I sometimes think that as artists we are privileged to be given fleeting glimpses of the world as God sees it – full of infinite beauty in the everyday.
In the midst of our severe drought, a predicted storm actually arrived and rain fell for a couple of hours!
It’s hard, loss. It just is. I’m still a little weepy from encountering the about-to-be-fifth-grade student in the produce section of the market on Monday. When I allow myself to think about it, tears start to form. I could just push the feelings down and ignore them, but I have learned that if I do that, it just makes things harder later. Strong feelings that are suppressed don’t just go away. They lurk in the darkness, gathering strength, so that when they do surface, it takes far more resources to deal with them than it would have originally. I spent my childhood having to bury emotional reactions, so I count myself fortunate that I now can allow myself to feel appropriate grief and mourn a loss.
But that doesn’t mean that it is easy. And I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter whether the rest of the world judges something to be a major or minor loss. Only the person experiencing it can know how much a given loss affects them.
For me the sight of this 10 year old did not just trigger the feelings of the loss of my fifth grade classroom after my immune system collapsed. It triggered the feelings of loss over my life as I knew it. The loss of my independence to be able to go where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do. The loss of being able to plan an outing and knowing that I had a 99% chance of actually following through on the plans. The loss of feeling that I was making a positive difference in the world each day, and the loss of the sense of pride that I was able to do a meaningful job and contribute to the financial health of the household.
After my immune system collapsed, I wasn’t sure of who I was any more because I couldn’t teach, or work in any capacity. For several years I couldn’t go to medical appointments or the grocery store without help. I couldn’t even depend on my body to do what it is hard wired to do: stay alive. Even catching a common cold could, and sometimes did, lead to an intractable infection that would take months to resolve, and even longer to fully recover from.
When that happened, I knew that the only thing I could do was to put one foot in front of the other, each hour, each day, each week. If I survived, great. If I didn’t…. well, it would be regrettable, but not unexpected. I was too sick to do, or accomplish anything. I couldn’t read the newspaper or a book. I couldn’t make any plans for the future beyond the next few minutes. I no longer knew my place in the world, and had no idea how I would put my life back together, or if that would even be possible.
This was my life after my immune system collapsed. There was a Before, and then there is an After. My health has improved markedly in the years since then, and I have slowly been inching toward a more normal life. I have now taken a wonderful trip to France, and many days I find that I can write, or I might have the energy to walk around with my camera around my neck taking photographs of beautiful things. But I never know. The past several days my body has just sort of shut down and I’ve had to clear everything off my schedule except medical appointments. I’ve had to rest a lot, and can not even be sure if I will have the energy for using the tickets my husband and I have for a play tonight. We can exchange them if necessary, but still….
There was a Before, and there is an After. And seeing the 10 year old in the produce section reminded my heart of the Before. I am deeply grateful that I so passionately loved the last years of my career, and it is good that I am able to cry over the loss. But that doesn’t mean that it is easy.
Yesterday I was in the produce section of the market, and noticed a child helping her mother. She was reaching up, trying to grab ahold of a plastic produce bag from the dispenser, but she just wasn’t quite tall enough. Even on tip toes, she missed by about 2″. I smiled at both her and her mom, and commented that she needed to grow just a little more. They smiled back, and I could tell by the girl’s reaction and her height that she had just finished fourth grade and would be entering fifth grade in the fall. I felt a stab of grief. Her face so perfectly expressed the common energy of 10/11 year olds, and I realized again how much I miss a classroom full of those faces, eagerly looking at me, waiting to laugh at my jokes, learn new things, and to let their minds blossom into abstract thinking that is a whole new way for them of looking at the world. They are just beginning to see the interconnection of different ideas, facts, and applications. And when their faces light up with excitement over understanding something new, it is one of the best highs in the world. Fifth graders are the best students on the planet to teach, and I still miss it. If my collapsed immune system hadn’t forced my early retirement, I would still be teaching for a few more years. I haven’t yet hit normal retirement age. It’s not that my current life isn’t joyous. It is. And there are new experiences that are open to me now. But when you have lost something you love, through no choice of your own, it hurts. Over time, the loss gets less intense, but it is always there. Sometimes it rises up inside, surprising you with its intensity, and you find that you have some more grieving to do.
It has been 3 weeks since the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In our modern world with our instantaneous social media and 24/7 news cycle, three weeks is a long time. Our various electronic devices ping and swoop and chime, constantly clamoring for our attention, each one urgently trying to convince us that something earth shattering has just happened. As often as not, we find out that the momentous event is only a picture of what a friend just ate for lunch. Then we move on to the next thing. We have become a nation with a very short attention span.
Our human brain can only hold a finite amount of recent information before it has to clean house and make room for more. And I’m afraid that our brains have already tidied up the clutter a number of times since the massacre in Charleston. We have moved on to more recent events: the US women’s team winning the World Cup, the fact that we need to remember to fill up the car with petrol on the way home from work, and Greece’s impending economic collapse, to name just a few. That makes me afraid that we will forget.
I’m afraid that we will forget the horror of a gunman entering a house of prayer and, with malicious intent, murdering 9 innocent people.
I’m afraid that we will forget how unconscionably easy it was for him to get a gun and ammunition for the sole purpose of ending 9 black lives.
I’m afraid that we will forget to look seriously at the societal factors that caused this young man to hold such violent hatred in his heart that he thought these 9 lives were of no account.
And we mustn’t. We must not forget these events, nor the hard conversations we must have so that we can face, and then work to change, the discrimination and violence so many still experience in this country.
