On Empathy

Holy God there is nothing more immediate (to me, right now) than Ocean Vuong’s writing. His essay, Beginnings: New York in The Adroit Journal is an empathic epic. Weaving his collegiate origin story as aspiring poet, homeless New Yorker, and retrofitted nurse for a friend’s Lithuanian grandmother, Vuong’s essay is everything you need to know about propitiating humanity in the age of all of us.

He closed his eyes and sang. If velvet cigarettes had a sound, that was it. It was “At Last” by Etta James. Sage started to shift his feet and I could tell his bones knew this familiar work as he gyrated and two-stepped, his fingers quickening into a snapping to the beat. “Man! How he gonna do me like this? This song gonna kill me tonight. It’s the saddest song in the world,” he shouted, his face wet with sweat. I nodded, smiling. People were already gathering, mostly other residents, but there were some stragglers of the night who were waiting for the final trains, standing with their last beers, a pizza or a pretzel in their hands. I saw the other homeless men and women begin to cheer up as they gathered and lay down around the song. Their limbs started to move and gesticulate as they warmed up to one another. As if through the song’s familiar landscape, they were able to see each other as human begins again. The whole scene had the effect of tremendous warmth and crushing sadness. I suddenly started to think of my mother, how, after my father was in prison, she and I would stand in the long lines outside churches to receive a loaf of bread and dented cans of soup. How we warmed ourselves by making up a song and dancing as the line moved along the snowy parking lot. I was suddenly stricken with a overpowering urge to weep. I wanted to weep fully and hard. But I didn’t. I was actually too tired to do so. I didn’t have the energy or even the cathartic motivation to cry. I just focused on busying my lips with the song, letting the words find their way in as I chewed those bittersweet lyrics with Sage beside me. “At last…. At last, my love has come along…”

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© Raul Rafael Alvarez