The People, Yes…

One of my amusements during the holiday season is people-watching.  Particularly in situations where crowds, lines and captive children are the norm, amusement is easy to find.

During a Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving swing through a local grocery, I landed behind a child and his mother in the checkout line.  The boy might have been three or four, and he was fussy.  Hanging on to his mother’s skirt, he circled around and around until he found safety, tucked between her and the cart.  Turning to look past us to the vibrant displays of merchandise across the aisle, he pointed to something, tugging on her skirt to gain attention.  Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him – a mistake she would come to regret.

The boy began tugging with both hands, demanding her attention as “fussy” transformed itself into “cantankerous”. Finally pushed over the edge by parental insensitivity, he began to wail with rage and frustration.  He was tired. He wanted to go home. He especially didn’t want to be waiting in line while his mother sorted through coupons and double checked lists. As his outraged protest grew louder and more high-pitched, his obviously embarassed and distraught mother tried her best to reason with her monosyllabic son.

“Do you want to ride in the cart?” she asked.   No, he did not want to ride in the cart.  “Do you want to look at your book?”   No, he did not.  “Do you want me to spank you?”  “No”.  Do you want to go to your room when we get home?”  “No.”

In desperation, his mother looked at the overflowing grocery cart and asked, “Do you want a cookie?”   “NO!’, he shouted.  Obviously startled by an unexpected response, his mother asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want a cookie?”  “NO!!!”  Suddenly, his mom stopped. Looking at her boy she asked, “Do you know what I just asked you?”   “NOOOO!!!” came the reply, as he re-buried his face into her skirt.

Funny as the little drama was for those of us who were watching, uncomfortable and embarassing as it obviously was for his mother, what made it most astonishing was the intensity of the child’s “No”.  Caught up in the sheer, perverse pleasure of negativity, his “No” had become more important to him than even a cookie.

Unfortunately, the instinctive response of a child can become the habit of an adult.  Looking around, it isn’t hard to find the nay-sayers among us.  Petulant, obnoxious, pessimistic and filled with cynicism, their entire raison dêtre appears to be shouting “NO!” into the face of life.  Offered the hand of friendship, the challenges of collegiality, the possibility of intimacy, their response is to cling ever more tightly to their rejection of every overture, every gesture of conciliation.

Tiresome and exhausting in personal relationships, negativity becomes corrosive and even toxic on a social level.  When whole groups begin saying “no” to one another, more than feelings get hurt. Society becomes segmented. Fear begins to erode acceptance. Selfishness appears, together with its unhappy twin, power-hunger.  From urban alleyways to the halls of Congress, from boardrooms to lecture halls, we increasingly are confronted by the spectacle of enraged, petulant children shouting “No” – albeit “children” who also possess adult strength and power.  These “Nos” can kill, or reshape lives without regard for consequence.


Knowing all this, and understanding full well the power of negativity to erode, consume and destroy, I prefer the folly of optimism – a willingness to believe, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, that humanity at heart is good, that joy is possible,  and that no matter how broken, trust can be rebuilt. To paraphrase Faulkner’s famous words, I chose  to believe humanity not only will endure the shouts of “no” we call history, but that it will prevail over that history by the “yes” of courageous human hearts.

Is such optimism naive?  Has faith in humanity become outdated?  Have the cruelty, ridicule and small-mindedness of the schoolyard made dignity, perseverance and grace irrelevant?  Faced with such questions, it becomes my turn to speak a “no”, to affirm human decency and the possibility of grace and to align myself once again with a poet of my roots.  Let the naysayers of the world rant on. Carl Sandburg knows the people, and he knows the people’s ‘Yes”. 

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
    They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
    The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
    You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it…

The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
    “I earn my living.
    I make enough to get by
    and it takes all my time.
    If I had more time
    I could do more for myself
    and maybe for others.
    I could read and study
    and talk things over
    and find out about things.
    It takes time.
    I wish I had the time.”…
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
    This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
    Yet this reaching is alive yet
    for lights and keepsakes.
    The people know the salt of the sea
    and the strength of the winds
    lashing the corners of the earth.
    The people take the earth
    as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
    Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
    They are in tune and step
    with constellations of universal law.
    The people is a polychrome,
    a spectrum and a prism
    held in a moving monolith,
    a console organ of changing themes,
    a clavilux of color poems
    wherein the sea offers fog
    and the fog moves off in rain
    and the labrador sunset shortens
    to a nocturne of clear stars
    serene over the shot spray
    of northern lights.
    The steel mill sky is alive.
    The fire breaks white and zigzag
    shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
    Man is a long time coming.
    Man will yet win.
    Brother may yet line up with brother:
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
    There are men who can’t be bought.
    The fireborn are at home in fire.
    The stars make no noise,
    You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
    Time is a great teacher.
    Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
    the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
    “Where to? what next?”
Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.


