The other day, I was walking around my neighborhood and saw an elephant. Behind the gate on the southwest side of Druid Hill Park, there he was: tall as a tree and walking. Slowly. Too slow. I slowed.
I hadn’t seen an elephant through the gate in years. Not since the early days of COVID when I was unemployed and walking, daily, the perimeter of the zoo. He was alone. And ashy. His back was covered in what I assume is the same stuff clouding my hands when they’re dry. Except his ash coat was brown like dirt. He was with no one. Not another elephant nor a person. And even though we were in the middle of Baltimore City, this is what I thought was weird: neither of his ears was flapping.
It reminded me that, as a child, my “special fact” was that I could wiggle my ears. (I forgot I could do that). Knowing how specific a muscle that is to control, I’ve always been so excited to see elephants at the zoo. Because they were always flapping their ears. But not this one. It was a Monday in the middle of the winter during the first week of the year and there were no flies to swat.
I didn’t grip the gate. I didn’t yell his name, Elephant elephant! I didn’t walk to the entrance and demand that he, like every safari creature in Baltimore City, be let go, and especially because it was the middle of winter on a Monday during the first week of the year. I just stood there and watched him. Deep in thought. Walking the perimeter of his pen with the slow gait of The Mondays. What was he thinking about? What was he feeling?
From an early age, I’ve distrusted my feelings. Partially because I was a baby jock who learned somewhere between the 400m and 800m dash that there was no feeling that couldn’t be warded off, or at least largely medicated, by a ramped up heart rate. And when I wasn’t running, my feelings felt like wet socks. They tasted like ear wax. I’d spit one out and it would be too loud, too harsh, too mean, no one could hear me.
Then I tried not spitting at all. I held my feelings in. I held a pen. (Much like one holds a sword). I slashed the page. I wrote all night like some people cry. I wrote myself to sleep. I wrote it all down. And I mean literally: since the age of 8, I’ve kept a journal of every year, every season of my life. That’s why I know it was in the 5th grade that I discovered violence.
I was at a new school. After having spent two years at Johnnycake Elementary School and enduring what can only be described as incessant jealousy from all the other kids– no, my hair was not permed straight; Yes, I could and would do long division with ease– I begged my mom to enroll me somewhere, anywhere else.
My desperation to leave Johnnycake was two fold: 1.) Because I could no longer sell my oven-baked hand-beaded jewelry sets with the likes of my co-owner and then-”best friend” Angie without having to accept the fact that she was largely unserious though perpetually taking ownership for my business plans and 2.) Because I had been homeschooled until I was spontaneously enrolled in elementary school and thought perhaps my mom, having seen me suffer for two whole years, would do the right thing and put me out of my misery and send me back to my room to study.
Both things happened, but not in the way that I planned. The first of which came to a head at my 4th grade birthday party. Angie and I were scootering around our neighborhood. And, as we went down a steep hill, I fell off my scooter. The metal heel hit the top of my foot. Clank! All I saw was white bone. Then slowly, blood began to cover the hole and pour out. I cried. Angie looked at me, frightened, and scootered back to my house where the rest of my birthday party was happening.
I laid there on the sidewalk crying and bleeding and crying and bleeding. Minutes passed. Then half an hour. And no one came. I looked around. No one was coming.
I hobbled back to my house. I saw first my parents chattering away and then, their shock at the state of my body, and next, I saw Angie, nonchalantly, smugly even, eating a hotdog covered in mustard. She didn’t tell you I fell? I cried. No, no, no, we had no idea, They cooed.
So my mother put me out of my misery. She enrolled me in the closest private school to our house. And 5 months in, one afternoon, somebody said something about my momma. And I discovered violence.
Kai was one of two Black boys in our class. We were in the middle of a lesson when I noticed something smelled funny. I looked down and saw Kai’s shoes were off. Your feet stink! I exclaimed. To which, he said, Just like yo momma! And, if it weren’t for my meticulous journaling, I would have thought I reacted impassionately and hit him of my own accord. But last year, while parsing through my 5th grade year, I found that instead of retaliating, I did what any good natured 10-year-old would– I tattled. Then asked, Can I hit him? Ms. Dixon, our teacher, a 54-year-old fast-talking white woman who was aggressively Team Jalynn, said nothing–she did not shake her head no, she did not pull me aside, she simply, wordlessly looked at me with eyes that said, What are you gonna do about it? So I made a choice: I backhanded him.
Ahhhhhh and it felt good! From there on I decided that I was a fighter. I would never back down. I would never be bullied from the front of the bus by a kid who yelled–cowardly– from the back of the bus about how horrendously ugly and undone my hair was. Yeah, and you smell like rats in a basket of urine! I’d yell. To which he would say, Yo momma! And we all know how that ends.
For the last 3 years, I’ve lived 400 meters from the elephants in the nation’s third-oldest zoo. Almost thrice weekly I walk the entire perimeter of the zoo, while talking to myself, always out loud, about the many anxieties rattling me. This past summer, on a walk, I had an epiphany: I want to stop fighting.
I wish I could tell you why. I suspect it has something to do with the strange cross section between movement and catharsis. Or perhaps it’s the sobriety of living alone for the first time ever. Or perhaps it was because I realized, suddenly and all at once, just how tired I am. Tired of not totally trusting my feelings. Tired of fighting all the while winning nothing; protected from nothing. So, I thought, instead of fighting, I should just, feel?
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my highly spiritual grandparents is that if you see an animal, trust it’s medicine. Here, enters the elephant. She can’t run. She’s too big. She’s 16,000 pounds and 13 feet high. She’s shy and curious. Her skin is rough and ornate like rings on a tree. She’s the oldest living matriarch who communicates in subsonic rumbles lower than that which a human can hear.
And, despite her heft, there is no feeling, no pain, no longing that is too big for her to feel. Too big to be contained by the Earth. In fact, her sensitive feet have a inch-thick shock absorber that allows her to bear her own weight for long periods of time.
I am the elephant. Or at least, I intend to heed her medicine. There is no need to fight, when I can just trust; feel.