It is early morning dark.
A star or two smile through the light pollution of white street lamps, the domed blaze of home security floods, and even the lunar sliver of light curled above. Dog and me crunch brown, red, and yellow leaves, some the size of a catcher’s mitt, in the historic cemetery where no one has been buried for a hundred years. Old, pale gravestones the color of the moon, are tongues rising up from the lumpy ground that wag left and right, forward and back and talk in whispers.
Even this early there is enough noise to wake the dead.
A garbage truck ramps its gears from one to three, a school bus lets loose the yellow blimp’s distinctive flatulence, the car with the bad muffler that heads to work the same time each day, and that dog with an emphysema bark that yaps at us from the other side of the street. But we disappear into the cemetery and pull an invisible curtain of quiet behind us.
I wish people could visit one another’s thoughts. Just fly in for a small look, then zoom out again. If only we could do it, leave no footprint or debris behind, but peek in on a few special people to determine whether or not we are crazy. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel the need for verification.
It is the angels that raise this question.
It is those angels of my better nature as much, if not more, than the darker ones that concern me. They whisper loudly in the echo chamber and lithely dance the tango on the tiniest of nerves. Most of the time I do not know which to believe, or even if any of them are trustworthy. I know for a fact that memories have been switched before, changed to conceal the guilty and sometimes to indict the innocent. They also lay blame-traps for other people to step in, and hold elections about things for which they don’t even have a vote. That rowdy crowd of voices would just as soon be in charge instead of me, and doggone if I do not always know which of us is.
But the cemetery is quiet. Only the ghosts of other people, and long ago ones at that.
Dog wants to get off leash and run crazy eights or chase the posse of bold squirrels that sashay around the cemetery making noise in the leaves, knowing she could never catch them. Her unadulterated joy of smelling everything sweet or nasty, and sheer delight in whatever moment she is in, causes me to suspect there are not angels lurking in her mind. Just whatever is there within the reach of her senses, and that appears to be enough for happiness.
Oh, to be a dog some days, with a nose that works, and soft, floppy ears that hear everything, but instinctively know what to pay attention to and what is mere distraction.
When I was in seminary there was a guy who had a fat, furry cat in his third floor dorm room, and it would rest on the windowsill of the open window swishing its tail back and forth all day. It was a great view overlooking the quad on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a location few if any of us would ever be able to afford in later life.
One day the cat fell.
No one knew how or why but someone saw it from below. As cats do when they drop, it landed on its feet. Still, the distance was great and the cat was in shock and damaged. It wobbled and limped to the front door of the massive brick building where someone let it in. Once inside, the cat made it to the first landing where it curled up in the corner. There it stayed.
For days, maybe longer, it remained in the corner sleeping or unconscious, we weren’t quite certain. I don’t know why the owner left it there but he did, placing a small bowl of water and food next to it. There were plenty of jokes and guffaws, as well as head shaking and earnest concern about the poor animal, sometimes coming from the same person. Nonetheless, the cat remained in the corner until one day it didn’t.
Suddenly it wasn’t there any more. One day it just got up, good as new, and proceeded up the stairs back to it’s owners room and the windowsill. It is the kind of thing that gives the myth of nine lives its legs.
Since the election I have been like that cat, and I suspect many of you have been as well. My news intake is minimal, just headlines and snippets of NPR. I do other things, and focus my attention elsewhere, and above all, refuse and dismiss the Facebook crap about Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and whatever else is related to them.
I can feel myself trying to heal, and in the healing seek some understanding. Pushing the borders of my peripheral vision and sharpening the clarity of what I see in front of me is all part of it too. I know there is a storm gathering and I want to be both grounded and healthy when it comes time to weather it, and maybe even fly a kite.
On a recent morning, cup of coffee in hand, sitting on my bench in the meadow behind my house, dog chewing her most recent stick acquisition, I counted the bird songs. I was remembering how to listen to the world all around rather than only to things that had to do with me.
The window air conditioner unit above my left ear went on and off, and when it ceased the sounds of the birds became even more vibrant. I was aware of traffic noise on the other side of houses and trees, some hundred and fifty yards away or more. There were insect sounds as well, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what they were
I counted different bird songs at first. Then I counted again and heard seven, then eight. Yes, eight, I thought to myself then heard another on that I realized had been there all along. It was a Mourning Dove.
Suddenly I realized that for the entire time I had been listening, the soft mournful coo of the dove had been sounding underneath all the other sounds. She was still there, no they were still there! One was to my left and one to my right, and one somewhere off in the distance behind me. They were offering their rhythmic chorus as if doo-wop singers behind the crooners out front.
The voice of God is like that, only I am not so sure it is a voice.
God might be more like the Mourning Dove’s song than a human voice. The sound of it is there all along, always. It is sounding even now, right now, but we have difficulty hearing it underneath all the other noises competing with one another in our head, not to mention the cacophony in the field around us.
The key is listening to the world all around us rather than only what has to do with us. Sooner or later, if we do, God’s song will bleed though.
