“We live in a strange time, so the question at the heart of the matter is pretty simple. Do we respond to fear with exclusion and negative projection and violence? Or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and do our best to respond with love? And with faith in the idea that what seems other is actually not other at all, but just us on a different day.”– George Saunders, in his Man Booker prize acceptance (2017)
I don’t know about you, but I process confusion by getting my ass into a chair and my pencil onto a page. So when the video of the young man staring down the Native Elder surfaced, I watched it and paid close attention to the emotions that rose to the surface in my body. I didn’t respond on social media. In fact, it didn’t take too long for me to stop looking at social media altogether on the issue. I wrote about it in my notebook.
Then the various interpretations of the episode slowly came to light and the stark categories began to soften at the edges. I watched how these new stories unfolded. I read responses. I paid close attention to what my body was telling me. I wrote about it in my notebook.
Of course there was nuance. Of course things were not a simple as they were portrayed at first. No situation ever is. But I had been paying attention to my body, and my body knew the facial expression on the young man from the Catholic school. When I saw the scrap of video in which he stood very close to the older Native man, when I saw that smirk, my chest constricted, I flushed. Because I recognized it. I recognized it as a someone who attended, for one year, a small Catholic high school in the deep south. I recognized it as a former high school teacher.
I recognized the privilege that allows that kind of facial expression. That kind of ability to stand so close to a Native Elder and not give him enough room or respect. The freedom from expected consequences that some segments of our society enjoy, while others are persecuted harshly.
Was there more going on there? Sure. There always is. There were many ways that the situation could have been handled that would have been kinder, more open, more generous. I kept wondering, where were the adults that could have helped those young men contextualize the situation? Where were the chaperones that could have prevented that ugly scene and transformed it into a chance for those young men and that Native Elder to truly meet? There was such an opportunity for recognizing the humanity in each other that was lost. And doubly lost.
When I taught high school, I spent a lot of time choosing novels that I hoped would expand my students’ empathy, help them walk in another’s life for awhile, break down some of the barriers. That’s what literature and poetry does best, it shows us how it is to be another person. I remember how hard it was for my students in a small town in Alaska to really put themselves into the place of Ishmeal Beah in A Long Way Gone or Amir in The Kite Runner. But when they succeeded, the transformation was permanent. They could not go back to their own small lives without carrying some of the lives of other people who were different than them…. and the same as them.
When I write, I try to offer my reader that same chance to step into the poem. “Did you lose someone to Alzheimer’s? Was it like this?” I offered in Every Atom. “Are you lost and looking for the way some god might be all around you? Does it feel this way?” I wondered in Boundaries.
Recently, I look at my new poems and think I am asking, “Do you love the world? Are you open to the way the crow flies across the cold sand? Are you willing to listen for the soft compression of wings on air?”
“Are you ready to have faith that what you call other is only you on a different day?”