We pile the kids into the car and drive through the dusk in this midwestern farmland, old quilts and bug spray and camping chairs in the trunk, grandparents at the big house, telling us to go ahead.
Virginia plays songs by Randy Travis and Jhené Aiko about longing and love from her cracked iPhone 7 as we sail along Route 50 into the night.
At the Jiffy Lube we slow down to make a left turn and see a half dozen cars tailgating in the Shoe Mart parking lot, waiting for the same fireworks that we have come to watch, except we will see them atop a perfect golf green, and I feel a mix of pride and shame.
Cars are parked on the shoulder of the club’s driveway like beads lined up to make a necklace. We find plenty of spaces near the pool and head toward the noise.
It’s near dark now and kids are playing corn hole and ring toss, rounds of people are laughing at patio tables spread with white tablecloths, and on an outdoor dance floor flashing with strobe lights, heads are bouncing to Miley Cyrus singing “We Can’t Stop.”
We don’t know anyone, so we weave past hands carrying cups so thin the sides cave in when full of whiskey sour, through exhales scented of gin & tonic, past a group of teenage girls with hope in their eyes who rush up to a guy at the patio fence then careen off toward the dance floor.
We spread out our blankets along the edge of the viewing area. The Black Eyed Peas are singing “I Gotta Feeling” that tonight’s gonna be a good, good night, and kids with sparklers run over the fairway, and the back door of the clubhouse bangs open and closed as people stream in and out.
It’s a 4th of July party like any other, and yet this summer is not another. When we are home in D.C., camps and birthday parties happen online, and passing an acquaintance is like spotting a celebrity. I love this party, but it feels like a pitcher of rum punch pouring over me and knowing that something in this drink could be poisonous.
There have only been 113 cases of the virus in this entire rural Ohio county, but if this were a party in the city, I’d feel like I was holding a black sparkly purse full of stolen cash.
Diana’s legs disappear in the caramel-milk creek. She won’t climb up the fallen log because a spider with orange spots has already claimed it. Water bugs skitter over the skin of the creek, and a powder-blue moth flutters all around her and the log, its wings like pages of a book in a storm, flapping open and closed as if dying to spill its words.
“Tell it to go away!” Diana says, closing her eyes and batting the air. “I think it likes you,” I say from my position crouching on the muddy bank.
Mark and Luke run with high knees through the creek toward the highway and Greg says, “Come back and put your shoes on — there might be nails down there. People throw all sorts of stuff off that bridge!”
Diana now looks like a cross, her arms straight out, hands balled into fists. “I want the butterfly to get on me.” The boys run back, digging sticks into mud and finding truck tires in the bank. The butterfly tumbles through the thick Ohio July until it alights on Diana’s head. Its wings, the shape of a lopsided heart, the color of blue enamel, fold into one.
As Diana walks straight, barely moving her neck, the butterfly points skyward like a crown. It clings to clumps of her maple wet hair, even as she grabs onto a branch and climbs out, even as she runs to keep up with her brothers through the pasture to the Dairy Hut on Route 50 to get a chocolate-vanilla swirl cone.
“The butterfly got your message,” I say, when I see her coming around the bend toward the house, soft-serve smeared all over her cheeks, the butterfly clinging to her bangs like a barrette.
I can feel the skeptics in the family bristle. “There must be a perfectly rational explanation,” they would say. “The salt in the creek water, the perfume of her shampoo, the hue of her skin.”
Just before Diana’s grandmother calls her inside, the butterfly lets go and flicks around the patio. “At least you brought it up to the house, “ Luke says, “and now it can pollinate the flowers.”
