Remembering Grace

An Open Letter To Senator Barack Obama

April 3, 2008

Dear Senator Obama,

I would like to introduce myself to you, first, as a New Yorker. On September 11, 2001 I had to walk home from Times Square to Brooklyn because, although it was a beautiful day to start, some bad things happened that set a great deal of sadness, followed by a great deal of ugliness into motion. I do not really understand why it all happened and I don’t imagine I ever will because there comes a point when one has to stop searching for the answers to questions rooted in hate. What I remember most about that walk was that I took most of it with a friend. The next day, after a failed attempt to go to work because the trains were not running, I found myself administering self-therapy on the handball court.

I’m kind of tired of talking about that day, even though I have only discussed it rarely. I realized my level of exhaustion when, late last summer, I bought both a 2008 date book and wallet calendar and saw that the eleventh of September had been “officially” named Patriot Day. I don’t know that a hate crime of international proportions that caused myriads of people to overcome pain and fear while trying to find out if their loved ones are all right, or any international response that causes myriads of people elsewhere to do the same thing constitutes patriotism.

I’d like to draw your attention to another day instead, a couple of years later. I do not remember the exact date and, whenever I talk about it, I make no attempt to find out. The date does not matter to me because I remember it more as a small window in time that, as a whole, was lot more representative of any notion of patriotism than that day in September.

Late one afternoon I was having lunch with a friend (another one) and, just after we asked for the check, the lights in our restaurant went out. We joked about our bad luck — why couldn’t the power have gone out before it came? We paid and walked outside. We noticed that some street lights were out in the area and shopkeepers were coming outside to look around. It appeared that the neighborhood was experiencing a power outage. Very quickly, though, we found out it was not just the neighborhood and it was not just the city. While old power grids failed, new cell phone networks were operational, and folks everywhere were able to call and let folks know everywhere else that everything, for the most part, was okay.

My friend had to make it from the West Village to Jersey and I, once again, had to make it to Brooklyn. She heard that buses were being set up for shuttling folks going in her direction and she needed to hurry in order to get a space on one. In deference to the people working in lower Manhattan I decided to wait awhile before heading home. Instead, for a little bit of self-therapy, I went to the handball courts around the corner from where we ate so that I could play until it felt okay to start walking. The thing about administering self-therapy through handball in New York is that, thankfully, you will always find a group of folks, for any number of different reasons, doing the same thing.

Before it got too late a bunch of us talked about where we needed to go and a small group of us who were headed in the same direction to the same neighborhood started walking. It was really quiet at first. And then we got to China Town. The fruit and vegetable stands were selling out of everything in a frenzy. A bell went off in my head and I bought some oranges and a couple of bottles of green tea. It was hot. As we reached the entrance to the walkway of the Manhattan Bridge there was suddenly a great deal of tension in the air. Not because it was reminiscent of anything but because there were thousands of people converging on that one bridge. You could hear the footsteps and feel the vibration. It is an eerie feeling when the walkway of a structure that size begins to sway beneath you as you walk forward. The movement of the group was steady, and so the sway became a rhythm. Tension, checked, is calm.

Eventually we reached the halfway point of the bridge. Collectively, all of the people who crossed that point together started feeling good about being “almost there” and so conversations started sprouting up through the silence. Folks started randomly introducing themselves to one another, asking where folks were they were on their way to and where others were originally from. You would be amazed at how many true-grit, down and dirty New Yorkers are from absolutely everywhere else. And you would be just as amazed at how easily people who were born and raised there are ready to embrace them. There was only a slight bit of agitation at one point when a man pushing his bicycle started messing up the flow. First there was grumbling, and then the collective and explicit conveyance in concise Brooklynese that if he wanted to keep his bike from taking a swim in the river that he needed to remember the pedestrians at all times and that he, himself, was one at the moment. There was laughter, and understanding. And the flow in our group returned. By the time we were all walking off of the bridge together it felt like a party. People were hugging each other and exchanging phone numbers, and wishing each other safe travels — into the rest of Brooklyn and beyond.

The small group that I was walking with cut through Fort Greene park and saw a bunch of people setting up to hang out. They decided to stay for awhile but I kept going. Dusk had turned to twilight and soon it would be nightfall. I quickened my pace and eventually began a light jog. I could not wrap my mind around a pitch black North East grid much less a pitch black New York, and I wanted to get home to my family. There was a possibility that my mother would be home alone although one of my cousins and her two small sons lived in the same building. They resided on the twentieth floor. The closer I got to home the more I started having horrible visions of what a blackout could mean for people who live in high rises. And by the time I reached my building I was running full on and drenched in sweat.

