The Year of the Heavy Moon

By  |  April 25, 2017
“Starry Night and the Astronauts” (1972), by Alma Thomas. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago “Starry Night and the Astronauts” (1972), by Alma Thomas. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Seeking joy in a time of despair


On June 20, 2016, the sky delivered a prophecy. The longest day of the year was followed by a brilliantly luminous night sky as the solstice coincided with a full moon. A Strawberry Moon. The last time such a celestial marriage occurred was in the tie-dyed days of 1967, when San Francisco was the place to be and drugs and sex were the alchemy for the cultural and spiritual awakening known as the Summer of Love. 

But the summer of 2016 didn’t arrive with flowers in its hair, banging a tambourine, ready to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Our summer seemed more the child of the segregated summer of 1967, when black youth torched the cities that denied them basic rights of home and humanity and when the evening news delivered accounts of an uncorked revolt against racism, long considered by whites an exclusively Southern ailment but heard in the outcry from the streets of Harlem, Detroit, and Oakland. Those sweaty, bloody days were known as the Long, Hot Summer. 

Our summer began with an echo from Montgomery—with the pleading of Gregory Gunn, a black man who called for help at a neighbor’s window before a police officer tased and beat him and shot him to death. It would be remembered for the man whose name is affixed to a logo and who had launched his bid for the nation’s highest office while whipping up hateful fury with a chant: “Build That Wall!” Young love was shot down in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Brown, sweaty love. Love unburdened. Love that comes from the gut, like young love should. 

Hours after the shooting stopped, Lin-Manuel Miranda accepted a Tony award for his musical Hamilton, a tale of the Founding Fathers. With one hand dancing in the air, punctuating his words like the freestyle rapper he still is, Miranda delivered a sonnet that married history with our present grief, race with love.  

We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, 
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.

It was an expression of humanity, of a love desperately needed by the entire nation. The date was June 12. On that day in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that all laws against interracial marriage are unconstitutional, thereby curtailing state-imposed regulations on an expression of the most basic of human experiences: love. 

Love thrived despite the circular debates that framed hateful rhetoric and gunfire as localized bruises rather than a widespread illness. The debates weren’t really debates but instead rushed reactions to displace mourning and reflection, while cauterizing fear and pain with demands for quick fixes.

Indeed, parts of the nation would succumb to despair as entrenched racial prejudice was mined to soothe the emotional needs of isolated, angry people. But those willing to resist the chatter, sit in silence, and sink into the pain found spiritual liberation in the struggle for racial justice. Those willing to look found humanity, joy, and love. For them, the summer of 2016 was to become a true Summer of Love.

 

I became keenly aware of the early signs of the Summer of Love soon after the New Year, as I gazed at the stars in the high West Texas desert, under the dome of the night sky. My new lover and I traced hidden patterns above us, our faces warm in firelight. I whispered that we had yet to see a meteor, a celestial delight that has the look of a falling star. As I swiped my hand across the frozen constellations, a burst of light shot through space. Magical, said the man. But he caught the light midair, later painting its burning path onto a desert scene. 

He possessed the gifts known to true artists; he could detect the unseen and communicate through the unspoken. (We had exchanged glances for a few moments in a crowded club, and a year later I ran into him at an art gallery, in another city. Both times, he seemed known to me.) 

In him, I found a confidant for a secret—a childhood wonder—that I had shared with no one, a secret I shared the next day, when we wandered in silence into Big Bend National Park. Inside the thick brush, the air shifts, marking the walls to unseen rooms, each with its own feel. Do you feel them? And soon, he pointed them out, too, sharing in my wonder. 

After he returned home, I set out on a solitary hike into the desert mountains. When I came to a lone bench planted before a majestic canyon, the horizon framed by the jagged edges of mountain ridges, I pulled out a notebook and drafted a postcard of words. I wanted my lover to share in the purity of the silence, the day’s last rays, the stillness.

But the silence was shattered with thoughts that rang too loud. Thoughts provoked by the intensity of beauty, in reaction to this man’s deep waters. Thoughts (he’s too young, this is just a fling) that were nothing more than circular debates in my mind—grasping thoughts, thoughts to manage uncertainty, to detach from feelings and fear. Thoughts that rushed forward, disguised as insight. 

