Introduction to Shoal Hope
Last night I watched Bill Moyers delve into a chapter of his own history that has been central to the shaping of all our histories. He went through Lyndon Johnson’s Oval Office tapes as if through a scrapbook of his own youth. In it he found snapshots of what it was like there and then; how in 1963 and ’64 Vietnam and its civil war was first inherited by Johnson and how it then went on to consume him and a generation.
It was chilling, but not really surprising, to see how clearly Johnson saw the bleak prospects for what passed for “success in Vietnam” even before he had any role in shaping events around its questions. He was very smart, and took things in voraciously and knew how to react. Yet he walked right into what he knew had no chance of reaching a successful outcome. He took actions that inexorably brought him tremendous personal tragedy only surpassed by what it did to the lives of countless others.
He was aided by the “Best and the Brightest.” At that time this epitaph was meant to be ironic, today it is swallowed whole; a sign of how far we’ve fallen…. He knew when he was being used, no one was better at the “deal,” better able to coerce and see when he was being pushed to act against his own agenda; yet he did it.
Facing a tragic condition, one of deep complexity, he lacked a template that might take him out of his bind. A bind that had as much to do with a limited view – widespread as it was and continues to be! – as it did with the actual circumstances he faced. Like a bewildered teenager, who knows in his heart that the choices presented to him are limited and bound to end badly, he walked into his trap aware of its difficulties and unable to do anything else.
If you’re looking for it, the world does bring you what you seek. It did so when I watched that program last night. It gave me a germ of an idea that I was able to transplant onto the major work I’ve been harnessed to for closing on a decade. It illuminated something about tragedy and the binds it has used on us in the past century. I was able as a result to finally put into words the underlying theme of my novel, Shoal Hope.
…We had again sight of the land, which made ahead, being as we thought an island, …we called it Shoal Hope. Near this cape we came to anchor in fifteen fathoms, where we took great store of codfish, for which we altered the name, and called it Cape Cod.
Gabriel Archer in his journal of Bartholomew Gosnold’s voyage, 1602.
Shoal Hope is a novel of spirals and traps. Traps that turn in on themselves. Traps that hold us against our will. Traps that overwhelm our ability to make decisions. We see fish-traps that ringed the shores of Cape Cod until a generation ago, but also traps we’ve constructed for ourselves.
A spiral draws us in. It can be hard to escape. That’s the way traps work, that’s how they take us in. They channel a momentum of our own making and use it against us. They keep fish circling until they can be harvested. They also keep us turning and turning in on ourselves, perhaps until it’’s too late.
This is what this book is about. This is why it has this shape. This is why no single story dominates. This is why we go around and around again. We look at a variety of stories. They are different in their particulars, but together they make up a cautionary tale.
The phrase Shoal Hope implies hope, a shallow hope. A shoal is shallow, but it can also be a school. That double meaning was there for Archer and Gosnold. From a mariner’s perspective a shallow is a danger, to the marine life it shelters, it is a haven. A shallow that is also a school. A shallow that is both dangerous and harboring. This place implied a school of fish to Gosnold. To us?
We look at fish here; but that other, wider meaning of school is never far away. This place, this time, these stories are intended as a school for us. A school of hope. A school to give hope and a school to show what hope might mean. A school where we make distinctions between hope and wishes, between fantasy and true possibility.
Sand slips between our fingers. So does time, and so have we seen the range of our possibilities, the scope for the quality of our hope, slip away across the intervening years. These stories took place at a pivotal moment. This was a crossroads we can only truly recognize in hindsight.
There’s deep tragedy in that. We lost a century. We lost countless lives in war and suffering during that time, in unspeakable horrors. We also saw the final days of a healthy ecosystem reeling under shocks, as we coalesced about a course that has led directly to the present catastrophic collapse engulfing us. A collapse occurring in the blink of an eye geologically speaking, but still too slowly to fit into our everyday perceptions. There lies another layer of tragedy, a trap we circle in as we wonder and worry and attempt to maintain that nothing’s really changed, that everything will go on as we’ve known it.
In the world of Shoal Hope we glimpse a baseline. Our world has not gone on as we expected. Already the changes have been profound. The scope of loss in this single century has been unprecedented, not only within time scales we are accustomed to calling “forever,” but over the course of the entire natural history of Earth.
These concepts are too vast to be understood, to be felt, embraced. Tracts on the subject have filled libraries without penetrating our resistance to their implications. For me what has had much more of an impact have been little changes of great portent; the colors of a sky at sunset, the contents of wrack and flotsam at the high tide line, the life in a tide-pool or its scarcity. In my lifetime these have all changed beyond recognition.
These pages are an attempt to pass on experiences, extrapolations; imaginative extrapolations of my own experience taken back another generation to that time when there was a choice to be made, and when – in hindsight – we can see what was still to be lost, and how easily it slipped between our fingers.
Like fish in a trap, we let this happen to us. For the most part, with glaring and horrific exceptions, this was not out of malice. What happened to us happened while we thought we were doing something else. As John Lennon put it, life as what happens to us while we are making other plans. Sometimes this results in comedy, sometimes drama, and sometimes tragedy.
The distance between us and this Shoal Hope is our tragedy.
We see tragedy as bad. It is. It is also often inescapable; but not out of the twists and turns of an imposed Fate, but resulting from the most basic and simple facts of nature. Entropy is always at work and everything comes to an end. None of this means that any particular fate is unavoidable, just that in the long term all of our fates bring us to an end. This doesn’t mean there cannot be joy or happiness or goodness in the meantime. It does mean we have a choice in how we live our lives, decide what has meaning, embrace those choices.
Facing the reality of our situation, in all its precarious danger, and with all the personal and collective responsibility we share for having let it reach this point; is not more tragic than maintaining a denial of its imminence as we experience increasing anxiety, approaching horror, in our paralysis as we are struck nevertheless by that which we wish we could avoid.
There is dignity in making that confrontation. There is hope in doing so. None of this is easy, but it is a choice. Choice itself is what makes human life unique, gives it such a piquant value. We have a choice that fish in their traps don’t have. That it is limited, imperfect, and that we are coming to it just when it might be too late; none of this diminishes its value, or renders it meaningless.
In hindsight, the germ of all that transpired in the past century was there to be seen in 1912. Some saw hints of it. Could it have been avoided? Perhaps in some other “where and when” it has – or will be? For us what matters is that from our vantage we can look at that moment and draw lessons and hope from how we perceive it today, standing on that century’s “shoulders.” Along with the damage, the atrocities against man and nature that those years have bestowed on us, there have been eked from all that suffering perspectives that might bring us meaning in the face of our own catastrophes.
As we individually struggle with forces and currents beyond our abilities to control one lesson may be the simple act of witness. Witness is a positive response to tragedy in two ways. It proclaims that it is more worthy to look than to turn away no matter how horrific the prospect. It also proposes that such witness is our only chance for amelioration, it is its necessary precursor.
Brought up as we’ve been with expectations of heroes and happy endings, it’s not surprising that we see these possibilities as shoal hopes indeed! Meager, thin reeds on which to lean in our trepidation. This does nothing to counter their validity or usefulness, they simply reflect how far we’ve strayed from an active engagement with reality, how far we need to go to adjust our expectations to what is possible.
As desperate as we are to maintain our old habits, those that brought us success or at least survival in the past, now that we swim in this trap, we have no choice but to adapt or to be extinguished. Can we learn from this school? Can we forge a meaningful hope for ourselves from its turns and spirals of danger and haven?
That remains to be seen.
These are the questions that have driven the crafting of these pages.