Lou Reed and Hendrix are on the stereo. I am in my studio.
It is hot and still here. The weather in Vermont has finally turned warm. We have had our obligatory five days of spring and summer is here. There is a sheen of sweat on the back of my neck.
I am cleaning up my studio. I just don’t have the emotional energy to write poetry or paint. The long run of the Pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd that exposed what we all probably knew in our hearts, that our progress in the past 20 years. (Rodney King was in 1992. Memba him?) is barely there. The riots. The state of politics and discourse being closer to playground bullies and street gangs than a national conversation – all of it has worn on me.
I have survived most of the Pandemic pretty well. I rebuilt a schedule, and found plenty to do even if I have lost a good-sized chunk of work. I miss a lot of things but the extra time with my bride (We were married just three years ago) has been, for me, a delight. For the most part, my depression has been at bay, an easy demon to toss out the window at the start of my day. My kids are OK. Yeah, all in all, it has not been a bad time, just awkward and strange and full of anxieties that are unfamiliar to me.
But the past few days have been too much. I have found myself something I don’t deal with often or well. I have been angry. I won’t go into the litany of groups and people I have vilified and ranted about. It is a long list and most of the rants have been about inequality and injustice. My depression has become strong again in the past few days. Life is a battle again.
Most of us in this country were raised, whether we were churchgoers or not, to believe all people have value. Or at least profess it. But the past few years have shown what a veneer that profession actually is. Given permission by our leaders to be racist and classist, and that veneer has washed off as if it was just watercolor in a good rain. I have had Martin Luter King’s famous quote that “riots are the language of the unheard” has rung in my mind for days now.
I can’t compare my experiences with black and other minorities. I am white, on the edge of moving from middle-aged to old, and middle class. My family and I personally have had good and bad times. I’ve been poor enough to know what it is like to have to choose between food and medicine. But all in all, my life has been firmly in the WASP (remember that phrase? It alone dates me. It means White Anglo Saxon Protestant, a code word for the white middle class.), SO chalk me up as having lived with white privilege most of my life, even in the times I was flat out poor.
I don’t beat myself up for that. I am simply aware.
But the not being listened to thing? I get it. My father and I became more and more estranged as I went through high school and college. We barely talked to each other until a year after my leaving Grad School at VCU and moving to the mountains of Virginia. We got through holidays mostly. (mostly.) OK, but we could not do much more than that. I was like him in some ways, but mostly we were different. Politically. Spiritually. Work-wise. Our approach to almost everything. You name it, we were at odds.
His thought pattern was that if I thought differently, I was against him. If I did something different, I was against him. If I believed differently, it was a critique of him. Mostly that thought pattern was not true. I just WAS different. I didn’t care what he did. I just wanted to live my life in the context of what I believed.
By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I basically saw him at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Any longer and it was a war zone., I had no use for war zones.
One Thursday night, he showed up unannounced at my apartment door. He wanted to go have dinner. We went to Country Cooking in Roanoke. I was wary. I should not have been.
“I was wrong.” he said. “Your mother helped me understand that if we did not heal our rift, I would lose you. And I don’t want to lose you. I understand that you aren’t against me. You just aren’t me. We raised you to think for yourself, and dammit, you did.” It was a long night of conversation. We both cried. (the only other time I saw my father cry was when his own father died.).
I won’t lie and say we never disagreed again. But it changed the whole context because there was a place to talk and to listen.
I have ended other relationships because people would not listen. I don’t need to be agreed with, but I need the respect of being really and actually listened to. I have ended relationships, important relationships, because there was no listening to be had. Mostly those endings were ugly. I fought to be listened and finally broke. Anger. Shouting. And then a rift.
Most of those rifts were never healed. One or two, when we came to a place of listening to each other again, sometimes a decade later or more, those friendships came to be strangely strong.
That’s all very genteel compared to what we are dealing with in our nation today. But I can understand, at some level, what the lack of being listened to can do. And if it can do it in my WASPy life in rural Virginia and Vermont, I can certainly understand why the mistreatment and dismissal of people because race, socio-economic status, sexuality, nationality or any other “differentness” can breed anger that untreated, explodes.
And we never seem to treat it until it explodes.
That’s what I don’t understand. I will be honest. I REALLY don’t understand it. When something has blown up in my personal life, I want to learn from it. What of the explosion was my responsibility? What was theirs? Can it be saved or not? Do I want it to be saved? And if so, what can I do?
And who can I listen to so I learn and try to make it better?
I have seen the power of sympathetic listening work in business, politics and religion. It is incredibly powerful. It can change everything when we have the courage to get over ourselves and just listen.
If you are like me, there is a lot in what is happening in this that I can’t do anything about. I feel mostly helpless. And that is terribly frustrating.
But you know what? We can listen. There is someone or some group or some opinion in our lives that makes us uncomfortable to hear. That is likely just we need to talk with and listen to. And that is where it begins.
To do that, we have to put away our jerking knees. I have been watching these past few days and I have seen the same pattern go on again and again. We see an outrageous story. We get outraged. And in the next day, more facts come out and it’s not the story that we read and that got us all riled up.
Yes, some things ARE outrageous. The murder of George Floyd is anger-worthy. The stage show of Trump in front of the Church in DC is anger worthy. But wait a bit. Listen as the rest of the story unfolds. And it always does.
Children, learn by repetition. We say something over and over again until they get it. In ways we are still children, forgetting to listen. Too proud to listen. Too angry to listen. Too ignorant to listen.
Listen. Listen. Listen.
Off my soapbox.
PS: I am not saying looting is OK. It’s not. I AM saying I can understand where the anger spills out, and why. So if you want to yell at me, let’s put that one to bed.
PPS: I was going to write about getting my first haircut since January but this came out, I always listen to my muse. It’s way smarter than I am.