The August Curse. That’s the term our friend, Sharon, uses for all the tragedies that end up interwoven with our birthday celebrations in August. Growing up, the Jerry Lewis telethon always seemed to be playing in the background of my party, and it was no surprise to hear of his passing yesterday. Of, course it would be August! My fortieth birthday was the day the levees broke in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. When my husband and I were out to lunch by our home in Houston that day, our waiter asked us if we were refugees from the storm. I didn’t think my hair looked that bad. This year, I have been preparing for my festivities by watching documentaries of Princess Diana’s death. I don’t think of it as morbid, so much as Momento Mori (also a very good wine).
Here are a few choice historical moments that occurred in August:
Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
August 1985 was the worst month ever for air disasters.
Watts riots in LA
Resignation of Richard Nixon
Berlin Wall constructed
Elvis Presley’s death
Adolf Hitler voted into power
Electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti
Vesuvius eruption destroys Pompeii
Eruption at Krakatoa
Washington, DC invaded by the British in War of 1812
First night of the Blitz
Death of Princess Diana
Sharon and I officially grandfathered in death of Mother Teresa (September 5) and 9/11 attacks because they were within the penumbra of August evil.
While I know there are many good things that happened in August, let’s face it, it’s a weird month. August is full of transition and contradiction. Half the country is back at school and half is on vacation. The weather is unpredictable and people are on edge, waiting to settle into a new routine for the coming winter. During times of instability, anything can happen.
This year, we have the tragedy in Barcelona, and of course, the demonstrations in our beloved Charlottesville and their fallout. So far. The month’s not over yet. I know we have all been reeling over the protests in Charlottesville. Our school just can’t seem to get a break in the national news. When we were visiting this summer, I was so impressed with how the staff at Monticello had taken the controversy over Jefferson and Sally Hemmings and used it to create a new tour experience that breaks open the taboos of slavery and race in our history. I pray that the University will be able to take a similar path, helping to lead the community out of this mess.
As I have learned from our history of tragedy, it’s not just the event itself that matters. It’s what happens afterwards that can have lasting – and hopefully – positive consequences. It’s not just finding something good out of a bad situation. It goes deeper than that. As Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s brother said in one of the shows I watched this month, “One of the reasons I wanted to talk now is because I think after 20 years, someone shifts from being a contemporary person to a person of history actually. And Diana deserves a place in history.” Similarly, we need this perspective on contemporary events and tragedies. We need to remember that today’s headline will become part of history and we can shape that history. We may not see positive change for twenty years but we have been given the window to achieve it.
With regard to Charlottesville, I was encouraged by our Church’s response. As Busted Halo’s Father Dave said, “The time for white people to be silent has ended.” In his statement for the UCCSB, Houston’s own Cardinal DiNardo underscored the Church’s commitment to achieving unity: “We also stand ready to work with all people of goodwill for an end to racial violence and for the building of peace in our communities.” Newark Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin eloquently stated that “Dark words and deeds must be met with light and love.” We all must remember that we are creatures of light and dark. It is time to bring the light into our own darkness. Only when we face our own evils, our own prejudices, can we begin to reject them.
We also need to remember that all this has happened in August, the month of contradictions and chaos. When asked how he came up with the title for his novel The Light in August, author William Faulkner (former writer in residence at the University of Virginia) said his inspiration was the light itself:
…in August … there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and—from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone. . .the title reminded me of that time, of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.”
I love how Faulkner links our present experience with a glimpse of the future, lit with a light from the past. Sometimes, we get a glimpse of the future, informed by our past. This August, while I acknowledge my own imperfections, I will focus on growing the light in hopes of a better future. Bad things may still happen in August but I can meet them with light and love, because moving forward to change things for the better is as important as remembering the past.
Many happy returns,