I scrawled the above sentences in a torn and tattered notebook as I sat aboard a late night American Airlines flight home to Dallas. At the time, I was seeking refuge in the pages of my journal, hoping to purge of some of the rapid-fire thoughts coursing through my brain after a weeklong immersion and training with at risk-youth on the streets of Los Angeles. I’d been sitting there, pencil in hand, begging my hand to purge the words of my heart on a page, and still that line of text was all I could muster.
After seven days of soaking up the words of inspiring community organizers, impressively articulate youth, and an incredible group of women who were along for the ride with me, I found myself mute. Why could I not write? Where was my voice?
Finally, I set the pencil on the tray table. I closed my eyes, leaned back in the stiff airplane seat, and gazed softly out the airplane’s window. I breathed into my belly. I was afraid of my belly. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to feel what it had to say.
You see, if there’s one practical, tangible insight I walked away with from this week, it’s that human beings instinctively tighten in the face of fear. We — men, women, children, and animals alike — are biologically wired to harden when we sense danger, withdraw when we feel the cold touch of despair, grab on for dear life when we feel the hollow illusion of solid ground pulled out from underneath us. I met a lot of darkness week, both in my own mind and in the juvenile facilities, rec centers, and impoverished communities we visited. But by the end of the trip, I’d recognized a valuable lesson emerge in almost every situation I was placed. It’s in the softening, in the receptivity that follows discomfort, that the opportunity for connection — and maybe even compassion — is revealed.
So, as the gentle stream of my breath flowed down, soothing the tortuous clenching in my heart center and intestinal walls… I felt the shift. There it was. A lump in the back of my throat swelled up. Tingles in my shoulders and forearms made my hair stand up on end, as I moved to pick up the pencil again. And then, from deep in the pit of my tummy, a voice began to sing.
These were the verses that emerged:
I’m gazing out a window 35,000 feet above ground
Looking down on barren earth, parceled squares of land
I’m gettin’ high from inside a 737 jet plane
I’m Lady Jonah in the hollow belly of man
I’m looking down on the body of the only mother I have left
At flesh that’s been carved out by miserly machines
Her scars tell the story of the real tragedies of youth
This mama is the molested child unseen
There are roads where there were once rivers
Factory farms where forests used to lie
Concrete parking lots on land my ancestors once called holy ground
How are the children, one leader asked. One began to cry.
From up here, the crimes appear so obvious
The throbbing wounds stand out like bright red streaks of blood
Mother Earth screams the answer in a voice heartwrenching and shrill
Her children, it appears, are not doing so good
We privileged seem to have grown accustomed to the warnings and alarms
We drown them out with ipods and numbing machines
Yet the children scream louder, use the only tools they know how
Beg us to listen, to bare witness, to feel
Perhaps what stands out for me most looking back and below
Is that we don’t see those who reflect the dark parts of our selves
We don’t want to acknowledge the little ones who mirror our own shame
We hide them away in group homes, rec centers, and jail cells
We say this is us, and that there is them
Those kids aren’t like me — they’re not of my kind
In the fear, we forget that every one of us belongs
To a family that trumps class, race, even species lines
The collective mother’s tears fall from puffy cumulous clouds,
Toxic rain streaming down from high above
Look hard enough you’ll see where (hu)man’s semen singed her tender flesh
Raped her soil, told her it was love
The children see it, don’t you think they’re too young
They watch the violence through a cracked bedroom door
Not yet numbed by their traumas, or armored in defense
They absorb the pain, feel it through the floor
So as I gaze down from above, the bitter irony hits me hard
I write from inside a jet blowing whiffs of black smog out its rear end
I, the child who was once violated herself
Now I’m the abuser perpetuating our collective sin
That’s the paradox I’ve been grappling with on my journey this week
I realized I too have been inept in ways I don’t want to see
I chatted with homeless men on the boardwalk during the day
Then I crawled under a feather blanket in our hotel to sleep
I leave LA with more questions than I came
Many of which might just guide the rest of my life
How do children heal when their only tools are guns, drugs, and eating disorders?
How do we advocate for others when we’re still engulfed in personal strife?
How do you nourish your own personal body
When you’ve starved the planet to put food on your plate
How do you deal with the guilt of rising even when your own family fell?
How do you eat when the food left pesticides, a child’s blood in its wake?
I don’t know the answers to these all too raw and personal questions
I am still trying hold the paradox within and for myself
Maybe though, just maybe, the path is paved with the questions themselves
For the road we’ve been treading, it seems, is digging us deeper into hell
For it was the quest for solid ground that laid these cement parking lots in the first place
I wonder if it’s in the not knowing that something different has space to arise
I don’t know. I’m still just gazing out my window—smiling at the hope in despair
Things look very different when you’re flyin’ 35,000 feet high