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Angels In The Dark Days
In early April in 1994 a missile shot up from the hillsides near the Kigali airport and brought down a small plane holding Juvenal Habyarimana, Rwanda’s president, and a few others, including the president of neighboring Burundi. Much of the wreckage crashed into the presidential palace, perhaps a fitting symbol of what was to come. The western news media paid little mind to the incident, and most of us went about our daily routines without even a passing curiosity. Rwandans had no such luxury. The presidential assassination unleashed an ethnic turmoil that had burbled sporadically for generations. In the coming weeks, the western press came to analyze and debate a relatively unusued concept – genocide. No one really knows how many were killed before a fragile peace was won three months later. Some estimates runs as high as a million, and the floor seems to be set at 800,000. No one knows. What we do know is that most of the killing was intimate, committed through machetes and clubs, neighbors slaying neighbors. Piles of bodies lined the roadside checkpoints where the militias exercised a drunken authority over life and death. Churches where the targets sought sanctuary became killing centers, places where God turned his back and the worst impulses of the sorry creation of man acted out in violence and despair. Now, nearly three decades later, almost no one pays heed to the Rwandan genocide. Our lives have gone on from the news, as they should, and we regard now the challenges and crises that mark the new days. But I cannot do so, and each April on the anniversary of the onset of this incredible slaughter, I think back to Rwanda. A few years after the genocide I visited Rwanda for a week in the springtime. I was working with the American Refugee Committee (now renamed Alight) and was sent to tour the work done in the conflict’s aftermath. What I saw – what I felt – during those days changed who I was forever. In my second novel, Through the Waters and the Wild, I drew from that trip to dwell on those changes. Conor Finnegan, the immensely flawed central figure in the narrative, visited a Rwandan refugee camp and encountered a small girl, no more than six or seven, who came to represent one of the book’s central themes. This girl exists, or at least she did then, and continues to haunt my thoughts and flare my conscience. While I fictionalized parts of the encounter, I did not fictionalize her. When she first saw me she rushed to me and grabbed my hand. For the remainder of my time in the camp she did not let go. She did not speak, or smile, or laugh, or do anything one might expect from a small child encountering the new phenomenon of a white man walking through her world. I knelt before her several times to ask her name, to smile at her, and to pat my own heart as I tried to bring her out. No response other than an intense stare through dark eyes beneath a furrowed brow. The other children teased us, telling me that she was ‘votre cherie’ – my sweetheart. Still she held on to me until I reached the point where I had to leave. I turned to her one final time and whispered words that I hoped she might understand, that I was going but that I would never forget her. As I climbed into the truck to drive away, at last she gave me a response: While all the other children had run back up the hill to the camp, she stayed to continue looking at me through the fencing. Two giant tears ran down her face. To this day I see those eyes, see those tears. And I have no idea what to do with that. I’ve tried to ascribe meaning to the incident, tried to make sense of it and use it as some type of impetus – for thought, or action, or even just feeling. But what impetus can there be in the suffering of children caught in the crossfire? What possible value is there in the sacrifice of this young girl’s childhood – and the childhoods of millions of young people around the world – who become the currency of conflict, and whose lives are nothing more than the byproduct of hatred, greed and the violence that goes with it all? I have no answers. None of us do. And so each April I regard the genocide in Rwanda, and think of this little angel who had no chance to be a child. I cannot imagine the trauma she faced in her young life. I wonder what it is she had lost – a home, perhaps her parents, a family dispersed, the identity, security, discovery and joy of being a child as the world opens up. I wonder where she is today, and what became of her. At the end of these days when Rwanda comes back to me, I try to sleep while the images float through me and around me. And before I make the effort to sleep, I will say another prayer for the soul of this girl, and thank her, although she could never have wanted to proffer the gift, for making me wiser by showing me what I cannot know.
The Call of Springtime in the Fallow Days
We walk now in the coldest, the cruelest of winters, this winter, with its deep sorrows. But it will not always be this way, and we must believe this. We must know these things. We must know that in the renascent warmth of new spring, we shall find ourselves again, find the best, lost parts of us that had been forlorn while icy winds bite across our necks and kill the senses on cheeks and eyelids. It is in these days, the days that dawn darkly and end quickly, that the world seems entranced in black , and adrift. The days hopeless in scope and despairing of relief, bracketed by blown snow, ice, and winds that never seem to die. But spring puts the lie to this despair, and once more we emerge from our frozen stasis. In the celebration of our rebirth, when our limbs grow once again strong, our blood flows high, and there is joy and purpose in our days, we are once more as young as we ever were, as alive as we ever might be. So, do not think of the times when the bleak and desperate days will once again hold dominion over our time, over our souls. Do not choose to remember the lonely dark nights and the short grey days where clouds press down like damp, cold cloth and breath itself comes hard. Do not dwell on these barren times. Not now. Be willing to forget for a time, to embrace the delusion that life is warm and full and grand, that the soft new grass will feel full beneath our bare feet, that the reclaimed sun will infuse comfort and wellness through each pathway until it descends into a gentle nightfall. Be willing to forget for a time, even within the certainty that the cold days will come again, that nothing on this earth ever truly dies, that power and beauty and grace and strength and pleasure and love itself are forever haunted by flesh that grows weary, by spirits that seep into nothingness, by souls turned as numb as uncovered hands on a snowy winter night. By a disease that runs laughing through these cold days. Be willing to forget for a time the lost faces left behind through a comet’s fleeting arc. Believe for an instant that the virtuous and the holy hold sway forever in the newborn warmth of springtime, that gentility governs each action, that an abiding nobility beats within each breast and welcomes each new face into a community that will never die. Grasp the hand of God Himself, clasp His shoulder, and look deeply and fully into His infinite eyes. Do this in the promised rebirth of the warm and breathlessly golden days. Nothing on this earth ever truly dies.
