Introduction: Simply Unfinished
We are told there were plans to find and kill Vice President Michael Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the twin demons that day of the mythology of these poor benighted, rioting souls. But, a quick-thinking Black Capitol police officer had the wits to stall the crowd until senators, representatives, and staff could be spirited away into hiding. Whatever the plans of the faux Gothic hordes might have been, once they had broken the windows of the Capitol, breached the doors, and poured into the gloriously high-ceiled rotunda, it was as if many of them were overcome, stunned, almost silenced, by the majesty and truth of it all. There were five deaths, and each one deserves to be lamented and mourned, but there were far fewer injuries than there might have been. The almost-insurrection, spurred on by irresponsible speeches from the former president and his friends, devolved into a gaggle of post-adolescents gawking at statues, putting their feet on desks, strewing papers on the floor. We’re told the truly crazy smeared shit on a couple of statues, but, for the most part, the aftermath, which Capitol workers and Congressman Andy Kim quickly moved to clean up, resembled nothing quite so much as the trash that spectators, heading home for turkey, leave behind at the end of the Macy’s parade.
We went in just two weeks from the horror and despair of insurrection to the healing normality of a very ordinary, very kind, very longtime politician raising his right hand and promising to bring democracy, unity, and hope back to the United States. Best of all, he said it quietly, comfortably. We were almost bored. We were definitely relieved. There was nothing especially new or striking or strident or exciting about this newest president or about his inauguration speech. Thank heavens.
What does the future hold? Horror or peace? Despair or comfort? Unity or more and more distance and disunion? We cannot know. Not yet. We can only hope. The achingly lovely contributions to this special Persimmon Tree section have many purposes. They give us the hope we are looking for. They suggest paths we can take, things we can do, to make that hope a reality. They recall and recast and recite events so we will not forget them, so they can become for us the past we must build on in order to create a better future. They explain and analyze. And, most importantly, they transform events from the dread and dismay of January 6, even from the normality of everyday, into the ineffable immediacy of art.
Space in this special section was limited. We are grateful to every contributor – both the relatively few whose work we are able to publish and the many we cannot, though those, too, are beautiful, deserving, and meaningful. Thanks also to the editors of Persimmon Tree who gave of their time to get this published promptly – and as accurately as we could. And special gratitude to you, Persimmon Tree‘s readers and donors. Without you, none of this would be possible.
The Elephant in the Zoom
2:20 pm Wednesday, January 6, 2021
I disconnected the phone and relaxed in the glow of a great call-in session with Karen, my octogenarian therapist. We were both pleased that Reverend Warnock had won his Senate seat in Georgia. Jon Ossoff’s election results, we hoped, would be called soon. What a difference it could make for both houses of Congress to be Democratic. Perhaps President Biden, along with Vice President Harris, could restore security, sanity, and serenity to our government and country. As I sat in my deceased mother’s rocking chair, placed strategically near a southeast window so that if sun broke through the oppressively stubborn New York gray winter clouds, I could bask in its glisk.*
I checked a news feed on my phone, expecting to read that Ossoff had been elected. Immediately, I reached for the remote, turned on the television and watched with incredulity.
“What’s going on?” My voice cracked and tears welled as I spoke to a friend. I needed confirmation that what I was viewing on a cable news network was real.
“The Capitol is being attacked,” she replied. “Can’t talk now. I’ve got to watch.”
As I witnessed throngs of mostly white men, many wearing Trump regalia, others carrying Trump flags, and yet others carrying other paraphernalia, I thought, “White men are behaving badly. No person of color could get away with what’s going on. There’d be a trail of bodies everywhere.”
Last November, I conducted a month-long anti-racist workshop with members of my church’s adult spiritual foundation group. It was based on our reading of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Anti-Racist. Most sessions, I was the only African-American congregant present, and as moderator, asked difficult and uncomfortable questions that sought deeper levels of conversation and disclosure about how racism affected the lives of both whites and people of color. We were all well-educated, liberal progressive Episcopalians, and our discussions were polite yet fraught with tension. One evening, tired of tiptoeing around the elephant in our Zoom meeting, I admitted I could intellectually understand white privilege, but that, as an African-American woman, I’d never experienced it. I asked, “Could someone explain an experience with white privilege?” The Zoom session became eerily silent. One person finally spoke about how her father had received the benefits of white privilege when he was able to purchase a house in Levittown, New York, after World War II.
Perfect examples of white privilege unfolded in front of me that Wednesday as I watched television with disgust and alarm. If anyone ever again questioned the existence of white privilege in America, I’d upload videos taken on January 6, 2021, at the Capitol Building.
My 38-year-old son called. “Mom, have you ever seen anything like this before?”
“Not in the first 67 years of my life,” I said. A child of the ‘60s, I’d witnessed the assassinations of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. I’d watched Newark and Watts burn and the debacle of the 1968 Democratic Convention.
I called my friend back. “I’m glad my dad isn’t alive to see this.” My father was part of a group of soldiers who’d help integrate the Armed Forces in 1948 and later served in Viet Nam.
She commiserated with me. “I’m glad Dad isn’t alive either.” Her father of Italian-American descent had fought in World War II.
