When Elephants Fight

When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.

~ African proverb

The inside cap of an Honest T Peach Oo-la-long tea.

As I was having lunch with my husband at our local health food coop, Three Rivers Market, I looked inside my drink container’s lid and this quote was written inside. It struck me that this saying is relevant to the sad situation in which we find ourselves in 2017.

Powerful politicians and titans of business and commerce jockey for position in this never-ending race for more power and more money, mo money, mo money, mo money. For they can never have enough of the goodies: money, the biggest piece of the pie, power and control, and the most attractive women.

Comes with the territory. If you are a powerful, silver-backed male in the gorilla pack, you fight it out with the other males and the winner gets all the females. When I have seen documentaries about gorillas, monkeys, elephants, lions, rams, bulls, and so many other animals, the most powerful male earns the right to proliferate his line by mating with the females.

Perhaps that is why when men rise to the top of an organization–whether it be the head of a university, corporation, bank, political body, or a country–more often than not these men have affairs with their subordinates, secretaries, interns, or anyone in a lesser position. I cannot count the times I saw this happen during my 30 years of working at the University of Tennessee, and certainly it happens now on the national and world stage.

But women are not the only spoils of these wars for domination. Those who suffer while the elephants fight are working-class people, middle-class people, young people who will never have the chance to have a decent-paying job even if they earn a degree, men and women in their 50s who are “right-sized” out of jobs they held for decades, and woe to anyone with a health condition since affordable and accessible medical care are not a given in our country. Definitely in this category of the suffering are children, the least of these, who go to bed hungry, abused or without a home.

Daddy (center left) at day care, around 1940.

As for me I have never had a problem identifying with the grass in this proverb. My Daddy was a sensitive, at times angry man, who grew up in abject povery without a mother. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade. Perhaps because he got tired of trying to outsmart his father and alcoholic uncle by sneaking down to the basement to find clean clothes to wear to school instead of wearing the same clothes all week as they demanded. Or maybe it was the desolation of being under the thumb of a man who refused to have Daddy’s tonsils removed when he was a child and his eardrums burst. It could have been that he wanted something better than being threatened with a hot poker or being bitten on the cheek by a rat when he was baby. We will never know all the whys of Daddy’s decision, but maybe his second stepmother Sarah did him a favor when she threw him out of his home at the age of 16, and he came to live as a homeless young man at the Downtown Knoxville YMCA.

Daddy lost every job he ever had, save the last one in which he worked for my sister’s in-laws. Despite Mama’s best efforts to provide stability, Daddy’s fragile nature was an impediment to the tough-guy work world he entered. I have often wondered what he could have become if he had been lucky enough to have had a loving family, a healthy childhood, and an education. The life lottery would have been different if Daddy’s mother’s family had been allowed to raise him after his mother Darcus died when he was 4 months old. His life could have been very different, but his father refused.

My parents traveling abroad with the Lady Vol basketball team, around 2000.

As it was, the early losses of Daddy’s life made a good job impossible, but he had dreams and he made many of them come true. He loved to travel, and he went to Europe, Alaska, and Hawaii with his beloved University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team. He was proud of his two daughters, and he instilled in us a passion for life. He loved movies, sports, music, and he especially loved his grandson Justin who was like a son to him.

Being raised hearing Daddy’s sad stories about his upbringing–and living the poverty of my own childhood–has given me a natural affinity for those who are discounted and undervalued in our society. Many times I have said that I feel as if I am a black, Jewish girl. The Jewish people have been hounded and killed for their religion down through history. For centuries that have been outcasts. African-Americans were brought as slaves to this country and have not never been truly given full citizenship, as the population of our prisons, full of non-violent black criminal offenders, attest.

Four generations in 1960: my mother and me (right), my Irish grandmother with my sister (center), and Mamaw’s mother (left).

One line of my ancestors–my Mamaw’s family, the Cunninghams–were Irish. When the poor, starving people of Ireland came to this country in the mid 1800s, they were seen as less than dogs, These desperate people were fleeing Ireland’s potato famine, called the Great Hunger, which occurred from 1845 through 1849, and some say it lasted until 1852.

The British believed the Irish should not be helped when their potato crops failed due to what is called a late blight which destroyed, not only the leaves of the potato crop, but the roots. In fact, the British policy during the famine was to continue exporting grain from Ireland to England. Some estimates say 5 million people died and that 25 percent of the population of Ireland either died or emigrated to another country, mostly to America.

Me at the age of 12 or 13.

Growing up poor gave me an early education in the dis-ease that better-off people emanated in our direction. I regularly felt not only “less than”, but as if I could never measure up no matter how hard I tried to excel in school and earn my own money to afford school clothes.

My sister and I started working in our aunt’s restaurant when I was 12 and she was 11. There is a basic lack of confidence that goes with growing up poor–a feeling my sister and I will never completely overcome even though we both have been outwardly successful in our lives. There is a shorthand expectation that goes with being raised at least middle-class, as my husband was. I have never taken anything for granted in my life, which sounds like a good instinct, but living with fear and instability is not a comfortable row to hoe.

Amazing singer/songwriter Jason Isbell.

Speaking of the road, I listened to the new record, The Nashville Sound, from my favorite singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, his talented wife Amanda Shires, and his band the 400 Unit. His song Hope the High Road, is filled with the passion, fury, fierce determination, integrity, and intelligence that I admire in the best musicians–and the best people. But music! Ah music! It is the yearning definition of the soul. It is all that my Daddy taught me. Just sink your teeth into these words.

“Hope The High Road” – Jason Isbell

I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink
I used to want to be a real man
I don’t know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other’s dreams
I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home againI heard enough of the white man’s blues
I’ve sang enough about myself
So if you’re looking for some bad news
You can find it somewhere elseLast year was a son of a bitch
For nearly everyone we know
But I ain’t fighting with you down in a ditch
I’ll meet you up here on the road

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in

We’ll ride the ship down
Dumping buckets overboard
There can’t be more of them than us
There can’t be more

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
To a world you want to live in

For me this song captures the unsettling rock-in-your-shoe anxiety and simmering on the back burner unease of 2017 as no other song does. I especially love the lines: “Last year was a son of a bitch/For nearly everyone we know/But I ain’t fighting you down in the ditch/I’ll meet you up here on the road”. And the high road just might lead us to a world we want to live in.

Yes, the elephants are fighting and the grass is suffering, but, as Jason Isbell says, I refuse to fight in the gutter, I’ll meet you up here on the road. And maybe, just maybe, the grass can continue to grow.

//Anna ~ 7/10/2017

About aamontgomery

Seeing new possibilities in everyday things
This entry was posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Courage, Family, Ideas, Music, Op/Ed Thoughts, Travel, Women, Work and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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