Just when I thought the world couldn’t be more upside down, violence in the USA gave it another summersault.
I’d given myself a break from news for a couple of days and spent Friday evening reading with my husband and dogs in the backyard for which I’m so grateful. Shortly after coming inside I received a text from a concerned friend, so I clicked to the news to see my “City too busy to hate” literally on fire.
My son is 20, a policy studies major who wanted college in person, a grassroots activist, a practical idealist like his mamma, a Civil Rights advocate/activist like his dad, a person with hearing loss who often cannot comprehend shouted words, and a person of color. We live in terror that he’ll be jerked out of his car, thrown to the ground, and lose his hearing aids or any hope of getting an irate police officer to understand he is hearing disabled and not just being uncooperative. Watching him navigate nationwide injustice that ends each night in an explosive powder keg of smashed glass and shattered hopes adds another layer to our pain.
I want to fix the world like I want to fix everything, like I am able to fix so very many things in my studio with my tools and my sheer gutsy determination. I want us all to give our children a better society than the one we inherited, the one with space travel and promises of equality that has seemed to run backwards toward greed and racism every time it makes a little progress toward equity. In this, however, I feel as powerless as when my son was three and dragged me over to the side of the playground to see a tiny mangled lifeless creature while he begged me, “Mommy want to fix the broken squirrel.”
At a time in our household when we all try to give each other as much space and understanding as possible, we come together in random moments in the kitchen, taking care of the dogs, or disinfecting deliveries. My husband and I try to tell our son that sit ins are awesome but dangerous in a pandemic, that we’ve lived through riots before and that nothing gets better as a result, that we end up more divided and with emotional scar tissue and cultural adhesions that do not heal. He reminds us, correctly, that the more people are pushed and simultaneously ignored, the more likely some are to become violent. On Saturday morning, I told my husband the USA is storming the emotional Bastille on injustice.
I think often of France, not only of recent France with its unimaginably empty cafes but of old France, of their revolution, inspired by America’s, and of the Storming of the Bastille, which over 200 years later is so romanticized as to still be an international symbol of justice. I think about starving people who had simply taken enough abuse and like a collective victim on the playground, fought back against a bully that didn’t just take their lunch money but rather kept up a centuries long system that helped people starve. In a world without cellphones to help them organize and little historical precedent, they took unimaginable risk to challenge injustice that their supreme leaders, “ordained by God,” would call treason. I think about what came after, The Reign of Terror, and I fear that is what is in store for us: no clear, reliable, or truthful leader but an angry mob with rotating propagandists and opportunists in charge and drowning out injustice.
I also fear, this time backed by hard science, that in one to two weeks, our health system will be overrun beyond redemption with good and bad cops, peaceful protestors, and violent looters fighting side by side to breathe. One man’s sociopathic rage shielded behind a badge may literally bring us all to our knees.
I force myself to take as slow and steady a breath as I can and remember that, at least in this moment, I have the freedom and the health to do so.
The greatest sense of peace I’ve found in these last months has come from lying so very gratefully under the tree canopy of my backyard and from painting. Spreading color on a surface requires a level of concentration that temporarily eclipses the world’s ever present anxiety. I practice engraving as well because it requires so much concentration that my fears are briefly limited to making certain that a very sharp object goes where it should in the metal sheet and not into my hand by accident. Filigree and forging are not so tricky after 30+ years, and they leave my brain far too much time to wander metaphorically around a virus and gun filled landscape. I scheme ways and topics to teach online then I wonder if I have the tenacity to be heard above the noise and if it makes enough of a difference.
The whole world is twitchy right now. Like so many artists I too have struggled to keep focus on creativity when the world feels so uninhabitable. As I tried to wrap my brain around what makes people lose their humanity and behave so psychotically cruelly, what hit me is that small acts of creativity can be acts of kindness for ourselves and then for others when we share them and encourage others to do the same.
Many creatives fight feelings of self-indulgence in making art right now. In a world that favors commerce, fighting that feeling can be tough on a good day because many of us live in a society that places more value on consumption and ‘content’ than on expression. Having the means to be creative implies an inherent privilege that many of us, including me, feel guilty for having.
But, if more of us overcame that worry, if more of us persistently sought peace from within and then shared those results generously (not merely competitively), then we might begin to value what it takes to get there and become better equipped to turn that peace outward, to replace that world anxiety with something more constructive. No good can come from squandering that privilege. Best to use it to make the world a kinder, more habitable place to be for everyone in it.
Inner peace is not the same as religious conviction. It’s not about subjective belief or a feeling of certainty. It is a calming acceptance of ourselves, of who we are as individuals even in the midst of those outrageous arrows that life slings, and then, if we really do the hard work and add empathy to that peace, we move toward acceptance of and respect for each other. That is when peace becomes a cultural movement that might have a hope of sticking and being a positive contagion.
This is not a “turn the other cheek” speech, and I’m not dismissing the very justifiable anger and outrage that is coming out in our increasingly divided society, or suggesting anyone might paint that feeling away. What I am saying is that if the anxiety from the pandemic and police brutality feels crushing, small acts of creativity can be the necessary break that all of us need to stay sane.
Racism is not sane. It starts from within, from a deep and insecure place that, when expressed consciously or unconsciously, undermines humanity.
People are people.
Black lives matter.
Be kind to yourself.
Be kind to others.
Wear your mask on your face not your chin, and wash your hands.
Find your peace.
Make your mark.