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  • Loren Niemi

Summer Pandemic


There is a story I tell about a man who is lost in a wood. It is shadow dark with only small slivers where sunlight pierces the green canopy. To step into one of those spaces does not warm so much as blind you, obscuring the detail of the branches and roots all around. He stumbles about seeking a way out only to seemingly come back to the same clearing.

Then he meets a bearded man wearing a ragged garment, but what matter his appearance, he must ask: Do you know the way out of this forest?

Oh, the other man says: I have been lost here for many years. I have not yet found the path will take me out of this confusion.

The first man feels a wave of despair and a moment later, he blurts out: What good can come from talking to you?

The bearded man replies: I may not know which path leads out, but I can tell you which ones do not.

This is where we are on this Summer Solstice. In the midst of a plague year, in a time of economic dislocation, in the midst of coming to grips with inequity, with a history and a culture that is profoundly wounded and turned to injustice rather than repentance as if denial would correct the wrong, and yes, with an administration that cannot be looked to for guidance or compassion for there is a profoundly impetuous narcissist who knows neither history nor empathy at the helm, surrounded by enablers, deniers, grifters, who want to cling to power at any cost.

It is indeed a dark wood with no sure path out.

Well bear with me there may yet be a few paths that will lead us towards a brighter space.

The first is to stop denying that we are wounded. For White folks, and here I very much include myself, it is to acknowledge that the “Shining City on the hill” was built on stolen land. It was washed with the blood of genocide, chattel slavery and the labor of immigrants of every color who were little more than fodder for the machinery of profit. That the historical structures of property, education, religion, health and government have always favored White men over all others and that whatever grudgingly was extended to women also favored White over not, Anglo-Saxon over not, Protestant over not. That time and the demands of the "not" for justice, to make good on the proclamation that “all Men are created Equal” have wrenched some token of recognition but the unconscious and assumed privilege of Whiteness remains. That it will remain until White Folks consciously dismantle, or more accurately, replace the structure of inequity even if it means they have to give up some comfort.

The second is to recognize that the Greatest Generation is nearly gone and the Baby Boomers, who started down a path of peace, love and something different were seduced or abdicated that path to become the very thing we railed against and here I very much include myself, need to as Dylan said, “Step out of the way if you can’t lend a hand, for the times they are a changing.” To those who follow us, our dying off can’t come soon enough if we are not also in the streets, demanding change on social and traditional media, and in the legislative chambers saying their names and how to make the wronged right.

To those who came out of high school with the economic meltdown of 2008, graduated college under the oppressive burden of student loans, lived their entire lives with one undeclared war after another, and now are enduring their second economic meltdown, we OK Boomers have done precious little to make this a better world besides popularize personal computers and the internet. It is no wonder that Socialism looks good in comparison to the “greed is good” cancer of late stage Capitalism.

The third path is specific and necessary. Voting, while we can, in every election to bring to bear on the machinery of governance, individuals that “get it.” Leaders that listen to and are responsive to the communities they serve. Individuals, who when asked, “What will you do to end poverty?” have a willingness to make livable wages, affordable housing and universal health care priorities now. It is time to support candidates who do not hold the 2nd amendment in higher regard than the 1st or the 14th for that matter. Voting means engaging in the political process researching the issues and candidates, making donations or volunteering before the ballot box and holding elected officials accountable after.

The fourth path is also specific. Wear the mask. For your sake and the sake of others. Covid-19 is not political, it is opportunistic, infecting whomever whenever. I will not argue this. I will not deny science and the facts and the facts are it has not gone away and our failure to take protective measures will increase the likelihood that it will remain a serious threat to health and well being for months or perhaps years, even with a vaccine that is yet to be tested and proven effective.

The Summer Solstice should be the celebration of fullness and light. When I woke up this morning with the window partially open I could feel the cool of morning and hear the gossip of birds. Above me the ceiling fan was turning at it’s lowest speed to provide a lazy breeze. Coffee would come as I sat at the table in the sunroom watching the neighbors walk dogs. Not too many masked but there and then the risk was lower than at the grocery or big box store. The day looked green with the promise of late afternoon rain.

It is easy to forget that two weeks ago the morning was measured against what had burned the night before. It was easy, and perhaps necessary, to forget the sound of the National Guard helicopters low over the intersection, its search light hunting for SUV’s with no license plates driving past broken windows and the graffiti of “I can’t breathe” and “Until there is justice, there is no peace” that blossomed on plywood which itself blossomed on store windows after the first night of fires.

Whether the police prompted the looting with their use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets against a peaceful mass of demonstrators calling for an end to racism or whether it was the deliberate act of provocation by a White man with a hammer and umbrella who smashed the window of the Auto Zone store is debatable. What is not debatable is that there were four actors in the weeklong drama:

- The protestors of every race and age assembled to say his name, George Floyd and those of so many others who have been killed by the police in the Twin Cities and across the country. They came out day after day to stand in witness to the call for justice.

- The increasingly militarized police dressed for combat, who alternately were aggressively present and massively absent as events unfolded.

- The “others”, mostly from out of town, White, (rumored to be Bugaloo Bois or other right wing militants seeking to ferment a race war) organized, and targeting minority owned shops and cultural spaces such as the library.

- The neighbors who self organized block watches, who found the caches of Molotov cocktails hidden in bushes, and reported every fact and every rumor on social media. This last group included AIM (the American Indian Movement) patrols that had survived the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 and established road blocks on the streets leading in and out of the Little Earth community and stood guard at every Indian health service, tribal office or business.

I’d like to think this was a momentary rift but I remember 1967, when city after city erupted in race riots (or civil uprisings if you prefer) that had to be contained by the National Guard throughout the “Summer of Love”. We didn’t learn a lesson from those expressions of grief and injustice. Little or nothing changed. I’d like to think that this time we will not squander the opportunity to make real and substantial change.

But looking at today’s headlines I see the Republicans at the state legislature are opposed to any meaningful police reform. To get to peace we need justice and it may be that the only way to get justice is to vote every Republican out of office. That is not to say the Democrats are faultless, for the truth is there are plenty of them beholding to big moneyed interests and whichever way the wind blows now I’d vote out as well. But first things first and voting is the first thing. Which pretty much brings me back to that clearing in the forest where I saw the four paths before me.

Which brings me to the end of this note. If you’re still reading this thanks for the time and attention. May the summer be all that you desire spiritually and emotionally, if not economically or culturally in this plague year.


As always I wish you joy. Be well.