What Goeth Before The Falls?

Niagara Falls is this gorgeous wonder and with some very dark shadows. My first memory of it was riding in a car with a guy who, in retrospect, may have had a thing for me but I was so young and naive and unaware of what the signs looked like. I was 18. He was a nice guy. We were working on a group project, and then he took me to the Falls. He was showing me, the out-of-towner, around his home area. If memory serves me right, he was from Tonawanda. We walk to the edge. Wow. It’s beautiful. It’s normal to him, almost blase. I can tell the whole site is packaged to be an experience, and this is barely notable from the many that make up my first year of adulthood.

Niagara Falls exists on the edge of the eponymous city and as one piece of the backdrop of people’s lives. For instance: Friday morning, I was talking to two of my neighbors. One was taking a group of students to see the Falls, and she said, “I’m going on the Maid of the Mist for the first time!” As far as I know, she’s lived in Buffalo for about fifteen years. “I’ve never gone,” my other neighbor replied, Buffalo resident of about 17 years. “Me neither,” I replied. It’s always there. There is no rush. We take Niagara Falls for granted.

To get to Niagara Falls from the northern part of Buffalo, you drive through rural areas and then industrial ones. So much of urban Buffalo is industrial, Tonawanda has enough to keep some local environmental activists fairly busy, but the northern suburbs are otherwise sparse for smokestacks. Not the city of Niagara Falls. You pass through chemical industries. You pass by vacant factories. You pass under rows and rows and rows of electrical lines suspended high over a metallic frame. It’s an intense grid; it awes me. And then you pass some gorgeous residential houses and to a park and park your car. You walk. And there she is. The Falls. She’s rightfully considered a wonder.

Niagara Falls, for me, has always had an aura of melancholy. It’s been a long time since it looked natural. Seeing the skyline of the Canadian city in my American photos gives it a sense of being manipulated almost to being more akin to a man-made water feature next to a tourist trap. Yet I drive through the city itself with the same recurring thought, despite the chemical industry, when I see the parts where people live, when I engage with the vibrant and wonderful community of people who live there: I could live here. I won’t. My life and heart is in the city of Buffalo.

I feel the same way looking at Niagara Falls as I do standing on the pier at my beloved Onondaga Lake, looking at the Syracuse skyline. This is supposed to be different. The pollution, the development, and subtle signs of political and economic failure are the inheritances that I received from the previous generation. Maybe I feel darkly drawn to Niagara Falls because those elements of the city and natural wonder remind me of home.

There is more, though. Niagara Falls is a magnet for both tourists and darkness. I never forgot the 1998 This American Life on Niagara Falls, the 101st episode, where they interviewed a man whose job it was to recover the bodies of the jumpers. He inherited the job, in a way: his dad did it too. There are other stories about people in Niagara Falls, and they are the stories of those who lived their lives. You can live a very ordinary life next to a natural wonder. That could be Syracuse, but Syracuse didn’t have anyone driving boats through the river, expecting to find bodies of suicide victims.

Niagara Falls attracts daredevils. Erendira Wallenda did an acrobatic routine over the Falls on Thursday morning. I watched it live, before a meeting, it was brief and I have two monitors though my tasks that morning only needed one. It seems so quaint, those sorts of stunts now, in a world where we have so much technology and so much knowledge, to thrill by doing a thing like that. I don’t know, like I’ve been disconnected from the impossibility of physical stunts. Whatever. She did a thing I’m sure not capable of doing; good for her. I watched it unafraid of Wallenda falling to her death because she had a waist harness on (thanks, NY State law!). It was a safe spectacle, in a way. I remember that in the circuses of the day, the thrill seekers were risking death. Death claims us all, but what a privilege to be watching someone else tempt it. What a different set of life circumstances to make the various sides of the coin make sense to the people sitting on them.

Do you know how many people have tried to go over the Falls? I didn’t, so I consulted Wikipedia. I can barely keep the idea in my head that someone was so risky with their life as to try to go over the falls in a barrel or other object, with only hope or confidence to get to the other side? I do not think of it often, the way I avoid thinking of disturbing facets of society. I am so careful with the fact I am living, I cannot fathom such an act as climbing into a barrel and waiting to hit the rocks. The first person, Annie Taylor, apparently expected her trip to lead to fame and fortune and instead died in poverty. Comfortable people do not generally take great risks. Does that human tug to belong somewhere pull some towards the lore of daredevils? I am the wrong person to consult.

