The Truth To Set You Free

A statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of piles of bricks. Each with the name of a person he owned. ugh.

I was buoyant to be part of the preview crowd at the soon to open Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum, as it slowly grew into it’s stacked corona on the Mall, grew on me. My companions in line said the same thing.

You can read more on the Museum here, here and here. This is not a review, though.

This is some raw thinkings delivered by a museum that riled me raw. After the party.

The party was awesome. There was a DJ and a hype man. Their day jobs are providing security at other Smithsonian properties on the mall. Tonight, they were party starters. They spun tunes-opening with Celebrate by Kool and the Gang which made me all nostalgic for my Sibling’s wedding as her new brother-in-law loosened his tie from his tux and pranced around the dance floor with a bottle of champagne in each hand–and asked the crowd (which was huge given there are just 200 employees and this was a family event, but the more the merrier when you’re celebrating) to hand dance and Wobble.

The dips and finger foods were generous, but the exhibits beckoned. That’s why we were here. I took the elevator down a few stories to a deep cavern which leads visitors through American history via the lens of African Americans. You follow an ascending ramp back up to the main floor. There is much to see and feel and think about as you walk the corridor.

There was part of one wall that told the horror story of families broken up on the auction block. In particular, the  curators related the story of a woman who was being put up for sale who refused to let them take her child. Take her child away from her. Out of her arms. This was her baby.

As she screamed and held the baby dear, she was lashed by a whip. Still, she held on to her sweet child. And, still, she was beaten by the people who were going to sell her. And sell her child. And the bastards wrenched her heart, her precious baby, from her arms. This horror was depicted in an ink drawing.

As I turned away from the canvas, I saw a man. He was a father. His skin was the same shade as the mother in the drawing. The woman who was for sale. He was holding his sweet baby in his arms. I can’t stop thinking about him and his family, and the woman and her family from hundreds of years ago. And thinking about progress and the journey that we are still on as a country and as a people.

My mind is racing and boiling and roiling and recoiling. And thinking. More thinking.

Further and Close

The Potomac River breaching the park to the bench.

It starts just below my breastbone. It’s very localized, in my chest. It’s a time when I recognize my heart is a muscle. It tightens.

Heat radiates from that beating muscle down toward my tensing stomach. And I feel my throat close a bit. My nose begins to swell and my eyes itch. Almost itch.

I fight back with a deep breath and it all subsides, just before it spills over into tears.

It happens again and again today. From the first reminder on a screen in my hand, through interviews on news shows and sprinkled liberally in football coverage.

Over and over I push it aside. I struggle through. I feel the hurt. Of watching the towers fall again and again. Seeing the smoke from the pentagon over and over. Listening to the reading of the names. Names of those lost, the innocent and the brave. Even after fifteen years, it still cuts. It still shocks. It still hurts.

In remembrance of all that was lost that day. And our search for peace.

 

Secret Passage

This is a stylized view of a sunflower napkin ring on a paisley tablecloth. It is an image that makes you think of something else. I bet people treating cancer patients think of something else all the time.

The doctor walked out into the hall. He looked tired. He was tired.

The offices and treatment rooms were laid out in a way that he could escape. Escape from those he treated.

He didn’t just treat the sick. He treated the well. The well that were sometimes more terrified than his actual patients. The well who were worried that their beloved sicks would be neglected.

The doctor didn’t neglect anyone. He just couldn’t save them all. When they met him, they were already diagnosed. He was an oncologist. So their illness was cancer.

Cancer isn’t a death sentence. He explained that to those who were referred to him. That said, sometimes people with cancer die. People look to him for their stage. Staging is important. If you’re Stage 1, you feel okay. If you’re Stage 4, you think you’re dead. You might be. Or maybe not.

But the Doctor sees you no matter your stage. And does their best to keep you in the “not dead” category. But it’s their best. And as good as they may be, some will move to the dead category.

But not today. The Doctor was very tired. There was a ten-day medical education thingie that he was still feeling. He’s not a resident anymore!

But, today he saw you, with your biggest, winning smile cemented by yesterday’s tooth polishing at the dentist. Your hair was growing beyond it’s style, sticking out at the back and around your ears like a 70’s Keith Partridge.

You were bronzed from a week at the beach and the last MRI was clean. He told the fourth-year medical student how you helped develop a new treatment protocol. They talked coded doctor talk a bit. Not to be rude, but because they were excited.

