Village Life: Can water be made holy again?

By Jan Worth-Nelson

In the bleached and bleak light the morning after the Rachel Maddow show, I wake up torpid and head-achey with depression. I know the signs. When I get so down, the molten lava flowing just under that lethargy usually comes down to one hot origin: fury.

It’s a fury so intense my body, programmed from childhood toward cordiality, automatically tries to tamp it down, tries to modulate it, like a stopcock, like the thing on the stock market that shuts down panic sell-offs.

But this powerful vein of anger refuses to be pushed down.

The Flint River

The Flint River

The word running through my weary, outraged mind like grit through an hourglass, is “enormity” – that word so often misused instead of “immensity.’ Enormity does not mean simply big.

Enormity means, according to the first definition on Google, a “grave crime or sin; something of great or extreme scale, seriousness or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong.”

I say this without reserve: the enormity of the Flint water crisis is breathtaking.

As truckload after truckload of bottled water pours in; after the National Guard goes door-to-door; after Cher and Pearl Jam do their part; after Michael Moore tells it like it is to Larry O’Donnell; after thousands of parents take their kids in for lead testing; after Rachel Maddow and her crew pull up their equipment; after plumbers estimate and politicians fulminate, we still are left with one gigantic mess, and at the heart of it is a grave crime and sin.

Our governments have failed us. In betraying us with criminal arrogance, disregard and disrespect, they have committed a sin against the public trust. A sin against us, their fellow humans. They have hurt us: people trying to live in love and community. They have especially hurt our children, the greatest sin of all.

One thing that hurts, piercingly, is how the water debacle has taken over – of necessity eclipsed — every other Flint story. For decades we have been trying to tell other stories about ourselves: the stories of rejuvenation, reclamation, redemption. Stories of people living ordinary, lovely lives – not without struggle, but lives filled with determination, creativity, bravery, originality.

But this One Big Story, epic and ugly, has descended on us like a heavy tarp, smothering out oxygen and light. And we didn’t ask for it.

What torments me today is the combination of rage and helplessness. Today, I am stuck, swirling around in a blender of ire so thick I can barely breathe. I am not rich. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a politician. I’m not a big shot.

I just want to get up in the morning and live a normal life. Without checking my Facebook feed a hundred times and being outraged again and again and again as more of the stupid, unbelievable story spews out. Something worse about every half hour.   I want to forget about it, but I can’t.  And I worry every day about my friends and neighbors, my Flint brothers and sisters.

Like a friend who wants to wash her hair but fears it will drop out; like a neighbor who wants to take her kids swimming but the lifeguards can’t guarantee the pool is safe; like an old woman whose only friend is her dog and she’s not even sure her pet will be okay.

Like the parents who want to let their kids play in a warm bath, like teachers who want to open the taps for a cool drink at recess, like nurses who want to offer chipped ice to a mother in labor.

Like a backyard gardener who’s looking forward to spring, but can’t be sure her watering won’t poison the sprouts.

Like a pastor gentling holy water over a baby’s sweet forehead.

Can the water be made holy once again? Damn it all.

There will need to be rituals for this.

This might be the time to reread Robert Heinlein’s 1961 best-selling sci-fi classic Stranger in a Strange Land. In it, a displaced earthling raised on Mars, the innocent Valentine Michael Smith, suddenly finds himself back on Earth. He is a stranger to it  Among other things, he is blown away by the unbelievable abundance of water.

For him, from a planet with almost none, water is holy, one of the holiest things of all. One of his multiple ecstasies occurs when he first experiences the incredible immersion of a swimming pool. For Heinlein’s interplanetary immigrant, sharing water with another is a sacrament, approached with awe and reverence.

I think we need a water ceremony.

With all the work that lies ahead, we will need to be healed.

I trust tomorrow the “ferocity” that Rachel Maddow sensed in her Flint audience will course through my veins again like clean, clear water through new pipes, and I’ll get up and get going again, like everybody else. I hear we’re all good at that. We’ll get back to telling our other stories, and as we grapple with the One Big Story we’ve been handed, maybe we will start to breathe again and find our way.

But for me, not quite yet.

Dylan Thomas wrote, “For all there is to give, I offer: crumbs, barn and halter.” That’s how I feel today. My contribution is only my words. And I give them now: we have been sinned against, and the road back will be hard and long. I am furious. For today I’m stuck there, paralyzed with rage.

Jan Worth-Nelson is the editor of East Village Magazine.  She can be reached at

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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