Conflagration

Last night, the fires burned closer.

The night before, they burned on the other side of the Twin Cities where I live. Stores and apartment buildings glowing orange in the night while flames consumed them. Broken windows spilling their contents to looters who smashed and grabbed and ran.

Last night, the fires burned closer to home.

To the Super Target store where we’ve bought groceries and clothes and our pillows and the chairs surrounding our dining room table right now.

They burned near a used bookstore I frequent. Near the Chinese restaurant we go for takeout. Not too far from the college my niece attends and where she used to live before the pandemic hit. Near the large soccer stadium where I took my son to an MLS game last season.

And then last night, the looting crept closer still. To the jewelry store catty corner from my partner’s favorite haunt when she wants to get away to write or read.

Across the Cities, the fire lines were drawn.

Good people lamented the destruction, the theft, the loss of business and jobs because of the havoc the rioters wrought. They said this wasn’t the way to make change or make the people in power listen, or get more good white people to reflect on the problems we face. They invoked King’s name and shook it at the rioters like a stick.

I thought of King, too, remembering that violence wasn’t the way he chose. I’m also old enough to remember that many who invoke him now were precisely the kind of people who 50 years ago opposed his tactics and urgency;  the people who condemned his criticism of the Vietnam War; those who couldn’t, and didn’t, accept his critique of capitalism and his anti-poverty campaign.

These people rightly described him as a man of peace, but they never talk about how his story ended: lying on hotel balcony after a bullet had torn through him, dying in a city where he didn’t even live, advocating for the rights of Black garbage men after two of them had been crushed to death in one of their trucks while seeking shelter from the rain. They’re silent about the law enforcement’s campaign to crush him. As with so many Black icons, only death and time have brought King broad respect.

These same people venerate Nelson Mandela but conveniently ignore or forget that his struggle against apartheid wasn’t non-violent.

And last night, as the fires crept closer, lapping at my neighborhood, I wondered whether, if the protests or the looting came down my street and I stepped outside my home, who would I be? I don’t mean that I’d join in the looting. That’s not my way. But who would the police—the good guys—see in my brown body: a local resident holding a sign, or something else?

This isn’t the first time I’ve asked that question; many Black folks contemplate it every day. How easily could I be George Floyd, handcuffed and pinned to the sidewalk with an officer of the law’s knee pressed against my neck. How easily could I be Philando Castile bleeding to death in front of my child? Or Walter Scott? Or Botham Jean killed in my own home? How easily could one of my sons or nephews be Trayvon or Tamir? And what good is justice after the fact when a life can’t be returned?

These questions spark the fire that burns closest—the one inside of me. This is the dread I live with and labor to push back in my mind, because I couldn’t function if I contemplated it too much or too long.

I know that I’m only an unjust death away from being transformed from a middle-class, educated, law-abiding father into a “criminal” and a corpse. From my eulogy becoming, “Why didn’t he comply?” I know that my humanity can be erased and I can become a “bad guy” just by dying at the hands of the “good guys.”

While scores of armed white men can violate pandemic orders, push against and menace police guarding government buildings and lawmakers, and not even be arrested, a single Black man or woman or child walking down a street can end up dead at the hands of those same police.

I’ve never looted a store or thrown a firebomb or wrestled with police, but, oh, I understand the desire. And even if you, like me, oppose violence, you need to understand it too. Because until real justice quenches that fire, the burning won’t end.

Precarious

I wake up each day wondering whether I’ll have any words.

Just looking at that sentence written down, it seems absurd. How can I run out of words?

When my partner and my children get up in a while, words will come easily to me: “Hello.” “Good morning.” “How did you sleep?” “I love you.”

Even as I sit here writing, words constantly pile up in my brain, and as soon as I type, they jostle and scramble to get out. So what is it about the idea of putting them down that immediately unsettles me? What makes me start to judge and sort as soon as I think of “writing”?