But the oncologist still looked tired. You saw him before he was excited. When he left via the back entrance. The secret staff exit from the chemo bar. You were late. You sheepishly signed in and then met up with the money taker. Next:  your blood work. Then you surreptitiously snuck to the restroom–the one behind the elevators–before you got your blood pressure (117/70), temp (98.4°) and weight (none of your fcuking business) took.

When you got to the bathroom, it was occupied. So you stood, legs crossed, and waited.

You looked up when you heard a rustle at the far end of the hallway. You thought someone had found the stairwell that was invisible to you. Oncology was only a single floor up, but the corridor to the steps was like the room of requirements, only there if you knew it.

When you looked up, you saw a rumpled man with a stethoscope snaked around his neck. He was leaving from the secret staff exit. He looked up to see you doing the pee-pee dance. You gave a broad, silent wave. He gave a half wave from around his belt just before he opened the door across from the stairwell and disappeared. Into his retreat. Where he could collect himself. Away from the hope(lessness) of the chemo bar.

He’s a good doc. He needs a break. You don’t want him to break. He’s doing god’s work.

Once in a Lifetime

Look up. At the light. From the ceiling.

Yesterday a woman threw herself. Some say that she dove. I didn’t see that. I saw her hurtling her body to cross that line first. And she did.

I find people who do not appreciate her effort to be missing the point. She came to win. She was excruciatingly close. I felt excruciated for her. She may have won the race without resorting to a headlong fling and the attendant skinned knees and arms. Maybe not. Shaunae Miller, of the Bahamas, literally put her whole self out there in the 400M. She was there to win, like all the athletes. She went extreme.

Another woman put all she had out there to win. Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan competed in her seventh Olympics. The first was in 1992. She’s 41 years old. For number seven, she not only qualified, but competed well enough to be a finalist in the individual vault competition.

Hers, like all gymnasts, is a skills and math problem. If you have the ability to pull off a very hard vault, your rewards spiral upwards via a formula. More hard = more points. Chusovitina knew that her competition’s knees were younger and springier, but she wasn’t in Rio to observe. She was there to medal. Her strategy ? Do “the vault of death.” Seriously. It’s a vault that her lithe, fresh rivals think is too dangerous to risk. But harder increases point potential. Gauntlet thrown. She didn’t hurt herself, nor did she medal. But Chusovitina laid out everything she had. She didn’t just come to play. She came to win.

I got chills watching Miller’s dive at the finish. I held my breath and found myself on my feet clapping as I saw Chusovitina fly, flip and flame. These, and so many other athletes, are the reason that I watch the Olympic games. To see the determination and the drive of these Beasts. Some are going to win. Some are going to lose. But every athlete is there to reach their goal. Not to try, but to do.

I find myself asking, “Doc, what do you want? What will you do to get there?” Win or lose, make it count. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same. As. It. Ever. Was.

Mourning In America

Detail from William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Pietà, 1876, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Mary is so sad. She lost her son.

Women with loss. Loss of a child. A boy, a man, a son, a girl, a woman, a daughter.  A Gold Star mother saying these words, “I became a Gold Star mother,” into a microphone. To millions of people. And tucked deep inside her story of bravery at the unspeakable, she thinks, “Keep your star.” It’s an exclusive club. Nobody wants to join.

Wailing women. Weeping. Pounding their chests. Grabbing their heads. Pulling out clumps of hair. Faces wrenched. Clenching jaws and grinding teeth, trying desperately to hold back the bellows of grief. Of their worst moment. Of falling to the ground with horror. Of being unable to breathe. Of minds going blank, no thoughts, no feelings, nothing, because the alternative is that this is real.

Women of grace. Standing there. Alone. Together. Some with anger. Many with anger. Some struggling to find meaning. Others taking the mantle of meaning. Sharing their heartache, despair, agony and anguish. Pleading with us to see them. To acknowledge their children. To imagine their pain. To warn us. All searching for peace.

There are no words. But I am so sorry for your loss.

 

Reboot

an eye. staring at you.

She flipped her hands through her blond bob and flicked the ends of her hair away from her head in a practiced way. No. It wasn’t practiced. It was a little bit of a tic, the unfurling of the hair, but she flipped her wrist so her hair would fall comfortably toward her chin. She wasn’t flipping out.

She was done with that flipping out.

Her dress was the best turquoise that she could wear. This was significant because turquoise, aqua and many blues all suited her. Her silver and light stone necklace had three tiers but was somehow a light accessory despite all the layers. There was a silver “coin” that drew down that last tier without being heavy. The baubles were luminous, not hefty.

