…the whole town seemed like a railway waiting-room.

– Albert Camus, The Plague (1948)

Nothing beats a waiting room for banal. From body language, it’s clear people feel their lives are on hold, their emotions sidelined to boredom and irritability. Young passengers feel excitement (or fear) about the adventure of travel aboard a roaring, whistling monstrosity. The grownups are just waiting for their lives to resume.

In Camus’ metaphor, the city of Oran (Algeria) comes to resemble a waiting room, with people’s lives on hold, because of bubonic plague. There is an uproar when the plague first arrives, but the city adjusts resentfully to a new normal: restrictions, shortages, losses of loved ones, a “for the duration” feeling in relationships, difficulty finding anything meaningful to do. Another name for this waiting-room state of mind is despair: I’m stuck. Nothing to be done. Is there anything on TV?

The plague of despair is endemic in the everyday life of a wage-earner/consumer society: symptoms are detachment, helplessness, paranoia, self-absorption. Voting against rather than for. Having no serious work to do. Wearing ear buds while waiting for real life to happen.

Photo: Railway waiting room at Kazan, Russia (500 miles east of Moscow); Adam Jones via Wikimedia

But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.

– Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy (1990)

If it’s like a tsunami, then justice is rare, an exceptional event. It comes after a sudden, earthquake-like downfall of tyranny – as in the French Revolution or the arrest of Harvey Weinstein. Wrongs of the past are swept away all at once. Or that is the hope.

To make hope and history rhyme – so that a dream of justice becomes historical fact – there has to be a huge accumulation of pain and anger. Nothing less will move an ocean of inertia. And the wave, once it rises, must reach the shore. Most uprisings sink back into the sea.

In early 2011, known for a while as the Arab Spring, a wave swept across North Africa. It began with the despair of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-seller in Tunis who set himself on fire in protest after callous persecution by a petty official. His story spread fast, stirring sympathy and outrage. People massed in public squares; governments fell. In Tunisia at least, a working democracy emerged and held on. Everywhere else, there was only wreckage and retaliation – still going on in Syria.

A tsunami leaves a terrible mess behind. There is no wiping the slate clean.

Progress, if not justice, is possible, and it may seem to come out of the blue. Harry Truman integrated the US military in 1948 with the stroke of a pen (Executive Order 9981). Oprah Winfrey won instant acceptance in American homes when her show premiered in 1986 – not as a picture-perfect “Julia” or one of the comical “Jeffersons” but as herself, talking about matters great and small that she personally cared about and that her audience of mostly white women also cared about. Barack Obama won presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, as if the country’s need for a wise leader were the only issue that mattered.

Postscript: A wave of protest against racial injustice swept across America in May-June 2020, after the torture-murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It remains to be seen whether history written in the next few months will at last fulfill the long-held hopes of millions of oppressed Americans – so that hope and history rhyme.

Photo: Trail up from the beach at Patrick’s Point State Park (California); Karl Stull

All of us are trim tabs, man.

– Jeff Bridges on Real Time (October 5, 2018)

Jeff Bridges credits the trim-tab metaphor to Buckminster Fuller, who compared social reform to steering a supertanker. The rudder on a vessel that size is so large it can’t be turned by ordinary means. The engineering solution is the trim tab, a mini-rudder that steers the main rudder, which then turns the ship.

From this principle, it follows that small groups and even individuals can influence the behavior of a mass society – turning it away from traditions of racism, for example.

While supporting the hope that a few good people can bring about good on a grand scale, the metaphor includes a stern requirement, that trim tabs do their work in conjunction with a rudder. Random acts of kindness do not turn the ship; turning the rudder turns the ship.

After the crab eyes, the fish eyes appear.

– Chinese saying about bubbles in boiling water

“Crab Eyes” is also a poem in Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, a 13th century book of 100 ink paintings and 100 accompanying poems by Sung Po-jen – the world’s oldest known art book. The book begins with the buds of early spring and ends with fruit plucked for the soup pot.

The buds in painting number 4 remind Sung of the small bubbles in boiling water that are called crab eyes. This leads him to imagine how the world must look through the eyes of a crab – the rough seas and unforeseeable dangers. He concludes that a crab would rather die in the wild, from any cause brought by the dawning sun (Lord of the East), than in a boiling pot.

scuttling across sands of rivers and seas
at home in the foulest wind and waves
preferring the Lord of the East
public death to the cauldron

Looking at the ink painting again, after you’ve read the poem, the painted image is transformed. You see not only the buds but also oval eyes nestled in sockets, and an idea that brings the two images together – life in an uncertain world. We live in hope, but are all at risk of the cauldron.

Translation by Red Pine (a.k.a. Bill Porter, 1995)

Photo: Karl Stull

Leavenworth is like “a giant mausoleum adrift in a sea of nothingness.”

– Inmate writing to his mother in 1929 (quoted in Pete Earley, The Hot House, 1992)

The Kansas tourism board most strenuously objects. Sea of nothingness? Those are the amber waves of grain out there, in a sea of plenty, which we sing about in “America the Beautiful.”

But the inmate’s metaphor is interesting for having two parts. The first part equates being in prison with being dead. The second part emphasizes how far removed the mausoleum is from the land of the living. “Far from where I want to be,” says Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison.” Cash hears a passing train and imagines a fancy dining car in which people are “drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.” People in the land of the living “keep a-moving, and that’s what tortures me.”

In “1998,” a poem from Stone Hotel (2003), Raegan Butcher writes:

I used to sit and cry and hold a loaded gun up to my head,
but I chose a slower way of being dead.

Photo: Leavenworth Penitentiary/Wikipedia