Keeping Faith


A couple of weeks ago, I purchased the new Bruce Springsteen CD, _We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions_, a collection of acoustical recordings of folk songs, hymns, and gospel tunes Springsteen has made over the past 10 years.

It is, I am happy to report, a marvelous album, rollicking, soulful, uplifting, and joyous. But my acquisition has also had an unexpected, equally positive effect. To my surprise my 9-year-old son, Gabriel, has fallen in love with the CD. On the way back and forth to school, running errands in the car, we have played the CD over and over so often that Gabe has come automatically to memorize the words of many of the songs.

Even better, the songs have led to questions. What war are they talking about in “Mrs. McGrath,” dad, the one in which a young soldier returns home to his mother minus his legs? Who were Moses and Pharaoh, and why is Mary supposed to stop weeping because Pharaoh’s army got drownded? Who was John Henry? What was the Erie Canal and why did they dig it? What prize are we supposed to keep our eyes on?

Sometimes over the music, sometimes with the sound temporarily muted, I have done my best to provide synoptic answers to these questions, which in turn often lead to longer discussions. As with any child, patience is key, but in this case, I am happy to have to repeat myself.

One of Gabe’s favorites is “Erie Canal.” Surely, there is value in his knowing something about the Erie Canal, about the tens of thousands of Irish immigrant men – some of them his ancestors – who were recruited to come over and lend their strong backs to the Big Dig (Why was the wheelbarrow invented?, runs the old, old joke. The answer: To teach the Irish to walk upright.), about the thousands upon thousands of those men – and hundreds of women and children serving in ancillary roles – who succumbed to cholera, typhus, TB, and other ailments and accidents during construction, about how the very same country that sought their labor turned around and organized nasty xenophobic political parties (one of which, the Know Nothing Party, was ancestor to the Republican Party) and posted “Irish need not apply” in the windows of factories and shops when the canal was finished, a brief but infuriating chapter among the many chapters in our history about the human toll extracted as the price for building an industrial society. Yes, Gabe needs to know about this, along with the story of the dreams deferred during the long nightmare of Jim Crow segregation and racial terror, as well as the story about how nations have repeatedly seduced young men into going off to war and then abandoned those same young men when they come home broken in body, mind, and spirit.

Milan Kundera has written that the history of the 20th century was the history of the struggle between memory and forgetting. What was true of the last century is even more true of the 21st. We live in a society and derive our livelihoods from an economic system that every day urges us to forget, not so we may better live in the present moment, but so that we will be more amenable to enter without thinking into a future, painted for us as a commercial utopia, that is, in reality, a human and spiritual dystopia. The men who built the Erie Canal were asked to trade their lives to build America’s industrial economy. Using the subtle and all-pervasive power of the mainstream media, we, in 21st century America, are merely asked to trade our souls to keep the unreal dynamos of a globalized post-industrial economy humming.

If, as I have to believe is the case, the phrase “The American Dream” has come to mean the God-given right to lead an unexamined life, then memory – both individual and collective – is the one great counterweight we possess to offset the unbearable lightness of being (to borrow another phrase from Kundera) that is the siren song of contemporary commercial culture. When we remember as individuals, we create our own lives and personal indentities. When we remember together – when we _com_-memorate – we create, strengthen and above all, expand the boundaries of our communities. Today, let us remember not the sound of trumpets, not the triumphalist promises of militant capitalism and neoconservative imperialism, but the human toll of those trumpet calls, the swamp of lies behind those false promises.

No man, no problem, Stalin said. No memory, no community, no problem, the malefactors of global capitalism and imperialism say today. Twisted creatures, hollow men, men made of straw, the Ken Lays and Jeff Skillings, the George Bushes and Dick Cheneys of this world can only hold sway so long as we fail to remember. The instant we do, their hold on us is dispelled, a word which means, literally, their spell is broken. By an act of legerdemain, the waters part. By an act of memory, they rush back together. And Pharaoh’s army gets drowned. Again.


_for Cindy Sheehan_

We are the fallen who fell
keeping faith with the fallen
who fell keeping faith
with the fallen, and so on,
generation upon generation,
the only thing changing
the color of our uniforms,
the shape of the weapons
we drop in the grass.

See how he smirks
and squares his shoulders
as he struts into the light
to command another generation
to do his fighting for him.
(We are the fallen who fell
keeping faith with the fallen
who fell in numbers
beyond all reckoning.)

Now see how she stands
in the pitiless sun,
keeping faith with the fallen,
a monument to maternal grief,
angel shorn of her wings,
whose anger strikes sparks
to light the fire that keeps us
warm, as she keeps faith
with the fallen
lest memory turn to stone.