Lights in the Darkness

Lights in the Darkness

By Tom Robotham


Here and there does not matter / We must be still and still moving /
Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion. 
~ T.S. Eliot


As we enter the final days of 2017, I find myself reflecting on the past 12 months. It was a difficult year, to say the least, unfolding, as it did, under the shadow of Donald Trump. But as I think about the experiences I’ve had, I’m reminded that there’s so much to be thankful for.

For one thing, the year began with one of the biggest political rallies in American history—the Women’s March on Washington. I’m grateful that I had an opportunity to witness it firsthand. In the days leading up to the event, many people had feared that it might erupt in violence. But the apprehension proved to be unwarranted. Indeed, as it turned out, it was a model of peaceful demonstration—half a million people expressing in harmony their determination to oppose the looming threat of tyranny.

On the way home I did feel a tinge of melancholy. I worried that the march might turn out to have been a one-off, feel-good event like the Million Mom March that I attended years ago in Washington, in protest of gun-rights extremists. That rally accomplished absolutely nothing. At this point, however, I think it’s fair to say that this year’s march—accompanied by dozens of others in cities across the land— did have some impact.

Two months after my visit to D.C., I went to Paris for the first time in 17 years. I was pleased to see that it hadn’t changed much since my last visit. So much of our own country has changed, after all—and not for the better—as corporate chains have spread their soul-devouring presence into every corner of America, displacing community personalities with sterile facades, much as the mysterious pods in the classic ‘50s sci-fi/horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers took over people’s bodies and turned them into smiling but vacuous automatons. In Paris I felt reconnected with the soul of humanity, as I wandered through the streets or sat in the cafes.

It was especially refreshing to see in the cafes people engaged in conversation or simply watching the pageant of everyday life unfold in the adjacent streets. In this way it was a marked contrast to what I too often observe here—a 24/7 attachment to smart phones. I was about to say that this problem is especially evident among young people, but I’m not sure that’s fair. In August, the publisher of this magazine and I went to a wonderful concert in Northern Virginia, featuring on a single bill Edgar Winter, Alice Cooper and Deep Purple. Throughout Winter’s performance, the middle-age couple in front of us—man and woman both—had their phones held high. Apparently it was more important to document the experience so they could share it with their “friends” on social media than it was to actually watch and listen. Never mind that they were blocking my view.

My initial impulse was to go all Joe Pesci on the guy and say, Put your phone down or I’m gonna crack it over your fuckin’ skull. I decided that would be unwise. Instead, after Winter left the stage, I told him politely that he’d been blocking my view and asked him not to do it for the rest of the concert. He complied, for the most part. But by no means had he and his wife been alone. The arena was filled with raised smart phones, even though there was scarcely a Millennial in sight.

I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast between this behavior and a King Crimson concert I’d seen a month earlier at the gorgeous Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. Before the show, an announcer had come over the PA system to inform the sellout crowd that photography and recording would not be allowed. “Photograph it with your eyes and record it with your ears,” he’d said.

My attendance at The King Crimson show was part of a 10-day road trip through the northeast, beginning in Philadelphia with one of my dearest friends. From there I went on to New Jersey to stay for two nights with my oldest friend, Marty—a guy I’ve known since I was 5—and his wife, Jacqui, whom we both met in college. There’s something deeply moving about sitting with someone with whom you’ve shared that much life—and as we talked on his backyard patio late into the night, all the bullshit—from Trump’s mockery of everything that’s good, to the vicious exchanges that I often encounter on social media—faded away.

From New Jersey, I ventured on to White Plains, New York to visit my sister and brother-in-law. She’s my only sibling, and, as such, the only person who’s known me since birth. (My mom died in 2015; my dad in 2005). But there were more such continuities to come: Visits with my kids, who both live in New York; a wonderful day in Brooklyn Heights with my friend Dan, whom I met at my first newspaper job back in 1980, and a great conversation over beers at the historic Pete’s Tavern in Manhattan with another friend, Mark, whom I met in college but hadn’t seen in a decade.

The trip was a great highlight of the year, filled with moments of grace that I carried with me into the autumn as I began a new semester. Teaching brought its usual mix of joys and frustrations, but for the most part I had a good group of students, especially in my Sex, Culture & Media class where the discussions were lively—and timelier than ever.

One cannot look back on 2017 without thinking about the recent flood of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. I thought about writing my whole column on that, but since I did so last month I decided that I’d said enough on that subject for now. Indeed, if I have one New Year’s Resolution—other than the perennial “Quit Smoking!”—it is this: to listen more intently, not just with my ears but with my heart.

That resolve was reinforced for me this year as I undertook a project I’d long contemplated: A series about religious life in Hampton Roads for Coastal Virginia Magazine. In the course of my research it has been a blessing to meet so many lovely people: Muslims of various ages and backgrounds, liberal Christians, an elderly Jewish man and woman who’ve been married for 66 years and remain vigorously active in the community, three Rabbis, and a number of evangelical Christians. In the last group I talked with people whose beliefs are far afield from my own. And yet one in particular, Bishop Courtney McBath of Calvary Revival Church in Norfolk, struck me as one of the smartest, kindest and most authentic people I’ve ever met.

The desire to listen was reinforced yet again by Herman Melville. Toward the end of the year I started spending more time with a friend who is finishing her degree in English literature and had been assigned Moby Dick. I decided to reread it with her. Our conversations about the book have been delightful, and rereading the book has been eye opening. Melville has much to say about prejudice and hypocrisy, particularly with regard to religion and race. If you’ve never read it—or haven’t done so in years—I strongly recommend picking it up.

Yes, we have endured 2017 under the shadow of a president who is incapable of listening to anyone. And his strategy of divisiveness has amped up the vitriol in our national discourse. That is what he wants: He feeds on it. And yet I think that this reality television show called “President Trump” is presenting to us skewed notions about our nation. We needn’t feel so divided, as I’ve learned from one more series of experiences this year. The waning days of 2017 have been marked for me by weekly gatherings at the Taphouse in Norfolk with a group of guys whose political views are sharply different from my own. None of that matters when we’re together. We sit and talk and laugh and drink beer like brothers. There is so much more to life than politics, after all. There are stories we need to share—of love and heartbreak, triumph and setback, and everything in between. Perhaps if we try harder to share them from the depths of our being we will realize, once again, that what we have in common far outweighs the things that separate us.