Monday, April 30, 2007

Making Sense

The sky was a blue glass bottle pouring out the white light of the sun. It puddled in the grass of what was once the Wesleyan Botanical Garden and what has been for probably 75 years Washington Park. It was a perfect spring Saturday in Macon, like so many perfect spring Saturdays I’d spent there, anesthetized by youth and privilege and oblivious to the gifts of freedom and promise.

A group of about a dozen high school students had gathered for the taking of prom photos. The girls were dressed in bright orange and deep turquoise, jonquil yellow and cobalt blue, their skirts all full and showy like peonies, fluttering in the breeze around their ankles. Their arms and shoulders glowed with the faux bronze of tanning beds. Their hair, pulled up off their necks, couldn’t withstand the teasing breeze and came loose in soft tendrils around their carefully lined and shadowed and mascara’ed eyes.

The boys stood awkwardly, hands in the pockets of their rented tuxedos, saying little, following the instructions of the mothers dressed in blue jeans and loose cotton blouses and wondering how exactly they had ended up here, in front of God and everybody, wearing pastel cummerbunds and pin-tucked shirts.

I sat on the grass next to a narrow creek that flowed with just enough water to shimmer like a million tiny mirrors or – better simile – the sequins on the red dress of the tall girl with dark hair and I listened to the giggles, watched from a safe distance the eye rolling and head tossing. I couldn’t help being mesmerized by the drawing room drama played out as the group moved from the bridge to the stone steps to the iron benches, posing and preening, smiling and leaning into each other with the right combination of timidity and sophistication.

Then I looked at my cell phone to check the time and realized I’d missed a call. Probably not anything important. No one was expecting me anywhere. No one should be needing me for anything on my out-of-town Saturday.

I was wrong. The call was from law enforcement, my job, the work that I didn’t want to follow me to Macon, and I knew before I dialed the number that something horrible had happened.
My friend Tom, who was born to serve and protect, outlined the facts. One child was dead; another child was arrested. The former now a victim, the latter now what the law calls a juvenile offender. And because he was a juvenile, the people back home had questions for me because I am what the law calls a juvenile prosecutor.

I listened to the story, as much as anyone knew at that point, and felt the light dim, the warmth cool, the musical sound of laughing teenagers transformed into dissonant cackling.
I closed my eyes and accessed that part of my brain that speaks the vocabulary of criminal procedure. I answered questions, asked a few of my own. And then I hung up.

There are moments when one can’t help being aware of how big the world is and how isolated we all are from the rest of the people living in it. Most of the time that happens, for me at least, when I’m stuck in Atlanta traffic, experiencing sensory overload and absently wondering where all the people in the cars are going, where they live, how much trash they produce each day and where that goes.

And then there are moments when the world contracts into one small square of earth. Moments when the connectedness of every human being to every other human being is as palpable as spring sunshine on bare arms. Moments when every face is the face of someone you love, every hurt a bruise on your heart, every loss your own sacrifice.

Sitting on the grass in Washington Park last Saturday, it was that kind of moment.

There is no way to make sense of what happened. Here or at Virginia Tech or, eight years ago, at Columbine. But there has to be a way to redeem those moments. A way to translate the language of loss into something speakable.

There has to be.

There just has to be.

Copyright 2007

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Lost and Found

I had an opal necklace. It was a gift – a small stone set in gold on a narrow gold chain. I wore it every day. I would unconsciously finger it while I was on the phone or watching television. When I looked in the mirror it reminded me of lots of things, including the fact that opals are supposed to be good luck for those born in October, but bad luck for anyone else. I was, fortunately, born in October.

One morning I stopped for gas on the way to work and when I got to the office realized that my necklace was gone. I’d had it when I left home and it wasn’t in the car. It had to have fallen off at the gas station. I went back – anxious, almost panic-stricken – to scour the parking lot.
I found the chain, but the opal was gone.

Sadness wrapped itself around me like a blanket on a hot day. I wanted to push it away, kick it off. The necklace was, after all, only a thing. The opal was not expensive, what jewelers call a semi-precious stone. It could be replaced.

Except that it couldn’t. I wanted that opal, the one that came on the chain, the one that came in the green box that I had opened so excitedly. I wanted the opal that had absorbed my touch for years, that had moved up and down with my breath, that had vibrated with my laughter, rattled with my tears.

A friend at work had a metal detector and he volunteered to go to the gas station and run it over the parking lot, between the pumps, around the trash cans. He didn’t find my opal, but he came back with a theory: The clasp on the chain had loosened, the opal had slid off and, when the next car pulled up, had gotten stuck in the tire tread and rolled away.

