The morning after Ruth Bader Ginsburg completed her journey and handed on her legacy, I picked up six Linden trees from a nursery south of town. The county bee association had arranged a bulk purchase of the trees, known by their “small, pale yellow, fragrant flowers in clusters.” Bees and their human friends like the honey which is “white with a slightly aromatic flavor [and] when fully ripened in the hive it is considered one of the best table honeys,” according to John H. Lovell’s Honey Plants of North America. He states that “hot, clear weather and a humid atmosphere are most favorable for the secretion of nectar. Small drops may then be seen sparkling in the bloom; and the bee may obtain a load from a single blossom.” Worker bees, every one of which are female, would have liked RBG a great deal.
It is cool here in the Carolinas, which is bad news for drones. Every morning below the hives I find drones that have been escorted from the hive, some with force, as they are no help in the rigors of winter. The girls don’t tolerate big and useless creatures. I think I know how they would vote, especially following the loss of RBG. Maybe I’m wrong. I didn’t ask anyone in my bee Association how they were voting. My closest bee friend is also the man I’d call in the middle of the night, if I needed something. He’s a thoughtful and kind man, whose vote will cancel mine.
The Linden trees will not help my bees today or in their eight-week lifespan. They may not be much help to me either for the similar reason. You don’t plant a tree for today; you plant for the blossoms it will provide to others who may not even know your name. A few weeks ago, we harvested honey from nectar from trees Moravians planted without knowing that me and my bees would thank them someday.
Democracy–fragile, tender and organic–is like that. A group can clear-cut it to make sticks to match their stones and beat those they consider enemies to pulp. Win! Every democracy that has ever been experiences its own failure, sometimes death. But we try to construct agreements to weather the unpredictable fire and storms of human social life. We try to anticipate how our best selves might survive our occasional worst. The young experiment called the United States has done pretty well as these things tend to go considering the potentially fatal compromise at our root—slavery and later toleration of decade after decade of gross disparity.
Some consider those issues to be in our past, exaggerated to make the current administration look bad. Not Black moms with young men for whom they are afraid to jog down the street, drive across town or bird watch. And it is not in the past for any public health department watching the COVID data replicate the pattern of almost every other viral phenomenon from cancer to gun-shots, metabolic syndrome to environmental pathologies. Case and Deaton, in their landmark work around diseases of despair shocked the world by tracing the decline in American longevity rates to working-class white men experiencing structural vulnerability that denied them a way to make an honorable living. Humiliated and trapped, they are experiencing something not entirely unlike the phenomenon common to Black men for four hundred years. As usual, the mostly White elites channel that outrage in ways that seem illogical against the Black and Brown men, not those driving the structural causes. The humiliation is so painful that it cries out for immediate release, logical or not.
Some empathy and respect would help, although likely to be lost in the cacophony of internet-speed clang and gotcha. Empathy develops slow, as slow as the speed of trust.
Another friend, Mike Heisler, sent me a book this week by Timothy Snyder, “On Tyranny.” It is “20 lessons from the 20th century” about how to live in these times of liquid anger and fragile polity that RBG hoped to outlive. Snyder fears the people Linwood trusts, just as Linwood fears the people I trust. Lesson 12 is “make eye contact and small talk.” Synder says that “In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust. Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step toward change.”
Justices Ginsburg and Scallia were friends who enjoyed each other’s company enough laugh. My daughter Lauren had dinner with Rex Tillerson at the opening of one of her plays (he, a great patron of theater!). Linwood and I will plant Linden together 44 days before the election. I’ll cheer for his daughter’s basketball team, even if I don’t for his candidate. In a sense, that makes no sense. But democracy is not about logical sense—certainly not about winning. It does help messy humans live in between clarities when the best we can hope for is non-violent compromise. It good for muddling our way when nothing can make complete sense. Good for these times.
I feel exposed by the loss of a tiny 87-year old justice in the same way I did with the loss of John Lewis two months and two days ago. They deserve to rest in peace, honored by grateful generations. We haven’t earned that peace or honor, but there is still time. Can anyone be confused about how to honor them? Respect the structures of legal process, support social institutions, the dignity of professional ethics, the essential decency of labor serving the good of all people. Have faith. Vote.
And embrace the process of planting for others to harvest. I gently free the Linden from its plastic container, tenderly loosening the roots. I put my hands into the soil of the hole I’ve dug so it can welcome the roots home. I am not the Linden, or the soil, much less the rainfall or sun. Just one human grateful to have a chance to give life a chance.