Today is the day we would have sat on our suitcases to zip them up, flattening down carefully selected outfits and collections of mini lotion tubes, and Mark would have offered to carry his sisters’ bags down, until 7 of them congregated in the entry. We would have given the sunflowers and kiwi berries one last soak, crouched to say goodbye to the cat under the couch, and turned the porch light on as we latched the door. We would have eaten grapes and salami sandwiches wrapped in foil in Terminal B as we watched the sun set over Dulles airport, waiting to board the plane, knowing that in one short night and one long day, Nonno Franco would be wearing his shirt full of pockets just beyond customs in Milan holding boxes of peach nectar and brioches, and the cappuccino that I would get at the airport bar would be the best I’d ever had.
After months of zig-zagging between resignation and hope — Italy has recovered! but New York is a mess — Sicily is offering 1/2 off hotel stays! but only to Europeans — the emotional spikes got softer and softer until they finally lay flat. We asked the airline to issue us vouchers for another year, but no one is sure when that will be.
We were going to go to the Marches where Enrico’s father grew up, where it was his job as a child to buy ice for a handful of lira from the man who would chop off a block with an axe, and Franco would wrap it in a cloth and race home in the noonday sun — “Via, via!” — with the melting ice strapped to his handlebars, past the farms where earlier that morning he and his father had traded the sole and seabreams they had caught in their net for peaches and cantaloupe and watermelons still warm from the sun.
I thought it would be sad when the day of departure came around, but it already feels far far away, like a carful of cousins who stayed for a good long week but are now already 7 states and 2 motels away, and their sheets have already been washed and dried and folded away, the extra chairs stacked back in the garage, and we have returned to following our hearts or to-do lists, sleeping in our own beds, spinning new scenarios in the privacy of our own minds.
Before we canceled the reservation on Vrbo.com, we had planned to argue over bedrooms when we arrived at the centuries-old house on a cliff above Ancona where the pictures showed stone stairs leading down to a sandy inlet of the Adriatic Sea, and at lunchtime we’d toss hot pasta with olive oil and garlic and red pepper flakes and wrap salty prosciutto around melon slices and eat it in our bathing suits under the myrtle trees on the patio, and I didn’t mind that the house had no air conditioning because I like it hot, or pipes so old you could only take one shower at a time, because we would have been all together and it would have been new — to me.
Tables would have been set end-to-end in the courtyard of a Milanese trattoria to fit all of Enrico’s aunts and uncles and cousins, and there would have been dinners that rolled on until midnight with his friends from university, and maybe I would have cried from laughing at the story of the forgotten tent poles when they were camping on a beach in Greece. And we would have met the family of Isabella, the exchange student who stayed with us last September, and the girls would have hung around in beachside bars with Italian teens and I would see vistas opening into their lives where there were none before, and my Italian husband would be like a fish released back into the sea, not waking up thinking about the situation on Ward D2 or the back-to-back appointments until 9:00 pm, but he would be shimmering with plans of which rugged beach we would conquer that day, which hill town we would climb, which odd lamb dish only made in this one village he would track down, and he would do all the leading, and I would feel like I was sitting in the back seat and just looking out, not having to drive the car, decide which way to go or what to do.
We will remember this summer not for these things, but for an ordinary quiet so deep it rivals a symphony. Siestas will keep happening every day after lunch, and I will keep taking walks after dinner when the kids are in bed and the fireflies are starting to shine like diamonds sprinkled in the twilight. We will pair up and go down the list of things that needed to be done but never were, like repainting the antique wrought-iron garden chairs, figuring out how to recaulk the bathtub, and translating the fable their Italian grandma remembers hearing when she was little. I will keep taking Sofia out for driving lessons in half-empty state park lots, and Mark will finish a middle school math class on Microsoft Teams, and we will take a long drive across the Appalachians and hug my parents with masks on and the kids will run free and I will write and sleep, and we will notice how many different kinds of bees there are, and how a zinnia bud looks like a cut gem before it opens.
A blue jay dives into the purple catmint flowers by the front walk, grabbing a bumblebee in its mouth, hopping to a branch and struggling to swallow it. Muffled buzzing, then silence.
