Inside a Black Box
We never thought would be ours
Boozhoo! Aaniin! Welcome back to An Irritable Métis, where I never intended to lapse in my dedication to regular posting. I just … hit a wall. Like so many others, so many of you perhaps, I feel like I am still largely crumpled up against it, but here we are. Thank you for your patience. And thank you for being here.
I was out of the house early this morning to make an 8am appointment in Missoula. As I left my neighborhood, children were queuing up at the corner to catch the school bus. I noted one boy, perhaps 4th or 5th grade – the same age as the majority of the children on the reservation I am just wrapping up teaching poetry to – wearing a black t-shirt with big white letters that read, “LET’S GO BRANDON!” I found it disturbing. What kind of parent engages their children in expressing their own immature, clueless rhetoric?1 I have an early memory of hearing my mom and her sister arguing with my grandmother’s husband about voting for Nixon during the 1972 election season (I also remember the “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for George!” sticker from the same election). I would have only been five at the time, so what could I have possibly known? Nonetheless I recall saying that if I ever saw Nixon, “I would give him the finger!” and getting chastised for it. Which is how it should be, I think. Kids usually want to be like their parents, I get it. At least for a while. But this isn’t anywhere near the same vibe as a child wearing a jersey of their dad’s favorite sports team (because we know it’s likely a man behind this one, right?) because they want to “be like Dad.” Or is it? Isn’t it just another bullshit version of a kind of team sport after all? Only in this case, there are high, bloody stakes that I guarantee the child has more compassion for than the ignorant father does. I obsessed about it all the way into town, this nightmare boneyard of a culture as manifested through the willful ignorance of these presumed adults.
I found some piece of mind later. I concluded my appointment (it was at the tire shop2, where I was having a flat repaired that occurred at the highest possible point of the Red Sleep Mountain drive at the Bison Range yesterday afternoon) and, with another appointment slated for noon, I relocated to my Missoula lair with two hours on my hands. I kept doing what I’d been doing while waiting for my truck: reading for pleasure. Something I haven’t really done for months, if not a couple years. Not even entirely for pleasure, though; my next appointment was to sit down with my friend Jim to talk about his new book for a piece the Missoulian will run over the weekend. I was revisiting the book to freshen my memory. The better I’ve come to know Jim the closer I feel to his work, and have decent guesses as to the bits that are more autobiographical than others. It isn’t always happy. In this case the book echoes with Jim’s sorrow in the wake of his daughter’s death two years ago, expressed through the musings of his narrator. Jim addresses the passing of his daughter in a short message at the front of the book called, “A Letter to Readers from James Lee Burke.” A snippet:
“The path to Golgotha or the Garden of Gethsemane is not a pleasant journey. It involves sweating blood, literally. This is why I have always believed that the real gladiators are the silent souls whose eyes glow with a luminosity that seems to have no source and yet is intimidating. What does this have to do with writing a book? That's easy. It is my belief that pain is the conduit into the unconscious, where the history of man resides and passes from one generation to the next. I also believe the greatest loss and the greatest darkness we can experience is to lose one's child. There is no noun or adjective that adequately defines or describes the initial shock, as though language has forsaken us, in the same way no one provides us with a calendar or a clock when we find ourselves inside a black box we never thought would be ours.” – James Lee Burke, from Every Cloak Rolled in Blood
Our conversation didn’t have as much laughter as usual, but there was some. Anymore we go deep on the metaphysical, given how much of Jim’s work has gone that direction too. We talked a lot of history, of course, and the nature of good and evil and redemption. Most of it won’t go into my article but then again, most never does. We had no idea what was happening in Texas while we chatted.
Afterword, walking out together, Jim expressed his admiration for the Missoula Public Library, where we had had our meeting. It was his first visit, he told me, and I said I hadn’t been there in nearly a year, when I read at its grand opening celebration. I’d even read from his work at that time, I reminded him, as I was the library’s second choice when he couldn’t do it. He smiled, and giggled, and said, “Yeah,” as he often does.
