Must it always be the flesh of the innocent
To awaken us from time seduction
And bring us vividly to the grace of the present?
–from John Schuler of Kildaire, Illinois, read by Curator and Poet Holly Bass on NPR’s Tell Me More, April 18, 2013.
Yesterday while police in Boston were closing in on the Boston marathon bombing suspects, my husband and I were digging holes for shrubs. We did not read or watch the news. We were not ready. Violence is so indigestible.
Violence is a familiar companion in life, and inevitable, like disappointment and illness. We know this truth but we resist it, sometimes to the point of denial. We don’t have to go to the holocaust for proof of deliberate denial of human horrors. We can pull from our own personal histories. The man beating a woman in the alley beneath an apartment window. The neighbor slamming his three year old against a garage wall. The student assaulting a teacher in her classroom with a knife at 6AM. The rapist climbing over the balcony and into the apartment on a bright spring morning.
“This can’t be happening. Go back to sleep,” I thought, when I heard the woman screaming and the trash cans crashing. And I did. I went back to sleep. In the morning, they were gone but the alley was littered with trash.
“I should call the police. That father is abusing his son, ” I said. My listener advised, “Don’t get involved. You don’t know for sure.” I did eventually call the police but waited far too long.
The teacher felt safe. The school doors were locked. She was well-liked. The morning was young. Her assailant appeared suddenly. She fended him off with her bare hands, grabbing the knife blade and screaming for help. Schools are quiet places at 6AM; help came slowly. She would never be able to forget the incident. She tried to resume her teaching career, to overcome her fears, but it was impossible: Scars covered her hands and arms. I convinced myself I was safe; it didn’t happen to me; it wouldn’t happen to me. Then one day a female student attacked me and tried to get me to react while I backed out of a door way. I called for help. No one came. The student called her mother and grandmother and accused me of choking her. “This couldn’t be happening to me,” I thought. But it did.
The young woman was alone in her apartment. The dogwoods were blooming outside her second story bedroom window, the luscious creamy blossoms an invitation to a glorious day that never happened for her, not for days or months afterwards. Although she lived on a busy downtown city street where sirens were as common as chirping birds in the morning, she had never considered it unsafe to open the balcony sliding glass doors for fresh air. “It wouldn’t happen to her.” But it did.
I once spent a year studying genocide. I looked for clues into how human beings, needful of love and affection and capable of charity, could with deliberate determination march people into excavated ditches and mow them down in mass. Evil apparently resides dormant in all of us and can burst from us when confronted with the right stress ingredients — chemically, biologically, psychologically, culturally. Humans are capable of irrational craziness. In spite of compelling evidence from history and life, I resist this truth — even though I myself have done some nutty things when under stress, nothing unredeemable, mind you, but certainly momentarily irrational.
From reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, Romeo Daillaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil, Immaculee Ilibagiza’s Led by Faith, and Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, I gained this much: we have the power within us to react to violence with amazing courage and creative resistance. Our spirits have the resilience of both passive and active survival and reconstruction. Wiesel could not prevent the holocaust but he could narrate its truth and how love survived although drenched with hate. Daillaire could not prevent Rwandan genocide but he could resist the pulling of United Nations forces from Rwanda. Ilibagiza survived for a year in a locked bathroom under the protection of a courageous man while machete wielding boy soldiers terrorized her ethnic group and searched for her. Powers drew upon her experience as a correspondent to show how individuals risked careers and lives to get the United States government to act against human rights abuses.
I’d like to think all of us act with courage for peace daily, in ways we take entirely for granted. We don’t yell at one another. We accept our failings and forgive one another. We feed one another. We share. We take turns at stop signs. We work for improvement in ourselves, our families, and our community.
When the Boston marathon bombing happened, we could not digest its senseless horror. So we worked in our yard to plant a tree and six shrubs. Herb dug for ten minutes while I rested in a chair; then I dug while he rested. One hole, webbed with three inch roots from a removed red bud tree, had to be twenty inches deep and wide. We used a bishops spade, an adz, a post hole digger, and a chain saw. Ivy and rocks interfered, and fatigue. But we got it done.
This morning we were finally prepared to digest the ongoing news of the aftermath of the Boston bombings. The manhunt is on, one suspect dead, the other on the run. The net closes tighter and tighter. The vision is horrifying, police in protective gear with assault weapons drawn, neighbors hiding indoors. Fear reigns, creepy and all-consuming, like a raging fever.
This afternoon Herb and I will dig up some shrubs and replant them. It’s one of the things we can do until the fever subsides. And it takes us “vividly to the grace of the present.”