Author’s Note: If you have been watching commercials, you will have noticed a common theme and rhetoric: We are in this together. I have to wonder, though, if we are. We are anti-maskers and pro-maskers. We are fiscally-conservative small-business-owning small-government-supporting Republicans and we are fiscally-equalitive, minimum-wage-working, large-government-enabling Democrats. We are the at-risk and the invincible. You need only scroll through one or two tweets, posts, or news articles to be reminded that, if you are together with anyone (big if), you are against far more.
And yet there is something that, if angry customers, snippy emails, and expletive-filled comment threads are to be used as evidence, does seem to unite us: we are all suffering and the rage and fear each of us are harboring are at a boiling point. I recently listened to a sermon on lament and was reminded of the power of communal lamentations. I am far more clear on who I hate than who I love, far clearer on who has hurt me than how the harmer has been hurt themselves.
To remedy this, to tap into the power of communal suffering, to remind myself and others that the pain we feel does not exist in isolation, I have shared my work of lament after the jump. If you have a painting, a written work, a song, or something else of your own creation that conveys your story of lament, we are accepting submissions for our A Space to Speak series. You may submit original work here. If you need a distraction, please check out our free, happy short stories collection Before We All Die, Let’s Have One Last Chat By the Fireside.
Suffering is hard and holy work. May we accept its gift in ourselves and in each other.
Down the street from my childhood house, there’s a park where the sun shines and chickens peck. It has a lake on one side and a field on the other with an old, beautiful tree in the middle of it. Beautiful, but caged. There’s a sign on the fence but I haven’t read it in some time; I will have to rely on the fallacy of memory and the power of suburban legend to provide you with the specifics of why this tree is stuck inside a fence.
A snowstorm, years ago, brought in thick, heavy snow. It broke the branches and split the trunk and caused irreparable damage to the tree. Worse than that, it was evaluated and determined to be a danger to itself and the world around it. At any moment it could collapse and kill or paralyze or gravely injure whatever creature happened to be under it. Someone, probably with a tax-payer-funded salary, decided that a fence should be erected and so a fence was erected, with, I’m sure, taxpayer dollars. It was built to protect the patrons of the park from being crushed or maimed or wounded by a tree falling and collapsing in the middle of a field. And, if my memory serves correctly, there was controversy about putting a fence around a tree because there is always controversy about the policing of things we feel we own by people we do not feel particularly connected to, but, for the purposes of this story, these controversies do not matter, not because they don’t but because it belongs to the past and we are now living in the present.
In the present, this is true: hundreds of people walk through this park per week and few, if any, stop to concern themselves with the fence that surrounds the tree that is stuck inside a fence. This tree has been stuck inside a fence for, what I would estimate, at the absolute lowest, to be a decade, although I am almost positive it’s been longer. By our experience, the tree has not collapsed and killed anyone and therefore the fence does seem a bit odd. The tree has not collapsed at all, despite us being told it could happen any day and it has, in fact, been many days, thousands if my estimate is correct, and the tree has yet to kill someone, at least in the time since the snowstorm. The tree has yet to collapse at all. When you take all this in, the fence seems a bit unnecessary.
The rub, of course, is that time does not, at least in our current, accessible understanding of it, allow us to view two simultaneous timelines at once – a line in which there is no fence, and a line in where there is. So we are simply left to view the one timeline we have, in which there is a fence and the tree has not collapsed and no one has been injured or killed in the collapse of the tree which has not happened. If we were able to look down a simultaneous timeline in which a fence had not been built, we might see many things, two of which I want to focus on.
The first is one in which the tree, free from any existence within a fence, does collapse and not only does it collapse but it does kill someone and because I am in the interest of driving the reality of death home as much as possible, I am going to select the most tragic and graphic death of a victim I can. I am the one viewing this timeline and this is what I see: a seven-year-old girl is running after a wayward soccer ball or climbing the tree or simply laying underneath its branches when, for whatever reason, divine, cosmic, or random, the tree picks this moment to collapse. And it does collapse and it lands on this girl and pushes her rib cage into her lungs until they are punctured and she bleeds out internally so that nothing can be done to save her. Or her skull is bashed in by the trunk and kills her instantly. Or her tiny body responds in a way that tiny (and not so tiny) bodies bent towards life never should, because bodies are not used to trees collapsing on them and this girl dies. Not only does this girl die but because of how she dies (via tree collapse) her mother or her babysitter or her brother or whoever it is that made the unfortunate decision of taking this girl to the park where a tree would collapse, did not get a chance to say goodbye. The girl is simply alive and with her loved ones one minute and the next, dying cold and alone under the weight of a collapsed tree.