The neighbor with the red dog stops to smell the dawn pink roses by the sidewalk, those bonbons of velvet and vanities that hurt me every time I try to train them. Now clumps of Shasta Daisies, some taller than a fifth grader, spray up on either side of the fence and lean toward passersby.
School is over. Morning meetings and math pages have not been replaced by the usual circuit of camps, tennis clinics, and playdates. But in the patch of dirt between my front door and the sidewalk, dramas play out every day.
Cinderella pumpkin vines wander around at the feet of the peach tree, wrapping their tendrils around a boxwood branch or a wild poppy, pushing their floppy green plates up over all the other flowers like a bossy toddler, climbing over the mountains of daylilies toward the fence, and curling up their tips as if to invite their next friend, or victim.
We bring an old bench under the cherry tree near the rosemary plant that has grown shaggy and sloppy, like our hair without salons. We trim off minty, muscly rosemary branches and fill empty pesto jars and leave them outside the front gate for neighbors, and they keep disappearing and the kids keep filling them until we run out of jars.
There is only one paw-paw left on the tree, and we check it every day. It needed hand-pollination to be born, by a paintbrush twirled inside the tree’s burgundy flowers when their crenelated centers disintegrated into powder, and one day a dozen frosty green beads appeared, but someone bit them and threw them down when they were babies. Paw-paws grow in groves along the banks of the Potomac, but you never see the fruit in the store because you have to eat it as soon as it is picked, and I wonder if it will really taste like mango and banana like they say.
Wedding Gown lacecap hydrangeas that I transplanted closer to the sun in early spring now spin open, one bright white floret at a time, as if an invisible hand were tatting the lace.
A sprig of English lavender smells like fresh laundry and grandmothers’ bathrooms and new lingerie and French pastries, and when I roll it between my thumb and forefinger, it feels like someone has just drawn me a bath or sung me a lullabye.
One morning I came out and found one of our sunflower’s heads missing, and I saw a leaf branch broken and wilted against the stalk, and I immediately thought of the squirrel, the one I saw dangle from the picket fence and pull into its paws the last of our sour cherries. But not before we had picked enough to make a couple of pies.
Every time I pass a Black person on the street now, the encounter is charged with meaning. I look in their eyes and I feel myself saying things they cannot hear, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I didn’t look hard enough, I didn’t want to see, It’s too horrible, I don’t know what to do, Please don’t hate me, I’m sorry,” and sometimes they look at me back and all I hear is silence.
Three marches and a vigil, movies about race with my teenage daughter, podcasts, readings, newspaper articles. It took one man dying in a global pandemic for me to open up and see. Slavery did not end — it mutated into different forms. As an Equal Justice Initiative speaker said after a Juneteenth march, “Oppression didn’t end, it just rhymed,” finding other brutally creative expressions — aggression, repression, suppression, dispossession.
Mostly it’s white women who take pictures of my kids and me with our protest signs, but one time riding the Metro, a Black woman asked if she could snap one of the boys, who were holding onto the poles with their “Silence is Violence” and “End Police Brutality” signs. “You’re so cute,” she said as she held them in her phone’s eye, and “Thank you for your support,” and I felt like maybe this is going to work. This is a beginning.
I tell my African-American neighbor when she walks by one evening that I finally understand why she told people not to call the police on the kids loitering around the smoke shop because teens of color are usually targeted, and it becomes a way to round them up. Or why it would make sense to legalize marijuana and sex work because criminalizing them gives more reasons to lock people up when all they’re doing is trying to live, to cope.
Last week we were walking home from the grocery store, and I heard someone yelling. I turned around to see a Black man running towards us, holding something bright blue. He thrust it towards us, and I said, “Oh, thank you!” and to my son, “Mark, you forgot your umbrella!”
The man’s eyes are like those of a 9-year-old boy’s, and I say something trying to figure out what to do next, and he says, “I was panhandling outside the store,” and that was all I needed, so I fish around in my wallet and hand him a 5 dollar bill, and I look into his eyes, trying to erase everything I’d learned before and see him for him, and I say, “Thank you for your time,” and he takes it, looking down and says, “God bless you all,” and I feel dirty, like a Tammany Hall mayor, to live in a world where a grown man can tell you God bless you because you gave him a 5 dollar bill.
