Occupying Hope

On February 8, 2008, I felt the earth move beneath my feet.

It wasn’t an earthquake or a Hemingway-esque tryst. It was simply a gathering of Dendraster excentricus.

Otherwise known as Pacific “sand dollars.”

Growing up, collecting sand dollars on the beach (during one of the few times I visited an ocean), I never quite grasped that they were actually something that had been alive. I didn’t realize that our preferred form of a sand dollar—bleached off-white—was actually a corpse.

I carried this misconception with me for most of my adult life. In fact, I was carrying it with me the morning of February 8, 2008 on a Pacific stretch of Nicaraguan beach.

My wife and I were walking along the ocean’s edge and I stepped into the shallow waves, just barely getting my ankles wet. As the surf came and went, I felt the sand shift under one foot and then the other. I was startled and I high-stepped up to dry land as fast as I could. I was mildly frightened.

Was I stepping on small crabs or some kind of shallow-water fish?

I had no idea. I hadn’t spent enough time near the ocean to know such things.

Later it was explained to me. I had basically walked over a grouping of sand dollars. They were alive and burrowing through the sand utilizing a surface cover of velvety spines. The ones that beachcombers collected in the mornings were actually dead sand dollars who got washed up too far on dry land and couldn’t make it back to the surf. Their velvet-spined surface had fallen way and they had skeletonized in the sun.

I recall this memory vividly now because of the Occupy movements around this country.

The earth is moving under our feet. The young and the young-at-heart are writhing and twisting and jerking beneath the weight of cataclysmic economic powers and rejecting the heretofore unassailable economic status quo.

Like so many of the rest of you, I’m something of a bleached white corpse. I washed up too far on the beach long ago and lost the way or the energy to regain the surf. But these occupy folks are still alive, still breathing real life, still living as if things could change, still hoping and dreaming.

Why aren’t you and I there with them?

Is it too late for us?

I follow their progress every night. I marvel at their ingenuity. I am humbled by their courage. I am proud of their passion.

Sure, there are some clowns in the crowd, but the core is informed, disciplined and solid—as good a people as we could ever aspire to be.

In the Sixties, most folks got it wrong about the Hippies. They rejected them outright as much for aesthetic reasons as ideological ones. And decades later they found themselves looking back and discovering that they had been on the wrong side of history.

The same thing will happen here. The Occupy movement is on the right side of history. The young and the young-at-heart are pointing us in the right direction. The powers that be—economic and otherwise—have abused us and the system we were asked to exist in. The powers that be were stupid and greedy and everyone knows it. And now those of us with fight left in our craws or courage left in our hearts are occupying, mobilizing, marching and protesting. It’s as exciting a human moment as most us will ever witness.

This is no time to admire the spectacle from afar or stare longingly from the sidelines. History is being made and our democracy is being refined. These Occupations are the best of us and the best of what’s left, after decades of having been whittled down by banal materialism, existential impotence and the resultant dreary resignation.

It’s not too late, even for human varieties of washed up Dendraster excentricus. Our voices can become a voice. We can be part of a living throe. We can make the earth move.

E.R. Bills of Fort Worth is the author of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas and Letters from Texas, 2021-2023. Read other articles by E.R..