It’s not a relic of a bygone era, either. Someone tried a couple months ago. Kirk Jones went over the falls in 2003, purportedly as a suicide attempt and lived. Last April he tried deliberately in a rubber ball in April.. He did not survive. They found his body June 2nd in Lake Ontario. I wish his family peace and comfort.

I confess I kind of hated reading the coverage of Jones, the most recent article was by a reporter who met him 14 years ago, the day after he went over, as many suicidal people do, and lived, as most suicidal people do not. To paraphrase David Wong, there’s two ways to dehumanize someone: to dismiss them or to idolize them. This article, though describing how humble he was, seemed to idolize that daredevil status, like he is heroic because he died a member of the daredevil class. Maybe I’m too deep in seeing it as a mark of concern. I can track my mental health by how many risk-taking behaviors I am engaging in, relatively mild as they are, so I worry about others. I suppose my unease stemmed in part from my own discomfort with the idea of daredevils, with danger as entertainment, with tempting death at all. Niagara Falls entices desperate impulsive people in the same way that the Golden Gate Bridge does or the Aurora Bridge did prior to the suicide barrier. Why idolize the attempts, to entertain awe at the difficult being done, because it was difficult? I personally do not like idolizing daredevils but it seems really irresponsible to idolize suicide attempts. That article felt a bit too close to the latter. When I lived in Seattle, I’d often think about the people who jumped from the Aurora Bridge when my bus went over it. The view was stunning. The view always is stunning from these places. One of the last suicides from the Aurora Bridge, before the suicide barrier was completed, was by a bright but severely depressed girl who had read extensively about people jumping from bridges. I’ve read in various places that they stopped reporting the suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge to keep from creating a contagion effect.

I wonder if there is a contagion effect to Niagara Falls, daredevils and suicide. I hope not. So many beautiful things in the world coexist with darkness. Life coexists with death. Niagara Falls’ beauty coexists with the fact that it tempts people to do things that can take their lives – be their motivation that explicitly, or the thrill. Every time I look at the Falls, I think about how it could kill me. How we sit with that knowledge and talk about these things most responsibly and respectfully? I do not know.

I will think about it the next time I am staring at the water going over the Falls.

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Lines

A couple months after Meech Davis died while being detained by the Buffalo Police Department (which was ruled a homicide), there was an incident in what’s nominally my neighborhood where the police shot a man during a traffic stop. The story has changed a lot, but the initial narrative was that the detained shot the ear off an officer, to be shot in the shoulder and arm by the officer’s partner. Later, the story changed: it seems that the officer wasn’t shot at all, it was an injury sustained by the airbag when the detained man’s car, which he hit the gas for after the officer reached into the window, hit a house. The New York State attorney general is investigating the incident, as it now appears the suspect, now deceased, was not armed after all (unless you consider a car to be a weapon, which a lot of pedestrian and cycling activists suggest can be appropriate). There have been protests about the Erie County Sheriff, Tim Howard, because activists say too many people have died in the holding center (the talking point says 26 people – I haven’t verified it, but a couple people promised me a list[UPDATE: Got the list, looks legit]).

There are lots of questions these circumstances pose to the Buffalo community, but the one on my heart is this: do we permit institutions of authority to err on the side of death? If so, how often? In what circumstances? Why? How much scrutiny do we give those institutions of authority when interactions lead to the loss of life? On some levels, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 26 or 14 or 5 people whose lives ended in the custody of the government if your threshold for acceptability is 0, if you decide that life is so precious and we’ll make sure we treat everyone’s life as precious no matter the accused sins of the person living it are. If life is that precious, then you make sure people get the medication they need, are protected from violence, and not subjected to overt violence from the institution itself. We have not made that decision as a society. Instead, we’re using public institutions of accountability to reinforce power and moral codes. Restorative justice is on the margin in favor of incarceration. The rhetoric of deserving is very strong, that terrible circumstances happening to people deemed unworthy are considered acceptable. It comes up in some seemingly benign ways too – Think of the way people rejoiced when the homeless man who assisted at the Manchester attack suddenly got access to basic means of living. He deserves it, I’d see repeatedly on social media, as if people who are homeless and just trying to live have not otherwise demonstrated deserving.

