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I Did Not Know What Else to Say

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Puppet on the oil train tracks. Photo by Fin Hewitt

The rain changed over to snow just as the light was leaving the sky, and by this morning any hint of spring had been erased. Gone the wash of green I wrote of only yesterday; gone the tufts of newly lush grass; gone the stilled suppleness of the early air, like a finely woven fabric almost too soft to feel. Gone chores in a shirt pushed up to the elbows, feet warm in rubber boots, bird and frog song everywhere, the mind liberated by the body’s contentment, flitting from one thought to the next, and none of them meaning much of anything. This morning all I could think about was the cold soaking through the knees of my jeans as I knelt to milk, the stiffness in my fingers and my recalcitrant right elbow, and the brief, repeating blasts of wind driving all of it deeper. And hardly any birdsong.

So. Gone the comfort, too.

Though none of it’s gone, really; just obscured. Deferred.

Over the weekend I accompanied our older son to a direct action campaign in the city of Albany, New York for the purpose of disrupting the flow of Bakken crude oil. The oil travels by train, hundreds upon hundreds of rail cars streaming through the city’s most  economically challenged (and primarily African American) neighborhoods. The people who live in these communities are subjected to the worst of the ancillary pollution, and also placed at the highest risk of a disastrous incident such as the one that occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec a few years back, when train cars carrying crude oil crashed and exploded, killing 47 and displacing many others. So you see: The risk is not theoretical.

I am not inherently drawn toward this type of activism, though I sympathize with the cause and am saddened and angered by the injustices inflicted on those with the fewest resources to defend themselves. But my boy is drawn to this work, or at least curious about it, and because of this, and because I think it is healthy to occasionally remove one’s self from one’s comfort zone, which this trip would certainly do for me, I said ok. Let’s go.

We rode a chartered bus to Albany, and slept fitfully on a church floor, surrounded by the night noises of a 100 or so other fitful sleepers, and it was not restful for me, at least in part because I had difficultly not thinking about everything that needed doing at home. In the morning, we made by foot for the park that served as gathering spot for what would ultimately be nearly 2,000 other activists.

About halfway to the park we came upon a bus stop inhabited by a small group of middle age men, all of them black. I do not think they were waiting for bus, though I could be wrong. But it seemed to me as if they’d gathered there to socialize, to watch the world roll by on a Saturday morning, or at least the small sliver of the world comprised by that block of South Pearl Street in Albany, New York.

“Where are you going?” one of them asked. “Where are you from?” (was it that obvious that we weren’t from around there? It was. It very much was). We told them about the trains, which they knew about already, and we told them about the gathering, which they didn’t know about, and then we suggested they join us. “Come sing with us,” someone in our group said, and they laughed, and then one of them said “he can sing,” pointing to one of his companions.

And then what happened is that this man stepped forward and began to sing to our little group of privileged white folks from out-of-town, and I could see that many of his teeth were capped in silver (or something that looked like silver), and many of the ones that weren’t capped were simply missing, and I could hear that his voice truly was something special. Maybe even sacred. It was a gospel song, not one I recognized (as if I’d recognize any), and we just stood there. Dumbstruck, I’d say, but that’s not quite right, because it felt to me like one of those moments when a deep and abiding intelligence is being revealed and you know right then and there that you now understand something you never had before, something you never even understood you needed to understand. If that makes any sense.

When he finished, we all clapped, then everyone laughed together, then they shook our hands in flurry of complicated patterns that I fumbled through best I could, and as we walked away my son said “that was amazing.”

And I just nodded my head, in part because I did not trust the strength of my own voice at that very moment, and in part because I did not know what else to say.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

25 thoughts on “I Did Not Know What Else to Say”

  1. Great story. Every once in a while, or maybe more often than not if we’ll simply see and recognize, human brilliance pops up. There in the voice of the young man and there in the sacrifice of the “privileged white folks from out of town”.

  2. The morning before I got married, my friend and I were decorating the church. Attached to the church, in what was the fellowship hall, was a homeless shelter food place. While we were decorating, after breakfast, one old black gentleman came over and asked if he could go upstairs into the church and play the piano. We said sure, why not. What came out of that sanctuary was pure heaven in notes. I’m not sure why we were so amazed, but we were. That man played for about 30 minutes and we sat down in the foyer absolutely dumbstruck. Silent. Unmoving. When he was finished, he came back down and said thank you very much. We said, oh no, that was amazing and thank you for sharing it with us. I will always remember that music, and that man.