11 thoughts on “The People, Yes…

  1. Happy Thanksgiving Linda! Even if I tried I don’t think I could shake my eternal optimism. I have moments, and days, where I feel very cynical and pessimistic and negative, but that always passes quickly because I generally tend to look on the bright side of everything. I’ve found life to be much more fulfilling and peace-filled that way.

    The story you related is hilarious. As much for the situation as for the fact that even as an adult I’ve had those same kind of NOOO!!!! moments.

    Hi, Carl,

    I hope your Thanksgiving was great. After reading your “beginning of the holiday season” entry, I imagine you out there with lights in hand already.

    Remember the chat we had weeks ago about television, and the virtues of dumping the thing? Well, I’ve done it – pulled the plug – and one of the benefits of the decision I didn’t expect was increased cheerfulness. Despite the fact that most of the news/opinion shows resemble nothing so much as a game of political whack-a-mole, I couldn’t stop watching them – or at least keeping them on in the background. Now? I can find the facts I need elsewhere, and Pandora fills up the house with lovely music.

    Isn’t it just so true that we’ve all had those NOOOO!!! moments? I hate when that happens – there’s nothing quite like being 63 going on 6 ;-)


  2. I shudder at “spanking” and “go to your room”, but otherwise I had about the same experience yesterday evening with my 2.5-year-old. At home, thank you for small gracious, but still. He was tired, I was tired, my husband didn’t help me the way I needed helping, I got pissed and… well… it didn’t become a nice evening.

    A kid can be excused for he/she has problems to understand and express his/hers emotions and grasp complex and abstract things. But I as a grown-up? I feel like a primal monkey or something.


    Smiling and smiling here, because I know your feelings. I don’t have small children, of course, but I do have my dear mother. At 91, she sometimes has difficulty with “ordinary” tasks – using the remote control for the television, setting the thermostat properly. After explaining for the 784th time that THIS lever turns the heater off while THAT lever adjusts the temperature, impatience starts to bubble and I can become snappish or snarky. You’re right – it doesn’t make for nice evenings! But we all get tired, impatient and preoccupied – learning better ways to deal with it all is a life-long process!


  3. “…and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again YES and then he asked me would I YES to say YES my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him YES and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume YES and his heart was going like mad and YES I said YES I will YES.”


    I confess Molly Bloom wasn’t on my mind while I was writing this, but she’s certainly an appropriate addition – for a couple of reasons. There’s the “yes”, of course – that’s obvious. But there’s something else that makes me smile. Choosing where to begin a quotation is always tricky, but backing up just a bit we find this:

    “…and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask…”

    From a certain perspective, that’s real optimism!

    I just wish I could read Joyce without wanting to punctuate everything in sight.


  4. And I always want to capitalize ee cummings, too.


    Just for grins, I did a google search. The poetry sites have it right, but nearly everyone else has it capitalized – WITH punctuation. Like this: E.E. Cummings. Doesn’t that look funny? The only thing better would be E.E. Cummings, Esq.

  5. A happy thanksgiving to you Linda, a bit belated. Love those visuals here. Thanks for this timely piece of reflection. Timely because, after reading your post, I feel that fundamentally, thanksgiving is an open, receptive ‘Yes’ to life, and a joyful embrace of the blessings that come with it.


    It’s never too late for thanks-giving! And thanks for noting the little images. The middle one is bittersweet. Though not a native to Texas, as far as I know, it was my favorite “weed” when I was a kid. I have two casseroles with Universal Potteries’ bittersweet decals -my grandmother had a range set with the same decoration. I was lucky enough to find some artificial stems in a floral shop here, so I can enjoy the appearance, at least.

    We do have to embrace the blessings, don’t we? Maybe they really aren’t blessings until they’re accepted – like a gift that has to be given and received. It’s certainly a good season for pondering such things!

    We had Calgary skies this morning, just for a bit. I thought about you, and how much fun you must have had enjoying all that beauty!


  6. You already know what I think about YES vs. NO, Linda, but I have sometimes mentioned that when the kids were young, my spontaneous reaction to a question was almost always NO. I don’t know where that came from! Once they were grown and when Amy, for instance, asked me to join her for lunch any particular day (while we were both at our separate jobs), I would say NO, because I had already made my lunch for that day. Then I’d kick myself later when I’d realize it would save in the fridge quite well till the next day. So I then started practicing saying YES whenever she called again. Soon it became second nature to say YES and figure out later how to make it work.

