Hunkering Down in Hard Times

Audubon, "Great Blue Heron"

Audubon, “Great Blue Heron”

I write this before knowing the election results but am prepared for a fairly widespread Democratic defeat. The fact that the opposition party always takes control of Congress in a president’s sixth year—or at least has been doing so since Dwight D. Eisenhower—is scant comfort.

The historical tendency does, however,provide perspective. If Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, the second Bush, and now Obama all started forfeiting the trust of the American people in the same year, it seems likely the cause is as much fatigue and desire for change as dissatisfaction with policy. Those sympathetic with Obama and the Democrats must hunker down and absorb the blows, just as my Republican friends had to hunker down in the final two years of the Reagan and Bush II administrations.

Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver about hunkering down. Very appropriately, it is set in November:

A Poem for the Blue Heron

By Mary Oliver


Now the blue heron
wades the cold ponds
of November.

In the gray light his hunched shoulders
are also gray.

He finds scant food–a few
numbed breathers under
a rind of mud.

When the water he walks in begins
turning to fire, clutching itself to itself
like dark flames, hardening,
he remembers.



I do not remember who first said to me, if anyone did:
Not everything is possible;
some things are impossible,

and took my hand, kindly,
and led me back
from wherever I was.      


Toward evening
the heron lifts his long wings
leisurely and rows forward

into flight. He
has made his decision: the south
is swirling with clouds, but somewhere,
fibrous with leaves and swamplands,
is a cave he can hide in
and live.      


Now the woods are empty,
the ponds shine like blind eyes,
the wind is shouldering against
the black, wet
bones of the

In a house down the road,
as though I had never seen these things–
leaves, the loose tons of water,
a bird with an eye like a full moon
deciding not to die, after all–
I sit out the long afternoons
drinking and talking;
I gather wood, kindling, paper; I make fire
after fire after fire.

In terms of my own political drama, the girl who once thought that all things were possible is the 2008 Obama supporter, inspired by visions of hope and change. Reality, a stern teacher, informs this child that some things are impossible.

Only I, a 57-year-old man when Obama was first elected, didn’t expect the impossible. Perhaps it was because the years had taught me not to raise my hopes too high, but I remember thinking that I would be thrilled if he did no more than pull us out of the recession and the two wars and enact comprehensive health care reform. Anything more, I told myself, would be gravy.

So now here we are with unemployment under 6 percent, the economy the most robust it has been in 15 years, the stock market at record highs, Obamacare instituted and proving a success (note that most Republican candidates in close elections stopped promising to repeal it), carbon emissions down, Dreamers no longer fearful of being deported, and same sex marriage expanding. Sure, I’d like more. I’d like gun sale background checks and meaningful tax reform and affordable college tuitions and good schools and a more robust middle class. But Obama’s achievements are substantial enough that having to hunker down now seems a small price to pay.

Some would rather choose denial and escapism when things turn cold, a warm south that is “swirling with clouds.” The tough-minded, however, stay in the frozen north, finding a cave that they can “hide in and live.” In this swampland dwelling they can decide not to despair or die but keep the fire of hope burning. I like the idea that the dark times involves drinking and talking with friends. That’s a very healthy way of continuing on.

As Shelley reminds us in a line that I read as rhetorical, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” In other words, Democrats, the season of scarcity where the water clutches itself to itself is only temporary. Learn faith from the blue heron who chooses not to migrate.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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