The Indecency of Silence
We have passed the time for silence We have passed the complacency of safety and sanctuary. We can no longer convince ourselves that everything is all right, that we are the way we should be, the way we always were…… A young father receives seven bullets in his back. A white knee chokes off the life of a black man, already restrained and on the ground. Tamir Rice learns a permanent lesson at the tender age of 12 that it really doesn’t matter whether your gun is a toy when your skin is dark. Ahmaud Arbery finds out that he cannot outrun the insidious hatred of racism. We know the stories, and we see the rage. In the deepest recesses of our hopes, we tell ourselves that these are aberrations, that the fabric of who we are as a people remains untorn, if a bit frayed, that the things we were told as children still hold true – Land of the Free. All Men Are Created Equal. To Serve and Protect. We speak of our exceptionalism, and sing our hymns. But we are not okay. We have never been truly whole…… Tonight I sit at my desk in a horrified amazement at what we have become. I cannot recognize the tribalism that pits us against one another, that intentionally obscures the commonality of shared experience. I’m continually stunned by rhetoric that triggers our worst impulses rather than our highest aspirations. I cannot grasp a 17-year-old heart that carries an assault rifle across state lines to end the lives of people who think differently than he does. And I weep, truly and actually weep, for the callous indifference that so readily snuffs out hope, and joy, and community, and life itself. We are not okay. During this season of sorrow, I have tried to insulate myself against the devolution. I have wrapped myself in my own writing, and the editing of words written by others. I have sought the lyricism of the great authors that I will never approach, those voices that make the language sing and float like playful birds. As the world has darkened, I’ve sought the brightness of letters. This is a luxury, I know. But there is no escaping where we are, no way of ignoring the disintegration of what was once firm and whole. We do not deserve the comfort of blindness. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador dedicated his priesthood to battling his country’s poverty, social injustice and political oppression. Shortly before his assassination, he wrote: Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous,
tranquil contribution of all
to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
it is right and it is duty. We share our space with almost infinite diversity, with people who do not look or act or speak like us, with ideas that sometimes challenge the way we think or the way we live. Yet through it all we share the same struggles, the same desire for belonging and acceptance. The same desire for peace. But know we have a duty to that peace we seek. We cannot sit by and indulge our mythologies. Peace is dynamism, beyond the reach of any measure of silence, or complacency, or smugness. For Jacob Blake, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and the thousands whose names we do not know, we can no longer pretend that as a country, as a society, we are something that we are not, and have never been. We have passed the time for silence. A correction is in order. And well overdue.
A Country In Need of Repair
I spent Saturday morning embedding bricks into the muddy rim of our garden, the first layer of a decorative divider that would highlight the lovely things growing there. The day dawned hot and grew hotter, the remnants of the previous night’s thunderstorms lending a cover of humidity that pressed down into the lungs. Hard work on a hot morning, one of the privileges of still being well and strong enough to do such things. And usually such tasks provide a type of quiet, a time when my thoughts can focus on the simple acts at hand, the product of which is a tangible improvement – something new, something better in place. Something repaired. Such work can quiet the mind. But these are the not days for quiet. There are still things that need to be repaired. When I had done all I cared to do for the day, I came back inside and showered away the dirt and sand. I put on cool clothes and made myself ready for the day’s best and most important task. We did not go to Washington, my son Michael and I. With tens of thousands of people on the streets, Washington would not be easy to navigate. We chose instead to rally in Manassas, which, in the end, is our community. We arrived to a wide green lawn with free water, disinfectant and music. One of the songs played was “Wake Up, Everybody”, sung by Teddy Pendergrass. Michael, whose tastes run along different lines, liked it, and asked me what it was. I told him, and noted that we’re still chasing the same notes of a song written nearly fifty years ago. So there we stood, masks on in the heat and the humidity and the crowds, and listened to the voices of commitment and promise. The voices who have not let their fear override their courage. And I added to my life’s experiences during those hours, chanting through my own tears the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, chanting “Black Lives Matter” with a raised arm and a clenched fist, standing next to my son, whose own passions were stirred by what he saw that afternoon. It never goes away. I marched against the insanity that was the Vietnam War when I was in college. I sat down with dozens of others in the middle of College Avenue to block midday traffic and command attention to what we were saying. I gazed into the visors of riot police and heard the threats of tear gas. Much of all that was personal. Thousands of my generation were being sent to that meaningless, brutal war, and I had no intention of joining them. I marched against the injustice of it all, but I was marching to save my own ass, too. I do not know what it is to be black. I do not know what it is to leave home each day with the realization tucked into a far corner of my mind that I could be a target simply because of the shade of my skin. I do not know the fear, and the frustration, and the vulnerability, and the rage. I will never know these things. But I know what justice is. And I know passion, and grace, and the love of community. I know the peace that comes from seeing and doing the right things, not because they are comfortable or expedient, but simply because they are the things that affirm the dignity and worth of every soul. During his remarkable Day of Affirmation address in South Africa at the height of apartheid, Bobby Kennedy said, “Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is…enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town and views and the color of his skin. It is …the task of the young people of this world to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief from the civilization of man.” Most of the voices who spoke were young voices, flamed by the ideals we have yet to come close to achieving. Their words were complemented by older voices who leavened the passions of the young with the wisdom of those who have experienced the failure of those ideals. But it was the young people who carried the day. We stood on the same ground where slaves had been sold two centuries prior, ghosts stirred again to life and honored by those who accepted the responsibilities of memory and commitment. Afterwards I spoke with one of the organizers, Brian, who is eighteen years old. He had put this day together four days earlier with others no older than he was. I told him that he had made me feel better that day than I had in a great while, and that he was our future. “Keep the fight.” He promised that he would. I am more than willing to pass whatever commitment I have to these young people. We have done what we could, and for the most part we have failed miserably. The world is still a harsh place, overrun with violence, poverty, injustice and racism. We still live our lives through our tribes rather than our communities. We’ll stay in the fight, the older generations. We can draw from the strength and humanism of leaders like John Lewis who’ve sailed into their later years with their voices strong and their ideals intact. We cannot discount the wisdom that comes from our failures. But it’s a deeply flawed world that we’ve created, in desperate need of repair. Our best hope lies in the energy, compassion and courage of those who must deal with its legacy. . Youth is more than a time of life – it is a state of mind. Our best hope lies with Brian, and the thousands across this country like him who live by the passion and idealism of youth.
