Making sense of sea stars

I went to bed last night, thinking

of George Carter, the boy in New Orleans

who advocated for food justice and built community gardens,

who spoke at 15 about the cool peace and refuge they offered

and the warm taste of strawberries,

just before he was shot and killed by a gangbanger’s stray bullet.

I went to bed last night, thinking

about Baton Rouge Officer Montrell Jackson,

who said, “I swear to God I love this city,

but sometimes I wonder if this city loves me,”

who posted his offering of a hug or prayer

nine days before he was killed by someone who clearly needed both.

I went to bed last night, thinking

about Colonel Samuel Mims, who fought

the open burn of chemical explosives in Camp Minden, Louisiana

and said, “I am always a little irritated,

but when the government wants to poison my air

and send the children of this state to St. Jude’s,

I get downright pissed.”


I kicked at the sheets and thought, too,

of the mysteries of the starfish

– “sea stars” the scientists would say –

how occasionally it breaks itself,

and no one knows why.

one ray just twists off, and walks away,

sometimes in response to a predator or stimulus,

but just as often not.

The sea star’s self-breakage is at once passive and violent,

the main portion of its body suctioned tight, while the

separatist ray twists and turns at right angles,

until this amputation is complete.


There is much I don’t understand in this world, in this time.

How to find order in what seems senseless.

How we can’t keep a boy who loves strawberries safe.

I thrash around under my grandmother’s quilt and

Try to grab a fistful of meaning in the long arc of the moral universe,

the essential and enduring kindness I see sparked by so many,

the musings of marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who said,

“it would seem

that in an animal that deliberately pulls itself apart,

we have the very acme of something or other.”


We must, else what is the alternative?


Sawa Bona: I see you

Griefs are different. Some are private, some are public, some are communal, some are isolating, some are even beloved, others of course despised; some sneak up on you as you are walking to your car on a Tuesday to sucker punch you in the gut, doubling you breathlessly in two without so much as a warning — others wrap around you in a hot, heavy creep like a wet wool in July.

When you lose a pet– your favorite dog, say, there is no recognition for your pain, no casseroles and time off work. You are meant to continue as normal, because to the outside world you are, even though there’s been a hole blown out of your center.  The grief is so intensely private that there is also pain in its lack of recognition; there is a grief about the grief.  And sometimes the pain of the Meta Grief becomes the one that guts us.

It’s true for communal griefs, too, the ones that happen to us as a collective – a family, a community, a city, a nation.  And when those are not grieved and metabolized collectively, then there is the same palimpsest of layered griefs.  The same double whammy of trauma. I am thinking about Orlando again, and also about Alton and Philando and the five police officers serving in Dallas, and I am also thinking about my uncle’s suicide.  Nevermind they all involved guns, forget the whole gun “debate” for just now.  When a communal loss doesn’t find common ground and collective healing expression – through communication or ritual or some other means – there is additional pain.

My uncle’s suicide was shocking, as I imagine they nearly all are, despite the previous attempts and his ongoing depression.  But it was almost just as painful that my family didn’t talk about why he did it, that we didn’t replay together the weeks before, or that we don’t bring him up fluently, easily, at family gatherings since.  I don’t blame them – I wasn’t as vocal as I could have been either. It hurts to do that. It hurts with a rawness that’s sharp and confusing – Why bring it up if we can’t see clear to where that kind of conversation might go? It was easier for us to talk about my father, who died 6 months before my uncle took his own life. Though acutely painful in its own right, we understand how to place his death – aortic dissection, terrible tragedy, so mercifully quick – and therefore place his life and his legacy. But Donnie – how do we make sense of that? And so, there’s been little to no discussion, and that silence — for me anyway– has been its own jagged rending and a separate grief.

When I starting writing this piece, I wrote “Orlando and whatever the next mass shooting will be is not so different, though it’s less personal.”  When I opened the doc one week later I had to edit that sentence, because I now know the names of those next tragedies.  And what fresh hell is next?

Social media is very loud and hot and crowded right now.  There’s a lot of talking, a lot of writing.  We are all hungry and anxious and needy and pissed, and the buffet is overwhelmingly huge and not very nourishing. I don’t know that many words can nourish right now, and I don’t presume mine can, though the act of continuing to talk, continuing to try, even if there’s more chaff than grains in our words, has got to lead to progress.  And also because I do think there are a few words out there that can restore us, bringing us back to our humanity and helping to reconcile what has been torn for so long.  I know three in particular.

