Such an overwhelming pattern of lethal violence against African Americans at the hands of police unskilled in nonviolent conflict resolution has emerged over the past decade that I was less stunned by news of what happened to 23-year-old Elijah Jovan McClain in Denver, Colorado, last August 24, than I was by the words attributed to him as he was being detained and slowly robbed of his life. I have not been able to access a single video or recording on which everything Mr. McClain said can be heard clearly but according to the fact-checking website Snopes.com this is an accurate transcription:
“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”
These are not words to cry over and then forget. They were uttered as McClain (wearing earbuds and carrying a shopping bag) was stopped, forced to the ground with a carotid (choke) hold, injected with a chemical called Ketamine to make him more docile, and then transported to a hospital where he died a few days later.
“Try to Forgive Me”
There is a mixture of awe, admiration, and fear in the demeanor of people sharing McClain’s last utterances across the internet. They are amazed by the clarity of his spiritual intention to put the officers at ease although he is the one, at some 140 pounds, who is clearly outnumbered and overpowered. In short, he demonstrates compassion towards them while his freedom and life are being taken from him. He tells them, “You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me.”
Imagine if even half the compassion which Mr. McClain exercised towards the law enforcement officials in Denver had been shown by different police or citizens anxiously out to make arrests in the cases of: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, my adolescent brother Robert Lee, and the numerous others who did not become subjects of intensified media scrutiny or campaigns calling for justice.
Compassion might have led officer Timothy Loehmann to see Tamir Rice as a 12-year-old child instead of as a deadly threat and coaxed him to drop the toy gun he was holding before unloading actual gunfire on him. It might have decreased the toxic rush of “fear” Trooper Brian Encinia claimed he feared for his life when forcing an unarmed Sandra Bland out of her car reportedly for failing to signal a lane change. Whereas compassion might possibly have won him a new friend or admirer, his brutally aggressive treatment and arrest of Bland ended in what was ruled as a suicide by hanging in her jail cell.
Considering the Golden Rule: Who among us know of anyone who would wish to have done to them the gun violence so many, and the loved ones left behind, have experienced just this year alone?
Recent reforms in police training and procedures combined with legislation to support them provide reason to believe the kind of unjustified killings we have seen can and will end. Chances of that happening increase greatly with a mindful cultivation of compassion as an essential tool for addressing volatile situations within communities as a whole before life-threatening conflicts occur.
The Violinist and the Kittens
Only those closest to him can speak with any kind of authority about who or what Elijah McClain was but there are videos and public documentation which support claims he was an exceptionally sensitive and empathetic human being. Some might find the description of him as “an angel walking among people” a bit much. Speaking for himself he declared: “I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all.” That wasn’t exactly all because being a massage therapist did make him a kind of healer in the mode of an angel. In fact, his fateful encounter with police occurred after reportedly purchasing tea for a cousin.
And then there is this: he was so concerned about the loneliness from which he believed kittens in shelters might suffer that on his lunchbreaks he played the violin for them. That practice of musical compassion prompted world-class musicians to gather in Aurora on June 27, 2020 and play their hearts out as crowds peacefully chanted and called out #Justice4ElijahMcClain.
Read McClain’s final words again and note the degree to which he is holding himself accountable, not his uniformed assailants, for the transgression against him: “Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.” And this amazing plea: “Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better.” There are certain phrases or words we use––like beautiful soul, altruistic, sublime spirit, courageous, and saintly––to characterize someone who places above their own well-being that of people causing them harm. They are not phrases restricted to any single color, gender, nationality, or demographic classification. If anything, by their nature they confirm the presence of someone whose life example seemingly transcends sociological categorization.
The appropriate application of such words is determined by going beyond simply advocating for love- and compassion-based social change in our world to taking the radical dangerous step of embodying that change and living it. We know it is a radical and even, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., a “marvelously militant” thing to do because historically committing to it has cost a lot of beautiful souls their physical existence. We also know Elijah Jovan McClain had taken that sublimely revolutionary step and made the heroic commitment because even in the face of voracious death he did not refrain from proclaiming and living it.
28 June, 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
PLEASE NOTE: This book review is an extended version of the one previously published on Goodreads:
When I first learned the author of Already Here, the Matter of Love, had used quotes from my work in her new book, I thought for some reason that the entire project would be a collection of quotations by diverse individuals. I was definitely mistaken.
Moreover, I was pleasantly surprised by her choice to use the quote in the Postered Poetics art graphic above. It is from the poem “Angel of Healing: for the Living, the Dying, and the Praying.” The poem contains a number of haikus which readers seem fond of sharing on social media but this one is generally ignored and I sometimes if I possibly overreached with the imagery, which is in fact intended to encourage the kind of awakening discussed in the subject of this review.
Revising Your Habitual Life MO
Already Here is a passionately-considered and beautifully-presented work on staking your claim to joy and sanity in a world where so many are now convinced that the opposite must necessarily be the norm. From the book’s very first pages, Kelly Corbet invites her readers to “Think Again” and cautions them that, “What you’re about to catch a glimpse of will probably not match your habitual life MO.” Why does that turn out to be a good thing? Because the habitual life MO for so many of us denizens of Earth within these early years of the 21st century is one defined by war, terrorism, poverty, domestic violence, xenophobia, disease, and other atrocities that do not have to exist.
