Pain // Power // Protest I

Demonstration against police brutality; view from fire escape window, Inwood.

One of innumerable worldwide protests provoked by the 25 May murder of George Floyd. Officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department was primarily responsible; Floyd lay handcuffed, on the ground, while Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for approximately eight minutes, although the victim protested repeatedly. Chauvin was responsible for training the other two officers on the scene, both of whom were in their first week of active duty.

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Photo Credit: Tom Steinmetz

How does it feel / to be on your own / with no direction home / a complete unknown / just like a rolling stone?

I am terribly alight with rage, so laden with sorrow—sometimes in passing, other times for days, weeks, longer (I don’t know what proportion of my days are spent this way, because I have never wanted to know, and because depression makes record-keeping pretty much impossible). These feelings don’t preclude joy, satisfaction, and other pleasurable sensations in my life, but even on my affections, I have always felt the lurking presence of this emotional intensity, a full-tilt sensitivity that marked me as a freak. For the majority of my life, I felt positive that eventually, inevitably, I was gonna overflow.

My emotions rioted throughout high school and college, even when I accomplished impressive things, leaving me bankrupt of hope that I was anything but broken. Had to be. Whenever I stared into the chasm between the world as I knew it and the way it seemed to exist for other people, vertigo threatened whatever momentary poise I’d managed to achieve. Why the hell was I so unstable? Was I as unhappy as I seemed? Was I responsible for sabotaging myself every step of the way?

Because come on. I came from the U.S. of A.! The capitol, at that, of the Leader of the Free World! My textbooks, TV, our magazines and newspapers constantly reminded us that this was the greatest country in the world, peopled by generous and humble spirits committed to uplift others unlucky enough to be born into poverty and repressive states.

U. S. A.! We were the safe space, the nation who warmly welcomed immigrants like our grandparents, great-grandparents &c. had been; we were mosaic and melting pot. We not only helped people by freely offering citizenship, but also by challenging oppressive regimes abroad. Through our assistance, people around the world could have their own democracies like ours, which was of course the only reasonable, just form of government.

Yet something was very wrong. I felt it everywhere I went, a phantom twin following me everywhere. My supportive parents were baffled, and we agreed I should go to boarding school all the way in Western Massachusetts.

This broadened my horizons in several ways. For one, I lived in the New England countryside, in the Berkshire Mountains, which was several ecosystems away from the DC I knew. I was sleeping away from home, living in a work-study environment, in an alternative school that was closer to a small college than a public high school—with only 180 students and a pretty radical faculty. The people were incredible; they plus the program plus the environment helped me to become happier and healthier in a more sustained way than I had ever been. Yet I still found myself weeping too often, and I couldn’t say why.

Although Buxton (the name of said school) was teensy, students from around the world found their way there. China, Mexico, Spain, and Eritrea are three of the countries our student body represented during my tenure. That made our microcosm, in some ways, exponentially bigger than the overriding provincialism governing the lauded public school of over 1,000 students that I’d left behind in D.C. (In all fairness, most kids I knew thrived at Wilson Senior High. Only a couple I knew dropped out, and only a couple committed suicide.)

One afternoon at Buxton, during a free period, I was lurking around my friend Victor, a tall dark-haired sweetheart from Barcelona. Although he was transparently into someone else, Victor was a crush of mine for a good while, so I hung around him like a little sister with nothing better to do. He kindly indulged me as I asked random questions, most of them about Spain and Spanish language. The afternoon I have in mind, though, I wanted to know his overall impression of how people from the United States seemed to him, compared to people from other parts of the world. Victor considered for a moment, gently cocking his head to the side, before responding, “All Americans are dreamers.”

All Americans are dreamers. To a dreamer, that sure sounded like a compliment. Until Victor elaborated: Americans, he said, have the inexplicable tendency to believe what our politicians tell us, at face value, no less. “Everywhere else in the world,” he shrugged, “we know they’re lying to us, all the time.”

Think about that “dreamer” again. What’s his job? Is he, say, the self-selected “World’s Policeman?” Then, uh, is it great that he has his head in the clouds—while he’s armed to the teeth?

The international friends I made throughout my life were the best caliber of people—and compared to me and my American cohort, all of them comprehensively understood world history and politics. We ‘Muricans who considered ourselves to be radical or liberal, well-travelled and well-read, still seemed fastened to a fairytale of some kind. It had to do with who we were as a people, our quiet complicity, and the subtle advantages we palmed to smooth our passage through life.

Although many of the people I trust for real are outsiders in some way(s), “different” in regards to gender, sexual preference, lifestyle, race, ethnicity, state of mind, politics and how they’re lived. Maybe they get high. Maybe they’ve been to jail. Maybe they’re librarians. Poets laureate. Maybe they’re punk rockers, clowns, or both.

But Americans be Americans, yeah?

So many of us have been believers for so long, it’s hard to completely root out the bullshit, to conceive of growing into anything other than the people we’ve lived as forever. It’s so comfortable remaining in place; we are essentially good people, aren’t we, so how much do we really need to change? Like, aren’t we kind of the best of the bunch, already—and isn’t that—good enough?

If you find yourself asking that question, you already know the answer is NO. No matter how ugly it feels, every time, to suffer the challenge to our familiar worldview, to admit we were wrong once again. That, in fact, we may well have been wrong our entire lives, even while we thought we were living at our most pure.

When the protests started, when the country entered this latest state of upheaval, it felt like the floodgates inside millions of us were thrown open—and that’s terrifying. But of course it is. It should be. The truth of us: We are built on bones, our necks burn with wreaths of ghosts we pretend not to feel, we lie and deny to ourselves and each other every single day—and it’s not working anymore.

At least not for me.

I have largely divested myself of the world the last couple of years, because I burned out giving too much of myself, too much honesty, too much heart, too much forgiveness, and I was broke and broken-hearted and full of pain, and I was causing everyone close to me pain, too. I needed it. I needed to start getting seriously honest about how badly the world of human beings was treating me.

Hell, I don’t want to say any of this. Didn’t mean to say any of this. I had to find out what this post was becoming the hard way, writing through it. And I do mean hard.

There is a kind of recurring doom in the air. I have known this all my life. It’s by no means exclusive to me.

Tell it like it is.

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