Weeks later, when our fling was ending, the man put his arms around me, held me close, and told me that I never really knew him. In June, I would enter the summer in self-imposed exile from love itself.

 

Six days after the brightness of the day that was the longest of the year and the heavy moon that was said to inspire insights, I moved from Austin to San Antonio. In Austin, known as the most liberal city in Texas, I had inhabited a segregated world. My “liberal-minded” neighbors vowed support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the same neighborhoods where decades earlier city planners had shunted black and Latino families, and where white gentrification was now decimating those communities. In Austin, people had thought it cute to call me señorita or show off their Mexican-vacation Spanish. Latinos mainly worked in the lower rungs of labor and occupied the outer ring of the capital city, which, much like its self-image, is white, hip, and young, with just a dash of “Mexican” flavor—an entire culture and history reduced to ornamental status, a condiment. In Austin, I had trained my gaze tightly on the ugliness of injustice, blotting out the beauty, the romance, the living. 

In San Antonio, indigenous and Mexican history predates the Declaration of Independence, and Latinos form the historic and cultural core. True, the levers of power are still firmly in the hands of white elites and the city is among the most economically unequal in the country. Admittedly, my move was a capitulation to self-imposed segregation, but it also represented a stand against my growing despair. And I can’t afford despair. To be born black or brown is to engage in a constant battle with despair, to resist assault on your sense of self and humanity in a country where brown and black are reduced to labels that strip away the multiplicity and complexity of human life. 

For most of my life, I had tried to outwit despair—I would think my way out of labels, think my way out of Texas. I would be smarter, have the answers, solid facts, good research. When I lived in New York City, I often returned to South Texas to report on issues of social injustice, wrangling together statistics and testimonials of survival. My friends complained that I never wrote “happy stories” about them or our home. Show people our joy, our culture, the good things in our lives, they would tell me. Without showing the good things, I later realized, I was cannibalizing their humanity. By defining people by injustices, I made it easy to confuse them with the ugliness imposed from the outside.

 

96 Feature Garcia Valdez 2Lithograph from the series America’s Finest (2013), by Vincent Valdez. Courtesy of the artist (vincentvaldezart.com) and David Shelton Gallery (davidsheltongallery.com)

In July, the Texas sky exploded with clouds of fireworks in celebration of the nation’s independence. And all of a sudden, our nation’s story of race could fit into the lens of a smartphone camera. Day after day, I watched men die, frame by frame, killed by police. But the loss of a life is not neat; it doesn’t have a clear ending. Anguish arrived for each of us who watched the videos. 

The video of a Baton Rouge police officer shooting a man named Alton Sterling in the chest and back while he was pinned to the ground evoked a centuries-long memory of white men—white law enforcement—taking the bodies of black men into their hands as if they were wild, as if they were not like them, fully human. Scarcely twenty-four hours passed before the emergence of another violent viral video. Philando Castile, thirty-two, was killed in a suburb of St. Paul after two police officers stopped him for a broken taillight. They shot him while he was reaching for his driver’s license and registration. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was sitting next to him, recorded the moments after the shooting while the police officer continued to aim his firearm at a bleeding Castile. In the video, we hear Reynolds’s four-year-old daughter, Dae’Anna, say from the backseat: “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

The killings of Castile and Sterling moved people to march on Dallas streets. Words like protest and outrage don’t explain the photographs of demonstrators posing with white police; they don’t capture what people were searching for and found on those streets. “It was very peaceful,” a woman named Diya Wazirali told a local news reporter. “I just felt like I was part of the community, and we were all there together.” A sniper, Micah Johnson, also turned out that day, intent on avenging the deaths of the black men by killing white police. Five officers died on July 7. The sniper’s bullets might have obliterated any surviving threads of trust between the public and the police. But at the memorial service for fallen officers, Dallas police chief David O. Brown, a black man whose son had killed a police officer years before, addressed President Barack Obama, the first lady, and the grieving white and Latino families by reciting the lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s “As.”

We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles 
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space

His words seemed to extend to all of us, civilians and police, as he continued reciting the lyrics to “As,” which contains a vow that come what may, “I’ll be loving you always.” At the funeral service for officer Patrick Zamarripa, Brown continued, “Our sacrifice is to show each of us what it means to love.”

