What Lies Beneath

I’ve been thinking about that movie – Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. If scary movies aren’t your thing you might not have seen it. I was in college when it came out … and something about it stuck with me. The concept of old secrets, brutalities, violence, floating just beneath the surface of things. To be fair, I also believe that there is a lot of beauty and grace to be found just below the surface, too. Like Carrie Newcomer sings in Every Little Bit of It … “a flash of blue and a turning of wings.”

I started thinking about what was just underneath, just out of sight, on Sunday.

I had spent Friday and Saturday reading posts and texts from friends around the county. Some of it their own eyewitness accounts of protests and gatherings in response to the murder of George Floyd – death by asphyxia – lynched by a white police officer. My finger automatically refreshed my Facebook feed every time I reached for my phone – I was texting back and forth with a dozen or more friends and colleagues. It felt overwhelming, but not surprising. I showed Peter a Twitter feed that had captured video of a police vehicle stopped by a crowd of protesters plowing through the boundary of bodies. He gasped and uttered an expletive, “Doesn’t that shock you?” he asked. I shook my head. Frankly, it doesn’t.

I’ve had my own set of experiences with law enforcement in my life. Over the last year, because of my involvement with advocating for people who are unhoused, I’ve had some close encounters. What my experience has consistently taught me is that there is a problem with our country’s approach to public safety. Officers of the law are sworn to serve and protect. Some of us have been lucky enough to experience them in that way. Others of us …

John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” While I am well aware that much of the violent rioting and looting happening in our country right now is perpetrated by organized groups of white supremacists and others, I also know that the Oppressor’s hand is not extended in freedom and liberation. What other language is available to those whose necks are under the heel of Empire? 

On Sunday morning when I woke up, I knew I was exhausted. I’d spent the week working my fear and anger not so much out but into the ground by pulling weeds and spreading bark chips. My body ached from hauling over-loaded wheelbarrows of bark around the yard and crouching in strange positions for hours at a time to get at the insidious weeds taking over my flower beds. But I was not about to rest. I headed out to the door to pummel some more weeds, but first – the dog needed walking. I let her out the front door and was crouching down to put her leash on when she bolted across the yard toward a man and an Australian shepherd I had never seen before walking past. My 20 pound chihuahua mix flew straight at the shepherd, yapping her head off. I called out, “I’m so sorry. I’ll come get her – don’t move!” The man picked up his lovely dog and Morticia (that’s the name she came with…don’t judge me) jumped right up and nipped that man’s leg. In response, he kicked her and I started to yell.

There was so much going through my mind and my body in that moment. I was mad, I was scared, I was worried about the man and my dog, my son who was just behind the open front door of our house …

I grabbed Morticia and demanded the stranger tell me his name. He was yelling back that my dog had bitten him and I was asking to see the injury. 

There was quite a bit more back and forth before I eventually just sat myself down in the middle of the street and he showed me the wound. There, just above his knee, a small bruise was clearly forming underneath the surface of his skin. 

“Why do you want to know my name?” he asked, tearfully because he was crying by this point.

“Because I want to follow up with you and make sure you’re okay,” I said. “Also, I’m mad that you kicked my dog.”

“I feel like you’re going to call the police,” he said.

“Why would I do that?!” (I was almost yelling again) “It was my dog that bit you!”

Seth (not his real name) and I walked his Australian Shepherd around the block together. He told me that he had been assaulted in the neighborhood a couple of months ago and before that, near his home in Eugene. He was teary as we talked and I could tell he was having trouble catching his breath. Our interaction had clearly activated something just below the surface for him.

I told him how sorry I was – he apologized for kicking Morticia – we exchanged phone numbers and he walked back home.

I drug my feet around the block to my own house feeling ashamed and sorry. 

A couple of hours later, I sent Seth a text checking in on his leg. Feels fine – he replied. 

I loaded up a big market basket with all the wine and beer and chocolate I could find in the house. I sat on the back porch and wrote a note to Seth. I took my brand-new hanging flower basket off its hook and drove the lot of it over to Seth’s house – leaving my offering by the front door. “Uh…you may be over-compensating,” Peter said when I came home and reported my activities.

I shrugged. What else was there to do?

A couple of hours later, the first gathering in protest and vigil for George Floyd would begin on the lawn of the Courthouse in Corvallis.  I wondered if it would make me feel better to go to that, too, like leaving my basket at Seth’s door.

***

It’s been 72 hours. I’ve had a chance to think and process a bit. 

I realize that what was just below the surface for me on Sunday was a whole lot of anger. Which is code for – fear. Fear is something I walk around with on most days. But most days, I get out of the house, I work with it, I talk to it, I can mostly see where it helps me and where it hurts me. But during pandemic – all that has changed. I don’t have my usual patterns and routines to exorcise fear. Now, I am home all day long with a 6 year old who has no where else to go and a full time job that demands nearly as much attention as my son. I spend all day holding it together and relegating my fear to the teeny-tiny bit of space I’ve allotted it. My fear is: pandemic, work, the health of people I love, my child’s emotional wellness (or lack of), white supremacy, my own privilege and internalized racism, lack of control … I mean, do you really want to know all the things?

The point is: Seth lit the match on Sunday. It probably could have been just about anything. In an instant, I saw him as the enemy: man I didn’t know, kicking my dog, refusing to tell me his name or take off his sunglasses as I tried to ask him who he was and if he was bleeding.

My own anger and fear played out on the street in front of my house on Sunday while I was well aware of what was sweeping through the streets of our nation.

I’m not enjoying sharing this story with you, by the way. I don’t feel particularly proud of myself for raising my voice at Seth in the first place. 

“What do you wish you had done?” my therapist asked me.

“I dunno – something more Mother Teresa-ish” I told her.

She just laughed at me.

***

I didn’t go to the gathering at the Courthouse. Instead, I spent some time obsessing over why Seth hadn’t texted me to confirm he had received my front porch drop-off. 

I had not so much taken the gift over for Seth, as I had for me. I wanted to feel better about myself. I wanted some kind of absolution. Some affirmation from Seth that I was off the hook.

For me, going to the protest would have been like that, too. I was looking for something to make me feel better about being a white person and part of the problem. If I went, I could say I had gone, post some pictures on Instagram, participate in something tangible.

It’s not Seth’s responsibility to make me feel better. If I dislike something about my interaction with Seth, it’s my job to see it, acknowledge it and own it, and do better. It’s harder to do that, actually. To stick with my own discomfort and hard work.

To be honest, it was harder to follow Seth around the block, too. To stay present to the discomfort of those moments and stay in it enough to be able to see some of the trauma he had re-experienced in that interaction with me. That was more than I thought I had signed up for on Sunday morning. 

It is not pleasant to be held accountable to the pain we have caused another. By what we have done or left undone, the prayer goes. By intentionality, complicity, or complacency. 

This week, I’m being quiet. I’m not going to text Seth to see how he is. It’s not his job to assuage my guilt. 

And I’m going to listen to black voices this week, too. I’m resisting looking for easy action to feel a little bit better about myself and instead, invest in sitting with what’s inside me and the story of my people –  one that needs repentance and reconciliation. 

I’m going to stick with it, even when it feels too hard or too awkward. I’m going to let whatever’s beneath the surface to float to the top. Because it needs to see the light of day, of transformation.

I’m curious, Walter, what you think, as you reflect on what is just under the surface?

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