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January 8, 1998

Quiet, Please

High in the mountains of Japan, a light snow has fallen all evening, brushing the cedars with a faint hissing sound. A lone priest stands on the white hillside, his figure small beside the giant trees.  He walks quickly up a newly swept path to a clearing where a large bell hangs. Firmly grasping the suspended tree trunk that serves as a mallet, he sounds the bell 108 times, once for each of the world's sins. In the village below, families seated around a low table interrupt their conversations and listen to the bell as it cuts through the cold night air. The moment of serenity enters the heart of the largest cities as well, as families all over the country pause, turning toward their television sets to participate vicariously in the far-off scene. The new year has arrived.

The past several weeks have brought similar expressions of warmth and peace to people in many parts of the globe. Christians stopped in the midst of their giving and getting to remember the reasons for their festivities. African Americans gathered together at Kwanzaa, and Jews at Chanukah, celebrating family and community with the lighting of candles. Muslims fasted by day and feasted by night in the holy month of Ramadan, when the Quran is said to have been revealed. Everywhere schools and places of government shut down, and the tempo of daily activities slowed.

At least that's the way it was supposed to be.

I sat on a rock overlooking San Francisco Bay this afternoon and watched the dull sky turn the water to dishwater gray. As a chill wind bit my ears, I listened for the still sounds of the season that had just ended. I was trying to catch the melodies of the world when they were relatively undistorted, to identify the themes the earth was singing as 1998 began, so that whatever harmonies or disharmonies emerged later would be easier to comprehend.

The first songs I heard were sad but simple. One started in Asia, where financial tremors rippled out into society at large, causing unemployment and widespread anxiety. With it came faint, hardly noticed overtones of a warning laced with the words of that recently resurrected observer of capitalist societies, Karl Marx: How can we expect to escape the disasters of others when, "in place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations"?

I heard another song, equally poignant, that mourned the spoilage of the natural environment because of --- again in the words of the old German social critic --- the "subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground."

And I heard a third melodic thread winding back and forth between the other two, a song of shame: the United States, the richest and most powerful country in the world, not only bears a responsibility for this economic danger and environmental damage; it has also botched things at home. The new economic order has indeed, as Marx predicted,  "concentrated property in a few hands," a very few. The statistics are familiar but still astonishing: some 36 million Americans, 20 percent of American senior citizens, 21 percent of American children, live in poverty while 170 of their fellow citizens make more than a billion dollars a year. With the prospect of an ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots in this country, and a parallel and even deeper chasm worldwide, it is easy to imagine a number of apparently stable structures tumbling down the hillside to destruction.

But as I sat on my perch beside the bay, I merely wanted to identify themes, not to engage in gloom-and-doom predictions for the future. The mingled cries of earth and economy created a proper sober anthem for the beginning of the action-filled Year of the Tiger. I watched the waves and listened.
 And found myself nearly hurtled from my rock by the cacophony that hit me. Not simple songs of living wages and living environments but loud raucous over-amplified ditties about ways to live longer (walk, eat fat, have sex, stop smoking, avoid poverty, take estrogen); about everlastingly lurid deaths and violent perpetrators (O. J. Simpson, Princess Diana, JonBenet Ramsey, Terry Nichols, Ted Kaczynski, Gianni Versace); about massacres of people in Mexico, Algeria, Kenya, and Burundi and chickens in Hong Kong; about houses on fire in San Francisco and Detroit, hostages in Texas, a collapsing street and building in New York, skiing accidents in Aspen and Heavenly Valley, and death by execution everywhere, especially in Texas. Here and there the melodies were punctuated by perky grace notes: Buddy meets Socks; the VW beetle returns; the Grateful Dead lives; Seinfeld calls it quits.

Higher and higher the decibels rose until --- like the father figure in an old radio comedy --- I shouted above the rest of the din: Q-U-I-E-T!!!

Blessed silence. Time, however brief, to think before the din begins again.

Happy new year!

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

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