The rain changed over to snow just as the light was leaving the sky, and by this morning any hint of spring had been erased. Gone the wash of green I wrote of only yesterday; gone the tufts of newly lush grass; gone the stilled suppleness of the early air, like a finely woven fabric almost too soft to feel. Gone chores in a shirt pushed up to the elbows, feet warm in rubber boots, bird and frog song everywhere, the mind liberated by the body’s contentment, flitting from one thought to the next, and none of them meaning much of anything. This morning all I could think about was the cold soaking through the knees of my jeans as I knelt to milk, the stiffness in my fingers and my recalcitrant right elbow, and the brief, repeating blasts of wind driving all of it deeper. And hardly any birdsong.
So. Gone the comfort, too.
Though none of it’s gone, really; just obscured. Deferred.
Over the weekend I accompanied our older son to a direct action campaign in the city of Albany, New York for the purpose of disrupting the flow of Bakken crude oil. The oil travels by train, hundreds upon hundreds of rail cars streaming through the city’s most economically challenged (and primarily African American) neighborhoods. The people who live in these communities are subjected to the worst of the ancillary pollution, and also placed at the highest risk of a disastrous incident such as the one that occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec a few years back, when train cars carrying crude oil crashed and exploded, killing 47 and displacing many others. So you see: The risk is not theoretical.
I am not inherently drawn toward this type of activism, though I sympathize with the cause and am saddened and angered by the injustices inflicted on those with the fewest resources to defend themselves. But my boy is drawn to this work, or at least curious about it, and because of this, and because I think it is healthy to occasionally remove one’s self from one’s comfort zone, which this trip would certainly do for me, I said ok. Let’s go.
We rode a chartered bus to Albany, and slept fitfully on a church floor, surrounded by the night noises of a 100 or so other fitful sleepers, and it was not restful for me, at least in part because I had difficultly not thinking about everything that needed doing at home. In the morning, we made by foot for the park that served as gathering spot for what would ultimately be nearly 2,000 other activists.
About halfway to the park we came upon a bus stop inhabited by a small group of middle age men, all of them black. I do not think they were waiting for bus, though I could be wrong. But it seemed to me as if they’d gathered there to socialize, to watch the world roll by on a Saturday morning, or at least the small sliver of the world comprised by that block of South Pearl Street in Albany, New York.
“Where are you going?” one of them asked. “Where are you from?” (was it that obvious that we weren’t from around there? It was. It very much was). We told them about the trains, which they knew about already, and we told them about the gathering, which they didn’t know about, and then we suggested they join us. “Come sing with us,” someone in our group said, and they laughed, and then one of them said “he can sing,” pointing to one of his companions.
And then what happened is that this man stepped forward and began to sing to our little group of privileged white folks from out-of-town, and I could see that many of his teeth were capped in silver (or something that looked like silver), and many of the ones that weren’t capped were simply missing, and I could hear that his voice truly was something special. Maybe even sacred. It was a gospel song, not one I recognized (as if I’d recognize any), and we just stood there. Dumbstruck, I’d say, but that’s not quite right, because it felt to me like one of those moments when a deep and abiding intelligence is being revealed and you know right then and there that you now understand something you never had before, something you never even understood you needed to understand. If that makes any sense.
When he finished, we all clapped, then everyone laughed together, then they shook our hands in flurry of complicated patterns that I fumbled through best I could, and as we walked away my son said “that was amazing.”
And I just nodded my head, in part because I did not trust the strength of my own voice at that very moment, and in part because I did not know what else to say.