Tag Archives: justice

The white underwing

I happed upon this image just before a writing session. Here’s most of what I wrote.

Up, anxious, sitting on the pot. Above the bathroom curtain’s ruffle, I can see a section of the night sky. A wedge of moon travels above Linshaw’s roof and into the netted shadows of their massive copper beech.

That tree, part sentinel, part cautionary tale, is hundreds of years old. It was a sapling during the small pox epidemic of the late 1700’s. It grabbed sky in one direction and earth in the other when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Horses and a stream wandered nearby.

The beech was bigger yet at the Emancipation Proclamation. By the time of the Spanish flu perhaps the twin trunks had established themselves.

The white planked house is old too, but not nearly as old as the tree. I like to think that old Abraham Jackson sited the foundation with due regard for the tree, a tree which was still in its youth but already punctuating his property with its mighty grace.

The moon in her delicate variety is older yet, so old that a different scale of time is required. The coal-to-diamond scale. The asteroid-encounter scale.

All I can think about during my brief viewing of the night sky is how insular I’ve become. A life apart from the wonder of puddles and their up-side-down worlds. Apart from trout and hummingbirds. Apart from the cleansing sweep of cold night air in the lungs.

Oh I go outside, but my walks with the dog are more like mail delivery than adventure. Making the rounds. A chance to take stock of all the closed blinds and to wonder why so few structures ever show any signs of life.

When I lived on the other side of the state in the Berkshires all I had to do was raise my head off the pillow and gaze out my eastern window to be transported. Sheep’s Heaven Mountain. The mountain’s name whispered: time passes, time passes. Not that long ago the wooded hill was bare and dotted with sheep.

Here the horizon is rooved. One neighbor painted their house a bright yellow this year. At first I wondered about their choice but today I look out and its yolky warmth is welcome in all the grey.

All the grey can dull the senses. Maybe that’s why the news photo of a snowy owl in Washington, DC captivated me this morning. She’d made her way south from her usual haunts. She could be yet another signal of the drastic climate change we’re all so busily — in one way or another — trying to ignore.

But when I spy her fluffed up against the cold atop a statue of Themis, a figure representing freedom and justice, I like to think she stands for something else. That she augurs change. I like to think that when she lifts her wings and reveals their white undersides, we are meant to notice and in noticing, act.

I don’t believe the arc of the moral universe necessarily bends toward justice. There are too many ways we can fail. But this bird perched on the head of a goddess carrying the sword of justice lets me think we have a chance. A chance to make things right. A chance to live up to our promise and to atone for our sins. Not because I say so, but because a solitary owl, mysterious and commanding, has told me so.

Transitions and things and slavery (never far from my mind)

C and his girlfriend went away for the long weekend. As soon as they returned, it was time to drive my other son to the airport. Washing dishes at the sink this morning, I thought, “oh this phase of the empty nest is marked by transition,” and then a heart beat later, “ALL phases of life are marked by transition.” After all, I was washing a ceramic bowl that an hour earlier belonged to a downsizing friend.

Scanning her garage shelves this morning I said,  “I’ll look because both boys are setting up apartments this fall,” but the truth is I find opportunities to receive free stuff irresistible.  Perhaps my choices were puzzling to her. I took several decades’ worth of spigot and hose attachments, but not the complete set of enamel-handled silverware (surely handy in a young man’s empty apartment?!). I grabbed the funky, brass crab ash tray, but left the collection of vases from all over the world behind.   It is not quite as fun as it used to be — this gleeful, thrifty form of acquisition — because I now understand the cost of HAVING things. The housing, the cleaning, perhaps the wishing I hadn’t.  But still, can anyone doubt that those giraffe salad utensils look happy in their new home? Look at them, checking out the kitchen!

I could go on a framing spree to justify the big box of wooden frames I lugged home.

Or, I could go drink iced coffee in the shade before it rains. I’d like to finish Faulkner’s “Go Down, Moses” even though I may have less idea about what’s going on than the author intended. Can’t a read be like that? Just a letting of the text wash over the mind? And then it’s back to “Blood and Indigo” and Eliza and the enslaved Melody and the events during the week of the Stono Slave Rebellion (the second week of September, 1739). Imagining.

It requires research and a kind of patient waiting to describe a scene situated almost 300 years ago. What was in the minds of my white characters that week? What was in the minds of my black characters? The attempt to fully imagine those events feels like a fruitful one. I begin to understand the harsh tensions of that time, including the true costs of slavery. The void between white and black points of view is vast and unbridgeable, as I tell it, and perhaps one or even both sides are unknowable to me, and yet, I keep going for it.

Sadly, this research and patient imagining of violence brought on by racial oppression echoes across the centuries and helps me to understand OUR time as well. I wish that weren’t true.

All kinds of things tell me that we, America, might be at a tipping point. Don’t you think? Commentators a lot better informed than I are talking about the coming of the end of white supremacy (for example, here). Everywhere, I see signs of a willingness to take on our history with a fresh and more honest approach.   


(If you know that this is Newton’s Jackson Homestead, celebrated as one of the documented stops on the Underground Railroad, you will understand the import of that banner).

To be continued, of course.