perched atop a tiny ladder
each holds fast to her balloon
oblivious to the children, the party,
it’s my birthday–I’m five–
just visible above the antique dining table
my hair stuck into a wiry rat that itches
and threatens to fall around my ears
on usual days, we’d climb your fig tree,
get sticky with juice oozing from those magic globes–
our competition only grey-green birds
that mock the cats and us
too dressed up today for such a lark–
instead I serve cake and brick ice cream,
open presents soon forgotten,
play childish games with guests
I win each round but lose the prizes–
“you don’t want your friends to think you rude….”
I want what’s mine I want what’s fair:
my donkey’s tail is closest to the mark,
my rubber-ended wooden nose
lands closest to Pinocchio’s,
my list of little words inside the long one
outstrips the others by at least a score
so sitting on that ladder
watching you watching me
must have been a still point–
time out from playing hostess
time out from growing up
Every morning, unless it’s way below zero, I begin my day by walking about a mile and a half in my neighborhood. That means I meet the same people walking their dogs, the same children on the way to or standing in line to board the school bus. It also means in springtime I take note of the incremental changes in trees, shrubs, and perennials; or I relish seeing some gardener’s new annual plantings. I also hear birds, especially cardinals and robins, sending out messages to others of their kind and to the world at large. Well, it’s spring in Minnesota after a very long and snow-filled April, so these daily gifts from nature are especially appreciated by the likes of me.
In just the last two days, a big miracle has happened. Ornamental fruit trees have gone from leafing out to full-bodied bloom: white apple, pink crab-apple, and even the occasional redbud tree that reminds me of Sunday drives into the country where I could spot redbuds and accompanying dogwoods off in the woods . This year, it’s the white apples along my route that take my breath away with their stunningly beautiful sprays. I keep thinking of William Wordsworth’s joyous exclamation, “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the skies.” My own heart, recently renewed by a cow membrane’s replacing my old aorta, does just that as I stop walking so I can stand in awe and delight beside those thousands of tiny white blooms emitting their delicate aroma.
As I pause in awe, I think what I think so often in springtime: how can anyone fail to notice that there is some power greater than ourselves at work in the universe. Don’t bother splitting theological hairs over what to call this power. Just notice it, take it in, respond to it. Ground that, where I live, has just spent long months covered with snow and ice, turns our world into a pretty uniform black and white canvas. Suddenly, or so it seems, shoots begin to appear, dormant branches send tiny yellow-green tendrils out into the atmosphere, declaring a powerful will to renew and reproduce and color our world. Just look at the thousands and thousands of little yellow droppings from maples, turning sidewalks into the proverbial streets paved with gold imagined by so many utopianists. Or try counting just a few sidewalk paving blocks covered a week or so later with maple whirl-a-gigs that come twirling down. None of those will ever become even a shoot of a tree, yet nature produces them every spring out of what Loren Eisley, the famous anthropologist, educator and natural science writer posited: he firmly believed that phenomena like these tell us, if we’re alive enough to hear, just how exuberant and even extravagant nature is. All this plenitude of color and scent and motion comes to us not for utilitarian purposes but out of what Eisley imagined to be some delight in affirming an arc of creation.
So when I go outside today, I’ll thank that power greater than me for reminding me to feel and express joy and gratitude, especially in these times where some of us human creatures are not being very good stewards of the earth and the planet. I’ll stop beside the flowering trees and feel closer to beauty and creation.
I’ve loved horses since I was a very little girl. When I was about nine, I read all the black stallion books by Walter Farley. Then I asked for books about horse breeds here and in Arabia. As puberty approached, I decided to be a horse–Smokey, the horse ridden by the Southern cowboy Tennessee Jed whose adventures I listened to on my little cream-colored radio. In my late teens, I was given a beautifully illustrated copy of Misty of Chincoteague by Margaret Henry with illustrations by Wesley Dennis . I dreamed of going to that little island off the Virginia coast and petting real versions of the fictional horse I knew so well. During my first serious job in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I rode horses every weekend in the Civil War Memorial Park where the girls’ school was located and where I taught all the English courses except for American Lit. Years later, I would read Susan Griffin’s Women and Nature which told me what it does to a horse’s skeletal structure to have somebody ride her/him with a saddle rather than bareback. All the added weight falls at the weakest point in the horse’s spine, explaining why I saw old swayback horses grazing in fields when we drove out into the country on Sunday afternoons. I have never gotten on a horse since. But I continued watching the big races on television until 2008 when I finally realized what they were doing to too many horses forced into the service of mostly white people who attended such festivities.
Yesterday was the 144th “running” of the Kentucky Derby, the quintessential example of horse racing in America. That means the first running was in 1875, just ten years after the war ended and President Lincoln freed the enslaved Africans. This putatively sporting event has never been interrupted or suspended, even during the Great Depression or World Wars I and II. Though the actual race lasts only two minutes, the happening goes on for the better part of an entire Saturday. Hundreds of thousands of people attend and hope to be shown on national television sipping their traditional mint juleps and showing off outlandish hats. Even a casual scan of the attendees confirms a singular fact: this iconic moment in American life is a virtual “white-out”; there simply are no colored faces–carefully made up ones and overly jovial ones are shown having a “swell ole time,” but don’t hope for a black or brown one unless the cameras catch some stable hand or drinks servant.