Our fathers held a deep love for this country. As I cried, I did so for all the men and women who serve and defend our country and who believe in the Constitution. I cried for my African-American sons and other children of color who see clearly what they live every day. I cried for the citizens of other countries who look at America as a land of freedom and opportunity.
Our America is broken.
It will heal. Can we set the break better?
Can we look to the youth as models of change, young men and women who see beyond the color of one’s skin and look into the content of their character? The actions of those young adults who last summer protested peacefully throughout the country after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are what we should use as our guides. The newly elected members of Congress, who include more members of minorities and women, provide hope.
John Lewis wrote an op-ed that The New York Times published after his death. He stated, “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
We know what doesn’t work.
We know who and what does.
America will heal.
I’m willing to address the elephant in the Zoom.
I know I’m not alone.
Walking a Shifting Path
In the earthquake the path disappeared, the steadiness denied. I felt on safe ground in the usual landscape of my life, but the earth opened up to swallow preconceptions. Where there was calm, now there were fires and guns and angry faces. There was the hot, burning wall of hatred rising up to obscure that which I loved – my nation in its many vistas of beauty. The end of a world? My world? And the fear that gripped my vision was that we were being removed, just as the Prophets foretold in every horror story we ever heard. Goodness had a fragile hand. The fist shook at us. A dream? A scream? The path itself was gone, but our feet kept walking.
On Wednesday, September 3, 2020, I am FaceTiming on my laptop with Devorah, a friend I met at a Chanukah celebration a few years ago.
She sends me an email with a website address.
At 9 a.m. my breakfast room is baking from the Arizona heat.
“Click the link,” she demands.
The headline reads, “Israeli security forces killed 27 Palestinians, seven of them minors: one in the Gaza Strip, 23 in the West Bank [including East Jerusalem] and three inside Israel,” B’Tselem, an Israeli Jerusalem-based non-profit organization, said on Monday. (Al Jazeera’s Archives, January 4, 2020.)
I look up at my friend.
“Yes!” Devorah says. “An eye for an eye.”
Startled by the sparkle in her brown eyes and her evil laughter, I say, “How sad. Those poor families.”
After a lifetime of walking on eggshells with my Orthodox Jewish dad, I am speaking up.
Devorah is an Orthodox Jew and a Zionist, a person who supports Israel, a Jewish nation. She obeys the Talmud.
How can she abide by Jewish law when Israeli soldiers defend their borders on Friday evenings when the Sabbath begins, and on Saturdays, our day of rest?
I am a Reform Jew. I do not believe in the observance of Jewish law nor do I keep kosher. I do celebrate Chanukah, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and the High Holy Days.
“You feel sorry for the Palestinians but not for the bombs and air strikes that murder our people? You’re an anti-Semite!” Devora barks. She sends me another email.
Before this moment I was a Zionist, too.
Chest pains restrict my breathing as if shot with a hail of bullets.
I do not want to open Devorah’s email, and should end this conversation right now. Tears fill my eyes.
Yet, my curiosity gets the best of me. I open the email and click the link.
“Do you like this one, better? This is okay with you?” Devora says.
The headline reads, “Rabbi Shai Ohayon stabbed to death by a Palestinian in a suspected terror attack on Wednesday. Cops nab suspect at the scene outside Petah Tikva; victim is a local man, aged 39; assailant said to be 46, father of six, who had a permit to work in Israel. (The Times of Israel, August 26, 2020.)
My grandparents, witnesses to the pogroms in 1900s Odessa, Russia, emigrated to Hester Street in Manhattan. In their rush to arrive in America my Bubbah Celia, five years old, was smuggled aboard a steamer, hidden under her mother’s floor-length skirts. She did not have any papers.
Under the Trump administration she would have been separated at the border from her mother, and placed in a crowded, COVID-ridden, unsanitary cell, with only a concrete floor to sleep on.
Asylum seekers are allowed to apply for citizenship at 328 ports of entry located throughout the United States.
“The right to seek asylum was incorporated into international law following the atrocities of World War II. Congress adopted key provisions of the Geneva Refugee Convention (including the international definition of a refugee) into U.S. immigration law when it passed the Refugee Act of 1980.” (International Rescue Committee, October 22, 2020.)
Devorah and I argue about immigration, too.
She, like many Jews, fears that money the government spends on immigrants to provide health care and food at detention centers will infringe upon her quality of life.
She supports spending billions to build a new border wall even though ICE agents are patrolling 33 checkpoints in Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas.
From 2016 to 2021, instead of providing immigrants a refuge from gang activity, poverty, and genocide occurring in their countries, the Trump administration continued to install policies, frequently in breach of U.S. and international law, to stonewall people from applying for asylum, destroying decades of precedent.
Years of pressure from pro-Israel Washington politicians prompted Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign promises to include moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Devorah, like many American Jews, pledged their undying devotion to Trump.
While many modern American Jews are strongly committed to Israel, I am more concerned with American civil liberties and well-being than with the Israelis.’
As if avoiding a slasher scene in a horror movie, I peek at the screen to see Devorah taking a bite of her bagel and cream cheese. She points a knife at me.
