The Shortest Day of the Longest Year: Out of Darkness Comes Light
I woke up in a tent on the ridge above Cat Gut on the shortest day of the longest year and shook the morning rain off the fly. My car was parked in a friend’s yard, his house looking like it could slide into the creek, and I nodded to old man chopping wood before kicking my boots and getting in the driver’s seat. He stared at me and spat.
In Charleston, I stopped for hot coffee and walked towards the Kanawha to see the barges. A woman screamed at a man outside the courthouse; not the stately sandstone courthouse, but the unceremonious cement block one where lives fall apart. “You’re dead!” she yelled, her voice shrill and breaking. He walked towards me and past me, his face placid, his gait quick but not alarmed, his leather briefcase tucked up under his arm.
She stood on the corner and broke into tears. Her face distraught and distorted, her stringy hair sticking to her cheeks as she sobbed, thin legs wobbling underneath her. Her arms hung heavy by her side, she did not even obscure her face with her hand, she just stood in the middle of the sidewalk, staring in the direction the man had gone, and sobbed.
“I just want to see my son,” she gasped.
I used a stick to scrape the rest of the mud off my boots and into the river, the dark soil disappearing quickly into the murky water. I want her to see her son too.
A friend of mine works up in that courthouse and is, often, the one who is arguing for the children to be taken to another home. She may have been colleagues, for all I know, with the man with the briefcase. It is not a glamorous job, bearing witness to families at their lowest, the ravages of addiction, the inadequacy of community, medical, mental health supports. At times it must be a rewarding job, knowing you may have saved a life. But it’s never a fully fair job, as we can only create moments of okayness, not fairness, in an unfair world. I remember a few years ago this friend told me that at one point in her career she could refer to the “overdose case in the drive-through” where kids had to be retrieved from the backseat of the car, but now she had to specify which “overdose case in the drive-through” because every year there were more.
We’ve been broken a long time, America.
There have been moments where the poisoned amniotic fluid of our country has been stark and clear. I remember watching the floodwaters rise in New Orleans. Families paddling their toddlers past bloated drowned bodies on broken doors. TV pundits decrying looting while people fought for bottled water as if their lives depended on it — because they did. I remember the police murdering people trying to cross the Danziger Bridge, people just trying to get out to safety. These acute moments demonstrated to America the grave inequality we have constructed and these moments shake us, stir our conscience: The crisis of white nationalism rearing its ugly head in Charlottesville, the shooting up of a synagog or a Walmart near the border, the stench and destruction left by Florence, an impoverished elderly woman trapped with no transportation in her trailer in Paradise.
But when we are not the trapped ones, these moments stream by.
I stopped for gas in Belle, under the hulk of the Chemours Belle Plant, its gross metal piping gasping and heaving, alarms and bells ringing and a line of worker’s cars, rusted out Buick LeSabres and Dodge Dakotas streaming out at shift change. A Pontiac had broken down and men were pushing it off the road, a police car whizzed by, its siren wailing, and a dog chained up in the holler howled in response. The clerk at the gas station had a black eye, but you should have seen him, she explained, with that sad toughness that I, too, have been steeped in.
It’s been an excruciatingly long year. 2020 has not been a fast horror like gale force winds or a shot in the back, but a slow excruciating horror like a knee on a neck. I’ve wondered if 2020 hasn’t been done to us to slow us down, to make us stick with the horror so we can’t look away.
With a death toll of over 340,000 — slow deaths, deaths that take weeks with those dying often isolated and alone — the structural inequality and the intergenerational injustice of our country is laid bare by the pandemic, over and over, 4,000 times now a day. The men pushing the car outside Chemours were not wearing masks, when you work in a chemical plant what the fucks the difference? It all feels like a low and slow gamble, the deck stacked, you’ve never once thought the odds might be in your favor, you’ve always known the hand you been dealt.
In Wytheville, I stopped to see an old man, a friend of a friend who I had been asked to check in on and drop off some groceries on the stoop. He’s an old hobo, now housebound, and we talked through the storm door, too risky to expose him. He had a lump on his head, grotesquely purple and swollen, but insisted he was okay. Falling down gives us a chance to get back up, he says.
The pandemic has told us a particular truth — spelled it out plain for all the times we didn’t before fully understand. We are deeply, intimately connected to each other. The health of our own selves, the freedom of our own lives, are unable to function on their own. When we let someone else fall, we fall. When we lift someone up, we get up together.
Back home in Greensboro, I unpacked my wet tent, and Christina and I walked to the ballpark to see the Christmas Star. We stared up from the muddy field and tried to make out the constellations. It’s not a star, of course, but more special than that — a merging of planets on the horizon, a coming together, something uniquely seen from just where we are.
Darkness fell around us on the darkest day of the darkest year and I thought to myself, standing there with my friend, talking together about our mothers, our children, the things we thought we would have done and the things we think we might still do, I thought to myself about the hurt and pain we have created and how we have all been laid bare. I thought about how we are each the woman in Charleston, standing out with our grief for the whole world to see. I thought about how with this darkness we have been engulfed in we have the chance to gather ourselves together — gather each other together — and build something new, something more equitable, something more functional, something more kind. That chance is the gift of the shortest day of the longest year.