Recently, I was introduced to a South African (zulu) greeting, “Sawa Bona.” We have no direct translation, but it essentially means, in the deepest sense, “I see you.”  I see all of you, I hear you, I witness you, I am looking at you without getting my own self in the way. The respondent says, “Sikhona,” meaning “I am here.”  But it’s deeper than that. I means: I am here because you see me. I exist as a human because you have paused long enough to witness my humanness.  My identity depends on and is given agency by your seeing me. So, now, because you see me — I am here.

The listener is more than active – her listening actually gives voice to the speaker. This level of listening and witnessing is a powerful tonic to validate and soothe this grief of unacknowledged pain and injustice of being invisible. The double trauma becomes single trauma, which God knows is still hard enough as our country limps along.

Last week Kellon Nixon was just this guy, this week he’s the eloquent father who was an eyewitness to the vigil in Dallas because he wanted to be a part of healing and lend his voice to support the memories of Castile and Sterling, and was quoted by a Huffington Post reporter.  He said, “You start to think that it’s me against the world. And with that type of mentality, we’ll implode not just as an ethnicity, but as a people, period…. You get to feeling that only my and my family’s life matters, and I knew I had to recover from that spiritually.

Nixon realized, as all of us must, that the only way to be whole is to look at someone else, particularly someone different, wide enough and open enough to say, “Sawa Bona.” I see you.

“Sikhona.” I am here.

My niece and I were talking this morning on the beach, while we slowly packed sand into sand castles for my toddler to systematically pound into smithereens, about what it feels like for her right now as a college student in Baton Rouge. We talked about the confusing messages about public safety she’s getting. We built moats and drawbridges and talked about how she has to weigh what makes good common sense and where messages might be rooted in this institutionalized racism and otherism we’ve cemented, and how fear!fear!fear! can drive our basest selves.

I thought later about how we don’t have a roadmap for this, culturally.  We know emergency response, we know status quo, we know crisis communications, we can architect and engineer and construct the shit out of anything from a viral social media campaign to an interstate highway system to 3-D printing human tissue, but healing?  Reparations? No.  We don’t even have an English word for the concept of conveying identity by way of seeing another’s humanness.

I should say, “Yet.” We don’t have it yet.

A good friend, who’s black, told me that when he once cut his forehead, he wife, who’s white, upon applying the Bandaid, noticed where the skin split and the blood beneath showed and remarked, “It’s less than 1/8th of an inch. All this division and fuss for less than 1/8th of an inch.”

I can’t get this little story out of my head.  How can we miss seeing each other at such a basic level?  And how much extra pain do we cause in the not-seeing?

There are many griefs: there are some griefs so quiet and subtle, so suffocatingly personal — perhaps a life lived not all how you intended, or a passion subverted and tamped down — and some griefs so cataclysmic and big and singular that our entire life is marked in a  B.C./A.D. fashion around the loss. But they are all organic. All entities, nearly living, and requiring care, boundaries, tending, like any child.  But I think the grief of unacknowledgment, the terrible inequity of being unseen, is parasitic.  It feeds on us, depriving us of what we need most, until we, fatally, don’t see ourselves.

How often have I looked at someone without looking at them? Way more often than not.  How often am I surprised by someone’s complexity and goodness once I enter, openly, into conversation?  Every single damn time.  We heal in others what hurts the most in our own lives, and through that virtuous cycle we find a welcoming balm. A balm in the neglected mudroom of the heart. A balm in our own most personal and unexpected places.

Our national poet laureate said this just two days ago, far more simply and beautifully:

@ the Crossroads—A Sudden American Poem


       RIP Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Dallas police
officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith,
Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa
—and all
their families. And to all those injured.


Let us celebrate the lives of all

As we reflect & pray & meditate on their brutal deaths

Let us celebrate those who marched at night who spoke of peace

& chanted Black Lives Matter

Let us celebrate the officers dressed in Blues ready to protect

Let us know the departed as we did not know them before—their faces,

Bodies, names—what they loved, their words, the stories they often spoke

Before we return to the usual business of our days, let us know their lives intimately

Let us take this moment & impossible as this may sound—let us find 

The beauty in their lives in the midst of their sudden & never imagined vanishing
Let us consider the Dallas shooter—what made him

what happened in Afghanistan

flames burned inside
(Who was that man in Baton Rouge with a red shirt selling CDs in the parking lot

Who was that man in Minnesota toppled on the car seat with a perforated arm 

& a continent-shaped flood of blood on his white T who was

That man prone & gone by the night pillar of El Centro College in Dallas)
This could be the first step

in the new evaluation of our society    This could be

the first step of all of our lives