“You are an anti–Semite, anti-Zionist; an enemy of Israel, a lover of Palestine!”
“No, I am not, Devorah. I don’t want anyone to die, Israelis or Palestinians.”
“Those Palestinian women and kids are not innocent,” she snarls at me. “They are hiding bombs under their robes to throw at Israelis.”
“Okay,” I say. “This conversation is over.” I turn off FaceTime and shut down my laptop.
I feel betrayed.
Hurt, horrified, and shocked at Devorah hurling “anti-Semite” accusations at me, I have not spoken to her since our September 3, 2020, FaceTime debacle.
So much has happened since I spoke to Devora.
Conspiracy theorists, election misinformation, COVID deniers, anti-maskers, and division plague our nation.
After months of the Trump administration’s attempt to suppress the vote, and its efforts to cast doubt on our election process, Trump lost to President-Elect Joe Biden.
Despite over 60 federal and state lawsuits the GOP filed in efforts to overturn the Biden-Harris win, all 50 states confirmed the Electoral College votes.
January 6, 2021. On the day the bipartisan Electors from each state were to certify the Biden-Harris win, Trump continued his false claim. “The election was rigged,” he told his armed Stop the Steal supporters minutes before they stormed the Capitol. “And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Five people died. Hundreds were arrested and charged with federal crimes. The FBI is investigating over 300 cases.
January 13, 2021. Citing “Incitement of Insurrection,” the House impeached Donald J. Trump for the second time.
January 15, 2021. According to the CDC, over 390,000 U.S. COVID patients have died. Over 24 million Americans are infected.
January 20, 2021. Homeland security is providing approximately 20,000 National Guard troops to protect the Capitol, President-Elect Joe Biden, and Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris on Inauguration Day.
Does Devorah believe that the election was stolen from Trump?
Does she believe that COVID is a hoax?
The wounds from my FaceTime conversation are raw and continue to fester.
Isolated and sad, I am a herring, swimming in an ocean infested with sharks.
Yet I have found allies with the Christian friends my Orthodox dad had forbidden many years ago.
They understand my pain and are very supportive.
One day, I will forgive Devorah. But, I’m not quite there yet.
Boy Singing: January 6, 2021
The boy came singing down the street,
his voice before him:
one up-and-down line thin and clear
as ice. No melody to trace. Just sound distilled,
austere and intimate, remote and present,
from all the ages: wind harp, priestly chant—
a ghost of longing on the winter air
and promises not yet contained in song.
And then he came in sight. Ten maybe. Ragged coat,
hood flopping back. Hair pressed in tight black commas to his head,
cheeks drawing out the gleam of buried sun.
He shrugged aside old snow in boots too big,
feet pigeon-toed. Seemed not to care where he was going,
only for the singing on his way.
Across the country, voices brawled, rails smashed,
glass clattered; wood, bones, skulls, lungs, old ceremonies
this boy came singing down the street.
Some sacredness cannot be overturned.
When F.D.R. declared December 7,1941
a day that would live in infamy,
I was six years old and sound asleep
but when I heard him quoted on
CNN last week, I was both awake and
mute with disbelief. For hours
I watched and re-watched as mayhem
exploded on the screen,
but when I finally switched the TV off,
instead of going sensibly to bed
I stayed in the darkened room, re-visiting
half a dozen bloodstained pages
in our album of shared grief,
oddly comforted by remembering with each
where I was and what I was doing
when I heard the news.
“This is scary,” Devin, my twenty-nine-year-old daughter, said as we walked the streets of our Midwestern suburb on a frigid January day. “These people are crazy,” she continued. “The election is over.”
“It’s easy to accuse the entire mob,” I said as I slowed my pace up a steep hill. “But things may not be as simple as they seem.”
She fell silent.
“Most of these people were used by a demagogue,” I added.
“Yeah, but, Mom, who follows someone so toxic?” she said.
“You’d be surprised how easy it is to suspend judgment when you’re vulnerable, when you feel desperate. If someone appears with a remedy for all that ails you, it’s easy to get in line. I’ve talked to you about this.”
Devin knows the broad strokes of mistakes I made in my youth, though that part of my life is hard to translate to someone who’s never blindly followed a charismatic personality. Such mindlessness seems reserved for people who lack intelligence or education. I lack neither. But at age twenty-three I followed a magnetic person, a woman who was the center of an idealistic group of liberals eager to right the wrongs of sexism, racism, and poverty.
Lillian was the first person I knew who subscribed to the publications I read: The Nation and Mother Jones. A diminutive woman with an expansive intellect, Lillian inflated my ego: she thought I was smart, and she liked me. Lillian was nearly old enough to be my mother, and her years of experience dwarfed my just-out-of-college naiveté. I was mesmerized.
I reflected on that hypnotic pull to a woman I barely knew. I was a refugee from a family so fractured it was impossible to find even a semblance of security. Since adolescence, I’d been on a survival tour, seeking a landing place, a safe haven where I could breathe deeply and without fear. I had a loose group of friends in college and two strong, short-lived connections. But at twenty-three, I was adrift. I swiftly allied myself with Lillian’s informal collective of people who were bright, funny, and engaging. We marched in peaceful protests on behalf of our causes. After work and on weekends, we attended concerts, partied, and engaged in lofty conversations about changing the world. I’d found a place not unlike my college circle, but with the promise of long-lasting friendships.
