Is atmosphere important?
— Can I control breeze?
I usually leave political observation to one side, but today was my first voting experience in my newly adopted state, Maine, and it was distinctive and instructive. But before I get to the voting, let me pause on the place, pass on some impressions of the atmosphere.
I haven’t seen the alleged moose, though the alerts are on every highway. I have seen the domesticated deer, who seem to feel quite at home (to the chagrin of gardeners). The ferry rides in Casco Bay are remarkably fun and cost next to nothing. Unlike buses or trains, they allow dogs, and plenty ride, island to island, owners in tow.
I probably shouldn’t indulge these light-weight reveries on election day, yet somehow the pines and tidal flats and sea-gulls out-charm politics, even today, when the simple gestures of voting seem as charming as brisk sea-breeze.
I grew up — it’s now over half a century ago — in small-town New England, hearing New England Town Meetings touted as grassroots democracy.
Today I voted at 8:15 sharp as the sun inched up through a perfectly blue sky. There was a steady stream of neighbors headed on foot to the K-6 school just down the block, in a congenial, talkative corner of Portland. If not the actual experience of a town meeting, I seemed to glimpse something of its egalitarian, neighborly spirit.
At this local level the often rancid politics of state, national and international arenas was gone. So was this, in fact, still politics?
It was more like friends gathering for hellos and handshakes. There were signs for ballot-issues and candidates, but no palpable tension exposed. And no thought at all of ISIS, Jerusalem stabbing, or VW cheating.
Mind- and morale-taxing “politics” seemed politely subdued and the only dark spot seemed to be an unstated despair at the incapacity of national and state government to govern.
Here voting — so it seems — is an affirmation of community and a solidarity of commitment to good will and friendliness. The neighbors who walk to the school gymnasium are neighbors to Muslim families in exile from African violence and they are neighbors to each other, sharing a nod, and “Good morning,” as they pass.
Competing candidates, dressed informally, are smiling and shaking hands with arrivals outside the polling place. There are petitions to sign and literature to receive as you walk to the doors of the school, enter, and then proceed to the gymnasium. People mill in little groups, happy to chat. It’s not clear where the business of penciling ballot choices is done, but no one seems in a rush to find out or to do business.
A Caravaggio I sighted the day before came to mind, by way of extreme contrast. It’s the opposite of neighborhood friendliness or unslaughterable deer in a canoe. The painting is closer to imminent ISIS or failed-state refugee flows.
From my present perspective, that Caravaggio shows Abraham casting his ballot on matters of life and death: his own death, his son’s, the death of his promised future, perhaps the death of Sarah.
He’s torn between the terrifying pitch of two candidates: The First says, “I’m God, take out your knife and use it!” The Second says “I have a message from God: Put it away!” Abe decided the messenger was for real and put down his knife. In retrospect, he picked the right candidate.
— Do images create atmosphere?
As I read my ballot and check answers the school principal’s young male voice arrives announcing on the PA system the names of students, class by class, who get honorable mention for math homework. I’m trying to read three or four fine-print giant sheets of information and to find places to check yes or no. I set biblical melodrama and frightening images aside.
There’s a great small-town feel here — nobody looks grim or in a rush.
— What would my big city friends say?
Philosophical questions only whisper:
What does it mean in the big picture? — Where do I stand? — Does my uptake of atmosphere matter a whit?
—Ed Mooney, Zeteo contributor
Citations: Thanks to Google Images, thanks to residents of Munjoy Hill.