When You Get Sunburned
Hope wakes me every morning and gets me out of bed—firm and insistent as that sunshine. And there’s a lot of sun in my life. Yesterday was the longest day of the year. These days the sun streams in my windows, and I am stirring before six, as if the morning itself is at my bedside, eagerly shaking me awake.
I need that hope. My job is made of working for what ought to be in the world. I go where things are broken, unjust, or in pain and throw my energy there. I have a friend who notes, and I paraphrase, people who sing “Kumbaya” don’t get as much done to change the way things are. But she also notes wisely, they might be happier.
I wrestle with pain, fear, and anger more days than not.
When I attended Kansas City Pride recently, I left happy that there wasn’t a shooting. I spent the week leading up to it afraid and wishing I wasn’t. I hadn’t been afraid to gather for a Pride event since the one immediately following the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.
And this felt worse. Closer. Troubled, I prayed it would be alright.
Driving to Kansas City through western Missouri, I saw rolling farmland, isolated houses, fairgrounds, and cattle. And I passed a favorite landmark: an empty, un-roofed grain silo with a tree growing out of it. I always pass it too quickly to identify the species.
The tree poked its branches out sometime during my childhood—insistent, startling, and beautiful. I always think about how unlikely its success has been. The sun offered so little direct light to the tiny sapling it once was. It would have lived in shadow most of each day, until the sun was directly overhead. Yet it grew. Now it has toppled over part of the eastern wall of the silo, pushed through the bricks as it reached every day towards the dawn.
I marvel at that tree every time.
I grew up queer in rural Missouri. I grew up like that tree. I was in shadow much of the time, but as long as you can see hope, you reach for it. You lean towards it.
I drove the nearly two hours to Kansas City singing along with songs that fit the land like a hand to a shovel. Songs filled with fiddles and pedal steel and guitars and accents like my father’s.
Farmers had been praying for the rain that fell as I drove.
Being in Missouri, even in the city, all strangers began conversations with the weather. “It was so cool this morning.” “You think it’s going to rain all day?” “Where did you get that fan? It’s so muggy!” “It sure got hot.”
I smiled to hear it.
I relaxed into the rhythm of people coming and going through booths, the smell of funnel cakes, and the community of people in all manner of dress and sassy t-shirts. Many of the shirts had confrontational slogans, things I might have worn in my twenties.
I’m not in my twenties anymore.
I’ve somehow become a queer of a certain age. And now, my work draws me into rooms where a reserved demeanor, careful words, and a diplomatic nature are assets.
Precious and tender parts of me are faltering in an unforgiving climate.
Missouri strains under drought conditions now. Our governor recently signed an order permitting farmers to draw from public waters.
Cool and rain and hot and dry all have to come in just the right order, just the right times, for a hayfield to make the best alfalfa or fescue hay to keep cows in feed, especially through hard and bitter winters. A bad crop means half a good herd might be sent to the slaughterhouse. There go the cows that would bear next season’s calves.
Droughts bear a heavy cost. So does hope without change.
I empathize with the anger on display during Pride. Words so biting and bitter they take my breath away. At the root of it is a gut full of pain. I see so much hurt (and more coming on its heels). I came back home willing and ready to throw myself into making this place happier and kinder for people like me and people unlike me. And I have been blessed with kindness here of all sorts.
But the unpredictable viciousness of my home makes me timid sometimes to reach for other people, even when they smile. I fear what might be hidden there like copperheads coiling deep in blackberry brambles.
And it’s not just the unreadable faces on people at the store when I wear t-shirts with candid rainbows that cause me to walk gingerly. When I read the news (and I must read the news for my work) I get cussedly angry in ways that betray my ideals. I have discovered I don’t love the person in the mirror who must self-censor and strategize in ways that soften and quiet me.
I watched this year, in rooms where I was reserved, careful, and diplomatic, as rights were stripped, people were harmed, and dignity was denied. I felt hobbled in the face of it all. Hope didn’t die for me, but I felt parts of me withering. Burning.
So, along with so many in my home, I pray for rain. I pray for change. And I walk into those broken and painful places, the sun glinting in my eyes and hot on my skin. I’m not in the shadows anymore, and I am grateful for the grace of that. My hope is an uneasy feeling. It doesn’t bring me comfort—it hollers at me.
We have brought some ugly changes to the seasons of this world. We have wrought a climate that’s hotter, dryer, less forgiving. But with hope, all things are possible.
Without it, nothing changes.