The second is much happier. I say this not to prepare your anxious heart from having to endure a second traumatic child death but to give your grieving heart a chance to explore what it needs to. We so often rush from the hurting straight to the healing that we miss what the hurting, in its entirety, can do for us. Take the time to grieve, to be angry at me, to hurt or cry or do whatever needs to be done in response to the hurting I have put you through. And, in return, don’t rush my hurting later into healing.
The second path this timeline could take is this: the tree, free from its confining fence, does not collapse ever. It grows stronger and fixes itself and remains in its spot for hundreds of years or for however long trees like this one live for. I am not, have never been, and will likely never be, an expert on the lifespan expectancy of flora of any kind. The same little girl from earlier climbs this same tree and falls in love with it the way that only children can with things that are not receptive to our affections. This is the tree that she gets her high school graduation pictures taken in front of, her inspiration for becoming the kind of ecologist I have never been, the backdrop she selects for her wedding day. A hundred years in the future, her great-granddaughter finds this tree and recognizes it from the wedding picture of her great-grandmother and feels some kind of connection to this space and feels the spirit of her grandmother and her love and it is so beautiful and sweet the granddaughter knows she’ll never forget the feeling as long as she lives. She doesn’t and none of it would have been possible had a fence prevented her great-grandmother from climbing this tree when she was seven years old.
These are the two alternative paths I am interested in. The point is we have no idea what could have happened if a fence had not been installed because a fence was installed. Therefore, any effort put into loudly debating if the fence was worth installing or not because the tree has not, at present, collapsed, is, perhaps fun, but ultimately pointless. The fence has been installed and the only direction we have to move currently is forward.
Which brings us to another interesting question that, in essence, will sound the same but is, in fact, entirely different. Should I, right now, throw my computer off of my lap, run to the park, and destroy the fence that surrounds the tree that is stuck? Or should I, for the control I have over it, continue to allow the fence to stand? This is a radically different question than whether or not the fence should have been built. The only tangible answer I have to that question is that the fence has been built but the answer I have to the more recent question is limitless. The future, as we understand it, has not happened yet. There is a tomorrow that exists in which the fence no longer stands because I have destroyed it, and a future in which the fence continues to exist because I did not destroy it.
I’m sure there is a word for this concept but I do not know it because, just as I am not an ecologist, I am not a philosopher or a quantum physicist. I am just one of 7.59 billion people living on this planet at this moment and I think too much and I feel too deeply. Or perhaps I think and feel the right amount and it is everyone else who thinks and feels too little. Or perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle, as it often is, and I am perfect in the amount that I think and feel and so are you.
There is a clear legal answer to the question I have posed because the law states, in some penal code (I am also not a lawyer nor a police officer), that you cannot destroy a fence simply because you want to see what will happen. Or perhaps the code says you cannot cut a fence down for any reason unless you have filed the necessary paperwork and have assembled the proper permits. I am not interested in this legal answer because, if I have been reminded of any truth in the last few months it is this: laws are only laws for some people at some times. If you are White, the law states that you can hold a big gun with a name I do not know (I am also not a gun aficionado) and stick it into the mouth of your democracy because that is a right promised to you in a centuries old document. If you are Black and holding a cell phone in a dark alley the law states that you can be shot by a well-meaning police officer with children and a wife who loves him, because he was afraid for his life. This is a fair and honest fear but it is not more or less fair and honest to want to be Black and make a phone call in an alleyway at whatever time you wish and to hang up and go home to your own wife and children and to not be killed because the essence of you is terrifying to someone who does not know how to speak your name.
Nor am I interested in a religious answer because I cannot continue to listen to the voices of children who sing about God’s unending love on Sunday and damn their neighbor to hell on Monday because they are gay or because they curse or they drink or they get pregnant or get themselves unpregnant or because they think they are stupid for voting differently than they do or because they have to be a mother or because their brain tells them to kill themselves and that is heavy to hear and it makes them uncomfortable. I am not interested in the answer of the earthquake or the fire; I am only interested in the whisper that comes from the mouth of God and I cannot hear the whisper if everyone around me is screaming.
I hate the screaming.
I think I hate even the normal talking for it has grown too loud for me.
