After Pittsburgh

What to say?

When I try to speak these days, it’s as if my words have been stolen from my throat, and all that is left is a soundless scream. I open my mouth, straining. Nothing comes out. I swallow it all down, hoping it will come back up as something useful. Nothing.

Yes, there are the marches, the protests. I have marched. I have protested. Still.

Then there was last week, a week that felt Grand Guignol even by the standards of these dark days. The bombs. The anti-trans memo. The racially motivated killing of two senior citizens who were grocery shopping. The election of a dangerously far-right extremist in Brazil. The massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue of worshippers, one of whom, at ninety-seven years old, had been a teenager as the Nazis rose to power. Last week was one of canary-in-the-coal mine anxiety and tragedy produced by the constant stoking of fear, rage, irrationality, and the othering of human beings by those in power. It was horrific. Overwhelming. Open the mouth: nothing.

How do we respond to such seemingly senseless brutality? To the madness of slaughter? To the willful cruelty enacted by those who hold the power against those who have or are experiencing powerlessness, those who most need our protection—the asylum-seekers, the elderly, the marginalized, the sexual abuse victims, the children? I could understand how cynicism could be the response. Cynicism is a defense, and who wouldn’t want to disappear inside the armor of Nothing-Matters-Fuck-This? If anything, what we are seeing among those making the most egregiously hurtful of policies is that very cynicism—one that does not believe in a shared future but only the immediate, selfish gratification of here and now. One with no regard for tomorrow. No, cynicism is not the answer.

I grew up a Christian. Or, as I say, I literally grew up in the church—my father was a minister, and the smell of musty hymnals, of oiled pews, is as familiar to me as Dial soap, campfire, lemons. I have an uneasy relationship with the faith of my childhood. I found it hard to reconcile the New Testament gospel I was taught with the fact that my gay father could not openly be himself and hold onto his job. As a burgeoning young woman, I could not reconcile my need to value myself as a human being with the patriarchal church’s continued subjugation and denial of the feminine. On a philosophical level, I had deep questions about an all-powerful God who could allow such terrible things to happen in this world. Only a monster would allow that. Over the years, my faith has been contentious, beseeching, middle fingers raised to the sky, needy, questioning. At times, I’ve felt as if God and I sat at TV trays with our takeout, Netflix options scrolling, me saying, “You know we’ve got to figure this shit out sometime, you and me, right?” It is an imperfect, evolving relationship. I never once thought about being shot to death while kneeling in prayer.

The one church-taught thing I have carried with me all these years, though, is the belief that small ministrations matter. These seemingly insignificant moments shared with another outside the camera frame, these dogged decencies and small acts of kindness matter. When my father was dying of AIDS, I was overwhelmed by the specter of pain and death awaiting him. How was it possible to alleviate his suffering? The answer was, read a letter aloud. Adjust the fan. Find the Judy Collins CD he likes and play that. Talk. Listen. Rub the swollen feet that ache and kiss the forehead that needs a kiss when the eyes are failing. This. You do what you can. One small action following another small action.

When I am wordless, I think about this. Maybe it helps you to hold on to this now, too. Perhaps you might read a book to a child. Donate a Saturday to Planned Parenthood. You might find yourself at a bus stop with an elderly woman who needs help boarding, who just lost her sister, who needs to talk about that, and you might listen as the two of you ride, a burden eased. You might drive someone to the polls on election day. Or call your representatives again and again and again because they are counting those calls, and sometimes, when the words feel hard to find, a phone call is your voice. You stick up for the person being bullied or help that person get to safety. You send the five-dollar donation to protect the rights of those whose rights are being threatened because five dollars is what you can give. That five dollars matters. You return the Metrocard to the person who dropped it. And you vote. Please, please vote. Do not discount the everyday acts of resistance. The Grand Canyon was made not by some theatrical explosion but by the time and tide of erosion, a consistent, persistent chipping away of rock. What forces on earth are more powerful than water, than the rivers and seas? And what feeds those rivers and seas but steady drops of rain? Every drop is needed.

