Advent, December 2014
“Then my bones drop away
like petals, my bones wither
and scatter and still I am waiting
empty as grey arching sky, waiting…”
– Marge Piercy
It is cold and growing colder and still we are waiting. We are waiting together, losing and finding our breath together, dying and rising all over town. Our footsteps burn holes in the pavement but we cannot stop. We are windstorms and waiting, holy restlessness and harvest. We are moving forward against all odds, lit by something within, waking up to the power of who we are together.
Last week, we died on Broadway, we died on I-24, we died in the Gulch, in the mall at Green Hills, and at the convention center. We lay on the cold pavement together in silence with the names of the slain on our lips looking upward at city lights and the arching sky, embodying the disruption so deep in our hearts. Each minute we lay was for an hour that Mike Brown’s body lay on the ground in Ferguson, each breath was for Eric Garner who couldn’t breathe, each tear was for the names and stories of the countless black lives, young and old, male, female, and trans, lost to stunning violence and non-indictments. And something happened to me on that pavement, that sea of asphalt where the waves of time, the centuries of grief, washed over us. Something happened to me, something opened inside me—a kind of anticipation, a kind of resolve—and each time we rose together, I realized I was changed, I realized that a new “we” was emerging, powerful in our vulnerability, fierce in our love.
During this season of Advent, death hangs heavy in the air. Death and injustice. They hang like strange fruit from the trees leaving me raw. In “Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot speaks of the birth of Christ as a kind of death, a “hard and bitter” death that changes everything and leaves behind a deep sense of disruption. Mary’s Magnificat in Luke sings of the coming Christ as one who scatters the proud, brings the powerful down from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, sends the rich away empty, and fills the hungry with good things—a complete upheaval of the existing order. In his book Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon says that liberation, reawakening, restoration, and decolonization are always violent events. Yes, I’m reminded that there is nothing sentimental about this Advent season by the death and unrest that surround me in this waiting.
The other day, I visited two people in separate hospitals—a man who tried to kill himself and a woman who was dying. Both visits were unbearable, my stomach felt sick after leaving. Seeing the flesh stitched back together on his arms and seeing the tubes following in and out of her weathered body left me shaken. It was his birthday. It was her third week in housing. Then, the day before the police officer who strangled Eric Garner was let off the hook, another un-housed man—Robert—was found dead in the library park, his poor health exacerbated by exposure to the cold. I got there too late. The only thing I could do was to kneel on the ground and bear witness as his stiff, lifeless body was loaded on the stretcher and taken to the medical examiner’s office.
Earlier this month, I listened as “Valerie” told me about the abuses she faced as a child. Through tears, she told me what it was like to lay in her bed with her sister and wonder if the men who walked through their house would come molest them like the men before. She told me about the shame and guilt she felt as the terrible secret grew in her belly when she bore her brother’s child. For years and years, she drank her trauma down to her toes, and at 80-something days sober, the old wounds were re-emerging, rising up to her throat, stinging her heart and haunting her mind. Now she lies in bed at night holding her pillow to her chest and hears a tap-tap-tapping like two feet walking across her brain. “Things have been hard,” she said as her eyes filled with tears. Yes, Valerie, we are still waiting.
After a night of dying and rising during the Eric Garner march, I was driving back home with adrenaline coursing through my veins when I saw a man sitting on a bench in the shadow of the new convention center. He was shivering and ill-equipped for the cold—no blankets or gloves, only a thin canvas jacket. I stopped, got out of my car, and introduced myself. His name was Thomas and like so many others, he didn’t want to go to the Mission. “Do you need any blankets or gloves? Any hand warmers or toe warmers?” I asked. He looked up at me with brown crusted eyes. “I don’t have any toes,” he muttered. I fumbled to respond. “Oh gosh,” I said, “Well, we could put them on your feet to keep them warm.” He nodded and while I was getting the supplies from my car, he took off his ragged boots. His feet were two nubs like trees without branches. I asked him what happened and he said all his toes were amputated in 2012 from frostbite. As I helped him put the foot warmers on the nubs of his feet and bundle up, he said his feet ache all the time. He thanked me and I gave him my card and told him I’d look for him again. I continued home, haunted by his feet and by the remembrance of another man who lost both his legs to frostbite last winter. This is what we are up against, I thought, a system, a society, a city, where the poor are literally dismembered in the shadows of progress while breathless black bodies lie on the ground. Yes Thomas, yes Eric, we are still waiting.
As Audre Lorde mourned the horrific murder of Emmett Till so many years ago, she wrote about “the horrors we are living/ with tortured lungs/ adapting to breathe blood.” And as I read her heart-wrenching words, I realize there is a grief and waiting I know in my bones and there is a grief and waiting I will never know. The grief I know is the grief of burying countless friends before their time, of tending the wounds that may never heal, of having no answers for people who suffer so immensely, of watching their minds and bodies and will waste away on the streets as they wait for housing, for hope.
But there is a different grief I will never know. I’ll never fear that my unborn sons and daughters will be imprisoned or gunned-down because of the color of their skin. I’ll never know the way it feels to have my body criminalized or stigmatized because of the way I look. I’ll never wonder about the terrible abuses faced by my ancestors who were traded and slaughtered like cattle. I’ll never be able to say, as my friend Jessica says so beautifully, “We are the hopes and dreams of the slaves.”
When I want to retreat from suffering, injustice, and racism, I can hide in coffee shops or hike through the woods without fear. Like Ferlinghetti, I’m a social climber—I can blend into different settings with different people without feeling eyes cut me down and tell me I don’t belong. This is white privilege—something I didn’t ask for, something I can’t give back. And I’m learning how to move past guilt and fear, denial and paralysis. I’m learning how to situate myself and, as James Baldwin says, to risk myself. I’m learning, slowly and with countless missteps, my place in this struggle, my place in this waiting.
In Psalm 126, the psalmist prays that those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy; that those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, will come home with joyful shouts, carrying their sheaves. Perhaps the waves that washed over us in that sea of asphalt were the waves of our own tears rising up with the tears of the prophets and slaves, the battered and dismembered, the wretched of the earth. So today, my prayer is that our tears will fall like seed, breaking open the pavement, breaking up the ground and creating a new earth where the harvest is plentiful and the hungry are filled with good things.
When Peter Rollins was in town several months ago, he told a story about a Sufi mystic and saint who ran through her village carrying a bucket of water in one hand and a torch in the other. She said the water was for putting out the flames of hell and the fire was for burning down the gates of heaven so we could live in the present without fear of hell or want of heaven; so we could love God and one another with a kind of urgency and fullness. This waiting in which I swim is a yearning for another world but it is also a bucket of water, a torch of fire. With this waiting and yearning, I want to both put out flames and watch things burn. With this waiting, I want to both feel the water wash over me and become the waves themselves. “I baptize you with water, but there is one who is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” said John the Baptist. So I long to become the flames, as well.
My prayer in this season is this: Meet us here, O God of winter and waiting, of open hands and marching feet, of harvest-time and knowing. Meet us here, O God who waits and struggles with us, O God who dares to hope. Teach us to become the water, the fire, the waiting. Teach us to channel our collective lament, our collective love, our collective power and wield it to bend armored tanks into homes, prisons into farmlands, weeping into sheaves of joy. Without you, we are seeds yearning for soil, wicks yearning for flame. Without you, we will forget, as Annie Dillard says, that “the waiting itself is the thing.”