The Measure of Greatness
I think continually of those who were truly great. Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing……..
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
- Stephen Spender I do not believe greatness is defined by wealth or fame or accomplishment. I see greatness instead as something much more demanding. True greatness is meeting the demands and responsibilities of daily living with an open heart. True greatness is diligence, compassion, care, and most of all kindness, and it is exceedingly rare. I first met Jerry Evans 25 years ago. I had been seeing his magnificent daughter for a few weeks and had fallen crazy in love. Lynn’s suggestion that I meet her parents hinted that I may not have been alone in that heart-based journey, so we all agreed to meet for dinner at a slightly upscale local restaurant in Minnetonka. Meeting the parents is enough to chill the veins of even the fiercest romantic warrior. I knew myself to be perfectly capable of dismantling the entire process, either through a subconscious effort to be impressive, a misplaced or inappropriate remark, or just a nervous awkwardness that would make me look as juvenile as I sometimes am. So much was at stake. I had Lynn, and I couldn’t bear the thought of alienating her parents. I was Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series waiting for the ground ball to go under my glove and down the right field line. We arrived first and were at our table when Jerry and Marlys arrived. And I knew at once that I needn’t have worried. With a firm handshake, a genuine smile and a twinkle in his eye that I would later see to be his constant expression of amusement, interest and welcome, we became instant friends. When the server came by, Jerry led the ordering by asking for a scotch. How could I not like the man? Two scotches, a fine but unmemorable dinner, nearly three hours of stories and questions and reminiscences all mingled with Lynn’s laughing radiance and Marlys’s gentle humor……I felt I belonged with them, and to them. That feeling never changed. Jerry Evans became my second father, and, like everyone else who knew him, I came to look forward to the time we would spend together. Jerry made a career with Western Electric after a fairly hardscrabble youth and a reluctant tour of duty near the end of the Korean War, where he lined up to be a target of a North Korean sniper until, sensing his vulnerability, he willfully disobeyed the orders of his lieutenant and ended up capturing the sniper and a few of his pals himself. He loved a wife and raised two splendid daughters. The neighborhood friends he made in his twenties remained close friends all his life, and get-togethers with Jack Carlson, John Kissel and Walt Harle marked his calendar for more than five decades. Through it all Jerry never wavered, never strayed, never violated the ideas that he held most dear – that all he met were entitled to trust and good humor, that every problem had its solution if we looked hard enough for it, that good times inevitably followed good work and were to be savored when they came. That love itself was life’s most precious flow. That each day, each person, each situation, should be met with kindness. Our son Michael had a special relationship with his grandfather. The visits were too few, even if Michael would sometimes fly to Minnesota on his own to spend time with his grandparents, to eat Grandma’s ginger cookies and to hear Grandpa’s stories. Michael loved the stories, loved the wisdom. Loved the man. He referred to Jerry as “the purest man I’ve ever known.” Who would disagree? In this springtime of sorrow, we lost Jerry Evans. We had watched his health take a series of hits through the years – arthritis, a weakening heart, some other more minor afflictions. While his vitality waned, his love of life never diminished. The stories continued even as the naps became more frequent, and he so clearly loved being with his family. The twinkle in his eye never faded. He remained our father, our husband, our grandfather. Our constant friend. The virus took him the day after his 92nd birthday. He passed in isolation, tended to by a loving hospital staff that never made him feel alone and a family tied into several “visits” a day through video calls. He passed quickly, and, I like to think, without undue pain or discomfort. If anyone on this planet merited a peaceful passing, it was Jerry Evans……. We cannot know where we go when our bodies finally set us free. All faiths aside, we cannot ever really be sure. But I believe that any realm where Jerry Evans’s soul has traveled must be a peaceful place, a warm place where the soul can at last rest, and gather itself again. When I take the trip he has taken, when my own soul steps away from all it has ever known and I cross that same bridge, I imagine Jerry welcoming me there on the other side, perhaps saying, “What kept you?” with his eyes twinkling once again, and I will shake his hand, laughing. And I will tell him the things that reside deep in the heart’s core, and too often go unsaid during our lifetimes. I will tell him that I love him, and that I missed him during our time apart. I will tell him that I missed hearing his stories when he was gone, and ask him to tell me again about being a boy in South Minneapolis during the lean years, about the war he never wanted to fight, and about seeing Willie Mays and Ted Williams play AAA ball at Nicollet Park . We’ll talk of baseball, and cold winters, and summers where the fireflies shone on the trees like Christmas lights. He’ll tease me again about never having caught a fish. I will tell him that I would never have been the person I became without his unspoken, subtle guidance. And I will tell him that I am nowhere near alone in that gratitude, that he walks ahead of a family shaped by his gentle good humor, his unqualified acceptance, the constancy of his affections, and his unending kindnesses. We can aspire to nothing better than to touch the lives around us with gentility, respect, kindness and love. At the end of it all, we rest. Rest well, Jerry Evans. No one deserves it more. “The only word for goodness is goodness, and it is not enough.” - Pat Conroy