Actually, everything about her was light. Even the lines around her eyes, which were etched by years of quick smiles, were hairlines. Not the crevices that dragged her eyes into her cheeks that dropped into her chin last year. She had no surgery, but her face was lifted.

But there were the twinkles. The ones that reflected from the mirror at the back of the bar and flickered from her eyes. The light that bounced off the shiny, polished wooden bar–it must be from a spotlight shining from the tall ceiling–hit the side of her coupe glass and shone from her ready smile. The smile wasn’t a refresh. It’s always been fast and friendly. But it’s funny how her internal glow made her teeth brighter. And the lines on her face disappear.

She floated just a little bit above her barstool. More like a hover than a transcendental experience. It was part of her lightness.

She realized that people liked her, appreciated her, found her compelling, and maybe, some of them, found her sexy. She was amazed, and then felt righteous, that others felt her value. She had no conceit. She just did. And what she did was good.

She left the dark behind her.  She pulled her anchor out from the cold sea and set sail toward the infinite horizon, following the infinite dawn. She was wrapped in the light.

Sizing Up

Castle gate and wall. Imposing, no?

When I was a wee Doc we lived in The Old House. The house wasn’t especially old, but we called it The Old House to differentiate it from The New House. We moved to the new house just before My Older Sibling started kindergarten.

The New House was fully and completely new. It stood on what had been a part of a good-sized dairy farm that was subdivided into new blocks of varying sizes with twisty roads, half circles and a few cul-de-sacs. There were two very tall and very impressive trees. They were like Ents. The rest of the greenery was new sod and very young, very slow growing trees. When I left for college they barely provided shade.

The Old House, on the other hand, was surrounded by big old trees in the front and in the back. Indeed, the entire street was protected by limbs stretching and trying to touch their brethren across the street. Dappled gold and bursts of saffron would sneak through the small breaks in the big green canopy like specks of amber in hazel eyes. Closing my own, I can still see it, and feel it.

There were two very frightening things on the street with The Old House. First, the bees.

We were terrified of the bees. Someone told us that if they saw you move, they’d come after you and sting you. They were huge bees, the size of golf balls. No. Tennis balls. They would buzz back and forth among the flowers of the old lady down the street. We called her grandma. Her flowers were lovely, except for the bees that hung in front of the flowers. They looked like they were on wires that someone would occasionally move–either a small jerky up and down motion or a smoother left to right. We would spy them and very carefully, silently and slowly, holding our breaths, walk past grandma’s house.

Aa soon as we passed her property line we’d explode like a pinball out of the chute to our friend’s porch to play. I remember a bunch of cement steps to her porch. It was dark and cool, likely from one of those ancient elms. I don’t remember what we played, though. I think we launched ourselves off the steps.

The other terror was another neighbor’s dog. It would bark in a vicious manner. It was very loud. It’d throw itself against the fence to try and break through while full of snarl and howl to intimidate us as we walked by. And that monstrous dog was on the other side of the street. He really didn’t have to go to all that trouble. We weren’t allowed to cross the street.

One day I was walking back home by myself and the dog was banging against the fence. I was spying for bees and looking back over my shoulder across the street to see him break through. There was no worry and creeping past the bees. I took off as fast as I could to my house. The dog was gaining on me as I ran up the driveway through our open gate. I used all my strength to push the chain link gate closed, and it latched just as Cujo bashed into it. I lay on the ground for a second, catching my breath and watching the insane tirade of the evil dog. Worried he’d force himself through my barrier, I ran around the side of the house to the door and pushed my way to safety.

I was four when we moved. I don’t remember going back to The Old House for a long time.

The next time I saw the house, I was with my Dad. He was visiting our old neighbor, who was his best friend. It was maybe ten years later. I walked up our old driveway to the astonishing fence that saved me from that demon dog. Really, the fence wasn’t as astonishing as I was astonished. The gate that I remember breathlessly dragging to save myself from that ferocious canine wasn’t much more than two-feet tall. It would barely keep out a Jack Russell Terrier. So the dog that was chasing me was not a mastiff. Makes sense. Everything was bigger when I was smaller. I had a good chuckle.

I remembered this fence today. It came to me as I was thinking about fear. What are we afraid of? Do we let the objects of our fears grow huge before us? Or do we take a closer look and see them for what they are? Do we keep the images we had when we were most afraid, or do we gain perspective over time? Can we apply new knowledge to dissect and examine our experience and use that understanding to grow? Or do we stay stuck in that moment of terror, never to lift our heads again?