This cherished moment can be examined from the standpoint of the horses as well as the participants. A friend of mine who owns and adores horses, tells me what I’ve suspected for some time. For years, horses did not compete until they were three years old by which time their bones were fully formed and their musculature was well-developed. But owners began to dream of being the first to run a two-year old and win. Now almost all the horses we can watch straining their hearts and limbs and lungs to amuse us are only two. My friend tells me this is too young for the well-being of the animals. He also tells me that years of breeding for spectacle value have produced animals whose bodies are much too big for their legs and feet. This helps explain the all-too-frequent occurrence of horses collapsing on the track because their legs simply give out of them. The two most famous examples of this travesty came in 1975 and 2008. In 1975 at the Belmont Stakes race, Ruffian, who had won many previous races, broke two sesamoid bones in his right foreleg. The snap was audible on television. Surgery was performed but Ruffian was so traumatized that, upon waking, he thrashed around injuring other parts of his body until a vet gave him a lethal shot. In 2008 at the Kentucky Derby, Eight Belles who came from a long line of winners, was so severely injured–both her front ankles were horribly broken–that she had to be put down by a veterinarian right on site. In both instances, there was a brief outcry about animal cruelty, followed by many pronouncements from people associated with racing that claimed there may be more leg accidents in farm horses than from those on race tracks. (If this sounds familiarly akin to how this country responds to its latest mass shooting, so be it.)
So much for what high-stakes racing does to the animals used for staggering financial gains and a few moments of human entertainment. Now consider what one such race–the Kentucky Derby–is “about” in the context of a severely racialized America. A climactic moment comes when all gathered at Churchill Downs stop their individual conversations to sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” When written by Stephen Foster, this song was to be sung by an enslaved African (or a white singer wearing black face) expressing every enslaver’s fondest hope: ” ‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay.” This myth that lingers in many white people’s imaginations is perfidious in the extreme since it asserts that the enslaving of Africans had no ill effects on those enslaved. And when, in 1986, the Kentucky legislature passed a law changing “darkies” to “people,” that just made matters worse. Now people singing it in between drinks imagine that the old Kentucky home was a great place to be enslaved, since everybody living there is happy in the sunshine. Furthermore, no one singing about the old home thinks it refers to a poor white family’s shack or to the abysmal quarters where those enslaved Africans tried to build families and have some vestige of a life. It refers to the proverbial “big house” where Marse and Missus rule. So the whole ethos around the two minute race is shrouded in nostalgia for a gruesome period in our history that has lasted well over one-hundred years. I have to wonder why more protest doesn’t form around this sporting event that endangers a lot of innocent animals and enshrines a cultural atrocity.
In a recent article in the Birmingham News, several white residents of Montgomery said, when asked their opinion about the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice, some version of “let sleeping dogs lie.” A few even used that exact phrase. What they went on to say centered around their objection to the new structure and adjacent Legacy Museum: from Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, reminding the interviewer that “that was in the past; we don’t want to go back there, we want to move forward.” The more conservative responses doubted the veracity of the reported number of lynchings taking place in this country. They also said putting up the memorial could make “them” angry and that might cause new trouble, “who knows”?
Once I’d seen the old saw about not waking canines, I couldn’t shake a sense that this axiom needs to be examined in light of the current resurgence of white supremacists and acts of blatant racism against people of color. So here’s the etymology: In the early 14th century, the French coined a phrase “n’esveillez pas lou chien qui dort” or “do not wake the sleeping dog.” In his long poem Troilus and Criseyde, written late in the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer says this about his famous heterosexual lovers: “It is nought good a slepying hound to wake.” So people have been cautioning against stirring the pot for a long time. But when directed at black people, I think it takes on fresh significance. First of all, it’s yet one more animalistic reference leveled at blacks who have had similar epithets hurled at them by whites who needed to make them sub-human and therefore subject to any abuse by their “betters.” When Chaucer says “hound” rather than “dog,” he underscores the danger implicit in the saying–we don’t wake the sleeping dogs because we are worried that they might turn on us. And why would we fear retaliatory behavior unless we’d treated the dogs badly to begin with?
This putatively benign axiom, then, becomes just one more example of how hard we white people have worked and continue to work to erase history and elide truth whenever it touches on our explicit or implicit participation in the institution of slavery, Jim Crow law, and (currently) mass incarceration of (especially) young black men. So I want to applaud Bryan Stevenson for persevering with his idea to create a graphic memorial to all the lynchings that have taken place. He refused to be euphemistic or verbal. Rather he has installed tangible metal strips with specific names and dates etched on their clay-colored surfaces. He compels me/us to connect with the human beings who were so brutally tortured and killed and left hanging literally. What he’s done took courage; it will take courage for us whites to enter the space he has shaped. But the possible outcome is worth whatever pain and shame have to be met.
I cannot heal from some action, feeling, or thought unless and until I admit that I have committed that action or entertained that thought or had that unbidden emotion. Just saying I know there were lynchings and that was horrible isn’t enough and Mr. Stevenson cites Germany and South Africa as two cogent examples of what is possible for a country/culture if its members will face their past, name it tangibly, and then set about making reparations in whatever way possible. So I want all the dogs that are sleeping and, in this particular case, may well be haunted by very bad dreams, to wake up. And, once awake, I want them to go to any lengths to “stay woke.”