This is why I have been quiet for so many months about so many things I have wanted to be loud about. I do not want to be the earthquake in someone else’s valley. I suppose sometimes the earthquake is the whisper. The deep things have to rise, have to be violently called to the surface. But this is a whisper because it is honest and because I have not used the F-word once even though I have wanted to because I want you to understand. It feels like you have to use sharp words in our current world when you want someone to listen because otherwise they call you a child. They would call me a child anyway.
When I said I did not want to be the earthquake in someone’s else’s valley before, I was telling a half-truth but also a half-lie. I do not want to do to another what they have done to me, but I do want to scream until I am heard and understood by the people who hate the sound of my voice.
I am scared of a Good News that rips people out of their homes and forces them into schools that beat them until they forget how to say their own name with their own tongue. I am scared of a people that hate so much the people they say they love.
And I am sad too because I know people with forgotten tongues and people who have taught in beating schools and I do not know how to love them both. I only know I am sad for my friend that has forgotten how to speak and my teacher who has forgotten how to love.
I am scared of myself and how I am so often the thing that I hate most and am most afraid of.
None of this is to say I am unhappy. I am deeply, genuinely happy. I am loved and I love, both in ways impossible to quantify within the limits of any language. I am excited and passionate about the future. It’s just that sometimes I wish there was nothing but silence. Sometimes, because I know I would miss the way my nephew laughs when I shoot him a funny face across the dinner table, but also sometimes because I want him to mature into a world that is not afraid to say it is sorry, and to mean it, when it hurts people. I am scared of a world that unapologetically hurts people.
So, I am simply not interested in what the law or the Bible have to say about whether I should rip up a fence. This, of course, makes me a fugitive and a heretic but I am not afraid of these labels because I have heard them hurled at me before simply because I was breathing and it was too loud for someone. I am interested in what I think I should do.
And if I’m honest, and I don’t mean the kind of honesty we pull out of our mouths when we tell a lie or want to grow closer with someone, I’m talking about the honesty that gets you fired from jobs and thrown into prisons and hung from nooses in public executions. If I am that kind of honest, I know that I’m not really that concerned about whether the fence should stay up or be torn down. I think I am most concerned about whether or not I want the tree to crumble.
A world in which multiples of people can compare staying inside their houses to herding people of one religion into a chamber of gases and standing there, knowing you have the power to save them, and watching them crumble to the floor and dying and not doing anything is not analogous to a girl trying to catch a ball. A world in which wearing a mask is the highest form of persecution to one person at the same time that someone else is being forced out of their home because their landlord discovered their brain did not match their genitals is not like a child climbing a tree. A world in which we have given to Caesar what is God’s – our complete and unshakable adoration – is not like a human being who breathes and can one day cease breathing. And sometimes I find myself thinking maybe the tree should fall because we do, like an apocalyptic Christian once told me in a Facebook thread about justice, deserve to be cast outside of the thing we have forgotten is Good and into a place where our skin burns.
At the same time, if the tree does fall over, we lose doctors who stand in crosswalks and say you cannot shut this place of healing down because you are angry at the length of your hair. We lose how babies smell and how their skin feels when it’s pressed against your arms and the wonder and love and fear you feel when you look into their tiny eyes, closed against the brightness of the light. We lose puppies and board games and movies that make you cry because you need to cry sometimes and it feels good to watch the credits roll and to be able to walk away from something that hurts. We would lose graduations and weddings and marathons, greeting cards to say I hear you and happy birthday, spaces to make solely because there are humans we love and are proud of.
I am angry at the sound but without it there is no sound.
What would happen if there was no fence and what would happen if I tore the fence down now and what would happen if there were no trees at all? I have so many questions but, worse than that, I hear a million answers every time my eyes come unplugged. I see how the voices love to speak when my ears blink. I just want to lay in the grass and stare up at the tree above the fence line. I want to listen to the birds that hum from the branches. I want to smell the grass as it grows underneath my head.
Hundreds of people walk by this tree each week and I envy them and the world they live in. Their world does not think about the fence or the girl who was crushed by and married in front of the tree. They just walk and jog and bike through a park with other walkers and joggers and bikers. They listen to their heartbeat or their Spotify or the sound of wheels on pavement. They realize and recognize that everyone is trying to enjoy the park as best as they can and this answer is enough for them.
And sometimes I wish that were me when I see a fence surrounding a tree.
Bryce Van Vleet is a graduate student and a collector of words. His book can be purchased here. A playlist for songs of lament can be found here and a playlist for encouragement in turbulent times can be found here.
Leave a Reply