The city is slowly shutting down in preparation for what might have been considered a celebration, if not of a candidate then of the pageant of democracy. Every four years the inauguration of a new president is a dose of glory, a proof that our experiment is working.
However, the military zone erected around the Capitol and the White House — the fences and barriers, the trucks and troops, the shuttering of hotels and house-rentals, Metro stops and parking garages — is proof that something is terribly wrong.
Tens of thousands of National Guard soldiers have been arriving from all over the country to protect the Capitol, and state and county governments have boarded up and closed. Stay away from each other, mayors and governors say, and don’t touch the sacred house that holds us together.
“Man is wolf to man,” my daughter Virginia told me the other day. “It’s a Latin expression,” my husband confirmed, “Homo homini lupus.” I thought of the men with rifles, Molotov cocktails, stun guns, and baseball bats who attacked the Capitol. The noose they erected. The Confederate flags they paraded in holy places. The way humans have beat each other to death, gassed and tortured each other, blown each other to bits, molested, poisoned, and decapitated each other. Wolves are lambs compared to humans.
In times like these, I see how the seed of insanity lies inside every one of us. Our brains are so vulnerable, so powerful. Both a wondrous gift, and a dangerous weapon.
Wolves are prone to viruses like rabies, and it is suspected that this is why they occasionally attack humans. The virus infects the mind, making animals violent, confused, and excitable.
As Luke comes down the stairs in the morning, he snaps his fingers, like he does these days as he transitions between one thing and another. Today he empties the dishwasher before he pours his bowl of cereal. Yesterday subverting the rules, today going along with them.
“Chakras, chakras, everyone loves chakras!” he sings while grabbing two plates from the dishwasher and stacking them on the hutch. It’s a line from his favorite show, Avatar.
“Guru Pathik says that chakras are like pools of water along a stream,” he explains. “Sometimes they get clogged with leaves, and the water can’t move. The leaves that clog it are emotions like fear and guilt.”
“And madness,” says Diana, a fellow Avatar fan, who has just come down in the flannel pajamas her grandmother sewed.
“You mean anger?” I say.
“And love,” says Luke.
My grandfather — who grew up on a Tennessee farm, went to Harvard Business School, and rose from stock boy to top executive — loved God and his country. I always wanted his devotion, his patriotic glow. I wanted to believe his uncomplicated portrait of America, the glory, the innocence, the power. I longed for the time when our nation was noble and true, when its children were capable of achieving anything we put our minds to.
What he loved was an idea, a myth as spellbinding as it was untrue, and I could tell how he dug into it with more and more desperation as he saw the promise falling apart.
When we love our illusions too much, they destroy us. How many of us, believing we could be a star, have wanted to kill that part of us that didn’t make it? Idolizing, fearing, or hating those who have succeeded where we didn’t? The terrible dream, like a virus infecting our brains, can fill us with self-hatred, cannibalizing ourselves, attacking each other.
My husband got his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week, the new mRNA one that scientists hadn’t dared to try before. Calamity instigated innovation, pushing us to the edge, making us jump.
Some believe that the vaccine is the solution, that this moment marks the slow rise after having fallen to our nadir. But if the virus did not cause our problems, how can it solve them?
When the world seems to be a smoking pile of ashes, I feel myself wanting to give up. I seek the sweet forgetting of slumber. I walk through my house in a daze, living from one small moment of grace to the next. The steamy smell of sleep in the curve of my daughter’s neck in the morning. Sunlight shining on the cat’s black fur making a rainbow in every hair.
And then I come around to confronting my despair. I am devastated by the hypocrisy of this beautiful terrible country that I have loved. We have to witness the horror. Feel the suffering. Stop clinging to rosy myths.
The fire of crisis is necessary sometimes. The light of destruction reveals what we did not want to see. Havoc makes space for the world to be reordered.
As Eddie S. Glaude Jr. said on this day when we honor Martin Luther King Jr., it is time to “give voice to the trauma in our souls on behalf of a new world. Fight for the beloved community. The beautiful struggle.”
The day after the Capitol was sacked, I walk through the sprawling federal park near my house. Through a clearing for scrimmages, around a wooded thicket where a deer family lives, past a chainlink fence circling a reservoir.
