When a Single Story Splits in Two
An Excerpt from "Ground Experience as Foundation of Lived Experience"… Part I of "All We Are"
What I’m briefly sharing in this post is an excerpt from a larger work. I am choosing to share it now, just after midnight on October 1st, around the same hour that I received the unwelcome news nine years ago that my big sister was gunned down by a state trooper.
As some of the Ground Experience subscribers are aware, I’ve been working on a three-part series of essays called “All We Are”. One of the three parts, which I have been writing for two years but have not yet published, deals with the topic of “lived experience”.
Today, on the 9th anniversary of my sister’s passing, I want to share with readers a short segment of this part of the series regarding my own personal experience in the immediate aftermath of that event. I’ve written much more that I have not yet published, so the ending—and the title of this post—may sound cryptic without the full context.
I am well aware that the concept of close-minded dogmatism, alluded to in the closing sentence of this excerpt, may not immediately appear to have any connection to tragedies like the one my sister and family experienced.
Hopefully, I will be able to adequately convey that connection when time allows.
For now, it feels right to share this passage from the chapter I drafted last year for the All We Are series.
One thing I want to be candid about:
My writing about this tragedy is not an “attention grab”. I have no time for the kind of identity posturing that seeks legitimacy and noteworthiness from real or imagined suffering—today’s breathtakingly easy way to gain status.
But, please. We gotta be real and raw sometimes about shit. It can’t always be about helping verbs, passive sentence constructions, and emotional self-restraint. Life ain’t like that.
I’ve written plenty of words that are abstract, conceptual, theoretical, socio-political, and all the rest. But, not a single moment of those writings has been disconnected in the secrecy of my soul from the real life outcomes of those abstractions, concepts theories, and political musings.
And I’m not just talking about my sister.
Though I often choose to separate the lived experience realm from the idea realm in my written presentations of things I care about, the truth that has always been in my intimate heart and mind is that there has never been a separation between the two.
For me, the excerpt below represents that recognition.
Gretel and Hansel: The single story that we shared now splits in two
On the day after a violent tragedy of a close loved one, I woke up on the carpeted floor of a friend. The night before, after finding out what happened, I drank myself into non-existence, not wanting to be conscious for a single moment with the intensity of the awareness that the person who had been closest to me since the very beginning of my life was no longer alive.
And when I woke up on that carpeted floor that morning, my body sprung up in a panic, and my entire being was overtaken with extreme urgency. Something crucially important and decisive just had to be done right away, right there, at that very moment.
And then I remembered….
And in the newspapers.
All her life progress suddenly stopped.
A newly redeemed life just around the corner.
A mother of two with a new granddaughter.
Yet, the fact that it was a police killing was not primary or even important to me in that moment.
The thoughts that ran through my mind were about the students I had known, the lives of young people that I personally witnessed dehumanized and dismissed, wiped off the indifferent shoulders of people of authority like flakes of dandruff, and in some cases banished from their schools and communities without due process or true cause.
I had spent fifteen years in a variety of educational institutions that vanquished the potential of students on the altars of dishonest “reforms”, problem-hiding and unfair treatment by pension-collecting cynics, career climbing opportunists, bitter burnouts, and an intimidated and silenced teaching force.
Don’t get me wrong. The vast majority of the teachers I have known have been decent, hard-working, caring people. But, as in all bureaucratic systems, there was just a large enough number of people pulling the levers who can rightly be called sociopaths, which had a real life impact on the work we all signed up for.
So, in this moment, as I collapsed into paroxysms of feral, cosmic, unbounded rage interrupted by devastating machine-gun-sounding-body-spasm crying, I gave furious, hortatory speeches to the living room wall. Not wanting to frighten my friend, I intentionally tossed these tearful, fiery monologues about systems that let people down against the wall.
I was beyond devastated that this person I loved wound up in exactly the same place as some of the students I had known, cared about and advocated for. And, the cosmic furiousness I felt in that moment could have cleared not just that small living room, but the neighborhood, the city, the entire landmass of North America, and even the theoretical model of the universe itself—far beyond the observable clusters of galaxies and dark matter. There was no location in the known and unknown universe that could have escaped the anger that went supernova inside me on that awful, awful morning.
I didn’t see the news segments. I didn’t read the newspapers. I didn’t think about the police. I couldn’t bear to be exposed to what would surely be exceedingly painful details of my sister’s bitter end or to read or hear about the clinical mechanics of the emotional and physical suffering that must surely have been the experience of a person who my aunt called my “twin soul”.
All I could focus on in this moment and in the months and years that followed was the life of survival choices that this dear loved one was forced to lead after a lifetime of abuse and addiction in nearly all their forms, and the institutional neglect that kept her away from developing the life skills and healthy coping mechanisms that could have helped her escape from the world of degradation and separation from hope that she and I had been born into.
All I could think about was the institutional malaise of her schooling years that did not attend to the learning disabilities and emotional trauma that kept her apart from being able to read a letter I had written years earlier to a person who had been cruel to the two of us when we were young.
The chief thing on my mind in that moment was the additional cruelty of knowing that though we were both born into a network of despair, we made it out of that network at the ages of 12 and 13 when we ran away together, only to find ourselves in the not too distant future landing in two entirely different places. The truth is that I am the one that made it out, not her.
As I am writing about this moment on that carpeted floor (for the first time), I am reminded of a line from the film Gretel and Hansel that came out nearly a decade after her death, where the character Gretel issued these parting words to her younger brother, as she sent him on his way to a better life:
The single story that we shared now splits in two. Then we take forking paths. Yours will lead you to what you need to find. Mine will carry me up.
The forking path that the Gretel of my own life took would eventually carry her up to the heavens before her time. And my own forking path would lead me to easier pastures and to the discovery of a simple truth that I perhaps needed to find in the years that followed. Though this was more of a re-discovery than a discovery (more on that later).
And here’s the simple truth that I continue to rediscover no matter where my journey has taken me.
The closed-minded dogmatic mindset is deadly.