I felt obliged to watch the inauguration last Friday, drawn towards the spectacle even as I squirmed. I am suspicious of crowds especially when I realize I can’t so easily extract myself. Growing up, I remember the liturgies at the end of Lent when congregants had to read their part in the passion play. We were scripted to contradict the lector standing in for Pontius Pilate, who said that he wanted to release Jesus. “We want Barrabas!” went our line. What to do with the other prisoner? “Crucify him!” It was sickening to repeat, and yet it taught me some important lessons: masses can be dangerous, culpability is collective, and this ancient horror is also mine.
A week ago today, the clock at the top of Austin’s UT Tower restarted after being frozen for a full 24-hours, from 11:48 PM on August 1. After one night of darkness, the tower lights were also turned back on.
It was just one clock, and only one day, but it was difficult not to think of W.H. Auden’s poem from 1938:
Stop All the Clocks
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
This is not a scoop.
This is not an insider tell-you-anything.
This is not the beginning or the end or the first or the last word.
The heat was unrelenting. Here came the bagpipes. The procession. The tolling of the bell. The stopping of the clock. Dear diary: I was there. Dear diary: I knew someone once. Dear diary: I was that person. Dear diary: they were taken. Dear diary: here is a stone.
(Are you still listening?)
Another year. After so many. Before decades of others.
Here comes a birthday. We have stopped counting candles on the cake.
This weekend is the “mega” reunion in Needville, TX, for graduates of Needville High School classes from 1960 through 1971.
One bright face will be sadly missing again this year, but she has not been forgotten. I would like to honor her spirit here, too.
RIP, Kathy Leissner (1943-1966)
On August 1, 1966, the world heard Charles Whitman‘s gunshots as he shot and killed people he didn’t know from the top of the tower at UT Austin. It was the first mass shooting captured on television in the heart of a college campus and in full view of the Texas state capitol dome.
But before his public rampage, Whitman killed two women–family members–in the privacy of their own homes: his mother, Margaret, and his wife, Kathleen (“Kathy”). Kathy was 23 years old, a recent graduate of UT Austin, and a science teacher who had just completed her first year at Sidney Lanier High School.
At the AWP Conference in Minneapolis last year, I had the honor of participating in a panel of writers addressing the subject, “Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art.” The latest edition of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies offers a special conference issue, and it includes our panel discussion alongside three other panels: two from the 2015 Nonfiction Now Conference in Flagstaff, and one from the 2015 ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) Conference in Moscow, Idaho.
This Sunday, like all Sundays, in another mass I will not be attending, there is a space of prayer between the creed and the offering of bread and wine. Catholics call this the Prayers of the Faithful. A man has had surgery. Someone’s baby died. A priest has gone away for a family visit in another country–Italy, Romania, Argentina. The war continues. There are homeless. Repairing a leak in the church will cost $700. Often there is a petition for “those who have lost their faith” to return. Lord hear our prayer. Lord have mercy.
If the success of Orange Is the New Black offers any indication, it seems fair (and gross) to say that prison has become “pop”—for a Twitter moment, anyway. Even the cover of the Economist June 20-24 proclaims, “Jailhouse Nation: 2.3 million reasons to fix America’s prison problem.” Progressive-glam MSNBC has been boosting its ratings with weekends of Lockup since 2005.
Everybody (white? middle class?) seems suddenly if temporarily agreed upon the disgrace and “inefficiency” of prison conditions. We all exchange nods over restaurant pasta and craft beers about how we need to “change the system.”
For almost four years now, as I’ve completed a second book, 1966 has weighed heavily on my mind. Maybe you were born that year, or one of your siblings was. Maybe you got married then, or your parents did. Perhaps you graduated, or got drafted. Maybe you lost someone—to distance, disease, or drinking; to random violence or Vietnam.
In May that year, The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, an album that received some critical acclaim despite mostly popular failure. Love and Mercy, a stunning biopic about Brian Wilson released last weekend (starring John Cusack and Paul Dano), devotes an amazing amount of detail to the creation of songs for that album. It wasn’t an easy process.
Thanks to Joshunda Saunders for inviting me to participate in this blog tour! Joshunda is one of the most insightful and prolific writers I’ve had the good fortune to meet, read, and commiserate with in the past two years. You can check out her terrific blog, including her own reflections on process, right here.
1. What are you working on?
Two and a half years ago, I started working on an an essay collection about public performances of violence in America. As I began, I thought that the section about the 1966 clock tower shooting at UT Austin would be the first chapter, alongside nine other chapters including San Diego, Waco, and Tucson. What I’ve discovered is that the UT Austin research and writing has demanded a space of its own. I’m almost finished with a stand-alone triptych about that event. It’s 12o pages or so: two lyric essays at beginning and end, with a centerpiece of narrative reportage/investigative journalism. I haven’t abandoned the larger project, but it was important to recognize and respect the full weight of the box inside the box.