The Long, Hot Summer of 2015

Children Play in Yard of Ruston Home, While Tacoma Smelter Stack Showers Area with Arsenic and Lead Residue, 08/1972. (Via Story Mag/US National Archives)

One day in the middle of June this summer, something ugly happened: a young white man walked into an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, joined a Wednesday night prayer group, and then opened fire on those gathered there to pray.

In the days following, it felt as if an old wound at the heart of this country had been ripped open, revealing the sickness within. In the days that followed, it seemed possible that wound would never heal.

One person filled with hate had done that.

For a few days around the end of July this summer, something beautiful happened: protesters dangling in harnesses from the St. John’s Bridge–and gathered in kayaks on the Willamette River below–stood in the way of Shell’s Fennica icebreaker. The ship was headed north to begin exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic in the midst of the hottest year on record.

This direct action protest actually managed to turn back the ship, albeit temporarily, and for a few wild, bright moments, it seemed possible that we might yet be able to turn back the disaster of even hotter years to come–the imminent threat to our children, to the web of life that supports us.

A few people filled with love had done that.

It’s not easy to watch from the sidelines, to swing between such emotional extremes over the course of a single season, even as the mercury soars. (Yesterday, it was nearly a hundred degrees in Portland.) But it’s easier, I imagine, than what it feels like to be a black American right now. It’s easier than what it feels like to be a farmer in California, in the midst of an extreme drought and brutal fire season.

More and more, I’m reminded of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sowerthe story of a black family pushed north from L.A. in the midst of a not-so-distant environmental collapse.

More and more, I feel called to action, both as a person and a writer.

More and more, I’m realizing that my undergraduate education helped to prepare me for all of this, long ago.

The poem in nine parts I wrote for the victims of the Charleston Massacre appeared first here and then on STIR Journal. Now Melanie Bishop, a former teacher of mine from Prescott College, has pulled them together in a single article she wrote for the Huffington Post, in which she called on me to keep writing poems like this.

Maybe it’s function of the kind of teachers I had at PC, the way they challenged and championed us–the way they saw the best in us and pushed us to confront the overwhelming challenges of our time. Whatever the reason, Melanie, I want you to know that I take that call seriously.

The article is entitled Helpless in the Face of Senseless Violence, and you can read it here:

Years ago, in a class I had with another teacher at PC, I discovered flash fiction, and I wrote the first draft of something I called The Terrible Child. But it was so raw and intense, so hot to the touch, that though I sent it out time and again, no one would publish it. It wasn’t until I came to Portland that I found the distance, the stance, that rendered it cool enough to touch.

Story Magazine held the piece for nearly a year before they decided to publish it, but publish it they did–and I’d like to dedicate it, here and now, to those terrible children, those rainbow warriors, those fabulous fools, who dared to turn back an icebreaker in the midst of our hottest summer yet.

You can read The Terrible Child here:


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