There are so many things I don’t know. On my mind this weekend was all the not knowing I’m mired in regarding the killings in Charleston.
I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll ever know, how a person can take the life of another.
I don’t know words that would even begin to offer a grain of comfort or solace to the surviving family members. “I’m sorry for your loss,” sounds trite, like their family members died in a car accident and not at the hands of fellow citizen. When killings like these happen in places like Rwanda, we use words like “genocide”, but when they happen here we use euphemistic words like “tragedy”.
I don’t know how to answer the questions that are coming across the ocean to me. I don’t know how to explain to my Ugandan kids that racism is alive and shooting in the U.S.
I don’t know how to answer my kids, my sons, when they ask, “Mum, what are you going to do about it?”
That’s the one that sucks every last breath of air out of me, leaves me fallen and deflated.
What am I going to do about it?
This is when the not knowing hollows me out.
This weekend, in the middle of all this not knowing, I’ve been doing little things, tiny human things, like breathing in and out and praying.
I’ve talked about my prayer life before, how it’s not eloquent or remarkable in any sense. Years ago, I had a student who collected rocks. She loved rocks and loved tumbling them in her rock tumbler. Her family moved in the middle of the school year and on her last day of school, she brought her rock tumbler to show the class and for one long day, the clattering sound of her rock tumbler filled our classroom. At the end of the day as we said our final goodbye, she took a shiny, smooth, black rock out of her rock tumbler and placed it in my hand. I still have that rock.
I thought of my rock tumbling girl this weekend, thought of that smooth rock when I prayed a prayer I’ve never prayed before; one lone word, clattering over and over again between my teeth.
Emmanuel. Emmanuel. Emmanuel.
God is with us. God is with us. God is with us.
I prayed it like a promise, prayed it because sometimes the name of God is the only word I can think of, both strong and gentle enough to collapse the darkness I feel in times like these.
On Friday morning with Emmanuel tumbling in my mouth, I headed out to the garage where two discarded pieces of furniture are in the process of being repurposed for my classroom. One is a tattered, brown microwave cart that’s now bright aqua and lime. The other is an old school desk I also painted bright aqua.
A friend came over to teach me how to chalk paint and then how to buff a wax finish. Her instructions to me were simple, “Just keep going. You’ll know when to stop when it has a sheen to it and it’s smooth to the touch. You’ll feel the difference.” Refinishing old things and making them new again felt like another kind of prayer and I added her words to my mouth. “Just keep going. You’ll feel the difference.”
Her daughter, a student at my school, came over, too. The little girl and I finished up a grant application for children who want to do good for their community. If we’re chosen we’ll use our grant to install a Little Free Library at our school. The name the little girl has chosen for her little library makes me smile. She wants to call it The Little Library That Could. It’s the perfect name and I added the words, “I think I can, I think I can,” to the growing jumble in my mouth.
That same day, a glass repairman was scheduled to fix some cracking chips in my windshield. When he arrived, I wanted to wag my finger and scold him for missing his “between 8 and 12” appointment. I was covered in sweat from praying and painting and buffing that old school desk. He was sweaty, too, no doubt having had fixed several cracked and broken windshields already that morning. I kept my nagging finger to myself and instead offered him a glass of cold water.
Despite the praying and buffing and dreaming of little blue engines and books for children, I was still angry. I wanted to be by myself stewing in my garage, mad at the world, chewing on stony prayers and rubbing that old desk until it felt different, until I felt different.
Instead, I was joined by the repairman and I listened as he talked about applying precise pounds of suction and pressure to the glass before applying the glue to heal the cracks. I listened when he told me about his daughter who is having surgery in a few days, about how he hopes this time, the surgery will work and her arm won’t be paralyzed anymore. I added his daughter’s name next to Emmanuel in my mouth.
I still haven’t finished buffing that old school desk yet. I still feel angry about the killings in Charleston. I still don’t know what to do, how to change the hearts of people set against their fellow man.
But there are things I do know.
I know there are fathers full of hope of restoration for their children.
I know there are people adept in repairing cracked, broken things.
I know there are book-loving children who want to share that love with other children.
I know there are friends who see beauty in old, discarded things, friends who say holy words like, “Just keep going.”
Above all, I know that when I can only do the tiniest of human things, when I can only utter jagged prayers, when genocide and darkness and hatred seem pervasive, there is still Emmanuel.