“The past is not dead; it is not even past.”
– William Faulkner
It was an unbelievably hot June day in Memphis, and so I was anxious to leave anything I could behind on the bus. No backpack, no purse. I just folded up a couple of dollar bills, put them in my sunglass case, and joined the group as we walked across the steaming parking lot to enter the National Civil Rights Museum.
My son was trying to track license plates from all 50 states, and this place was a goldmine. A minivan from California, a pickup truck from Montana, a sedan from New Hampshire. Absentmindedly, I took our admission tickets and slipped them into the case in my hand. Indiana, Texas, Wyoming. Then we were inside the museum, where time stops: The Lorraine Motel. Memphis, Tennessee. 1968.
Except it didn’t. It sped up.
Twenty-four hours later, I was back in Charleston. In a whirlwind, my assistant had picked me up from the airport and arranged for a locksmith to open our house. Utterly dazed and operating on an hour of sleep, if that, I had left my keys (and my family) in Tennessee (or had we made it to Mississippi or Alabama? – it was all a blur). Now, quickly showered and changed, we were heading to the first of the many prayer vigils that would fill the next few days, and my mind was spinning as I went to change my glasses. Was this really happening?
The sight of the ticket stubs brought the first tears. June 17th was imprinted in dark ink as though time had stood still, but here was tangible proof of how far I had physically traveled in the last twenty-four hours. Yet it was more than that. At the bottom of the ticket was a quote:
“IT’S NOT HISTORY: IT’S HAPPENING.”
Like the heavy strike of a gavel, those five words passed judgement on how little distance we’d actually covered at all.
It has now been a year, and I haven’t been able to remove the tickets from the case. Every day, when I get in my car and change my glasses, that quote stares up at me, challenges me. Before I even get in the car, the same lesson proclaims itself in the morning paper, often on the front page. There is an awfully, awfully long way to go.
But it’s been a year, and this too we know is true. We are changed. We’ve been touched – by the depth of our losses, to be sure. But also by the legacies of the lives we’ve now come to know, and the love and strength of the survivors; by the power and compassion of community, and the sublime beauty of grace; by the companion spirits and travelers we’ve met along the way, and the stories – still incomplete – but the history and narratives that are finally being told.
And here’s how history is different: We are a part of it. And as profound and deep as our pain can be, so too is our potential to have an impact for good.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabbah…
With the Kaddish prayer we praise God’s name, and on this day of remembrance for the lives of the Emanuel Nine, we praise their names, as well. Praise and honor and glorify and exalt – mere words have never been enough, but the words of Kaddish are special. They pledge our commitment – to action, to change, to honest encounter, to lasting deed. Zichronam livracha – in this way we indeed ensure that the memories of the righteous are an abiding blessing.