Auld Lang Syne

Friday, August 15, 2014

An Uncomfortable Poem

We hear of the bombings in Gaza and Israel, the air strikes in Iraq, and think "thank God not here" until we watch what's happening in cities across America, large and small. Young unarmed people of color gunned down in a "shoot first, duck responsibility later" mode. This mess with out of control "law enforcement" has overtaken whatever joy there has been in our summertime. We shake our heads and wonder what got us to this point. The truth of the matter (as I see it, MHO only) is that we have lived for so long under a false coating of peaceful diversity when in fact racism has never really gone away. We elect a person of color to be president and there it goes, BAM! Out of the shadows the KKK (turned TEA) has erupted in angry off-the-wall and OPEN fear and loathing. It is dismaying to see this. The situation of immigration has fanned the flames of racism as well, with people being taught to fear anyone not like them, to decry these fellow humans as somehow taking away something to which only THEY are entitled, i.e. jobs, benefits, health care, education. The face on these people is decidedly BROWN or BLACK this time around. Forget the 20s and 30s when we feared the Irish or the Italians (though we did fear them, thinking the same thoughts "they're coming to take OUR jobs, apartments, schools, way of life). Forget the 50s and 60s when it was the Cubans or Puerto Ricans. Same thinking, same fears. Now it is a return to the slave days when Blacks were kept "in their place," but now there is mass media, social media, instant video feed, so we see it up close and in real time. Our rampant (and persistent) racism and xenophobia is on every TV or computer screen, on our phones as it happens. We can spin it, whitewash it, call it something else, or deny it is happening. We can wait for someone ELSE to fix it, or hope it goes away somehow. But it is not going away. When we as a nation, militarize our police, hand over control of daily life to fear, we will only go from bad to worse, and life as we know it (or thought we knew it) becomes a memory.

As usual, feeling frustrated at not being able to DO anything, I can only shine a light in the way I know best: through my writing. Therefore, yesterday, discouraged and angry, I penned this very uncomfortable poem.  Please, readers, see it as what it is: commentary. I do not hate police, but I do hate what some of them are doing. We need to see the drastic situation for what it is: a tipping point.

So here goes (the "we" of the poem implies the voice of society):


We’re killing black kids, young men
ready for college or just shopping the sales
at Wally World. We choke hold ‘em,
shoot ‘em, would lynch a few if we could,
and maybe it’s heading back to that.

We don’t like brown or black, too dark
for us ‘cept on the beach where we risk melanoma 
to get browner, but the palms of our hands 
stay lily white as we grip 
our weapons of choice for tonight. 

We make sure the cops are armed for this: 
semi-automatics, riot gear, tear gas 
for all. Don’t worry officer, ain’t no one
gonna give up your name after. 
We got your back, your white entitled back.

Hey you over there! Don’t you dare stand up,
hands up or not, just oughta stay the hell
in your place I say, one down 
or cowered back like your grandaddies did. 
You go tell your mama you did right.

We’re killing anyone and everyone
who don’t pray to the right Jesus, who ain’t 
gonna stay inside tonight. We coming 
for you, Mister Protester, Miss Civil Rights. 

We're gettin’ closer and closer. We’ll kill you all.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Post Mortem, dona nobis pacem

I don't know where to start, but something about this world is making the most brilliant among us heartsick to the point of no longer being able to cope or stay. Robin Williams just couldn't stay. We will be the poorer for this early departure, the loss is feeling unbearable.

Private demons, the weight of celebrity, whatever it is, we are dying here. We are being killed by invisibles that haunt us at night, chase us by day, and hover over us always waiting to pounce.
Robin Williams' suicide is one in a long long line of these sadnesses. Many (most) we never hear about because they happen in bedrooms and garages and barns and cars all over the place to "ordinary" folks who just cannot endure another living moment. We hear of and are publicly shocked by celebrity suicides; we have claimed these brilliant people as "part of us" and cannot stand the thought they were not strong enough to stay. What a waste, we say. Indeed. but what of all the other sad, shortened lives we do not see in the public arena, the people we pass in the streets, know in our work, play with at school? They are lost to darkness too. The dark that is all around us.

