Friday, October 29, 2010

I have to sign my ballot

By Barry Johnson

For the past couple of weeks, family life has submerged Arts Dispatch. Usually, we try to keep some semblance of a separation between private and public here, but in this case they overlapped in one particular way, one that means a lot to me.

Two weeks ago we found out that my mother-in-law had cancer.  Her condition was serious, inoperable, devastating, and still the prognosis shifted in the first few days, from 2 months left, to two weeks, to come immediately.  One important piece of information about Mary Jean. All her adult life she fought for environmental, peace and social justice issues, volunteered and petitioned and advocated, and she believed in the democratic process, volunteering for the League of Women Voters for decades, even though our democracy rarely failed to disappoint her, at least a little.

The day before she died, she was drifting in and out of consciousness, mostly out, and the family members kept a vigil, sitting even sleeping with her, hoping to help her in any way they could when she emerged from sleep. Conversations among the family continued around her while she slept.  At one point in the ongoing discussion, the elections in Colorado came up -- elections that are far more heated and savagely conducted than ours in Oregon this year. According to my wife, Mary Jean's eyes fluttered open, and she said quite clearly, "I have to sign my ballot."

I have to sign my ballot.

Mary Jean wasn't able to sign hers, but I have to sign mine. I hate just about everything about our elections except for the raw act of voting. I think that money combined with the most reactionary, knee-jerk, reptile-minded mass-media sloganeering have rendered them almost useless as a democratic tool. I turn off any 30-second sound bite commercial I encounter, unless I feel the need to measure how demented and profoundly subverted our politics have become.

And still, I have to sign my ballot. Mary Jean understood democracy was for the long haul. No one election ends the need for future elections; and we aren't absolved from further action by a "correct" vote, either.  Democracy isn't about my single vote. It's a "social" form of government. It predicts that our chances of generating the best solutions to our problems increase as more of us become involved -- in describing the situation, in devising solutions, in testing those proposals by rigorous argument, in deciding on a course of action. I need you to test my solution. You need me to test yours. We need each other to proceed with confidence, evaluate the results of our solution and take another run at it.

And from where I sit, the "social" is what's broken in our country as a whole, in our state, even in our city, which is far better off than many, if we are to believe the studies of "participation" rates by our citizens.  Mary Jean was a genius of the social. She knew how to engage you in a political discussion, listen to your point of view and offer hers, evenly and wisely, equal to equal. At her funeral, many of her neighbors and friends stood up to tell stories of the gatherings at her house, around the table, where political discussions were common about  the issues of the America from the 1950s forward -- racial justice, the nuclear threat, the Vietnam War, Watergate... I'm only imagining here. I wasn't there, as much as I would have liked to be, just to hear the arguments swirl and the consensus arrive. Or not.  And it wasn't just politics. One old friend rose to talk about the pleasure of spending the evening together singing at Mary Jean and John's house. Then again, maybe that's a form of politics, too -- if we can sing together and eat together, how far apart, really, can we be?

So yes, I'm back, and just in time. I have to sign my ballot. Fill it out, sign it, drop it a polling place. From now on, every time I vote, I'm thinking about Mary Jean and her refusal to give into cynicism, her refusal to give in, period. I'm going to try to be as tough as she was -- even though I know I won't succeed.

Because democracy is social, I'm asking you to vote, too. Although I have strong opinions about some of the races and some of the issues, I'm not going to try to convince you to vote one way or another. I will say that I'm going to vote with you in mind. I hope you will do the same. And because I know many of you who show up at Arts Dispatch from time to time, that's one thing in this election I have a great deal of confidence about. 


David Zoltan said...

Thank you for such a personal story, Barry. I voted this past Monday myself because my parents and grandparents instilled in me the responsibility to participate in our democratic process due to the hardships our family faced under Nazi and authoritarian regimes. Mary Jean sounds like she was a brilliant person, and she is blessed to have you to carry on her memory and spirit.

Bob said...

Sorry to hear about Megan's mom.Best to both of you. Sounds like she had a very good life and will live on in memory and example.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Barry - well spoken! I'd like to add that while Mary Jean (aka Mom) was almost comatose in her breathtakingly fast submission to cancer, she heard relatives talking about the election, and piped up about needing to sign her ballot. It was one of the last things she said. I'm sorry she didn't get to do that. But we did make apple pies from that case of Jonathan apples from the farmer's market. May she rest in peace.
Thanks for coming to Colorado. Meant a lot.

Nancy R. said...

Sorry to hear about Megan's mom, I will hold you all in my thoughts. She sounds like an amazing woman.