We have far more methods to ascertain negative consequences for those who threaten police, or any other centralized authority, than we have in the other direction. The police have the authority, institutional and societal support, and motivation to pursue charges and justice against those who threaten the officers that serve. That’s a statement of fact, not one of judgement. Policing is a difficult job that exists because most of human history is a list of the ways people treated each other horribly. Police are people too – its ranks will include people who are awesome at their work, people who are alright, and people who are not because policing is a human institution and not exempt from human foibles and flaws. It needs to be held to the same accountability as the rest of society in order to hold legitimate trust. Arguing against that accountability, to me, is arguing that we risk dying so they can keep their power. Remember, you are always a potential target of someone else’s mistake, even if you do not consider yourself likely to be.

If there is tension between the government’s role to preserve order or to protect life, which is the direction that we prefer as a society? There will always be gray situations. I worry – we are a society characterized by inequity in material circumstances, political power, and the power to self-determine. It seems, to me at least, that the gut preference for most people is overwhelmingly in favor of decisions made by whatever entity holds power more so than to another idea or ideology (truth, life, etc). You could say that whomever causing death or deprivation is always wrong, but that’s not where most people’s instinctual reactions go. I worry about this. In the case of refugees, I’ve heard a lot of people expressing anxiety that permitting refugees (remember: people fleeing war) to come here introduces an unacceptable risk to their own safety. Because our own status is so important to us, because we are so quick to draw borders, boundaries, and lines, that we accept no risk despite the suffering of someone who is just as human as we are. Favoring the well-being and status of the better-off instead of the group as a whole is basically supremacy. The powerful need few advocates, and yet they have many.

Life is the most precious thing a person has; it is the reason we are all here; it is the only reason we are. How much accountability do we require of institutions of authority, police or otherwise? Where is the line between what we consider acceptable and unacceptable? How is that line decided?

Everything is defined by its edge – that is where we decide what is, and what is not. What is good, and what is not. What we value, and what we do not. Where is it? If we are to have a democratic society where individuals have sufficient rights to self-determine and be without imposing on others, we must require that our government and social institutions prize life, practice transparency and accountability, and defer to the people more often than it rules over them. Democracy and equity require the deference of power to others by those with excess and the acquisition of power by the disadvantaged. Our institutions could be great assets in facilitating that, but they need to be willing to take anti-supremacist views on the sanctity of life. We need our institutions and our society to value everyone, not just those who conform to the dominant ideas of worthiness.

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Accent

Scene: A couple weeks ago, at my desk at work. A woman from another agency calls. We have a brief conversation where she asks to talk to a colleague. I think to myself, “Huh, she sounds like the people I went to high school with.” She is also from Central New York.

Right. The Syracuse Metro, despite its denial, has an accent. I never noticed it until someone else spoke to me from Syracuse after three years immersed in Buffalo.

I’m hardly displaced, residing a whole two and a half hours from my family and the hospital I was born in. Regional distinctiveness is a thing, an incredibly provincial thing, a thing that exposes itself in the sounds of the words falling out of my mouth. I did not even notice.

About a week ago, I sat on the porch of my parents’ home, delighting my mother who was hearing that some of the words I say aren’t Syracuse at all. I’ve unwittingly picked up some quirks of her (faded) New York City accent. Orange. Door. The sound of my A’s. I never lived in New York City, but growing up with her was enough. Growing up, I never heard the accent in my mother’s voice – an accent is just a mark of difference from what you think is going to be normal.

I’d never even noticed the Syracuse version until a couple weeks ago. It was normal.

You don’t notice the deviation unless your idea of normal changes.

