May 12, 2020-Things Get Better WNIJ Perspective
Fifty years ago, I halted my horse by the mandrakes, far from the house, so my parents would not hear my sobs. I stepped out of the saddle and sat on a maple, newly fallen. The National Guard shot thirteen students at Kent State. Four died. Just because they protested the Vietnam war.
As a toddler, my parents put me to bed before sunset. They left the radio on. I heard the words Castro. Khrushchev. Nuclear missile crisis. Cuba. The bald man Khrushchev shouted to America: “We will bury you.”
My childhood was riddled by assassinations: John F. Kennedy 1963; Malcolm X 1965; Martin Luther King 1968; Robert Kennedy 1968.
Cities burned. Radicals bombed campus buildings. Would there be a United States by the time I grew up?
One plane ride home, I was seated next to a former radical who conspired to incite the 1968 DNC riots, a member of the Chicago 7 who’d become a stockbroker. He exemplified how we learned to get along, how we prospered.
We are afraid that we might carry the virus and kill someone. We are terrified a loved one might die. With people worried about feeding their families and keeping their homes, we might well be on the verge of chaos similar to the 60s. But time has shown that new, surprising things, some good, some terrifying, will find their way to us. Time has shown we can still hope things will get better.
I’m Katie Andraski and that’s my perspective.
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As an adolescent, I thought the country would fly apart, but somehow it hasn’t. It’s a cliche that time makes things better, that time will tell, time heals all wounds, give it time. It sounds lame the way I ended this essay, and yet as the years have rolled on, the country did not fall apart. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act brought improvements for black communities. Many of us tried to behave better towards people of color. As a young girl I read Black Rage which talked about the horrible tropes whites used against blacks. I found I would dissolve one prejudice only to be confronted with another. Books helped. Rachel Simon’s Riding the Bus with My Sister helped me confront my prejudice towards people with intellectual disabilities. I became aware and worked on treating people better. My students and Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros helped me understand hispanic culture. The book helped me have more compassion for my mother in law as well.
To be honest I was surprised the country settled down. I was able to do those things I looked forward to. I went to college, grad school, had a career in publishing, got married, and wound up teaching at a university. I was grateful to help young people from difficult neighborhoods in Chicago begin to learn to write. The work was an answer to my longing–how can I help when I was a young girl watching Civil Rights demonstrations on television in the sixties.
It’s funny how the beginning of May I feel a little sick to my stomach, headachy, anxious. I don’t know if it’s an emotional echo from my lament over Kent State, or if it’s from some other trauma that I don’t remember or if the change in trees from bare limbs to the fireworks of growing leaves, leaves me uneasy, anxious. Even as a young person, May seemed like a tired month because finishing school and exams loomed. I remember crying in the two weeks leading up to my brother’s death. It was as if my body knew a major loss was coming my way.
I Asked For Wisdom WNIJ Perspective–June 16, 2020
“Could you send us an article?” Andrew Sullivan, the editor of the New Republic at the time, asked in a phone call. He was responding to a letter about how as a college instructor, I’d observed that I wasn’t sure young black men wanted to take advantage of the academic help being offered. I kept my voice calm. “Sure,” I said. Maybe this was my big break.
My writer’s group would have said, you can’t say that racist thing, but I’d quit going. Sullivan did not berate me. He ignored me. When I called to follow up, his assistant said they’d passed. I tremble to think how I’d be treated these days.
I was awkward with the young man I wrote about. I misunderstood somethings he said, and his past interaction with another student unsettled me. I am sure I said things wrong when I spoke to my department chair. But he worked with me.
Yes I had racist opinions born of the mug shots on TV. How did I overcome them? People like Andrew Sullivan, my chair, and my students did not cancel me. At times my students did what Robin DiAngelo in White Fragility encourages, they confronted me. I stood, red faced, in front of the class, apologizing for stereotyping, for forgetting their names.
But mostly I sat in front of those classes, as a rich white lady, not pretending to be someone else, and they sat around me, young people with rich stories to tell, with much to teach me about their lives. I asked for wisdom. They gave it.
I’m Katie Andraski and that’s my perspective.
If you’d like to hear me read this click here.
When I wrote about Kent State, my biggest worry was when our state would open up, so we could go back to church and maybe start having lunch with friends. All that has changed as the tinder of lost jobs, being cooped up, and chronic racial injustice, was lit by George Floyd’s death.
I have no words. To be honest I don’t want to add to the noise. Sometimes silence and presence are the best gifts a person can offer. I wonder what would happen if we sat in silence. In each other’s presence. I wonder what kind of softening might happen?
