“The easiest way to avoid wrong notes is to never open your mouth and sing. What a mistake that would be.” –Pete Seeger
Dear Pete Seeger,
i remember standing there, in the coldest rain i can remember ever standing in, singing “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and “This Little Light of Mine” and several others, at the top of my lungs.
my roommate mike had come home three days before, and with not too much arm-twisting, convinced me to take a bus ride to someplace in georgia i’d never even heard of. considering that i worked for a bunch of hippie liberals, getting friday and monday off was a snap. explaining to my family that i was leaving dc for the weekend, in the company of total strangers, except for mike, who was a stranger to them, was kind of hard sell. telling my conservative momma and grandparents that i was going to attend a protest at a high profile military installation is a ticklish kind of thing to do. i suppose they just shook their heads, said a prayer, and figured it was something i needed to get out of my system.
what i didn’t know about geopolitics, even after graduating from college with a minor in political science, could have filled the grand canyon. i spent my time in college reading about the rise of empire, the devine right of kings, and aristotelian political theory. i spent very little time in the modern era…and the time i did spend there, i spent reading about the palestinian/israeli conflict. i was guilty, according to ts eliot, of neglecting and belittling the desert that lay in my own back yard. and i was coming into my adulthood at a time when that desert was filled with voices crying in the wilderness, begging for someone to listen. i was 21 when the big protests at the imf and world bank happened, happily ensconced in my little life in san marcos, trying to finish my degree, and swealtering through another texas summer. i remember seeing the protests on tv, and changing the channel to “behind the music”…sometimes you just can’t stand to see the reality that is staring you back in the face.
by the time i got to dc, in the summer of 2000, 12 days after i graduated from college, the tenor of the conversation, the realization that things were happening that i had no idea about, knocked me for a loop. as a person, i was just really coming into my own…moving away from home was just the tip of the ice berg. i think most people come to a point in their young adult lives when they realize that they are no longer simply their parents’ child, they have become something beyond that. i was, and still am, profoundly proud to be my parents’ child. but my identity isn’t nearly as wrapped up in that persona as it was when i was 21. things have happened, i have seen things, done things, been a part of things that have happened far from the reach of their hands, physical and metaphorical. those things have shaped me as much as the time i spent in their house. and i am equally grateful for both. that being said, i think most people go through a time in their lives when they stand everything they thought they knew and believed on its head…and you see what sticks.
what stuck for me was remembering that i grew up in a house that believed in God. i grew up in a house that believed in the goodness of people, that believe how you treated people mattered, that even nasty people deserved to be treated well. i never believed that the world was a fair place, but i learned that i could deal fairly with people, and that made all the difference. i learned that standing up for the right, true, and good things is hard, but necessary, and that the licks you take for doing that are always worth it, no matter the cost. i learned that the measure of a person isn’t about what’s in your bank account, but what’s in your heart and what comes out of your mouth. and so, as i felt myself thinking all these big thoughts, wrestling with issues i’d never contemplated, i had a good foundation to build upon.
and so i went to georgia…to find out what i did not know. i wasn’t silly enough to believe that the story i heard in georgia was the gospel truth about what was happening in latin america. history is rarely unbiased, regardless of whether it is written by the victors or the victims. but i knew i wanted to know a different part of the story. to be honest, i felt like a charlatan, a voyeur, an interloper. here i was, a middle class kid with a middle class education, who didn’t even know if she was a republican or a democrat, who didn’t know anything about the sandinistas, or the contras, or nicaragua, or archbishop romero, and i was smack in the middle of a discussion of all those things. i remember being silent for so much of the time i was there…just taking it all in, reading pamphlet after pamphlet, trying to make sense of what i was reading. and i felt like so…unfaithful. both my grandfathers and one of my grandmothers had been in the military. my uncle was in the navy. my greatgrandfather fought in wwi, and i had been taught my whole life to be patriotic, to support the troops, to be reverent almost. and here i was, standing in the middle of a cold fall rain, in protest at a military base. to say that i was conflicted would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. and i still feel conflicted.
what i do know is this…i have a profound and deep sense of respect and admiration and gratitude for the men and women in the armed forces. they keep us safe. they are volunteers. they leave me breathless with their selflessness in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances. they don’t get to vote about where they go or what they do. they are so incredibly brave. and they deserve to have policies that reflect that bravery and honor. and i believe to this day that the policy i was protesting deserved that protest, on their behalf, because they could not do it themselves.
and in the middle of it all, there you stood, with your banjo that surrounded hate and and forced it surrender, and you made us sing beautiful songs. even though your voice was showing the length of your years, you sang so loud and big, and dared us all to leave the hurt we were learning about, responding to, and make music. you made the music part of the cure for the hate, one of the ways we connected to each other in that big, cold, wet crowd. you asked us to lift up our heads, to lift up our voices and lives, and to make what we were doing there in georgia, and at home, in real life, really mean something. and while time has changed the 22 year old, bundled from the cold and crying her eyes out, singing as loud as she possibly could into the 35 year old housewife with two part-time jobs and a deep love of the written word, i never think of you without smiling, without remembering, without singing out loud.
i married a banjo player, partly because of you. i try to remember not to think about hitting wrong notes, and just singing anyway because of you. i teach the little kids i know and love to sing “if i had a hammer”, and love that song so much, because it’s hopeful and sweet. thank you always seems like a small thing to say to one of your heroes, one of the giants who helped you to understand the world in a different way, who helped you not to feel so small and alone in the world. but today, i thank you Pete Seeger. and i thank the living God who gave you to us for so many wonderful years. may you rest in peace, and rise in glory.