And I feel sick about my privilege, and I think I have to give away everything I own to make it better but even this would never make it right, and then I start to see how many people don’t feel this way, don’t feel this way at all, and in fact, feel the opposite, and I want to hide from this mess, to run away so I won’t be crushed by the massiveness of this hate, this despair, this rage, this disaster.
To be a child again, to go back to when I didn’t see any of this, before I noticed how some people were treated like animals, before I felt the dread, before I knew I was part of it, before I saw how it gouged deep canyons into our society, gorges so tall and steep, so rough and craggy you don’t dare to try to climb out.
But I cannot go back. I cannot curl up into a ball and roll back to a place where everything is smooth and soft. I must not let myself. It will never feel okay to be okay with this. And it’s okay not to feel okay. Humans are not meant to feel constant comfort and ease — we are meant to feel anguish and joy, grief and elation, struggle and triumph. We are not meant to collapse like roly-polies into little balls, winding into little gulleys until the scary guys go away.
“Black Lives Matter, huh?” an African-American man says to 6-year-old Diana, who is holding her hand-made sign as we all wait for the Metro shuttle bus in a patch of grass on Connecticut Avenue. Diana looks at him with her pug nose and brown eyes and nods.
He tells us he was at a Juneteenth march that morning, and I tell him about ours, and I feel weird about it because I feel so white and new, and on the bus, we realize he is good friends with my son’s middle school coach, and that his kids graduated from my daughters’ high school.
He mentions that he lives near the zoo, but on the other side of Rock Creek Park, which he said divides D.C. from rich and poor, white and Black, good schools and “bad” schools, and I say, I know. He went to the zoo so many times when he was little that he says he doesn’t want to go anymore — he’s all zoo-ed out, and I laugh and it feels good to laugh with him, and he tells us how he hears the lions roaring every morning, and how he wonders “if those bad boys will get out one day,” and I used to be afraid of lions escaping the zoo and jumping through my window too.
One time a few years ago I served jury duty with a group of Black and white people from all different neighborhoods over the city. By the end of the week and a half, we felt like a band of oddball cousins, eating lunch together, sharing boxes of doughnuts, and lending each other Metro cards. We cut each other slack when some of us were late, we knew each other’s quirks — Chelsea was addicted to chapstick, Rebecca packed avocado sandwiches, and Mattie stayed awake with Hot Tamales because she had quit coffee. We weren’t allowed to talk about the case, so we talked about everything else — how yellow dye #5 is made with toxic waste, whether selfies make noses look 30% wider, and why not to drink tequila in tattoo parlors.
I want to be in the room together. Not on opposite sides of the court. American life makes it so easy to separate. Thank you God for jury duty, post offices, public schools, protests, and city buses. Please help me find more ways to sit across a table and laugh about tattoos on butts and lions roaring in the morning. I want to be riding the same bus — not walking past each other on the street, exchanging cash, or looking at one another from opposite sides of the gorge.
Seek out people of color to learn from — yoga teachers, writers, academics, film-makers, meditation teachers. Don’t fall into easy grooves, limiting my circles to people who sound like me, think like me, look like me, and grew up with the same advantages as me. Remember how reaching out a hand feels better than sitting on it. Be brave, be kind, and know that you are capable of holding big terrible beautiful things.
This week I watched the documentary 13th with my 16-year-old daughter Virginia. I highly recommend this powerful film about how America has come to have 25% of the world’s prisoners even though it only makes up 5% of the global population. The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that slavery is outlawed “except as the punishment for crime.” It’s now showing for free on Netflix and YouTube.
