On the Avenue of Eternal Peace

Thunderstorms.
 
Such a rare occurrence in this part of California.
 
My poor dog Tessa would rather they be nonexistent.
 
While visiting my niece in Texas once, lightning hit the restaurant as we munched our burritos. It is a strange experience. My hair did not stand up. But I definitely know that something had just happened.
 
Rain clears the air. But I think there’s something about thunder and lightning that clears it more. A defining before and after. The last time I came back from Iowa, I flew over thunderclouds – bolts of lightning contained within the clouds. I felt like I was witnessing the birth of a new world.
 
Perhaps thunder and lightning help me see myself in perspective. A part of a greater whole.
 
Nicholas Kristoff wrote this morning about the 1989 uprising on Tiananmen Square that turned the Avenue of Eternal Peace into a river of blood. Soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowd of students. Whoever happened to be in the path of a bullet was killed or wounded.

An unknown man halting the PLA's advancing tanks near Tiananmen Square. Photo by Jeff Widener.

An unknown man halting the PLA's advancing tanks near Tiananmen Square. Photo by Jeff Widener.


 
The soldiers then shot at the ambulances that went in to tend to the wounded, so others kept their distance. The crowd got the message. You are all expendable in this war for absolute control. People, paralyzed with fear, watched helplessly as the wounded writhed in pain.
 
Except for the rickshaw drivers – the men who pedaled their bicycle-drawn rickshaws to deliver people and cargo around town. They pedaled in, loaded the wounded on their rickshaws and carted them to hospitals. Kristoff said that as one drove by, he saw the tears running down his face, his expression seeming to plead that Kristoff photograph it so the world could bear witness to what had happened.
 
I remember riding in a rickshaw when my family traveled through the Far East in the late fifties – faceless,nameless beasts of burden carting us through the streets.
 
It was those beasts who were the heroes of Tienamenn Square. The ones who stood up to meanness. Who, for whatever reason, put fear aside and responded to the sound of suffering.
 
I suspect that it wasn’t a political act for the drivers. I suspect it was a simple decision to defy the threat that someone holds the power of life and death over you. What was it about their act that made the faceless, nameless soldiers decide, each one, not to shoot the rickshaw drivers?
 
I don’t really understand why someone would want to have the power of life and death over another. They only have it if, at that particular moment, the person’s fear of not surviving has more power over him or her than does the love of life.
 
Everyone has those moments. To reduce someone to that moment is to humiliate.

Kristoff says today that the government of China is no less oppressive, but it has made the lives of citizen better by creating a powerful economy – at the expense of the environment – thus creating a comfort level that takes one out of the day-to-day struggle for survival.
 
Complacency has been the price for this rise in comfort level.
 
Complacency is a dangerous place to be. Change is the enemy when we are complacent. And life is nothing if not full of change. So the enemy becomes life itself in our desire to maintain comfort. Comfort level becomes the gauge for survival.
 
I’m not advocating for the nobleness of poverty here. I don’t think there is anything noble about people going hungry, which is one form of poverty.
 
I guess I am beginning to believe that poverty comes in many forms. Perhaps it’s an impoverishment of spirit that leads one to want to have the power of life and death over another. The desire to manage and manipulate life. An illusion as well as a delusion.
 
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Or what it has to do with thunder and lightning. I think Tessa fears it because she can’t find its source, doesn’t know what it asks of her. Whatever, she certainly knows that it is a force much bigger than herself.
 
To those who twenty years ago who stood up to the tanks, and to the rickshaw drivers who pedaled in to save the wounded, today I bow in honor and gratitude. They understood that the tanks and guns of the government were not a force bigger than themselves. They honored life in their willingness to risk their own.
 
They were not impoverished.
 
To paraphrase Walt Whitman, they dismissed that which insulted their souls.
 
I like thunderstorms. They put me in my place. It is not a place of complacency.

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