A House Is Ravaged
Searching Amid the Ruins
Last January, I stayed at my Mom’s place in the Nashville suburb of Hermitage for some weeks to take care of her house and her dog Roxy while she and her husband visited the Philippines. Every day, I took this incredibly sweet dog out for a walk to get both of us some exercise and fresh air. We headed out into the winter cold on my first day there, and we walked down my mom’s street for a while until I noticed a house that had clearly succumbed to a fire. Its roof had caved in and the charred remains of soot and ash lingered. Its outer brick-laden shell encased an interior that caved in on itself.
I chose this house as the turning point on our daily walks. It peaked my curiosity and imagination. I often lingered as we turned around to head back. Roxy would find something to sniff while I found myself obsessively wondering about the family that lost their home. Where did the memories, hopes, and dreams that lived in this house go? Did they perish in the fire? Was anyone physically hurt or worse?
Over the last few months, I have also been visiting another house altogether. Its roof is intact with walls and pillars that stand strong, but its interior is just as hollow.
The Tennessee State Capitol is a grand, neoclassical structure that stands high atop a large hill in downtown Nashville. It houses the spaces in which laws are argued over and decided upon. The Tennessee State Legislature convenes for several weeks in this building at the beginning of the year to essentially create the rules and regulations that all Tennesseans must follow.
With a Republican supermajority, a whole slew of laws that discriminate against transgender people have been put on the table in the last year alone. This is part of a national initiative to dismantle the basic rights that trans people need to exist. Trans-affirming healthcare and gender-specific bathrooms are among the numerous issues they are tackling.
Even after children and staff of Nashville’s Covenant School were killed by an active shooter earlier this year, this governing body has not passed any laws to protect kids (or anyone really) from guns. Despite protests from thousands of people clamoring for substantive gun control laws and people getting shot every day in the United States, the only thing that is being protected is everyone’s right to bear arms.
To add more insult to this onslaught, the Republicans tried to terminate three Democrat legislators because they broke the rules and protested during the last session. Two of them were outspoken young Black representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, and as recently as last week, they silenced Jones for speaking out (and basically doing his job) during a special session. He walked out as a result, and the rest of the Democrats followed.
Some might call what they do in this house lawmaking, but when one ultra-conservative agenda is the only thing moving forward, we are dealing with authoritarianism. The Republicans have even enlisted the help of hundreds of state highway troopers to serve as security, create human barriers, and limit public access to all but one entry point into the building. (My partner and I recently waited in a long line for an even longer time in the stifling summer heat just to get into the Capitol.) The effect of this militaristic presence has been ominous and oppressive in every way.
The truth is that the TN State Legislature has been ravaged for a long time now. Power has been seized incrementally across several decades, and we are now seeing daring displays of totalitarian governance.
I will continue to protest like many frustrated and anxious people, but the way forward is not always clear. We sometimes seem to be walking around in circles, lingering about at a loss and inhaling the toxic fumes from the ruins.
Back in Hermitage, I walk Roxy along the same route when I regularly visit my Mom, and over the past few months, I have seen that ravaged house demolished and cleared out of the way.
What now stands in its place is a smaller, modern, more expensive, and lesser version of what once stood there. Its clean lines are devoid of any character, and it is literally whitewashed.
If this newly built house, standing proud in its homogenous and cookie-cutter way, is a symbol of what American society will become, then all of us who are different and do not abide by some ultra-conservative, gun-toting moral code are in for a world of hurt.
If hope exists, it is blooming in the public responses to what this legislature has been doing. Increasingly, people have been protesting at the Capitol by the thousands. A diverse coalition of angry moms, emboldened youth, immigrant organizers, Black activists, queers, trans folks, reproductive rights advocates, and so many more are unifying. They are devising short-term and long-term plans to challenge the Republican fascism and forge a different path for Tennessee.
The media and the people are taking note. Every time the GOP (the Guns Over People party) attempts to silence the Justins, the voices of those two brave young leaders get amplified across the country.
Perhaps this fight is an opportunity to start building a more compassionate future with rooms to accommodate every walk of life, skin color, belief system, and disagreement and big windows that look out into a vastly uncharted world.
The spaces we inhabit may not be fireproof, but our beliefs, tireless efforts, and dignity are.
P.S. For those of you who are curious, here is a photo of me with Roxy.
She is every bit as sweet as she looks in this photo. Despite humanity’s ongoing success at self-destruction, it is no small consolation that there are other species on the planet that are resplendent with openhearted love and kindness.
Roxy is a very good girl.
This week, I went to a longstanding fixture in the downtown city of Murfreesboro, TN. The Grumpy Bookpeddler houses over 50,000 used books and sells them at very reasonable prices. I spent some time looking through their small but surprisingly diverse art book section. I sat on the floor getting lost in all kinds of sights and scenes, and it was delightful. I asked the cashier why the place was self-described as grumpy, but he just grunted without answering my question. One clue might be a flashy business called Grumpy’s Bail Bonds that sits directly across the street, but who knows? Thankfully, I had a lovely time nonetheless.
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