The Presence of the Past

History is the process of the past negotiating its terms of surrender to the future.

Although the past cannot defeat the future, it will do, and is currently doing, all it can, to break as many hearts as possible in the present. Cruelty seems to be the guiding principle of those in power, in the USA and across the globe, as they confront the horror of knowing that their power will soon be gone forever.

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This is nothing new. In 19th Century Europe, monarchies crumbled under a rising tide of democracy. In the 21st, with a little courage and devotion to honesty and justice, we might see white male privilege go the way of kings, kaisers, and czars.

See if you recognize our current situation in these words that Victor Hugo wrote in 1862:

The past, it is true, is very strong right now. It is reviving. This revivification of a corpse is surprising. Here it is walking and advancing. It seems victorious; this dead man is a conqueror. He comes with his legion, superstitions, with his sword, despotism, with his banner, ignorance; within a little time he has won ten battles. He advances, he threatens, he laughs, he is at our doors. As for us, we will not despair.

We who believe, what can we fear?

There is no backward flow of ideas any more than of rivers.

But those who do not want the future should think it over. In saying no to progress, it is not the future they condemn, but themselves…There is only one way of refusing tomorrow and that is to die.

He concludes that chapter of Les Miserables with this observation of the relative powers of the hopes of the future and the fears of the past:

The ideal…thus lost in the depths – minute, isolated, imperceptible, shining, but surrounded by all those great black menaces monstrously amassed around it, yet no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds.

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I Never Knew Your Name

When I say I never knew your name, I am not talking about the one your parents gave you. I am talking about the one you gave yourself. You know the one I mean, the one that bubbled to the surface of your life on a hot summer night, like this one, when you were all alone in your room, feeling inexplicably sad but hopeful.

This name was not one that you had heard before, yet you instantly recognized it as yours.

Although at that time I was hundreds of miles away from you, and had not met you, and could not hear the name you gave yourself, I felt the reverberations of its echo.

When I am calm enough, I still can.
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On summer evenings, after rain

Across the drops of streetlights
faces shine and fade with time and other
forces of destruction and deterioration

Blankets that we pull across our
sore and frozen memories that
cry out so pathetically
for comfort and for warmth

The hour has already passed
for final judgments falling down
for making up excuses that
not even we believed

Centuries, like dominoes,
teeter, waver, slip and fall
until none are left who can remember
any other life at all

Millennia of mystery
centuries of confusion
decades of disaster
become years of empty long and
those days we lost to dreams

Vagabonds in stolen clothes
will try to rewrite history
because the lessons that we learned
are not the ones they taught
Birds and flowers try to tell us
stories buried in the earth with
bones and swords and walls that fell,
and rose, and fell again

We are crushed beneath the heels
of soldiers left on battlefields
to cry, and die, and rot and mark
our histories with their curse

On summer evenings, after rain
when clouds hold back but can’t stop light
we will sit and read our books
and listen to the aching trees
telling us the only stories that we need to hear
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All who wander…

Maybe not all who wander are lost,
but most of us are.
And most of us are willing to risk everything for a glimpse of a heaven
we don’t even believe in.
What could be more lost than that?
If you know the way home, I would be grateful to hear it.

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We never will be done…

Every leaf on every branch of every tree in the forest
dances to a different tune
Every star that twinkles with a million-year-old light
looks all the way into you
Every bit of foam on every wave in every sea
likes to know that you are here
And every moment of a lifetime in eternity
offers up its own opportunity

Every brick in every wall we build to keep us apart
cries to be taken down
every lie we ever told and all that we believed
hide from us now

we’re stalking something wild and empty
without a penny, or a gun
we’re following the trail of something free, and
we never will be done
we never will be done

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The time for us…

The time for us was never right
but even right goes dark at night
Even right goes wrong sometimes
and desperation blurs the lines

The time for us is always now
When it ends, we won’t know how
all the pieces fit in place
that scattered into empty space

The place for us is on a hill
that balances the wild and still,
that overflows its narrow banks,
and walks on weatherbeaten planks

The time for us will never end
The road is long and does not bend
With love, you cannot lose the fight
The time for us is always right

Central Park flowers