Keeping Vigil, Being Brave
How the Barnard College corpse flower kept me going through the police riots following George Floyd’s murder
First, full transparency: the director of The Arthur Ross Greenhouse at Barnard College is my cousin, Dr. Hilary Callahan. She and I were never close, for a whole host of reasons, but gradually came to realize a genuine fondness for each other through our mutual follows on social media. We grew up in neighboring towns, and her mother is my father’s youngest sister. But her education and academic career followed a trajectory through elite private schools to the Ivy League, while mine has been a wanderlust trek from public school, to a trade art school where I studied sign painting, to public colleges and universities where I eventually taught composition and creative writing. I finally left academia altogether and moved to Columbus through a combination of illness, the end of a term contract that coincided with what was a beginning-to-collapse higher education system, and meeting my husband, a newly divorced man with five children.
Fast forwarding to recent years, my work as a poet and poetry organizer led to an interest in fusing poetry and science, adding the A, one might say, to put STEAM into STEM. (It doesn’t make much sense to me that math and science are so artificially separated from the humanities; they need each other.) To some degree, my work has been an apology to my father, a high school chemistry teacher, for never taking chemistry myself in high school. I became strangely entranced not just by birds but by the anatomy of birds, writing poems about the elongated trachea of swans, for example, learning along the way that what we called the wishbone as kids is actually the furcula, an anatomical structure instrumental to how birds fly, and that the sparrow has an extra bone in its tongue that helps it separate the seed’s hard shell from its kernel. I was beginning to be more aware of my cousin’s work as plant biologist, but mostly kept mental notes that she might be a source for some future research related to trees or perhaps exotic flora connected to the hoatzin, the South American stinkbird I’d already written two poems about. One simply never knows.
Hilary said kind things when my dad passed away in December, very kind, and at his funeral I connected with other extended family members I’d been woefully out of touch with. Time picked up its pace, then, as we began to hear news of the COVID-19 crisis. I went back home to Massachusetts in February to stay with my mother for a week, offering some respite to my siblings who had been caring for her but who now had to attend to their own families and look for ways to more privately grieve my dad’s passing. We watched the nightly news together with very early stories of the corona virus making its way through international flights at Logan airport, and I pretty quickly realized it was not just the lead story but related to seemingly every story every night. Early in March, my husband and I decided to self quarantine, well before Governor Mike DeWine’s call for Ohioans to shelter in place. He had transitioned to working at home full time last year, and I was happy to limit my activity to writing full time at home. At first I went out only for prescriptions at our local Kroger where I could also stock up on groceries, but it wasn’t long before the devastating effects of COVID hit the family of a close friend, and on the heels of that, our family. What a punch in the gut to learn, on Facebook no less, that Hilary’s life partner Tom Waters had passed away. Michael and I immediately determined we would not leave the house for anything. Food and prescriptions could all be delivered, and there was no other reason for us to leave the house.
I wrote a small group of friends, all creatives and one doctor supportive of the arts, saying that now was our time: though no one had an obligation to do anything they couldn’t manage — trauma is trauma, and there was no doubt that this public health calamity, even before it was finally officially declared a pandemic, was going to have a devastating effect on everyone — but creatives as a group have the unique ability to dig deep into the personal and even collective psyche, processing difficult emotions that others, for whatever reason, are unable to.
By the tail end of March, I’d already written two new poems, and when April started it was easy to jump into a 30/30, where poets write one poem per day each day of National Poetry Month. I was determined to keep processing every part of what I was feeling through the poetry I was writing and to post the poems every day.
Hilary was incredibly supportive of the work, reaching out to comment now and then, to post a quick link to clarify some bit of science or to suggest something for future research. She was delighted when I posted a opossum poem — a friend had found a opossum dead in her garage, and I was turned on to the concept of “playing opossum” till danger had passed, what it seemed we were all doing now, hiding out in our collective attempt to flatten the curve — and she tagged me on a post about Tom’s love for the song “Possum By Night” by The Mountain Goats. My daily poems referenced every possible thing related to the pandemic and the daily news, mostly obliquely, from disinfecting groceries to the apparent disregard young people had for their grandparents as they made the spring break pilgrimage to Florida beaches, even, eventually, to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Arbery and Taylor were not mentioned by name in my writing but more and more evidence related to their deaths was being released in the nightly news, and I was trying to comprehend the human capacity for violence. I was working hard to process what it is to be human, the depth of my own actions and emotions, in all the ways they seemed to mirror what so many others were simultaneously experiencing: anxiety, fear, nightmares, memories rising out of seemingly nowhere of things we hadn’t thought of in years — foods we ate when we were kids, tv shows we grew up watching, relationships with grandparents or even random kids we went to grade school with. It was my job to stare it all down and post it publicly, absolutely unapologetically. Nearly always, it was the poems I was most afraid to post that seemed to make the clearest connection to somebody else. Mostly, though, I kept my head down, actually happy for the chance to be so completely focused on my work while not having to really connect to anyone. No one was going to be ringing my doorbell, there were no errands to distract my focus; all I had to do, every single day, was write. And, of course, process my grief for my father, for friends, for extended family, for the country, for the whole wide world.
Somehow, my peripheral understanding of Hilary’s developing work with Amorphophallus titanum or the titan arum — the corpse plant — began to intersect with my work in processing not just Arbery and Taylor’s deaths but also Christian Cooper’s dreadful experience in The Ramble (a bird story, so of course, I was especially interested — I’d already, through other research related to birds, come to some understanding of “birding while black” — and a New York City story, too, relevant not just because Hilary is in The Bronx but because our son now lives in Brooklyn) and, then on its heels, the murder of George Floyd.
