The following images are of rocks and shells and bits of colored glass found on different New England beaches this summer. I photographed them yesterday after placing them in a bowl I had rediscovered, a beautiful dark clay vessel lined with ridges. Eventually I filled the bowl with water. I snapped photos throughout the day whenever whimsy struck. Near dusk I decided I should empty the bowl before mosquitoes began to breed. Just as I drained the last drop, the bowl cracked in my hands. An unseen flaw had been exacerbated by the weight of water. In an instant, I was reminded of the beauty found in fragile things.
Today, as I worked with the images, admiring the visual expression of soft colors and hard edges and glimpses of the bowl now gone, I was reminded of a series of conversations I’ve been having with people about empathy and compassion (and their lack) in a world that can appear so beautiful and yet so broken at the same time. I was also reminded of how much I miss the wisdom of my elders as I live through these times. They may be gone but I do have their stories … though goshdarnit, some of the stories make me ponder even more about the ways of this fragile world.
My father once told me a story of walking to work. It was southern Virginia in the 1950′s. He and my mother were newlywed and I think they had one child. He couldn’t yet afford a car. As he walked from home to the Public Works Department, he passed a yellow school bus. The bus was stopped at a red light. He smiled up at the young children. The children spat down at him. He was black and they were white.
My mother’s sister Thelma happily left the south for New York during that great migration in this country. Though she had no car and did not drive, she could walk wherever she wanted. One day she walked through Central Park. She saw this beautiful redheaded woman with smooth milk-white skin. “She looked like a movie star,” Aunt Thelma recalled. At the woman’s side was a young boy. As their paths crossed, eye contact was made and Aunt Thelma prepared herself to exchange a greeting. Instead the woman tapped her son. “Then she pointed at me,” Aunt Thelma said. “She pointed at me and said You see, my dear, that’s a nigger.” Many decades later, Aunt Thelma looked at me and said with a gentle chuckle, “That’s why to this day I have a hard time watching movies with redheads.”
My mother told me stories. My brothers, both my elder ones and my younger one, have told me stories. I have my own growing collection of stories of not being seen as an individual or of being discounted and even despised because of the color of my skin. I read newspaper accounts of children around the world, who from my perspective look alike, who are trying to kill each other because of deeds that took place long before they were “a gleam in their mothers’ eyes,” who hate in large part because of what is shared by surrounding adults.
As I remember my parents and other elders who led challenging lives in this country, I wonder how is it that they did not plant seeds of hate in the hearts of their children? How did they choose and succeed I hope in teaching us to lend a hand to help the fallen and not first assess if that person was white, red, black, green or purple or carried a certain bible or had a certain sized bank account? Perhaps I oversimplify …
My younger brother still lives in Virginia with his family. He recently called while on his way home from work. We usually joke and laugh about silly things. But this time he was more somber. Finally, he said, “You know, I have a hard time watching television anymore. Those ads by all the candidates of every party and their followers. You know how much money some people are putting into these ads just to make me hate somebody? Don’t they realize how that money could help so many homeless people and others dying on the streets?”
Don’t tell my brother I said this but he reminds me of the bowl that held the stones in these pictures. To be able to ask such questions suggests to me that a person is not closed off … that there is a beautiful fissure in one’s heart, mind, soul … that helps one remain open to the life experiences of others. Anyway, the summer is not quite done. More rocks and shells I may collect. A new bowl I may find. Then we’ll see what words and images emerge. Be well!
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