A Quiet Blinding Light
Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life those the art of living well.” - Aristotle If you saw Sharon Grieshaber on the street, you might not look twice. A smallish woman with short-cropped hair and a completely unassuming demeanor, pleasant enough but not outgoing or effusive in either her words or her movements, she would likely be going on her way with eyes forward and a certain step. Nothing about her would make her stand out from anyone around her. Sharon Grieshaber stayed within herself. But in a classroom she became a different entity altogether, as intimidating as a defensive tackle, as demanding a coach as Vince Lombardi, as fast and as quick as Usain Bolt. The classroom was sacred space to Sharon Grieshaber, and those who entered it were commanded to reverence. This quiet woman, usually sitting behind the desk she had placed front and center, often carrying a smile that could be almost mischievous but was certainly confident, just a bit taller than five feet and slight as a bird in winter, brought even the brassiest among us to heel. We had no choice. This was her space, and we sat within it only by her allowance. And to this day I thank the Fates that placed me there. Sharon Grieshaber changed me forever. High school honors English, and none of us really knew what we were about to experience. English classes to that point had been relatively simple - read a few books, regurgitate whatever themes the teacher put out there, and maybe conjugate a verb or two while spinning through a basic grammar text. Essays written to spec, just long enough to meet minimum requirements. Perhaps a trip to a book store to find some Cliff notes. Nothing special in any of it. But then junior year, and Sharon Grieshaber rolled through us like a runaway intellectual freight train. Her quiet voice carried words we had not heard before, challenges to the ideas and points we had always assumed to be inviolable, exhortations to question everything we touched, and that touched us. From the first week, we sat spellbound. It began early, with a September assignment to bring in an advertisement from a magazine or a newspaper, then rip it apart. Find the assumptions, tear up the logical flaws, see what the ad is really trying to say, the illusion it’s trying to paint. Measure it against the facts you know, and identify the ways in which it distracts you from them. Tear it all up. Think logically. Think critically. She assigned us the great works. We spent much of the autumn term dissecting Moby Dick, where she taught us to read a book in layers, to find the subtler themes that lay below and behind the narrative. She cautioned us from the superficial. “A great book is not impressionistic,” I remember her saying. “A great book invites excavation.” So Moby Dick, we learned, was more than just a whaling tale. It was a religious treatise, a study in cetology, an allegory of man’s infinite obsessions, an analysis of our innate spiritual quest. By the time we were through it, most of us were exhausted. The week before spring break she assigned us Thoreau’s Walden, but not just to read. We were to journal our responses to Thoreau, chapter by chapter. Our journals were due three days after break ended. Where our classmates might have spent their days running to the beach or hiking the San Gabriel mountains, we were bound to a 19th century philosophical justification for independent thought and action. It made for a bloody hell of a vacation. But when we submitted those journals, I remember hearing more satisfactions than complaints. We had done something very much out of the ordinary, and it didn’t feel nearly as bad as we had anticipated. I ended that year with an unspoken regret. I had spent the year in an intellectual wrestling match with the sharpest, most focused teacher I had ever encountered. Within those nine months Mrs. Grieshaber taught me to think critically, to trust my own interpretations, to look deeply into and behind whatever I might see in front of me. She taught me the inestimable, precious timelessness of independent thought. No one before had ever come close to that. Few people afterward would ever do so. And I think I knew at the time that I would never encounter an instructor who would so breathtakingly change the way I looked at the world. That year pushed me further past the simplicities of childhood. Sharon Grieshaber buffed and polished a previously shapeless, mushy mind, sharpened its edges, and, because she cherished the product, made me cherish it, too. Two years ago, Kevin, my great, brilliant and creative friend from those years, who shared my regard for the woman and with whom together we marveled at her impact on both of us, suggested we get in touch with Mrs. Grieshaber to thank her for what she had meant to us. We wanted to tell her that we had tried our best to use what she taught us, and that, despite a few bumps, we had both done rather well with it all. I had a trip to Southern California planned, and we combed our schedules to find a common time when we might take the great lady to lunch, or maybe coffee, and let her know that two of her boys remembered her well. We were too late, though. Sharon Grieshaber was only a handful of years older than us, but she had passed the summer before. Since then I’ve thought often about her passing. I hope it was peaceful. And I hope, in the moment that her beautiful, enlightened soul left a body that had spent all it had to give, a quiet but blinding light arced through a grateful universe.