“We change the world by starting with ourselves,” Lillian declared during a late-night discussion. “We build connections between each other that create a just community, an honest community.” The room nodded in assent.
“We have to look at our own problems first,” another woman added.
Lillian glared. “I just said that.” We fell silent at the undisguised anger in Lillian’s voice. “If we’re going to start with ourselves,” she said, “maybe you should look at how you compete with me – how you always have to have the last word.”
The other woman stared at her feet. I wondered what was wrong with what she’d said.
“Or not!” Lillian said with a mischievous grin, her countenance making a U-turn. “After all, good ideas can come from competition – and you’re one of the best competitors.”
The room burst into relief, people laughing uncertainly, then, as they saw Lillian relax, their laughter built to a wild crescendo.
By the second year of my friendship with Lillian, I spent holidays and vacations with strangers connected to my new friend. I accepted whomever Lillian accepted. I shunned whom she shunned, whether or not I’d had a previous relationship with the outcast.
I abandoned my few remaining college friends and anyone who questioned the righteousness of the idol I worshipped. I stopped thinking for myself. In the moments in which I privately questioned Lillian, I distorted facts to restore my confidence in her. Not everyone in her orbit was as blindly devoted to Lillian or as obsequious as I, something I couldn’t recognize at the time. The blend of my age and my background created the perfect cocktail of drunken loyalty. To complicate matters I appeared strong, hiding my inner needs, delivering a pitch-perfect performance of a true believer. I, too, knew how to tell someone what she wanted to hear.
When I was twenty-five, I’d migrated so near the epicenter of Lillian’s life that she invited me, along with another friend, to move into her home.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea for me,” I told her. I felt consumed by Lillian, and I couldn’t find the words to express this without insulting her.
“You’re scared,” Lillian said. Her voice was gentle, understanding. “Of people. You don’t even like to have roommates.”
She convinced me I should overcome my standoffishness. I moved into her home with the understanding we would give it a six-month trial.
My boyfriend, who only knew Lillian casually, broke up with me on my birthday, three months later.
“Yes, I know,” Lillian said when I told her of the breakup.
“What? You knew?”
“He told me last week. We had lunch,” she said and opened the newspaper, disappearing behind its pages.
I began to think differently about her. What of loyalty to friends? She had lunch with my boyfriend. And he told her he was dumping me – on my birthday. And she said nothing to me?
Over the next three months, I witnessed Lillian’s hair-trigger temper blossom into tirades about trivial matters: a glass in the sink, a joke she deemed directed at her, a politically incorrect comment. At the end of our six-month trial, I called Lillian from work and told her I needed to find my own place. By the time I reached her house, my clothing and books were wind-blown across the front porch. I was now on Lillian’s blacklist. Two of our friends reached out to me, but I didn’t reciprocate. I was afraid of what Lillian would say about me, and I was afraid she would blacklist these people for coming near me.
For long after, I was ashamed for having turned over my judgment and my future to someone else. Other times, I felt guilty for moving away from Lillian, for having hurt her. Decades later, I believe Lillian was on her own survival tour, one more complicated than mine. It was only when I came to this could I forgive her for shunning me – and forgive myself for suspending my common sense in order to meet my emotional needs.
Like so many who blindly followed the president, I was afraid and in pain when I sought the solace of a tribe. Most Trump followers are not storming the Capitol, but many are afraid. Some fear losing a lifestyle they’ve worked decades to achieve; others fear never being able to establish a middle-class life. And President Trump magnifies the racial and economic divides in our country. He didn’t create these divides, but he conned a pained, largely white population into believing he would soothe their wounds and keep them or make them whole. The dog whistles the president blew may as well have been bullhorns.
As Devin and I turned the corner to our tree-lined street, I broke the silence.
“Believe it or not, there are Trump people on this block who are afraid.”
Devin turned a questioning look to me, telegraphing her doubt.
“Katie told her mother not to put a Trump sign in their yard in November. She said the Black Lives Matter people might burn down their house.” I was referring to neighbors we’ve known for twenty years, people who’ve shared countless dinners and bottles of wine with us, whose daughter, Katie, had played with Devin when they were kids. We’re all white. We’d never discussed the racism that certainly resides in all of us.
“Until we put out the Christmas flag,” I said, “we had a BLM flag flying so long it started to fall apart. What do you think that said to our conservative neighbors – our white family flying that banner?”
Devin nodded, her way of saying she’s thinking about this.
As we opened our door, we looked back across the street at the home of the family we’ve known for most of Devin’s life. The dining room chandelier twinkled in the otherwise darkened house.
“I don’t want the entire January 6 mob arrested,” I said. “There are degrees – people who fomented the unrest and rained violence, and others, whom we may not agree with, but who arrived at the protest not knowing what was in store.”
