As the World Burns

It’s a breezy overcast spring morning shortly after curfew has expired. I didn’t sleep much last night. I live in an older suburb of Minneapolis in a little ranch house with a little yard on a little street. We’ve quarantined here for months, leaving only for grocery pickup, and my daughter’s followup medical appointments. Life and time has stood still, frozen in an endless loop of a mundane activities. Outside a global pandemic continues barely abated and neighborhoods are burning and being looted a few miles away.

Yesterday I cried when my cat’s ashes were delivered. It seems disproportionate to the world at large, but my grief is layered and dense. Some days it feels like I’m a matryushka doll, with sorrows, large and small stacked one inside the other. Too many personal losses and traumas in the last year, too much going on in the world that I felt powerless to make better. To even say it out loud, when people of color are dying at the hands of those hired and trained to protect all citizens, seems the height of a privileged existence, but my experience is the only one I can tell. Of all others, I must listen and learn.

At 2am I heard the nonstop sirens. I check the news. Police station burning, more businesses looted and burned. The National Guard sent in. I worry that it’s near the area where my daughter has her oncology followup appointment next week. Will we touch the rage? Will the rage touch us? For some people, the world has always been burning. I’ve spent a lifetime tiptoeing around rage and violence. Growing up poor with alcoholism and domestic violence taught me how to live on eggshells. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t talk back. Get through the moment.

In spite of, or perhaps because of my military stint, I don’t trust uniforms, guns, authority. But I live under the radar, the color of my skin unsuspected, unburdened by stereotypes except those of gender. Passive and uninteresting. Just enough activism to soothe my conscience. Memberships in the ACLU, NAACP, League of Women Voters. Little cards sent to me to make me comfortable, even when I know that there is no such thing as moral purity, blamelessness. The little cards aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, but they’re all I have.

I signed up to be an election judge this year. I thought, before the last few months, that this would be the only way to right the ship. To help legitimize the election. Doubts plague me and I don’t think anyone, from sociopathic capitalists to fuzzy socialists to bellicose anarchists have the right answers. Like most things, an imperfect system with good intentions requires a good faith effort by its participants. We’re too busy egging each other on and dehumanizing each other to manage that. My own efforts to remain a decent human have faltered in the face of willful ignorance and cynical exploitation. I am constantly talking myself down from self-righteous anger these days.

Another round of sirens. The national conversations have begun about this place that I have come to love as my first real home. The president weighs in, as usual, with ugly, violent language meant to sound tough and designed to throw more meat to his ugly, violent base. Most of the protests are peaceful, but the violent ones will be all that are talked about – a way to further cement the ideas of “us” and “them”. George Floyd called out for his mother before he died. Mama.

I’ve been researching for a story I’m working on. When I was at Glacier National Park a few years ago, I read up on the history of the area. I’ve been learning more about the Piikani Blackfoot Indians and the Marias Massacre of 1870. The massacre of nearly 200 women, children, and elderly men was covered up, lied about, reframed, and revised over and over again. I think about that story every day now when I read the news. Everyone has an agenda, a perspective, an opinion, a reason to highlight this fact and downplay that. But the video could not lie. Mama.

The unrest is not over and like everything else at the moment, outcomes are uncertain. Today I bury my cat’s ashes. This I know. I call my mom in Kansas to let her know we’re okay and to make sure that she and my 93 year old grandma are staying safe from this virus. I follow up on my daughter’s chemo med refill. I know that things will not always be like this. I will try to spend my day thoughtfully, get through more tears, find grace and joy in moments, knowing that the world burns outside. It’s the only existence I can manage at the moment.

The Blush of First Love: One Note at a Time

When my friend, Bill wrote about his daughter’s first crush, he wrote of the “pang of yearning” for her experience. As is often the case, I somewhat missed the point in my comment, thinking only of the impending demise of young love. When Mark wrote about his brief acquaintance with someone who became a success, I commented that it might be better not to meet the people behind their work.

I am, so often, a rather cynical person who is likely to see that the half-full/half-empty glass is in need of a good washing. And who the hell left it there for me to clean up, anyway?

canstockphoto7136037Sometimes, though, I am reminded of a first love I cannot deny. I smile until my face hurts. Chills run up my spine. Tears well up. I can’t sit still. Want to see a grown woman turn into an ungainly, starstruck teenager? Set me down at a live music performance. To paraphrase Gloria Estefan, for likely the first and last time ever, the rhythm is gonna get me.

I’m fortunate to live in the Twin Cities, a metro area that sprouts organic bands overnight. Tuesday night’s show, with the band i like you and local orchestra kids, was a charity performance to buy used and new musical instruments for kids who can’t afford them. That idea alone brings me to tears. I can’t imagine my life without being able to make my own music and I wouldn’t want any child to miss that opportunity.

Lessons started for me in 4th grade on a nickel-plated rental flute. We were poor, so this was a great luxury and one of the gifts for which my mother will always have my gratitude. The consequence of that monthly rental fee was that I had to practice, without fail, for 30 minutes every day. I resented it about 50% of the time, but the other 50% was all about making my own music.canstockphoto25554786

I played all through high school, never particularly gifted or talented, but practiced, always the practiced musician. I worked at a local cafe and did beanwalking in the summers (it’s an Iowa thing) to pay for my own brand new silver flute. It will likely last my lifetime. In the Army, I took that flute to every posting. While stationed in Monterey at the Defense Language Institute, I joined the Russian balalaika orchestra, donning a traditional sarafan and playing the flute while ungainly military men danced folk dances and sang about bears.

