At home, in Charlottesville

Home sweet home #charlottesville
Sunset in Charlottesville (2014).

On the first anniversary of the alt-right rally that rocked our town of Charlottesville, we are quiet at home, just a mile away from the crowds and cops that have gathered on the downtown pedestrian mall near the parks and still-standing statues. I have a cup of black tea and a stack of books (Runaway Horses, Yukio Mishima; My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh; Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow). Guion is playing the guitar, accompanying our gentle neighbor on the cello. They speak to each other very sparingly; they sip Negronis and the wooden coasters clatter to the floor when they pick up their drinks. Pyrrha sleeps on the knotted wool rug in the hall. She sometimes watches them with one eye.

We have deliberately had a still weekend, but we also ventured downtown to eat. Not as a declaration of anything, but just because it’s what we’d do on any other weekend. We passed through the police checkpoints. We stiffened a little when a man yelled from the street; when, later, a cop car blasted its sirens down the street, but nothing happened. Nothing was visibly awry. We are still happy to call this place home. We do not know what the future holds. We know we are still far from equity in many respects. We maintain a shape-shifting hope for tomorrow.

. . .

If I grieve for anything, it is for the cruelty of aging, for the ways that it brings my beloved family to struggle and suffer in their final days. I still expect dying to be fair.

. . .

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

— Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

How to move forward

Lee Park

If you were following the news in the US this weekend, you know that Charlottesville, our little town, became an epicenter for a terrifying rally of white supremacists, Nazis, alt-right instigators, and domestic terrorists from across the country. One woman was killed in an act of terrorism straight out of the ISIS playbook, and 19 more were seriously injured.

We live less than a mile from Emancipation Park, shown above, which was the center of the violence and rage. Our church is right across the street from this park. Since Saturday, we’ve been decompressing for hours on end, like many of our neighbors and friends.

In the aftermath, the most unsettling quote I have read came from University of Virginia alum and Nazi agitator Richard Spencer, who said: “Your head’s gonna spin, how many times we’re going to be back here . . . We’re going to make Charlottesville the center of the universe.”

My stomach fills up with dread when I read those words. I pray that it won’t be true, that days like Saturday don’t become commonplace in our town.

And yet it jars us all out of our complacency. We realize we’re not inoculated from hatred; it breathes and grows right under our feet, right next door. Charlottesville has a dark history of racism that it covers in a veneer of prestigious history and genteel Southern charm. In my bubble, on my street in a hippie neighborhood, it is easy to believe that we don’t have a problem with racism. Clearly, we do.

“If we are to be blindsided by history, it will probably be the consequence not of unresolved disputes but of unexamined consensus.” — Marilynne Robinson, “Value,” in The Givenness of Things

So, what’s to be done?

If ending white supremacy is the goal, tweeting about it shouldn’t be my primary action. The older I get, the more I am convinced that tweeting about racism and white supremacy doesn’t do much, if any, good. Hearts and minds aren’t changed by social media posts. The internet just serves up our own opinions, whatever they are, and calcifies them. Facebook doesn’t soften our hearts—or change the minds shrouded with hate that need to be changed.

If the echo chamber of the internet doesn’t have concrete solutions, where else should we look? Here are a few actions that I’ve been thinking about lately.

What we can do

Support the good work of local nonprofits and humanitarian organizations. We love The Haven, Computers4Kids, New City Arts, the Women’s Initiative, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the International Rescue Committee, among others. Sara Benincasa also has compiled a list of Charlottesville nonprofits that could use help.

Stay in your church or whatever community you belong to. Stay and do the hard work there of talking about white supremacy. Don’t leave because discussions aren’t happening at the pace you want; start the discussions yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to.

Talk to people. Talk to your relatives who voted for Trump. Withholding judgment, listen to them. (I find this particularly hard to do, but I’m learning that it’s vitally important if we are ever going to be able to get through to someone.) Ask them questions. Lots and lots of questions.

Form relationships with people whose opinions you find repulsive. This, especially, is the primary way to create significant change in our communities. It has to start at the very small, very local, very intimate level. One person at a time.

Starting with myself. I hope I can become less horrible, in the wake of all of this, and be more gentle and gracious. It is difficult and seemingly endless work, but I hope and pray Charlottesville is in it for the long haul.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: The Sheltering Sky (#9)

The Sheltering Sky.

#9: THE SHELTERING SKY, by Paul Bowles.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I hesitate to put this book on this list, because then you might read it and think I’m a psychopath. (This is a similar fear to writing rave reviews of Nabokov, with the danger being that you might think I was a pervert.) This brings up the distinction between the “morality” of art and one’s separate consumption of it, but that’s another theoretical discussion for another time.

This is a very, very dark book. (In fact, it is on a Goodreads list titled “The Darkest Books of All Time.”) My best guess is that 75 percent of you would hate it, so I am not going to use the word “recommend” here, but I am going to tell you why I liked it and why I thought it was worth a damn.

The Sheltering Sky is the debut novel by American expatriate Paul Bowles, who lived in Morocco, where this story is set. American couple Port and Kit Moresby travel through the Sahara, accompanied by their friend, Tunner. On the surface, the book seems like it would be just another Hemingway-esque tale of blundering, drinking, profligate American tourists (a la The Sun Also Rises) bumbling their way through a vast and complex foreign land. But that would be too easy for Bowles. This novel is like a much darker and more lyrical Hemingway, but I don’t even know if that’s a fair comparison. It is more like someone dropped Hemingway characters into the middle of a Moroccan nightmare and left them there to die.

As the group’s travel plans begin to fall apart, the characters and the narrative also begin to unravel. The darkness of the book comes over one suddenly, as a great shadow. “It all started off so well and even funny!” you think, naively, as you continue to read. “Surely things will turn out in the end.” But things do not turn out in the end. Sunny resolution is for children’s novels, apparently, because Bowles has written a story that somehow plumbs the depths of the human condition and the hopelessness of escape.

Sounds fun, right? And yet it was an incredible book. It is difficult for me to explain this. Thankfully, I don’t have to hunt for the right words, because the brilliant Tennessee Williams already did. He published a short review of The Sheltering Sky in the New York Times on 4 December 1949, the year the novel came out, “An Allegory of Man and His Sahara.” In it, he expresses what I have vainly tried to express about the deep, eternal appeal of this dark book:

There is a curiously double level to this novel. The surface is enthralling as narrative. It is impressive as writing. But above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire. And that is the surface of the novel that has filled me with such excitement.

It is exciting to read and it is frightening at the same time. Williams has many delightful and encouraging things to say about Bowles as an artist and as a writer. Then he ends his review with this bomb, which I find to be as fitting a way as any to end my own:

I suspect that a good many people will read this book and be enthralled by it without once suspecting that it contains a mirror of what is most terrifying and cryptic within the Sahara of moral nihilism, into which the race of man now seems to be wandering blindly.