Forgiving the poor judgment of my youth has opened my mind to why people follow someone when it doesn’t seem to make sense. That forgiveness leads me to believe there likely are many who came to the Capitol who still have a functioning moral compass, people who were as appalled as I was at the sight of the violence.
For Donald Trump, my forgiveness is elusive. Unlike the woman I worshipped when I was twenty-three, the president held no idealistic goals. He sought no solutions for Americans in pain. Altruism never interfered with his life-long mission to serve himself: there’s no evidence of empathy, no compassion tempering what many believe is mental instability. And it appears there are those complicit in the January 6 riot who, likewise, merit no mercy.
I ask myself if I could ever heed a call to storm the Capitol in a violent assault. At age twenty-three maybe I was capable of such extremes, though I hope my neediness never ran that deep.
Nevertheless, my experience with Lillian, a person who generally meant well, showed me I was capable of abdicating my discerning mind, adopting without thought the judgments of another. I learned. I hope for the millions who followed Donald Trump that they, too, learn.
I hope our country’s recent calamity prepares us for a moral future: a stronger, more thoughtful tomorrow, one in which we bring real solace to those in need. Racial and economic justice, which often are interwoven, cannot be achieved in a single moment, not even in a single decade. It took years of introspection to unravel my experience with Lillian. It will take years for our country to mend the divides Donald Trump mirrored and magnified and eventually brought to a violent attack on our Capitol.
It will take years, but this is the time to begin.
With You, Eden, at My Kitchen Table
by a metal beater in an elementary school band.
The trembling drops, clinging to the porch rail,
let go, descending with the grace
of a toe dancer. From a round, Wedgwood blue
cookie tin, we read old letters typed on nearly-
transparent blue airmail stationery.
Reading these letters from across time, across an ocean
with you, I do not dwell on the sufferings of Oma, Opa, Walter,
and Ernst who barely escaped Hitler, or your
great uncle Bernard’s internment in Auschwitz.
Instead, I watch your gray-blue eyes glint
when you come upon typos covered in x’s.
“So that’s where x’ed out comes from,” you remark,
and giggle when you find a “p”
backspaced and typed over to become a “b.”
Eden, I want to X-out the January 6th storming
of the People’s House. I want to backspace and type
over each letter of “6MWE” emblazoned on T-shirts
and hoods, the waving of the Confederate flag,
the breaking of glass, the threats, the gunshots.
I read you a passage written by your great aunt Suzie
where she describes pushing your mother in a wicker
shopping cart along the streets of Golder’s Green,
her curls bobbing, and Teddy the Dog
leaping to lick your mother’s face.
“Aw,” you say, your hands to your heart.
The clouds scud by the windowpanes,
leaving a sea of blue.
Brahms’ Intermezzo in a Minor, Op. 118, No. 1
Repeating our History
Election Day 1920, Orange County, Florida, the county where I grew up. Black groups had been conducting voter registration drives. When Mose Norman, a Black man, tried to vote, a white mob went after him. In the next two days the homes of nearly all of Ocoee’s Black families were destroyed by fire. Some estimates are that the white mob killed as many as 60 Blacks, maybe more.
Researching racial politics of North and South Carolina in the late nineteenth century led me to two events related to Black men trying to vote. No doubt there were many, many more:
November 8, 1898, Phoenix, South Carolina. A white man was collecting affidavits from Black men who had not been allowed to vote. When local Democrats ordered him to stop, he resisted and a fight broke out. The Democrats opened fire on the crowd of Black men who had gathered. Over the next few days between 600 and 1000 white men descended on the town, burning homes, lynching four Black men and killing an unknown number of others. No one was charged with the murders.
November 10, 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina. After the election, a mob of 2000 white supremacists, angry that a Black-white coalition had won the election, destroyed the property of Black citizens, killed as many as 300 people, and overthrew the election. For some time it was called a race riot and blamed on Black citizens of Wilmington, but now is considered to have been a coup d’etat.
Wednesday’s attempted coup followed an election in which Black voters played a major role. It was not just about Trump. Insurrectionists were saying this is a white country and Black citizens’ votes shouldn’t count.
One might almost think white people don’t want Black people to vote.
Postcards from Epiphany, 2021
My soles are worn thin, boots once new—
Women’s March, 2017, D.C., Day 2 of this
nightmare that refuses to end.
These broken-down boots. Every Tuesday
on the corner, cold wind, cold toes, January 5, 2021:
the sign John hands me reads Surrender Donnie
and we laugh. The usual bus driver beeps, passersby
give thumbs up here in Philadelphia where bad things
are alleged to happen, where good things are happening.
Every Wednesday in this Covid year, second graders and I are glued to screens, zoom being education now. January 6: Flee the freeze, snooze through, we discuss how animals prepare for and deal with winter – next week, adaption. Today we stay with hibernation, a video of grizzlies tearing a beached whale sinew from sinew, filling bellies with blubber and meat before each will head into a burrow and sleep until spring. F says she’d eat lots of pasta – M shutting his eyes against the brutality as sharp, white, bear teeth and claws tear flesh – C says hamburgers! Snouts are buried into flanks of a once magnificent beast. I’m buoyant today, filled with hope because in Georgia, the reverend filling MLK’s shoes in the pulpit will be seated in the Senate, and only a thin ligament stretches between win or lose for the last seat and control of the body.