On my way home I stopped at a chain Western store to look at cowboy boots. When I walked through the door I was struck by the smell of leather and I liked it. I even wondered if they weren’t somehow generating it out of some contraption – kind of like how the Orange Street Food Farm somehow blasts the smell of fried chicken all over their neighborhood – because it was so strong. I’ve always thought my perfect writing space would be a room at the back of a horse barn, next to the tack room, so I could just soak up all that aroma.
The boots were in the back of the store. As I walked I couldn’t help but notice the clothing displays. So vulgar and tacky, magnified by the vulgar and tacky pop country playing over the soundsystem3. Flags and slogans and everything awful … stuff like, “If you are offended by freedom, feel free to leave.” It was that tough guy, big truck, redneck garbage that makes it hard for me not to live a hateful life. I barely took a glance at the boots after seeing so many with red, white, and blue motifs, or with the flag stamped right into the leather. I just can’t deal with it, particularly not in the last few years, so I left.
It reminded me of my Kalispell visit at the beginning of the month. When I was unpacking in my hotel room after arriving, I realized I’d forgotten my belt and there was no way I was going to get through two days without it. So I went to the local regional chain store where I knew I could get one; you know, the one that sells feed and tools and “western wear” and the like. There, among the belt options, was this lovely specimen:
I remember thinking to myself then, “Man, these fuckers will figure out a way to tie gun love to everything, won’t they?”
I felt the burden of my recent depression weighing heavily as I drove home, still yet to hear the devastating news of the day. I learned of it when I got home. Deadlines and responsibilities are piled up and they were immediately irrelevent against this collective nightmare we are living in. A paralyzed, inept government controlled by the reactionarity minority, comprised of the cowardly and the mad-for-power. Gun violence. Police violence. Over one million dead of COVID, and counting. How can we be expected to just deal with it all and keep going on as if this is just how the world is?
I’m not saying anything new or posing questions others haven’t relentlessly posed themselves. I often feel the despair that seems sewn into just existing in this world. I wonder what the point of a spiritual pursuit is; I wonder why I bother to consider chasing any kind of community at all when the cycles of just not wanting to interact with anyone get longer and the distances between those cycles get shorter. I think about that boy on the street this morning with his stupid t-shirt, and all the links between him and the parents who dressed him, how their attitude is stoked by the t-shirts at that terrible store, how the gun people just push and push and push no matter the body count. Would any of them want their children to be in one of these schools? Of course not! So why can’t they seem to get it in their heads the relationships between all of their small actions and how they lead to one gigantic cloud of misery that reverberates all over the world? Where does one get the seeds for such utter lack of compassion? How can we allow those who cultivate those seeds to be among us?
I’ve been in classrooms full of children almost every week going back to October. They are, each child, magnificent and irreplaceable. As are their teachers. I can’t imagine the horror of such an event befalling any of them. I visited Ms. Rouiller's 4th grade class in St. Ignatius for the first time last fall, and on my very first day there experienced my first “live shooter drill.” Huddling in the dark with her kids, I could hardly reconcile the world I imagine to be part of with the realness of the one I was inhabiting in that moment. It was surreal and terrifying.
I’ve run out of steam for my despair right now. My heart hurts. My soul hurts. I don’t have any answers. I just know we need to do better, and I want to close with something beautiful. Like this poem, written by a boy who almost never interacted in class, also from Ms. Rouiller's 4th grade class in St. Ignatius. His name is Zillion, and he clearly knows more about love than any of us.
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Besides the Christians, of course.
It was the same tire shop – though in its new location – where the practice of writing one sentence a day in my notebook began with the following: “07/01/2013: I found myself in the company of James Lee Burke while waiting for a tire repair at Les Schwab.” I didn’t know Jim yet. Nor did I know that sentence would lead to my first book, and everything magnificent that would follow.
Something about how the singer wouldn’t be who he is without trucks or something and I just can’t.