Stop Whistling and Start Singing

Whistling past the graveyard. 

That phrase has been running through my mind all week long like it’s on a neverending loop. 

Whistling past the graveyard. 

Whistling past the graveyard. 

Whistling past the graveyard.

Frankly that’s how most of these essays get started. Some little thing — a memory, an image, a notion, a saying — will pop into my mind. It will then proceed to rattle around like dried seeds in a hollow gourd, noisy and clattery. It will keep coming back over and over and over until I write it down. Until I give it a space to exist outside of my head. Until I shake out all the seeds and leave my brain hollow again.

Whistling past the graveyard.

Whistling past the graveyard.

Whistling past the graveyard. 

It’s been a rough week, y’all, on so so so many levels. No two ways about it. Global pandemic. Coronavirus cases on the rise. Senseless killing. Police violence. Riots. Cities on fire.

And it’s been a rough month. And it’s been a rough year. And it’s not getting any better.

Whistling past the graveyard. 

Whistling past the graveyard.

Whistling past the graveyard.

I tried to get these words out of my mind because I wanted to write something happy and sappy and uplifting because that’s what I need right now. I don’t like to be preachy. I leave the sermonizing to the professionals. And it’s just not my place to get all up on my soapbox about certain things. Plus, I have a real problem with privileged white people who get all out on social media pontificating and explaining and admonishing folks about whatever the injustice du jour is but never taking any solid action in the real world. 

(For the record, if you’re talking the talk and walking the walk, I’m not talking about you. And yes, I absolutely realize the hypocrisy of the talk I’m about to talk compared to the walk I think I walk and the walk I probably walk. But if I speak it, I’m bound by my personal ethics to do it the best way I can.)

Whistling past the graveyard. 

Whistling past the graveyard.

Whistling past the graveyard.

The words just wouldn’t go away. And no new words came to crowd them out. So here I am fixing to do the very thing that I don’t feel like it’s my place to do or I have a right to do because I have a platform to do it, because I have the privilege to do it.

And because it’s time we stopped whistling past the graveyard.

You know I love me some Southern idioms. I’ve written about hundreds of them over the last few years (find those essays here). This one in particular seems appropriate for this awful time.

Whistling past the graveyard can mean that you are trying to remain cheerful in a time of sorrow or distress. Nothing wrong with that. Put on a happy face. Keep those spirits up. Let a smile be your umbrella and all that jazz. 

But it can also mean that you are entering some circumstance willfully oblivious to the dire consequences that may follow. Willfully oblivious. You don’t know what may happen as a result of your actions, and worse, you don’t care.

Friends, we are, and have been, whistling past the graveyard in ways that I can’t comprehend, that I can’t understand, and that scare me to the very core of my being. Here’s what I mean in no particular order except the one that my mind randomly put them in.

If you refuse to do something as easy as wear a mask in public for the protection of others, you are whistling past the graveyard where your friends and family will soon be buried.

If you can’t stay home and limit your activities for the greater good, you are whistling past the graveyard where your friends and family will soon be buried and where a tombstone may be waiting for your name to be carved on the face of it too.

If you can’t trust science, scientific organizations, and true data over memes, tweets, and tirades, you are whistling past the graveyard where your common sense lies rotting in a hole.

If you can’t see the suffering of black and brown people and your own big and small, intentional and unintentional contributions to it, you are whistling past the graveyard where their tears have fallen.

If you can’t try to understand the rage caused by hundreds of years of inequality, disenfranchisement, discrimination, and dehumanization, you are whistling past the graveyard where your forefathers probably whistled and where your children and grandchildren will whistle as well.

And if you spend more time focusing on the loss of property, wealth, or privilege than on the loss of dignity and life, you are whistling past the graveyard where the bodies will keep piling up.

So what should you do?

Listen when you’re asked to make a small sacrifice that will help exponentially more people than you will be inconvenienced. And think about how it’s not all about you and your rights and what makes you happy or unhappy, especially when you’re taking away the rights of others around you to move about safely and with less worry. Think about the larger implications of your actions and not your immediate gratification. Think about the example you will set for your children and your community of how to be a responsible, unselfish citizen.

Listen when science and facts and data prove a reality you might not like. Think hard — really hard — with an open, rational mind about the sources you trust and don’t trust. What makes them credible? How long have they been established? Are they just reinforcing what you want to believe? Challenge yourself to think about what you truly believe, and not what the preacher or your mama or that TV pundit tells you to believe.

Listen when it is uncomfortable and awkward. Listen when you don’t want to. Listen when you don’t like what you’re hearing. And think long and hard about what makes you have these feelings before you open your mouth to argue or put down or discredit or discount. Then keep your mouth shut and listen some more.

Listen when people tell you they are hurting — physically and emotionally. Listen when they say they are scared — scared of COVID-19, scared of the police, scared of prejudice, scared for their family members to leave the house, scared of you. Listen when they say their breath has been taken away — literally and figuratively. And think what you’ve done to cause that hurt and what you can do to stop it.

Listen when black and brown people describe their lived experiences. And think before you try to rationalize or justify or identify. In fact, don’t try to rationalize or justify or identify. This is the time to examine your own life and your actions and how you have perpetrated bias and discrimination. This is the time to understand that you will never truly understand unless you are a black or brown person. This is the time to just listen with empathy and compassion and an open heart. 

What else can you do?

Sing the praises of the mask wearers, the social distancers, the brave protesters, the frontline workers, the first responders, the government officials trying to make the hard, unpopular decisions for the greater good.

Sing out when your privilege gives you a voice where other voices are quieted — or not present at all. Raise up a chorus of voices in every color when you can. And teach the tone deaf that they can sing a different song and make a joyful noise as well. 

Sing with your vote. Don’t hum a rebel’s song at home or on social media where few people will hear it. Bellow it out from the mountain top and at the ballot box because, as the song goes, change is gonna come. 

And if you don’t realize that our world will never, ever be the same again post-coronavirus, post-pandemic, post-George and Brionna and Ahmaud and Freddie and Alton and Philando and Tamir and Michael and … and … and … so many names they can’t all be listed, well, you’re just whistling past the graveyard.

It’s time to stop whistling, friends, and start listening. Only then can we join together and sing. 

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Joanne says:

    Powerful!! Well done.

  2. Sheila Zito says:

    Thank you, I am in total agreement. So much needs to be said and you’ve done a very good job with this essay. Wish I could share. Stay safe.

    1. Feel free to share it if you want to! Thank you. And you stay safe too.

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