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My Invisible Horse and the Speed of Human Decency

February 1, 2020

It’s February, that gray and endless time of year when I add a vitamin D pill and “sunlight” lamp to my morning routines. Because I don’t want to spiral down by the end of the day, I try to make plans to do things with friends, even though I caution myself that snow or sickness might derail any plans we make. And then sometimes I start the spiral anyway when my friends ditch their plans with me in favor of spending time with their adult children. Didn’t we used to have a term for ditching a friend in favor of the chance of a romantic relationship? Shouldn’t there be one for ditching a friend in favor of one’s own offspring?

In his essay “On Friendship,” Cicero warns that “we suffer from carelessness in many of our undertakings: in none more than selecting and cultivating our friends. We put the cart before the horse, and shut the stable door when the steed is stolen, in defiance of the old proverb. For, having mutually involved ourselves in a long-standing intimacy or by actual obligations, all on a sudden some cause of offense arises and we break off our friendships in full career.”

IMG_3615So I’m not going to be careless. I will stay home with Pippin, who says enough of February already, from his nest of blankets.

It does make me think of a poem I once got as a poem of the day, Matthew Olzmann’s “My Invisible Horse and the Speed of Human Decency”:

People always tell me, “Don’t put the cart
before the horse,” which is curious
because I don’t have a horse.
Is this some new advancement in public shaming—
repeatedly drawing one’s attention
to that which one is currently not, and never
has been, in possession of?
If ever, I happen to obtain a Clydesdale,
then I’ll align, absolutely, it to its proper position
in relation to the cart, but I can’t
do that because all I have is the cart.
One solitary cart—a little grief wagon that goes
precisely nowhere—along with, apparently, one
invisible horse, which does not pull,
does not haul, does not in any fashion
budge, impel or tow my disaster buggy
up the hill or down the road.
I’m not asking for much. A more tender world
with less hatred strutting the streets.
Perhaps a downtick in state-sanctioned violence
against civilians. Wind through the trees.
Water under the bridge. Kindness.
LOL, says the world. These things take time, says
the Office of Disappointment. Change cannot
be rushed, says the roundtable of my smartest friends.
Then, together, they say, The cart!
They say, The horse!
They say, Haven’t we told you already?
So my invisible horse remains
standing where it previously stood:
between hotdog stands and hallelujahs,
between the Nasdaq and the moon’s adumbral visage,
between the status quo and The Great Filter,
and I can see that it’s not his fault—being
invisible and not existing—
how he’s the product of both my imagination
and society’s failure of imagination.
Watch how I press my hand against his translucent flank.
How I hold two sugar cubes to his hypothetical mouth.
How I say I want to believe in him,
speaking softly into his missing ear.

The “roundtable of my smartest friends” would probably also say that it won’t do any good to go out and stand on the public square again, holding a sign about a political issue, and yet that’s what I’m going to do today and for as long as this endless stream of hopeless gray Saturdays continues.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. lemming permalink
    February 1, 2020 2:03 pm

    I think that the weekly signs are actually a way of doing something, and all the more admirable in all weathers.

    A house in our ‘burb is owned by a person who puts up what I can only describe as really bizarre signs in his front yard. During the previous administration he had a lot to say about Muslims in government; since the 2016 election I understand fewer and fewer of them. (Maybe he is an Alex Jones fan?) Anyway, his most recent sign shows that he knows many people think he’s just weird for having a new sign each week, and he doesn’t care. You actually stand alongside your signs and wave. 🙂

    • February 1, 2020 2:08 pm

      We do stand up for what we believe. And wave. And sing, at the end.
      I’m never in the picture because I’m taking it. But my friend Franklin, in the yellow jacket, is holding up my sign.

  2. February 1, 2020 11:21 pm

    Right on, Jeanne! That’s an awesome way for you to brighten up a gloomy time of year! If you ever need a break or an activism-related laugh, scroll through this guy’s random picket signs (he has a whole Instagram account just for this): https://www.boredpanda.com/guy-protesting-random-things-signs-dudewithsign/

    Also, I can so relate to the lonely feeling that comes when my friends are all busy with their offspring and/or significant others. On a totally unrelated note, I plan to spend the 14th hanging out with a box of Thin Mints and a new puppy 😊

    • February 3, 2020 8:28 am

      It’s good to have plans. And a new puppy sounds like an excellent means of staying in the moment!
      Thanks for the random signs laugh. Mine are much less random. The one I held this Saturday says “Pro Life? Don’t Criminalize Abortion.”

  3. February 2, 2020 11:17 am

    Thank you for standing in the square with signs, even if it feels hopeless. My son is working on a campaign that is trying to avoid landing in the Office of Disappointment. My focus is election security (“hand-marked paper ballots” is my favorite phrase these days) as I don’t think we will be able to change anything positively without that as a foundation.

    • February 3, 2020 8:26 am

      It is essential to have a focus, isn’t it? Yours does seem to be the first building block. I hope we get to vote in 2020.

  4. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    February 2, 2020 12:22 pm

    That’s (another) remarkable poem. Do you have any favorite anthologies? I have been picking poetry collections up at the library a bit randomly trying to find new voices I like but it’s really chancy. You know so many ones I’ve never come across before.

    I think it’s wonderful that you get out there and stand for something.

    • February 3, 2020 8:24 am

      I’ve been thinking about anthologies. When I was a kid, someone gave me 100 Best-Loved Poems, and I just about memorized all the poems in it. In college, I loved the Norton Anthology of Poetry. When I was teaching, I used the Norton Introduction to Poetry. There’s one other anthology I’ve enjoyed over the years, and that’s one edited by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby entitled Seriously Funny. I subscribe to a poem a day and often look through the poems at The Poetry Foundation online (poetryfoundation.org).

  5. February 3, 2020 4:50 pm

    Fantastic poem! We had the cloudiest January on record and was it ever getting depressing. Finally got some sun on groundhog’s day just when the critter stuck her head out. Figures. Hang in there! With the cold and gray and with the signs!

    • February 4, 2020 10:57 am

      It is a great poem, isn’t it? We had temperatures above freezing on Saturday and a bit of sun on Sunday, too, so that was nice.

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