This is an essay I read at the Emergence event on August 6, 2021 in front of the Adventure Time mural behind the George Arnold building on Washington. The mural was being retired. While not a “Now & Then” topic exactly, I do mention Rhode Island, which is how I justify posting it here.
From the pens of poets and mouths of politicians, the idea of hope is habitually a victim of platitude. Sometimes generalized away from any discernable contrast with yearning or optimism or even simple expectation; and sometimes depicted so specifically as to be synonymous with nothing other than faith, hope is easy to say, but shy to the touch. Easier to characterize than define, hope is like obscenity … we know it when we see it.
The challenges around understanding what we’re talking about when we talk about hope are, to my mind, perfectly captured in the state motto of Rhode Island, which is not “Hope Endures” or “Hope Always” or “A State of Hope,” or as in South Carolina, “While I Breathe, I Hope” (which I suppose means, only the dead are without hope). No, our state motto is just the one word alone. Hope. That’s all we get. What does it mean? Well, in typical, even traditional Rhode Island fashion, we’re invited to figure it out for ourselves. Hope! And never give up. Hope! And keep your powder dry. Hope! And tell Massachusetts Bay Colony to bite me. Hope! It’s what’s for dinner.
Fortunately, not fortunately, the voices willing if not able to help us with the concept of hope are numerous, loud, and annoyingly self-assured. Hope is audacious, but only a small rebellion, an anchor of course, and an axe. Hope is a good thing. Hope is a bad thing. Hope is the companion to power and the only thing stronger than fear. But hope is not a strategy. Hope is a lover’s staff and fertile soil, an open heart and a state of mind, a good breakfast and a rope, the belief that everything will get better and an illusion, a species of happiness and a mistake, a dangerous thing and something you create. Hope is for the hopeless, but the last thing to die. Hope is a discipline, nature’s veil, like peace, a waking dream, a verb. Hope is swift, sweet, patience, passion, important, necessary, and medicine. Hope floats … and, as we all know, it is the thing with feathers.
Hope is a Duck. I mean, might as well be, and why not?
You remember, I know you do, waiting to get sick, which meant, maybe waiting to die. What did hope look like to you then? How did you hope if you did? How does a person hope when they do? Maybe hope looked like imagining the return of things that had been taken away. Maybe hope looked like nothing other than the absence of despair, a denial of certain thoughts. Maybe hope looked like following all the rules; or ignoring them, because for some people hope might look like not believing in this thing but really believing in that thing. Hope is, after all, if history and words mean anything, many many different ideas and some of them at odds. That the notion of hope as fundamental to the human experience has somehow survived this level of ineptitude and overabundance in articulation is for me a reason to believe that hope is actually a thing. I don’t understand it, can’t explain it, can’t even grasp it long enough to pull it apart and examine its pieces. Hope happens, is all I know.
On land, ducks waddle ponderously. In the air, they are among the fastest birds in the sky. In the water they are at home like the fish. We could do worse in wanting an avatar for hope—even if it’s not exactly the bird Emily had in mind—something to imagine when we need to conjure the feeling for an idea that everyone seems to understand but that nobody can tell us how to do. How do you do hope? I don’t know. It has a mind of its own. Sometimes hope soars. Sometimes it just drifts through your day. Sometimes you’re not sure if it will make it across the road. Hope … is a duck.
Top image, ducks at Roger Williams park, 1908.