Since earlier this year, we’ve been featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it was an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it was an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it was, our aim has been to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change. Today’s essay by Colum McCann is the last for now. If you haven’t already, please go out and vote today.
From One, Many
by Colum McCann
— But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.
— Yes, says Bloom.
— What is it? says John Wyse.
— A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
— By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had the laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:
— Or also living in different places.
— James Joyce, Ulysses
So many skies. Over Atlanta. Over Minneapolis. Over New Orleans. Over Cheyenne. Over Charleston. Over Portland. Over Miami. Over Reno. Over Brooklyn. We are a scattered people, in so many more senses than one. Our psychoses. Our passivities. Our pretensions. Our prejudices. In search of a debate over who and where we are. And where we are going. And how we are going to get there. Or if, indeed, we ever will. To be critical. To be nuanced. To understand we are as complicated as those varied skies. Not to pat ourselves too heavily on our backs. Nor to rip ourselves asunder either. To be annoyed at ourselves. To stop perpetuating ourselves from the inside. To quit being imprisoned by what they say about us on the outside. To throw our voices and create a new story. To know that the voice comes from both within and without. To create new and sustainable moments. To reflect. To criticize. To smash the clichés embraced by the corporations, banks, government, and, yes, ourselves too. To dismantle the stereotypes. To give contour to the way we are seen from afar. To forge the uncreated credo. To echo. And re-echo. To be angry. To permeate the quiet corners. To chase away the craven. To sculpt a national identity that doesn’t kowtow to ease. To make bridges. To dig canals. To keep the dirt road. To go nowhere elegantly. To quit the lip service. To be smarter than what we give ourselves credit for. To go quiet on Columbus Day. To sing late on Labor Day. To salute the teachers on Veterans Day. To make a nation of our many nations. To engage with what has been created. Our music. Our theatre. Our painting. Our film. Our sculpture. Our literature. Our dance. All of it. The mystery of it all. Redward. Blueward. Beyond. To go beyond again and again. To extend past the grandiose, the narrow, the elitist, the sham, the con game. To meld and to change. To be agile. To make mistakes. To sustain the imaginative effort. To be propelled beyond the platitudes. To be properly doubtful. To do the things that don’t compute. To shine the light out of the ground. To shadow-turn. To abandon destination. To embrace being lost. To practice what we have neglected. To recognize what we have ignored. To get another chance at telling. To get at the rougher edge of truth. To be raw, fierce, intelligent, joyous, skeptical of ease. To be in two places, three, four, fifty, fifty-two, all at once. To embrace the vagrant voices. To imagine what it means to be someone else. To learn the expansiveness of others. To accept the alternative. To create the kaleidoscopic. To crack the looking glass. To have our stories meet other stories. To be agile. To showcase our talent. To have the abandoned voices drift back in. To recolor it all. To understand presence as opposed to absence. To demolish borders. To acknowledge the leaving. To embrace it. To allow the wound. To discover the pulse of it. To find a new way of belonging. To be also living in different places, but in diffident places too. To be everywhere. To understand that we are as much a people as we are a country. To recognize our languages. To let loose. To sing the breaking. To un-mortgage the future. To know that we cannot coordinate that which is not yet there. To stop the demolitions of what we know is good. To get our forests back. To quit building laneways leading off into mid-air. To shame the unearned profit. To oppose the dismantling of enlightened social legislation. To refuse the vapid political simplicities. To end the stunned submission to greed. To shout out against the evisceration of our heritage. To make up for what we have lost. To have another chance at history. To not condescend to the past. To reimagine ourselves. To never give up on the presumption of hope. To look out for the enquiring, lighted minds. To stand in opposition to the lobotomizing weight of expediency. To free ourselves from the small hatreds. To chant our peace. To talk principle. To sustain our self-critique. To know that what has been handed to us is precious. To weave a new flag, then wave it. To rainbow it. To immigrant it. To kneel with it. To fold the dismissed back into the debate. To make of ourselves an international republic. To profit for culture rather than from it. To know that there is land beyond this land, so many lands. To acknowledge what was stolen. To be aware that there is territory in our imagination. To flex our muscles. To flux them. To embrace contradiction. To be carefree and critical at the same time. To shore up our commitments toward reality and justice. To be real. To be tough. To spirit on. To engage. To explore. To be unafraid of simplicity. To never forget that we have a sense of humor. To stop talking shit about others. And then to continue talking shit about ourselves. In fact to talk more shit about ourselves than anyone else. Especially when we encourage ourselves not to. To palm the light and the dark together. To hold the questions. To celebrate them. To test all the theories and find another theory in each of them. To say then—finally—and almost—finally—well, almost finally—to reach a beginning—to never end—that we are in the continual act of composition. That there are no limits. That this, then, is our ongoing nation, not what it once was, but what it could be.
Take action today:
Check out Narrative 4.
Support the Young Authors Greenhouse in Louisville, KY.
And please vote today. Find your polling place here.
Colum McCann is the author of six novels and three collections of stories. He is the co-founder of the global non-profit story exchange organization Narrative 4. This essay is adapted from an address delivered on the anniversary of the Glucksman Ireland House at New York University.