We must, in fact, remember. Remember and understand the deep truth that President Obama expressed in his eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney when he said that “My liberty depends on you being free as well.”
We must remember, and continue to hold in our hearts, The Mother Emanuel 9:
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd
Ethel Lee Lance
Clementa C Pinckney
Two and a half weeks ago, I wrote about singing at the memorial service of an elderly friend. A week after that memorial, I sang with 30 other people for a friend’s wedding. The wedding was glorious: a full church with both families present, wonderfully chosen organ and choral music, and palpable love and joy that were filling the church and spilling out of the doors. Both services, spaced exactly a week apart, were celebrations of life. The first was a celebration of the memories of a long life, fully lived. This second service, which occurred two weeks ago, was the celebration of a loving couple, starting their life together.
But here’s the thing. Until a week ago, with the United States Supreme Court’s ruling making same sex marriage legal in all 50 states, there were still 13 states in which my friend would not be legally married. Because he is gay. Because he married a man. Because he now has a husband. Because of this, all of us had been looking forward to the wedding. It would give us a chance to witness, and participate in, a celebration of equality.
And then just two days before my friend’s wedding, the mass shooting happened in Charleston, South Carolina at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. A shooting in which nine innocent people were killed. Some politicians tried to put a spin on it by saying that it was an attack on Christians. Their statements are insulting, and make me incredibly angry. The shooter targeted the members of Emanuel AME Church not because they were Christian, but because they were black. It was a hate crime.
The mass shooting in Charleston is particularly painful because for us in the United States, it evokes the memories of other hate crimes. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, in which 6 little girls were killed, and 22 others injured. The shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in which 6 people were killed, and 4 injured. The murder of Larry King, a 15 year old 8th grade student who was shot in the back of the head during a computer class by a fellow student who was 14. He was killed in school because he was openly gay.
These are just the sensational events. The ones that make the news. The reality is that more subtle acts of violent discrimination occur every single day. We just don’t hear about them. What kind of society do we live in, in which such acts of bigotry and hatred continue to occur?
Part of the answer is that we live in a country in which discrimination is endemic. African American slaves existed in Jamestown, one of the earliest American colonies. Even before that, as the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World, their psychological dominance and superior weapons enabled them to enslave the indigenous population. This is the part of our early history that we don’t like to talk about, especially on the 4th of July. It is true that our country was, and is, founded on noble principles. But if we are serious about “Liberty and Justice for all,” as we say in our Pledge of Allegiance, then we must grapple with the fact that freedom and justice have existed for some at the expense of others, for as far back as our history takes us.
Discrimination and its inherent inequality is our country’s demon. It’s the monster in the closet that no one talks about. And if it is talked about, the conversation often goes something like this:
“There’s a monster in my closet.”
“I know you’re scared of that monster, but it will be alright. It will go away if you just ignore it.”
The trouble is, the monster doesn’t go away. Not as long as it is left in the closet. Especially if the closet is locked and boarded up so that the monster has no way to get out. But letting the monster out of the closet will force us to face our fear. And so we keep the monster out of sight and try to forget that it is there.
I am a survivor of childhood violence, and I tried to keep my own monster stuffed down, out of sight, and locked up for years and years. I thought the best thing I could do was to just get on with my life. But finally the internal havoc wreaked by trying to keep that monster under lock and key was so great that I had to let it out and engage it. That process sometimes brought me to the extreme edges of pain and I often wondered how I would be able to keep going. I know the devastation violence can bring to a life, and the tremendous effort it takes to move toward imperfect healing and forgiveness. But you can’t do any of that until you let the monster out.
I also am a woman of faith, and my faith calls me to be a fierce fighter for dignity and justice. A society is made up of people, and people are messy. Each society has it’s own history, and histories are messy. We are complex social creatures. We want life to be simple. We fear change. We fear shifts of power. This attitude is not bad of itself: it contributes to our survival. But fear can cause us to do terrible things, hateful things. And we must not let it.
We are more than our fear. We are beings who can also embody love, hope, forgiveness and grace. President Obama gave the eulogy at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, the Pastor of Emmanuel AME Church. In it, he talked about grace. Amazing grace that can come both from God and from each other. He cites the grace of the families who lost loved ones, and goes on to say that by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace. He talks about how we need to make changes in our laws so that we can curtail the carnage of gun violence. He challenges us to talk and to work openly to end the systemic prejudices of our society that result in ruined lives that are absent of hope. He reminds us that as we fight for dignity and justice for everyone, we embody God’s grace.
But that embodiment can be difficult. It requires commitment. Grace is not some amorphous sense of contentment that makes us feel good. The embodiment of grace requires action. We have to act in order to let the monster out of the closet. It won’t get out by itself. That action can be both painful and terrifying. But slowly we will discover that letting the monster out opens us up to grace. We will learn that the pain and fear can sometimes crack us open so that grace can pour in.
Below you can listen to President Obama calling us to let that grace into our lives so that we can bring freedom and liberty to all. And then remember the victims of the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel Church. I can think of no better tribute to our great country on the 4th of July than to commit ourselves to not let their deaths be in vain.
Photogrpah courtesy of the author. First appeared in Zebra’s Child, July 4, 2015.
There are no flowers like this anywhere in the neighborhood. Yet somehow the winds brought seeds of beauty, revealing hope in improbable places.
No matter which way you look at it. Or perhaps I should say, No matter what a particular couple looks like: Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender, Queer, or Straight.
Just before midnight in my time zone, I’m giving one last weekend “Hurrah!” for the Supreme Court decision last Friday. It’s been a long time coming!