Last night we went to my niece’s dance recital. It was three hours long. I learned that she is a very talented gymnast and I envy both her flexibility and her confidence. The theme of the night was “Dancin’ Around the World,” and we were supposed to imagine that we were following three women vacationing on a cruise ship. At each “port” a dance class performed to a song, which was or was not specific to the “country” the dancers were in, while wearing costumes that were mostly also supposed to reflect the region. They danced to songs like “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the Can-Can. At the end, the longest set was focused on the ship’s return to America, and six classes now joyfully danced to songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” There was a huge flag unraveled at the end. As I watched, I thought about how I was going to write about how uncomfortable I was. How the songs and costumes seemed to be based solely on stereotypes, essentializing cultures and people and customs, and how the culmination of exaggerated fanfare about the “homecoming” to America and the patriotic songs that tout peace knocked me off-kilter, because I feel so much turmoil right now. That the unwavering patriotism at the end seemed fluorescent, neon, and too bright and too false, even for a dance recital in for a dark grammar school in the valley of Connecticut.
But when I woke up this morning, like everyone else, I checked my phone, and, like everyone else, I was rocked. I read NPR first. It said up to twenty people had been shot and killed in a bar in Orlando, and maybe it was a hate crime because it happened in a gay bar, or maybe it was terrorism. Maybe more people were dead. Maybe the shooter was a member of ISIS. Lots of maybes. Lots of speculation. I stopped, my body frozen in disbelief. I kept reading. Pulse, they reported, was the name of the club.
I didn’t cry. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t. I floated above it, unsure, afraid. I had coffee with my husband. We talked about it briefly. We left the house to run errands. To have a Sunday. But it stayed there, in my head, in my heart, shaking my day, as I stopped to check my phone, read the headlines, watch the number of fatalities increase, read comments that disgusted me. Read political tweets that terrified me.
This Slate article reveals that five of the most recent mass shootings used the same type of assault rifle, and all were purchased legally. The One Thing that Five Recent Mass Shootings Have in Common.
Stop there for a minute. Think about that headline and let that sink in. That there have been five recent mass shootings to make this connection.
All day I felt…heavy. As I checked the news, standing in line at Ikea, trying to wrap my head around this tragedy, this devastating slaughter, I thought about the families that are waiting, hanging, suspended in a grief we can only be so lucky to escape, while I hold flower pots and my husband’s hand. The death toll climbed. I tell my husband that the reports now state fifty people are dead.
Then I see an article about Donald Trump’s statements in the aftermath of this tragedy. My stomach lurches. Yankee Doodle, keep it up. He is using the actions of a hate-filled man to build up a case against an entire population of people. He tweets; “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” I am furious.
There are news reports about the shooter beating his now ex-wife. His 911 call pledging allegiance to ISIS. Articles are focusing on his past. On his guns. And also on the victims and their families. People are dividing.
Fifty people died because one man believed a group of men and women were doing something he believed was wrong.
One man is using this tragedy to underpin his argument that an entire group of people is wrong. Mind the music and the step.
When we got home, we went out back to do yard work. My husband planted some climbing hydrangeas along the split rail fence. I weeded out the two rectangular patches where the vegetable garden should go. We planted a garden here last year too, but nothing grew. It was either too shady or the soil was depleted from a large Hosta that had been growing there for years. I transplanted the Hosta last spring. In the fall we had the walnut tree trimmed back to allow for more sunlight. We have almost two years worth of compost in the bin at the edge of yard. This year, our second year in this house, I hope we can grow our own veggies.
I pulled and pulled at weeds that were nearly as tall as I am. Some of them resisted, clung to the earth. Others slid right out, root balls covered in dirt, huge clumps of mud stuck to the white clawing roots. I pulled and pulled, angry at the world. Angry at the hate, at the ignorance. Angry because people call this terrorism because it was committed by a man who claimed to be a Muslim, but when white men commit these crimes they are described as lone gunmen, as mentally ill, as products of failed parents, failed systems. I live twenty minutes from a town where a young white man shot and killed twenty six and seven-year olds and six educators. My nephews live in that town. I pulled, angry that we don’t have stricter gun laws, furious that the ignorant and vicious comments of one man are backed by millions, that this man could be our president, my country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty. I have family members that like him. I pulled harder. I shook earthworms back into the soil. Watched them burrow their shiny bodies deep into the ground, hoped they would help this part of my yard to yield broccoli and tomatoes and beans. Hoped they would live even though I had disrupted their lives.
I threw weeds into piles, watched as they wilted. Fuming. Again. Swarming with feelings. Sadness. Thinking about the gravity of that many lives, the ripples through families and communities. Seething. Devastated. My hands filthy, my knees and feet caked with mud.
I heard tapping and looked up. My neighbor was standing there, watching me, softly drumming her fingers on the fence rail and smiling. I don’t know how long she was there. She had also been doing yard work and had stopped to talk. I stepped out of my fog, away from the weeds, stomped over the pile of curling leaves and exposed roots, pulled off my gloves to say hi. To talk about our kids, our summers, when we would get together for a glass of wine, what we wanted to plant this year. She saw my pile of weeds and told me she had the same type.
“Didn’t you notice the little purple flowers at the top?” she asked. “I thought they were too pretty to pull just yet. So I left them.”
She invited us over for a BBQ next weekend, Father’s Day, because her son is graduating from high school on Tuesday. I went back to work, hoed the two plots flat. Went to the compost bin to shovel two years worth of eggshells, teabags, apple cores, and coffee grounds into this barren space, hoping it to make it fruitful.
I finally understand, I think, Homi Bhabha and his idea of the third space. I’m here, but not, existing somewhere between my physical world and a remote place in Florida where life has changed.
I shoveled and raked. My back ached. My jaw hurt because my anger was settling in my bones. Hard work is a distraction and a release within this weird space of normalcy where things are anything but normal.
I spread mounds of dark wet scraps into the garden. Each time I returned to the bin I had to push away at a patch of scratchy leaves towering over me. They made me jump. I felt like bugs were crawling on my face and body.
Rake. Dig. Pull. Shovel. Dirt and kitchen scraps. Death and decay into growth. Hope.
The scratching leaves, I noticed, as the sun started to set, as dusk settled in, as the last moments of Sunday slipped away, were more of the towering weeds I’d spent my afternoon pulling out. Their small flowers with delicate purple petals and fuzzy yellow centers were growing with wild abandon on the small hill, proud, stretching, swaying. I stopped. They were beautiful. Alive.
I left them there.
“Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final- resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” –Edward Said