Thursday, July 17, 2014

Origin Myth

I returned to the spoken-word open-mic, this past Sunday, with a piece I wrote on July 4, 2014.

It picks up on themes already taken up in this blog, starting with my response to Wendy Brown's book, Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs - which I review here and here - and my subsequent discussion of the notion of self-sufficiency, here.

As post-apocalyptic narrative goes, I can't claim what I've done here is terribly original or ground-breaking. Really, it was just a chance to work through some things in a format other than academic prose or even prosaic blog posts.

Origin Myth
We the People
in order to survive the collapse of all we have known,
to salvage some scraps of human dignity from the wreckage of the metropolis,
to leave our children and their children with more possibilities than we have now, and
to protect all that we may build together
do ordain and establish this Constitution
of the Republic of Sycamore Hills.

I don’t think any of us expected Ted Jensen to show up.

When we gathered out on The Common,
that first spring,
out where the fifth tee used to be,
under a makeshift pavillion
of tarps and pop-up canopies,
Mrs. Winslow called us to order
then froze,
staring at a point just behind us all,
an odd smile on her lips.

We turned and gaped in silence,
tried to make sense of what we saw:
Ted Jensen, standing just under the edge
of a canopy in the back;
Ted Jensen, unarmed and bare-headed
for the first time any of us could remember –
at least since the time before –
his long, greasy hair carefully combed back,
the look in his eyes unreadable.

I imagined he’d left his guns
and his camouflage hat back in the bunker
behind his big house on Shady Court.

In the time before, Ted Jensen had resolved
to be ready for the worst.
He built the bunker for his family
under the back yard,
with a cistern
and a private armory
of well-tended guns
and a small warehouse
of freeze-dried food.

But, in the time before, Mrs. Winslow
was making preparations of her own,
greeting everyone by name
as she took her daily walk,
from one end of the subdivision to the other,
inviting herself over for coffee or for dessert –
she always brought pie –
and learning our stories.

It was high summer when everything fell apart
and the lights went out for the last time.

Ted went to ground with his family,
prepared to survive
and to defend himself and his own
against all comers.

And Mrs. Winslow went from door to door,
asking how we were,
and what we needed,
and what we could share.
She drew us out – those who hadn’t fled
or fallen to despair –
and pulled us together,
and we improvised.

Sometime that summer,
the golf course became The Common.
I still don’t know
where the goats came from,
but a well-timed raid
on the abandoned garden shop
out by the highway
brought in rain barrels, and tools,
and seeds for a late-season crop,
and those who knew or could learn
how to preserve food
came into their own.
Privacy fences were torn down
and cut and stacked
for fuel.

And it was nearly enough.

Winter brought terrible losses, all the same,
from cold, from hunger, from the ‘flu.
Too many died and a few wandered off,
and a few wandered in.
We wept bitterly
and we fought among ourselves
and we struggled on together
and, slowly, we came to trust one another.

I think Ted had the worst of it, though.
Somehow, the ‘flu invaded his bunker
taking his wife and his daughter.

Then, as winter turned to spring
his son, fifteen years old,
slipped out of the bunker once, after dark,
we think to meet with the Palmer girl
in the moonlight.

But there was a raid, that night,
the most vicious we’d seen.

As the story is told,
a band of tax accountants and trial lawyers
from over in Cedar Ridge –
gaunt and desperate –
came out of the darkness
with kitchen knives and hatchets
to take what they could
and to destroy what they could not.

Ted fired blindly into the night
screaming his fury
as his son lay bleeding to death
on the Palmers’ front lawn
and the rest of us hastily formed our patrols
to drive off the marauders
and to double the watch.

Ted vanished into his bunker,
and we left him alone.

Mrs. Winslow shook her head
when I asked if there was something
to be done for him.

No, she said, just leave him be.

She said,
Mr. Jensen has made the mistake of thinking that,
when worse comes to worst,
all you have to fall back on is yourself –
the strength of your own hands,
the care with which you plan.

She said,
that’s the delusion of one empire
transplanted to be the root-stock of another:
it’s easy to say “I stand alone”
when you have an empire at your back.

And now, she said, beyond the end of all empires
we are learning that,
when worse comes to worst,
all we have to fall back on is each other.
Mr. Jensen is going to have to learn that for himself.

As for the rest of us, she said, I think it’s time –
time for us to stop improvising,
time for us to forge a pact among ourselves.

And so we gathered out on The Common,
that first spring,
out where the fifth tee used to be.

And so Ted Jensen stood at the back,
his shoulders slumped,
his hands limp at his sides,
his eyes unreadable,
struggling to find his voice.

We waited, still silent, until
at last he found it, a dry rasp:
All right, he said. What do we do?

Someone said, Come on in, Ted.
Someone else gestured to a seat
and we shifted to make way for him
and to make him welcome.

When he was seated, we all turned to the front
and Mrs. Winslow – the odd smile
tactfully gone from her lips –
cleared her throat.

And we began.


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