Russell Baker, a longtime New York Times columnist, was a brilliant writer and a startlingly clear and wonderfully human thinker. (He quite possibly still is all those things; although he’s long retired from the Times, my good friend Google tells me that he’s old now but still alive.)
He opened his memoir, “Growing Up,” with a view of his mother, at the end of her life, with memories whirling around her like leaves. He was born in 1925 and she guarded him ferociously as he grew up during the Depression. The book came out in 1982 and I remember little specific about it except for the beginning, which was so fierce and brightly colored and deeply felt that it seared itself into my memory.
(It is an extraordinary book. Anyone interested in memoir writing — or for that matter in any kind of good writing — should try to find it.)
I think about it every fall, when the bright leaves whirl around us, and we can’t grab them and we can’t hold onto them and we know they will fade and we know that winter is coming, but we still can glory in them. I think about it now even more this fall, with my own mother starting to be surrounded by that bright illogical whirl that Russell Baker described as she too starts to fail.
Are the concepts of fall and fail related?
This week, everything outside is starting to change. Finally, leaves are starting to change color, and the heavy winds are tossing them in a satisfactorily autumnal way. It also reminds me of children’s poetry. It’s almost November. In “Chicken Soup With Rice,” one of Maurice Sendak’s many masterpieces — and arguably his least dark one — November is described perfectly.
“In November’s gusty gale/I will flop my flippy tail/And drink hot soup! I’ll be a whale! Flipping once!/ Flipping twice!/Flipping chicken soup with rice!”
It reminds us that although there will be no Jewish holidays in November, two very important civil days are coming.
The end of November, of course, is Thanksgiving, when we all celebrate our democracy, the glory that is our country, and the hope that somehow, someday soon, things will get better, as they always have since the bravery of the country’s founders brought us into being. We also celebrate our place in the glorious tapestry, the multicultural, glowing diversity that nourishes all of us.
And on November 7 we — that is, all of us who are citizens and who are old enough — will all go to the polls, even though this is an off-year election, to earn our right to celebrate Thanksgiving.
There is much at stake this year, as there is every year. It’s particularly important to vote in New Jersey, because the state will elect a new governor, and that choice will be telling. If you think your candidate has no choice, vote anyway. If you think your candidate is a shoo-in, vote anyway. Don’t be complacent. It matters.
And now also is a good time to encourage people not only to vote, but to consider running themselves. Take courage from Cheryl Rosenberg. Like everyone else who runs, she risks losing — which is always painful, not matter how thick your shell and robust your defenses — in order to have the chance to lead. And for her, as for many other candidates, leadership isn’t about ego or exhibitionism. (Of course, you need a healthy ego to run for office, but note the modifier “healthy.”) It’s genuinely about public service, about being galvanized by what you see and wanting to change it. Pardon the cliché, please, but it genuinely is about giving back.
So we urge anyone who feels secure enough to risk it — and driven enough to risk it — to consider running for office. Start (relatively) small. Start at the city council level, maybe, or freeholder, or state legislature. Those are important jobs, and they’re hands-on, retail rather than wholesale. Learn the craft, and then maybe stay there, because it’s deeply satisfying to work with and for people you actually know, or then consider moving on to even more contested positions. But think about trying. If you have something to offer, we all need you.