While in college, I took lessons from someone more talented than I and turned around to teach lessons to small troglodytes whose parents wanted enhanced babysitting services. I did have a handful of students over the years who will, even if they no longer play flute, know how to read music and what the word embouchure means. This word is also the answer to the questions “what will get you beat up on a playground?” and “what will make your friends think you’re a pretentious douche?”

I married a programmer who was a drummer and keyboard player by night with a couple of bands. Most of our first year of dating involved concerts and bar bands, our first date a concert that included the Cowboy Junkies, Duncan Sheik, and John Hyatt. I discovered some of my favorite musicians at the Cedar Cultural Center, have gone to festivals and band battles. Over the last few years, we’ve traveled up to the Winnipeg Folk Festival. There’s nothing like acoustic musicians and singers under a clear Canadian night sky.

I play the flute and a little piano. My daughter plays viola and piano. My husband plays guitar, piano and drums. There is music in our house all of the time. If we were more talented on average (the kid is pretty awesome, but the adults could use some work), we’d have to buy matching outfits and a van.

The Kid and the Less Talented Old People doesn't really roll off the tongue as a band name.
The Kid and the Less Talented Old People doesn’t really roll off the tongue as a band name.

Music sinks deep down into my skin. It plays in my head constantly. I sing terribly every day, in the car and the shower, and awkward dancing is how my housework gets done. The only time I never play music is when I’m writing, because to me that is like trying to eat pie and cake at the same time. Each is enough on its own. Although sequentially, still quite delicious.

During the concert’s intermission, I took my daughter and one of her besties, a fellow violist, to meet the band. I gushed, I blushed, I stammered. The kids looked slightly mortified. There is something so magical about mere humans creating such beauty, that I am, to put it lightly, in awe of them. I don’t want to hang out with them. I don’t want to be them. I just want to thank them. I want them to know that what they do matters.

We’re living in a time when everything is processed, packaged and delivered to our devices. Live music is one of those things, like a mildewy paperback in a secondhand store, which reminds me that love is all about discovery. It’s a momentary kinship in time, when we connect with beauty and it feels like it was created just for us.

When It’s Too Late to Talk

Last Thursday evening, a former employee at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis walked into the workplace where he’d been fired earlier in the day, shot five people to death, wounded two others and then killed himself.

In a metro area, even events in the same city can seem far away. They have to, if only to protect ourselves from the very random factors that can influence the means and times of our deaths.  As our minds work hard to separate and distance ourselves from the victims, to be “us” and they “them”, we are being human, but disingenuous.

On November 1st, 1991, I left my Russian language class in Room 203 at Jessup Hall on the University of Iowa campus. A few hours later, a physics student by the name of Gang Lu entered Room 203 and killed himself. He had just killed four members of the physics department, the associate vice president for academic affairs, and severely wounded a secretary, paralyzing her from the neck down.

For the next few days after the university shooting, I stayed away from campus. Eventually I stopped watching or reading the news. When I returned to classes, nothing was visibly different, except that my afternoon class had been moved. Our lives went on as if nothing had happened. It was easier to pretend that it hadn’t. It was easier to pretend that there weren’t walking time bombs among us still. It was easier to pretend that, by mere circumstance, we would not be the target of someone’s rage and paranoia.

We populate our discussions with the Second Amendment, mental health issues and the environment that nurtured a killer. People who interacted with them either questioned their own roles or reacted defensively to any inquiry. There is grand and overreaching discussion about the “system”. We look to something or someone to blame. It keeps us separate – from the “them” that killed and from the “them” that died.

In the recent Minneapolis shooting, the shooter’s family recognized there was something wrong several years prior. They tried to do the hard thing of dealing with the troubled man and he stopped dealing with them. There are simply no easy answers or solutions. It’s easier to convince ourselves that we won’t ever be in that situation. Then we forget and we stop talking about it.

Most of us know them – people who are slightly “off”. We categorize them as eccentric or harmless, either tolerating or avoiding them. They mutter angrily to themselves, react weirdly to small talk or stay silent, no matter how much you try to engage them. I worked in a retail environment and was responsible for the firing of an individual who threatened that he’d be waiting for me in the parking lot. Scary, but on some level, reasonable – an immediate reaction and corollary to his anger. But the simmering pots, always just on the verge of boiling over, catch us by surprise when they finally do.

It is human nature to seek reason in the irreconcilable. We do have a mental health crisis in this country, although most mental illnesses do not result in violence. We do have a system that only stops the next tragedy. Or maybe the next. This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2% of Americans, 18 or older, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder each year. That’s about 1 in 4 adults.

I know mental illness and I know the destruction brought on by both undiagnosed and diagnosed disorders. My father, who suffered from depression most of his life, committed suicide when I was 18. My aunt, a diagnosed manic-depressive, self-medicated through alcohol, which eventually killed her. We need to help those families that have to live with the consequences. We need to provide more options to employers and families when someone starts to veer off into trouble. We are the safety net for each other. We need to talk about it NOW in this country and not wait for another tragedy to start up the conversation again. We need each other.

October 11th, 2012 is National Depression Screening Day. There is an anonymous online assessment available here.

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