First I tell myself it’s because I have to figure out what I want to “say.” Where do I want my writing to lead? What point do I want to make? That is, I wrap myself in the subject or ideas, which I don’t yet know. I tell myself that I have to hunt my meaning down before I can put anything on the page because otherwise the writing might not go anywhere. And what’s the point of that?

Then I remember all the times I’ve written in my journal, freewriting, just placing word after word, some of the wonderful places those words have taken me. How they’ve revealed sensations and ideas I didn’t know were there until the words embodied them. I remember all the times the meaning has made itself when I’ve let the language run and watched it form lines in front of me.

I think of the countless times in my writing classes when I had my students do the same thing as a warm up exercise.

“Just write,” I’ve told them. “Turn the judge off and see what comes out. You don’t even have to keep it. It’s just practice.”

Easy to say when it’s not me trying to climb the sheer rock face of creating. Easy to say when it’s not me searching for the next hand hold, desperate not to slip and fall into meaninglessness.

But that’s not all.

I mean, who cares? What does it matter if I fall? Nobody ever died just because they found themselves landing, at the end of a long fall, onto a jagged broken surface of disjointed words. Some people even manage to publish them instead of perishing.

So if the danger doesn’t lie in the lack of meaning, and if it doesn’t lie in some deadly consequence, since I can always choose to keep my words to myself, or even throw them away, where does that precarious feeling come from?

Of course, it doesn’t take much contemplation before I know: It comes from my ego. It comes from trying to maintain a certain image about myself.

I’m a Writer, I’ve decided. And so I am. And so is anyone else who chooses to climb up the sheer face of writing. But what kind of writer am I, I ask myself, without the validation? I need to know my writing’s “good.” I need to know that it has “quality.” I need to believe that others will smile and nod and agree about how clever and talented I am, and want to publish me.

I need to believe that acclaim, and maybe even money, will flow toward me from my writing. I need that validation.

And all those needs make my climb up the face of writing so sheer and slippery and dangerous. They make it hard for me to know where to grip next. They make me tentative and frightened of what will happen if I lose my balance and fall.

My younger children—mid and late elementary school age—love climbing. They love to try the climbing walls at a nearby outdoor equipment store. They love to see how high they can reach.

My two grown sons have also managed to climb into their lives, even in these uncertain times. They’ve both found work that challenges them and that they enjoy. They’ve both thrown themselves into their lives, not without fear, of course, but without allowing whatever fear they feel to swallow them.

I can’t say where my children got that from; I marvel at those qualities in them. I only hope it’s not too late for them to teach me.

I’m trying to learn from them to do this for myself. To approach this steep slope of words each day. And climb.

Uncontrolled/Uncontrollable

For Ochita

I’ve been in love with language for as long as I can remember, and by “in love,” I mean language always contains a kind of necessity for me that it seems not to have for many other people I know.

From the time of my childhood, when I couldn’t hold on to anything else, I held on to words.

Words in my head. The self talk that sustained me either when I found myself alone, or when the chaos of family or disconnection from other children, or the aggression of the wider world because of my body or spirit or skin threatened to swallow me.

Words in the newspapers and magazines that I read. The Miami Herald in my preteen days, shipped to where we lived in Panama a day late except on Sundays. The Reader’s Digest and Redbook and Ladies Home Journal—especially the “Can This Marriage Be Saved” column that I used to try to understand my parents’ fraught relationship, that made me, on and off in my childhood and youth, desire to be a psychologist. The Maryknoll magazine, which we received because of money my mother gave to their Roman Catholic missionary work, and that I devoured.

Words in the sets of encyclopedias and history books and children’s craft and activity books and children’s literature that my godmother Edna and other relatives sent, and my parents bought for us. These words that showed me other worlds.

But most deeply, I think, in the words I heard every Sunday: In Catechism class where we learned our prayers (Our Father, Hail Mary, Act of Contrition, the sequence of the Rosary). And then in Mass itself.