Sofia’s graduation ceremony happened last night on our TV. The basement carpet received my sister’s pink tablecloth as if it were a concert lawn. Big bowls of guacamole that Virginia had just made were set on it, plus a platter of fried pumpkin flowers her little brothers and sister had picked from the garden that morning. With her laptop logged into Microsoft Teams, Sofia broadcast the ceremony in her just-ironed white gown, with its tape-on collar and pine green sash, WWHS printed down the front in gold lettering.
The opening procession was like turning the pages of a scrapbook, every slide bearing 9 photos of 9 different kids standing in 9 different places, each posing with the “Wilson Grad 2020” yard signs that a band of mothers had sunk into the ground at each graduating senior’s house or apartment building. In the background was the tinny sound of the high school band, orchestra, and choir singing “Fantasy” by Earth Wind & Fire, a concert from another era, a time when people could sing next to each other and parents could sit in the audience.
I look at Sofia’s face under her satin cap, her features still those of a child. The baby photo that we placed in the yearbook shows her bald head and monkey face, curiosity drawing out the only wrinkle in her brow, and her body launching from her grandfather’s arms in front of the Italian country church. How much love we felt for this baby, this wondrous act of nature — the only one of her that will ever exist in all of time.
She is sitting with us now, instead of with her friends, surrounded by her siblings who are dressed in tie-dye t-shirts, Under Armour shorts, and bikini tops, while she is draped in white satin, a mortarboard hat on her head, green tassel hanging down, like a master of ceremony, an angel, a sage from another realm.
“I know this was not the graduation or senior year you expected,” the mayor says in a pre-recorded greeting in front of a hedge on a sunny day, “but don’t let that take away from how proud you should feel in this moment.”
“Our nation is hungry for change,” she says. “The pandemic set the stage for creating a new normal, and as cities across the country begin to open up, including our own, people don’t want to go back to how things used to be.”
I had bled so much for all that was lost, without knowing that only three months later I would no longer grasp for the way things were. Going back would be like returning to the school where you learned how to read and where you played kiss and catch. Seeing how tiny the chairs and desks are, how spare the playground that you once thought was a wonderland.
It took 45 minutes to announce all of the graduates. Senior portraits rise up and dissolve away. Hundreds of names, hundreds of faces, each one so different, each expression, hairstyle, every shape and color of every face. I wish somehow that I had met them all. I only knew a handful. Now it’s too late.
When Sofia appears, it was like the screen radiated with a thousand watts and the image of her face came toward me, glowing and hovering there, and then it was gone. A new face appears, a new name is pronounced, another college is listed underneath in italics, and the violins keeping playing “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over, as name after name, and face after face is honored.
Soon it will be over. Even though we made two dozen cupcakes with buttercream icing and gold and black sprinkles, even though we lit handfuls of sparkly candles, even though there were homemade gifts and cards and a call from the grandparents, the silence will come. I will get the kids tucked in bed, and my husband will finish all the dishes, and her sister will turn on the TV, and Sofia will be alone on the couch again. I don’t want the silence to swallow her up.
It’s the endings before any beginnings that are the hardest to bear.
On my way walking to a neighbor’s to get a clump of mint she had dug up from her garden, I hear honking along the avenue. The celebratory, tournament-winning type of honking, not the angry, you’re-in-my-way honking.
A few days back, a parent at the elementary school had announced a weekly Black Lives Matter vigil in the park, along with news of a Unite for Change driving caravan on Sunday.
A formation of 10 police officers on motorcycles ride up the hill past me, their faces all different colors under their round helmets. They must be heading back to the station, because beeping cars are still streaming along Wisconsin. I pick up one of the mint plants in recycled bread bags under the tree, and walk toward the noise.
On the corner, only a handful of people waiting to cross are clapping and taking videos. A single woman holds a fist up, and another down the way holds a sign toward the oncoming cars. I put down my mint, stand at the intersection, clap for them and wave, hold my fist up, and cry.
I had thought that the caravan wasn’t for me. We would be too distant from others, it wouldn’t be as powerful as the marches, and I don’t like driving in traffic. As if protests were about my emotional satisfaction.