I walk over a ridge and see the broad-shouldered middle school. In the distance, the cupola of its sister high school. These empty bastions once provided both stability and confusion, reassurance and anxiety. Now they are barren.
I remember the crowded stages lit with song, the event night hallways flooded with faces, the teacher conferences where it felt like parents were graded, the alliances and skirmishes of adolescents. Like a dream, where I was never quite sure what was real, it has vanished.
At the highest point in the park, a plaque explains that this green used to be the largest, most heavily armed Union fort defending Washington. When it was abandoned, formerly enslaved people who had found protection around the fort, settled here in a neighborhood that would eventually include three churches, a dairy, and a cemetery. There is nothing left of that neighborhood, of that fort. The signal towers and canons that killed Confederate soldiers three miles away have been replaced by steel obelisks that beam radio waves. The houses that provided shelter, razed to give a park to people with lighter skin.
Up in a tree on Chesapeake Street, a tattered red kite blows in the wind. A ball is being kicked around. A girl sits under a century-old tree. The baseball court and soccer field lie face up to the sky.
I think of the men with beards and horns, tattoos and flags smiling and laughing as they trampled all over the Capitol and I think, this is our civil war. The president, now a cult leader, whistles for his dogs to come and rip out the heart of marble. And as the heart lies broken, everyone shouts traitor.
White people hate the brown people next to them, while emperors and corporate gods pass around chalices of gold. In the wild section of the park, vines drip over every tree and bush. Grandfather trees have fallen, breaking the saplings underneath. One day all that will be left of our civil war be a plaque, and everyone alive now will be dead.
I come home and begin to make a vegetable soup for dinner. I feel heavy with blood and fat and gristle. I want the plants, the broth to run down my throat, to take it all away.
There are no summer vegetables to make the recipe I know, so I begin on my own. My son helps me chop the carrots, potatoes, and broccoli rabe. I know I am part of this. I have turned away from what I didn’t want to see. I have pretended not to hear.
When the truth is painful, when it has been battered for so long, it rips and people start grabbing their own shining flags. The soup has no flavor, so I add a shake of red pepper flakes, a pinch of herbs de Provence, a handful of thyme from the garden.
The earth remembers. Under the fuzzy grass of a placid park, the wounds cut deep. A balance has been lost, and it unsteadies us all.
It’s still so hard to see deeper than the thinnest, most outermost layer of these human bodies. Color is how we’re sorted.
The pasta and the lentils I added have absorbed all of the clear broth. The light soup I needed like a medicinal has become a gloppy mess.
This trauma cannot be washed away. Difficult truths must be sought and received.
We don’t have to know how to fix it. We just have to listen — deep in our bodies. Without recipes. Without getting caught in the dream, the music, the crowds. Without trying to win.
We couldn’t leave for our picnic until Mark was done with his Italian class on Zoom, but it was almost dark and Luke was still unpacking the groceries, a job he had been assigned an hour ago.
“I’ll give you 100 niceness coins and a ‘play with me’ ticket if you help me, Diana,” he said, a currency of dubious exchange value given that the chore was partly earned by being mean to her. When I was tossing the last items into the picnic bag, he was still pausing to unscrew the top of the paprika bottle, removing with scissors the plastic wrap around the tub of caramel chocolates, and examining the contents of a free sample bag.
It was Tuesday night and Virginia was working late at the juice bar, my husband doesn’t get home until 9:30, and Sofia is having picnics of her own on her college green, so it seemed like a good time to break out of the domestic container.
Just as we were closing the door, Luke slid the last box of cereal on the shelf, grabbed his Nike’s and jammed his feet into them on the porch. Mark ran to get a soccer ball, and we walked over tree roots through the edge of Maxine’s yard to Fort Reno Park, the highest point in D.C. and once a Civil War fort and a freed-slave settlement before it was razed to make way for lots of grass.
The boys wanted to hang out on the soccer field, but I convinced them to climb up to the high point next to the chain link fence with the signs that say No Trespassing U.S. Govt. Property. As we got to the top, I could tell we hadn’t missed the sunset. In fact, we had probably caught the best part.