    Maybe that’s the point: you have to practice saying YES till it becomes second nature!

    Another story, after Carl’s “eternal optimism:” A woman at work in accounts receivable years ago couldn’t abide sitting near me because I was too cheery on the phone. She actually asked my boss to please let her move her desk away from me He refused to let her. But, at 5 years my senior, she passed away a couple years ago and I am still kicking strong. All I can think of is that YES is much better than the alternative. Thanks for the reminder.


    Well, one of your fellow Georgians – Flannery O’Connor, of Milledgeville – would say you are exactly on target with that practicing “yes” business. Her novels and short stories are great, but her collection of letters, called “A Habit of Being”, makes your point in a variety of ways. Playing off Jacques Maritain’s concept of the “habit of art”, she always contended we shape ourselves as human beings and as artists through habit as much as by direct inspiration. Photographers develop habits of seeing, writers develop habits of speaking, and every time we chose to say “yes” instead of “no”, we become a bit more like the word we speak: more life-affirming, more open, more receptive.

    I love your story of the woman at work. It reminds me of my mom, who wishes I wouldn’t be quite so – enthusiastic – when I laugh. “Shhhhhh!”, she says. “Don’t be so loud.” I try to explain the difference between loud and exhuberant, but I don’t get very far. I’ve tried reminding her that cheerfulness and laughter reduce blood pressure – now I can produce your story as another bit of evidence!


  7. Bravo! I have the dubious reputation of living in a world of yes. I over-commit. I believe that if I say yes and do something fun — even if it taxes me — I had the fun. (Sometimes this doesn’t work, and I am trying to be more thoughtful before the gut kicks in!) In general, I’m overly optimistic (OK, Pollyanna WAS my favorite movie when I was in second grade.) I always assume that things happen with a potential good outcome of some sort, even when things are terribly dire. If nothing else, the lesson brings a better future. I always start with the idea that people are nice, and even when they seem to turn, still believe that at the core there is goodness. And let me tell you, when you are the supervisor between one totally negative/suspicious/skeptical woman and a man who is slick as teflon but surface happy-all-the-time (and to be honest, we’re all a little wary of him — a departmental boss), that isn’t easy!

    The point is, this drives people nuts. They hate it. Or they disregard it. And for whatever reason in this lifetime, my challenge appears to be that I attract negative people in my orbit. The disgruntled colleagues. The downer friend. Even my guy can go to a dark place because after having been burned and burned often, it’s what he came to expect. I find this interesting and often wonder if my place in the world this time is to model that — and perhaps in another lifetime, I was much like they were and so I’m getting my karma back.

    The thing is, I can’t be that other way. I try to assess things accurately, and heaven knows I’ve had some challenges thrown my way that would be likely to test anyone’s optimism and cheer. But good grief — if I didn’t have that to muddle with, life would feel filled with such despair — for things will always go wrong; it’s how we handle them that tells us if we go wrong with them.

    I feel for that woman — all her tricks were gone and she was stumped. I hope my tricks are never gone.

    I’ve found myself consciously seeking out the optimists, the survivors, the up-beat over the past few years, not to replace the downers (and it would be unfair to say they don’t have their fun moments, too!), but to replenish myself. I have a wonderful group of joyful friends who support one another during everything from the death of a child to cancer to major and unplanned career changes. We are kindred spirits in that we know ultimately that in our optimism we will attract to us even more joy.


    Do you remember Joe Btfsplk, the character in Al Capp’s “Lil Abner” cartoon who always was walking around with a dark cloud over his head? I thought of him for the first time in years when you mentioned attracting negative people to your orbit and the people who seem to hate your cheerfulness. Joe had his cloud, but he liked people, and always seemed to want to get away from the negativity the cloud represented. Unfortunately, there are people who seem to prefer living under the cloud, and would be just as happy to pull us under, too. It can be a bit of a struggle to resist.

    I was interested in your use of the word “fun”. It’s a word I rarely use these days, and I’m not sure why. There certainly are many things I enjoy and savor, activities I delight in – I just don’t use that word. Perhaps it’s simply a result of living and working in an area devoted to marketing recreation – “fun” gets tied up with frenetic activity, constant socializing, a good bit of drinking and lots of folks looking at one another asking, “Are we having fun yet?” Sometimes their cheerfulness looks a little grim….