As soon as the kids sign off, I switch to election news, instead of statistics see white angry faces, rampaging, dismantling, outside, inside – sanctuary of democracy, a reporter yells above sounds of tearing, ripping, destroying.
a duly elected congresswoman, workplace under siege, calls a reporter, she says, from a sort of secure location. She says I’m a mother (ragged breath) last night I told my husband where to find my will. She says I was in a more secure location but some of my colleagues from the other side refused to mask so I asked to be moved here – it’s not as safe. Her voice shakes. Deadly virus or deadly mob; she is sailing between Scylla and Charybdis.
Night rolls to the next day without sleep.
January 7: roll out a yoga mat, grateful for zoom.
Ten of us, mothers, sisters, Americans log on
seeking an hour when someone else
will remind us to breathe.
Things to do list:
Buy new boots
Hang on little tomato I say
but to my own heart.
MRI Is Preferable to Insurrection
Look! There’s something on our bare Covid calendar today – my late-afternoon appointment for two successive MRIs, a reminder that the only time we leave the house during the pandemic is for medical appointments, the drive-by pharmacy, and curbside grocery pick-up. January 6 is also Epiphany, our day to take down the Christmas decorations. We are certainly aware that January 6, 2021 is the date Congress – with difficulty – will confirm Joseph Biden’s presidency. Early that morning, we do not know this will be a date, an event, we’ll remember like others in our lifetime, beginning with the assassination of President Kennedy.
We’ve packed away the last baubles when our daughter texts, “Is it true there is rioting in Washington, D.C.?” We turn on the television and watch in horror as Trump supporters storm the Capitol, breaking windows and vandalizing the interior of the citadel of our democracy while terrorizing congressional members who hide under desks with gas masks, before being taken to locked rooms. It’s insurrection; it scares us. We unglue ourselves from this unbelievable attack by our fellow Americans, egged on by a traitorous President, just in time to reach my appointment. I joke lamely on the way that this is the first time I was glad to quit what I was doing to go to an MRI.
I wiggle into the tube and feel warm and swaddled, glad I am not watching more incomprehensible scenes on our TV screen. During two hours I have plenty of time to pray. I pray for our divided nation, I pray that this rebellion will end quickly, I pray that Trump will do the right thing and put an end to this rioting. I pray the divisiveness in our country will end and peace between different points of view will prevail. I pray for the lives of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
In addition to the constant sounds that are tempered by music, jackhammers begin to pound and bowling balls drop from great heights upon the enclosure. The harsh sounds morph into cannon fire as I concentrate on our country’s Revolutionary War. To me there is no comparison between the patriots who sought freedom for our country and these ruthless Americans who are using violence against our nation. I have always tried to understand other political points of view, but I am at a loss to understand and justify what some members of the other party are doing right now. I yearn for the days when one party would win the presidency while the other knew it would have the chance to win in another four years. We shook hands, united under whomever had been elected President.
I am given a break between tests; I hear the television in the waiting room and cringe. As I settle back into the tube, I concentrate on what led to terrible divisiveness between the two parties. Is it the immigrant dispute during the Trump administration, with the building of a wall, separating migrant parents and children, and caging the little ones? My party supports immigration and loving treatment of all people. Was it the disregard shown by the administration towards poor Americans? My party puts people before profits. Surely only a small number of the opposing party think that violence, destruction, and insurrection are the answers in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Justice and peace will prevail. Won’t they?
As a voice announces that I am almost finished, my only thought is: May I stay right here?
moss after the rains
I lived through fire season
masked – afraid
of that orange light
Rose hips dry on the vine
time to write
Fruit and shadows against
the wall of the old school
Pink promise of change
low to the ground – nearly hidden
less than two weeks
Nested – that doll reflects light
hides all else
the paint is toxic
All the greens – one red leaf
distinguish desired from
weeds – rainy season
“This is not who we are”: A Refresher in 10 Bullet Points
. . .
your shadow was long behind you,
burying itself in the grass.
It wanted to be larger than it was.
That was not possible.
It wanted to be smaller than it was.
That was not possible.
It laughed with no regret.
It wanted no forgiveness.
It rested in my bones.
I said it was yours. I told it so.
Your shadow drums its fingers,
holds a club in its hand –
a measure I can never match.
It hangs itself
on the clothesline,
hides in the pockets of your jacket,
calculates its lengthening.
It chokes me with smoke,
seeping behind my eyelids,
stitching its way into dreams.
Its reek, still in cushions and hair
creeps down the hall, spreads under doors.
It still chews on my bones.
It isn’t my shadow, I told you that before.
I will not take it. I will not.
Question and Answer
Question: What do I think of Insurrection?
I cannot bear to hear one more person say, “This is not who we are.” Yes, it is who we are, who we’ve always been – a violent, dangerous, White supremacist nation. From the moment the first colonists stepped ashore we have pillaged, plundered, and murdered our way into nationhood.