Just above the tangled lights and chunky buildings of downtown Arlington, a slash of foggy red hung over the horizon line, diluting up into orange and yellow, green and turquoise, and finally a periwinkle blue that washed over the rest of the sky.
This was dinner theater, and before the show was over, I began tossing out grilled cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil. Steam escaped when we opened them, but the butter-fried bread was still crispy and the melted cheese had made the insides spongy.
A high school running group that had been doing calisthenics on the ridge below seemed to be dispersing. It was so dark on the hill we could only make out people dressed in white. A few pairs of teens sat along the fence, clouds of marijuana occasionally drifting towards us —nothing like the party that took place here every night in summer when the hill was colonized by young people, someone always bringing fireworks.
Behind the fence guarding a brick water tower and a cluster of buildings reputed to belong to the C.I.A., a flying thing swooped back and forth like a small plane doing exercises. “Look, a bat!” I said. After a brief exchange over whether it was a bird, it was agreed by all that it was indeed a bat. There is something different about the way they flap their wings, their flight path, they way you only see them at night.
The kids kept exclaiming and saying, “There’s another one!” as a handful of bats seemed to be surveying the sunset-viewing ridge.
We used to come here in March and April when schools closed and the virus was spreading like a laser through the country. We thought it was going to be a war-like experience as it was for my husband’s family in northern Italy. But here hospitals were never overwhelmed, and bodies were not collected in military trucks.
Ours was more of a slow death. The dying of a way of life, of buildings, institutions, stations, as if this were a game of Monopoly and an invisible player was winning, taking all the properties, hotels, and stores. A player who won’t let you have a turn, who keeps going around the board, collecting its pay, passing ‘Go’ over and over, methodically taking, emptying, clearing.
More than seven months later and no one has been able to stop its winning streak, even though it has slowed and now it wins quietly. Its rounds have expanded, like a mathematical roulette, making circles and eclipses that spin off into other territories, leveling, silencing. Now in Europe a spike of cases higher than the first is triggering a new set of curfews and lockdowns.
But it hasn’t taken this park. It hasn’t taken this sunset, this life, this family, these teens laughing and cussing when the bats swing close. The bats flutter like moths, they travel like messengers. What are they looking for — food, companionship, blood?
They say the coronavirus may have been passed to humans by bats. Bats pass diseases easily among their communities, sometimes numbering in the millions, because they are so highly mobile and social.
“I can see through their wings,” Mark says, as we look up and watch them fly back and forth right above us, just as magical as the sunset. Sometimes I can see their ears against the blue-black sky.
“I wish it would stop right here,” Diana says, pointing to the end of our picnic blanket, “because I want to see what it looks like.”
I want to see it upside down, its webbed wings, its claws, its gargoyle face, its shape-shifting, its way of transforming into a creature both mammal and bird, charming and grotesque, of land and of air.
The man in the fancy pen store downtown watches as I try out rollerball pens by Cross and Faber-Castell that I can buy with the gift card my husband gave me last Christmas. I had to make an appointment to be here, and although I am the only one in the store, he is rushing around as if there wasn’t a minute to spare.
I comment about how one pen writes thickly and he says, “You press down hard,” the first time anyone has told me this, which would explain the callus I’ve had on my middle finger since I learned to write. I always thought it was ugly, but now I might see it as a pillow for my pen, the type of pillow that would carry a ring before the vows. Or a pillow that conveys a sword for knighting, a pillow to rest your head in the late afternoon in a private garden in Scotland.
Visiting the pen store was a chance to break out of the patted-down trail of my everyday life, the treads of our heart-pine stairsteps, the unsoiled sidewalks of our neighborhood. It was June when I was last down here for the thronging marches for racial justice, and with only 11 days until the election, I wanted to hear the voices of America, to see new metamorphoses, to stand in a place where the winds are blowing from all directions.