The first thing I noticed as I reached the end of the footpath leading to the front entrance was the large number of folding chairs from our building’s community room set up with many of the older people in the building sitting in them. They all seemed relaxed, laughing and chatting with each other as they gave nods of acknowledgement when they saw me. Folks in high rises are their own neighborhood too, and they had watched me grow up there and my mother grow older. I am sure it was clear to them the concern I had for their well being. They understood why I just ran past without officially saying hello.

When I got inside my building the gentlemen on the maintenance staff were all in the lobby with flashlights and candles and they were in the process of organizing among the four or five of them the best way to illuminate three sets of stairs that went up twenty-three flights. I blew past them at first and went right to the nearest stair entrance because I only had to run up three flights. When I swung open the door, though, I got hit by a wall of darkness so thick that despite standing on solid ground I felt as though I were about to fall over into outer space. I had to remind myself to breathe and backed out. One of the men on the crew said, “Dark, huh?” We both laughed and he escorted me to my floor and shone the light until I walked the half-block length of hallway to our apartment and keyed in.

My mother was fine. She had candles going, a couple of those wind-up flashlights, and a wind-up radio. One of my other cousins was also there and he greeted me with his typical deadpan, “Hey.” He told me that everything was okay and when I saw that for myself I got out my heavy duty flashlight and walked around the building a bit. An entire system had been efficiently organized whereby young folks were helping everyone get up to their respective floors by casting light with candles, holding hands, and offering words of support. There was not simply precision at work but, also, pure demonstrations of compassion, patience, warmth, love and respect among neighbors. There were also feats of amazing strength. Kids ran up and down the stairs over and over again. A gentleman whom I was certain was in his fifties slowly and steadily made it to the twentieth floor in the almost airless staircase and stifling heat before his wife mentioned that he was, in fact, over thirty years older that I thought! You would never have guessed from the way that he walked her to the subway station every morning before her commute and gave her a kiss before going for his jog. Another woman, who was absolutely terrified of the darkness, came all the way from across town where she lived to check on an elderly friend whom she could not get in touch with. This lady mustered the courage to make it up to her friend’s apartment, which was above the fifteenth floor, make sure her friend was safe, and then troop all the way back down to the lobby and across town to where her family lived. As time passed more and more random acts of kindness were displayed. Humanity by candlelight is a humbling thing. My cousin and her two small sons who lived on the twentieth floor were not there when I knocked.

I found them, though, in the apartment of another cousin on the second floor, sitting on the terrace talking quietly with her sister as the two boys slept. By this time night had completely fallen and I began to feel a deep restlessness. I went to check on my mother again and then, armed only with my flashlight, walked out into the streets of my neighborhood.

The neat thing about Brooklyn is that while there are a lot of buildings there still aren’t that many high rises. There are enough, to be sure, but they have not yet become a fecundity. And so you get a different feel for what New York is when you move around in it. As I was walking something peculiar was going on. Folks were sitting under little buffet tents set up in their brownstone front yard areas. Grills had been set up and food was cooking. People were sitting in lawn and beach chairs and, in some spots, music was playing. Old school music.Old, old school music. Laughter was echoing all around and the. “Mm-hmm’s” and “Uh-huh’s” told me there was a lot of reminiscing going on.

At first I was walking as though I were on some kind of mission, going to the houses of friends nearby to see if they were all right. Everywhere I went people were at ease and so, after a while, I was just walking around. Eventually I doubled back and started walking in the direction of home. And, for the first time, I looked up at the night sky. The biggest, brightest, fullest moon I have ever seen, before or since, hung low in the night sky. I turned off my flashlight. I did not realize it when I was walking down the street before, because my mind was not operating that way at first, that everywhere — absolutely everywhere — everything was illuminated in glow of natural light. The feeling I was overcome with was the direct and polar opposite of what I’d felt when I hit the wall of darkness in the staircase hours before. I want to wax poetic and describe for you in elaborately woven phrases exactly what a neighborhood dipped in silver liquid looks like but words, no matter how hard I try, fail me.

I had a few moments of absolute quiet all to myself before being hit with another kind of energy.

The kids were out. Brooklyn is Brooklyn. And on a hot summer night that means wherever there are clusters of kids left to their own devices fun is being had by all. At first, when I would pass a clutch of them, though, I would tense up just a little. Conditioning, unfortunately, by having been a little over a decade removed from my teens. I was drawn in, though, with the energy of each passing group.

First off, most of them did not seem to care about or notice me, one way or the other. They were thrilled to be running around in the moonlight. And when any few individuals did take notice of me they were only interested in making their group bigger. When I got a, “Wanna run with us, Shorty?” I laughed, said “No, but be careful!” and continued on my way. I eventually got home, checked on my mother and then went to sleep.

