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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Why Kennedy still hurts (essay)

With my sister Martha, maybe early spring after Kennedy's death

John F. Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago today stimulates a new blog post after a long hiatus. Like many people my age and older, I am emotionally affected by this day.

My own story, briefly: I was 9 years old, making little "Pilgrim villages" out of construction paper in the week before Thanksgiving, which fell on the same calendar day as this year -- the 28th. The principal of my little village school in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts stuck his head in the room and said to our teacher -- and I quote -- "The President has been shot in the head. We're sending the kids home and closing school." I recall him as smiling as he delivered this news. It seems implausible, even if he was a right wing bigot in almost every way, but still... that's what I remember; I thought it must be a joke, since he was smiling.

The parsonage in Cummington, Mass.
We were sent home, and when a little later the news came on the radio that he was dead, I rolled on the floor and wailed. He was my hero: I had his picture on the wall of my upstairs back bedroom, and had been given a record album of his speeches on my birthday that summer. His death by assassination was unthinkable; assassinations were things of the distant past, the stuff of legend, not something real and present.

It was the end of an era in many ways, an end for which no one was prepared. It ripped open a deep wound in the collective consciousness of the nation, exposing a great and terrible vulnerability. It heightened the paranoia already in play, the suspicion that the world was descending into greater and greater chaos and even anarchy; that powerful forces and enemies were arrayed against us; that no security or safety could be found even in the highest echelons of power and privilege. It was as potent a moment of fear and loss as September 11; if anything so unthinkable could occur, what more horrors might follow?

Remembering Kennedy's death 50 years ago almost to the minute as I write this, tears spring as I read and remember. As a 9-year old, I was already moving from childhood innocence toward a darker understanding of the presence of inextinguishable pain in the world; toward awareness of my own and others' mortality; toward understanding that terrible things could happen, had happened, and would happen again. Kennedy's death confirmed all this, and more, and left me stunned and incredulous.

Today our country remains divided, fearful, and disillusioned. The Presidency, once a pedestal-mounted symbol of power and greatness, has shrunk in stature; the revered, almost god-like image of "The President of the United States of America" of childhood has been humanized to almost pitiable limitations. In my own journey over fifty years, I have come to recognize that my remaining span in which to enjoy and endure the miracle of sentience on this planet is shrinking. The journey from innocence and blind trust toward experience and wise discernment is long.

As an individual, I, and we as a country, have left the first stage long behind. Attaining the second is and will ever be a work in progress.