A friend was traveling on a crowded train in England, in the midst of their endlessly divisive Brexit political turmoil just before this summer’s drought struck that country. She had to stand in the aisle with no view really of the passing green valleys and hills, so she pulled a paperback out of her bag, hoping to read. A woman seated nearby spotted the title: How Democracies Die. My friend noticed an acknowledgment in the other traveller’s face, the tired way eyebrows furl and the measured, involuntary intake of breath that together signify recognition and weariness, fear and grief. In an exchange of tiny signs, the title of a book, a momentary facial expression, two women, English and American, agreed that their beloved homelands were in big trouble.
Looking around our own deeply divided country, I also agree, but I take some comfort in what passed between those two strangers on the train. There’s something latent there, a shared hope quietly simmering, two sisters who I suspect will soon rouse themselves in a mission on behalf of things that matter. Maybe they already have. I keep an eye out for clues.
Closer to home, another friend reported a moment of recognition on a New York subway car. Part of the pleasure of this friendship is his big laugh, his big personality, which plays a part in the story as he tells it. He was talking politics with his traveling companion, talking more loudly than he realized about the trouble we’re in. When he finished his analysis, many of the other passengers on the subway car began to applaud. Something is latent there too, a shared understanding ready to be stirred up and tapped.
In line the other day at the take-out window of a neighborhood restaurant, I heard one woman thank another for wearing a button that said, “No human being is illegal.” She said, “It took us sixteen years to make our way through the immigration process." That’s crazy and broken, a terrible clue about an abusive system, but I cherish the moment of understanding between the two women.
And also in South Bend, I meet a couple of times a week with a local author as we carry out the final proofreading of her memoir. In the late 1930s her Jewish family went into hiding in their beloved rural Czechoslovakia, to try to keep from being rounded up and sent to a Nazi concentration camp where maybe all of them, but certainly the most vulnerable of them, would have been killed. Whenever soldiers came through the remote village, the family rushed to hide in a root cellar beside a barn. In the darkness, they’d listen intently to any sounds above—a barking dog, loud human voices—that might indicate their fate. The author was a child at the time, and now decades later she has devoted the last few years remembering, researching, and writing the story of the family members who survived and those who did not. Why? Because she has an unquenchable desire to find the meaning, to know the lessons and pass them down to the next generations.
Something’s happening here. As the song says, What it is is not exactly clear. But I bet we can agree upon this much. A beautiful curiosity, civility and concern that many people share, a spirit and hope, a love of decency and meaning, is awake in the land. It’s longing to stand up and stretch and go out walking. Out to the voting booth, sure, that’s essential, but not a big enough gesture for this big, simmering spirit. Seeing ourselves out of our comfort zones, learning more about what needs be done in America, getting to know and work with people from another part of town. Turning new acquaintances into political partners, keeping the pressure on in DC and in Indy, letting that good spirit become concrete in alliances and actions. As June Jordan once said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”