Standing at the Depot

“I think the question I get asked the most is, well I dunno know, it happens a lot, enough that I would remark on it – a lot of people come up to me and they say ‘Is it possible for a woman to get pregnant without intercourse?’ My answer is always the same, I say: “Listen. We’re gonna have to go all the way back to the civil war. Apparently a stray bullet actually pierced the testicle of a Union soldier and then lodged itself in the ovaries of an 18 year old girl who was actually 100 feet from him at the time. Well, the baby was fine. She was very happy. Guilt-free. Course, the soldier’s a little pissed off.” When ya think about it, it’s actually a form of intercourse, but not for everyone. Those who love action, maybe.” – – Tom Waits

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I was in the YMCA locker room after my Saturday morning swim and as I stepped to the counter to comb and dry my hair, I began eavesdropping on two other women in the locker room. They were older than me, either one old enough to be my mother. They were tidier as well, than either me or my mother. One was talking about something she wanted to paint – a picture. She was having difficulty starting because she couldn’t decide what to paint. Then she said that she should just start and let God decide what she wanted to paint. Though none of my busybody business, this irritated me. It seems that this God must have a lot on their hands other than determining the direction of some old white lady’s hobby painting. The children in Syria, the threatened and devastated natural world, the teenage drug offenders in prisons, our local opioid epidemic, school shootings – these and so many other things things seem more important than the painting. It seems decisions like what to paint can be left to the mortals with the brushes.

Then I noticed that the painter’s friend was a woman I recognized. I met her one snowy weekday well over a year ago. I found myself with an unexpected day off because Southern Indiana closes schools at the drop of a flake. I braved the scattering and ventured to the Y where I was sitting on a bench outside the exercise room, changing from my snow boots to sneakers. This woman sat next to me and became chatty. I’m friendly so it was quickly shared that no, I had never before attended this particular Zumba class at this time because I was usually teaching during the day. She grew a sly smile when she learned I was a teacher and leaned purposefully toward me, canary feathers spilling from the corners of her mouth,  “Well, you might not like me. I’m for vouchers and school choice.” She guessed it. I might not like her. I had already learned a few things about her as she had about me. The little she shared or demonstrated included that she was retired, comfortable, white, from Florida, and grinning her cheshire grin at the opportunity to spar with a teacher. All this told me what I needed to know. My dislike for her was not because I suspected we would agree on very little. I like many people I disagree with. I like people in general. I would never learn how much this woman and I agreed or disagreed, however, because we would never talk at at length and explore nuance and complicated topics. We would never discuss school choice and whether it is racist or a solution to racial inequality. We would never discuss civil rights, equal opportunity to education, and the funneling of taxpayers’ dollars into private schools while draining much-needed resources from public schools and the vulnerable students who attend them. I knew our discussion would not go further because I am a teacher and I teach CHILDREN that common ground is the path to real communication. She began our conversation with an intentional cordial attack. I didn’t like her because on that snowy day when I took some needed and deserved time to go feel good in my body with an hour of joyful Zumba in the company of other unself-conscious middle-aged women moving to salacious pop lyrics, this woman decided that she was entitled to an attack. She thought her uninformed-by-experience opinion on schools was so important and my position as a teacher so unimportant that I should abandon the lightness of the moment and answer to her. So, she was spot-on about one thing – my immediate dislike.

And now I had to listen to her talk about God guiding her friend’s painting. Well, I chose to listen. Again, it was none of my business. I side-eyed the women from under the round brush that kept my poker straight long bangs from drying straight over my eyes and thought that God is too busy thinking about all those schoolchildren to think about where your friend decides to drag her brush. As I turned my weak portable blow dryer on my wet, lank hair I thought, We’re gonna have to go all the way back to the Civil War. These words, in Tom Waits’ rye and cigarette gravel growl go through my mind often lately.

When shows on Tom Waits’ 1987 tour were recorded and eventually released in the album Big Time, some of his ramblings were included on the album as well. In one particular anecdote, in which Waits mocks the idea of chastity above all else, he tells the tale of a stray bullet that, “. . . actually pierced the testicle of a Union soldier and then lodged itself in the ovaries of an 18 year old girl who was actually 100 feet from him at the time.” At the beginning of his silly tale of a sex-free, guilt-free, shame-free pregnancy he says, “Listen. We’re gonna have to go all the way back to the Civil War.” And that has become the voice in my head. Tom Waits’ junkyard grumble has become one of my inner voices. Seems about right. He’s not the devil on my shoulder though because you know there ain’t no devil, it’s just God when he’s drunk.

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Scholar and writer Ralph Ellison said in 1949 while speaking at Harvard that the war, “is still in the balance, and only our enchantment by the spell of the possible, our endless optimism, has led us to assume that it ever really ended.” This enchantment has been finally and completely dispelled by the current state of our nation. There is nothing enchanting about resegregating our schools, racially motivated murder at the hands of our peacekeepers, and open demonstrations of racial supremacy movements.

