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The Thing With Feathers
Photo by Jon Tyson

The Thing With Feathers

It has become difficult to be hopeful under the current political circumstance of Donald Trump’s poisonous presidency. The small doses of hatred he spouts daily work like a sprinkler, set to a timer that comes on every morning at daybreak, dousing any spark of hope that may have alighted the night before.

The permission he and others have granted anyone with a voice – they need not have discerning brains, just voices – to openly spew racist, misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic rhetoric, has brought an ugliness into the mainstream conversation that many of us haven’t seen since the hideous early days of the civil rights movement: think powerful hoses aimed at peaceful protestors, their bodies slammed to the concrete while counter-protestors on the sidelines scream at them, their faces contorted with hatred.

That ugliness works defiantly against hope. But that is theater, window dressing compared to some more subtle conversations circulating about the possibility of living without hope.

I’ve seen these dialogues with some regularity recently, about how much easier it is to be happy if one could just give up on hope.

Accept the absence of hope, and you may just start enjoying life, said one online commentator. Shed all expectations, said another. Just go with the flow and end up wherever life takes you, seems to be one of the operating principles of this particular school of hopelessness.

‘Tis better to have not hoped and lost than to hope and lose and be constantly disappointed, purveyors of non-hope advise.

I was struck most viscerally by the despair that comes with the absence of hope when I heard one of my favorite contemporary writers being interviewed recently on NPR. Ta-Nehisi Coates — who shook us awake, so brilliantly summing up the persistence of racism against American black males in a letter to his son — was talking about his new book with a chirpy female host whose voice generally grates on even an optimist like me so early in the morning.

At the end of a long exchange about how the racial divide has deepened into a massive chasm since the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, she asked him if he saw hope anywhere for the situation we’re in at this moment in history.

“I don’t think I do,” he said. And my heart flopped right to the floor.

Coates went on.

Just because one doesn’t see hope, he said, doesn’t mean he or she is not responsible to carry on the struggle toward a better result. No ‘go with the flow’ from this dedicated intellectual.

But why decry hope?

Isn’t hope what animates and fortifies the struggle? Is this a purely semantic argument, or is hope something as elemental and essential to our being in this world as air and food and water?

Bereft of food and water, not to mention fuel and medicine and probably clean air to breathe, what sustains those poor souls in Puerto Rico, post-Hurricane Maria, buried in sewage and muck, waiting in the dark for help to arrive at their doorsteps? Not the absence of hope, I’d wager.

I am a naturally hopeful person, aware that my hopeful nature is delusional at times, so trying to contemplate the absence of hope is nearly impossible. It’s like staring at the sun during the recent eclipse with no assurance that the moon’s shadow would eventually be lifted.

I continue to hope, despite the evidence, because I cannot do otherwise.

Voices that advocate hope in spite of the evidence are helpful. I have particularly found solace in Rebecca Solnit’s recent work, revisiting her earlier essays on hope, asking if they are still pertinent more than a decade after they were first written.

“It’s important to say what hope is not,” Solnit says in a voice of solid reason. “It is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine…

“It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting worse narrative,” she says. It is “an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

The hope Solnit refers to requires full engagement, she tells us. Coates might call it staying in the struggle.

Hope is an open window that lets in both the storm and the soft breeze.

Emily Dickinson called it “… the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops at all.”

A friend on Facebook this morning observed that it doesn’t take much to make her happy in this time of Trump — a well-made coffee mug, a piece of sculpture, a volcanic rock — everyday sights and simple pleasures that exist with or without hope. I prefer to see her vision as hopeful, knowing that if she lost all hope she wouldn’t see those things at all.

For me, today, it was the clattering of dry leaves in the trees, the welcome sound of autumn after a long week of sweltering summer temperatures. It sounded like hope. Right now, it is the frantic little swallowtail fluttering outside my window, searching for sustenance in the wrong part of the yard.

It halts and flits and catches the breeze. It floats and struggles. It never stops moving as long as I can see it. It never stops at all.

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Beautiful, Kathryn! Finding hope in my silly dog Enzo, and the delight he brings on our daily walks up the alley.

  2. Kathryn, I appreciate the introduction to Rebecca Solnit. It is indeed hard to believe that things are getting better, but as you both point out, what choice do we have? As the saying goes, from whom I am not quite sure – I’m not optimistic, but I’m always hopeful … and need to remind myself daily to summon gratitude for small gifts of grace and beauty.

  3. I thought of this essay today as I walked out of Wag and Wash (of all places). I was there to pick up some cat food and noticed that a large panel window had been covered with plywood. I spoke with the familiar and friendly staff there about the break-in, my cat’s preference for raw food, and laughed with them at the antics of a silly pug snorting at the resident cats. As I exited into the autumn afternoon, I felt a rare sense of peace, a peace that comes from the goodness and kindness found in the community of my everyday life. That gives me hope.

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Kathryn Eastburn

Kathryn Eastburn

Kathryn Eastburn is a daily newspaper reporter in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood. She has channeled a lifetime of experience as a journalist, personal essay writer, author, teacher, mother, sister, aunt, daughter and friend into crafting a third act that celebrates the gift of creation. Reading and getting her fingernails dirty in the garden are her favorite pastimes.

American Voice Media is a place for writers, artists, thinkers–for creative, passionate, intelligent individuals to have their say.




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