    In the end, I suppose the test of any affirmation of life is whether it can be spoken in the worst of circumstances. You’re so right – things will always go wrong, but we don’t have to “go wrong” with them. Sometimes “yes” gets whispered and sometimes it gets spit out through clenched teeth, but that’s ok. It’s being able to make the affirmation that’s important.


  8. Linda,

    This piece hit close to home, especially your words on how negativity can cripple and kill. I’ll say no more here but your words are true to my too-close observations on life.

    But why is it that corrosive nay-sayers are always blind and deaf to their own faults?; and even their own part in the other’s perceived shortcomings?

    I enjoyed Sandburg. It was a good and strong way to end. For you. And me.



    Why are the nay-sayers blind and deaf to their faults? Why are any of us? As the old joke goes, “You have faults – I have quirks”!

    After a couple of forays into the wilderness called “I believe I’m going to try and change this person”, I’ve learned the ages-old and necessary lesson: we change ourselves, not others, and we control ourselves, not the world.

    Of course the irony is that as we change, we sometimes bring about change in others. And sometimes, the will and determination of the life-affirmers can bend the worst realities of the world into new and surprising shapes.

    I’m loving getting re-acquainted with Sandburg.


  9. Loved the comment from Ginnie about how easy it is to get in the knee-jerk habit of saying no. As she says, you can just keep the lunch in the fridge while you take the opportunity to have fun!


    I used to have a friend who considered herself ever-so-practical. She always was saying no. Her take on things would be, “You don’t want to waste a lunch once it’s been made”. On the other hand, says me, why waste an opportunity? ;-)


  10. I’m with you, firmly and resolutely in the YES. It is a diet of joy in a world of ache. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

    You told the grocery line story beautifully.

    I have thought, and this is only my imagination – who knows if it is what I would do – that if a villain entered my house and tried to kill me, I don’t think I would try to kill him. I would defend myself, and I would defend my loves, and maybe for their sake I would wound to kill. But I would rather die as a victim than kill. It is a personal thing, and I don’t fault anyone for self defense. I don’t think it is a matter of logic or reason. Just a matter of choice, of how I would not want to live with the aftermath. I have accidentally killed cats with my car, and a chicken too. It was almost unbearably painful.

    This is what the first stanza of Sandburg’s poem reminded me of. A strange sort of YES, I guess.


    I understand the reluctance to kill – and perhaps reluctance is too flimsy a word. Thinking about such things, I’m comforted by the knowledge that I’m an instinctive screamer. When I discovered a fellow happily breaking into my home through sliding glass patio doors with a crowbar, I sent him flying over a 5′ concrete block wall with a scream I’m told was heard a couple of houses down. And my response was the same when I was mugged in Houston. Loud, and long.

    My first experience of inflicting accidental death involved a squirrel on a country road. It was terrible. Now and then we hear a story of someone who has backed over a child – how one would recover from that, I don’t know.

    I’ve heard that it was common among Native American tribes to apologize to an animal before killing it – or to ask permission. I couldn’t find a confirmation of that with a quick search just now, but I suspect it’s true. That recognition of the right of all things to exist is one of the most powerful ways of saying “yes” to the world.


  11. A belated happy Thanksgiving to you, Linda.

    I must admit that I’m not an optimist, but I do admire and envy them. Who can resist cheering when the human spirit prevails?

    Over the years I’ve given a bit of attention to this enviable ability to see the light through the darkness. My husband is one of those individuals, and I’ve truly relied on that in the past forty years.

    Sometimes I want to crush him like a bug for his willingness to believe that the most difficult of situations can be worked out, but most of the time I thank God that I can lean on someone who won’t collapse under the pressure.

    Loved your telling of the grocery store incident. Been there.


    Belated’s perfectly ok – I’m still pretty thankful, although I’m going to be even more thankful when I go hit the bed. I just finished up my post for Ruth’s tell-the-story-of-your-blog-name project, and I’m ready to turn in.

    I’ve been thinking about the wide variety of responses to this post, and one thing seems clear – optimists and pessimists need each other. I wonder if the halfway point between the two isn’t what we call realism – knowing things never are as bad – or as good – as we think. The other thing that crossed my mind was purely humorous – can you imagine Ebenezer Scrooge and Pollyanna getting together? ;-)

    That bug-crushing impulse is pretty common, I suspect. I experience it now and then from the other side of things, dealing with folks whose creativity in imagining horrible outcomes is truly breathtaking. Tiresome’s the right word.

    I had fun with the grocery store story – far more than Mom did, for sure.


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