I look out the window, having realized evening approaches and the golden hour – blazing like fire – send sparks lifting off into the air, abandoning the shiny surfaces of every leaf. They change slowly, the leaves – moving from green to red, then red to orange, then orange to yellow.
The fall is here, and nights are beginning to drop in temperature.
I close my eyes, still seeing the leaves torn like pieces of clothing, scattering because of the vagrant wind.
Innocent – the bird pecking the grass outside my window.
Flight – wings that flutter and signal the rhythms of departure.
Elegance – how the ground becomes covered with leaves that die, shed unto death only so that trees keep on living when winter comes.
I wake from sleep and get ready for my lecture this morning, reminding myself I must buy a new rake from the hardware store. After my day is through, and upon returning home, I do the dirty work, and I toss the tied-bags on the street near my mailbox. It strikes me: the rows of bagged refuse look like a funeral procession. Each puffed-up sack of yard-trash is a hearse. I look back one more glance just to make sure I am still here.
Am I still here?
That night, a nightmare of a hawk swooping down yanks me from sleep.
I am drenched in sweat.
And I have to go to the kitchen to shake off its residual chill. I put my hands on both sides of the sink, as though I might scream or vomit or weep or break the glass of the cabinets with my fists, glass shards still stuck to the edges of each swelling knuckle.
I am a child again, and Mark sways back and forth, clung to a piece of sturdy rope. I can feel his silence get heavier each time his shadow crosses, like a cloud that moves and blocks out the sun, over my face. The tree holding the rope, the rope holding his body; I did not know I would ever feel so isolated in this fear. No one ever told me I could be this scared.
Blood trickles and mixes in with the brown dirt below. I think of Christ as he uses his own spit to make a paste that cures blindness. The wind keeps blowing the leaves off their tree-limbs, and the limbs are branching out to Heaven. And Mark’s body – black, singled out, broken, unbearable, unmendable, and bleeding – is rocked like a cradle by a death, and no one knows how to pull him back from final darkness. And the entire neighborhood stands there, their faces drained of color by the shock of what they cannot, or maybe refuse to, ultimately understand.
The church-crowd is frozen, fixed in the terrifying throes of this tragedy. Teachers in their ties or coats drop their pens and clipboards. Policemen put down their weapons first, for the first time, in a very long time. Lawyers take off their glasses, rub their eyes shut, or put their hands over their twitching faces. Doctors check the pulses of women, whose bodies are strewn across lawns, having fainted into full collapse. Children weep and the parents weep too, failing to comfort the children.
Sunlight stabs through creases in the blinds, and morning is here. The garbage trucks come to tow away the little hearses sitting at the edges of comfortless curbsides, while sprinklers going off in front of each house hiss and spit like venomous snakes, slithering through the garden. The mailman walks each bundle of mail to its appropriate home, and the retired couple everyone living here calls by first names walk their wolfhounds with heads looking down at the pavement.
The schedules and routines that hold us down from taking risks; the paperwork and emails we ignore, pretending we do not have time to be polite; the daily and nearly intoxicating stupor of doing the same things over and over — and the student who walks home alone everyday by herself, she’s the winner of today’s spelling bee. I know she will come home, reciting from memory all the words written on index cards her mommy helped her with, taping the shimmering blue ribbon to the wall of the attic, running her fingers along the trim-work of her fancy Victorian home.
Since my very first day of teaching, I promised never to let go of the memory of my friend. Whenever I think about the subject of faith and learning, I think of how a racist community drove him to his untimely death. I recall how teachers and school administrators knew about the daily taunts and riots of ridicule, the physical abuse inflicted upon black children, and how they turned the other cheek. I think about how local white preachers knew injustices were happening, how the lives of blacks had been shattered to bits; but these preachers, too removed from reality to care, refused to preach about the evils of racism. They did not have the time to be bothered with it.
I believe that the classroom is a sanctuary, a place where knowledge inspires students and teachers to passionately fight for the disenfranchised, to passionately fight for the vindication of the oppressed. Here recently, we have been made aware of the hundreds upon hundreds of unarmed black bodies killed by negligent and irresponsible police officers this year. These officers, it appears, and for reasons yet obscure, do not know how to wield the power they’ve been granted. And what about the other grave injustices: the women who experience ongoing discrimination in the workplace, the persecution of gays and the dominant political and religious discourses of humiliation or denial aimed at openly gay couples who are seeking all the privileges that come with legally binding marriages, the horrifying manner through which we view and treat the poor. As educators, we have been called to act as spiritual leaders. We are called to cast our fears aside, to guide students toward becoming responsible members of culture based on community and love. With exigency, we should never shy away from making connections between our academic disciplines and these social issues.
Each time I teach, I think about what is going on in our world. I pray and try to reveal to my students why studying literature matters. Literature is powerful, and it has the ability to convict those who are too afraid to boldly and personally address worldly injustices. I try to reveal why there is a sense of urgency for something to be done.
Tonight, when I go home, I know . . . the same window will be right there, waiting for me to run my fingers along its sill. I will keep on looking at the same leaves.
Why? I don’t know.
And after dinner, the leaves will fall, and the leaves will pile.
When I close my eyes again, I will remember the singular individuals, those human beings with souls, with families and friends who love them, those abject bodies disregarded on a daily basis — I see them become leaves: bagged and ready to be shipped to the incinerator. They fall and remain fallen, because, it is thought, they just couldn’t stand up on their own. They just couldn’t pick themselves up, therefore blown away or stranded or wind-tossed, staggering down the gutters forever, tripping over the piles of other leaves, other bodies, until the season, grown more cold, brings us back the frost, turning the ends of their bare feet icy blue.