But I also can’t help but think of the following:
David French in “There’s a Question my Confederate Brothers Taught Me to Ask” quoted Ta-Nehisi Coates: “This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t have and then ask, ‘Why?’
“This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking ‘Why?’ The fact that we — and I mean all of us, black and white — are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling. The upshot of all my black nationalist study was terrifying — give us the guns and boats and we would do the same thing. There is nothing particularly noble about black skin. And to our present business it is equally chilling to understand that the obstacles facing poor black kids can’t be surmounted by an advice column.”
Coates got my hackles up when I read his book: Between the World and Me because he was so dogmatic about how American institutions are racist, but when I listened to him on On Being, when I heard his voice, I was struck by his humility because he did not try to answer questions that were outside his wheelhouse. I could hear him better than I could when reading his book. His voice was like well smoothed oak. I would have followed him anywhere.
The above words speak to all of our humanity, how we are all no better than slave masters, and calls us to recognize our own darkness. When we do that, when we confess our sins, I think we can find a way to change and maybe to find forgiveness and find a way to work together to fix what’s not working in our country.
Because we had heavy spring rains I thought about the following passage from the prophet Hosea 6:1–3 (ESV):
6 “Come, let us return to the LORD;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
3 Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.”
Right now it seems as though we are being torn up between the pandemic and the protests and how deeply polarized we are as a country. People are being losing their jobs because they said the wrong thing or are related to the wrong person. Several American cities endured looting. Locusts have attacked west Africa. Typhoons have hit India and Bangladesh. The whole world has shut down because of the pandemic and people are starving because they can’t work. The Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities are being kept in gulags in China. The cartels apparently run Mexico. We aren’t tending to the environment like we should. And these ways the world is broken are only what I’m aware of.
In reading many of the biblical prophets I have noticed how there is often hope for God’s return placed smack dab in the dire predictions about Israel being destroyed because they got comfortable and pursued other gods. We too have gotten very comfortable. God warns the children of Israel that when they settled in the land, they would prosper and forget him. It seems as though that is what has happened to us as a culture. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says in his Covenant and Conversation Exodus: The Book of Redemption, “The oldest and most tragic phenomenon in history is that empires, which once bestrode the narrow world like a colossus, eventually decline and disappear. Freedom becomes individualism–‘each doing what is right in their own eyes,’ and individualism becomes chaos, chaos becomes he search for order, and the search for order becomes a new tyranny imposing its will by the use of force” (81). Right now it seems like we are in the chaotic stage. I know I am longing for a strong, charismatic leader to unite us and pull us out of this tailspin, but such a leader might be the end of our republic as we know it. Already our presidents have been too easy with executive orders because Congress refuses to legislate.
Here the third day could refer to Christ’s resurrection, which holds the promise that we too will be resurrected. Maybe these days also indicate our spiritual motion, that we get struck down, work through dark nights of the soul, but then we are revived. The sun begins to push that darkness into twilight and then dawn. Maybe “he will revive us” talks about our own spiritual waking up. We will be revived like Ezekial’s valley of dry bones, our sinews knitting the bones together, and then overlaid with muscle and flesh, and God blowing his breath into us.
And then we are raised out of the sleep of sorrow and being broken and dry bones, we climb out of that bed, and live before God. We need to “press on, press on to know the Lord.” Maybe we need to focus on how his glory fills the earth from the barn swallows that sit in the dry dust and swoop around the barn rafters, to the magnificent rising and setting of the sun and moon. Maybe we need to listen for how the birds waken the day and fill the fields with their song, and listen to the wind, wild as the spirit, shaking leaves on the trees. There is promise here that God will come to us like the rain, a promise we can hold in our hearts and in our bodies and our prayers, despite the turmoil.
Finally Why I’m Silent here
I’ve been quiet here on the blog because I have turned my attention to working on a sort of memoir that may never see the light of day, but that is insisting I write it. This spring Laura Munson offered a free journal writing class on Fridays, so I got a sense of what she is like as a teacher. She said that because her Haven retreats have been cancelled she is free to work with authors individually, so I took her up on that offer. Unlike many writers I have worked with, she gets what I’m trying to do with my work and has given me a vision for how I can shape essays that I’ve already written into a book somewhat like When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. It’s been a long time since I looked forward to working on a longer project than a blog. When I finish this memoir I hope to turn to novel sequels.
Since I have gone blank with public words and still want to keep in touch, I may post pictures from around the farm and leave it at that. There are farm things to share. At any rate thank you for reading this. Let me know what you think.
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