When the visionary told you, Man is not a tree, you took note. The punchline had to do with the whole country up and moving every few years. Out of one town, into another––given the means, which were a significant factor. You considered reasons. Why the impulse to cut and run; to fly, stop, land?
Meanwhile, you could not––would not, stop thinking of the child who couldn’t flee, who didn’t make it. You refused coexistence with the mental calculations that allowed the peace of some to be secured by the occupation of others.
It is a fundamental need, you said, basic as shelter, food. For sanctuary, you said. Because man is not a tree.
Adapted from June Jordan’s 1989 essay, “Finding the Way Home.”
Hiding a generation in our bones, we sipped from the ancients, but as they swelled our rhythms against the tempo of our moment, one common side effect was dizziness. Some took to bed, but there were other ways.
We called it consolation. We called it our time out of mind. For many, the vertigo was so intense that we called it nothing for a long time. When we woke, our sheets would be wet with memory and before these had a chance to dry someone with an official title would come inspecting, demanding some explanation.
Invariably, our answers confirmed their suspicions, and they would make notes certifying their opinions that we were likely dumb, possibly also deranged, which tends to be the official response to any negative capability. But when the empire of certitude began to crumble, we were stirring.
Then came a mind up from the bottom of history, and this was our moment, and in those basements between buildings we were clearing our throats, this specter among us said, Time.
When it came time to hide in the cellars again, in that dark damp we all feared, some would not go. One of the grandmothers said, I’d rather die in my perfectly decorated flat. Whatever moves in the dirty basement she will not enter, it does not scamper like the mice in the attic. What moves here is slow like the drips from the faucet. There are candles, flashlights. Faces glow against the screens before them. Some close their eyes, try to sleep.
Do they dream? Fitfully. The cellar dreamer knows that the walls of the cellar are buried walls, with the entire earth behind them. Tell me, where is the fear that does not become exaggerated? The cellar becomes buried madness, walled-in tragedy. When they say take shelter, we wait.
The grandmother’s protest is a reference to Nika Melkozerova’s recent guest essay in the New York Times. Other italicized lines are from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
What, you mean this? It can help to know that you are already here.
Parents have been sending the children to school with special stickers: names, telephone, blood type––in case, in the event––unmentionable, but. Some schools made these stickers mandatory. They have been practicing. In case of fire, one drill; bomb, another. The idea is not to panic.
It can help to know that––
Not to say too much. We want them to feel normal, say the mothers.
We pray, says one mother. We pray a lot, she says, for peace.
But how can––
Look. We are already here.
We hold the babies, hold the prayers. We hold on, and the windows are shaking.
Shhh, we say, shh. What else?
For the mothers and the babies, the brothers, fathers, the missing, and those holding in solidarity and love.
Those needing shelter. Those who know to offer it when needed, even when they don’t know how. Those hiding scars and recent wounds, and those who know how to recognize the wounded, everywhere.
Who is this for?
Those who have known the anguish of caring, and the terror of an all-consuming love. Who have sometimes been terrified by the range and volume of other emotions, identified as harbored within themselves, ready to erupt.
Who have been moved near weeping on occasion, at the flow of a good pen, or at the way that someone had the patience to slice grapes, one by one, in tiny circles and half-moons, for folding into a family-style dinner salad, offered to strangers. Who need art with a hunger often sharper than the need for food. Who don’t understand how anyone can find any level of emotional display actually shocking, because even if they practice restraint fastidiously, with the faith of an earnest devotee, they know how close they are, at any moment, to losing it all.
Who cry in witness to beauty, with the sheer relief of finding someone who cares enough to look long and hard, taking it in, who even in the satisfaction of some total consummation with divinity, chooses not to stop in the afterglow, but returns to the ache, caring enough to look long and hard–– to offer it back up, all of it, to anyone looking.
People who can remember or imagine a circus tent on fire, and the terror of the blocked entrance. Those who look at the exit signs long and often, and also at the sky.
People who lose things: cats, dogs, loves, ideas, directions, the name of the song they are always almost having, on the tips of their ever-licking tongues. People who find things, too. Especially broken and lost bits of others, waiting on the ground underfoot.
Those who hold babies. Those who avoid holding the offered babies, for fear that the heart will shatter too loudly. The babies and the former babes––and the very old, so close to death that nothing but the wide lens will do. Or the magnifying glass, to study the favorite wrinkles fanning out, like bird wings spreading around the corner of beloved eyes.
Those needing shelter. Those who know to offer it when needed, even when they don’t know how. Those hiding scars and recent wounds, and those who know how to recognize the wounded, everywhere. Anyone familiar with the sense of their own eyes floating behind them, up and over like a kite, looking down.
Who know the ache of hearing a musical phrase so expansive, familiar, and hauntingly rich that they want to climb inside and live in its space until time evaporates.
As I began to understand that there would be no end to the list, and no reason to work towards one, I decided to pause, with an intention to revisit it from time to time, as with certain records, occasional prayers, and pilgrimages, as a reminder back to some original impulse for finding shelter in a strange land.