Dodge Caravans follow Honda CRXs, Priuses and Subaru station wagons, with kids in the back, fluorescent-yellow unreadable signs taped on, cardboard box signs pressed against glass. People call and cheer out the windows. In all its homemade-ness, it’s beautiful.
We must not let go of this moment. This opening has been made for us — a breach, a break, a tear that the plague has ripped into us, and asked us: How is someone else’s pain like mine?
Looking at appearances — what people wear, the sports they play, the cadence of their speech, the jobs they hold, the music they hear — it’s easy to get distracted by the diversity of human beings.
Sometimes the best thing that can happen to us is to have our comfort taken away, our fancy cloaks ripped off — we can feel what has always been there inside, a quiet unity that goes way deeper than whatever separates us.
I remember as a child seeing how Black children and their parents were treated — rejected, doubted, shunned — just for existing. How they were denied, shut out, begrudged, almost hated. I had waking nightmares about what seemed like a curse — to be born Black in the American system.
The beeping farther down the avenue gets faint, but then another group builds up at the traffic light and the song gets louder.
I must allow myself to continue to feel the grief of being part of a country that has not lived up to its ideals. Where this division has become so ingrained, so baked in, so seemingly impossible to dig out. Rotten.
When the honking fades and ordinary cars have replaced the parade cars, I pick up my plant and walk toward home.
Inside even the most powerful famous rich people is the fear of being left out, of not having enough. This is why the original sin of slavery was never rectified, never repaid, never righted. And why oppression simply took on different forms and guises, morphing into endlessly new forms of exclusion and denial.
When I get back, Virginia and Luke are cleaning mildew off the fence with spray bottles and brushes as one of their weekly chores. I say, “I just saw a caravan driving by on Wisconsin for” and I can’t finish the sentence without crying.
But these are tears of hope. I need to feel both this sorrow and this love. People are standing together, not apart. And I want to be there.
I like to get my information by reading, but with popular books on anti-racism for Whites out of stock everywhere, I have been turning to the many podcasts, videos, and movies that are being shared as ways to begin dismantling my biases, educating myself as a White person, and understanding Black history and perspectives.
I am only at the start of exploring the wealth of resources out there, but here are a few that I have found excellent:
5-Minute Illustrated History of What Happened After Slavery
I love how this fast-action illustrated history from the Equal Justice Initiative explains how slavery has persisted even though it was outlawed.
A TED Talk That does an excellent job of explaining Racism
The story pictures shared by Dr. Camara Jones explain how racism works for both Blacks and Whites in easy-to-grasp and memorable images. Andre Henry of the Hope & Hard Pills podcast calls it the “best TED talk explaining racism ever.”
The First Podcast I Listened to After George Floyd
A Realistic and Touching Drama Involving Police & Race
My 16-year daughter and I are watching this movie, The Hate U Give (offered free on YouTube and many other channels). It’s as haunting as it is beautiful and really helps you see how good people can get involved in “bad” things when the system is set up against them. Based on a 2017 novel of the same name, which debuted at number one on The New York Times’ young adult bestseller list.
On the last day of school, our high school senior was in bed in her room by herself. On Monday she had turned in her last assignment and on Wednesday she Zoomed with her last class.
While her younger siblings were having end-of-year slideshows, scavenger hunts, and superlative awards on Microsoft Teams, the last two days of the school year were spent like so many before, sitting on the living room couch next to her abandoned knitting, watching YouTube videos with headphones on.
The mayor ended the distance learning school year even before the canceled prom, senior awards, and club parties, events whose colorful blocks in our Apple calendar will float by like toy boats.
On the last day of school, I look at her by herself on the couch and feel quicksand in my chest. There were no hugs outside the front doors for her, squeezing each other with your past and your future all at once.