With my new black and gold Waterman pen in a little shopping bag, I walk down F Street by the Warner Theater and the National Press Club. The streets are so barren it’s like a movie where something has gone wrong and dawn is just breaking. I see the president’s name emblazoned on a grand hotel just a few blocks away from the White House and for the first time it seems odd. Lafayette Square, the core of the unrest in June, is sealed up with tall black fencing, and signs that protesters once punched in the air are now stuck there. A couple of police officers stand chatting on bikes, and a small group of tourists look like they are waiting for a double-decker bus.
Through a black diamond in the fence, I try to find the White House. It’s so far away now that I can barely make out the white columns beyond the statue of the rearing horse. Even the portion of 16th Street which has been emblazoned with ‘Black Lives Matter’ is completely empty. A solo guy with purple hair sits on a concrete barrier looking at nothing in particular.
I know I’ve missed something. I can tell by the pubs and churches boarded up with murals of Desmond Tutu and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It feels like the moment between pulling in a breath and letting it out. The yogis say that this time, between one breath and another, is when you can feel your soul.
We went back to the hill for a picnic on Thursday. It was so warm the kids wore shorts. Maybe it would be the last time we could come. The red of the sunset was muddled with cloud dust. Wispy clouds were painted all over the sky like a calligraphy written backwards. An explanation someone else could read. A message that would be covered by night and never seen again.
“Let’s lie down and look at the stars,” Diana says. The damp ground smells of mildew and salt. “The stars look so… so… What does meditation do?”
“You mean relaxing?” I asked.
“Yeah, relaxing but something different too,” she says. “Something else,” and she seems to still be searching for the words. I wonder if it’s something about their steadiness, their stillness.
“They feel like the sunset and the crickets and the ‘ee ee!’” she says, mimicking the distant sound of Mark and Luke playing farther down the hill, pretending to be monkeys.
“I hope a bat lands on us and talks to us,” Diana says, “and then lies down to see the stars with us and then we pet him.”
Bats are considered liminal beings. They occupy the space between two states. Mammalia and Reptilia. Fur and flight.
“I don’t hope it because I know it won’t happen, but I… I…” she says, again searching for the words.
In China bats are associated with happiness, joy, and good fortune. Here they make us think of darkness, witchcraft, and death. Everything is sacred.
“Dream. Do you dream it?” I ask.
To fly unnoticed in the night. To be in the nowhere space between sleep and wakefulness. Night and day. Between the angels and the beasts. A place of no limits.
My grandfather loved to tell me that he was as tall as Abraham Lincoln and wore the same shoe size as George Washington. When I would come to visit, he would turn off the news, and sitting in his favorite armchair in front of the TV, he’d tell me again the story of when he left home to make his way in the world, and his dad simply said, “Be honest.”
He would tell me that when he was promoted from stock boy to cashier, he once rode his bike a mile and a half to return a dime to a customer he had overcharged. Or he might pull down a maroon leather book from the shelves and read me the poem, ‘I Am Old Glory’:
“So long as men love liberty more than life itself, so long as the principles of truth, justice and charity for all remain deeply rooted in human hearts, I shall continue to be the enduring banner of the United States of America,” of the finest country in the world.
Year after year of those sessions, of me sitting there on the living room couch, the one whose arms were always covered with plastic sleeves, while we waited for my grandmother to call “lunch,” I began to wrap that pride around my young body like a flag of bulletproof gems.
As I got older, it was easy to find appeal in sayings I heard in high school like “Russia sucks,” because enemies were anyone or anything that threatened the superpower status which gave us — me — an inflated sense of self-worth, that lifted me above and away from the dread inside, the fear that I was nothing.
Before my grandfather died, he wrote a letter to his grandchildren and one of the things he said was, “Our freedom and all the good things we enjoy must be defended constantly, every day of our lives. Always remember that a nation can be destroyed from forces within.”
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“If we don’t get it?”
“Shut it down!”
The kids and I yelled these chants until our voices were hoarse down the streets of Georgetown during a Black Lives Matter march this June. “What are we shutting down?” asked Mark, 12, as we walked by stone houses that looked like Southern mansions, a few with white people standing in front waving.
“The system,” I tell him, but even I can’t picture it — the police, the government, the everything? I don’t know how one shuts it down or what would happen if we did.