For some people, the repetition of the prayers made the meaning of them fade, if ever they did have meaning. But as I heard those words over and over again for more than 18 years, they scoured a place deep inside me. For a long time I thought it was only the meaning, but later I’ve realized it was the very feeling of them in my ears and mouth. The sounds and rhythms.

In arguments with my brothers and parents (we are a family that to this day likes to argue), I learned to parse definitions, connotations, turns of phrase and strings of logic. In school, I learned how syntax ties words together in various ways to make more complex meaning—or just to impress teachers and other authorities. I learned to weaponize words.

But my attachment to words came from those other, earlier settings.

Then, here’s what happened: More and more, I behaved as if controlling words was the point.

If I turned the words in the right way, I could understand, and more importantly I could get people to understand me. I converted my attachment to language from an unencumbered love into a desire to make words give me what I wanted: influence, admiration, success, money, possessions. And whenever I struggled trying turn them to those purposes, I turned on myself or my situations or other people. The language that I had loved became a burden, a problem to be solved.

And on and off, I’ve languished there.

Sometimes I almost curse my attachment to the words even though they—as much as anything else—have kept me in this world. I’ve tried to find or build the box, the method that would give me total control, allowing me to make words give me what I want.

But in the right mind and body and spirit, I remember that first truth we discover and rediscover whenever we fall in love with anything or anyone.

Writing, like life, is not a box.

Language, like life, is not a problem to be solved.

Who and what we love doesn’t exist to serve but to challenge us. To teach us that real connection doesn’t come from possession or control or some desire of mine that the beloved delivers.

For me, language exists less as a tool and more as a river in which I swim, a river that carries me. To other times and people and places and ideas and circumstances. To locations inside myself that I didn’t know, or even suspect, existed. I surrender to words and they enter and open me, and whatever of value I find comes not so much from me as from that interaction.

The blessing of language is precisely that it never fully submits to me. It remains, like all of existence, uncontrollable and uncontrolled. And every time it reminds me of that fact, it redeems me.

It Shall Be Written

This gap that exists between the writer I want to be and the writer I am, how do I bridge that?

Write it all down.

I’m burning “want to be.” That’s the illusion I recreate every day to give me something to flagellate myself with.

After all, I was raised Roman Catholic; I had to have something to bring to Penance every Saturday, something for the priest sitting in the box on the other side of the screen from the box where I kneeled. I had to have something to say, some brokenness to spill in hushed tones that he could then tell me had been mended by god’s grace. I had to have something to give him that he could exchange for a blessing so that for a few brief moments when I returned to the pews in the darkened Saturday church and said the prayers he had assigned me I could feel clean; I could feel healed.

Then I’d go back to falling short and being myself again. Then I could reconstruct the gap that closed oh so briefly while I was on my knees in the dark box, in the dark and empty pews each Saturday afternoon.

But what if there are no two versions of myself, not really. Or what if there are more. What are they, and the box, for?

What if each moment there is only me, that me who exists all the time?

I don’t know. Write it all down.

I’m trying to find the coherence. I’m trying to tie the threads together. Where is the knot? Why does it slip? Why are the ends so frayed and so untidy?

Because I don’t write it down.

Why is this all so elusive? How can I be so different from year to year, day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment, yet so much the same? Something’s hidden here; something’s strange.

Could the separate versions of myself I see depend on where I’m looking? Have I housed myself in a hall of distorted mirrors, each one twisted and bent in its own way, each it’s own refracted version of the world telling me who I am?

When I looked to the priest, he found in me god’s creature but also filled with sin.

When I looked to my parents, they found in me their own and each other’s hopes and flaws that they alternately tried to coax and crush.

When I looked to those I’ve loved, they’ve found their idealized desires and disappointments.

When I’ve looked to the culture, I’ve seen this twisted and ennobled and dangerous and oppressed and blessed and condemned and potentially saved brown body on which they could write whatever identity they needed to make themselves look whole.