On my block in Brooklyn, my neighbors are Puerto Rican and Italian, Dutch, Chinese, Colombian, and Pakistani. The house next door to me has a little library that my neighbor, a carpenter, made himself. It is lovely, and the children stop to peruse its wares daily. On the other side, my Colombian neighbors and I sometimes trade dog stories (they have three; I have one dog who feels like having three). One of my neighbors is trans, and over the years, I have been witness to their claiming of true self. Another neighbor, a musician, visits hospitals to sing and play for those in need of comfort. Holidays come. We decorate. We take down our decorations. We sweep our leaves and shake our heads at the high-rises going up. We smile at the young ones lined up with their folding chairs outside Foot Locker when the new sneakers come in, and we say, “Honey, are you cold?” They always say no because they are young. When mail is misdelivered, we bring it to its rightful owner and say hello and ask how the cats and the children are, if there will be a vacation this year. We loan each other ice chippers in the winter and allow access to each other’s yards when the cable needs fixing which, thanks to the squirrels and Spectrum, is fairly often. No one shoots anybody.

There is an Islamic cultural center and school a few blocks away, and many mornings, I pass the teenagers on their way to class, girls in hijabs laughing and talking excitedly, boys bouncing along on legs that seem too long for their bodies just yet. Around the corner from my house is a WIC-sponsored community center near a Catholic church that’s dedicated to helping young families, many of them immigrants, get a foothold in New York City. Because it’s brutal to go it alone. We all need people. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—nobody can do this gig without help from and without connection to other people. That, my darlings, is the stone-cold truth: We goddamned need each other.  I’m crying a little as I type this which is how I usually know something feels true. Well, at least I hope it’s true for you, too.

Anyway. In the dog park each morning before work, we greet one another and marvel at the way the early morning sun lights up the fall foliage. We know we are fortunate to be there together, watching our dogs frolic after Frisbees while the dawn crawls up over the tops of trees to take a peek. We know we are fortunate not to be trying to hold on to hope inside a refugee camp. We know we are fortunate not to be counting someone we love among the shooting victims. For today.

In the dog parks, on the streets, we greet one another. We stand, side-by-side or face-to-face. We look in each other’s eyes. Sometimes, depending on the light, we see ourselves reflected for a second. And when we leave, we always say, “See you tomorrow,” a phrase that is act of resistance in and of itself. It boldly asserts a future, one in which we will see each other again, and we will meet in gladness.





11 thoughts on “After Pittsburgh

  1. I have no words that adequately explain my thoughts on your post. As a Pittsburger who is trying to find faith among terrible atrocities both home and abroad, your words have healing power, and I thank you for that. You have no idea how much I thank you.

  2. I desperately want to have my 9th and 10th grade students read this, but it breaks my heart that some students won’t see it this way because they view the world differently and don’t see these acts as scary awful things that are happening that really truly need to be corrected.

  3. Thank you so much for this at this time. You wrote such a beautiful and sincere piece, which is perfectly timed.

    This no longer feels like America. I feel like a stranger in my own country, and I definitely don’t feel safe anymore. What the hell has happened?

    America does not mass its army to “defend” against those desperately seeking help and hope. What the hell is wrong with us?

    You are in New York and I am in Utah, and yet we are connected by a common bond of compassion for our fellow men (generality, women too). You know what makes America be America. What are we going to do?

    Thank you for your post. I guess we do what you say. We vote. We take 1 step at a time and keep hope that this will pass. But, we must speak out and let those in power know that we are not afraid, that we do not condone any of this, and that we will overcome.

  4. Thank you Libba. You are the voice…that many need to hear. The world has changed and as much as people are connected I feel we.are becoming more disconnected. It is painful and scary. I work as a librarian in a secondary school, I speak to our staff and students everyday, i mention events taking place in the world and sadly they would rather not know. It is terrifying to think they would rather bury their heads.

  5. Pingback: Things that Made My Brain Explode – November 10, 2018

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