Imagine if we chose as eagerly to cultivate practices which increase the presence of Love and Joy in the world as we do to engage actions which hasten the destruction of our fellow human beings. That is within realm of possibility for everyone. Corbet is too wise a writer to promise a cure for all of humanity’s current failings. But she happily offers an important contribution to the body of literature illustrating ways to position ourselves to experience as great a sense of delight in our lives as we do sorrow or tragedy. For starters, she suggests the following 4 points as the “foundational essence” of Already Here:
Different wise souls have shared similar insights but when confronted by overwhelming chaos in the world (consider the gun violence crisis, the apparent total absence of ethics in various industries, mass kidnappings and epidemic rapes in different countries, etc.) many find themselves without the strength of any meaningful convictions. Then someone comes along to stoke the flames of forgotten wisdom and bit by bit we start to find our way back to more humane frames of mind.
If the author did nothing more than spout wishful generalizations throughout the pages of Already Here there would be little reason to take the book seriously. As it is, however, she backs up her core principles with rigorous (and yet somehow playful) examinations of language, philosophical ponderings strengthened by scientific reasoning, and short exercises intended to increase your capacity for experiencing a deeper sense of delight through everyday living.
On the Orlando Massacre and One Pet Peeve
I received a copy of Already Here (beautifully autographed with hand-scripted calligraphy) just a few days before the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. While meditating upon the painful senselessness of the killings, I couldn’t help wondering if the shooter might not have made a profoundly different choice if he had taken time to tap into an innate sense of thrilling wonder within his own being instead of building up deadly rage against others based on imagined slights or rejections. Certainly he––and far too many like him––would have discovered more reasons to simply enjoy sharing the available music than latching onto delusional motives to end the lives of 49 people who had never caused him harm.
My primary criticism of Already Here, the Matter of Love, is that it deserves a good index but has none at all. That does not make reading the book or taking useful advantage of its exercises any less gratifying. It would simply provide a helpful tool for scholars and researchers looking to quickly locate specific exercises or key references.
Among those references is the highly-intriguing selection of authors quoted throughout the text. These include: Simone De Beauvoir, Pierre Theilhard de Chardin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Albert Einstein, Kahlil Gibran, Vincent Van Gogh, Dr. Amit Goswami, William James, Kabir, John Lennon, C.S. Lewis, Nelson Mandela, Jalal al-Din Rumi, Mother Theresa, Walt Whitman, Marianne Williamson, Pharrell Williams, and quite a few more.
Despite any purported shortcomings, there are those who may be inclined to describe Already Here as an instant modern classic of its kind. They just might be right in that assessment.
© July 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
You can enjoy part 1 of this article by clicking here. Part 2 begins now:
Impressive 21st-century technological advances notwithstanding, we have no reasons at present believe our modern global version of the Tower of Babel is about to crumble and then reconstruct itself any time soon. Terrorists, warlords, and state governments alike would do best to include within their strategic plans sufficient measures of sanity beyond the impulses to attempt to coerce each other into unlikely forms of submission.
Different values and worldviews do not have to mean inevitable violence or conflict. They can mean greater enrichment of each other’s lives. Leadership theorist Max De Pree wrote as truthfully as anyone has when he stated:
“We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion” (Leadership is an Art).
That holds true in modern times whether you propose to be a leader of young malleable individuals eager to become catalysts for positive change or of more established groups dedicated to securing a specific legacy. What matters, above all else, is that everybody matters.
Diversity is an aspect of human existence that cannot be eradicated by terrorism or war or self-consuming hatred. It can only be conquered by recognizing and claiming the wealth of values it represents for all. The situation would be quite different if the violent extremism which has come to characterize anarchistic terrorism and government-sanctioned warfare actually resolved anything. The problem is they do not. Advances are claimed on one front and then annihilation––physical, mental, and spiritual–– witnessed on another. Global poverty, dis-empowering illiteracy, health crises, and human trafficking linger like the ultimate toxic nuclear radiation. The hearts of infants beat their last, blood dries on abandoned corpses, and souls take their leave of now useless broken bones.
Of Love and Bridges
The 13th-century Sufi mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi, whose poetry in Persian has been translated into superb English versions by the 21st-century American poet Coleman Barks, told us that “Love is the bridge between you and everything.” Those are marvelous words to contemplate when struggling to make sense of the avoidable carnage in Paris, Syria, Nigeria, Mali, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Equally marvelous to contemplate is the confluence of sensibilities that has bypassed time, space, and nationality to make Barks’ name virtually synonymous with that of Rumi’s.
Paris in particular is known in part for its many bridges and is legendary as a place that evokes mesmerizing creative expressions of love, in both the greatest of artists and the most ordinary men and women. However, if the idea of loving those whom you have been taught to recognize as your enemies is too overwhelming, consider more deeply the likelihood that we are all much more alike than we are unalike.
Individual cultures and ideologies have their appropriate uses but none of them erase or replace the universal experiences common to all human beings. What civilization does not contain within its histories tales of sons, daughters, husbands, and wives who have been lost to conflict, and whose deaths left gaping voids that could be filled with nothing but grief? In what land do people not hope that the coming New Year will bring with it fewer reasons to bow before fear or despair and greater inspiration applied to an empowered sense of hope and dignity? The more healing options do not have to be dragged into a disposal bin designed for unrealistic dreams and desires.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.