On September 3rd, 2014, my youngest brother started his first day of middle school. He wore his red and black shirt from Six Flags that says, “I Mastered the Bull.” We bought it after he rode “El Toro,” a rollercoaster that, even by experienced thrill-seekers, is pretty rough. It brought him a sense of pride to wear that shirt to the first day of middle school. It didn’t matter that just the night before, he wept in my mother’s arms, afraid to grow up, scared to start a new life, nervous to walk into a whole new world. He woke up that morning, put on his bull shirt, and walked into the safe but scary doors of his new school.
On September 3rd, 2014, it was confirmed that ISIS had beheaded another American journalist. They took a knife to his throat and took his life. That’s the milestone that marks my brother’s his first day of middle school. That’s the world he is walking into, and I’m scared as hell for him.
On the day of the summer supermoon, August 10, my boyfriend and I took a drive to the eastern side of Long Island, where there were significantly less streetlights. We went to the beach in Hampton Bays because we figured there would be less people there than anywhere else. We were right.
We lay on the beach with not a soul around us. We made pillows out of sand underneath our blanket, and listened to the ocean roar. We felt the coldness of the sand in our toes and fingers. I looked up at the supermoon above us. The space around it looked empty; the light from the moon was so bright that the stars surrounding it were out of view. But when I turned my head away from the moon, I saw the hundreds of constellations of stars and felt whole. The moon and the water and the blackness of the sky and the stars and the cold sand and the love took over me.
I wrapped my arms around my boyfriend and closed my eyes.
This, I thought, is what life was all about.
Every day, I turn on my local news channel while I get ready for work. A lot of it is fluff – traffic, weather, the daily “download” – but lately, it’s been overwhelmingly intense. Warfare between Israel and Hamas, the potential war brewing between Russia and Ukraine, the suicide of Robin Williams, the violent protests in Ferguson… This is the world we live in, now.
Maybe I’m sensitive. I’ve never had to deal with worldly problems as an adult before. I have lived through tragedies, sure – September 11, Hurricane Sandy, the Newton, Connecticut shooting – but I was always protected from it, somehow. I didn’t have to really face the reality of the issues that caused these horrible events. I was only 11 when terrorists flew airplanes into my city. I don’t remember exactly how the media unfolded the events, I didn’t understand the effect of such terror, I didn’t know that moment would change things forever. I was too young to understand. The world was still so full of hope and love and sweetness for me. I never thought it wouldn’t be.
But now, I’ve seen a world of love and a world of hate and I still don’t understand.
Do we ever understand?
On a whim, my boyfriend and I drove out to Montauk one Sunday afternoon. It’s located on the southern tip of Long Island that protrudes out to the Atlantic Ocean. People call it, “The End.” We drove out to the lighthouse. There was a crowd of people, and it seemed like every other car had an out-of-state license plate. We climbed the rocky cliffs surrounding the lighthouse, so we could find some peace.
I held his hand as we walked from boulder to boulder. I carefully placed my feet on each rock, mentally noting not to wear flip flops next time we go out to Montauk. The wind was so loud that the only other thing you could hear was the tide smashing into the rocks. My skirt was whipping in the wind and with each step, I wished to get off the cliff and be safe on shore.
It wasn’t until we laid the blanket down and sat on the edge of the boulders that I looked out towards the ocean. The wind seemed quiet where we sat, and the chill I had been feeling earlier faded away. I looked out and saw nothing but sea – an endless combination of blues and whites that seamlessly met the horizon. It was the first time I had ever looked that far out to the ocean without seeing another landmass.
The world was blue. And big. Really, really big.
The endlessness and blueness and vastness of the sea humbled me in a way I had never been humbled before. I felt small. I felt human.
When I fixed my eyes closer to shore, I saw a sea duck bow its head into the ocean and come back to the surface with a fish in its mouth. He opened his beak and swallowed it whole. I smiled.
This, I thought, is the world in which we live.
My youngest brother is 11 now. But instead of one terror attack, he is faced with many, all over the globe. Two American journalists have been publically beheaded, and there’s threat of more if their demands aren’t met. Terrorists are no longer lurking in the shadows of Middle Eastern countries – they are walking through the streets of European countries, places where Americans were once thought to be safe.
In our own country, there are communities of people who are afraid of the very people that are supposed to protect them. There are violent protests, looting, rioting, that we haven’t seen the likes of since the Civil Rights movement. Fires and tear gas have started to define Ferguson, Missouri’s landscape. Local police are approaching civilians in tanks and militarized war gear. The National Guard has stepped in.
This is the world we live in. It’s scary and violent and painful. And when I remember that it’s always been violent and scary and painful, and it will always be that way, I wonder where the good hides in times like these. Does it nestle underneath a rock until the time is right? Or does it rest behind the clouds? Other times I wonder if it’s a choice. If the good and the bad are things we can choose to see or not see.
Some say you can’t appreciate the light if you’ve never been in the dark.
But that’s when I remember what the dawn is for.
For a year or so, a customer named Jack would come into the check-cashing store where I worked as a teller every week, but I knew little about him. I knew he was from Brazil, and that he installed hardwood floors, but not much else. He was tall, about six feet, and had tannish, light brown skin, like that of a light-roast coffee bean. He spoke English very well, which led me to believe he had been living in America for quite some time, although it was rare when he said more than “can you make me a copy, please?” or “thank you.”
It was a slow day at the office. I think it was Fall or Spring, but it’s hard to recall; I know there wasn’t any snow on the ground. Jack came to my window, and smiled uncharacteristically wide. He must be in a good mood, I thought. I took his check, processed the transaction, and came back to the window with his envelope full of money. As he was signing the receipt, he spoke.
“My wife had our baby today. It’s a girl.”
I didn’t know he was married or that he was even expecting a child.
He looked at me, and his brown eyes glistened with hope and happiness. I remember looking at him, mostly stunned to have heard him say more than his usual. I smiled back at him and wished him congratulations.
“Thank you, thank you so much,” he said.
Like he was pleading with me to share in his joy, like I was the first person he told about the arrival of his new daughter, and if he didn’t tell me, then it wouldn’t be true.
He walked out the door, and a gust of wind swept through the small slot underneath the bulletproof glass windows.
That moment has always stayed with me. I’ll never forget the tone of his voice or that look in his eyes. I didn’t know at the time why that moment would make such an impression on me. But it was in that moment that I witnessed a reality that was pure and good.
And in that moment, this world was the only world he wanted to live in, and he wanted me to be a part of it, too.