The next morning I woke up around seven-thirty. I got dressed, got a bucket off our terrace, and went outside to stand in line at the fire hydrant behind some of my neighbors. When there is no electricity, water does not flow in a high rise. I brought the full bucket upstairs and took my bicycle back down. I wanted to ride around to get a better sense of what was going on. Separate and apart from the radio broadcasts.

People were out at a local vegetable stand buying everything. There were large groups of people in front of supermarkets that had their gates pulled and their doors locked while security people stood in front taking down orders, handing the slips of paper to employees inside who would fill them. Rationing. The reality of a power failure of that magnitude was setting in and there was a bit of mounting frustration. After a while, inevitably, I needed some self-therapy. I made my way over to the handball court. And, of course, I was not alone.

It was nice to hear people share their stories from the night before. Some folks spoke about how far they’d walked. Others about how long they’d been stuck underground in the subway system and what it was like to walk through the tunnels. We talked about how energetic the city felt. And we played.

I do not remember how long the power was out. It felt more like time had just stood still. And that was nice. People all over seemed like they got to know each other again without the added and unnecessary context of doom and destruction. People fed each other. Heartily. The grills were not just going all night but, also, well into the next day. Unfortunately, what could not be cooked and eaten had to be thrown away and, let me tell you, that does not bode well for a high rise with a trash chute and a small compactor. The stench from the rotting food that had piled up a few stories high lasted a long time while our maintenance staff worked their best and their hardest without complaint.

Rumors of ATM’s beginning to work in our downtown area began to spread but people had next on the court. And then, as abruptly as they had shut off, the traffic lights came back on. There was a collective cheer. And we continued to play. Time passed, blame was eventually placed, and the news reporting similar stories of people all over being nothing short of outstanding to each other were the standard rather than the exception. With people helping people across all kinds of cultural and socioeconomic lines; with the young helping the old; the healthy helping the sick; and everyone of their own accord simply taking care, as a New Yorker and as an American I cannot think of anything more universally patriotic.

Now, Senator Obama, you may very well be wondering why I am sharing this particular story with you directly. The fact of the matter is that I have thought very long and very hard about it and there is something about your message, as a fellow human being, that feels most inspiring to me. I initially sat down to write to you a much different letter. I was going to start off by telling you how I came up through the public school system and how, at a young age, I was wounded by the fact that a teacher of mine told a fellow classmate that her life then, and ten years into the future “if she lived that long,” wasn’t worth twenty-five cents. In addition to that child he was trying to actively break, there were thirty-three other pairs of eyes staring on in horror. When I went home that June afternoon I did not tell anyone and I do not think any of my other classmates did either. This man, our teacher, said so much more that day. But I realized as I tried to begin a letter to you that way — thirty-something years later — that he is not worth it. It is my sincerest hope that anyone who has had a teacher of any kind try to measure them with worthlessness that they rebound by slaying the dragon of imposed low self-esteem.

I thought about telling you of all the egregious ways I have witnessed public institutions fail people. And then I thought, no matter how passionately I feel about these things, none of it is new. And that is the crux of the problem, isn’t it? I decided that my objective should not be to appeal to the higher sensibility of a politician because that has never worked. The objective of a politician isn’t to keep promises but to keep up politics as usual. But, now more than ever, it does not feel as though any of the problems that we face as a nation have anything to do with politics.

I had the opportunity to go to the opposite side of the world for a brief period of time eight months before Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. My time there lasted way too soon but the love I have for this world grew by epic proportions. Being back in America, specifically in New York, after such a brief period of time, was when the real culture shock began. What I had come home to was not what I had left at all. I found myself teetering on the edge of insanity because of the shocking realization that so much of what we have been told about the rest of the world, and ourselves, just isn’t true. As a country, we used to pay more attention. Different groups of people have been trying to tell us that for the longest time but we somehow just got caught up in unusually usual politics.

I left America again three months after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and traveled quite a bit looking not just at America, but at the whole world and myself through a much different lens.

It is easy to get caught up in all the natural beauty that is planet earth and the temptation to fall off the face of it altogether is grand. But, just as easily, it is possible to get caught up in the absolutely indescribable despair that has been trying to take over our imagination. If you are not careful, and if you are not focused, you can get lost forever. The only thing that can bring about change, the kind of change that is necessary for a global community to thrive, is an open heart and an open mind.