I recall an incident from my childhood where a nine year old boy hanged himself in his grandmother's barn. Nine. He and his grandmother went to our church. He was in my class. I did not know what could possibly make him do this thing.  But I do know, I did know at least a part of his darkness. This boy was bullied unmercifully — for having red hair and freckles and large ears that stuck out. He was called Howdy (after the Howdy Doody puppet on TV's Buffalo Bob Smith Show). He was never without some kind of sneering comment. The worst part of it was that no one thought anything about that at all. (I will say I did not make fun of him, but neither did I come to his side and tell kids to stop, so I bear a load of guilt too). When he died, I was shocked beyond belief. We had no grief counselors coming to school, no one talked about it whatsoever. No teacher intervened. It was right there in front of us and we all did nothing. But he did. The most awful something was what he did.

This visual will never leave me: One day his desk was spilling over with papers, the next day it was REMOVED from the row and put in the back of the room until the janitor came at lunchtime and took it to the school basement. I remember going down there (it was where our bathrooms were) and sitting in his chair and crying. It was so sad.  I never knew anyone who had died until then. It was life-altering for me. To this day, I can close my eyes and see his face, his sad little freckled face. I mourn for him. I am ashamed.

Later I would encounter two more suicides: after high school, one of my classmate's father shot himself between their house and the post office, and in high school a girl a year ahead of me came home one day to find her mother, dead from hanging. What kind of terror is that? But no one much talked about these deaths either. It was whispered about and tongues clicked about what kind of horrible people these were to have done this to their families. NO ONE spoke about what life was like for these two desperately sad people, nor did anyone see the signs and intervene.  I struggled then as I do now to find words or to figure out the whole of it.

I have been depressed in my life. Deeply and drastically depressed. After my divorce, with four young children to raise alone in poverty, I spent weeks barely coping, staying in bed most of the day when the kids were at school, wishing I were not alive. I was barely dealing with the kids, though I managed to hold onto that part of life as a thread back. We ate, I oversaw homework, washed the clothes, etc. I credit my kids too with providing me with so much unconditional love that it kept a light on in my heart. (Many people with depression cannot find that light... not their fault, just how it is sometimes, so families ought not to think they failed if the depressed person cannot see their blessings there).

I did not die. Fortunately for me, I had ONE loyal friend who saw what was happening to me and did the best thing any adult can do: she was THERE. She never told me to "get over it" or to "snap out of it," nor did she make me feel guilty (I was doing a great job of that myself). She simply came and sat with me, offered to make food and did so. She took me out to breakfast once in awhile, or came over to help me with the kids, took over when I couldn't do one more thing... she talked to me about nothing and everything. She LISTENED to me cry and didn't accuse me of being a bad person for my inertia. She commiserated with me when I wanted to moan and groan about the sack of lemons I'd been handed. Slowly, but surely, with her hand in mine, I dragged myself out of the abyss, the pit I'd fallen into. I got counseling too, but it was NOT the professional help (the counselor actually told me that if I "became" a lesbian, I'd be happier because men are toxic. What???) Not that I think counseling is a wage for coping. Just was not what helped me. It was the FRIEND who helped the most by riding the terrible seas of my depression with me. I know she saved my life by being there for the worst parts of it. Thank you Maxine.  Thank you.

We have lost a great guy in Robin Williams. Not a perfect guy of course; not one of those exists, but a great guy. He gave so much of his best self to all of us. He triumphed over and over again in his own darkness. Ultimately, the darkness came for him and he went with it. We do not, nor will we, know what that darkness was like for him. It is private, intimate, and powerful. We can only let his spirit be as free now as it could never be before by celebrating his life and being GRATEFUL for him and his beautiful place in our lives.

To put things into a form that comforts me, poetry, I have turned to a favorite passage from Whitman's Leaves of Grass and written this poem about the darkness that is depression. The form is a variation on a glosa, which employs the use of lines from another source as the foundation for the resultant poem. It is also a persona poem, written in the voice of another person, not my voice.

I sure hope you can hear me reading this heartfelt, but imperfect poem for you, Robin:

At the End, a glosa variation
                      — for Robin Williams 

It’s hard to know who’s watching
so I stay in character until the weight 
of the mask starts killing me, sucking my marrow.
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me. 
I watch the others, the hawks in the audience
or on the streets, where brass stars
in the sidewalk make false promises about us
He complains of my gab and my loitering, 
this one hawk, the one with poison 
on his beak. He swoops to peck
at my neck, but today I manage to hide.
I too am untamed, I too am untranslatable

I tell him. We are alike, we are dark
and prone to loneliness, have pierced
hearts, exist on our own carrion. I sound 
my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.

But he persists, circling day after day, waiting
just waiting for me to relax, to let go
a little. His yellow eye sees everything I am.
His blood-tipped beak opens and closes for me.