Waking Up with your hands on the wheel and the car moving…

by Jeff Oaks

How to knock yourself out of autopilot? 
Usually the world does that with illness or accident or death or a surprise whose magnitude is such that nothing after it stops vibrating for decades. The event that scared my grandparents was the Great Depression. They worked hard to secure their lives against its eventual return. But they were both already awakened by difficult childhoods, lost protections early on. My more-protected parents had World War 2, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the Cold War hovering over them. My father never, I think, quite recovered from the freedoms he found overseas, in 50s England, as an air traffic controller. The world he had to return to didn’t have enough external discipline in it. My mother told me she never got over seeing, as a teenager, the first images of the liberated concentration camps, and after that the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements which she vocally supported despite the laughter of most of her own family. She never, after the late sixties, fit comfortably into her white or middle-class or wife and mother identities. The AIDS crisis changed my and most of the gay men I knew’s consciousness, even if it took time for many men to change their behavior. 

For some of us it was 9/11’s bombing and destruction of the World Trade Center, which displayed Fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. (How blind many still are to Fundamentalist Christian terrorists and their much longer reign of destruction, because it fits into what most of us know about America–that it’s filled with dangerous white straight men–because those guys, that destruction, are “normal”.) Suddenly poets I knew wanted to figure out how to write politically. None of my students, who were too young to really remember 9/11, seem to have noticed the Afghanistan and Iraq wars; at least they don’t report those as important when we talk about historical events that woke them up. Instead, they more often talk about Barack Obama’s election, which might be the first time we all learned that Aeschylus’ famous quotation–“Wisdom comes alone through suffering”–isn’t always right. There are some surprises that don’t perhaps require death and pain and destruction. Still, they were awakened in recent years by the incredible number of public shootings of black men and women at the hands of police officers who were then not held accountable. They are all now awake because of Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency. We are, many of us, unable to move in a way that seems to matter.

Is there a kind of consciousness that is disabling? Some of my friends rose immediately to confront the dangers. Some of them have been able to write in the immediate aftermath of such shock, but I’ve been feeling unable to make anything but a few sarcastic poems on Facebook. Maybe I’ve lost faith in words’ ability to bring about change. 

So I’m hoping to dig into that feeling of despair over the next few weeks, hoping to examine it and how it might be recovered from.