George Floyd’s killing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer finally shook us into reckoning that something is terribly wrong with our system — it’s rotting from within. What is festering inside our country is a caste system. This I was stunned to read in The New York Times magazine from July 5 that I had folded and saved on top of my stack of half-finished books.
The formal structure that originally defined caste was abolished with laws and civil rights acts, but the race-based hierarchy still lives on, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson in her profound and elegant article, America’s Enduring Caste System.
“A caste system is … a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits,” Wilkerson writes, “traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste, whose forebears designed it.”
Having caste as our society’s hidden structure puts us, the world’s greatest democracy, the shining beacon of freedom, in company with India and its ancient intractable system and Nazi Germany. Invisibility, says Wilkerson, is what gives caste its power and endurance.
Wilkerson likens a caste system to the hidden structure of a house. “America is an old house,” she says, and it was built 400 years ago on a flawed foundation, a two-tiered hierarchy with those identifying as white at the top and Blacks at the bottom, while immigrants from non-European countries find a place somewhere the middle, and Native Americans are exiled completely.
As anyone who has lived in an old house knows, problems like sagging joists or water leaking into the basement don’t just go away. Sometimes we learn to live with the smell of mold and the slanted floors, and then “the awkward becomes acceptable,” says Wilkerson, “and the unacceptable become merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal.”
A house built on a crooked foundation cannot be fixed with patches and paint. When we focus on racism as the problem, it shape-shifts, it mutates, but the invisible lines remain because, Wilkerson says, the hidden structure has not been exposed and dismantled.
I walk barefoot whenever I can these days. When the soles of my feet make contact with dirt, with bricks, with grass or even cement, I feel solid, right, part of it all.
My daughter Virginia tells me that walking barefoot on the earth is called grounding. There is something about being in touch with the ground that is healing. They say the earth’s subtle electrical charge neutralizes free radicals, acting like one giant antioxidant, and regulates our autonomic nervous system. Keeps our circadian rhythms.
Houses separate us from nature, from each other. Houses are meant to shelter us, but when some people are relegated to the basement, it may look like a dwelling from the outside but from the inside, it’s a prison to some. When the people who are kept down try to escape the place of no light, low ceilings, and toxic fumes, they are spotted immediately by their appearance. In a caste based on physical features, no amount of education, resumé heft, or hard work will set you free, because you can’t change the color of your skin.
By the laws of nature, or the universe, or what you might call God, no species is better than another. It’s one big amalgam, one mysterious overflowing swirl of life. In the animal and plant and mineral world, there are no levels of greater or lesser rainbows, adequate or inadequate sunflowers, worthy or unworthy elephants. As a native of India once told anti-slavery leader Charles Sumner, “Caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.”
When my grandfather said all those wonderful things about America, I felt that I was being conferred a new sparkly costume, simply for the random involuntary act of being born on a certain patch of land. A glowing coat of beauty and power.
I must have been old enough by then to have lost that feeling I had as a child, the sense of unfettered connection with everything and everyone. I had already begun to separate myself out — good or bad, weak or strong, smart or not — judging myself with the standards and expectations that make some people into idols, others into nobodies.
I felt ashamed for my grandfather to know that I wasn’t the American that he admired and always strived to be — magnanimous, noble, fair, and true. So I took that spangled cloak and pretended I was.
I don’t know how we can take down piece by piece a structure that contains all of us. I don’t know when we will have the courage to step down, to live without shelter, to join the wild unknown of nature, to get rid of our shoes, our buildings, our foundations.
But it helps to shine an infra-red light onto the structure we live in and ask, How much longer can we stay here before the whole thing falls down?
Every time I pass a Black person on the street now, the encounter is charged with meaning. I look in their eyes and I feel myself saying things they cannot hear, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I didn’t look hard enough, I didn’t want to see, It’s too horrible, I don’t know what to do, Please don’t hate me, I’m sorry,” and sometimes they look at me back and all I hear is silence.
Three marches and a vigil, movies about race with my teenage daughter, podcasts, readings, newspaper articles. It took one man dying in a global pandemic for me to open up and see. Slavery did not end — it mutated into different forms. As an Equal Justice Initiative speaker said after a Juneteenth march, “Oppression didn’t end, it just rhymed,” finding other brutally creative expressions — aggression, repression, suppression, dispossession.
