I felt a little like the guy in that Eminem song – my palms were sweaty, knees weak, arms were heavy. But there was more to it than that. My heart pounded like it does when I watch a scary movie; at times I plugged my ears, chewed hard on the crew-neck collar of my heather gray t-shirt, even turned off the sound as an endless dribble of four-letter words, swastikas, and death threats scrolled down the comment box on the right side of my computer screen.
It wasn’t a hip hop track. It wasn’t my first time watching The Exorcist. It was the October 9th Presidential debate, streaming live on YouTube.
I’ll leave the critical political commentary to others. I don’t know enough about that. But I know this: neither of them are the devil. And, they both have hatred in their hearts somewhere, however deep it’s buried. One of them will lead the country I live in whether I vote or not. And I can’t fast-forward to four years later.
Even now, as I type, my heart beats anxiously. My hot, shaking hands work harder than usual to find the keys.
Remarkable things happen on streets. There’s that picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York City after WWII. There’s that man, 80 lbs. lighter than he was two years ago, running his first marathon.There’s that couple holding hands in public for the first time, or marching in their first protest, or giving their first dollar to someone in need.
And there are block parties.
A little rain never stopped a good block party, especially when a major intersection in downtown Chicago is at a standstill, flooded with college kids. They waited out the wet and eventually played away. I stood with some of my new students and delighted in how they scurried around, collecting every sweet and savory snack on the block – burgers, wings, chicken sandwiches, slices of pizza, burritos, cookies, sodas – they got it all, exactly like I would have done. My kind of people. Wrapped up in their youth, I let my head fall back, chin pointed at the sky, and took a deep, reviving breath.
As we all reveled in the richness of the food and festivity, a couple meandered out to the front of a small stage. A cover band had been playing there since the rain stopped; while the group was talented, they couldn’t quite capture the attention of the crowd, distracted as it was by the rest of the affair. But, when Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” started, this one couple took the empty street in front of the band and began to dance.
They were poor. He, a matted shock of white hair against dark skin and a pair of jeans ten sizes too big. She, buried in a hooded winter coat despite the warm late summer temperature. And they melted into each other, her head on his shoulder, broadly swaying to the clear, soulful tenor floating above the crowd: people fall in love in mysterious ways. Eventually, some of my students joined them. There they were, together and dancing, elections and shootings and devils and hatred light years away.
I have this odd habit of searching for images of whale tattoos. I like tattoos and I like whales, so naturally, I like whale tattoos. One of the better ones I’ve come across pays homage to Jack Kerouac – a smiling, cartoon whale spews the words “I felt free” out of its blowhole. I’m thinking of it now because when I watched the debate on October 9th, I felt trapped. But, when I watched that group dancing, I felt free.
I live the vast majority of my life between momentary extremes. There’s a lull between debates. And, it’ll be awhile, perhaps, before I see the next most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, a new slow dance shrouded in mysterious and compelling love. I am, after all, a man of moments. I am a person who moves along at a relatively even pace until something jars me from the humdrum and strikes me as painful, utterly lovely, even divine. Without the humdrum, though, everything incredible or inconsolable, miraculous or merciless, would be mundane. Without knowing what it is to be trapped, I’d never know what it is to be free.
In a strange way, I’m grateful for sweaty palms and and a pounding heart during that debate. Weak knees and heavy arms, even. It was a shocking, sad, painful moment for many of us, and I need to know that feeling if I want to work for something that eases my heart and strengthens us all. I’m substantially more grateful, however, for dancing in the streets. That moment, an expression of goodness and hope and peace, reveals to me something more of the true meaning of life.