Hymn to a Cold Virginia Morning
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? - Mary Oliver, The Summer Day Most mornings I have no need of an alarm. I usually find myself coming awake a few minutes before the alarm is set, instinct dominating, or perhaps some inner workings of time and obligation ensuring that my body, no matter how tired, will respond to its duties. I roll over then and shut off the alarm before it goes off, and stretch myself to consciousness. I go downstairs to walk the dog. He follows unsteadily down hardwood steps made secure by cloth strips, a concession to the assault of time on legs and balance. He hops the final step at the bottom, skids himself to a stop, turns toward the door where I stand with his leash, and for the first time that day wags his tail. Winter mornings are, I think, the best times for the two of us, Lucas sniffing each corner spot, each mailbox post, every bush and shrub that might hold a secret scent, and me trying to be patient with a dog lacking any sense of urgency. On the weekends no one is around that early and the neighborhood is quiet. There’s no need to rush. We both can sniff and breathe without demand. One morning several days ago the temperature struggled to top 20 degrees. I had bundled myself well enough, and my dog took no notice of the cold. Our routine was as it always is even though thin ice cracked underfoot and we both blew out white plumes with every breath. Later that morning I traded messages with a longstanding friend who lives near the beach in California, and when I let her know that I had just taken an extended sub-zero walk she sent me an image of the sun. “Here, you need this.” But in truth I need no warming on mornings such as these. I walk under a sky as sharp and as crystalline as broken blue glass. A chevron of geese might fly above, so close to the ground that it seems as if I could reach up and pluck a feather from them as they fly by. Their honking echoes between houses as they disappear beyond trees that have shed the blaze of autumn to sentinel the cold. On rare mornings Venus shines as a bright, white pinprick against the blue while the sunrise forms its orange and purple rim along the horizon. Because there is so much else to regard on mornings such as these, there is no compulsion to regard the cold as anything more than another tessera in a quietly elegant mosaic. And I consider how rare such mornings are, and because they are rare, I see them as precious, to be absorbed and held dear. My dog walks on, slowly now after fourteen years of frolic and exploration, his steps as measured and careful now as my own. We are a pair, the two of us, each finding in our time together something distinctly our own. I’ve passed six decades now, and unless I live to be 130, I can no longer claim to be ‘middle-aged.’ That honorific no longer applies, and I must recognize that I’ve moved onto the next phase, whatever that might be. Most days I do not do so. I do not honor this reality. Most days I nurture the illusion that I am still the same person I was when I was eighteen, or twenty-eight, or forty. Most days I expect my body to be able to do the things it always did, and that brought me such pleasure. I do not acknowledge the strange noises it makes, or respond to the odd pains that arise in new places. I avoid mirrors as much as I can for fear of lines and sags and graying. It is so very strange to be this age, and I try to turn it into something different. But in the end I know where illusions end and reality begins. I am not who I was thirty or forty years ago. And I thank the Fates for that. I’m not sure I ever really liked that person. In my considerations I see all the mistakes of judgment or perception, all the callousness and thoughtlessness, unintentional or otherwise, all the arrogance. All the blindness that masqueraded as confidence. All the ignorance that passed for wisdom. I think of the people I hurt, and the things left undone because of inertia, or laziness, or lack of concern. I think of friends lost or abandoned. I think of chances lost. And I know that, as these mornings carry the subtle, hidden message that each day has its own special character, I dare not squander any more chances. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I remain conscious each day that time is limited, and that no morning is guaranteed. There will come a time, too soon, when there will be no more mornings at all, and we, all of us, will be left only with what we have done, who we have loved, and, much more importantly, who we have become. I can waste no more time. My lovely dog finally grows weary, and we turn for home. I watch him with some sense of wonder, and try to absorb what he can teach me. Lucas approaches each day with his own inarticulate expectation that he is where he belongs, doing what he is meant to do, being who he is meant to be, and surrounded by those he loves and who love him best. He does not think of time. He does not procrastinate, nor dissemble, nor regret. For him, there are no lost chances. We reach the front door. I open it on this very cold Virginia morning. The two of us walk inside, and I feel the welcome press of warm air. It is morning, possibility overwhelms obligation, and the day at once is filled.
Looking Through a Distant Mirror
A few weeks ago I headed up to New Jersey to attend a book fair, part of the wondrous new sensation of calling myself a writer. I spent the night in New Brunswick, a few long blocks from where I went to college and where the first whiffs of adulthood penetrated my still dull but overly Romantic senses. I had a chance then to retrace my steps. On a clear Saturday night, my obligation behind me and a glorious sunset in front of me, I drove by the place I lived my last two years at Rutgers. After two years in a noisy, crowded dormitory, four of us found a decent place to live, although it was far from a palace. Still, it was two blocks from campus and across the street from a beautiful, sprawling, well maintained park that sloped down to the river. The place looks as rundown as when we lived there, but the park is still beautiful and the neighborhood feels the same. I stood there and looked up at the windows where I would occasionally pause from whatever I was doing and gaze at the park, perhaps regarding the sunset as I was doing that night, perhaps counting raindrops or snowflakes. Perhaps counting the time that I was suddenly conscious of passing. I lived there with three friends, as close to me as brothers. One has gone on to a successful career in international finance. Another is one of New Jersey’s most prominent and well-regarded dentists. And another won an Olympic silver medal as part of the US eight-man crew in Montreal years ago. But back then we were four guys feeling our way around, four young men with a surfeit of energy and a dearth of experience. We had no idea what we were doing, but we knew we had each other to lean on, through every ambition, every relationship, every joy and setback, every heartbreak and exhilaration. Each Sunday night we would gather in the living room, ostensibly to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus but really it was more than that. We would stop whatever we were doing, whatever we were working on, and be together to make sure we each were okay. Most times we were, but