – even if we can never comprehend it – by not just demanding real action on gun control and gun violence. To take climate change far more seriously now that we’ve seen first-hand the power and pain of just this one example (if you still need to see where sea-level rise is coming from, watch this) and take long-term action on the scale of the problem we face. To honor Jon Kest by fighting harder for the rights of working people to live lives of dignity. To make NYC more a city whose people are changing each other’s despair into hope.
I don’t mean to pretend that the grief and pain will disappear. I’m still sad and angry much more often than I was, just a few short months ago. For so many, there is an emptiness that will never be filled. It is not easy to turn despair into hope.
But tomorrow, on New Year’s Day, we’ll celebrate (among other things) the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, as President Lincoln sought to bring a new birth of freedom forward out of another tragedy. We’ll remember that change is arduous … but possible.
The new year comes with the possibility of hope and redemption, in many forms – and especially through shared action and organized compassion.
And I, for one, am grateful for those possibilities.
Best wishes for a bright start to 2013.