There were no locking eyes with the teachers that believed in you, or last glances at the ones that you didn’t care for, as if to fix them in your scrapbook too. No names being called down the hallway, some names you’ll never hear again, no clearing your locker of gross and strange things, dusty souvenirs from journeys you thought would never end.
There would be no signing of yearbooks with Sharpies, no snickering during auditorium ceremonies, no trying on of caps and gowns in the bathroom. No high fives, no last chances, no watching crushes as they walk away.
A high school career that, instead of exploding, disintegrated. Like a favorite song on the radio suffocated by waves of static as you drill into the long road ahead. Like a candle extinguished, not with a cakeful of others, but little by little in the morning damp.
I look at the protest signs tossed on the foyer table after our first march, and I feel ashamed that I carried mine for 3 hours. My children — 12, 9, and 6 years old — easily adopted Black Lives Matter messages, writing in orange crayon, pink highlighter, and smeared pencil “End Police Brutality,” “Silence is Violence,” and “Justice for Breonna Taylor.” But I wanted to say something that felt like it came from me.
“We Are All One Human Family” got rejected by my daughters Virginia, 16, and Sofia, 18, who attend a diverse D.C. public high school. “It’s cliché,” they said, and would be interpreted as wishing away the problem.
“What about “Compassion”? Condescending, they said, because it sounds like you can do something that others can’t.
“If You’re Not With Us, You’re Against Us,” Virginia suggested, or “To Be Silent is to Be Complicit.” But for me to hold these words up high would be like accusing other White people of the same crimes I have committed my whole life.
The night before the march, I type in my Google search bar, “black lives matters signs for white people.”
When Sofia and Virginia were 13 and 15 years old, they went to the Women’s March and the People’s Climate March in 2017, making elaborate posters and dressing in countercultural outfits, make-up, and hairstyles. There were so many marches in D.C. that year that people started saying that protest was the new brunch. But I stayed home, using my responsibilities to the family to shield my disengagement.
I was afraid if I opened up to massive global problems and terrible pain that I would be swallowed up by emotions and burdens that I couldn’t handle. But I have since learned that it doesn’t work this way — when I open myself up to the suffering of others, it opens a place in me too, a source of strength and wisdom that is both of me and not of me, that can handle big things, that can feel both grief and joy.
In the garage I find a box that had once carried 50 long-stemmed red roses from my husband, and begin dividing it up. “Diana, can you run and get some newspapers?” I ask, shaking up a half-empty can of white spray paint.
Everyone wants a chance with the spray can and then the brush, and we finish painting the cardboard panels 2 hours after the 7pm curfew imposed by the mayor after protests took violent turns on Sunday and Monday. After I get the children in bed, I lean the boards up against the porch columns to dry.
We had talked as a family around the dinner table about George Floyd and the history of racism and agreed to make weekly donations to support good causes. The kids made Black Lives Matter signs and taped them to telephone poles around the neighborhood. But I know that if I let my support stop here, it would feel like a betrayal.
We put on our fabric masks and squeeze into a mixed crowd of mostly young people in the plaza before Bloomingdales, below Neiman Marcus, both of which are boarded up, glass bits still sprinkled on the ground. This is the first time in nearly 3 months that we have been with anyone outside of our family.
Young Black women make speeches about how their great-grandmothers were slaves and sharecroppers, how their parents worry they will get arrested for being out after dark, how people devalue and degrade them every day, and how tired and fed up and frustrated they are. But they are also happy, grateful to see us here, hopeful that maybe something will change this time.
The painted corrugated cardboard didn’t accept markers or Sharpies, so I had colored in my lettering with crayons and pencils. “Racism is making us sick,” is what I had finally settled on for one side of my sign, a rephrasing of the iconic, “Racism is the true pandemic.” On the other side, “Racism is infecting our society.”
Without realizing what was happening, that part of myself that needs to feel propped up started thinking things like, “Maybe I’ve written something so clever people will stop and think, maybe they’ll take photos, maybe one will end up in the media.” But I don’t catch this voice in time, and it weasels its way in and out of my experience of the march.