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Filed under Buffalo, Central New York, Personal

Other People’s Sacred Space

Work sent me to Salt Lake City so that I could present at a conference. My hotel turned out to be four blocks from the Latter Day Saints Temple Square, so of course I walked there. After laying my eyes on the enormous, very American temple, curiosity shuffled me over to the visitor center. Wearing black and Dr. Martens, I felt like all eyes that laid back on me read “trespasser”, despite that I was a visitor, and it was a center for that sort of thing. I passed through almost invisible. I felt more out of place than anyone made me to feel; seemed like hardly anyone took notice though I felt very visibly out of place. The sister missionaries were remarkably beautiful young women, so beautiful that I googled “Are missionaries at Temple Square selected for their looks?” when I got back to the hotel room.

It’s not my first foray into someone else’s sacred space. From the outside, it probably looks like it’s a hobby of mine, going to churches that I don’t belong to. I’ve lost track of how many Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Protestant, Buddhist or Unitarian houses of worships I’ve been to. I am not gawking but looking for something, in a way my gut gets more so than one I can articulate. I stand in the back or outside of a church, empathizing with how it must feel to see the gorgeous murals and frescoes and statues of graphic scenes, having these be renditions of your beliefs. I’m a person of faith myself, but my faith is not so specific with one creation story, and it doesn’t privilege one message from God over others (or even if there is God to be doing the messaging) These are parts of the story of humanity, making them mine as well. But groups have boundaries and criteria for belonging. I am usually on the other side, even within my own religion.

Salt Lake City is a gorgeous city. The hills and mountains surrounding it give that sense of being hugged by heaven because the sky always seems closer when there are mountains around. With the thin, cool mountain air, the mountains in the background, I often walked by myself but I did not feel existentially alone. That sounds crazy. Maybe it is. Every placard I bumped into had some piece of history about Mormon settlers – they settled there seeking God. They built it to be sacred to their selves and to God. That was when a thing I knew became a thing my heart figured out too – sacredness is a decision that someone, somewhere made. I realized that, on some levels, I had been going through life looking for the things that felt authentically sacred to me in a way concordant to in my non-specific faith. Sacredness is like love: make a decision and commit.

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Filed under Unitarian Universalism/Faith

No further

I walk alone at night to resist the patriarchy, and all of the discourse that suggests my most feminine trait is being a target for violence. These memes create expectations. Fear becomes the expected behavior, couched in folk wisdom; of course you wouldn’t walk outside at night. Of course you should stay inside. It’s safe. I refuse to be a damsel in distress, locking herself in a castle. I’m not naive; I am more familiar with how much stronger men are than I’d like. I regularly read the police maps to see what happened that was worth attempting to bother our local precinct. But I’ve walked these and those streets at 10PM and midnight and during daylight in the weather-battered neighborhoods people call “bad”. I’d be FDR’s star student, fearing fear more than anything else. Knock on wood, none of my problems have arisen from this habit.

Some of them have been solved, actually. I walk because I need some quiet time, time to think, and time to be alone. This has been a habit since I was a teenager, one I discontinued when my children were born. Kids, you know, they don’t sleep well at first. I resumed it a couple months ago when I temporarily stop drinking. I dried out because I just need to figure out why was I drinking so often. Answer? Numbing, an old human story. Anyway, I kept the habit because fuck the patriarchy and here’s to helpful coping skills.

I cross the boundary out of my neighborhood. One foot after the other, down the street, over the bridge, down another road. If I continue long enough, I get to a park. It’s closed. That doesn’t stop too many people. I see joggers and college students among the lights and the historic features. There’s a pond. It’s a fraught pond, a metaphor-for-Buffalo pond, where it looks lovely on the surface but it’s complicated below. I turn off the music and walk the path. It was quiet, the birds were singing, and the stars were ever slightly more visible. I’d have bottled the calm, if I could, and brought it to you when you told me you were distressed.

I hiked to this point, quiet and beautiful. Something in my gut told me to go no further. I heard only wind and leaves. I saw nothing. I couldn’t tell if it was because nothing was there or because it was so dark I would not see it. I paused. I scanned as far as I could see.

There was nothing apparent but this uneasy feeling in my stomach. “Am I afraid of the dark?” I asked myself, What is dark but uncertainly. What is fear, but speculation about uncertainty? I do not want to be afraid of nothing. The only so-called resistance work I do right now is the rebellious choice to be calm, to be blasted by the winds of outrage – outrage that I feel too – and stay still.