Spiritual practice has been commoditized and commercialized, because that is what happens to everything in an economic culture. One result is that we imagine we have to buy a program to ‘become spiritual.’ In addition to the more traditional corner stores with names like church, mosque, and temple, there are other programs that promise to ‘make us spiritual’: yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Centering Prayer, walking a labyrinth Tai Chi, to name but a few. Each of these has something to offer but truly the common practice of listening to the world all around rather than only what has to do with us, will take us a long way down the path.
In dim light and thick air, when heavy emotions wet the atmosphere as life leaves the human body, there is an exquisite holiness equally awesome to the moment when a mother in labor crowns and the head of new life appears. Both moments, death and birth, bulge with Life.
Call me crazy, but I consider it the most blessed share of my work to have been present with so many people at the time of their dying and death. Being present with my own parents of course put this appreciation of the death experience to the test. But even the unique and horrid pain of personal grief has not diminished my sense of death’s blessedness.
I once spent hours in a closed off hospital utility room of a busy urban ER with the family of a suddenly deceased Native American patriarch as they undressed his body, washed it for burial, and redressed it again. Such a sudden death ushers in unique dynamics but also shares common threads with those who walk with their loved ones across days or even weeks of steady decline towards lifelessness. Every death, no matter how it happens, holds a kind of holiness if we are able to open ourselves to it.
What I have observed is this: death brings life into focus with such crystalline clarity that no other experience, not even birth, offers such vast perspective. At death, whether sudden or crawling slowly toward it, we are faced with our own fate and that of all life. No matter how great or small, wealthy or poor, beautiful and strong or mutilated and ugly, death places us all in front of the same mirror.
Standing there, in that moment, we are given an opportunity to wonder about our own lives and what, if anything, we are living for. What is it that we hope others will say about us as they grieve our absence? Although we can never know the full extent of the impact or distance, how far will our own lives ripple out in time, and what unanticipated influence will our lives have on the human ecosystems in which we lived? Death inserts and begs such questions whether or not we dwell on them.
The aftermath of death too, littered in the wake of grief, thins the veil between a strange holiness and us. Grief hits us like a hurricane, all at once, whether we have had time to prepare for a loved ones death or not. After the initial drenching grief comes at us in waves of unequal duration causing us to bob up and down beneath its surface. It lasts longer and wreaks havoc on some more than others. But grief, so far as I know, has only one source of healing: gratitude.
Time may thin the variety of pains associated with grief but its capacity to pull us down beneath its surface is a hazard to those who have not opened themselves to gratitude. Gratitude for life in the presence of death, and gratitude for the gifts and benefits of loving the particular person who has died, coagulates the bleeding of grief and protects the wound so that it can heal even while leaving some scar tissue. Finding a way to bracket grief and declare gratitude in the presence of death begins healing.
Facing our reflection in the mirror of death, and touching gratitude even in the midst of its presence, is a uniquely powerful encounter with Life, and for those who perceive it, the author of Life.
From January 1, 2015 through July 11, 2016 police shot one thousand, five hundred and two people. Slice and dice the facts and figures however you want – and right and left of the political spectrum have been doing just that – if you are African-American you are 2.5 times as likely to be shot by the police if you are White. Likewise, if you are African-American you are five times as likely to be an unarmed victim of a police shooting than if you are White. (Source: The Washington Post, “Aren’t more white people than black people killed by police? Yes, but no.” by Wesley Lowery).
Reverse those numbers and hold it for a moment: What would be happening right now if White Americans were 2.5 times more likely to be shot by the police, and 5 times more likely to be shot while unarmed? Those of us who are White would call it what it is: the targeting of racial violence by those tasked with protecting and serving all people without distinction. We would be shouting with a vengeance that “White Lives Matter!”
The assassination of White officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge does not diminish what is happening, and has always been happening in the larger society, to ordinary citizens. We need an open and candid conversation about racial and class privilege in America.
Power is the ability to influence change, and the resources at our disposal with which to influence change measures the scale of our power. White middle and upper middle class Americans have more power as a result of our privilege than other Americans. How will we use our power?
People with privilege hate to hear it made explicit, and we often go to great lengths to deny our privilege. To acknowledge our power feels like accepting blame for things we haven’t done or imagine are beyond our power to change. One of the ways those of us with privilege deny it is to list our own pain, injuries, and grief on the way to pointing out that privilege didn’t indemnify us from bad things that happened. But the fact is tragedy, disability, abuse, addictions, and loss can visit anyone up and down the socio-economic scale. What privilege does is to often reduce the total impact of the random hazards of life, and speed recovery.
We love to hear stories about people who made it out of poverty against all odds because it makes us feel better, as if to say, “see, they just have to apply themselves more and they can be like us.” But that is a lie we tell ourselves in order not to acknowledge the benefit of starting out on the fifty or even seventy-five yard line when others begin way back in the end zone on the field of social resources.
Those of us with a significant ability to influence change because we are White and middle or upper class, need to be applying that power to change the hearts and minds of other people of privilege. That is where our power is rooted, in our ability to influence our peers and get them to use their power in solidarity with other progressive social forces to force a broader and more equitable distribution of resources – and that includes an especially urgent harnessing of police power.