The crowd spills into the street, and sirens and blue police escort lights flash. Someone way ahead calls, “No Justice!” and a chorus erupts shouting, “No Peace!” As the front of the protest stretches out far from us and becomes a faint rumble, a marcher closer to us screams, “Say his name!” and people yell in response, “George Floyd!” We join in too, and I hold Diana’s hand so we won’t get separated, and I see Mark and Luke holding their signs, looking ahead, walking and yelling, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!”
Employees from stores and restaurants along the way, some that were looted only days before, are handing out bottles of water from coolers. People come out from their workplaces in scrubs and aprons, taking pictures and watching, and sometimes I can’t yell because my throat gets swollen and scratchy and I don’t know why but I feel sad and happy and lost and found all at once.
There is a heart-opening pose in yoga called broken wing. You bend one arm up behind your back and then you lie on top of it with your chest toward the sky.
I always thought that I was supposed to fly — to be strong, proud, high above. I tried to build myself up so I felt big and nothing too upsetting could enter. But I didn’t realize that closing my heart to the world also closed it to my deepest self, which is part of the world and therefore in contact with all that is truly wise, creative, and powerful.
If I am to remain in touch with my deep self and my strength, I now know that I must keep sorrow in my left hand. Feeling where my wing has been broken opens my heart to myself and others. We are meant to be compassionate. This is our true and most powerful nature.
“But I saw mostly white people,” Diana says, as we begin the 2-mile walk back home. Black people were leading the protest and occasionally among the crowd, but this was a march purposely organized in a White affluent neighborhood because it’s those “who benefit from systemic oppression,” as it said on the announcement, that need the message the most.
I want to be the young women and men of color saying eloquent and courageous things, talking truth loudly, being heard and seen. How does this make sense when everything they are saying is about how hard it is to grow up Black in America, how humiliating and demeaning and discouraging?
But they are shining through now with their strength, their truth, their vulnerability. I feel guilty and soft. What have I overcome? My life has been one of comfort and privilege, made difficult only by how I have sabotaged myself.
We have vowed to do more than this 2-hour march, these chants, these 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence for George Floyd’s killing, but I know it will be hard to do what they are asking: talk to other White people, have difficult conversations, be pro-active, be vocal.
Will people not want to be around me if I do? Focusing on the suffering of people of color invariably leads me back to how I have been complicit and the shame about how I have paid for my peace. But this thinking brings the question to me and my small self again. Allowing my fear of exclusion to shape my behavior is precisely what makes it possible for some people to avoid exclusion and others to endure it.
Back home with empty smoothie cups and aching feet, we toss our signs on the foyer table. On top of the earnest, unquestioning signs of my children is mine: I wish I could erase it. Why did I have to feel so unique?
My sign had became another way of crafting an image of myself. And from a position of simply looking out through my eyes, I had swerved around like a movie camera, trying to imagine how other people would see me.
And for a night, I think I have done the protest wrong.
But I don’t want this to be my last protest because I have collapsed into self-recrimination. What if I really am needed here? What good are my rigid standards then if they prevent me from helping, however imperfectly?
People always talk about how not failing means you’re not trying hard enough. But how can you welcome failure when you’ve equated success with acceptance, and failure with banishment?
Two days later, on Saturday, I go to another protest, this time with Virginia at the Lincoln Memorial, and I make a new sign. On one side, a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. — “A Riot is the Language of the Unheard” — and the other, “Black Lives Matter.”
I feel a little less self-conscious, a little more part of it, a little more sobered about how difficult this work is going to be.
My biases are so ingrained. I will have to dismantle over and over again my assumptions about people of color. I will have to retrain my mind. I will need to devote time to learning, listening, reading, following new voices, and acting.
Racism is like a virus and it has infected our society. As babies we are born into a world where it is already running rampant. It is not our fault, but as we grow and open our eyes, it will be harder and harder to allow some wings to be broken and others to be left alone to fly.