Senator Obama, the question that started crystallizing in my mind, more than any other after seeing parts of Southeast Asia, Southern Asia, a little bit of Mexico, and not as much of Africa as I would have liked, while meeting people from all over Europe and other parts of the Americas is, what does it mean to be an American? No matter how they’re dressed, no matter what they look like, you kind of think you’ll know one when you see one. And then you realize as an American, especially if you are from an urban center like New York, that everyone, no matter how they are dressed, no matter what they look like, kind of looks like one. An American. This sounds kind of cliche if you leave New York and look around, globally. Or you can go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and see exactly how many languages the written exam is offered. You also realize, and are humbled by, our mosaic when you see the pictures of lost loved ones after too many fateful days and aftermaths in recent American memory.

The question of what it means to be an American is so fully charged, but in looking for an answer I cannot help but go back to the day when the lights went out. It is a story that I do not feel I have an opportunity to tell as much as I would like because, abroad, we get way too many questions about things our elected officials should have already had the answers for. Everyone looks American to me because I understand the beauty and the history of immigration and liberation in our country. But I also understand that if you have never been to the United States and you only have access to a few media outlets you don’t have to feel that way. And you shouldn’t be required to by anyone, especially Americans. Because, ultimately, human beings are human beings and all of our basic needs are exactly the same. And so are a lot of our basic hopes and dreams.

I have been around the globe a few times now. I have yet to see anything to convince me that an act of hate, at home or abroad, should ever be commemorated using the word “patriotism” or any variant thereof. What individual group benefits? Why would they want to? Senator Obama, if we politicize a date in September then we cannot do it without politicizing the date of the blackout, but kindness should not have to compete with hate. And if we commemorate the blackout then we have to politicize all kinds of other things including the barrel of a gun. And all of that eventually becomes politics as usual. All talk and no action once the polls close, but a few extra words of copy in our datebooks.

Senator Obama, your message of change, after all We have been through, intrigues me. It inspires me. And it gives me hope. Not because you are charming, or because you have got nice ears, but because for the first time it actually sounds like there is a person who understands in a very basic sort of way that if there is not change for the better now — right now — that politics as usual will cause changes far worse than we could ever imagine. Our America is way too special for that. It’s people, from every nation on the planet, are deserving of so much more.

I feel as though I officially inherited my little piece of the American dream when I turned thirty-five because I could officially run for President if I wanted. In theory. It is so much easier, however, to write about expressions of humanity, joy and love, wherever they may be found. I continue to be humbled by our Constitution as I get older and understand the limitless possibilities it holds with regard to freedom. Especially the First Amendment, hence this open letter to you.

I cannot imagine a job that will be harder in the next four years than that of President of the United States. Given all that has happened in the last twenty years as well as what we were able to glean from looking at the world with complete independence, all that really matters in this coming Presidential race is that the person best qualified for the position wins. Party affiliation frankly, has become a moot point. For the next four years the person best qualified would seem to me to be someone who has had the presence of mind to go abroad and see what is happening in the world before taking the office. They would also have to be someone who demonstrates that they have the presence of mind to assemble their own advisory staff — a staff that will do more than read newspaper headlines and tell them only what they want to hear. That person should have a crystal clear understanding of the overwhelmingly complex domestic issues that we have and how similar they are to the domestic issues of our neighbors in the global community.

In these next four years especially it would seem most appropriate, given the nature of all senseless acts of violence, that the next President of the United States be someone who has neither raised up arms with the intention of taking another human life — for any reason — nor demonstrated or implied complicity in doing so with a single vote. Given how our nation’s long and beautiful history with immigration has helped it grow we mustn’t be worried about a race war in the twenty-first century locally but with the constant race to war globally. Our President must, through both words and deeds, be a non-combatant. There is no other way that our troops, their loved ones, or the world community can take us at our word when we say that we believe there should be an end to fighting everywhere.

Senator Obama, these are the things that your message of change have inspired me to think about and share openly with you. And I cannot thank you enough for that. I honestly believe in my heart that all these qualities in our next President will inspire change, not just in people from the United States, but in US All.

With all best wishes, 
Deborah Cowell

Reward of Service

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

THE SWEETEST lives are those to duty wed,
Whose deeds both great and small
Are close-knit strands of an unbroken thread,
Where love ennobles all.
The world may sound no trumpet, ring no bells,
The Book of Life the slurring record tells.

Thy love shall chant its own beatitudes,
After its own like working. A child’s kiss
Set on thy singing lips shall make thee glad;
A poor man served by thee shall make thee rich;
A sick man helped by thee shall make thee strong;
Though shalt be served thyself by every sense
Of service which though renderest.

You are the legacy. Dear reader, YOU!

An Open Letter To Senator Barak Obama was originally written and transcribed to the Internet as a public blog post in 2008. It also appears in the memoir essay collection The Full Curriculum by Deborah Cowell.