On the day Brown delivered his words in Dallas, I was visiting a museum in San Antonio, studying an image of a Native American man with long braids. I noticed the man’s bruised and beaten face, his bonnet of feathers slightly askew, his muscular arms, shoulders, and legs pierced with arrows. The lithograph, by artist Vincent Valdez, is from his series America’s Finest.

Valdez had gazed into the American narrative, and in his image I saw an unspoken truth from the debates that marked racial lines—debates of us versus them. This is all of us, Valdez seemed to say: the American soul. The arrows, representing culture, had been used against the Native American man, hurting him with that which was his own. 

I thought it significant that the image was created by a Latino, an ethnicity often deemed foreign and mute in the conversation of our United States. Valdez’s perspective, while not fitting within the nation’s color paradigm of black and white, had struck at the very meaning of the concept “American.” Later, the artist pointed out a critical detail. The man embodies the tale of humanity, Valdez explained. “The wounded fighter stands defiant with raised fist ready to persevere regardless of the uncertain and tragic outcome.”

 

A few days earlier, I had worked through a sweaty crowd inside a warehouse to get a better look at the band. When I found the perfect spot, I felt a hand on an exposed part of my back. I turned around; it was the man who had caught the stars. From the core of my entire being came an impulse beyond thought or feeling—I embraced him. But he was not alone and I felt exposed. 

I rushed away, and later, after dusting off my embarrassment, I understood what he had meant when he said I didn’t know him. I had not seen him; I had gazed at his stillness. In stillness, I had seen my own heart. Without the constant chatter and heady conversations that have marked countless numbers of my relationships, I confronted the questions and the doubts about life and love that extended beyond one man. Through the stillness, I had gained sight. Within the stillness, beauty and meaning were revealed.

 

As the ugliness that had once polluted my vision gave way and the chatter quieted, I saw more signs of our Summer of Love. By August, I had started watching footage of protests against the building of an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Law enforcement tactics were reminiscent of those used at civil rights marches in the South. I scanned the images of protestors, listened to chanting and prayer. Native American men rode on horseback, turning in circles in the prairie grass, their cries ringing in the air, facing down a line of law enforcement. The cowboy hats, the horses, and the landscape invoked the mythology of the West and its brutal history. But as I peered into my small screen, I was struck by the image of men, unarmed men, defending their home with seemingly nothing more than their presence—by presenting their bodies to the country and to the armed police standing before them.  

Meanwhile, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a mixed-race man, took to his knee during the national anthem. By some, he was vilified as antipatriotic; by others he was celebrated for his defiance. Kaepernick could have expressed his anger and frustration over police shootings and racial injustice by turning his back; he could have raised his fist in the air. Instead, he took to one knee. With a posture of humility, he sent a profound statement—I am a person; I am a man. With this act of vulnerability, he became a living monument to the pain and loss of black men. Kaepernick was soon joined by teammates, then by a woman who knelt while she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They knelt for the dead, and I couldn’t help believing they knelt for our sake, too.

 

Summer was fading into autumn. The heat in San Antonio had become bearable enough for a night of stargazing. “We are made of stars,” said a local astronomer, as I peered through his telescope. The full moon hovered above his shoulder as the man explained that from the death of a star comes all of the elements, the entire periodic table—the universe and the Earth, down to the iron in our blood. We are stars looking back at stars, at the genesis of us. Our nation’s stars are fixed and sewn onto a flag, I thought: the jewels of conquest. Each represents the nation’s story of idealism and exploitation, enslavement and the promise of freedom. From them emerges our nation’s constellation.

 

Before the summer was out, I traveled to New York City, where I had lived for most of my adult life, to celebrate a friend’s birthday. But I wasn’t much interested in catching up with friends and colleagues. I headed downtown to the Bowery for a Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter exhibition, organized by artist Simone Leigh. The exhibition was the artists’ response to the Castile and Sterling shootings and included a video installation titled “Catalyst for Black Joy Digital Altar.” A sunset image appeared with the caption: “What brings me joy is watching the sun.” A woman played violin. Harmony mixed with laughter.

Joy in this time of vitriol and pain seemed so perfect, so necessary, and yet unexpected. “There is so much emphasis on black pain,” explained Alexandria Smith, a member of the group and a professor of studio art at Wellesley College. “To express joy is political, an immediate opposition to the negativity projected onto us, especially as black and brown bodies.” 

