Yes! That’s it Exactly!

I was nearly brought to tears this morning when what I have been feeling, worrying about, and thinking for the last, well, for a long time, was encapsulated by three New York Times essays. That constant background noise of my thoughts, worries and emotions might be akin to an individual’s constant tinnitus or even the background radiation of the universe. I was literally brought to the edge of tears–but I held it together, not so much from pain, fear, or sadness, but just as an emotional release, of: “Yes! That’s it exactly!”

My background noise is processed through writing–any kind of writing–from books about teaching to songs. I wish I was more accomplished at it so I could better express and release more of it. Then, maybe I’d also provide for others, “Yes! That’s it exactly!” moments.

I ask you, what is your method of exploring your background noise of thoughts, worries, and emotions?

My songwriting, long undisciplined and feral, has recently become more intentional and nurtured, is always an attempt to explore and understand my background noise. My two non-fiction “sciency” books, Within These Woods and Ecological Identity were explorations of my (our) place in, among, and coming from our connection to our ecological (so everything) world. And even my book on teaching Consider, Construct, Confirm (edition 2 the result of my current sabbatical work and out in August by the way) is, in large part, an exploration of how this background radiation applies to my chosen profession. I think that explains why, though a “textbook,” many of my students have said, “it’s actually enjoyable to read.” We all need to explore our own background noise. And if you have followed my blog these past few years you undoubtedly find this background noise expressed in a confusing mix of media and styles. If I was better at any of them, I’d be a renaissance man. Instead, I’m just a guy in the 21st century with access to the internet.

The last essay I read this morning tapped into the feeling part of my background noise and my attempts to understand and process our current times. Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in “The Ideas That Won’t Survive the Coronavirus“,

Sometimes people ask me what it takes to be a writer. The only things you have to do, I tell them, are read constantly; write for thousands of hours; and have the masochistic ability to absorb a great deal of rejection and isolation.

I’m out I thought. This is why I have a real job with a steady salary! He continues,

As it turns out, these qualities have prepared me well to deal with life in the time of coronavirus…The fact that I am almost enjoying this period of isolation — except for bouts of paranoia about imminent death and rage at the incompetence of our nation’s leadership — makes me sharply aware of my privilege…Many of us are getting a glimpse of dystopia. Others are living it.

Right!? I realize many of the emotions I’ve been processing are rooted in guilt, and maybe some shame thrown on top for spice. That’s not a particularly healthy jumping of point for action or creativity. Yet, we have no choice but to leap.

The rest of Nguyen’s piece describes how the varying affect of coronavirus on different peoples in our society is largely a function of inequity. Coronavirus has further exposed the inequity throughout the enacted story of the American dream. He thoughtfully ends by providing signs of hope coming from this crisis, by identifying things we might do to strengthen the sustainability of our democratic society, closing with,

Americans will eventually emerge from isolation and take stock of the fallen, both the people and the ideas that did not make it through the crisis. And then we will have to decide which story will let the survivors truly live.

Before reading Nguyen’s piece, Paul Krugman punched me in the gut, hitting my solar plexus of worries in “American Democracy May Be Dying.” In this, he describes the shift from democracy to authoritarianism in Hungary over the past few years, outlining parallels to here in the U.S. He focuses on lessons from the Tuesday Wisconsin primary, writing,

Wisconsin, in particular, is well on its way toward becoming Hungary on Lake Michigan, as Republicans seek a permanent lock on power…in 2018, Wisconsin’s electorate voted strongly for Democratic control. Voters chose a Democratic governor, and gave 53 percent of their support to Democratic candidates for the State Assembly. But the state is so heavily gerrymandered that despite this popular-vote majority, Democrats got only 36 percent of the Assembly’s seats.

Most troubling for Krugman was the over-ruling of the Governor’s attempt to delay the primary requiring voters to counter stay-at-home directives and congregate in public polling places, thus endangering themselves and/or further spreading the virus.

So why did Republican legislators, eventually backed by the Republican appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court, insist on holding an election as if the situation were normal?

He asks, and then answers:

[t]he state shutdown had a much more severe impact on voting in Democratic-leaning urban areas, where a great majority of polling places were closed, than in rural or suburban areas. So the state G.O.P. was nakedly exploiting a pandemic to disenfranchise those likely to vote against it.

What we saw in Wisconsin, in short, was a state party doing whatever it takes to cling to power even if a majority of voters want it out — and a partisan bloc on the Supreme Court backing its efforts. Donald Trump, as usual, said the quiet part out loud: If we expand early voting and voting by mail, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

That disenfranchisement leads me to the first piece I read that resonated with the logical/thinking component of my background noise. David Leonhardt and Yanya Salez, in “America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why.” provide a startling series of short descriptions and data sets outlining the history and impact of income/wealth inequality in the U.S. It’s illuminating when you look at the data. Two stand out.