  3. From yesterday:

    Furthermore, it often seems to me that everything that really needs saying has already been said, and that what we really need more of are the stories that lie beyond the range of human language. The movement of the stream this morning. The weight of the air, still spitting out rain. The curl of the calf’s tongue around the bottle nipple, and the beaded foam of milk along its surface. Such a funny little detail….

    From today:

    And then what happened is that this man stepped forward and began to sing … and I could see that many of his teeth were capped in silver (or something that looked like silver), and many of the ones that weren’t capped were simply missing, and I could hear that his voice truly was something special. Maybe even sacred. It was a gospel song,… and we just stood there. Dumbstruck, I’d say, but that’s not quite right, because it felt to me like one of those moments when a deep and abiding intelligence is being revealed and you know right then and there that you now understand something you never had before, something you never even understood you needed to understand. If that makes any sense.

      1. Yes, you’ve got to be brave to be a farmer. We had a hail storm last week that dumped so much hail in some places that the county had to break out the snow plows to clear the roads. The crops aren’t up very far, so no need to replant.

  4. “one of those moments when a deep and abiding intelligence is being revealed and you know right then and there that you now understand something you never had before, something you never even understood you needed to understand.”

    I had one just like that the other day, after reading one of the last passages in Jenkinson’s “Die wise” book and hearing a passage on a rockband’s latest cd that matched exactly. Not only matched, but was the to me perfect explanation of what I had read not a half hour before.
    It was as if my field of view literally broadened physically, mentally, immensely and immediately. To say I had goosebumps from my toes to the top of my head is, although true, not enough. I shuddered…..

    1. I agree. How easy it would have been to say no (and with valid reason) but look what happened with a single yes. Need to remember to do that myself more. I imagine Ben and Fin will never forget this experience.

  5. Well there you go….untapped beauty and potential in all people, why? The hierarchy that society operates under. If you’re not a white male, forget it. Our city has hired some firm to create a ‘comprehensive plan’ that will be the blueprint for the city for the next 10-15 years. The all white firm, deciding the fate of a very mixed population, has decided that they will not concentrate on the poverty stricken areas in our small city, but to strengthen the middle class instead, because it’s all about money and boosting the economy, and helping the people at the bottom of the hierarchy isn’t going to make us rich. Most of the white people are perfectly fine with this and don’t see the problem. They get hired over blacks, they get paid more, they don’t get beaten while being pulled over for supposedly running a red light. Can the world stop being disgusting now?

  6. It is always such a gift to read these stories. Thank you.

    Kids and I were watching European swimming championship in rainy Lithuania yesterday. Kids announced their American pride declaring: “Americans are better at swimming!” I said: but Lithuanians are great at basketball. Then kids got clever: “What are Lithuanians bad at?” I had to be pretty honest: “Lithuanians are horrible at singing and dancing. They do not have black people here.” 🙂

  7. What a lovely gem of an experience for you and your boy. Worth the whole trip, I’d say. Good for you for sticking your necks out too. Heard you got snow up there. Those who’s call it “poor man’s fertilizer,” can keep it! Oh well, soon it will be hotter n hell and we’ll be wishing for the cold!

  8. Ah Ben, what conflicting emotions to read this. We had been looking forward to going to Albany for this “action.” As with you, demonstrating is not my thing, but the moral stakes are high, and the possibility of getting arrested had been mentioned–who could resist? (We’re in our 70’s, what can they do to us?) But then, alas, a family emergency cropped up, calling us elsewhere. Since then we’ve spent half our time lamenting (somewhat childishly) our not being there.

    We’ve also, like you, thought much about our connection with future generations. Our kids are all grown (parental influences already bestowed), but we’re now much involved in the lives of our West Corinth neighbors Margaret and Jonathan, farmers like you, with three wonderful hardworking boys, whom Jude has been helping to home-school. Their oldest, Keelan (now 14) has become very interested in matters of climate justice–we’ve all gone to some things together–and Kee maybe could have accompanied us had we gone to Albany (Marg and Jon would no doubt have been too busy– a circumstance I’m sure you’d appreciate).

    As far as links to past and future go, we’ve come to two realizations: One is that the earnestness of youth is (or can be) a refreshing contrast to the more sophisticated but more jaded outlook of us grownups. The other is that climate change is not only the issue of our time, but a link with all human history. It reaches farther into the future than we can possibly see, yet touches every moment we spend every day (as your blog, in its way, demonstrates, even when it’s not saying so explicitly).

    So how do we act? That’s the damn thing. Let us know when you’ve figured it out.

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