The Lion and the Lamb
Words are fluid entities; they begin in one guise, and over time, transform to another. As a child, my mother bought me a Barbie House, and I was so excited I couldn’t breathe. As a too fleshy teen, when the scale registered a lower weight, I was so excited I couldn’t breathe. After high school, I left for the University of Edinburgh, and I was so excited I couldn’t breathe. In yoga class, we sat cross-legged on out bamboo mats and followed the teacher’s instruction to “Breathe.” In art history class, the professor projected a slide of the Sistine Chapel in which God’s outstretched finger breathed life into Adam. The 1970s equivalent of, “Keep calm and carry on” was the omniscient poster with its anti-anxiety message: “Just Breathe.”
While in the natural world, the caterpillar transforms to a butterfly in society, the word breathe emerged from its chrysalis of positivity to its polar opposite. Mrs. Fleishmann, one long ago evening, came over to help my mother prepare a Friday night dinner. Glancing up from my novel, I noticed her rubbing fish against a grater, the motion turning the inky blue numbers of her arm into a blur. Accompanying her gesture, she muttered, “This is what they did to my people.” In answer to my quizzical expression, she explained her family had perished in Auschwitz. The denizens of the damned had climbed over their fellow victims to escape the gas-spewing shower heads. I was so horror-stricken I could hardly breathe.
As an adolescent, I overheard my mother tell my father she wanted to apply for a job in a clothing store. I understood why. Weighed down with financial woes, trapped in a loveless marriage, overwhelmed by bi-polar depression, she desperately needed an outlet. My father, always a hair-breath from rage, yelled if she worked, people would think he could not support his wife. When he slammed the door, my mother’s face reflected such despair I could hardly breathe.
At York University, I met Sam, a draft dodger. He explained by moving North, he could never go home again; if he tried, he would become an illegal alien in his own country. Even though his decision meant leaving family and friends, he said it was better than the alternative. A tour of duty in Vietnam had transformed his cousin: he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; to cope with the atrocities, he became addicted to drugs. The last anyone had heard from him he was living on the streets of San Francisco. Sam’s narrative made manifest what was happening in Southeast Asia more real than the nightly news. I felt so badly I could hardly breathe.
Since prehistoric times, people have burned sage in the hope the process served as an herbal exorcist. If the ancient ritual works, 2020 definitely has need of its cleansing power. During the coronavirus outbreak, I rushed to Albertson’s to stock up on food and the hot commodity of toilet paper. I was appalled by the mainly empty shelves, the panicked expressions that mirrored my own, the huge lines at the cash registers. In the midst of this unprecedented situation, I noticed an elderly woman pushing a two-wheeled shopping cart. She confided that because everyone was hoarding supplies, she had to do without; she could only take home a limited amount and therefore had to shop daily. As I was thinking of how to respond, a man turned to her in fury and yelled that because she was too selfish to wear a mask, he was at risk of contagion. In a tremulous tone, she responded when she wore one she couldn’t breathe. Witnessing the hostility, I could hardly breathe.
A few months later, 2020 proved it had another dirty trick up its sleeve. As Memorial Day drew to a close, outside the Cup Foods grocery store in Minneapolis, George Floyd purchased a pack of cigarettes with what the clerk suspected was a counterfeit $20.00 bill. Three squad cars converged to confront the suspect as he sat in the driver’s seat of a blue SUV. Within moments, he lay on the ground with police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck. George begged for mercy with the words he couldn’t breathe. What shredded my soul is when he called out for his mother. My heart went out to Mrs. Floyd; a mother’s greatest fear is that when her child leaves home evil lurks. After the media released an eleven-minute video of the murder, the world could hardly breathe.
Howard Beal, in the 1976 film Network, shouted, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” His sentiment echoed in the aftermath of anger that triggered civic unrest in the United States at a scale unprecedented since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The video was the match, the pandemic the kindling, racial tensions the kerosene. Blue on black violence led to the omniscient heart-rending hashtag #blacklivesmatter. After 200 years of slavery and arm-wresting Jim Crow, there was a refusal to remain the three proverbial monkeys: hearing, seeing, and speaking no evil does not make the evil go away. Harper Lee, in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, had warned of the result of prejudice when an all-white jury convicted the African American Tom Robinson of rape based on the color of his skin rather than the facts, “Don’t fool yourselves. It’s all adding up and one day we’re going to have to pay the bill.”
A virus that killed more than 100,000 Americans, nation-wide riots, murder hornets, how much more can the country bear? But moments of grace, of goodness, emerged from the bouillabaisse of anger and despair. In cities seething with blue and black antagonism, the police locked arms with activists, they took the knee. In Linz, Austria, the birthplace of Hitler, protestors demonstrated for racial justice. Such actions offer hope that one day the lion will at last lay down with the lamb and humanity will be able to breathe.