Mostly it’s white women who take pictures of my kids and me with our protest signs, but one time riding the Metro, a Black woman asked if she could snap one of the boys, who were holding onto the poles with their “Silence is Violence” and “End Police Brutality” signs. “You’re so cute,” she said as she held them in her phone’s eye, and “Thank you for your support,” and I felt like maybe this is going to work. This is a beginning.
I tell my African-American neighbor when she walks by one evening that I finally understand why she told people not to call the police on the kids loitering around the smoke shop because teens of color are usually targeted, and it becomes a way to round them up. Or why it would make sense to legalize marijuana and sex work because criminalizing them gives more reasons to lock people up when all they’re doing is trying to live, to cope.
Last week we were walking home from the grocery store, and I heard someone yelling. I turned around to see a Black man running towards us, holding something bright blue. He thrust it towards us, and I said, “Oh, thank you!” and to my son, “Mark, you forgot your umbrella!”
The man’s eyes are like those of a 9-year-old boy’s, and I say something trying to figure out what to do next, and he says, “I was panhandling outside the store,” and that was all I needed, so I fish around in my wallet and hand him a 5 dollar bill, and I look into his eyes, trying to erase everything I’d learned before and see him for him, and I say, “Thank you for your time,” and he takes it, looking down and says, “God bless you all,” and I feel dirty, like a Tammany Hall mayor, to live in a world where a grown man can tell you God bless you because you gave him a 5 dollar bill.
And I feel sick about my privilege, and I think I have to give away everything I own to make it better but even this would never make it right, and then I start to see how many people don’t feel this way, don’t feel this way at all, and in fact, feel the opposite, and I want to hide from this mess, to run away so I won’t be crushed by the massiveness of this hate, this despair, this rage, this disaster.
To be a child again, to go back to when I didn’t see any of this, before I noticed how some people were treated like animals, before I felt the dread, before I knew I was part of it, before I saw how it gouged deep canyons into our society, gorges so tall and steep, so rough and craggy you don’t dare to try to climb out.
But I cannot go back. I cannot curl up into a ball and roll back to a place where everything is smooth and soft. I must not let myself. It will never feel okay to be okay with this. And it’s okay not to feel okay. Humans are not meant to feel constant comfort and ease — we are meant to feel anguish and joy, grief and elation, struggle and triumph. We are not meant to collapse like roly-polies into little balls, winding into little gulleys until the scary guys go away.
“Black Lives Matter, huh?” an African-American man says to 6-year-old Diana, who is holding her hand-made sign as we all wait for the Metro shuttle bus in a patch of grass on Connecticut Avenue. Diana looks at him with her pug nose and brown eyes and nods.
He tells us he was at a Juneteenth march that morning, and I tell him about ours, and I feel weird about it because I feel so white and new, and on the bus, we realize he is good friends with my son’s middle school coach, and that his kids graduated from my daughters’ high school.
He mentions that he lives near the zoo, but on the other side of Rock Creek Park, which he said divides D.C. from rich and poor, white and Black, good schools and “bad” schools, and I say, I know. He went to the zoo so many times when he was little that he says he doesn’t want to go anymore — he’s all zoo-ed out, and I laugh and it feels good to laugh with him, and he tells us how he hears the lions roaring every morning, and how he wonders “if those bad boys will get out one day,” and I used to be afraid of lions escaping the zoo and jumping through my window too.
One time a few years ago I served jury duty with a group of Black and white people from all different neighborhoods over the city. By the end of the week and a half, we felt like a band of oddball cousins, eating lunch together, sharing boxes of doughnuts, and lending each other Metro cards. We cut each other slack when some of us were late, we knew each other’s quirks — Chelsea was addicted to chapstick, Rebecca packed avocado sandwiches, and Mattie stayed awake with Hot Tamales because she had quit coffee. We weren’t allowed to talk about the case, so we talked about everything else — how yellow dye #5 is made with toxic waste, whether selfies make noses look 30% wider, and why not to drink tequila in tattoo parlors.
