When will I ever learn?

Cindy ArpFeature

Old fashioned as it is, I’ve always loved folk music, especially music composed by Pete Seeger.

One of my favorite Seeger songs is “Where have all the flowers gone?” This morning I have been repeating the chorus: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”

Yesterday, during my daily walk, I fell. I was on a steep downhill grade when I stepped on an unseen tree limb. Immediately off balance, I did a face down, full body sled ride down the hill. Face, chest, hands, elbows, knees. Nothing was spared. Bloodied and unhelpfully mad at myself, I limped toward the house to clean the mess up.

When will I ever learn? Carelessness, assumptions, lack of understanding, lack of awareness – we’ve all been guilty of this at some point in our lives. Learning is hard, at least for me. Here’s some examples.

Awhile back, when exiting a store, I spied a group of jostling, low-riding-jeans, teenage boys. I mentally slotted them as trouble. They exited the store first, me behind them. Bracing myself to catch a door that would undoubtedly be carelessly flung back, the last boy paused and held the door for me. I thanked him and he said, “You are very welcome.”

A few years ago, Dan and I visited the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. As the home to the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years, the palace is the most visited historical site in Istanbul and was filled with people. A Burqa-wearing woman flanked by two men passed us. Her full-length robe covering the top of her head to the ground, with a small rectangular opening for her eyes, seemed like a prison to me. Another woman strode past. Beautiful, with blue-black skin, dressed in a flowing white robe and some sort of head scarf, she commanded respect and seemed very sure of her place in the world. What did I understand, really?

When will we ever learn? Can we learn from a song based on an old Cossack song with the words, “Where have all the men gone? They’re all in the army” and with a tune taken from an old Irish lumberjack melody? Pete Seeger wrote the song while being hounded by the McCarthy-era politicians. Having a global understanding of music, Seeger used his knowledge to craft a song promoting peace. What can we craft?

Can we try for a more global understanding of our world? Can we clear our minds of our preconceived notions, our unrecognized bias? Can we let all that go? Can I learn that different ways of dressing are often based on concepts with which I am unfamiliar or perhaps with which I disagree, but are still valid?

Many consider the world to be in tatters. Voting is one positive way of rectifying the problem but reading so many the articles shouting the problems without offering any solutions can be discouraging. Negativity can make one stop listening and continue the belief that, of course, one is right.

Maybe it’s time to re-think our stance. Maybe it’s time to listen more. Maybe we can aim for a more positive attitude. Maybe we can start opening doors for each other. Maybe my accident will help me learn to be more aware, to watch myself more closely. Maybe I’ll learn, if only a little.

Pete Seeger addendum

American folk singer Pete Seeger, who died at age 94 in January 2014, was connected with much of the country’s musical, cultural and political life. A short but comprehensive bio is here. His initiation into advocacy started in 1939-41 when he penned a song urging President Roosevelt to take the United States into World War II because:

We got this one big job to do
That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through,

Let no one else ever take his place
To trample down the human race.

So, what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done.

Seeger served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific during the war. He later ran afoul of the FBI, was blacklisted by radio stations in the 1950s and later called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to take the Fifth Amendment and tried to answer members’ questions:

Chairman Walter: What is your answer?

Mr. Seeger: I will tell you what my answer is. I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much the implication of being called before this committee that because my opinions may be different than … that I am any less of an American. I love my country very deeply, sir.

Walter: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

Seeger: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

Walter: I don’t want to hear about it. … I direct you to answer that question.

Seeger: I have already given you my answer, sir.

Seeger was later indicted for contempt of Congress and convicted of 10 counts by a jury. But an appeals court threw out the conviction. Seeger and his grandson sang at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Cindy Arp retired from Knox County Schools as a teacher and librarian. She and husband Dan live in Heiskell. And she goes hiking once a week – even in a forest fire.

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