sometimes we weren’t, and like the tissue in our bodies that closes over wounds, we would draw together to see if we could heal the punctures that drew spiritual or emotional blood. I loved those guys then. Still do. And as I looked up at the window through which I had looked so many times from the other side, I recognized again the special nature of that time. During my darkest times, when the wheels of ambition and relationships had come flying off and I saw nothing of value in who I was, I consciously thought that I would eagerly trade five years of my life for a single week again in that apartment, with those great friends, connecting one last time to promise and potential and hope. In Arc of the Comet, I wrote of the feelings of those days: "What chapters end, what begin, there on a precipice, a razor’s edge. . . where past existence so clearly meets what lies ahead and swirls it around a single point? A black hole sucked them in there and left behind no sound, no smell, not the faintest trace of any of them. It drew them into darkness and the great mysteries, pulling them through a point no wider than a microbe or the sharpened prick of a needle. But therein lay the fiber of their youth, the heated energy of all hope and promise, compressed by the infinite, relentless power of time. They saw themselves there, victims as well as actors, inescapably linked to whatever seeds had been sown within them, timid in the face of their ultimate fruition. Solitude impended, as did frustration and loss. They sensed it all without articulation, as a forest deer sniffs the air for a distant fire burning in her direction. They knew it by reputation even as they believed that it could not really touch them after all, this distant fire, that so far had spared them and so by nature in the days ahead they would continue unscathed. It is the arrogance of youth, tempered by a quietly lurking fear that all houses must one day fall, that all men and women, sadly, are mortal, subject to heartbreak, to anonymity, to death in life, to pacing dark and empty hallways in search of what has come to be lost. . . . It is the fear that he will soon be haunted by the brevity of his existence against the grand infinity of his desires." For a few minutes I felt it all again, as real and as present as if I had stepped into some time machine and thrown myself across the years. This was my launching point, the place where instinct and knowledge and thought began to gel against the expectations of adulthood. I did not always like what it was I was becoming, and corrections are inevitable, but the process became clear at that time, in that place. We all have those places where the transitions from childhood become acute, notable and quite palpable. We all have those places where we first learned to pay attention to the whispers of our heart and, in so doing, defined who we were and what we might ultimately become. We all have such places, these launching points. I stood on the sidewalk as long as the light lasted, wondering which of the neighbors might finally emerge to ask me what I was doing there staring up at a clacky old wooden apartment. I would have told them that I was merely looking at myself in a distant mirror.
Teach Your Parents Well
This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease. - Robert Kennedy, speaking to anti-apartheid students and faculty in South Africa, 1966 We are speaking up for those who don’t have anyone listening to them, for those who can’t talk about it just yet, and for those who will never speak again. - Emma Gonzalez We who are older have grown too comfortable. We’ve spent our lives building careers and worrying about money, setting about to impress people who do not need impressing. We have followed trends in fashion and politics and music, striving to be on the right side of style. We’ve measured our successes by what we’ve created for ourselves – the jobs, the vacations, the size of our bank accounts, the schools we can get our children into, maybe even the corners we’ve been able to cut while no one was looking. There is nothing unnatural in this, nor is there any reason to condemn it all. This is how we live, what a complex, rapidly changing, increasingly connected and demanding society requires of anyone who wants to forge a pathway and author a bit of peace. We’re the products of what we’ve sought to create, and what we’ve created so well. But along the way we could use some perspective, some reminder of why we do these things, of how each of our lives, no matter how vigorously we might try to deny it or convince ourselves that this is not the case, is connected to something broader. We need to be taught once again that ideals are not inconveniences, or quaint fancies, or charming notions that have no bearing on how and why we live. They are not something like a china setting that’s been in the family for generations but upon which we will never dine. Every great social movement in my lifetime has been stoked by the passions of young people. Young women marched for equality in the streets of New York and pounded the hallways of Washington’s legislative office buildings. They Took Back the Night in 1976 and ran for public offices they had never held before. Young black men offered their skulls to the billy clubs of policemen in the Deep South as they integrated lunch counters, a young John Lewis was battered on the Selma bridge, and men and women of all races risked their lives as Freedom Riders. It was the young that led the Stonewall Riots, who elected Harvey Milk and would not back down from the ill-conceived demonization of their sexuality. Students erupted against the Vietnam War and helped take down our last corrupt president before this one. We see now another vestige of this youthful courage, this refusal to accept things as they are because that’s the way they’ve always been, this quaint and charming notion that idealism can fire the soul into bold action, not for oneself but for the greater good. Perhaps, having seen their friends and classmates gunned down by a military weapon, they feel as if they have nothing more to lose. Perhaps the flood of mindless and barbaric brutality that has permeated their young years – Parkland and Orlando and Charleston and San Bernardino and the staggering slaughter at Sandy Hook and hundreds of other instances of carnage that were not spectacular enough to warrant much notice or have fallen out of memory – perhaps all this told them that lives lived in fear are half-lives, and that those who would protect commercial interests or personal self-indulgence over the safety of children need to be confronted forcefully at last. We cannot ignore their voices. We cannot ignore their courage in sacrificing their anonymity and enduring scorn and threats that would exile most of us to the far corners of our little worlds. Instead they stand fiercely, and will not back down, freshets of streaming water wearing down hard rock that has stood without threat for years. They will not go away. They wear passion and commitment like the latest fashions, and, in the wearing of it, teach those of us who are older and have allowed the business of living to obscure the fires of social change. They teach us that to care for something beyond ourselves is the only way that we are truly, and completely, alive. May we all be forever young.