We decimated indigenous peoples while we put in place the world’s most destructive and violent system of slavery. At the same time our nation’s founders created the world’s finest Constitution, exalting principles of democratic governance. The hypocrisy is clear.
Among our rules of governance is the Insurrection Act of 1807. I, an 80-year-old Black Georgian woman, am asked what I think of Insurrection: It is a dangerous thing to do. It flies in the face of governing by law.
The laws of this country have often worked against me. I have been denied equal education. I have been redlined. I have been denied the right to vote in a country in which I can trace my ancestry to before this nation was formed. Yet, I believe in the rule of law because the alternative is anarchy, fascism, or some other form of lawlessness that puts power in the hands of an oligarchy and leaves everyone else at the mercy of the mob. On January 6, 2021, we saw what that looks like.
The irony in this inflection point in our history is that many White people are just now experiencing the lived experiences of Black, Asian, Native American, and other non-White American peoples. For centuries angry, disaffected, and often simply racist White people have threatened, maimed, murdered, hanged and destroyed the lives of non-White people. The 1921 Tulsa Massacre is a fine example. The Trail of Tears is another. The internment of Japanese Americans yet another. Need I go on?
My great-great-grandparents, Frederick and Della Baker, were murdered in the 1860s in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, for having the temerity to teach Black people the rudiments of reading and writing. My experiences in my violent homeland are real and personal.
What do I think of insurrection!? I think that individuals in any group that decides to take the law into its own hands, breaks into and damages public property, and tries to subvert the work of a legitimately elected body in the act of doing its job should be prosecuted and, when found guilty, convicted and jailed.
The right question is: Do this nation’s citizens and legislators have the will – the courage – to acknowledge its history, to understand how we got here, and to do what it will take to save this democracy?
On Lincoln’s Poem, “My Childhood-home I See Again”
in southern Indiana’s backwoods, he stops by
the home he turned his back on long ago.
At the split-rail fence, he stares at moldering
leaves strewn across a muddy yard, log cabin in ruins,
feels dark passions, not the ballad he foresaw.
Yet he writes, puts a soft glow on memory,
keeps buried boyhood’s deepest griefs—deaths
of mother and sister, father’s unremitting cruelty.
Sudden images of madness violently erupt:
a schoolmate maimed himself, attacked his father,
nearly killed his mother, became a howling crazy man.
In horror, Lincoln dwells on Matthew’s plight,
more dreadful than death, reason destroyed, imprisoned
for life in mental night, reduced to brutish existence.
Obsessed now, Lincoln confesses he steals out
in dead of night to hear Matthew’s deranged singing,
as if a funeral dirge … of reason dead and gone.
Never again will he enter these tangled woods,
though they writhe and seethe in his mind’s depths
to be contended with, conquered, his burning spirit freed.
At 35 a country lawyer, frontier politician little known,
genius still roughhewn, he takes hold of reason as savior,
only sheer force of mind can propel him forward.
He summons reason’s resources: wily calculation,
folksy humor on the stump, contemplation that forges
suffering into iron will, waits and watches for his time.
Facing the overwhelming tidal wave, he’s ready,
confronts madness in America, asserts reason’s primacy,
his last great saving act before a madman’s bullet kills him.
Living in History
This is what I know: If you’re one of the lucky ones, like I was, you can witness history from the safety of your home. You know you’re living in an important moment, yet you still brush your teeth, fold the laundry, wash the kitchen floor. You can even entertain yourself, escaping into reams of Netflix series or movies on your computer or TV. The features of pandemic life: groceries that are delivered; the plunk of Amazon packages at your door; all part of this history, too, but like the rest of your life, you can safely tuck them inside.
You can forget about history.
But a time comes when history seizes you and breaks into your home.
Your two brothers, both physicians, both beloved, are hospitalized with COVID. Vigils by the phone. Prayers as you await the outcome. The statistics of the virus become personal, invade your privacy.
You and history are one.
Trump, you say, has blood on his hands. By the lies he told about the virus. For thousands dead. All that was ignored. I wait with increased urgency for the jab of a vaccine needle. I seek out more TV shows and movies to lull me back into forgetting.
I am tired of history.
But last week, history called. When those same screens of escape blazed with the attack on the Capitol, there was no turning away. Or forgetting.
We knew violence was inevitable under this president. How could we not know? For the past four years, he’d been working towards this moment. But seeing the form that inevitability took, the mob violence and destruction, was harrowing. Enraging. I couldn’t look away.
A man lifted a crowbar and smashed a Capitol window. A Black Capitol Police officer tried to hold back a menacing White horde from climbing a staircase.
“Stop them! Stop them,” I yelled at the TV.
These were Hitler’s Brown Shirts. The Roman Mob. It was the American carnage Trump talked about in his inauguration speech. But this was his American carnage. His creation. This moment of history belonged to him.
History Writ Large is a moment when the significance of the events occurring is obvious. A turning point. To where – we can only hope.
There is more history to come, we know. Joseph Biden, a decent man, will become president. Kamala Harris, a Black woman, will take the oath, as vice president, to uphold the Constitution. A defeated president, impeached twice, will leave.
All this, while fear resides in the land.
