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.