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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It is Michael You Mourn For (Or, the Man in the Mirror)

When I was in high school my English teacher Mr. Tattu made us do something that I hadn't done since third grade: memorize a poem. I was indignant. "Why should I have to do something so hopelessly old-fashioned?" I fumed. Still, being heavily vested in my identity as a Good Girl and a Good Student (at least at that point in my life), I did it. The poem was Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child". It goes:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I have never forgotten this poem, especially since, as time has passed, I've come to truly understand its meaning. This is a poem about a child's innate understanding of her own mortality. Someday, sooner or later, we will all be gone. This poem kept playing in my head during the last few days as I reflected on the death of Michael Jackson. On the day that he died, I was traveling west to a conference and had been ensconced in a plane for several hours. I had passed the time doing something that I rarely do on such trips: conversing with the passengers next to me. It's not that I'm antisocial. It's just that, mostly, I've found that the average business traveler (and that's who I often run into on my itineraries) seems to have no interest in conversing with me. Maybe I don't seem…adequately business-like. Yes, we'll call it that. As I've remarked to some friends, there has been a remarkable upsurge in the desire of fellow business travelers to converse with me over the last year or so. When I think about it, it seems to coincide with Barack Obama getting the presidential nomination. Really. I think I have Barack (or maybe Michelle) to thank for making me more acceptable as a traveling companion. Anyway, as we touched down for the landing in Seattle my seat mate was showing me his Blackberry and its amazing bells and whistles. He turned it on as we reached the ground. I read the screen: Michael Jackson dead. I frowned and started to tear up, catching my breath sharply. My seat mate, puzzled, looked at the screen to see what had caused my reaction. "Oh, is Jackson dead? Wow, that'll be a big deal for a while.

A big deal indeed. I saw my whole life, and especially my childhood, pass before my eyes. Suddenly I was back in primary school listening to a Jackson Five song for the first time—somebody had brought it in to play during free time, as we were permitted to do. The class froze. "Who is that?!!" we shouted. Even we little kids knew that we had just heard something special. It was as if the unbounded joy and unmet longing of childhood came together in a heartbeat. Very quickly, the Jackson 5 consumed our and the public imagination. Michael, especially. We dreamed of meeting him. All the more we dreamed of it because we were from Los Angeles. Star sightings were common enough. My mother once worked in an upscale department store where she waited on Diana Ross. We actually knew people who had met Michael Jackson. Michael sightings and interactions became the highest-valued social currency of our childhood. A girl across the street from me named Juliet got a puppy from Michael Jackson because her grandmother, a maid for a Really Famous Person, had met him. A girl from my neighborhood named Venus got to go on the Dating Game with him. Yes, we had only a few degrees of separation from Michael Jackson. He was, to us, like a much better off, distant relative. Maybe none of us could be him. But we could see him; he was always there, somewhere.

As we grew up he was still there, but somehow far larger than life by then. We read tabloids, we heard the stories. Michael was…different. Maybe. But Michael was ours. He was like a cousin that you used to hang out with but then there came a day that you really didn't hang anymore but you still loved and admired him because he was great. And he was…yours.

So, if it seems strange to people that I am mourning Michael Jackson the International Pop Star, so be it. That's only a small part of who he was.