Uptown, I stepped into the Studio Museum in Harlem and into Alma Thomas’s world of color. Walls and walls of color. Color that played together with brushstrokes that marshaled the workings of color fragments—no, patterns—constellations of color, a tour through a study of the natural world. Through color, Thomas created form. Thomas, an abstract expressionist, was born in Georgia and lived out her days as a schoolteacher in Washington, D.C. She was the first African-American woman to be honored with a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and she was eighty at the time. 

In the painting “Yellow and Blue,” I saw gold and red. The work was created from oil paint, but color created the impression of metal and wood. Paintings constructed from small brushstrokes of one color became, to my eye, mosaics with depth. In her “Starry Night and the Astronauts” the range of blue showering down the canvas comingles with tiny white petals, and together they all seem to be stars. Astronauts move through the layers of her cool space in a capsule of warm red, orange, and yellow—moving through stillness.

The Harlem curators, perhaps sensing that the neighborhood and its visitors felt besieged by a summer of vitriol, had displayed the artist’s most famous words at the entrance to the exhibition: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” 

Thomas was said to have largely ignored the social issues of her time. But on that day in Harlem, her world of color delighted my eyes. Her brilliant paintings reflected the world of color within all of us, within me. I am the product of two colors; I represent the comingling of European blood with that of the “savage Indians.” In the frontier days of the late nineteenth century, whites arriving into Texas described the blending of colors that had produced the Mexican mestizo as an abomination, a “mongrel race.” They drew comparisons between my people and dogs. When they decided to conquer Texas lands, order was imposed with a noose and a tree branch.

 

In the Long, Hot Summer of 1967, social scientists appointed to a presidential commission argued whether the uprisings were riots or rebellions, wanton violence or outrage. Their findings, published the following year in the Kerner Report, traced the root cause of the conflicts to a deeply embedded “white racism” in the fabric of American culture and institutions. The report warned of a country on the cusp of becoming “separate and unequal.” But there was another narrative to the uprisings, one seized by law enforcement and Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon that ended up spanning both of our Summers of Love: that the uprisings demonstrated an urgent need for greater law and order. 

In the waning days of our contemporary summer, the man with the Logo Name became the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. From the debate stage at Hofstra University, he told the nation: “We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African Americans, Hispanics, are living in hell, because it’s so dangerous.” His solution? “Bring back law and order.”  

In mid-October, I entered a gallery in Houston and stood before an enormous four-panel oil painting of Klansmen and Klanswomen huddled together. In the painting, a hooded man peers into an iPhone, a woman carries a sneaker-wearing baby, a potbellied figure clutches a beer: the latest work by Vincent Valdez is a scene of regular, everyday people. It is a reflection of the racism that is inherent to the American identity. In the broadsheet that accompanied the show, Valdez wrote: “There is a false sense that these threats are (or ever were) contained in the peripheries of society, in small towns, backwoods, in uneducated and poor communities.” The title of the exhibition was “The Beginning is Near (Part I).”

A few weeks later a census was taken and the result fulfilled the prediction made in 1968—two societies, separate. The winner of the presidential election—the man with the Logo Name—had tapped the genetic code of despair, fear, and racism, and picked up the strategically placed votes he needed to become president. A desperate search for explanations ensued, as if he had promised something new, as if his words contained ideas unknown to us. But they had been with us all along, living among us, for those willing to look.

 

Three weeks after the election, I hitched a ride into Indian country. Days earlier, news from the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota included reports of officers firing rubber bullets and water cannons on civilians in freezing temperatures. The tactics were far beyond anything I had witnessed while covering countless confrontations with police across the country. Thus far, I had resisted the urge to chase the violence. But when friends and colleagues returning from the camp described a site of prayer, a place rooted in ancient Lakota values, a gathering of hundreds of tribal nations and supporters—a stitching-together of our fractured humanity—I wanted to see it. 

After a twenty-four-hour drive, I rolled into camp Oceti Sakowin. The name means “Seven Council Fires” and represents the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota nations known as the Sioux. At the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation, the camp went up in April on disputed Sioux land after construction plans for the Dakota Access Pipeline were redrafted, rerouting the 1,200-mile oil pipeline from Bismarck to cleave through sacred sites and under the Missouri River, the tribe’s primary water supply. Representatives from hundreds of tribes traveled to Standing Rock—it was the first time the seven bands of the Great Sioux Nation had gathered in one hundred forty years, since the defeat of Custer. Young activists came, as did lawyers and doctors, carpenters, ex-cons, ministers. Blacks, Latinos, whites, and Asians. When I arrived, hundreds of tribal flags lined the entrance to the camp of yurts, tents, and campers planted on the icy prairie. A massive snow-covered dome—a gathering place—rose in the distance. 

