It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what I was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.
– Ralph Ellison, Battle Royal, 1947
There is nothing quite like loss to make one take stock. Five years ago, on an early morning drive to Chicago, cars all around me swerved out of control on black ice. The patch came unexpectedly so our normal pace was too fast by 10-fold. Accidents were going to happen and did. A car ahead of me spun around and around. It looked like I was going to dodge it if I moved further to the left, but its arc widened and I hit it broadside, totaling both cars in seconds.
After the sheriff and fire department, after the tow truck and the ride home, after the phone calls and apologies, after it all – I was left with an internal inventory and questions to ask myself. What is important to me? Who are my priorities? To what would I devote my time and energy? How do I want my community to be? What will I leave? When will I do what I am here to do?
The Ralph Ellison quote above was marked by my late husband in an anthology from which he sometimes read. When I came across it a few days ago, I was reminded of my freeway accident, the questions I asked, and my answers. Community and justice are important to me. Paul has been my priority relationship. I would devote my time and energy to liberation. I will do what I am here for now.
My answers to the other questions – What will I leave and how do I want my community to be? – feel more elusive. And, as I write this, I have a sense of powerlessness about answering them. In reality, however, I am not powerless at all. Still, that same sense that I had as a child, that budding awareness that my family’s and our neighborhood’s problems went well beyond my ability to address them. I discovered back then that being a good boy was not enough for things to go well, or even get better.
Maybe these childhood experiences help explain why I find Dan Savage’s facile “It gets better” campaign so annoying. It does not get better. Savage’s middle class rescue through geographic escape does not actually work for the vast majority of poor and working class teens. Then, when some of them discover things in fact are not getting better, they decide that the hoped-for results are out of reach because they must not be measuring up in some way. Hang-in-there-help-is-on-its-way remedies are cruel when the help is not coming.
For me, however, the help has come in the form of loads of experience, skills, information, and personal and community power. I am sixty years away from the helpless feelings associated with the hopeless situations of my childhood. I can decide what I will bequeath in life, independent of how that will be received. I do know how I want my community to be and my bequest can help make it so.
To clarify: I am not dying nor am I feeling morbid. These questions are existential, no more and no less. I asked them when I was a teen and as a young adult. I asked them episodically throughout my adult life. As I prepare to launch my encore, I ask them once more. Only I can answer them.