I’m currently about halfway through Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. Let’s just say I have a few thoughts…
Grief and remembrance are not sacrificed to the false gods of propriety and decorum but released into the air like primal music, channeled through the congregation in a collective discharge of pain.
~ From The Quiet Game, Greg Iles
I really only have one thought about Greg Iles’ The Quiet Game. It’s a thought I vaguely remember having while reading the Natchez Burning Trilogy. These stories always start with the death of black people, but end with these deaths being little more than a footnote. Sure details of their demise are woven into the twists and turns of the plot, but whiteness remains central. Then again, maybe that’s the point. Maybe Natchez, Mississippi is like most places in this country where the sudden and tragic deaths of black people are background noise to the interests of the majority.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
~ From The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran
I want this to be real. Maybe it would be if she had gentle hands. Her hands are calloused, rough, sharp, hard, tough. Her pride is intrusive. Maybe I could believe this if his strong silence had come after I spilled my emotions and not after she hurled ridicule. Maybe if their opinions were set aside to make room for mine, this could finally feel true. Maybe I could live, confidently.
Instead I shudder because I fear the fight. I keep my life sheltered and distant because it’s the only way I have the strength to truly live it my way. I step away when I feel pushed. I walk away injured by opinions and exhausted by the tension between respect and self-respect. I close my eyes and arms to the possibility of progress because I’ve battled too long to hope for different.
Criminality, once it touched black life, was a stain hard to remove.
~ From Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke
Truth isn’t necessary. A suggestion is enough. A picture of an unsmiling face and a narrative rife with descriptors that imply an aggressive nature will suffice. It only has to happen once. It doesn’t take much. And when these narratives are presented, there is often no way to refute them. Alternative narratives don’t matter. Disproving claims of violence or criminal behavior isn’t effective either. And if these humans are ever victimized, know that they will immediately be criminalized.
Blood is a hell of a lot thicker than sympathy.
~From The Quiet Game, Greg Iles
Is this what liberalism looks like? Is it a public championing of a cause, but a quiet willingness to retreat if need be? Maybe it is. I don’t know. I’ve often wondered about white people who can so easily explain the struggles of minorities in this country without ever having to experience it themselves. Even when their arguments make sense, I’m left with questions: Are they truly concerned about what justice looks like? How dedicated are they really to the fight against racism and related evils? Does their whiteness automatically grant them distance they will gladly take advantage of when given the chance?
I had questions about Penn Cage when I read the Natchez Burning Trilogy. While his father seemed to consistently risk his life to help his black patients—not that his relationships with black people weren’t complicated—Penn Cage seemed a little less devoted to the cause. He saw problems, maybe even wanted the truth, but if he could save his father without bringing that truth to light, he would. It was only his father’s actions that forced him further into these pursuits that would finally uncover these black Mississippians’ stories.
In The Quiet Game, he made it clear that this unsolved murder of a black man meant nothing to him. If he could liberate his father, that was all that mattered. Now, I certainly don’t expect people to cease being human. I can understand family being your first priority, maybe even your only priority. However, the visual is a little perplexing when, only a few chapters earlier, Penn outlines the reasons Black Americans and Native Americans—although he repeatedly calls them Indians even when challenged—are caught in a never-ending loop of oppression. His argument, with which I vehemently agree is that once you shatter a people’s culture, take them from their land or take their land from them, the process of recovery is virtually impossible. Why then, when faced with the widow and mother of a black man who was murdered and his case buried, is Penn Cage’s almost immediate response to disconnect from any need to pursue justice?
Maybe liberalism isn’t a true lifestyle or philosophy, but simply a public performance that disregards private complications and contradictions. Personally, I’d rather those contradictions take center stage. Maybe if people are honest about what they think and feel, we will have better conversations and finally experience true change.
If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life.
~ From Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon
Life is hard. Sometimes it’s important to know what other people think. Not because you don’t have ideas of your own. It’s important because you do. Reading or receiving another’s advise can sometimes be a reminder that your life philosophies are not mere fantasies created to let you wallow in self-absorption. Instead, they are the best ways for you to provide a valuable contribution to humanity.
Don’t throw any of yourself away. Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work. Don’t worry about unity–what unifies your work is the fact that you made it. One day, you’ll look back and it will all make sense.
~ From Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon
Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be.
~ From The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
I don’t like to think about death. It scares me. It’s not the mere fact of it or the inevitability. It’s the loneliness.
I remember when my grandfather died. I was 22 and had just started graduate school. My world was shaken by his absence from it and the truth was it had been a while since I’d seen him. I had been so busy with work (I was working two jobs) and the transition back to school that I just didn’t have time. So I was broken by my lack of time. I could have had more time. I ran out of it and that hurt. But I couldn’t imagine what my grandmother was going through.
I remember seeing her at the wake. We all showed up and sat around waiting to welcome the people who would come, view my grandfather’s body, share hugs and encouragement and then go about their lives. It was hard to just sit there. But I remember my grandmother doing just that—sitting there. I wondered what she was thinking. What was that first night like when she realized she would no longer have her husband to continue life with? Did she feel empty? Did she feel lonely? Did she cry?
I didn’t see her cry that entire weekend. At the wake. At the funeral. She just sat there and looked ahead. I wonder if her thoughts were much like Joan’s. I wonder if she hoped there was a way for him to return. I wonder if she thought relentlessly about his last moments, last words. I wonder if she replayed the last conversation they had over and over in her mind. I wonder if she walked through the home they built together and felt the emptiness to the point that she no longer knew how to function in that house, where to sit, where to eat. I wonder if she still, nine years later, feels alone.
There were glimpses of her grief I was aware of. Family members mentioned that soon after his death she refused to go into the bedroom where he lay in hospice care. I noticed the last few times I visited that the chair my grandfather frequently sat in to watch westerns on VHS was no longer in its spot. I don’t remember when I first realized it wasn’t there. I don’t know when it was removed or why. But it’s gone.
I remember one day around Christmas time my cousins and I decided to go visit our grandmother, spend time with her and do her nails. I don’t remember what the conversation was about, how this happened or what the exact words were. But my grandmother basically said she didn’t have a husband anymore. He left her. My heart sunk in that moment, but I had no clue how to respond or if she realized she had spoken those words aloud. I just felt sadness for the loneliness she must have felt since September 2009 and the loneliness she was feeling in that moment even as four of her grandchildren were sitting with her. I just hope that our presence gave her some comfort and that as the years have passed she has begun to remember, with joy, the good times instead of sinking in the reality of his absence.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to use could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
~ From The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion