We all have
our striving to
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
November 28th, 2014
A Thread of Human-ness
All rights reserved
We all have
our striving to
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
November 28th, 2014
A Thread of Human-ness
All rights reserved
Don’t tell me to ‘get over it’ because it makes YOU uncomfortable,
The founding of a nation on blood and chains should make you uncomfortable!
And though the institutions no longer exist, the attitudes of slavemasters yet prevail,
Freely and proudly expressed!
So be it, but let this be too: the history of my ancestry DOES NOT BEGIN with bondage,
but the history of my ancestry HERE does, and so I will celebrate the TRIUMPH of their SURVIVAL, so that
I might sit here today and use this machine to type these words:
You will no longer brand me ‘animal’
or grind my dignity under your heel.
You will have no access to my joy
And I reject your invective as the source of my sorrows.
I do not seek your approval to grow and thrive and be.
I have no master in you, and you have no servant in me.
I will be free, in spite of, not because of, your documents that proclaim the very liberty for all men
you’ve revealed to be a lie.
You don’t get to define me, if you don’t want to know me.
You don’t get to classify me, when you don’t want to live next to me.
You don’t get to objectify me, because I am not here to amuse you.
You don’t get to nullify me, and say I shouldn’t be here: WE are the nation’s only IMPORTED immigrant.
I will not get over the chains I’ve never worn, not get over the whippings, lynchings, beatings, rapes, torture, castrations, hunting hounds and K9 cops, bombings, hoses, “Colored” signs, white robes, shotguns, fires, burning crosses, burning bodies hanging from trees and bridges and tossed in rivers, broken and dismembered, and soil soaked in blood and lost years behind bars from false accusations I’ve never experienced, because I stand on the remains of all the rubble and remains of those lives; they are yet a part of me, and whether or not you “understand” it, it is nevertheless so.
And so I say again: I am FREE
but I, and my children, and their children
will not EVER
‘get over it.’
“We’ve got t’leave,” said Orliss.
He spent the rest of the day packing what he needed for the road. Being a hermit, of sorts, there was always a travel bag at the ready.
He opened Meralys’ closet to Jaika; nothing was an exact fit, so she took what felt snug, and left the rest. There were also riding clothes, an unexpected and welcome bonus, so she took those as well.
“We was farmers once, and Meralys loved ‘er horses,” Orliss explained.
“You must tell me more of your life once we’re on the road.”
“I daresay we’ll not have th’ time, missy.”
He still called her ‘missy.’ She’d given up trying to change it. Besides, it could also be her name; no one need know her real name here. As of now, only two men who’d she’d had no intention of meeting, and had stumbled into quite by accident, knew it.
And then she received another startling revelation, from none other than Orliss himself.
“But you must tell me how it came to be that a young woman came to be traveling alone.”
She looked up, surprised, a smile of shocked amusement on her face.
“Your accent’s a ruse,” she said.
He smiled, “You’re quick. A good one, isn’t it?”
“Very much so, but why?”
“Helps me fit in, gain information. When I’m drunk though, it doesn’t seem to be a character. But it was ever my intention to fight back. With you here, that will make it easier.”
“He said we were to be wed. He knew my name, and when he left…I felt…”
“We’ll have to look into all that. Now’s not the time. We need to be gone by nightfall. I’ve a feeling he’ll be back, and he won’t be alone, and he won’t have those dogs.”
She nodded, and couldn’t repress a shudder, which he saw.
She sighed, and composed herself.
He placed a meaty hand on her shoulder. “I know. You’ve been swept up in a series of events that make absolutely no sense to you. I can’t explain how they do. I don’t know why you’re here, or why Dominick is after you, or me, for that matter. He won the war when he killed Meralys, and I was too devastated for thoughts of revenge.
“But I let him take the woman I love from me, and did nothing about it.
“I can’t allow that to happen again, but I can’t promise you it won’t.
“The truth is, the years of dissipation were real, and have taken their toll, but now there’s what’s left, and I have to use it to rid the world of him, and not just for you.
I don’t know the part you play; I’ve read no great books, and there’s no ancient prophecy.
“In fact, we had a somewhat shaky beginning.”
“Yes,” she reddened at the memory. “We did.”
“This is a strange and dark place; you’ve doubtless felt its power. That’s where I’ll need your wood lore; you’re under no obligation to stay, and I can see you to a ship this very afternoon that will give you safe passage, but I’m asking: will you help me?”
“I will help you, Orliss. If it wasn’t for you, I likely would not have survived. He’s attacked me twice, and there’s no denying there’s a bond. I felt it. I have to break it, but I don’t know how, and that’s where I’ll need you.”
“So, partners then?”
His hand was still resting on her shoulder, and she put her own hand over it.
They left the cottage empty and set out for the town to buy horses.
Jaika had to admit that in her travels, she’d never met anyone like Orliss. There was more to him than met the eye. He’d been stinking and drunk, and she’d been violent and desperate and frightened out of her wits, and in a few days, they’d become totally different people, though she was still frightened out of her wits.
Her travels up until now had been solitary; she slept when she needed to, ate when she was hungry, and traveled often to the point of exhaustion, wandering, seemingly aimless, but now knowing it wasn’t.
None of what happened to her now seemed coincidental, but she hoped she wasn’t some sort of celestial pawn, even though the darkly divine nature of her encounter was already a factor.
Gods of the forest, is that why you removed your protection? If so, you’ll not find me a willing puppet to your unknown plans.
The bargain for horses struck, they rode back on the dirt trail that led to the temple.
“I’ve not seen it in many years. I went as far as the tavern, and it seems the devils were content to leave me be, after they destroyed me.
“Now, that’s not the case.”
They arrived on the temple grounds. It sat in the middle, a circle of smooth walls like an aged, empty turtle shell.
The ivy leaves were beginning to turn with the season, as were the trees, edged with the slightest of red and orange and gold.
We must kill him before winter.
She stayed at the top of the trail, holding the reins of their horses as they grazed, and Orliss investigated.
There was no way she could bear to go near it right now; it was enough she might have to later.
He peered through the cracks, same as she did, but he didn’t stay long to observe anything, or so Jaika thought, as he walked around it rather quickly for his size.
She wanted to call out, to ask him if he saw anything, but the demon priest might not necessarily be nocturnal.
Orliss stopped, seemed to be thinking of something, then walked toward the back of the temple, but instead of going around again, he walked through the high wild grass.
Jaika only saw trees and weeds. It seemed to her there was nothing to mark it as a path.
Curious, she dismounted, tied off the horses, and went to follow him.
He was standing at the edge of a cemetery, the stones faded, fallen, and the gates broken. There was a low-lying fog covering the grassy ground, burning off slowly in the mid-morning sun.
She came and stood next to him.
“Most of the people I’ve known.”
She pressed no further, and let him have his moment, and started to walk back toward the horses.
“Don’t go, Jaika.”
She’d learned that when he called her name, things were different, so she stayed, standing beside him, scanning the mossy, discolored markers.
After a moment, she said “We should be going, Orliss.”
He sighed, and nodded. “There’s just one more thing left to do. Something I should have done years ago.”
“We’re going to burn the temple down.”
“Orliss, it’s stone, and there’s nothing in it. You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Oh, stone burns, Jaika. There’re different kinds of fire.”
“You’re talking in riddles.”
“I’m going to bind the spirits in this place.”
She went quiet at that, put some stray strands of hair behind her ear, losing the set of her shoulders, sighing.
“Is this something I should be a part of?”
He turned to face her. His eyes held a tenderness, but also a glimmer of fire.
“You already are.”
“But you’ve burned your books.”
Jaika didn’t want to know, so she asked no more questions.
He sat on the stained marble bench, and closed his eyes.
Jaika took the quiet time to look around.
The gravestones, faded with age and stained with elements, listed precariously in their slots, all but toppled, the names and dates long obliterated.
The high grass extended all across the plot land, and the mausoleum sat squat and dark, a diseased mushroom full of decay and vermin, a black blot on the green field.
She shuddered. There was something tainted and palpable in the air, like demon breath.
Orliss, some memory tapped, began to chant in a soft voice that pushed against the silence, chipping away at it.
Jaika didn’t know if he was praying, or casting a spell, but either way it looked like he would be a while. She went to check on the horses, and stayed with them to reassure them that their riders were still close by.
She ate a small snack while she waited.
The fog had burned off, and the mild warmth and clear skies of the early afternoon belied the peril they faced, and as the morning lazed into the afternoon, Jaika saw spread through the fading mist where Orliss sat.
The nervous horses whickered and stamped, and Jaika moved out of the range of their hooves. Fighting panic, her hand trembling, she drew her short sword, and went to investigate.
Orliss was where she’d left him, but what was in the light got her attention.
There were people, hundreds, of all ages, standing by their markers, but something about them was very strange.
Jaika realized that their features were just the veneer over their bones, and the wounds and diseases that ravaged them were visible: there were murder victims , their ghastly wounds almost translucent in the afternoon sun.
And of those who were mutilated: she could see their severed limbs flickering where they’d been hacked, the bloody stumps of meat and gore still dripping spectral blood.
Those who’d died of diseases, in childbirth, in accidents, all bore the marks of their passing, she saw the skeletons just underneath the veneer of flesh. The people were buried dressed in their finest formal wear, which was now little more than scraps, hanging like dead creepers from their limbs.
Sunken eyes, missing teeth, swollen tongues, open sores, torn female clothing, bruised faces, tilted heads with rope burns on their necks, and heads of glorious female hair ridden with lice, and small children with smiling mouths full of worms and centipedes pushed back against Orliss’ magic with a palpable malevolence.
He might have been marble himself, though his whiskers flew about him like a halo of tumbleweed, and sweat stains ruined his clean clothes.
Vermin began to appear and tentatively sniff at him, and began to snap at his flesh.
They went right through Jaika, as if she wasn’t there at all.
He flinched, and winced, and gasped, but picked right back up and didn’t stop chanting until, finally, he did. As he stood, he brushed the vermin from his body with a fell sweep of his arm, and Jaika gasped as they vanished. It had all been illusion to get him to stop.
A spirit-man came forward, his transparent flesh desiccated, and pointing what was left of his finger at Orliss, he spoke telepathically.
Jaika heard his voice in her head; it sounded like wet, shifting gravel, grating and unpleasant. She bore it for Orliss’ sake.
You should be here among us, priest.
“I know, and I’m sorry, but I’m not.”
We could make it so you are.
“Or you could tell me where Thonian ran off to fight.”
You name him! Oh, your boldness…
“I’ve no time to sit here preening with you; do you know where he is, or don’t you?”
If we did, we would not tell you, for your magic is weak, and cannot compel us. But it is as you say: we know not where he has gone.
Why do you disturb us, Orliss? A woman’s voice was speaking now, as she made her own way to face him. Have any of among us haunted you?
Then why do you seek us?
“This is my friend Jaika.” He extended his arm in her direction, and their broken eyes followed it to land on her. Jaika tried not to tremble.
” Thonian has marked her for his bride. I cannot allow it, and in the process of stopping him I might…I might be able to…free your souls.
The outburst was immediate, with some opting to pass through him and kill him, and still others to finish hearing what he had to say.
The latter won.
This is a bold claim, from a man whose magic has passed into legend.
“And yet I say it.”
Making no promises!
“But telling the TRUTH! DAMN your obstinate, bitter, foolish minds!”
Along with our souls, you mean? The woman spoke to them both, not unkindly.
Orliss seemed to deflate. “I meant…will you help me find him?”
The staring seemed an eternity.
A breeze stirred, and Jaika gagged on the stench from the risen dead, and held her breath; if either of them said anything now, they would lose their cause.
The two spirits that spoke to Orliss conferred, then walked among the others.
The early afternoon went into the late afternoon by the time the two of them returned.
Yes, Orliss. For the sake of our souls, we’ll be glad to help, but if you fall into the river of doubt, the stream of surrender, your souls are forfeit to us.
Are we agreed?
Orliss looked at Jaika, and after considering, she gave him a nod.
“We are,” Orliss said.
Then we take our leave, until tonight.
They slipped back into the ground in clusters, angry at their awakening, but excited to be involved in what could be the ancient land’s new beginning.
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
All rights reserved.
A few years ago, I heard a song by John Mayer called Waiting on the World to Change, a song about idealistic and virtuous youth waiting for the corrupt and evil aged to die off. The song’s most telling lyric went as follows:
“It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair,
So we keep on waiting for the world to change.”
I thought it rather lightweight for a protest song. I also thought it was the most naive thing I’d ever heard from a young man who’d traveled the world several times over.
Why would you wait?
Still, it will be interesting to see what unfolds while you do. Here’s why:
The ‘love your brother’ and ‘equality for all’ generation, when they began to experience true competition for resources as a result of their policies to ensure that equality in the 60’s, became the ‘angry white men’ of the 90’s and began working to repeal the very laws they enacted, becoming, in the process, worse sell-outs and hypocrites than they accused their corporate fathers of being in the 50’s.
And the computer, an invention of the Boomer generation which Mr. Mayer is waiting to go the way of the dinosaur, has upped the ante considerably, and taken things globally in an instant.
Today, a segment of the 60’s generation of love, peace, equality and freedom throws rocks at immigrant children, repeals voting laws, advances the aims of the very corporations they once vehemently denounced, and seeks to distance themselves from those who they were once like in the past; the other segment is permissive and apathetic in their adult responsibilities to the point of letting the country fall into anarchy.
So no, dear young people, you can’t afford to wait on the world to change. You are going to have to wade into the American wasteland, and get blood on your clothes, and get in peoples’ faces, and make unpleasant sacrifices, and make your voices heard. There is seldom a birth of a new thing without some labor pains being involved, and getting stoned like your grandfathers did for most of their first thirty years is not the way to go about it.
I’ve heard the saying: “These kids live in a different world.”
No you don’t; you live in a different time.
Yes, it is a scary, parasitic, greedy, lustful, materialistic, and intimidating time enhanced by constant connections and distractions, and things baying at you for your attention and money, but you are not in a different world; you’re on the same planet, and as far as we know, it’s the only where you can live outside of a clunky spacesuit, and without devices that will keep you from becoming a runaway hot air balloon.
So let me ask you, Mr. Mayer and company:
Can you really afford to spend it waiting?
The state of education in the US is deplorable.
Now that we’ve stated the obvious, sensei, what’s the solution?
Stop looking for innovative ways to teach students that include the whole child. Teachers must hold parents accountable to see to their own child’s emotional needs, just as parents want to hold teachers accountable for the academics. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t be involved in their students’ lives at all; by default, they already are, I’m saying there are aspects of the child’s life that are not the teacher’s responsibility, though it seems that increasingly, the circumstances of their students’ lives, regardless of income level, dictate they have to be.
We are now fostering feelings instead of dealing with academics, and consequently the children of today can’t read, write, spell or multiply; America is falling fast on the international front because we no longer treat our children like they have brains capable of being challenged.
Did you ever think you’d see the day America adopts teaching methods from other nations instead of being a leader?
It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. The rich kids are arrogant and selfish, and the poor kids are angry and rebellious, and the teacher has to deal with those two extremes and the spectrum in the middle, teaching to multiple learning types, with special needs kids thrown into the mix.
Administrators must stop being cowed by the fear of potential lawsuits and state, clearly, their policies on bullying, dress codes, class behavior and school citizenship. If it doesn’t come from the TOP DOWN (no pun intended on the dress code), your teachers are adrift with no paddle when trying to enforce these things individually in their classrooms.
“But the culture has changed.” That’s because it was capitulated to and not challenged. I had a student once whose mother was in prison, and had told her daughter: “It’s okay for you to give teachers attitude if they give you attitude.” With her mother’s backing, she proceeded to do the first part, not taking into account the second part, because she had very loose interpretation of teachers “giving her attitude,” which was pretty much “be quiet, sit down, and do your work.” Instead, she was allowed to take class time away from students who were doing exactly that, as well as interrupting lessons with her nonsense.
And when her Mom got out she was all too happy to come in and challenge the school, on more than one occasion, until the district finally had enough and expelled her child, who I guess by now has followed in her mother’s footsteps and is doubtless in jail. I overheard another student tell one, “My dad hates teachers.” Obviously, since she was failing her own classes because of her father’s mindset, they both felt justified when he came in to rant.
Kids I had in sixth grade were getting locked up their first or second year of high school, though I delivered the message over and over again. Another time there was a kid with an alcoholic mom who me and another teacher were finally able to get to who graduated high school early.
And then there was the boy I met in sixth grade who was growing up in a family of nine, determined to be an A student, and well on his way to achieving it.
So what’s my point?
At some point, circumstances cannot be blamed. I wouldn’t say I grew up in poverty, but I didn’t have a lot. What I had was two parents who realized how important exposure to the world beyond the streets of the South Bronx was, and who tolerated no nonsense, even though they weren’t together. I had a mentor who looked out for me, and I had, for the most part, my love of reading to sustain me. At some point, I looked around the decaying neighborhood of my childhood and said, “There is nothing here I want to be a part of,” and so I hit the books.
With my decision came all the accompanying name-calling and bullying, but I was determined and stayed my course. When I left the neighborhood to move to a new one, I never looked back, and I never went back. Recently I pulled it up on Google Earth, and there is less there now than before. The large 5 story pre-war structures are mostly gone, replaced with a one-story project building, and the neighborhood I moved into (another part of the Bronx which was not yet labeled, “South”) which I left after I got married, now has security gates on the building where I lived.
You HAVE to give your children options. Clean your neighborhoods, re-prioritize, organize, meet to advance your child’s education, and not to blame others for dropping what is essentially your responsibility. Yeah, circumstances can be daunting, but they needn’t be overwhelming. You have the power to change things, but if you don’t, who will?
It bothers me that people can’t seem to see the contributions they make to their own imprisonment. My daughter once asked me who would I be if I didn’t have the parents I did. I was honest enough to say that I couldn’t answer that question, because I had those parents, but it didn’t seem like anything complicated they did, or spectacular, or used any kind of pop-culture strategy, they simply did what they were supposed to. I knew my report card was going to be reviewed, and I knew that I couldn’t announce to my family that I was being held back. I knew they would ask me what I had for homework, and I knew that they loved me enough to keep me in line.
As for getting out of the bubble I lived in, the subways and gypsy cabs were available to everyone. I don’t know why more people didn’t take advantage of it, seemingly content to hang out in the neighborhood for the most part. When I got old enough to ride them myself, I did, and went back to revisit those places my parents had taken me, to see them with older eyes and a different view, to walk streets where I was a stranger and sometimes unwelcome, but I needed the reinforcement to stay motivated.
I was fortunate too, that NY was a multicultural mecca, and that Manhattan was the convergence point for all of them. My route usually started at Columbus Circle and went up as far as 125th St to as far down as West 4th St, and sometimes into the South Street Seaport. I met people, and saw things, both good and bad. I observed, and I learned, and I listened.
I was comfortable in Irish bars and Times Square dives that sold cocaine (never got in a bar fight, or robbed, thank God; and no, I didn’t buy any coke. Patrons who did usually wound up with the dealer’s people ‘looking’ for them. Trouble a new father didn’t need, didn’t want, and stayed away from, thank you. In that regard, the South Bronx taught me well all by itself).
As a result, I was comfortable in the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History.
I went to the Apollo and Carnegie Hall and Broadway.
I went to baseball games and ballet performances.
It all shaped who I was, and informed me that there was a better way to live, and a better way to do things. I didn’t achieve a lot of it because I wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels in PA (see previous post), but the awareness of it kept me in pursuit, and as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”
Today, it all shapes my writing, probably to a larger extent than even I realize, since I’m finally, for the first time, doing it for me, rather than as an assignment, in my 50’s.
So let’s see what happens with this writing thing….
Teachers are NOT the enemy.
YOU are the vanguard of your child’s future.
You can hold the teachers accountable if they don’t do their part, but do yours.
It matters to your child the most when you do.
Since I’ve moved to Jersey, I’ve had trouble finding a quiet place to write. It’s difficult because if you can’t work at home, or just want to be outside in the fresh air, unfortunately, the world is a public place, and most people aren’t considerate of the fact that you need to concentrate in order to keep your train of thought.
These are people such as: smokers ( keep reading: not judging you, just that I’m outside for fresh air; I fully realize the irony of that statement living in NJ, but it’s a relative thing), car radios, chatter, *teenage girls (*see chatter on crack), running children…. you get the point.
There are days you have the ability to zone, and days that you don’t; these days I’m finding it increasingly difficult to zone.
We all know by now, even if we’re remotely serious about it, that writing is in fact a discipline, and as in any discipline, you need to be organized, to concentrate, to focus, to think, and to adapt, if necessary; that requires, to a large degree, two ingredients: the first is being alone, the second is being quiet.
That’s not comfortable for a lot of people, and I understand. Their car radios are on from the time they get in it to the time they get out, either with music or some other media like books or language learning. They come home and immediately turn on the tv, or come home and jump on all the social media they didn’t get to at work. I’ve never known anyone who said they’ve come home after a hard day and started a book, either reading or writing one (but I know you’re out there).
Then there are the coffee shop writers, whose ranks I’ve joined, and those who think coffee shop writers are showing off. Maybe some are, and maybe the whole movement even started out that way. But here’s the thing: How much you wanna bet that the cafe’ where J. K. Rowling wrote her first Potter novel is cashing in on that reputation?
How many little holes-in-the-wall places in Spain, France, and Italy claimed Hemingway? You get the point.
I felt self-conscious the first time I set up my laptop in a corner table at my local Borders; it wasn’t crowded, and no one gave me a knowing smirk of derision. Really, no one cared; it’s just that I was aware of the perception. Then some college girls came in and set up shop next to me, and I got distracted, and not much writing got done. If I had been more disciplined, Borders could’ve cashed in on my reputation and saved their business…Isn’t it pretty to think so?
So what’s my point? Finding somewhere quiet to write is essential, but it’s not always possible, so ….
Recognize that discipline doesn’t mean inflexibility; some days, I can work at home, other days, it’s my local coffee shop, and sometimes, it’s the library, and if the weather’s really nice, it’s outside in the park, because it’s the writing that’s the discipline, not the location.
And there are days you’re not going to be able to write X hours a day, even if you told yourself that’s what you would do, because there are days life will crash through the window, kick down the door, and grab you by the throat, and there are days you just won’t feel like it. Try to push it, and you’re just going to slog needlessly through a lot of mud.
Don’t do that to your writing, and more importantly, to yourself.
It’s okay. It evens out; the desire is there, and one or two off days is not going to quench it. When you get back to it the way it works for you for that day, you’ll be that much more productive. Go with the flow, just don’t float away.
Now go get that second cup of joe, and get back to work.