Seasonal Reflections - Raking Leaves In The Beloved Community
Sixteen years ago we made the move from Minneapolis to Virginia. Lynn and I flew out for a few days in early December to find a place to live and, as best we could, learn what we could about living here. I had spent a fair amount of time in Washington, but that was years before, and things had no doubt changed. Neither one of us had much of an idea about what we were doing. We looked at what must have been two dozen houses over a very tiring weekend. Nothing seemed right, and a bit of despair was settling in when our realtor drove us to a new development in Manassas to look at one last house. All we knew of the town was that there had been two Civil War battles fought there, that Stephen Stills had been so taken with the train station there that he names one of his solo albums after it, and that it sat in the outer ring of Washington’s suburbs. No expectations. As we drove up to our last chance, about six kids went running from the house next door across the street, and, with the usual shouts of childhood, bustled into the house there. What struck me – what struck both of us – was that this was a dreary December afternoon where most kids wouldn’t really want to be outside. But there they were, together having fun. Something special about that. We bought this house, the last one we saw, and settled into a new neighborhood. For our son there were ready and constant friends, all about his age. Summers were baseball games in the backyard, and winters were sleepovers and snowball fights on those most magical days when the white flakes fell. We grew into our neighborhood day by day, inch by inch, and came to know its character. This part of Northern Virginia is, for the most part, is more northern than Virginia. A large proportion of our neighbors are in the military, work for defense contractors or serve in law enforcement, but our street is diverse. We live amidst African American, Salvadoran, Filipino, Mexican and Pakistani families, and everyone seems to get along. This place nurtured us, and nurtured our son. He grew roots here knowing that he was safe, and secure, and surrounded by community. And while the neighbors came and went in this transient part of the world, that nurturing spirit survived. My neighbors are an eclectic lot. There’s Mike, a Pakistani gentleman living with his extended family across the street who will join me in raking leaves or painting a mailbox post without being asked. When I’m out front working, Mike is likely to come over with his wide smile, any tool that might help things along, and jump right into whatever I’m about. Sam, who is Filipino and married to a loquacious Irish girl, never fails to share a story whenever I see him. Tony lives next door, an imposing African American state trooper whose heart shines as brightly as any badge he might wear, and next to him is David, a soft-spoken former Air Force officer who now teaches college. My best friend in this place from the day we moved in is, in some ways, perhaps the most unlikely. Erik wears his passions without filter, both good and bad, but his integrity never wanes. I don’t think I’ve ever known someone so honest and open. He’s a fairly conservative former Navy man whose politics generally run the opposite direction from my own. We rarely talk about the state of public affairs, but when we do, it’s respectful and well reasoned, based in logic rather than diatribe or sound bites. What I know to the depths of my soul is that if ever I needed help, or a favor, or just a stiff drink, Erik would be there without fail, and that he’d be offended if I did not ask him. Friends like that don’t come along often enough. Last night I reflected on this special place that we found, and what it means. We have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by the rhetoric of division, and we have separated ourselves into tribes. We look at one another as labels rather than as individuals, yet each of us is striving to live out our lives in purpose and happiness, winning what fulfillment we can. We share a bond of common fate, although too often we do not choose to see it. And in our blindness we suffer the setbacks attendant with greed, self-interest, brutality and repression all at the expense of our shared humanity. More than 60 years ago Martin Luther King wrote in words that ring truer today than ever before: “But the end is reconciliation . . . . . the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that…..is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.” In this season of peace we see so clearly the need to commit ourselves to The Beloved Community, not a place of adherence or conformity, but a place where all individuals are valued for their inherent dignity, regardless of who they are or what they might represent to our jaundiced eyes. All peace begins from within, then emanates outward by degree. I rarely claim that peace for myself, but my neighborhood, with all its quirks – this Beloved Community – demands that it is there, and that I acknowledge it. It teaches me that the greatest movements can only begin with what’s at hand, and that we need only see these blessings, really see them, to be able to share them willingly and selflessly. Peace to you all, through this season and forevermore. “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty.” -Archbishop Oscar Romero
The Moral Universe
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” - Martin Luther King I live in Northern Virginia, which, for the most part, is more northern than Virginia. A large proportion of my neighbors are in the military, work for defense contractors or serve in law enforcement, but my street is diverse. We live amidst African American, Salvadoran, Filipino, Mexican and Pakistani families, and everyone seems to get along. Most of the region is unashamedly progressive. The suburbs immediately across the river from Washington – Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church – don’t elect anyone for anything who doesn’t fit into progressive stereotypes. From their county clerks to their Congressional representatives, everyone leans left. That’s never really been the case in my corner of Prince William County. Despite our diversity, we’ve been represented at the state level by some of the most conservative figures in Virginia politics. For years my delegate to the Virginia House was Bob Marshall, who had served for 26 years, won every election overwhelmingly, and bragged about being the state’s “chief homophobe.” He was as much a part of the landscape here as the traffic on I-66, and, like the traffic, no one held out any real hope for improvement. And so this year’s election seemed to shape up as all the others, especially since Marshall’s opponent was a transgendered woman with no previous political experience. She was in so many ways the anti-Marshall. But she was brave, and articulate, and clear about the local issues that hold greater importance than which bathroom someone might use. She parried Marshall’s attacks on her sexual identity by ignoring them. Through all of it, she carried herself with impeccable dignity, intelligence and grace. On election night, Danica Roem won, and she won handily, beating Marshall by 10 percentage points. I won’t begin to try to understand all the reasons. But I like to think that people in my neighborhood were voting ‘for’ something as much as they were voting against the hateful rhetoric of a closed-minded politician. That night, before Danica Roem declared victory,. Joe Biden hunted her down and gave her a congratulatory phone call. Roem had driven to Delaware in 2015 to attend Beau Biden’s funeral out of respect for both Bidens, who have continually championed the rights of the LGBT community. Joe remembered, and so the call. Afterwards, when the realization of what she had just accomplished hit her, with Biden’s words still fresh in her ears, she collapsed in tears. When she collected herself, she went back out to the crowd gathered to celebrate, and, finally, let herself go. Over a glass of wine that night, I thought about Danica Roem. I thought about the remarkable change that permeated the place where I’ve lived for the past 16 years. And then I thought about the arc of the moral universe, and Martin Luther King. I thought about John Lewis, bloodied and beaten on the bridge in Selma. I thought about the quiet dignity and immense courage of Cesar Chavez. I saw Harvey Milk leading a march through the Castro. I heard again the words of Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. Others, too – Bobby Kennedy, who spoke so well and so often of the need for compassion; the sacrifice of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador; the poetry of Victor Jara in Chile. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, it does so irregularly. We suffer the setbacks attendant with greed, self-interest, brutality and repression far too often. Outrage can only go so far until it turns to despair. What of this species, and what of the things we do to one another? But then Danica Roem wins an election, and cries with disbelief and joy, and we see that imperfect arc move infinitesimally back on course. It’s not a redirection; it’s only a slight jog. But it reminds us of what might be possible. It shows us that, even if we do not see them, there are individuals of courage, commitment and principle who will stand against any odds for our collective dignity, for the integral value that each human being possesses, and that we must cherish the fact that, against all evidence, they’ve not abandoned their belief in what we might one day become.
