I got off the plane on Saturday, in my usual worried hurry, knowing I’d need to find my car in that enormous space known as the Atlanta Airport parking lot. Each time I park at Hartsfield, I feel like Hansel and Gretel—not so much dropping crumbs as picking up fragments of sight and sound that I will use to find my way back to my car when I return because I am always so convinced if I don’t, I’ll be lost in the parking lot for hours, rush hour will being, it will be dark, and I’ll never make it back home—my own small version of the apocalypse.
My harried, worried self also took note that I should make a restroom stop; this would make it easier to get home with no stops and minimal delay on a day when I desperately needed to feel my husband’s arms around me. For that same reason, perhaps I should make an exception to my usual walks through the underground passage-ways from Concourse C to Baggage Claim and take the train instead. Yet even with such focus and determination, I could not miss how all around me, people were on the move with a look of expectation that you only see in airports at Christmas, when everyone’s finding their way home, already one flight closer, and we allow ourselves to think,
“ Maybe the weather will hold up and next leg of the journey will be uneventful.”
“ I bet my luggage makes it this time.”
“ It sounds like we’ll actually have a white Christmas,” and,
“Maybe, just maybe, this will be the year when we all click, we all like each other, we all find some joy together—maybe this is the year of the most perfect Christmas of all.”
It’s etched on so many of the faces with eyes straining to look into the future: all those enormous expectations, inarticulate hopes, the magical thinking that causes us to soldier on from one terminal to the next.
Soon after I deplaned, a young soldier walked towards the gate I’d just left. He was young and white and reading something on his smartphone, when the woman right in front of me, an elderly, African American woman, reached out, touched his arm with her hand, said “thank you”. He literally bucked to a stop, looking stunned, before muttering a thanks without looking at her, his cheeks bright read; he quickly picked up pace again. My eyes stung.
When I reached the women’s restroom on my concourse, there was a bit of a mess. Perhaps a toilet had overflowed, or someone had dropped a bottle of water that spilled across the floor under two stalls; a very slight young woman dressed in janitor clothes, was leaning over, mopping the floor while women in a hurry sighed and muttered and waited. This young woman, African American too, was so thin, no more than 5’1” with an industrial mop and mop bucket that should have been way too big for her to manage. Her face was drawn and you could see her hands were chapped. Again, my eyes stung, this time worse than before because I don’t think anyone actually saw her or the hard work she was doing. My quick thank you and well-wishes for a happy holiday season sounded so very hollow to me.
Because the way home by road is long (it takes me half as long to fly to Atlanta from Lauderdale than to drive from Atlanta to Lowndesboro) I queued up one of Krista Tippet’s interviews from her radio program On Being—this one with Michael Longley, a poet of the Troubles in Northern Ireland—and headed down I-85. I found myself listening intently to a conversation about sectarianism, how, as Northern Ireland has been striving, albeit, humanly and imperfectly, to move beyond that scourge since the Good Friday Peace Accord of 1998, the past few years have seen the rest of the world move in the opposite direction. Just its definition knocks the breath out of me: “Sectarianism is a form of bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching relations of inferiority and superiority to differences between subdivisions within a group.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sectarianism).
This is what I see playing out, day in and day out in our country. I heard from a dear, dear friend how she, her husband and gay son were out walking when a car pulled up next to them, the driver rolled down the window and shouted, “die, faggot”. Another friend tells how someone she knows well, who still has stickers on her car from having campaigned for Hillary, found an equally vicious, more subtly threatening, note on her windshield, that gloated over winners and losers. The weekend after the election, at least two Episcopal churches were vandalized and threatened for being too welcoming, too inclusive. Sectarianism.
I’ve said plenty elsewhere about how unnerved I am with this new normal. I have watched friends all around me commit and start living out a new level of engagement with the political structures and systems of our country. Daily there are reports, and calls for help, for action, for money, on my Facebook page. I have felt guilty that, at best, my response has been in bits and pieces, in fits and starts, with less energy than I had hoped or promised myself I’d offer. Then, I heard this exchange between Tippet and Longley:
TIPPETT: …It seems to me, you became, in a sense, one of the people who people would call one of the poets of The Troubles…
LONGLEY: Yes. The poets of my generation, Heaney and Mahon and Simmons — we were very cautious. There was a kind of pressure. During the Second World War, people said, “Where are the war poets?” And a cry similar to that went up here. And I’ve written somewhere that a poet is not like some super reporter, that the raw material of experience has to settle to a new depth, an imaginative depth where it can then come out as true art.
TIPPETT: It seems to me that the distinctive place that you carved out for a poetic voice, an artistic voice, in the midst of this atrocity, was this quiet insistence on celebrating normalcy, and noting normalcy, and the persistence of human activities in life and all its aspects, including the garlic, right? The enlivening details that remained?
LONGLEY: Well, have you read any concentration camp literature? The greatest book of the last century, for me, is Primo Levi. And in that kind of nightmare, what kept people sane was thinking of the ordinary things back home. And what made things slightly less nightmarish would be securing a toothbrush or a woman’s things for sanitary purposes. And sanity itself depends on these banal, commonplace little things. No doubt about that.
Now, let me be clear. I do not presume to place myself in a league anywhere close to Longley’s. But I do find myself becoming more and more serious about trying to write, not just as a hobby but as a response to vocare—the present, active, infinitive of vocō, which means “to summon”. I write this small piece, not necessarily thinking I will have a huge audience or profound impact, but because in the midst of a new version of the country I swore my loyalty to, a version where an incredibly large number of the people I know and love are seen as inferior and worthy of little more than contempt, I am committed to “celebrating normalcy, and noting normalcy, and the persistence of human activities in life and all its aspects, including the garlic… The enlivening details.”
As much as I dislike them, airports are amazing places, overflowing with those “enlivening details”. I have become more accepting of the sting in my eyes that seems to come frequently right now—it used to make me crazy, I felt like a maudlin, sentimental fool and now, I am not so sure. I am certain that it is in the details we could too easily overlook that the beginnings of a hope can be found, hope that may lead us back, like the people of Northern Ireland were led, out of sectarianism, into the messy, gorgeous, amazing place that’s only possible when we see our shared humanity, when we help each other, all of us, be more human.