Now Hear This

Submitted by Virginia Watts on Tue, 02/17/2015 - 16:57

Government business in government buildings grinds slow, inching along while endless conversations and copy machines murmur and people are restless in folding chairs, on dirty seats stained with coffee or soda or maybe even body fluids. Rehearsing what you will say, not paying much attention except to track your turn, you wait. If you want to be heard, you wait.

There is a stolid, yet stuffy, pretense in the walls, and the floors with dusty corners and the finger-printed woodwork, trap stale, much-used air. Someone opens a pack of gum, someone uses hand cream or lipstick and for a brief moment there is a sweetness of mint, vanilla, or cherry. But only for a moment. Someone opens a restroom door and the sweetness is swallowed up by the public latrine.

The matters at hand are only of interest if you have a stake to a claim, or a defense to be made, or an ordinance you want enforced. If you need permission to break the rules, this is where you will have to wait your turn. If you want to prevent someone from breaking the rules then you must state your case, and before that, wait your turn. If you want to make a new law, change the course of history, this is where you wait. And so you wait.

Nothing runs on time. Your case was scheduled for ten a.m. and you will be lucky if it is heard before noon. You wait because you must. You wait because you believe your cause is just, your reasons sound, you want to be heard and found righteous.

And you have to breathe this air, this thin, gray, well-used air because, of course, no fresh air lives long with so many claims to be exhaled, expressed. “So much hot air!” you think as someone speaks. True, and when it is your turn, someone will think that about you or maybe even say it and for a moment there will be a white-hot spark in the thin, gray, well-used air. But it will not ignite. Not in this stolid space where hearings are held.

If you can listen well, and this is not an easy task, you will learn that very little hearing is going forward. Hearing is an organizing of other people’s words, expressions, demeanor, and hoping that all of the information they are trying to convey, or trying to hide is clear. Individual and collective sighs, grunts of frustration, thicken the air then dissipate and join the dust in the corners.

You want to buy some patience in order to endure this process, but there is no place where patience is sold, and especially not here in this government building. So you wait because you believe in your cause, in your right to be heard.

You long for an articulate speaker, there are so few! You hope, when it is your turn, you will shine for your ability to articulate. But you must sit on your folding chair, you must wait, and while you wait you can feel the shine tarnish on your speech, the words fall out of order. You hold on tighter, you reorder, you polish, you wait.

If you could tune to a different wave length in this stale, pale air, would you feel a sort of humming and kind of drum beat of the body politic? Would you recognize due process in this mundane and bureaucratic expression of democracy? Or would you only experience the frustration of waiting, your back aching and your cause almost forgotten as yet another hour ticks by, slides past, and finds you still there, still in that same worn and dirty chair?

Interesting how the air changes when you have had your turn to speak. Your breathing seems freer, and your shoulders lift a bit now that you have had your say. Even in this tired and worn-out space, you feel a kind of ceremonial blessing. Maybe from much use it feels like holy ground.

Participating in democracy, you think, is a great and sacred privilege.