I watched him run, my friend’s small boy, all of three years old. We were in front of Sweets’ school, the children having just finished singing what I call “The Promise Song,” during their morning assembly.
“I am a promise, I am a possibility, I am a promise, with a capital P, I am a great big bundle of potentiality!”
I was still singing as I bounded down the steps, taking them two at a time. That’s when I saw my friend, watching her son, and I imagined, marveling, as he chugged along. The distance from the steps to the sidewalk is around fifty yards. As he moved past the halfway point, I realized he wasn’t slowing down. The sidewalk was now twenty yards ahead. The street was twenty-one. What was about to happen was unthinkable. Realizing this, my friend Karen, started running, too.
I was still singing, but my voice was soft. My attention was with Karen, and her child.
“I can go anywhere that I want to go. I can be anything that I want to be. I can climb the high mountains, I can cross the wide sea.”
The “wide sea” of asphalt now lay a few feet ahead. Karen, was closing. Would she get there? I continued, “I’m a great big promise you see!” My voice trailed off. He was on the sidewalk when he fell. Karen scooped him up moments later, his laughter having turned into a wail. There was no blood. No apparent scrape. The surprise of falling had simply taken his glee and turned it inside out.
She picked him up, giving consolation the way a mother does, holding her child close. As I reached them she said, “He’ll be okay. I think he’s stunned, more than anything.” He seemed fine. The fall was in his past. We walked. I looked at her and said, “Isn’t this a beautiful day? It’s clear and crisp. I love this weather.” “I know, the sky is so blue.” I looked up. “You’re right! Wow. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. THAT doesn’t happen enough in this town.” I was taking in the sky when she said, “It was this clear on September Eleventh.” In the silence that followed, I thought of that day’s empty sky.
Before singing “The Promise Song,” we’d had a moment of silence, and the Principal read several reflections from Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11, 2001. Before going to school, I'd joined my daughter, saying these prayers, written by my neighbor. We’d also watched James L. Martin’s reflection on the events of that day in 2001. September eleventh remains a day where people stop, and remember.
As we reached her car, Karen put her son down saying, “Let’s see if all your parts work.” He’d stopped wailing, shortly after we’d started our conversation. He walked easily to the car. If he needed more proof that he was fine, there it was.
In 2009 Joe Biden read an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese” at the Ground Zero Memorial Service. His reading came just before a moment of silence, marking the point in time when the second plane struck the World Trade Center.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Another friend said this morning, “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel normal on this day. Eleven years later, I definitely don’t.” His words took me back to Karen, and her son. My friend’s sense of the world is still turned inside out.
When Joe Biden read Mary Oliver’s poem at the Memorial Service in 2009, he skipped the first five lines of the poem.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
For me, those lines change the experience of the poem. Read as a whole, it puts first line he read, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” in a different context. We’re not mourning while “the world goes on.” We are people trying to love, what we love. We wrestle with our ability to do that. We beat ourselves and each other up, longing for proof that our love is strong enough. We can be told left and right, time and again, that “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination” and that we have a place “in the family of things” and the words will float through our ears. We can do things like sing “The Promise Song” until we are hoarse, and the words will remain outside our hearts.
The tension of hearing words like those in the poem and the song, coupled with our deep desire to be enough as we are, and at home where we are, is fully felt on days like this one. Days where our sense of what it means to live, and breathe, are turned inside out and revealed as modest constructions.
I like the phrase President Obama made famous during a speech on Super Tuesday in 2008. Quoting the poet June Jordan he said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” At the time, he was criticized for this turn of phrase. It was called messianic, and self-congratulatory. Andrew Sullivan noted then that “The point is surely that we shouldn’t wait for someone else to save us, or lift us up, or fix our problems or address our fate. We are the only ones who can do this.” That also means “we’re responsible for our own failure.” We see much, want to control outcomes, then blame ourselves or others when we fall short. We hold on and don’t know how to let go, how to turn it around.
September eleventh remains a point of wounding, instead of a place where healing can occur in relation to everything that happened that day. Like every child that falls, we were stunned. We wanted to wail. Instead, we put up a front. We wanted to show strength in the face of trauma. In wanting to present well to the rest of the world, we tied ourselves to our wound.
Thinking in relation, means thinking differently about who we are. We’re used to being part of communities that are born from boundaries, and differences. My family. My town. My country. It’s a way of thinking that separates, and leads to statements like, “you’re either for us, or against us.” That phrasing isn’t just one that comes into play when terror strikes. It’s what happens when we yell at kids, for setting foot in our yards. It happens in our homes, when we decide that an either or ultimatum is the only solution to the behavioral matter of the moment.
What if we let go of the way we’re wedded to good and bad? Us and them? Red state, and blue? If we stop judging and start joining, perhaps we can quiet the voice telling us we have failed again. That we are not good enough. A voice that leaves us to “have to walk on [our] knees / For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.”
Letting go, we might just realize that to find the way through “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” It couldn’t be that easy, could it?
In standing back and letting her child run, my friend Karen was brilliant. I wonder if she sees it that way? After all, you can look at what happened and say, “she let him fall.” I know she didn’t let him fall. What she did was let him run. She could have run with him from the start. She didn’t. That’s Karen opening up “what’s next” to a world of possibility. In this case her son, falling, and our conversation. If she had run with him from the beginning, our conversation would never have taken place. If she and I had not spoken today, you would not be reading these words. Vulnerability is the secret that helps us turn things around. It’s the thing that always works. Not because it is impossible for others to resist. It always works because being vulnerable changes who we are.
Brené Brown says, “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make….Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.”
Being vulnerable is what happens when we let ourselves be caught up in our mother’s arms. It’s the way we move through from being wounded, to healing, and finding ourselves whole, you with me, together, as we are.