There are no words.
Three weeks into my new job at a community college, I was asked to attend its graduation. Sporting a polyester gown I borrowed along with a wrong-colored hood and a cap anchored stupidly with stretched-out bobby pins, I sat on stage with other staff and faculty members to watch a rush of students river on by.
This was not a graduation for those who never question their privilege and entitlement; it was a holy rite of passage for those who toiled like dogs for every credit they earned. The ceremony was book-ended by a religious invocation and a benediction, and, while it made a secularist like me twitch, no one seemed fazed by the many mentions of their Father. It was He, I believe they believed, who made the seeming impossible possible.
The ceremony took place in an opera house located at the intersection of Poverty Street and Strife Avenue. It was crammed with hooters and whoopers and howlers who shouted out whenever they saw their loved ones. “That’s my baby!” screamed a mother. “That’s my wife!” cried another. Corey, Simcha, Teka, Ayo, Lakesia, Varun, Tenia, Nikia, Nakeia, Sarala, George, Crenese, Pema, Brittany, Krishna, Guy, Lavera, Frazontra, Pearlie, Teena, Melvin, Jamal, Bibek, Naresh, Zdravko, Nada, Dante, Leslie, Tyteona, Janice, Dell, Kossi, Cesar, and hundreds more strode across the stage to receive their diplomas from the President.
One had glued fuzzy green and white pom-poms along the edges of her mortar board, someone else had somehow managed to attach blinking white lights to hers, and still another did a shimmy shaky slinky dance that fetched a squeal from a delighted audience. Everyone had someone to cheer them on, which made me so happy I bawled; yet, I couldn’t help but think that had I been one to walk across that stage silence would surely have dogged me.
I have always been crazy about horses. I spent the better part of my tenth year whinnying, and around the same time nearly met my maker when a horse I was riding tried to roll over and crush me because it could sense how much of a soft touch I was. When I was 13, I went to a horseback riding camp for two months and nearly crippled my horse with an oozing saddle sore because I couldn’t bear to tighten the cinch.
Through animals, I understood something early on about the fragility of life. My father once caught a gray field mouse in a trap and I lunged to touch it. “Get away!” he shouted, and I cried. I think it was my mother who gave me two baby turtles, one painted blue and the other yellow. I thought it was fantastic, fantastical, until someone told me they would suffocate. I tried to wipe off the paint but couldn’t, and I cried. After, there slowly dawned in me the idea that cruelty abounded, and then it became more than an idea. I learned about bull goring, and dog fighting, and fox hunting, and more.
A few days ago I heard on the radio a story about how the bloated rich in China race pigeons and how birds that are not fast enough are gassed or drowned or decapitated. How is it, I wonder, that we come to lose our humanity or perhaps never find it in the first place.
It touches down to a deep ache, though, much as a piece of chocolate candy causes a wince when it meets up with tooth decay. There lives within me a dark part where my mother lingers on, where love knows only yearning and memory wants to weep. I nearly drowned in her, my drowning mother, until the day I first held my infant daughter and swam up to the foamy surface of the water and crashed into the light.
On Thursday I was caught in gridlock for nearly an hour and had moved only an angstrom when out of nowhere came a Porsche barreling down the shoulder lane. I was livid, as I can be with anyone who tries to get one over on the rest of us.
Years ago, I saw a Jane Goodall film in which one of her famous chimpanzees stole bananas from a fruit bin meant for all of the chimps. He had snuck ahead of the group so he could get more than his fair share, and he had so overfilled his arms with fruit that, as he ran away, he had to keep stopping to pick up the ones that dropped. The audience laughed a knowing laugh.
I have never been able to tolerate extreme displays of piggishness, not even, or least of all, my own. You’ve seen it: the person who is last of four at a four-way stop sign and who is the first to drive on through, the person at the back of a crowded elevator who pushes her way to the front so she can be first one off, the person in the cafe you frequent who grabs a Sunday New York Times off the stand and sits down with it just after you’ve paid five bucks for yours, the person who takes plate after plate of food from the all-you-can-eat salad bar, the person at the market who sees you are headed for the checkout and who races ahead so she can get there first, the person who lets you hold a store door open for him without so much as a thank you, the person who talks all the way through a movie and then tells you to go f*** yourself when finally you say shush.
There are unspeakable crimes like murder, torture, and rape, and then there are the very smallest of crimes against the souls of others, which don’t seem like crimes at all. The ones where we tailgate a car because the driver is going the speed limit, yell at a waiter who mixes up our order, walk past a homeless man and feel contempt because we think he has brought on his own troubles, shun the person who’s packing too many pounds for our taste, honk (or want to honk) at an old woman in a crosswalk because she is not going fast enough for us.
The other night, I saw After Fall, Winter, a recently released film starring Eric Schaeffer and Lizzie Brocheré. When it was over, I couldn’t stop weeping, and I still want to cry when I think about it. Although it was mauled by critics, I thought it was a courageous, well-acted movie with a plot line that surprises and an ending that rivals that of Romeo and Juliet. One thing is for sure: It is not for the lily-livered.
I won’t go so far as to recommend it because you’ll blame me if you hate it. But, I do want to say something about a scene that lingers. In it, Schaeffer’s character Michael is talking to Brocheré’s Sophie about whether or not she believes in a God who watches over and guides her, and she tells him she thinks God has better things to do with His time.
“Like what?” he asks.
As one whose faith in the Divine has for so long careened between tepid and on fire, I was stunned by this response in the way I am always surprised by an idea that compels me to reexamine what it is I think I know. Although I had come to believe that the notion of a God nosing around in the affairs of mortals was nothing more than a human construct designed to soothe, I see now that the idea of a God tending to matters more important than those of His creations is equally limited. Both perspectives anthropomorphize that which cannot be known in any ordinary way.
Some months back, I had the good fortune of meeting up with another idea I could never have come to on my own. I was listening to a very interesting interview with Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who won a Nobel Prize for work that advances the idea of an expanding, rather than a contracting, universe. At one point, interviewer Terry Gross said something about how frightening it is to contemplate a universe that goes on forever.
Dr. Perlmutter said it is just as frightening to contemplate one that does not.
A few days ago I was driving behind a banged-up Ford Escape. I can’t help but get my back up about all of the unnecessary SUVs and trucks on the road, so I was snarky even before he leaned out of his window to spit and then seconds later flicked out a lit cigarette. In all my days I have seen only one woman spit in public, but nearly every day I am made to watch some gentleman deposit his glob in the street or on the sidewalk.
A man spitting in full view is not unlike a dog lifting his leg to pee on a tree or a tiger spraying the ground with his scent. In the wild, an animal must mark and defend territory if it is to survive and to sire the next generation. So, when a man hocks up phlegm, especially when potential rivals are nearby, he is likely driven by the same biology. But, it is overkill. Now, he has many other ways to claim what he thinks belongs to him. He has assault weapons, for example.
If a spitting man only knew how unsexy his spitting was, he would recognize it for the self-defeating behavior it actually is. After all, if it’s progeny he wants, he’ll first have to get the girl.