That is history, too.
Ten O’clock News, One Image
January 6, 2021
of the Congresswoman’s shoes
I notice first. A dimpled tread
weathered by the Capitol’s
concrete steps, the marble of its halls,
the hushed nap of its carpet.
Simple black flats, like I might
slip into, wear to class.
So pedestrian, tucked up under
her knee-length skirt as she crouches
on the gallery floor.
The banners flow up the hill on screen,
a counterfeit Iwo Jima. So many brittle
red domes, flags snapping, a riot
of color, lexicon of anger, an amoeba
in motion. They wield crutches,
polyethylene shields—this quantity of Visigoths—
scaling walls, scrambling scaffolds, dangling
from the molding. The underbelly of hive mind,
they pour through windows, down halls,
drain under doorways, smash and snuff to the raw
extent of their worth. But earth
regains its axis and they,
a wrinkle in gravity’s face,
withdraw, leaving not seashells and kelp,
but plastic bottles and battered beliefs.
Late into the night,
as floors are mopped
and stains begin to fade,
I witness a slightly rumpled
experiment as it pads
across the carpet and resumes
the long choreography—familiar,
like discourse, resilient,
like navy blue skirts, honor,
the unambitious elegance
of slip-on shoes.
Seized by the FBI on January 5, 2021: Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in and see blood from their Black Live(s) Matter and Antifa slaves being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally or protest. Go there ready for war.
Thousands on the Capitol Mall, waving flags and looking like cherry blossoms with their skin turning pink in the cold. Flags waving: red, white, and blue American flags; blue and white Trump flags. Yellow and green “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. “Thin Blue Line” flags, and a Confederate flag.
Capitol Hill police in black helmets push against fences to deter the intruders. They are outnumbered. Thousands, like ants, swarm up the Capitol steps. Zombies following the directions of some unknown leader. Smoke. Hundreds in brown fatigues. Are they police, army? People are smashing windows. The men in the brown fatigues are climbing through.
Glass breaking. Doors being kicked in. Yelling and screaming. A tall man with dark hair and a beard looks into the camera and says, “The government did this to us. We were good, law-abiding citizens.”
Sedition, bloodless coup, anarchy, flash bang. Breach the barricades. Not enough law enforcement. Congress is sheltering in place. Armed standoff in the House chambers. Insurrection. Lawmakers are ducking under their chairs, pulling out gas masks. Will they evacuate the Vice President? Lockdown. Rebellion. Treason. Bonfire of the Insanities. The breach is complete.
Inside the rotunda, hundreds of people swarming and packed together, not wearing masks. Hundreds of red hats. MAGA in white. Signs that read JESUS SAVES, signs that read JESUS=TRUMP. A man with coyote tails hanging around his face and horns of a bull or bison. His face is painted red and blue, with white stars. He is bare-chested and his left pec is emblazoned with a black tattoo – circular with the roots and branches stretching towards the edges. He wields a six-foot spear.
Yggdrasill is the giant ash tree that supports the Norse cosmos; its branches reach into sky realms inaccessible to humans, and its roots to the subterranean realm of the dead.
A man wearing blue jeans, a gray plaid jacket, gray baseball cap, and work boots props his feet on Speaker Pelosi’s desk, an American flag crumpled beside him. Later he drawls “I sat down here in my desk. I’m a taxpayer. I’m a patriot. That ain’t her desk. We loaned her that desk … And she ain’t appreciating the desk so I thought I would sit down and appreciate the desk.”
In the Senate chamber a man with olive-green body armor and a combat helmet swings a bundle of white plastic zip-tie handcuffs. He wears a tag with the Texas flag overlaid with Marvel’s “The Punisher.”
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Larry Rendall Brock, Jr. tells a reporter he assumed he was welcome to enter the Capitol. He claims he found the zip-tie handcuffs on the floor. He claims he wore the tactical gear because he worried that a member of Black Lives Matter or Antifa would stab him. Brock’s nickname is “Torch.” A family member tells a reporter that after his stint as a military pilot, Brock developed a Manichean world view – everything is black and white. There is no gray. The battle is between good and evil. The conflict is between light and dark.
A man with long gray hair and beard wears a sweatshirt with Camp Auschwitz and a skull. Another man wears a face mask with a skull and a T-shirt that says 6MWNE meaning Six Million Was Not Enough.
Final Image – A Noose
Sound: Hundreds chant “Hang Mike Pence. Hang Mike Pence. Hang Mike Pence.”
that waved come home — infants in someone’s embrace,
aged next — to shout how the personal was political, political
the personal before their winning hands were maimed —
land after land — note makeshift memorials strewn with
children’s pens, stems of what were flowers, burned cauls.
It was journalists who were massacred that year, that
winter riot. Prelude to fascist boots on lost ground.
Lost ground. Then
we called it democracy. Then we called it America.
In the beginning was — a word — fine toothed as a soul —
hand-held — personal — political — gunned in its birth
zone. Kali Yuga they’ll call it now on one side of the mount.
On this slope of dirt — in the beginning was the word we
wanted more and the word was human.
No. Prelude. Leaf-fall.