And when I look within, I encounter all of them, all these shards from the shattered funhouse mirrors that they’ve built around me and persuaded me to take inside myself.

I have to write it all, every bit of it, down, and in so doing see these pieces of what I never really was. I need to give them back. The words will help me do that.

Here’s what you called my sin.

Here are all the characteristics you called my disappointments.

Here’s what you called my promise and the potential that never came from me.

Here’s all my irresponsibility and my responsibility, two sides of the same coin.

Here are all the ways you said I failed, and the tips and rules you gave me so you could tame me into another you.

Here are all the sorrows that you laid on me, the suffering that you played at erasing so you could build your own nobility.

Here are your desires for me.

I’m naming them. I’m writing them all down. And then I’m building a campfire—no, a furnace—and burning them with my words. Writing and burning.

And when they’ve cooled, I’ll join the ashes with healing oil and smear the mixture on my dark skin.

And the words will make me glisten.

I’m doing it; I’m glistening. Right now.

Nostalgia for the Future

My deepest griefs have centered on the future, not the past: my father’s death and the years we could have had together; lost pregnancies and the children they would have produced; the course of different careers and relationships that ended. I’ve spent so much time mourning the loss of futures that I discovered wouldn’t turn out the way I thought.

I struggle with the state of the world now because it differs so much from the future in which I invested myself. I don’t feel badly about present when I compare it to the past. I remember vividly the wars, the social unrest, the AIDS epidemic, the casual entrenched racism and sexism and homophobia and other bigotries. I remember how small my life often felt in my childhood and youth. And I see how expansive it’s become in my adulthood, even with various disappoints I’ve experienced.

But I mourn much more keenly how I thought my life would go. What, even a few years ago, I imagined the future would hold for me, for us, and how much more bleak it seems compared to the future I imagine now.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Einstein is reputed to written or said. And in one sense at least I believe he was right: What we imagine about the future can obscure what we know in the present; it prevents our behaving with understanding and compassion and clarity right now.

How often do we see a group of people or a place or situation and grow frustrated with them because they seem to stand in the way of the future we dream? How often do we silence and bulldoze and destroy and run over the living things and people here in the present, right in front of us, because they block “progress.”

Our view of the future and how it ought to be lives in imagination. We aren’t, and never have been, in control of what the future will be, despite what we like to tell ourselves. The universe doesn’t work that way.

Of course we exert influence. Our actions matter. But how often have we misread the outcomes that our choices would bring about? History is as much a list of unintended consequences as it is progress, and isn’t our hubris a large part of what we’re paying the price for now: the damage to our biosphere; the refusal to take care of one another; the obliviousness to suffering; the belief jobs and money will inevitably make everything better?

We hang on like grim death—literally—to deeply flawed versions of the future we imagined. And we make the situation worse by falling in love with new versions of the future, telling ourselves that this time we’ll get it right. This time we’ll bring the future under control; we’ll make the right calls, and this future will be perfect.

This lockdown feels interminable in large part because it prevents our usual (and illusory) certainty about the future. I think so many of the people in denial about the dire nature of our situation, in denial about the pandemic’s danger, are clinging to their view of the future as much as anything else. They refuse to believe in even the possibility of a future with widespread death, so they insist on behaving in the present as if nothing is really wrong.

From deep personal experience I’ve learned it’s much easier to believe a rosy future will emerge if I just do the same things with more determination, over and over and over, than it is to act with compassion and decency in the present, and let the future take care of itself.

Sometimes, I’ve joked online, “What happened to our flying cars? Our colonies on the moon and Mars?” I’ve heard people say, “Don’t live in the past. Move on.”

But I’ve had it backwards. My nostalgia for a future I think I can control poses as a great a danger as any nostalgia for the past (sometimes they’re tied together). My best life lies in facing the truth, compassion, and honesty about our need to care for one another in the present, and letting the future go.