I want to be in the room together. Not on opposite sides of the court. American life makes it so easy to separate. Thank you God for jury duty, post offices, public schools, protests, and city buses. Please help me find more ways to sit across a table and laugh about tattoos on butts and lions roaring in the morning. I want to be riding the same bus — not walking past each other on the street, exchanging cash, or looking at one another from opposite sides of the gorge.
Seek out people of color to learn from — yoga teachers, writers, academics, film-makers, meditation teachers. Don’t fall into easy grooves, limiting my circles to people who sound like me, think like me, look like me, and grew up with the same advantages as me. Remember how reaching out a hand feels better than sitting on it. Be brave, be kind, and know that you are capable of holding big terrible beautiful things.
This week I watched the documentary 13th with my 16-year-old daughter Virginia. I highly recommend this powerful film about how America has come to have 25% of the world’s prisoners even though it only makes up 5% of the global population. The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that slavery is outlawed “except as the punishment for crime.” It’s now showing for free on Netflix and YouTube.
I look at the protest signs tossed on the foyer table after our first march, and I feel ashamed that I carried mine for 3 hours. My children — 12, 9, and 6 years old — easily adopted Black Lives Matter messages, writing in orange crayon, pink highlighter, and smeared pencil “End Police Brutality,” “Silence is Violence,” and “Justice for Breonna Taylor.” But I wanted to say something that felt like it came from me.
“We Are All One Human Family” got rejected by my daughters Virginia, 16, and Sofia, 18, who attend a diverse D.C. public high school. “It’s cliché,” they said, and would be interpreted as wishing away the problem.
“What about “Compassion”? Condescending, they said, because it sounds like you can do something that others can’t.
“If You’re Not With Us, You’re Against Us,” Virginia suggested, or “To Be Silent is to Be Complicit.” But for me to hold these words up high would be like accusing other White people of the same crimes I have committed my whole life.
The night before the march, I type in my Google search bar, “black lives matters signs for white people.”
When Sofia and Virginia were 13 and 15 years old, they went to the Women’s March and the People’s Climate March in 2017, making elaborate posters and dressing in countercultural outfits, make-up, and hairstyles. There were so many marches in D.C. that year that people started saying that protest was the new brunch. But I stayed home, using my responsibilities to the family to shield my disengagement.
I was afraid if I opened up to massive global problems and terrible pain that I would be swallowed up by emotions and burdens that I couldn’t handle. But I have since learned that it doesn’t work this way — when I open myself up to the suffering of others, it opens a place in me too, a source of strength and wisdom that is both of me and not of me, that can handle big things, that can feel both grief and joy.
In the garage I find a box that had once carried 50 long-stemmed red roses from my husband, and begin dividing it up. “Diana, can you run and get some newspapers?” I ask, shaking up a half-empty can of white spray paint.
Everyone wants a chance with the spray can and then the brush, and we finish painting the cardboard panels 2 hours after the 7pm curfew imposed by the mayor after protests took violent turns on Sunday and Monday. After I get the children in bed, I lean the boards up against the porch columns to dry.
We had talked as a family around the dinner table about George Floyd and the history of racism and agreed to make weekly donations to support good causes. The kids made Black Lives Matter signs and taped them to telephone poles around the neighborhood. But I know that if I let my support stop here, it would feel like a betrayal.
We put on our fabric masks and squeeze into a mixed crowd of mostly young people in the plaza before Bloomingdales, below Neiman Marcus, both of which are boarded up, glass bits still sprinkled on the ground. This is the first time in nearly 3 months that we have been with anyone outside of our family.
Young Black women make speeches about how their great-grandmothers were slaves and sharecroppers, how their parents worry they will get arrested for being out after dark, how people devalue and degrade them every day, and how tired and fed up and frustrated they are. But they are also happy, grateful to see us here, hopeful that maybe something will change this time.
The painted corrugated cardboard didn’t accept markers or Sharpies, so I had colored in my lettering with crayons and pencils. “Racism is making us sick,” is what I had finally settled on for one side of my sign, a rephrasing of the iconic, “Racism is the true pandemic.” On the other side, “Racism is infecting our society.”
