When I was a kid, I used to stay up late reading. Every night - generally sometime after midnight - my dad would crack my bedroom door open, poke his head in and smile a little,
“Okay, Megs. That’s enough. You’ve got school in the morning.”
Sometimes he relented when I’d beg for five more minutes. Generally, he’d wait there until I’d put down my book and switched the light off. I spent many nights fighting sleep because I was still worried about Nancy, flustered for Emma or aching for Anna.
I probably read too many difficult things too early as a kid. Anne Frank when I was eight, Of Mice and Men when I was nine, Zlata’s Diary when I was ten, Dostoyevsky before I could pronounce his name. (Although to be fair, I still say his name quietly in case I get it wrong. Dosto-yev-ski.) I knew the world held ugliness before, well, before I knew the world.
One book, whose name has since escaped me, held a scene that remains broken open in the recesses of my memory. There was a sick jewish mother and her young daughter. They were being shipped to a concentration camp on a train. There were so many people in the railroad car that the mother was concerned her daughter would be crushed. She lifted the little girl above the crowd and held her on her shoulders. The girl’s head rubbed against the ceiling of the car and she held her mother’s hand. The trip was long and frightful. Her mother’s hand grew cold during the night and so the girl wrapped her scarf around it to warm it. Eventually the train stopped and the people from the railroad car filed out into the snow. As the crowd thinned, the girl’s mother collapsed to the floor. She was dead. She’d been dead for hours. During the trip, the press of the people around her held the mother’s lifeless body in the standing position. The girl screamed in grief as she was rushed out the doors and into the cold along with everyone else.
When my dad came in to tell me to go to bed, the book had fallen to the floor and I was crying into my pillow.
“How, Dad? How? How can we live in a world where moms die while they hold their children? It’s so bad, Dad. So bad. It had never been that bad and now it just will get worse. And that will happen again. How can we live in a world where that will happen again?”
“Never been that bad? Oh, Megs. It’s ever been thus.”
We talked for a long time that night. He gave me ancient atrocities to consider and present day conflicts to know better. And then, and then, he took my little hands and where there had been emptiness he put people that wrote, shouted, bled, failed and triumphed on behalf of what is fucking right. (He’d hate that I swear so much when I write, by the way. He always said, “Curse words are the crutch of a weak mind.” So, let’s replace that eff word with “unassailably”, shall we? Unassailably right.)
The past few years have left me feeling ten years old again. Refugees drowned, girls enslaved, far-off places I’ve never seen and people I’ve never met blown to pieces I cannot recognize, the streets at home stained by the blood of those we should protect and those that protect us.
Many of the things I once held have fallen to the floor and I’ve put my head into my pillow to sob. Only now, instead of telling me to go to sleep, I need someone to crack open the door and tell me how to turn the light on. My dad’s been dead for two years but I still expect him to come in, take my hands and give me something solid and promising to hold.
If he’s near, he’s staying awfully quiet. In his absence, my memory has grown louder.
“Oh, Megs. It’s ever been thus.”
It’s ever been thus can beat you down.
It’s ever been thus slows your heart and your hand, because what can you do against what has always existed? It’s ever been thus is a reminder that prejudice is not new and blindness is rarely healed. It’s ever been thus keeps foreign lands distant and home the same. It’s ever been thus is a shrug of the shoulders and then back to business. It’s ever been thus is a call to despair. It’s ever been thus is a call to violence. It’s ever been thus is rape, genocide, racism, sexism, starvation, power hunger, bloodied hands, blistered skin, weeping parents, lost children, dark nights and darker days. It’s ever been thus is the long scream into the unflinching cold.
It’s ever been thus can also be what it was for me on that night not so many years ago.
It’s ever been thus can be hope.
It’s ever been thus acknowledges that oppression is not new, but neither is liberation. It’s ever been thus puts us shoulder to shoulder with those that lived and fought for a better world since the world began. It’s ever been thus makes time piercers of us all, we reach through eras and hold aloft the banner of All That Is Fucking (sorry, Dad) Right with people who have died and people who not yet born. (I can feel their hands lifting when mine grow tired. Can you feel them, too?) It’s ever been thus is every man, woman or child that gives their lives - in moments or over the course of years - to the love of mankind. It’s ever been thus is not just every bad thing people of every color have done to one another, it is also every single good thing they’ve done for one another. It’s ever been thus is the acknowledgment of the work we must engage in. It’s ever been thus is the acknowledgment of the work that has been done. It’s ever been thus is a mother who would hold her daughter up to salvation even when she cannot hold herself.
It’s ever been thus is a birthright as much as it is a curse. We better do our damnedest to live up to its better portion.
And I know, I know, that somehow, when we’ve finally dried our eyes and blinked them open, we will see the light is on and feel that our hands are full.