Bioluminescence

Summer is here, finally waving away the ambivalence of spring, drawing us into the heat just as the solstice, that high point of the year, passes. Days slowly shorten now, imperceptibly, even as we settle into the summer ritual window-unit air conditioning by day, warm evening strolls in the neighborhood park at night.

Last night Luke and I saw our first lightning bug of the year, as we were walking across the campus of General Theological Seminary, a sanctuary of green and quiet amidst the chaos of Manhattan. Luke caught it on the tip of his finger, looked up at me with his delightful 11-year-old wonder and said, shaking his head, “It’s just amazing that bugs achieved bioluminescence.”

Amazing indeed. So much luminescence this week: a storytelling show about grief and death with a brilliant comic and writer, Kelli Dunham, wherein I told my stories of being a chaplain and Kelli her stories of losing two partners to cancer. Playing harp the next evening with a band, the amazing Tomoko and Nuc, the privilege of floating on that wonderful give-and-take of musical improvisation that I haven’t had for nearly two years. I’ve missed it. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, being elected handily in a primary district right next door to where I live, running on a platform of universal healthcare, free college, and abolishing the ICE. Hopeful things.

Luminescence, but darkness too. Luke, my sweet boy, experiencing overt racism for the first time in his young life at the hands of his best friend; watching him have to make the decision to name his truth at the risk of losing a friendship. Giving money, at the storytelling show, to support a woman taken from her three young daughters by ICE. Feeling punched in the gut at the news of Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, in one moment suddenly even more aware that the political darkness of our time is not a blip on the radar of history and never has been. The evil of this administration will reverberate for decades, a scar and a shame on the already murky landscape of American history.

“Garrett* will probably never understand what it’s like for you,” I explained to Luke, as we were talking through the racist comments his friend had made. “Garrett is white, and he has had a very comfortable life. And he’s a boy. He hasn’t had any reason yet to learn how to listen to other people’s experience, because he lives in a world that was made to make him feel comfortable and good.”

The blindness of privilege, I explained. Garrett can’t comprehend what it feels like to be in the minority, to be only one of three Asian children at school, to be the child of queer parents. I realized in that moment how hard I had worked throughout his childhood to shelter Luke from knowledge of race and privilege. I remembered the first conversation we had about race, wherein I explained that his parents were different races. He didn’t believe me, even when I pointed out our different physical characteristics. Race is not natural. Children do not see race.

Now, at age 11, on the cusp of middle school, I no longer need to explain. He goes through the world with a different racial experience than I do. Part of me has probably unintentionally tried to shelter him with my own whiteness, knowing full well that this shelter would disintegrate with age and that the blindness privilege affords is not a true gift. It is painful to watch him wrestle with this. Yet as much as I wish it was otherwise, I am also grateful for the vision he has that, for example, Garrett does not have yet, grateful for the courage that comes so naturally to him, the willingness to name what he sees and say calmly to his friend, “That’s racist. It hurts my feelings. Stop saying it.”

I could not have said that at age 11. He will surpass me in so many ways.

My boy knows how to speak his truth. And I can be grateful for that, for his bioluminescent spirit, insisting on glowing in the coming darkness, insisting on miracle amidst the sludge.

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*Not his real name.

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