I was the 4th grader in the front of the room who cringed as the student two desks away was removed from the classroom by Mr. Reynolds, the school principal, for a tough-love form of corporal punishment.
I was the little girl who was mostly motivated by trust and love, reaching for approval like a tree-climber who spies redder fruit on a distant limb. My grandfather disciplined me with whispers and the changing tones of his eyes. I needed nothing else.
I was the young adult who found the need for thickened skin to be the most challenging task of any job I might undertake, any relationship I might enter into.
While most people struggle with vulnerability, I am a poet who is most comfortable in the quietude of authenticity, all the masks and roles discarded around me, their colors creating a prism on the floor.
I don’t small-talk or sound-bite very well, although I can debate with the best of them, mostly because sensitive people really listen and absorb the ideas and feelings around us. Ideas and feelings don’t really become our own in the same way this happens to others.
I don’t argue with people to persuade them to change their minds, but get them to open their minds to complexity. To be vulnerable is to be uncomfortable, to be right about nothing. A word always fills the glass of one by taking water from another. Unless it is a poem.
Words are masks, and as a person whose life is to create with words, I believe myself a sort of unwilling expert, able to verify the truth of this statement by my own brow lines.
If we listen to the chants and callings from the divided and divisive sides in this nation in 2020, if we read the social media posts from left to right from Left and Right, not as Talking Points coming from Talking Heads, but as severed heads rolling toward us on a hill of Ireland-green grass that immediately turn brown when touched by the breath of their collective rhetoric, then we begin to empathize with the fact that he who lives by the word, dies by the word.
In this time, during this pandemic, it is time to listen to the sensitives and to adjust the timber of our tones, as my grandfather did, as though sensitives are always listening. Because they are.
We must remember that tone is not as easily canceled as diction. What is offensive and reprehensible to say about a minority in this country is also offensive and reprehensible to say about Donald Trump. For it is in the saying of it that we keep the potential of vicious oppression alive.
Right now, these words are everywhere like the germs of a virus ready to penetrate us, ready to isolate us from one another to ensure that what has been great about this country (in the midst of so much that is terrible about this country) dies alone on a vine that our own Tweeting (not someone else’s) keeps us from being able to reach.
As a writer, I have learned the power in manipulation of words. I can change, delete, re-arrange on a blank page and with the same 25 dictionary-approved signs, tell a myriad of stories, with my own hiding in plain sight.
It doesn’t matter who started the fight, we are all headed to the principal’s office. It is our country’s backside that is going to emerge battered and bruised, stoic and tearless, toughened and ready to endure more licks with the paddle.
While the sensitives avert our eyes and wipe our tears with our own sleeves, feeling as though we have done more wrong in feeling the tragedy than those whose mouths have constructed and perpetrated it.
It isn’t about who holds the paddle. It’s about abolishing this kind of governing. It’s about returning to ordinary, to behaving again like ordinary Americans. We can refuse to listen to propaganda. We can stop reacting to what others are saying and start listening carefully to what we say.
We can, when we speak, when we tweet, when we choose our media, realize that we, too, hold a paddle in our hands and it is our choice what we listen to. One person, even at the very top of this country, can’t force me to be hate-filled. That is my choice, my right.
Actions must speak louder than words in politics: our words. The kind of tolerance that is dangerous is not a tolerance of those with whom we disagree (and their words), but a tolerance of those with whom we agree whose rhetoric is just as bad.
In 2020, I disagree with everyone. Every news anchor on cable television who doesn’t talk to me like Mr. Rogers did. I am hiding in the classroom supply closet behind next year’s textbooks, waiting for our President to wash out his mouth and hand the soap to Whoopi Goldberg and Mika. Stop crying on national television because your prayers have been answered and start caring about the ones whose prayers have not. Here’s how you can show you care: stop telling entire groups of people across this country that their prayers are irrelevant, that their beliefs don’t contain the wings you ascribe to your own.
We are a country of ordinary, awkward prayers, buoyed by this sometimes misguided belief in our own resiliency. There are moments in my own life when I don’t want to be known as American, sometimes because I don’t understand, really, what that means, and sometimes because I clearly do.
Before there is power, there are words that we equip with that power, words that we condense into slogans and brands. Then we stand on the sidelines and watch who will carry the flame, who will attempt to douse it. We pay very little attention to the people who say nothing, until it becomes time to award the blame.
Perhaps a month-long shut down is in order for this particular virus that seems to live in all generations. Let’s all collectively sit down and shut up, perhaps read a little Shirley Jackson, and practice intent listening. Let the ratings plummet. Let Facebook have some alone, mirror-time to put on her makeup and make herself presentable. Let us pay attention to deeper voices, well-chosen words, kindness and respect toward everyone, and by everyone, I mean everyone–even old, white men.