Inside one of the military tents that functioned as a mess hall, tribal elder Isadore Zephier of the nearby Yankton Sioux Tribe delivered the evening prayer. A hush came over the Army tent. “This is the beginning for many of you,” he said. “We all go through life to do one thing and we go through life looking for it.” He continued, “You get a whole row of dominoes. All mistakes you have made, you can’t start from the last one. You have to go back to the first one to make things right. You have to go to the beginning.” By the time he finished, many in the crowd had wiped away tears. 

After Zephier spoke, I asked Susana Sandoval, an activist who ran for U.S. Senate in Illinois as a write-in candidate, to define “the beginning.” She listed institutional racism. And the root of that? “Absence of spirit, absence of human conscience,” she said. “This is a gathering of nations and a recognition of our humanity.”

 

At Standing Rock, scarcity encouraged generosity. People relied on themselves and each other to survive subzero temperatures, ice, and snow. Standing Rock urged me to pay attention, to give when I had and ask when I needed. I was instructed to reuse a paper cup and notice when someone needed help carrying wood. 

New arrivals were encouraged to winterize tents, wash dishes, and, above all, pray. Prayer meant deliberate thoughts and actions—the hard work of undoing our cultural norms that reward immediate answers and extreme individuality, a culture that advises us to keep an eye on the prize without much thought to the experiences we live in reaching it. 

With the pipeline, the forces that enacted the nation’s western expansion were once again working in concert. Banks were backing the Energy Transfer Partners’ oil pipeline. The government authorized and approved the route with permits and seized land. Law enforcement secured its path. Now, as before, progress and prosperity were defined by the principle that resources exist to be exploited. But even then, there were signs of the costs to the human spirit. In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville described a United States of “the freest and most enlightened men” plagued with restlessness, despair. “It seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow,” he wrote in Democracy in America, “and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.” 

Standing Rock responded to the culture that clings and despairs with prayer, the sort that I had heard in Chief Brown, witnessed in Kaepernick, and heard in the question: What brings you joy? Prayer reaches beyond the ideological debates, the competition for outrage. Prayer represents a stillness that produces a reckoning, one that asks: How will you live? What will you do?

Prayer reached into my sleep before dawn and forced tears from my eyes. When I woke on the floor of a communal tent, I heard a lone voice, a deep sound that could be described only as ancient reverence. For a few moments, I listened to the Lakota prayer and then followed it down the icy road to the Sacred Fire, the fire that never stops burning, a host to prayers and the camp’s altar. A crescent of people had formed around the fire, expanding as more people arrived to pray. After the moon drifted off, the sky turned a silvery blue. The sounds of camp life picked up but the stillness was untouched.

 

Along one of the roads that wound through the maze of tents, I noticed a cluster of tepees and a humble fence. Made from twigs and branches planted in the snow in front of a tepee, it was a detail and adornment that signaled home. A man with a shy smile and a long ponytail stood behind the fence. He introduced himself as Matt. Matthew Black Eagle Man of the Dakota Ojibwe had traveled to Standing Rock from his home in Kentucky. He and the group he founded, Red Road Awareness—which supports Native Americans who encounter crises while traveling the country for prayer, ceremonies, and celebrations—had erected tepees for travelers needing shelter. He welcomed me to stay in one.

I watched as Matt and his men rebuilt the tepee that would be my home by raising thirteen posts and wrapping a heavy coat painted with images of an owl and wolf around them. A prayer flag flew above each tepee. The prayers they represent form a connection.

“Our people have stayed very, very close to the original way that things were given to us by the creator—that is our connection to the star nations,” Matt later told me. Everyone was born with a star connection but it was severed by the loss of original culture. But it’s not lost forever. “That connection to the stars, that’s prayer,” he said. “With that prayer we live through in our hearts and in that way our creator finds favor with us and whatever we ask for will come true.” 