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I am not suggesting we have not made progress since 1865, nor am I suggesting we undo the progress that has been made. I am not suggesting that we fight the war again. Because, Damn. Read that Gettysburg Address. Honest Abe said it all. So, so many people lost their lives across five bloody Aprils, so let’s continue to bind up these wounds and move forward as one. Of course when he spoke those hastily scribbled profound words, the nation of freedom he was determined to preserve was a nation of white freedom.

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What I am suggesting is that we never stopped fighting and we need to finish this damn conflict once and for all because here we are again, right where we have been before. War is in the air but we don’t know who the enemies are. Mad tweets (which are no Gettysburg addresses) point and inflame in various directions. We seem to be looking outward when conflict is in our own degraded and divided backyard. We have a near-dictator president at the helm of a mightily powerful federal government and our political center is gone. Sounds like 1860.

When Grant and Lee sat down in Appomattox, Lee, genteel and noble conceded that the cause was lost. That is, the cause of fighting for a way of life founded on the ownership and brutally enforced servitude of fellow human beings. This was made explicit in multiple states’ succession statements, it was made explicit by Confederate leaders and it was made explicit in the Confederate Constitution. We can talk all we want now about the great pride of institutions and way of life. The institution was slavery. The way of life was based on slavery. There is no revisionist trope about states’ rights and noble dedication to home states that can erase the fundamental ideal of the Confederacy – inequality founded on race, founded on superiority and subordination.  Dignity even in defeat General Lee? There is no dignity in what you were fighting for, sir. Perceptions change. Facts do not.

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Ever since the war we have been playing that handstacking game. Centuries of handstacking. Palms slapping the backs of hands in a tower that keeps bottoming out. Just when you think you have your hand on top, somebody is waiting to smack you back down. The ideology of freedom and liberty that our country was founded on? Not for everyone. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and the gains made during Reconstruction were countered by the 1876 Congressional deal between Southern Democrats and Republicans. The nation got Rutherford B. Hayes and the South got Jim Crow. We are all victims of the great compromise, though some of us much more so than others. Seventy-odd years later and Brown v. Board brought integration and inspired equal protection in other areas. As we approach seventy-odd years after that case, we have Betsy DeVos and vouchers looking to re-segregate our schools. If you can’t keep others out you get to leave. And the gracious, intelligent, and ethical presidency of Barack Obama brought us Donald Trump. Smack.

From that dusty day in April at Appomattox, we have been working around the fundamentals of freedom and unity. The compromise of 1876 was a workaround. All Jim Crow laws and ‘customs’ were workarounds. Plessy v. Ferguson was a workaround. The Klan was and is a workaround. Lynching, in its past and contemporary forms, was and is a workaround. Rewriting the war to justify decades of Jim Crow was and is a workaround. Raising statues of Confederate heroes is a workaround. Naming housing for low income African Americans for slave trader and Fort Pillow terrorist Nathan Bedford Forrest was a workaround. COINTELPRO was a workaround. Reagan’s rhetoric was a workaround. Prisons are a workaround. The phrase “Make America Great Again” is a workaround. 

The Civil War was certainly a mile marker. There is before and there is after. Before, we were a nation of producers, still largely agrarian, with slowly growing cities, an undeveloped and unsettled (by colonial Americans and white European immigrants) western frontier, and distinct northern and southern ways of life loosely divided by Mason and Dixon’s line. After, slavery was no longer legal and so had to be translated into other forms, just as did the integration brought by Brown v. Board, which declared separate is inherently unequal. Yes it is. I cried when I first stepped into the Supreme Court. I cried for the loss and suffering that permeated that room, the balance of wisdom and ignorance, the beauty of a system intended to protect individual liberties, and the righteousness that had at times prevailed. Yet, the freedoms gained in that room were not truly guaranteed outside the doors because we workaround. We set up polling tests and taxes, we intimidate and threaten, we instill terror, we build doors and walls, we use coded language, and we justify bullying behavior toward tired teachers dancing on a snow day because we believe that God is so much on our side that they care what happens with our brushstrokes. This is Christianity as a justification for old fashioned racism and it’s the the bible as a Ouija Board.

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Some facts were laid bare by the Civil War. There had been an economy and culture built upon the idea that some people are less than others. The fact that all people are created equal was laid bare for everyone to digest and this fact seemed to create several responses. One, has laid low until our current president empowered it to double down and embrace the misplaced supremacy and hate. The idea that bringing quality, equality, humanity, and basic human rights to others is somehow an offense that reduces the quality of your life is laughable. It’s not about you. We’re just not that into you. It’s about the fundamental rights of others. 

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So, yeah, we’re gonna have to go all the way back to the Civil War because we didn’t do it right the first time. I’m not just talking about Johnson scrapping Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction. I’m talking also about the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a tactical move to make the war a moral war, not a moral move in and of itself. Just as crawling seems essential for child development, so is us finally concluding this war essential for our young country to actually move forward. We’re gonna have to go all the way back and solve what we never solved. And I have absolutely no idea how to do that and I’m pretty sure Tom Waits doesn’t either but I do know that we need to stop telling ourselves stories as far fetched as the anecdote that he told about the pregnancy, face up to the harsh reality that is the state of our nation, roll up our collective sleeves, get behind the mule, pray to our collective gods about things that really matter and recognize that we stole this land and founded this nation and we damn well better make it something good for all the people.

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