Without realizing what was happening, that part of myself that needs to feel propped up started thinking things like, “Maybe I’ve written something so clever people will stop and think, maybe they’ll take photos, maybe one will end up in the media.” But I don’t catch this voice in time, and it weasels its way in and out of my experience of the march.
The crowd spills into the street, and sirens and blue police escort lights flash. Someone way ahead calls, “No Justice!” and a chorus erupts shouting, “No Peace!” As the front of the protest stretches out far from us and becomes a faint rumble, a marcher closer to us screams, “Say his name!” and people yell in response, “George Floyd!” We join in too, and I hold Diana’s hand so we won’t get separated, and I see Mark and Luke holding their signs, looking ahead, walking and yelling, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!”
Employees from stores and restaurants along the way, some that were looted only days before, are handing out bottles of water from coolers. People come out from their workplaces in scrubs and aprons, taking pictures and watching, and sometimes I can’t yell because my throat gets swollen and scratchy and I don’t know why but I feel sad and happy and lost and found all at once.
There is a heart-opening pose in yoga called broken wing. You bend one arm up behind your back and then you lie on top of it with your chest toward the sky.
I always thought that I was supposed to fly — to be strong, proud, high above. I tried to build myself up so I felt big and nothing too upsetting could enter. But I didn’t realize that closing my heart to the world also closed it to my deepest self, which is part of the world and therefore in contact with all that is truly wise, creative, and powerful.
If I am to remain in touch with my deep self and my strength, I now know that I must keep sorrow in my left hand. Feeling where my wing has been broken opens my heart to myself and others. We are meant to be compassionate. This is our true and most powerful nature.
“But I saw mostly white people,” Diana says, as we begin the 2-mile walk back home. Black people were leading the protest and occasionally among the crowd, but this was a march purposely organized in a White affluent neighborhood because it’s those “who benefit from systemic oppression,” as it said on the announcement, that need the message the most.
I want to be the young women and men of color saying eloquent and courageous things, talking truth loudly, being heard and seen. How does this make sense when everything they are saying is about how hard it is to grow up Black in America, how humiliating and demeaning and discouraging?
But they are shining through now with their strength, their truth, their vulnerability. I feel guilty and soft. What have I overcome? My life has been one of comfort and privilege, made difficult only by how I have sabotaged myself.
We have vowed to do more than this 2-hour march, these chants, these 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence for George Floyd’s killing, but I know it will be hard to do what they are asking: talk to other White people, have difficult conversations, be pro-active, be vocal.
Will people not want to be around me if I do? Focusing on the suffering of people of color invariably leads me back to how I have been complicit and the shame about how I have paid for my peace. But this thinking brings the question to me and my small self again. Allowing my fear of exclusion to shape my behavior is precisely what makes it possible for some people to avoid exclusion and others to endure it.
Back home with empty smoothie cups and aching feet, we toss our signs on the foyer table. On top of the earnest, unquestioning signs of my children is mine: I wish I could erase it. Why did I have to feel so unique?
My sign had became another way of crafting an image of myself. And from a position of simply looking out through my eyes, I had swerved around like a movie camera, trying to imagine how other people would see me.
And for a night, I think I have done the protest wrong.
But I don’t want this to be my last protest because I have collapsed into self-recrimination. What if I really am needed here? What good are my rigid standards then if they prevent me from helping, however imperfectly?
People always talk about how not failing means you’re not trying hard enough. But how can you welcome failure when you’ve equated success with acceptance, and failure with banishment?
Two days later, on Saturday, I go to another protest, this time with Virginia at the Lincoln Memorial, and I make a new sign. On one side, a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. — “A Riot is the Language of the Unheard” — and the other, “Black Lives Matter.”
I feel a little less self-conscious, a little more part of it, a little more sobered about how difficult this work is going to be.
My biases are so ingrained. I will have to dismantle over and over again my assumptions about people of color. I will have to retrain my mind. I will need to devote time to learning, listening, reading, following new voices, and acting.
Racism is like a virus and it has infected our society. As babies we are born into a world where it is already running rampant. It is not our fault, but as we grow and open our eyes, it will be harder and harder to allow some wings to be broken and others to be left alone to fly.