Those people were a kind of solution

Evening, and a waxing crescent moon in the southern sky, surrounded by clouds.  Ring around the moon, rain before noon…I can see the clouds moving in from the west. The rain may not wait for noon.

The last few days, there’ve been jet trails crisscrossing the sky. I haven’t noticed more planes, only more trails.  My husband thinks when there’s a lot of moisture in the atmosphere, the traffic that’s always there leaves a trail.  Maybe that’s true.  We’re not far from San Francisco Airport where planes roar in and out all day long.  Probably I’ve just stopped noticing them–a disturbing thought, when you think how loud they can be.  I remember the early days of jet planes, when sonic booms rocked the landscape.  I doubt I would’ve stopped noticing those, especially when they broke windows.  Most of them were military, I think.  Jet fighter planes and blimps in the skies back then.

Hangar One at Moffett Field

Once when I was a child, my father took me to a blimp hangar at Moffett Field, then a naval air station 40 miles south of here. It was fabulously huge, I’d never seen anything like it.  The floor covered eight acres. When we visited, the dirigible must’ve been floating about somewhere as the place was empty.  I can still remember how tiny and insignificant I felt, standing in that enormous structure. People said sometimes fog formed at the top of the dome.  Weird how the ocean or redwood groves or mountain ranges can make you feel connected to the universe, and that blimp hangar like a bug in danger of being squashed.

So many men in uniform back then. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother’s cousins visiting in their sailor suits, my aunt in her Red Cross uniform when she returned from refugee work in France. As far away as it was, war was a constant presence. In the evening, we’d pull all the curtains, shut in the light, shut out the world. My father was a blackout warden for awhile and went out every evening to make sure no lights were showing in the neighborhood.  People were afraid the Japanese would bomb us.  There were horrible racist billboards of kamikazi pilots with twisted yellow monster faces. I used to have nightmares about them.  Later, we practiced hiding under our desks at school in case of nuclear attack.  Later still, we saw mushroom clouds on the news, rising over the deserts of Nevada.  Every age has its anxieties.  Do American children now fear terrorist attack the way my generation feared air attacks and invasion? And what about the children who live under the missiles and drones? We humans are our own worst enemies.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
            The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.
  Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

–Constantine P. Cavafy (Tr. Edmund Keeley)

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7 Responses to Those people were a kind of solution

  1. Mary LA says:

    To have lived through so much conflict, Susan and so much forgotten in the ’60s and ”70s — and I revere Cavafy. Have you read JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians?

    • sswl says:

      Mary, yes, I have read Coetzee’s novel. He is such a beautiful writer, the evocative descriptions, but it was almost unbearable to read–the pain, stupidity, inevitability, and of course the relevance to the present. I deeply admired it and could hardly put it down, but squirmed the whole way through.

      I’ve read very little of Cavafy and would like to read more. Is there a collection and translator you especially like?

  2. mishedup says:

    Ah Susan,

    I don’t comment all the time, but your writing is beautiful, you have such a way of painting a complete picture with your words, and I adore the opening lines, your weather/sky check-in.

    I am as reflective as you these days, so much happening in the world, a newly re-elected president and wondering what can be done. This poem is amazing, I have never read it before. We do seem to need those bogey-men, they do seem to serve a purpose, though it be a false and negative one, not helpful to making things better, only to keeping the collective us afraid.
    And we still demonize the other and fear them, make them the cause of our problems, so we don’t have at look at ourselves.

    I am afraid, not of the barbarians at the gate but of those who tell us they are there so vehemently.

    Thank you for this

    • sswl says:

      Yes, me too, Michele. Have you read the Coetzee novel Mary mentions? It will certainly reinforce your point of view! Demonizing the Other, an age-old technique still in constant use.

      Thank you for your kind words. I always love hearing from you.

  3. Lisa Neumann says:

    Susan, I feel as of late that you are handing down stories to me. My parents have never shared any of these memories with me. (Well, at least I don’t remember. They probably tried and It told them they were boring) Either way, I love to come over and hear your sentiment on life. You are a beautiful writer. (It helps too that I accept you point of view:) Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. with love lisa

    • sswl says:

      Thank you, Lisa! It’s so nice to have a place to share some of those memories, and I seem to be in that frame of mind lately, so it’s lovely to have them appreciated.

  4. Hi Susan, I feel very much as Lisa-grateful to you for beautifully sharing and passing along these memories. Thank you so much, C

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