Remember watching The L-Word? Maybe we were less picky about our entertainment back then. Anyway, there was one point in the show where Bette, going through a personal crisis, took up meditation. She wasn’t entirely unconvincing. At the peak of this period she went on a week-long silent retreat at a gorgeous, swanky retreat center in the Pacific Northwest. Man, it looked nice up there. But it turned out that much silence was not what Bette really craved. The episode ended like a dam breaking as she poured out her pent-up words into someone’s voice mail: “I want, I want, I want…”
This scene, and this line, have stayed with me. I sometimes find myself thinking those words, in that same heart-filled voice, without really being able to finish the sentences. Sometimes it seems as though what I want doesn’t exist yet, so how could I know what it is called?
And then there are the things too painful to name, or at least to call them by the words everyone else uses. The real names of these things, maybe, are silent; these other words only code, because the real names, when spoken, are unbearably sad.
Sometimes all I can bring myself to do is ask questions, and let the many possible answers hang unvocalized in the air like invisible memorials.
Here are some questions that I would like to offer:
Who owns a neighborhood, who owns the streets? Who has authority to say who belongs there and who does not?
Why is a life of so little value that people are allowed to act with lethal force toward anyone who scares them?
Why have we created a climate in which violence is so quickly reached for in every uncomfortable situation? Is there any way we can uncreate it?
Why are alternative solutions suppressed? Why do we stand for it?
When will our nation encourage people to take responsibility for the hurt they cause, purposely or inadvertently? When will our nation lead by example?
Would different standards have been applied if the one who died had been a white teenager? Can anyone ever be honest about this?
What if those deciders had observed their own reactions and sincerely asked themselves, why does a policeman “just sound more convincing” to them?
Will our collective inclination to be generous and compassionate toward one another ever overcome our collective defensiveness?
How can anyone say the gun did this?
How can anyone say race is not involved?
Does it mean I support the US criminal justice system as it now exists if I wish that some punishment had been assigned to this person who survived the fight? Even though I know in my heart that jail causes far more damage than it heals?
What’s a better way?
What can we do?
What can I do?
Let me be explicit here that while a certain “case” (if that’s really what we want to call it) has been in the news so much that even I have heard of it, and while I am truly saddened by the end of this particular story, this “case” is an EXAMPLE of one localized outcome of the values of violence-before-compassionate-action that permeate American society, and that’s why I feel sorrow for our country as a whole. Other outcomes are other young people’s deaths, within the borders of the US and around the world. That’s why I have chosen not to mention any names in this post, even though I hope it’s clear what national conversation has inspired these reflections. I don’t know the specific people involved and I would hate for any of them to feel that I used their names for personal gain or publicity. But I do recognize patterns. And on occasion, throughout our history, certain other murders that were widely covered by the press (to the exclusion of thousands of similar stories; why those few get chosen, I don’t know) have served as motivators for change, as instigators for discussion, as alarm clocks for consciences.
When my own words can’t be found, songs sung in other languages can be comforting. In the ardor of the singer’s expression, I can imagine whatever grief I’m feeling coming out in the music, too.
I remember listening to this African music show called Motherland Jam on KOPN, the community radio station in Columbia. The host began each installment with “Shosholoza,” a South African folk song. I always loved the sounds and melody of this song, even before I knew what it was about. In fact it’s a song about working in the mines. It came on my MP3 player while I was writing this, and it felt like medicine to my heart. According to Wikipedia, it was sung traditionally sung call-and-response style by all-male groups in the Ndebele language to “express the hardship [and] heartache” of that deep, dark, dirty work underground and in camps, separated from families, abused by bosses. The word “Shosholoza … means go forward or make way for the next man … It is used as a term of encouragement and hope for the workers as a sign of solidarity.” The article continues, “In contemporary times, its meaning is to show support for any struggle.”
The lyrics alchemize the trials endured by the miners into poetry:
Stimela siphume South Africa
Stimela siphume South Africa
Stimela siphume Rhodesia
on those mountains
train to South africa
You are running away
You are running away
on those mountains
train from Zimbabwe
So if I may place one thing on the altar of the memory of this one particular almost-man who was killed, and whose death, for whatever reason, allowed America to engage in a conversation, even if the conversation hasn’t yet led to any answers, I would make it this song.
If only there was a way to bring your blog entry to national attention! Thank you for adding the seeds of reason, compassion, hope, and inspiration to this very painful discussion. Shosholoza!
Your response almost made me cry … thank you!!!
Hi, Gayan. I think that Zimmerman did get a result. No, it’s not jail time, but his life has changed irreparably and not to the better. He will always be a little scared. The nation has been pushed into having an interesting dialogue about something that had been sort of pushed under the rug (that’s if you’re an old white lady who watches a lot of TV). Anyway, this is an excellent commentary. Thank you for your thoughts. Sekhmet
You’re right, of course … I agree that this incident has gotten people to talk about things that they’d previously been more comfortable ignoring. And It is not mine to say what anyone “deserves,” and I do believe the universe will bring back effects for every cause. LOL old white lady; thank you so much for your thoughtful comment!!
Good questions, all. I am unhappy with the current state of societal affairs. I hope we learn our lessons better and faster, in future. And that this causes laws like the ridiculously named “stand your ground” to fall.
Yes, I hope so! I get where they were going with the idea of law — or maybe I am attributing positive intentions that weren’t really there — but it really does seem like it encourages people to use the last resort first, without having all the information.
I think so, too. It allows circumstances to escalate very quickly to a point where one party feels easily justified in killing another. Plus, you have people who will willingly abuse it. There have already been numerous cases of folks abusing it. That was a very badly written and not at all well-considered/thought out law, and it needs to be amended or removed.