It’s been a challenging few weeks since Memorial Day. My dead brother’s birthday and the sombre occasion of the sixth month anniversary of his passing; our dad’s 85th birthday, celebrated in isolation, yet another bittersweet Zoom moment; the “reopening” of Massachusetts, tentatively, carefully orchestrated by our local leaders. I sense the thoroughbred in the gate, waiting to explode back into the race as increasingly, people cast aside the constraints of distancing and masks. And these emotional challenges in my small personal world collide with the unspeakable shock of the broader human family: so many images of violence in our society, so much hate and othering, a President not passing on a single opportunity to demonstrate pettiness, meanness, impulsivity, preening stubbornness, divisiveness and bombast. His ego’s more fragile than your great-grandmother’s wrist-bone; he’s soap-bubble tough. When the current moment calls for empathy, wisdom, calm, a thick skin, the guts to take potshots with humility and equanimity, a mind eager to listen and learn, and a spirit driven to knit together strands of difference with patchwork care, he gives us: Tweets. Baby-man, baby-bird morsels of me-ness. Our president is a pugilistic toddler, rude and tyrannical, the kind of pint-sized terrorist who makes life a living hell not only for his own parents, but for everyone else at the pizza parlor. If he were my kid, he’d spend the better part of his day in time-outs until he developed some manners and self-control.
I mean no disrespect, by the way, to his followers. I understand the attraction, although it seems like I wouldn’t. There’s a phrase in Samuel Beckett that I love; it was the title of my college undergraduate thesis: “Wailing for substance.” The president gives voice to it, a primal howl of insecurity that is profoundly human, a desperate wail against our essential irrelevance in a meaningless void. It resonates. Times will change. We will die. Some people can accept these inevitabilities with something approaching equanimity, or humor, or humility. Others rage. Who can say why we each react as we do? The President may tell more lies than a cheating husband in church, but he speaks to an important emotional truth— our fundamental terror of change, an existential fear that the only game is the zero-sum game, where another’s gain is by definition my loss. And let’s not forget, the President is a skilled showman, a highly successful TV programmer. Just like your favorite series that lasted a season or two past its natural expiration, he’s going to come up with increasingly outrageous plot twists to keep his audience’s attention. The storyteller in me is grudgingly impressed. As exasperated as more casual viewers may become by this continual amping up, for true fans, there is natural, earned loyalty to a beloved show. He delivers for them. They are entitled to like him.
And I’m entitled to wish he’d shut up and, oh, I dunno, maybe just go play some more golf.
Meanwhile, police armed like Star Wars storm troopers do battle with a citizenry that has been (at times) rowdy and (understandably) angry, but predominantly UNARMED. I don’t doubt cops are scared. Just to put on all that battle gear—I can see why they feel they are at war. Being a cop is a pretty thankless job, doing the work of social workers and doctors and teachers and parents and also law enforcement officers in a world that becomes ever more friable and tense. They must be frustrated as hell. But that’s no excuse for killing and harrassing Black people in their bedrooms, in their cars, on their porches, in their neighborhoods, and then denying that there’s any pattern of racial injustice. It’s not just the police who enforce systemic racism, white people like me do as well: We call the cops on Black birdwatchers in Central Park or Starbucks customers in Philadelphia or Harvard professors opening their own front door in Cambridge, MA. It’s infuriating that we are all still stuck in this centuries- old minuet that oppresses decent people who are just asking to be treated the same as I am. To those who deny there is such a thing as white privilege, I can only scratch my head, because I have lived, benefitted by, and perpetuated it. I am sorry. I am trying to learn and do better. This persistent racism holds us all back from becoming a fuller, more vibrant society.
As for the protests, the “combatants” look to be mostly kids to me: tattooed, impassioned twenty-and-thirty somethings, except for the occasional gentle septuagenarian and lifelong peacenik getting knocked down and out. A friend of my daughter’s went to an orderly protest in Cambridge last week and walked past a group of local cops leaning up against a TANK. Rubber bullets, body armor, batons and tear gas. Yes, looting is bad. Damaging property, also bad. But shouting and demanding change? That’s the American way. Where were the rubber bullets and tear gas at the “reopen” protests, with AK-47-toting protesters storming state capitals demanding that unarmed beaurocrats open barber shops and nail salons in the middle of a pandemic? The cops just let those protesters, mostly white, do their thing, and it went fine. Such inconsistencies are precisely why we need to intelligently, thoughtfully dismantle and re-envision a system that has so much injustice and flawed human instinct baked right into it. We do this all the time, replace dated technology, for example, upgrading to the lastest phone or trading in a car for a new model. Our economy prizes such innovation in the private sector. We should welcome it in our social fabric as well. It heartens me to think the protests of the last two weeks, as painful and concerning as they have felt, are the necessary birth pangs towards America 3.0, a society that more fully embodies the Constitutional promise that all we all are created equal and entitled to full equity in every aspect of our social, economic, political and judicial systems. Birth is messy and painful, as anyone who’s done it knows.
Throughout the mess, I feel increasingly drawn to poetry. I wish I were Mary Oliver, that I could saturate the page with so much meaning, so much TRUTH, in so few words. I want to listen more than I want to speak. (This is hard when there is so much yelling.) I have so many questions and my way to answer them is to read and listen and learn. I try, with varying results, to soften my views, rather than dig in. Certainty has become de rigeur in our country, with pundits excoriating nuance in every corner of media, as if merely to hold an opinion is proof of its accuracy and value. Our motto as a culture has become “if I’m this angry, I must be right.” (Last time I got insane angry was two weeks ago when I misread a UPS ticket about a missed pickup; I was 100% wrong.) It’s boorish and exhausting. What ever happened to curiosity?
So I read: Ibram Kendi, Claudia Rankine, Austin Channing Brown. I try to learn. I turn to the quiet of the woods. I turn on music and dance, curious to stir up the murky sediment of feelings that settles at the bottom of my heart.
So much makes me sad. So much makes me hopeful.
I am walking my grief
In June-green woods
Where living vines twine
Over fallen logs feeding
Roots of towering trees
and starry hawthorne winking
As birds chatter-call —
Robin, redwing, mourning dove;
Across tufted fields of wildflowers,
White, purple, teal,
Past stone walls built by shadow people
Long dead constructing their dreams
One weighty rock atop another
Swatting mosquitos at the ears
Waterbugs dancing on streams pollen-thick
Time folding, in, over, down
Until I am with my children again
Singing on these trails
At this abandoned foundation telling
Its charred story of olden days
When other families lit fires here
As we also are huddling.
A new era of viral yearning
Unspools from our hearts like wisteria,
Or that meandering wall tumbling
Broken through trees.