I felt deflated as I left the theater after seeing Jackie, which depicts the First Lady’s experience in the days surrounding her husband’s assassination. My mood was less a reflection of the film’s quality than the era it depicted: a decade of collective hope unraveling, excruciating at the time and ever painful in memory.
I turned 5 on the day JFK’s alleged assassin was himself gunned down; I was too young to understand the grief that gripped the nation in November 1963. Five years later, I could apprehend the despair in my parents’ faces when first Martin Luther King Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy were murdered.
So I was sad as I walked back to my car from the theater last week, sad about the violence done not only to a nation but, on that awful November day, to a 34-year-old mother of two young children who saw her husband’s head taken apart by a sniper’s bullet, who cradled his shattered skull in her lap during that frantic and futile rush to Parkland Hospital.
I had turned the key in the ignition before I noticed a small piece of paper beneath my Forester’s windshield; I assumed it was one of those ads businesses leave on parked cars. But when I plucked it free and looked, I saw a short verse neatly written in red felt-tip pen:
I know you’re tired
And being put to the test
Take a deep breath
It’s OK to rest
Something came forward in me then, opened and gladdened. I looked at the adjacent cars. There were six of us parked in a cluster, and on each windshield, tucked beneath a wiper blade, was a scrap of paper. All the verses were different, handwritten with the same pen, ending with a smiley face.
On the black Honda CRV to one side:
You’re more! You’re magic!
Time to be seen.
You’re more powerful than
You know and more loved
than you can dream.
On the white Nissan Xterra to the other side:
So lean in.
Your story isn’t over yet
I read each of the notes, then placed them carefully back beneath the wiper blades. The last line of one of the verses stuck with me:
We all pour ourselves
into so many cups
In a world of mundane
The juxtaposition of those two words — one usually associated with softness, the other, harshness — perfectly captured the anonymous poet’s action. He, or she, had disrupted my melancholy and replaced it with not just gratitude, but wonder: that a person would make that personal effort toward strangers, solely for the purpose of affirming and encouraging.
This is a difficult time for these United States, many of us still in dismay over the election of a president who epitomizes what we wrongly assumed was the ugly underbelly of America, not its prevailing sentiment. It’s easy to despair, easy to feel helpless, as if nothing we do can turn the tide of aggression, self-interest and smallness of spirit that characterized Donald Trump’s campaign and his election.
I think of RFK’s speech before a stunned crown in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, two months before he himself was slain.
“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in,” Kennedy said. We could sink further into bitterness, hatred and polarization, he said. Or we could make a greater attempt at understanding, love and compassion.
RFK was talking about racial conflict and violence, a stubborn stain on the national conscience that persists nearly a half-century later. But he might have said the same about the deep philosophical divide in our nation today, and about the choices we face not just as a people, but as individuals.
“What we need in the United States is not division,” he said on that April night in 1968. “What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is … love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”
These are difficult days, difficult times. But as disempowered as many of us feel collectively, we can always make, as individuals, the choice RFK laid out that night: to remember each other’s suffering, unknown in the particular but universally the same: To turn toward each other with compassion, to lift each other up.
To do what a poet I will never meet did for me and those other drivers on that gloomy day that recalled another: To disrupt the everyday suffering of our ordinary human lives. To be kind.