Where I Still Live, by Kathy Engel

I fall in love regularly.

With a red spindly flower that blooms for only a few days in the backyard. With a rush of tall grass swaying in the delicious South Fork breeze. With family. Old and just-met friends. The band of turkeys roaming our yard. In love with poems and the anticipation of penne with fresh tomato sauce. The surprise of dolphins lifting and diving arcs through the exhilarating waves with which I am in love.

I fall in love with a nugget of promise lighting my path when my eyes are open.

On Saturday evening, Aug. 12, like people throughout the country, I felt the need to stand together with others in our community in a public showing of outrage, grief, and commitment to stop the calculated madness that erupted this time in Charlottesville, Va. A number of local activists began an email thread discussing the idea of a vigil. The wharf in Sag Harbor, 3 p.m. Then 4 p.m. 

We were reminded that Willie Jenkins, an East Ender who was a leader in local Black Lives Matter events last summer, was organizing the first Bridgehampton Day at the Bridgehampton Childcare and Recreational Center on the Turnpike. We needed to show support. To show up. After more back and forth and an invitation from Bonnie Cannon, the director of the Center, who was on the thread, it was agreed the vigil would be held there, at 6 p.m., following the celebration. 

I arrived around 4:30 p.m. to a vibrant gathering of families and neighbors, plentiful with food, a cacophony of music, conversation, and the scud, slide, shout, and bounce of basketball. The flowers in the garden seemed as if they were talking. T-shirts marking the day decorated torsos of every size. The barbecue grill sizzled. Whatever was happening in a place called the Hamptons, on Shinnecock land, where houses get torn down and rebuilt adorned by instant installation of humongous trees mostly with the labor of Latino workers threatened by deportation, where S.U.V. Porsches line the roads leading to beaches, and where white supremacy also hides and doesn’t hide in every village — while the realtor in chief was not condemning the terror in Charlottesville, thereby condoning as he wagged and roared a threat of first strike — on the grounds of the Bridgehampton Childcare and Recreational Center on the Bridge-Sag Turnpike in the heart of the black community, life was happening. 

The people gathered seemed to be doing what they needed, taking pleasure in their community. I asked Bonnie if we shouldn’t change plans, invite those who would be coming for the vigil to just join. She thought it was important to take a few moments to honor the losses and pain in Charlottesville, speak our commitment together. But it seemed like there would be two distinct events, possibly with two separate groups of people — one mostly black, already there and engaged, and the other mostly white, joining soon.

When the vigil group began to arrive, they gathered in the front area of the grounds, waiting for instruction, while the celebration, although diminishing in size as it was set to end at 6 p.m., continued. Willie announced there would be a vigil. 

There was some confusion. I worried that Bridgehampton Day was being invaded and in that sense disrespected, although the opposite was the intention. The situation would have been funny, had it not reflected something so serious, to see the awkward separation of lives, cultures, and colors. How would someone from another planet interpret the human checkerboard?

Bonnie called everyone into a circle. She acknowledged Bridgehampton Day, its great success, announcing officially that it would be annual, thanking Willie. She spoke about Charlottesville, asked for a moment of silence. She noted that white people were on one side of the circle and black people on the other, as usual, and asked the white people to cross to another part of the circle, join hands with a black person, speak to someone they didn’t know. Any who then wished to take signs and go stand by the road for a vigil were invited to do so.

She and I suggested that those who didn’t know the Center could get to know it. Willie called for volunteers for next year’s Bridgehampton Day. There was an animated rearrangement of bodies and voices, an excitement and release that happens during a cellular shift. A momentary lightening of spirit.

People chatted and moved around the parking area between buildings, and then some walked toward the road. Soon a group stood at the side of the road in front of the Center, some with signs, some calling out. Passing drivers honked, offered a V with their fingers and yelled affirmations.

We don’t want and can’t afford for these small, resonating steps toward what the late Grace Lee Boggs called “growing our souls” to come only after an explosion, to rewind a few days or weeks later. That’s not change. (Bonnie reminded me that the Center was built in the ’60s after a tragedy, to offer safe care to children of the seasonal farm workers.) What’s happening is not new. And the daily subtler behaviors of white supremacy didn’t end or just begin. But it’s all out there now, raw and unfiltered — a big, naked, many-tongued body of a nation bleeding out.

It shouldn’t be that in 2017 this is where we still are. It shouldn’t be that the black woman has to fix it. Just as it shouldn’t be that talks and exhibitions offer the work and voices of only or predominantly those who are white identified, planned by the same, or that young people of different ethnicities, gender identities, or sexualities aren’t regularly affirmed by accessible curriculums, books, programs, and teachers. None of the historical and ongoing affronts and assaults or the treachery spewing from the whitest house threatening to unravel any shreds of decency, safety, or democracy, should be. There are a zillion shouldn’ts. And here we are. 

Bonnie and I, and it seemed others I encountered, agreed that a glimmer danced in that place among ordinary humans of different ages, skin tones, living on different neighboring roads, on Aug. 13, 2017, following a jubilant celebration in the hub of a black community. 

Adrienne maree brown writes in the introduction to her visionary and hopeful book “Emergent Strategy”: “If love were the central practice of a new generation of organizers and spiritual leaders, it would have a massive impact on what is considered organizing. If the goal was to increase the love, rather than winning or dominating a constant opponent, I think we could actually imagine liberation from constant oppression.”

Being at the Center again after having spent time there some years back reminded me that the essential work of building takes plodding persistence and tenacity, along with vision. Long and slow. Hard to keep in mind as the very future of life on earth daily becomes more precarious. And yet this is the work of being alive. The work of love.

James Baldwin wrote: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

I shared with those gathered at the Center a phrase I had heard in the ’80s in a country experiencing war and also promise: “The joy of the people is what the enemy fears most.” 

The enemy and opposite of love is hate. The opposite of remember is dismember. The opposite of facing whatever has been and is, is denial. Denial can last for only so long. Then, like acid, it eats the soul. Of a person. Of a country.

I wake to an email from a dear friend, the writer and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller. His words lyrically cry a succinct warning and challenge, including this line: “The only cure is love yet so many refuse to accept or take their medicine.”

Here, once again, in the pregnant portending of August, as afternoon turned to evening on a piece of earth emanating past spirits and struggles, in a living project actively caring for and preparing those who will carry on, as one morning glory planted by Mr. Doug, the Center’s director of culinary arts and Sol Garden, began its blue overture, I fell in love.


Kathy Engel is associate arts professor and chair in the department of art and public policy at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts.