I’ve been thinking about the way our world changes, and specifically about the way people bring about that change. Our history as humans is a pattern of progress and change, progress and change. We’ll head blindly in one direction, unable to see quite where we’re going because it’s so close, and then somebody or somebodies will push us in another direction. With a grand gesture, with a slow protest, with a war, with a sit-in, with a newspaper article, with a violent act, with a strike, with a clear bold voice, or in a confused tangle of contradictory words.
I’ve been thinking about certain small acts of rebellion that I love, certain quiet ways that people have changed the rules. They change the world slowly, almost imperceptibly, but the change grows in widening waves. The personal becomes political and art becomes powerful.
I love to read about blues musicians from the last century, growing up in a world of poverty and discrimination and finding a way to make music no matter what the odds. Nobody hired them a music teacher so they’d understand the rules of musical theory. Big Bill Broonzy made a fiddle from a cigar box, Elizabeth Cotten taught herself to play guitar upside-down, they figured it out themselves, with the help of some friends. They sang about their lives, the way they actually were, the trains running by their door, the work they had to do, and they sang about the way they wished their lives could be. The rules they answered to in life were harsh and unjust, but in music they made their own rules, they made music the way they wanted it to sound–that was theirs.
And with books like Catcher in the Rye, Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird, we find a whole new world of writing, with the language people actually use, according to the rules of conversation and not those of grammar. These books are intimate and personal and real, and they describe the lives of normal people as they actually are. This small feat frightened people enough that they were all banned, at one time or another.
And, of course, I love filmmakers who make films the way they think they should be. Hollywood films have quite a rigid set of rules that dictate the way they’re made. These rules are nearly invisible to the viewer, because they’re designed to make a film seem more realistic, and because we’ve grown up with them, we’ve learned them, without even realizing. Well, I love a director like Yasujiro Ozu, who defies these rules. He sets the camera where he thinks it should be, he moves it when it needs to be moved (not very often!) he crosses sight lines, he leaves out plot points. Not to be rebellious, but because he knows how he wants his films to look. His films are mostly about middle-class families going about their lives. They seem placid and uneventful, at least compared to most movies. But in showing us the way we live, in showing us hurtful pettiness and gossip, thoughtlessness and ingratitude, he makes us think about the way we could live, the way we could treat the people around us. It’s subtle and slow, but it seeps into you and makes you notice everything differently and more clearly.
And I believe this small slow change is the most important, and that it extends to all things…not just to art and politics, but to life, which is the very heart of art and politics. We can change the world with the food that we eat, the cars that we drive, the books that we read. We change the world by struggling to understand it, by recognizing the rules that govern us as they are, and by deciding the way we want them to be. We change the world with every kindness to another person, and it’s a shame that this sounds sappy, because it’s true.
And, of course, another small but mighty way to change the world is to VOTE! Don’t forget!