Learning From Strangers

by Kim R. Stafford

Book Excerpt

October 6, 2003


Kim Robert Stafford, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft, University of Georgia Press, 2003, ISBN: 0-8203-24965, paperback: 138 pages. Pages 122-125. Order toll-free: 1-800-266-5842

A friend called this life "a bridge from before to after." On this bridge, crossing as a writer, a teacher, and a seeker, what shall I do -- especially now? I have stories to tell, and ways to begin. But what is my particular calling in the world? My father [the poet William Stafford] said vocation means "your job is to find out what the world is trying to be." What are we trying to be, in these times, and what is our work on behalf of the world?

When I turned from the TV images the morning of September 11, 2001, to call my mother, she told me, "I'm watching the news. Everyone is saying this is just like Pearl Harbor, but I feel it's really our Hiroshima. Now we're part of the suffering of the world."

I remembered my father's account of a strange day in August 1945. A pacifist, an exile from the war-fever of his own country, he was in San Francisco with a group of conscientious objectors on leave from their work camps in the mountains. Sirens went off, cars began honking, and everyone rushed into the streets shouting, "The war is over! A great big bomb! The Japs are finished!"

Surrounded by people consumed by relief and joy, my father and his friends were stunned. "What does this mean?" they asked each other. "How many Japanese have died? How can this country celebrate their deaths? Where do we go from here?"

Now we know. We went toward the Cold War...Korean War...War in Vietnam...Gulf War...and we went toward now. When the twin towers fell, it became our own turn to suffer terror against civilians on our soil, and to be stunned by certain Palestinians caught on film shouting their joy.

It was a crucial moment in our history as a nation. By choosing one word over another -- calling the event "an act of war" instead of "a crime" -- we changed everything. With a word, the power of our nation turned from one path of the possible to another. We declared war on an unknown enemy, then announced we would not distinguish between that enemy and anyone we considered friendly to that enemy, and then we struck back. The Crusades again.

I waited for the newscasters to ask, "How did compassion die in the hearts of those desperate men? What killed their wish to live? If we are truly powerful, how can we change the conditions at home and abroad that brought this terror?" The answer, I believe, is that we must turn to each other, and listen. We must reach toward others far away, and listen. Despite my country's aggressive response, I believe democracy and freedom now are about the power to listen.

America has been wounded twice in recent history: first the numerical faltering of November 2000, when our electoral system teetered in uncertainty. And then September 11, 2002, when our planes took the lives of our own.

The events of our time have a common remedy -- a remedy more difficult than war, but also more effective -- and it resides in how we embrace the voices around us to find vision and establish a new democracy. Is it naïve to seek constructive remedy with the likes of poetry and song from the voices of the people? I find it more foolish to seek lasting remedy with military power and a return to the status quo: "Keep America rolling." This approach may build consumer confidence, and breed new terror, but will not initiate new forms of economy and reconciliation. Without new vision we will perish.

On election night 2000, as I listened, flipping the channels, to the frenzied commentaries, I heard much I have forgotten. But as the great tidal tug of numbers, predictions, and alternating partisan euphoria and despair swept across the screen, one of the many voices on the many channels said something I will not forget, although I have forgotten the speaker's name: "The campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush was devoid of poetry."

Poetry? When asked to explain, the commentator said that neither candidate called on us to sacrifice anything, to suffer for a greater good, or have the courage to do something difficult. Neither had given us a vision of how we might become more than we had been. The speaker's colleagues disagreed, but I thought the absence of poetry in this sense was the right explanation for a lack of substance in the whole campaign, and for the lack of resolution in the outcome.

The next morning, as it became clear there was no true winner, an odd idea came to me: The failure to elect a clear leader signals that each citizen has become a leader. An election is a kind of abdication by each voter, after all, a handoff of responsibility from citizen to candidate. This system is insufficient, denying democracy rather than fulfilling it. Collectively, we all must lead.

The 2000 election, it turned out, was not about the consolidation of power, but about the distribution of opportunity for leadership. New leadership, where it resides, will benefit from democratic expression broadly shared. For we have left the time of the stranger behind, the time when it was okay not to know how it is for people far away who suffer. Now each life becomes ambassador to all by hearing and speaking local vision, poems, stories, and songs. Our utterances will be judged not by their verbal mastery but by their importance -- by the welcome they receive and the constructive social effects they enable. For the work of our time is the power to listen, to understand, to contribute -- not to prove, or to prevail. I would call this "Article 0" of the U.S. Constitution: Stepping apart from received authority, we articulate new visions and collective responsibilities, and then we live them.

Let the great lumbering machine of politics and government go forward, I say, and the president seek bipartisan support for the ongoing prerogatives of government. I wish them well. At the same time, however, let the leadership of the country shift toward the expressive power of individuals everywhere. Let the nation's leaders hear from their constituents not for-and-against opinions to be tallied, but generative ideas, lyric clarities, and memorable words of witness to be understood. "Bipartisan" is too narrow a way to describe what we need. I want some new glory of international inclusion to accompany the old glory of patriotism. I want kinship founded in the power to listen and share as well as to strategize and convince.

Let the new age of information be succeeded by the age of insight, and of democratic expression. This will be the bright side of the electoral failure. Our life becomes something that Mikhail Gorbachev has been suggesting for some time: Leadership today consists of being a good partner -- in your family, your neighborhood, your country, and your world. Leadership is about listening for ideas that will lead us in common directions.

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Kim Robert Stafford, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft, University of Georgia Press, 2003, ISBN: 0820324965, paperback: 138 pages.
Please, check BookSense.com to buy the book directly from your local bookstore. Support your local bookstore! You can also buy it from the University of Georgia Press by calling toll-free, 1-800-266-5842 -- or from Amazon.com.

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Kim Stafford grew up in Oregon, Iowa, Indiana, California, and Alaska, following his parents as they taught and traveled through the West. He has taught at Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon, since 1979, where he directs the Northwest Writing Institute, and teaches writing. He also serves as the Literary Executor for the William Stafford Archive, helping readers and publishers to increase public access to William Stafford's writing. He has worked as an oral historian, letterpress printer, editor, photographer, teacher, and visiting writer at a host of small towns in the Pacific Northwest, and at colleges in New York, California, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. To learn more about Kim Stafford, please visit his Web site, "A World of Affinities." This excerpt is published with the kind permission of the author and the publisher.

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Please, feel free to insert a link to this book excerpt on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting a few paragraphs or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work on the Web. © Kim Stafford 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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Published October 6, 2003
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