Remember the last time you said something, had it taken as far from your intended meaning as possible, succeeded in horrifying and alienating your audience, and was subsequently shamed and humiliated? In a very public forum? Well, if you have, you never forgot it, right? My shinning moment of misspeaking is now seared into my infernal list of wrongs. As much as I wanted to justify my comment, to explain my choice of words, it was for naught. Deaf ears. And I get it. You screw up, you get what you get. For the subsequent hours, I felt like a politician whose latest sound bite got twisted in the hands of the opposing but very savvy wordsmith into a half truth. Ruha Benjamin, the Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, said at a recent conference, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will stay with you for a lifetime. I can attest to that truth. Even your own.
Daily last summer, on any of those glorious days, I’d open the front door just to stay closer to green. The sugar maple out front was lush with leaves, and even in the rain I leaned out to drink in that verdant hue. Looking ahead, all I envisioned were more luscious moments, more sweet air, and more bird song.
Outside my window is nothing but fall perfection. The sugar maples are electric shades of red and orange; fire flames igniting hillsides with their brilliant hues while yellow pops all over the landscape too. Evergreens stand taller now, holding their forest color and reminding us that life goes on even while chlorophyll breaks down those leaves fading on the deciduous trees. Poetry alone captures this season of change. This moving on: an end and a beginning all in the same breath.
And yet, regardless of my present beatific state, it would be unthinkable to not mention all the suffering happening around our globe. Puerto Ricians are minimally months away from finding electricity or clean water back into so many dwellings swept to the ground by Hurricane Maria. California is inundated by the most devastating fires of all time; more than 50,000 acres are burning in Napa and Sonoma counties alone (The Washington Post). One need not look further than Texas or Florida to find unrivaled destruction this hurricane season. All man’s work. All due to our cavalier approach to having our way upon this gentle earth; us, we are the cause of so many of these epic disasters.
Early Monday I was sitting in my car waiting for the layer of morning frost to melt off my windshield when I first heard the news from Las Vegas on NPR. I immediately got out of the car and went back inside to hug my wife. In her confusion over this double goodbye, I suggested she sit. Together we scrolled through dozens of 140 character snippets on Twitter; just long enough to fully grasp the horror. What is there to say when one hears of another mass murder carried out by another person in possession of a rigged-rapid-fire rifle? Is this our new normal, America?
Period 1, I asked my students to start class with a seven minute write. Typical Monday routine although I am sure they sensed my desperate need for writing time rather than our regular foray into playfulness. 7 minutes to write. That mystical number which allows us to break into the root of the matter. Afterwards, I asked who heard the news from Las Vegas that morning. Several responded at once. One shooter. Mass murder. Innocent concert-goers. Largest massacre in US history. After a brief but potent rundown of the know facts I posed the pressing yet unanswerable question: how will we solve the gun violence epidemic in America? They talked background checks. Gun limits. Mental illness. But then they sat mute, weighed down by the magnitude of gun violence, again. I asked them, please continue this conversation, with anyone, with everyone. To not let the NRA or the politicians in their pockets, or the fear, win. I’m not sure they could hear me. Many own guns. Most are already afraid. One suggested I carry a gun. We laughed at the thought of that. Me. The little lady with loud boots and big hats. It was time to move on, so, we segued into a discussion of the character of Edna’s suicide at the end of Chopin’s The Awakening. Seriously, understanding these massacres are beyond me in every way possible.
Tonight I celebrate my mother’s would be 90th birthday. Yes, I know she’s gone, although a force like hers can’t be contained in a simple afterlife, right? Of course I’m sad not to have her physically with us, but wow, did we have spectacular fun these last many decades. Holidays and vacations and just spur of the minute plans that would always turn into something fabulous.
There is, generally, within a disaster, some small yet distant point of light along the horizon. Katrina, Irene, and now Harvey have that in common: the disaster and the light. Although my Vermont school community is not directly affected this time, their personal memory of Irene has spurred empathy and compassion for the residents in Texas hit hard by Harvey. On our first day of school there were whispers which grew to serious conversation until an unified plan took shape to support the relief efforts. As we are hundreds of miles away, raising cash seemed best.