Mornings in Berkeley
In February, when much of the world digs out from snow or splashes through dirty gray sludge, the Bay Area sparkles. On most mornings the sun dawns brightly, and a pungent sea breeze brings a freshness that permeates every sense. There is such an array of landscapes and geographies there, and each one benefits from crisp mornings – The hills seem greener, the buildings of San Francisco and Oakland gleam with an artificial cleanliness, and the Bay itself seems to dance. Mornings like this rise to opportunities rather than obligations. On mornings such as this I can’t wait to get moving. When I am by the Bay, I stay in Berkeley in a guest house that is as comfortable, as quiet, as nurturing as any place could be. Roses bloom outside the kitchen window, and hosts of birds make sure that no morning begins without notice. On most days I start by walking down the block and around the corner to Philz Coffee on Shattuck Street, at the tip of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Philz has the best coffee in the world. Each blend is hand crafted, and each cup is made to order. No lattes or cappuccinos – just coffee in its purest form, dressed maybe with a little cream or a dab of sugar, but nothing else. Phil is a purist, and he’s made me a believer. At the top of the street before I turn the corner that takes me to Shattuck, I can feel the morning at its fullest. Behind me are the Berkeley hills, sloping upward and dotted by houses that I’ll never enter and could never afford. In front of me is a glimpse of the Bay, and I can see across it just enough to make out Sausalito and Tiburon in the distance. The street itself is remarkably clean. Often mothers or fathers are bustling their young children to school, or people are walking their well-behaved dogs. San Francisco’s fascination is off to the side. I cannot see it, but I can feel it on mornings like these. Alive, all of it, and thriving. I’m alive, too. My lungs fill with Berkeley air and my heart pumps new blood; a warming sun begins a fresh journey. I begin a fresh journey, too. Bring it on, whatever lies ahead. Just bring it on. I’m ready – for the morning, for the day, for the promise and the praise and the pretense of the rest of my life. Inspiration comes in forms we sometimes do not recognize. Berkeley winter mornings can drive new hopes, new dreams, new possibilities. But they are not all there is. We live in complexities that we cannot fathom. And we can never really escape those complexities, no matter how much we can and cannot see……. Outside my guest house early on a morning that would eventually dawn with its customary brilliance, well before sunrise, a homeless man was staggering about. He woke me first with his anger, a profane ranting that barked like a dog’s snarl. I couldn’t make out the particulars. All I heard was anger – vicious, violent and helpless. All he had were his words, whatever they meant and wherever they arose. He kept at it for at least half an hour. I thought about peeking out the window to see where he was, and what he looked like. It’s easy to entertain a vision. So many homeless wander around Berkeley, and so many look disheveled beyond the point of all loss. I imagined a youngish man, perhaps in his twenties but nor older than 40, long hair, unkempt beard and clothes that fit inconsistently – perhaps a shirt too large or jeans with more than a few tatters. I didn’t look, though. I didn’t need to justify a stereotype. Even this display deserved some dignity, and the shield of anonymity. He lives in his own private swirls and eddies. I had no call to invade them. After a time his rantings changed. The anger faded, perhaps expunged, like a panting breath. What replaced it was a guttural moan that rose from deep within him, the bellow of a wounded animal. I cannot know what bore it, nor the precision of the agonies he roared out. A loss of time, of youth, of power, of relevance, of sanity…….Gone, and forever gone in his shredded psyche, his unstitched heart. He roared, and moaned, and cried from the throat. At last, spent, he sobbed rhythmically, then softened his breathing in a regular pattern, and I heard in it a comfort, almost as if he were pleasuring himself, his hollow moans transformed into quick and definite breaths. His crying ceased, and with slow, audible steps, he moved on. Over an hour I heard outside my window what I cannot feel. But I know it is human, and because it is human, it is shared. There is no fear in that. There is no peace, either….. I slept no more that morning. I lay awake for a bit, then, with the first shards of daylight leaking through white curtains, I got out of bed, showered, and made my way to Philz. As I left the house, I looked around me for anything left behind, but there was no trace of the man or his cries. It was if he had never been there at all.