Venice, Italy

Letter to America: The Ground We Walk On

By Laurie Rachkus Uttich

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Good will triumph over evil. I am tired of this old familiar yearning.

 
The mayor of Venice tweets, “Venice is on its knees,” and the water rises while the island sinks and a woman wakes to bake bread and a guest moves up a floor in a hotel. Years ago, I walked those streets and ran my fingers over the stones, climbed into a gondola with my husband on a warm night with a full moon. I slept in a room with red velvet curtains that smelled like the sea. The city was alive with all the reasons many cultured people dislike Venice: the tourists, the trinkets, the $20 glass of house wine, the graffiti, the walls crumbling at the corners. But I will never be considered cultured and I loved Venice. I thought of her as an elderly aunt who slides a pressed hankie into her pocketbook and touches up her lipstick before walking into Walmart. The house is deteriorating and the neighborhood along with it, but that’s no reason to take the plastic cover off the davenport. 

I grew up near farmlands, ran through fields of soybeans, played tag over abandoned coal mines my grandfathers may have once worked in. The sky was often gray, the winters and summers harsh. At school in the ‘80s, we sat next to kids whose parents were losing their farms. I heard the word “foreclosure” for the first time. A stench of helplessness filled our small town. At church, we often prayed for it to start—or stop—raining. Corn grew to the sky and was then chopped at its ankles. The cycle repeated itself. Or didn’t. You couldn’t trust the ground you walked on.

Even in town, nature did not know its place. Snow pressed down on roofs and ceilings sank. Tornadoes ripped up trees and threw them into windows. Basements flooded. Foundations cracked. Heat waves broke out like rashes. It seems as if I’ve always known the earth is indifferent to us and will seek to reclaim what rests above it… and yet I’m always surprised when it does.

 

Today, I water the plants that sit on my deck under a Florida sun and I think of Venice, the city on top of a sea who is widening its jaws. A few miles away from my home, a sinkhole swallowed a house whole. How long before Florida slides into the sea? A shopkeeper pulls on boots in Venice and sweeps water out of a door. We install solar panels on our house that sits on a swamp. The sky may not be falling, but the sea is stretching out to meet it. We are more than a little to blame and we beat our hands on walls built by greed. We are hoarse and cannot even convince some we love. The stench of helplessness is stronger now. I struggle not to choke on it.

It’s too much to bear to sit in the sunlight and consider all that will be lost, all that we fight to save even as a bulldozer flattens a nearby field which was considered conservation land just last year. And yet, I cannot stop thinking of water and how it waits to swallow the ground beneath our children’s feet. So much has been lost to me in recent years, both of my parents, the childhoods of my sons, the shaky belief that America will take much too long, yes, but it will eventually try to do the right thing. Good will triumph over evil. I am tired of this old familiar yearning.

But there is this: recently, I read Martín Espada’s poem “The Sign in My Father’s Hands” to the men I write with at a maximum security prison. I told them the poet said Injustice thrives in the abstract and we lifted terms like “illegal alien” and “thug” and “crackhead” to our lips and thought about how they tasted, who seasoned them, and who’s fattened by them. We made a list of abstracts and rage and sadness and fear flooded the floor. Then I asked someone to pick an abstract we could use as a prompt. Marco smiled and said, “Joy.”

The men nodded and we bent our heads as if in prayer and we lifted our pens and we filled page after page. I think about that today and, for a moment, Venice stands up from its knees and hope rushes in like the sea.

 

 

Laurie Rachkus UttichLaurie Rachkus Uttich’s prose and poetry have been published in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Missouri Review (Poem of the Week), Poets and Writers, Rattle, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and others. She teaches at the University of Central Florida and leads creative writing workshops at a maximum-security correctional center for men in Orlando.

Header photo by David Mark, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Laurie Rachkus Uttich by Alpana Aras, Storybox Art.

 

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