There is a such thing as stupid risks. With little to gain but a few hundred yards in that direction, I respected the feeling and turned around. Walking away left me curious, and nothing more. Yet odds are, walking through likely would have resulted in me being unscathed and curious at the anxiousness in my gut. Is it a socialized fear? Did I overrun my propensity towards risk? I don’t know. And I don’t get to find out with the decisions I made.

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distilled

My love for you is water, and I am not sure that is good. It flows, it rushes, and it makes up most of what am I am and facilitates all of what I do. It has beauty. It can be destructive. It tastes like life and smells like death and sounds like an calm spring evening, falling to the ground. It looks and feels differently as the seasons change. There to quench, there to overwhelm, or to be a scenic backdrop for something else. Forgive me, love, as I’m steady in the cool, calm in the warmth, but when it gets cold, I’m sharp and hard. In heat I disappear into the air, only to fall back when the circumstances are favorable, and that’s not fair at all. All these failed efforts at climate control; you need me more lake than puddle, more river than stream, more faucet than leak when we’re tossed about that which we cannot control. All of these impurities, I left them on the bottom in my failed efforts pretend they were not there at all. I considered dredging them up to be more pure. I considered capping them with concrete to keep them safe. I want to show you perfection, I want to be perfection, as we conspire to make a mirage pretending we’re all better than we are. Alas. I own these flaws, and it’s high time I dissolved them into the rest of me in the name of sticking around better when it’s hot, staying fluid in the cold. It took me too long to understand that my love is useless distilled.

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Sideways

“And if we’ve come a long way
Then I suspect it’s sideways
Further from our origin
No closer to our destination.”
-Dessa, “Mineshaft”

We want the road we’re walking on to be the one that leads to where we go. Trouble is, we make the road as we walk it. You cannot ask for a map for that which does not exist.

Are you all familiar with Dessa? Even if you’re not into rap, it’s worth your time to go to genius.com and look up her lyrics for the poetry. “Mineshaft” is where she introduces herself to you. “The list of things I used to be, is longer than the list of things I am.” She’s largely lamenting herself or things she’s done. The hook is, “I’ve been here before / I know where it goes / It goes down”. I have noticed a few thematic loops in my own life coming full circle. I’m standing in new places feeling like the reflections in the windows are all familiar. I’ve been here before. I’m not so sure where it goes, but I have my suspicions.

Not all movement is progress. Not all motion is forward. You can work towards something with all your heart, and fail. Righteousness does not guarantee success. The universe has no arc, it’s just a myth to reassure us. I’m not knocking it – we need all the reassurance we can get. History is largely a list of all the times we were nasty to each other. That’s what makes this hard.

Rev. Alison Miller said, in an episode of the VUU (may the puns never end), a lot of stuff, but one idea that stayed with me is that leadership now is a matter of who you choose to follow. She was describing how white people need to pay attention to people of color and how people in power need to draw their gaze towards the marginalized. It’s wise advice. If you are going to take someone else’s directions, best to see what their road looked like for them. If it is completely uncharted territory, sharpen your compass, make sure you don’t lose sight of that horizon.

I confess: I don’t trust the narrative of “resistance”. I don’t trust those who enthusiastically embrace the identity. It’s like when someone identifies their self as being a good person in a social media bio – really? Since when was that for you to decide? All of this seems more like it should be a matter of show and not tell. I can string a few convincing sentences together too. I can declare commitments. It is all about the follow-through. It is about what you do about what you see.

I stepped back from the fight but didn’t leave the ring. You’ll find me leaning on the ropes, watching the punches everyone else is throwing. Cowardly? Maybe? Bets are looking like they’d make better hedges lately, at least with the landscape in front of me. I don’t fight just to bleed, I don’t pick roses for their thorns, and my efforts towards social change were feeling that way. Picking fights for the sake of demonstrating I’m willing to do it. Risking a (metaphoric) punch to show I can wear the bruises. I went along because others said it was the right path to the destination I seek, but you know? It took time to admit it to myself, because getting there mattered so much to me, but I didn’t trust them. Reasons. Is it me? Is it them? Reasons. I’m walking on my own. That is a recipe for failure too. There’s few guides where I am trying to go. Time to be brave. Time to be wise. Time to be ready to reconcile how bravery and wisdom have conflicting pre-requisites.

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