Since 1980, the GDP has risen 79% while after tax earnings of the low and middle income population has risen 20% and 50% respectively, while the wealthy after tax income has risen a staggering 420%.

Since 1989, median family net worth increased somewhat equally among all Americans, rising about 60% until the great recession beginning in 2007. At that time, all median gains made by all families were wiped away, and then some, with a recovery of about 10% above what the median net worth was back in in 1989 as of 2016–so still down 50% from where it was in 2007. However, the richest 10% lost about 10% of their median net worth, from 2007 to 2013, and since have recovered not only all losses, but increased the median net worth by an additional 10%. So now,

…the richest 0.1 percent of American households own 19.6 percent of the nation’s total wealth, up from 15.9 percent in 2005 and 7.4 percent in 1980. The richest 0.1 percent now have the same combined net worth as the bottom 85 percent.

This wealth inequality is now fully exposed and laying bare the fatal impact this will eventually have on many of our fellow citizens and on democracy itself. The majority of Americans struggle daily just to survive, and will not do so if their daily lives are even temporarily interrupted economically. Because of the growing wealth inequity of the past 30 years, we are now going to be faced with either a forced, very rapid redistribution of wealth, or while those that can afford to wait out the coronavirus the working poor will need to get back to work to resume production of the supply chain and to fuel the economy. We are seeing an increased call already to get back to work despite the dangers. This will only exacerbate the impact of wealth inequity. Those with can and will still hide away or access health care if infected while those without cannot.

The only way forward, then for those holding power and wealth, is to rely on authoritarian means to silence the majority at the mercy of greed. The only way forward for that silent majority to not get stuck in a Hunger Games-like dystopian future is to reclaim its voice and not only stop the increasing wealth gap, but reverse it to post WWII, but pre-1980 levels. Hopefully this can be done via a peaceful, political process. Otherwise, we will eventually see the end of democracy or capitalism, or both.

My background noise of thinking, worrying, and feeling comes out in all of my professional and personal choices and activities. I have taught primarily in the public sector, with a short stint in a private school that left me feeling like I was contributing to the inequity.

In my personal life it is explored primarily now through my hobbies of writing, focused right now on songwriting. This is evident if you look at what I have written of late. The only “hit” (meaning anyone else wanted to hear and play it) is my song, “My Heart Aches.” This summer Eliza Gilkyson heard it and asked to help me finish it and record it. Her album, 2020, including this song is being released today. The album and song encapsulates a great deal of my background radiation. As I listen to her 10 songs, I keep thinking, “Yes! That’s it exactly!”

Here’s are the lyrics and Eliza’s recording of our song.

My Heart Aches
(c) 2020 Tim Goodwin Music / Gilkysongs

We marched 50 years and 500 hundred miles
From a Mississippi bridge to a Ferguson mistrial
Stepping over bodies of other mothers’ sons
Singing how someday, “we shall overcome…”
My heart aches. My heart aches

We marched 50 years and so many miles
With folded hands and complacent smiles
Condemned a generation to circumstance
And all we were saying was “Give peace a chance…”
My heart aches. My heart aches

We marched 50 years and countless miles
Ignoring the signs of our own denial
Waiting for some others to take a stand
And “hammer out justice all over this land…”
My heart aces. My heart aches

For the children locked in cages, far away where no one sees
For the helpless and the hopeless, and the homeless refugees
My heart aches. My heart aches

For the voices who’ve been silenced, at the mercy of our greed
For the prisoners of conscience who speak out for those in need
My heart aches. My heart aches

For the victims of the hatred, they are lying there on the ground
In the churches and the schoolyards, from the shots that took them down
My heart aches. My heart aches

For the claims made on our bodies, and who we can and can’t embrace
For the children of tomorrow, and the world they have to face
My heart aches. My heart aches

This song expresses concisely the constant background noise of my thoughts, worries, and feelings. That’s its purpose of course. That’s the purpose of art and creativity.

I have my own version of this song I’ll be releasing by the end of April along with 10 other songs on an album titled “The New American Way.” Through them I explored and understood much of my background noise at this time, I hope in a useful and productive manner. Eliza has expressed that it is her hope that her album, 2020, while serving as a necessary cathartic expression of concerns and pain, can help foster unity and coming together as one people.

It’s obvious why I have followed, looked up to, and often attempted to imitate or emulate her songwriting. That is also the hope and purpose of my my album. I don’t know if it’s really any good (except for one song I suppose). In the end, the purpose is, for me, a necessary exploration and expression of ideas and emotions. This brings me back to my earlier question: What is your method of exploring your background noise of thoughts, worries, and emotions?

Our individual and collective health relies, in part, upon us all knowing our answer to that question.

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