nearly forgotten: the pure oxygen of hope

i plopped myself on the couch, there as the pink and the gold drained from the summer sky. as the burning bulbs of the night sky turned on, i stayed glued. i was drinking in a nectar i’d almost forgotten. almost gave up for lost.

i’m talking about hope, a balm and a necessary human ingredient, one missing in action these last many heartbreaking months.

hope, for me, came on strongest in moments from names we might never remember, but whose words, whose stutter, whose message, whose moment, we’ll never forget: a kid who stutters but went on anyway; a little girl whose mom was taken away, leaving behind two little girls and an ex-marine dad who feels deeply betrayed; a security guard whose everyday job is ushering important people, people who more likely than not leave her feeling like little more than a conduit, a necessary ellipses from point A to point B, mostly invisible. but not the man she was there to nominate for the american presidency. he’d made her — in the couple of minutes it takes to ride from a lobby to an executive suite — feel seen and feel heard. feel unforgotten, un-shoved aside.

it’s a very fine line, the line between hopeless and hope. sometimes we barely notice it draining away. get used to the feel of walking around with boot heel to belly. sometimes it’s only in its trickling in again that we realize how long and how deeply we’ve missed it.

i plopped myself on the couch not as a student of partisan politics but as a student of human decency. an ardent student. one who just might take it too seriously. it’s a lesson i remember my grandfather teaching me. at a gas station on a hot summer’s day in southern ohio. my grandfather, in one of his buicks, maybe the old riviera, with a stash of grandkids packed in the back, had just spent the day with all of us at an old-fashioned place called coney island, a paradise of roller coasters and sno-cones and hot dogs slathered in mustard. my grandpa needed gas for the old guzzler, and back in those days that meant someone was there to pump the tank for you. while the gas guzzled in, my grandpa got out of the car, carried on with the fellow pumping away as if he was a long-lost best friend and lifetime associate. the man pumping gas was black. my grandpa was white. it was southern ohio in the 1960s. we were old enough to know that not everyone would play out the scene as it played out before us. and then my grandpa slid back behind the wheel, turned his gaze just over his shoulder, peered unblinkingly at the whole flock of us, and in less than ten words preached his everyday gospel, the one he lived till the day he died. i can’t remember the exact words, but the point was the same one inscribed in every holy and sacred text that ever there was: be your brother’s keeper, love as you would be loved, live and breathe undying compassion. and the way my grandpa said it, he meant we’d better not ever forget it.

the big-eyed, pigtailed little girl wedged between brothers and cousins on a sticky summer’s day, i pinned the words to my soul, made of them my divining rod, every day forward.

which is part of the why my tank has felt emptier by the hour in the america of recent history. every single day yet another brillo pad to the soul, yet another mocking of someone. yet another ugly volley of words. i’ve been withering under the weight of it. and running out of oxygen. or so it started to feel.

and so, this week, i tuned in not knowing what or how it would all unfold. i feared it could sputter and fumble. i’d gotten used to the taste of dejection.

what happened was, moment by moment, as if someone had wedged a fulcrum under my heart and my soul, i felt myself rising, inch by measurable soul-filling inch. testimony of kindness after testimony of nearly invisible someone being seen, being plucked from the margins, being called in pure goodness by cell phone late in the night. it was a four-day crash course, a reverse course, in human kindness. in decency. in resilience. in reaching down deep and pulling out our very best selves.

frank bruni, a writer of bold and beautiful strokes, wrote this this morning:

Look at America right now. My God. We’re hurting like we seldom hurt. We’re quarreling like we seldom quarrel. We’re exceptional in our death count, in our divisions. It’s easy to feel hopeless. It’s hard to press forward.

the life of one of the men america is now considering for the highest office in the land, bruni went on to write, his “life is a parable of resilience.”

and goodness and kindness is the mortar tucked into the brick walls of that life. and goodness and kindness — in intimate moments and in sweeping policy revisions and advances — is the mortar this crumbling country needs. especially now. especially as the death toll has mounted unfathomably, “exceptionally.” especially as kids and teachers — from kindergarten to college — are scared to death to go back to their classrooms. especially as the virus of incivility — of outright murder born of blind hatred — has spread like a cancer that can’t be removed.

lessons in resilience we could use too. resilience is a commodity we can never have too much of. we’re a people who stumble, a people with knees that are more than scuffed up. we could use a good dose of remembering how good we can be at picking ourselves up from the dust. those banged-up knees? they straighten, stand back up again, almost as sure as they sometimes fold under us.

which brings us back to hope.

hope is the thing i’ve found wrung from the landscape of late. i almost forgot what it was to not get crushed by every day’s news. the human spirit devoid of even a whiff of hope is a sorry pile of ashes and soot. we don’t do well as a species when we can’t make out even a flicker of light making its way through the murk.

and it doesn’t take much — not more than the certain whisper, pressed against our ear or our heart — to perk us back up again. to put the wind at our back. the story of an unstoppable stutterer. the unstoppable bravery of an 11-year-old girl who told a whole nation — and the president who leads it — “you tore our world apart.” the unstoppable kindness of simply being seen and heard and recognized in the short whisk of an elevator ride.

we can be a people of hope again. we can be a nation that trades in kindness, stands up to bullies, reaches our arms in embrace. we can be our very best selves.

that’s what i remembered again. that’s what i learned this week.

a disclaimer: i promised a long time that i would keep this a space free of partisan politics. and so i didn’t tread lightly into today’s meander. i entered into this arena today as one where the message i was mining for was not one of political discourse, but rather an exercise in mutually agreeing that hope and goodness are necessary commodities in the national discourse, especially now as we are staring down the oncoming fall and the fears of a spike in coronavirus, in the face of so many uncertainties. hope is our divining rod. hope is the very thing we need to carry us into the light, just peeking over the dawn’s horizon…..

what brings you hope?