As theories go, it wasn’t all that plausible, but it did give me a visual image to consider – my opal stuck in the tire of a shiny new mini-van taking a family to Disney World. Or maybe it had been picked up by a red convertible full of sorority girls on their way to the beach or a diesel-belching 4x4 pick-up truck hauling seed corn. Imagining my opal on various road trip adventures was helpful for, oh, about fifteen seconds. And then the sadness returned.

The realization that there was absolutely nothing I could do to effectuate the return of my opal was, while not intellectually challenging, emotionally impossible. Things shouldn’t get lost. I shouldn’t lose things. Things should know better.

It took a few weeks, but eventually the spot at the bottom of my throat where the opal used to nest began feeling less naked. I stopped reaching up to tug it across the chain like an acrobat on a zip-line. I didn’t startle myself anymore when I looked in the mirror and didn’t see it.

Then one day I didn’t think about it at all. And that day became a month and a year and several years. And the lesson is supposed to be that things are just things and a person can always get over losing a thing.

Except that that is not true. Because just this week, for some totally inexplicable reason, I thought about my opal necklace. And I remembered its milky whiteness and the threads of pale aqua that wound through it like a creek. I remembered the iridescence that made it, like a soap bubble, reflect pink, then gold depending on the angle with which the sunlight hit it. And I remembered how secure I’d felt every single time I reached up to touch it, how it symbolized for me something that had nothing to do with being lucky or nicely accessorized.

And I figured out that the lesson was really this: Things are never just things and a person never gets over losing something that was more than just a thing.

There’s a place at the bottom of my throat, that little v-shaped place where my collarbone dips down, and it is empty. Always will be. Because that which belongs there is lost.

Copyright 2007

A Time To ...

My friend’s mother died. I drove south to sit on the back row of the chapel and listen to the minister read from Ecclesiastes. Later, my friend and I stood on a bluff overlooking the Crooked River and breathed in the smell of the marsh, a scent that, though sprouting from death and decay, awakens my senses.

We took deep breaths, listened to the water birds and squinted our eyes against the sun’s reflection on the water. A skinny snake paused on his dash from one bank of azalea bushes to another to make sure that we didn’t step on him. The breeze off the river caught in the ringlets of my hair and those of the Spanish moss dangling from the branches of the gnarled oak trees, tossing them both like confetti. And the unmistakable grief on my friend’s face was joined by an expression of contentment.

On my way home, because I feel something quite like a magnetic pull when I am that close, I stopped on St. Simons for a walk on the beach. Just above the horizon – the imaginary line that reminds me that the only thing that ends is my sight of the ocean, not the ocean itself – in a sky that was the palest shade of blue, the moon had risen, a white-washed half-disc. Behind me the sun was still up, egg-yolk yellow and warm.

Caught between the two, the fulcrum upon which the day was pivoting into night, I stood still and listened. The rush of the rising tide and the clanging of the masts of the boats in the boatyard and the cries of the children in the surf mingled to become the voice of the minister as he intoned the familiar words: "A time to give birth and a time to die. ... A time to weep and a time to laugh. ... A time to mourn and a time to dance. ... A time to search and a time to give up as lost."

For all the times I had heard the words read, read the words myself, quoted them from memory, I had never noticed the choice of conjunctions. The writer, who calls himself the Preacher, used the inclusive connector, not the limiting. And, not or. In a subtle choice of words, he reminds the reader that the time for being born is not separate and apart from the time for dying. The time for waging war and creating peace are one and the same. Laughing and crying are the same thing. They are joined, irrevocably linked. They happen not are different times, but simultaneously.

It doesn’t make sense, of course, to our linear-thinking minds. We move in increments, in steps, through stages. We compartmentalize everything, even the ephemeral. We decide how much we are willing to experience at any given moment and ignore anything not on the agenda. We split our lives into childhood and adulthood. We divide our days into work days, sick days, vacation days. And, most tellingly, we make strict distinctions between the sacred and profane.

What if, I wondered, I could believe that being silent is, in fact, speaking in the profoundest of voices? Or that in order to know deep love I must also experience intense hatred? Or that the truest way of holding something – or someone – close is by letting it go? Could I learn to live with the contradiction?

It is spring and, for Christians, it is also the season of Lent, forty days of contradiction: A king who refuses to reign, friends who betray and deny, death that results in life. Forty days of paradox. Forty days of pondering the Preacher’s sermon, recognizing it as prophecy and watching the prophecy be fulfilled. Of growing to hold in one embrace life and death. War and peace. Love and hate. Never either/or. Always and.

To every thing there is a season. And a time to every purpose under the heaven. With the season comes the purpose. And, if we are open, the grace to live it full.

Copyright 2007