Matt would soon depart for a ten-day horseback ride in honor of the thirty-eight Dakota Indians who were executed in Minnesota on the order of Abraham Lincoln for killing Americans during raids: the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The ride from South Dakota to the place of execution covers some three hundred thirty miles. Matt would go in the spirit of prayer and reconciliation. 

I asked him what reconciliation would mean—how would it be accomplished? “Reconciliation is when both sides come to take steps toward each other for healing,” he said. Reconciliation is a commitment “to move hearts,” year after year. Reconciliation is not a destination; it’s a path made by healing. Healing, he said, is about permitting intention to invite the unknown, creating a genuinely new path forward. And intention comes from prayer.

 

There were no mirrors at Standing Rock. For six days, I didn’t see my reflection, yet I saw myself, my beliefs, reflected back in the stories that came to me—unsolicited, unprovoked. When I ducked into a neighboring tepee, Jen Mendoza, a community organizer from Cincinnati, told me a story as I waited for my water to boil. A few weeks earlier, on a night when law enforcement officers launched water cannons at shivering campers, a woman had been shot in the eye with a flaming canister. Another nearly had her arm blown off by an explosive. But on that night, Mendoza told me, she had looked over at the snowy embankment to see young men whooshing down on sleds fashioned from the lids of tubs they had used to protect themselves. With solemn respect, she remarked, “The joy in the face of such violence and anger.” 

Intention and prayer found their way to me as I was charging my telephone in the mess hall, not talking to anyone. A man standing nearby grabbed my attention by yelling, “Hey, does that thing work?” referring to my throwaway phone. Yeah, it works, I replied. I had barely gotten his name—Matthew Rutledge, age forty-two, from Missouri—when he said, “I try not to see snake as a bad thing. But there’s this black snake we are trying to kill so it can shed its skin for the good of humanity.” 

With the arrival of thousands of military veterans and the press, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that they had denied Energy Transfer Partners the necessary easement; they would explore rerouting the pipeline. A blizzard swirled, and the crowd chanted: “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” 

Germaine Tremmel, a member of the Standing Rock tribe, watched the people in the crowd and celebrated them. The outsiders—white, Latino, Asian, and black—had responded to their prayers, and it told her something that transcended one pipeline. “Somebody cares for us,” she said. “It’s about us being human, being recognized as human beings.” 

My host, Matt, celebrated the victory as the result of collective intention. “It took clergy, it took the free-love people, the veterans,” he said. Nearby, Mendoza quipped, “They care more about white people.” Since its creation in April, the camp had been largely ignored by the press. With the arrival of the veterans and, indeed, a growing population of white supporters, the camp was no longer neglected and the governor had rescinded an order of evacuation. Perhaps Matt and Mendoza were both right. But if so many people had answered a call to prayer then perhaps the genetic coding of despair was in fact alterable. 

When the blizzard broke, I began the return to Texas. In a corner of the small airport in Bismarck, I complimented an elderly man on his rings. His name was Nakaii Koyoda and he was a silversmith. Koyoda, a Navajo man, was traveling alone to Alaska and I accompanied him from the ticket counter, through security, and into the small airport café. “Get anything you want,” he said, the way a father talks to a small child. Without much in the way of prologue, he looked over his sandwich and said, “We are trying to save the spirit of the United States.” 

“Who is we?” I asked. 

“You,” he said. “But you can’t cure it unless you know what the illness is.” He described a spiritual illness, a cannibalization of spirit that strips away humanity within ourselves and each other. Yet four days after taking office, the man with the Logo Name accelerated the pipeline’s completion. Disease gives rise to despair, elects an angry man as our nation’s leader, and even makes us willing to poison our own water. But at Standing Rock, with the ceaseless power of prayer, we reckoned with the disease and watched the starlight burn within.

 

Sometimes, late at night, I gaze at the sky and think about our Summer of Love, when countless spirits awakened with cries and prayers for humanity. Our summer carried forward the prayers and sacrifices of civil rights leaders of the 1960s. But I recently discovered that the original Summer of Love had been incomplete. The marriage of the longest day and the glorious full moon had occurred on the West Coast, but not on the East Coast. But in 2016, the celestial wonder of brightness of moon and brightness of day was shared by the entire nation.


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Michelle García is a journalist based in Texas and New York City. She is at work on a non-fiction book investigating American manhood and violence on the U.S.-Mexico border.

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