Al Gore has just given his concession speech in Centennial Park, and I listened, intent not on his words, dry as they were, but on the crowd which gathered to support him, to their mood and reactions, to their hopes, vain and dashed. Gore had not carried Tennessee.
I returned to the Seton Lodge beside Baptist Hospital, amid patches of rain and forgotten hopes. My mother had open heart surgery that morning, another surprise, and this would be the first election day I did not spend at Williams, nor vote in Williamstown.
As I exited the elevator to the balcony, a woman crept toward me, awkwardly. Her hands felt her way, as she crawled, slowly, hand by hand against the painted brick of the building’s exterior. My eyes turned to her face, and found her eyes in turn blank, staring empty into the night, without focus or direction. I thought she was blind.
She wore a simple handmade dress, a patchwork of material, and the man who followed her, a farmer’s blue overalls and scratchy beard. I looked at her face again, and found cracked skin behind her searching eyes, her cheeks sunken, and weak, as wrinkled as her forehead.

You might have guessed that she was sixty or sixty-five. I guessed thirty-five, forty at the outmost, and the marks on her skin and soul, the terrible fruit of long labour upon the soil of Kentucky. I remember the pattern as well as I remember the final picture of my grandmother, sitting on a handmade stool, looking all of the eighty years she should have had when I was a child, at the age of thirty-six, months before her death.
The soil is hard, but it teaches. I visited grandmother on Memorial Day, planting the flowers of my hopes and prayers above her head, as I have every year since Amy Hill ’95 initiated this tradition, in the summer of ’92, and asked me for my hope and faith. Maggie and John, grandmother’s parents, rest just behind her, their childhoods forged in days of Civil War. Beyond them, marked only by simple stones, lie my great-great-grandparents, and perhaps the generation before them. Somewhere, near the coast of Wales, there must lie another such cemetery, from whose hands now falls into mine an old hunting horn, carved by the fingers of an ancestor now long forgotten, and passed.
The man who followed the blind woman above, attentively, husband, father, brother, I could not tell, spoke to me. “Don’t mind her,” he said, “she’s never been up this high.”
I had been wrong again, as I so often am. The expression in her eyes was not that of simple physical blindness, as I had assumed, but that of blind terror at this new and unexpected experience. And my mind attempted to stretch the distance between her world, which I had grown up amid, and her new experience, to comprehend her journey and terror.
What a symbol, of innocence and of ignorance, and vision of all that was at stake that night.
The woman lived about fifty miles north of Nashville, and a few miles from Robert Penn-Warren’s childhood home, tens more from mine. To turn Robert’s wonderful phrase, who will speak for her, and will she speak for herself?
How many times might she have traveled more than a few miles from her village, outside of the time she would have spent going to the little school in Olmstead, with its few tens of students in each grade? The other placenames on the map– Ferguson, Lickskillet, Old Voiney, — are nearly as obscure to me as my which grave is my great-great-grandfather’s. How might I describe her world?
She had traveled an hour the previous day, some fifty miles, from the rural countryside to the city, a distance filled with the unimaginable for her, and which would fill her with a terror equally almost unimaginable for me.
The day before, I had traveled more than an hour, slowly, across the clogged arteries of the Berkeley-Oakland-San Fransisco metropolis, to Detroit Wayne, then via NW AirLink to Nashville. Some of staff in Detroit still recognized me.
What would my world be to her? More importantly, what is it to her, given the rapid development that is now spreading into her corner of the earth, the sprawl of new houses, and a new wave of immigrants, many of them from the Muslim world. If her congregation, today, is like that at Muddy River where my father was baptized, its largest language group is Arabic– a possibility I did not anticipate five years ago. Allah Akbar, indeed, (d)avid.
Our worlds are converging, here, in the heartland.
The woman’s innocence and ignorance frightens me, from the vanity of my search for knowledge, my arrogance and assumption in the privileges that have been given me, my impatience and assumption, to the depths of all of ignorance. Who am I am, to speak for her?
Does she, perhaps, speak for me? What unknown wonder, the isolation and history of her world, as it rushes, blind, into ours, into it.
Earlier today, thinking of her, I walked along Albert Gore’s path through Centennial Park, past the Parthenon, to the byways cherished by Penn-Warren. Might we ever learn to speak for each other?
Her innocence, speaking of all we have, and do not know, her ignorance, speaking of all we lack, and need, and fear. Both, speaking of all we might loose, or gain. What happens, when someone like her is forced to come to the city? What is lost? What is gained? How do we judge the complex series of values at stake, as our world rushes forward?
I have a suggestion, taken from the memoirs of Eleanor Roosevelt and Gore Vidal, and it is that we should have a President willing and able, to explain our world and his or her actions, to the people.
In a week, I firmly hope, Mexico will have such a President. I hope my nation is watching.

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