It takes ten years for the corpse plant to bloom. An endangered species native to Sumatra, it’s best known for the distinct odor of rotten flesh that attracts pollinating insects when the inflorescence finally appears. The blooming process lasts only 24–48 hours. It’s normally an event that attracts a steady stream of camera-toting enthusiasts. Hilary and her Barnard College colleagues scrambled to set up a YouTube livestream and Instagram page where the public could tune in to watch it happen. It’s tradition for a newly blooming titan arum to be given a name, often through a contest that helps generate public interest, and New Jersey high school student Janice Kim came up with Barnard’s winner: Berani. Berani is an Indonesian word that means brave. It took a minute for that to sink in: Brave. I was, for the first time since self-quarantine, feeling anything but. George Floyd’s murder put me past the brink of what I was able to absorb and process. My psyche, so tuned in to the collective for so long, had hit a wall. We all hit a wall; we came, as a nation, full stop. Why this death, after so many in our nation’s history, after the murder of so many black men and women, after so many school shootings, after so many brown children had been locked in cages, why this murder, this one, made us all stop in our tracks is both mystery and miracle.
For months now, we’ve been locked in our cages, terrified of a virus that attacks the respiratory system. We have regressed into nightmares and memories of every ancestor we can recall — those we knew, those we wish we’d known, those we loved or those we must reckon with. That a black man’s last utterances were both a call to his mother and the words I can’t breathe — on Memorial Day weekend, no less, a time of collective mourning? They were bound to land like a grenade.
I kept Berani with me everywhere. As I moved from room to room around my house, tending to meals and a newly broken washing machine, watching CNN and social media posts with the latest details of friends and families now demonstrating with those words I can’t breathe written on their homemade cloth face masks, talking and texting on the phone, writing, posting, moving forward with meetings, whatever I was doing, I carried a separate device with me, still watching the livestream. If I was on the phone, it was on my iPad, if I was on my laptop, it was on my phone. At one point, my husband and I wanted to disconnect from TV and social media altogether, choosing instead to read Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction out loud together to give ourselves a break — and even a Tom Robbins novel seemed less surreal than what was happening in real life. Still I made sure we pulled up YouTube on the fire stick first, so as we read, I could keep my vigil with Berani.
I wrote a poem called “Brave: Titan Arum” that Hilary saw on Facebook the morning after I posted it, saying she was “elated and energized” to see it; she later posted it on the greenhouse Instagram page. Writing the poem was the first thing in two weeks that helped me feel calm. Still, I couldn’t shake being mesmerized by what was happening, by everything Berani in the midst of everything that was Mr. Floyd, all while wood and rubber bullets were flying into perfectly peaceful crowds, while mace and tear gas were sprayed directly into the faces of people who ran away, fell down, screeched and screamed, many now gasping audibly I can’t breathe on video after video after video — and not just here in Columbus. I spent hour after hour far into the night, far more than was good for my own psyche watching the scene play out over and over again across the entire country. Demonstrations in places like Canton, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa — in Texas and Colorado and Utah and California — all followed exactly the same pattern: perfectly peaceful protests erupting suddenly and unfathomably into wood and rubber bullets, mace and tear gas, running, screaming, the final horrible gasping for air: I can’t breathe. The terrible, terrible collective exposing now and forever and to the entire world how horrifically and systemically and purposefully racist and fascist ideals are woven into our procedural infrastructure. The couple of stories that emerged on Twitter related to empathetic police and sheriffs in Camden, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan, while balm, proved only that, all along, things could work have worked differently. And even those stories bled into performative acts, individual police officers and police units kneeling before cameras, heads bowed, only to rise again and lead demonstrators out of the city centers and away from news crews after curfew, and start shooting again.
I kept vigil with Berani because I was keeping vigil with America. I would not avert my gaze, even for a moment, for anything. I traced story after story down to its source, watched the same stories billow strangely back outward into distorted versions of themselves a few hours later. I tracked fact and rumor, innuendo and straight-up lies over and over again, determinedly, easily, on social media the same way I had tracked news about Aleppo in 2016, following sources on the ground — journalists and families and a little girl named Bana — on Twitter, all so clearly and obviously and publicly reporting what was happening while government officials in Syria and across the world said it wasn’t happening at all, or at least, not as fake new sources were telling it.
I kept vigil with Berani because what else was I going to do to convince myself this was no nightmare, this was real life — and not just my real life now but real life in every moment for black and brown people everywhere, my colleagues, my neighbors, my friends. How was I to turn away now when they never could?
Berani opened so beautifully to the world, stinking of all that we are, all the promise that we have to find our way through this to some new system of justice I can’t yet fathom. Berani is helping me believe it’s there, somewhere. I continue to watch this enormous, elegant plant as I write these words. She’s well into the process of closing back up again. “The spathe is closing, the spadix waning,” explains the most recent Instagram post. The image inspires me no less than it has all along. Berani’s work is nearly done. She and others will be back when they’re needed, in two or three years for the plants that have already bloomed, ten years for plants that will start new, now, from seed. The corpse plant is an endangered species, but it’s nursed and tended to in green houses all over the world. There’s much they can teach us about ourselves, each other, the respiratory system of plants who are themselves a respiratory system for the world. We’ve only to keep our vigil, watching and learning, working toward justice for all.