Great Trees and Small Things

“When great trees fall in forests, small things recoil into silence, their senses eroded beyond fear.” Maya Angelou

I’m not going to pretend I was really invested in everything going on in the world over the last two weeks. Mostly, I was trying to ignore it. I was cracking jokes about how it was so difficult to tell who was who on group chats now that everyone had turned into the French flag. I was rolling my eyes at any mention of our “racist media culture” and the fact that people actually thought we could cover every tragedy going on in the world in a five-minute news clip. I thought the people railing against the media were hypocrites at worst and easily offended at best. I was scrolling through last week’s columns, pointing at every one not about Paris or Beirut or Yale to convince myself I didn’t have to write about bombings or racism this week. I had a plan of attack for every possible conversation, how to deflect every mention of protest and death, and even if I thought I was saving myself from thinking too hard, I realize now that I was walking around with my fists clenched and my jaw so tense I would have imploded if I didn’t explode first.

On Monday, a friend from high school called me up to ask if I was still alive after the bomb threat, to which I replied, I was. Then she said the world was going to shit, and I agreed. Anything else, even a good-bye, after that statement would have felt disrespectful, so we stayed silent for a minute and hung up.

On Tuesday, I saw Joann Sfar’s comic about praying for Paris for the first time and spent most of the day wondering if it was enough to be about life. I thought it was too forgiving. I thought it was too simple. I thought it didn’t have a point. I had lunch with a friend to talk about a short story I’d written for class, and she told me to cut my darlings, so I spent that afternoon eliminating every pretty phrase in the manuscript that was there just to be pretty, and I was surprised by how much it hurt. What was the point of hearing a police siren like a song if it didn’t reflect trauma/enhance the plotline/provide characterization/make the reader want to keep reading/match the aesthetic? Why isn’t it enough to just be?

On Wednesday, someone tweeted that they were going to shoot every black woman and man at Kean University, a college ten minutes away from the town I grew up in. I once went to chamber music summer camp at Kean and overheard an older boy describe the viola as an emotional instrument. I was trying to picture the perfect caricature white supremacist on that campus, but all I could remember was that summer, my foot slipping bare on the sidewalk, Schubert surrounding my mental, and the stupid poetry in my head convincing me that every tree I passed by had the possibility of being sassafras.

On Thursday, black tape clung to portraits of tenured black faculty at Harvard Law School, and for the first time in weeks, maybe months, I let the ground below me quiver.


I made a list of topics I could write about this week that did not involve terrorism, race, militarism, loss, or anything else remotely related to last week’s events. I let it all flutter to the floor.

I tried to write this week’s column with an opinion embedded in it. But each point I tried on sounded too final, too insignificant. It left me wondering why opinions could be so easy to have and yet mean so little.

I was wondering how my little opinion in my little column could even attempt to address loss, either the global type that leaves you numb or the personal kind that makes you weak. Because when you write an article, when you write anything, you need a beginning, middle, and end. You need a point. You need to find a way to interlock your fingers in your readers’ fingers. You need to let them feel until the very last period.

But there is no story to loss. There is no plotline, no climax, no structure. It never ends. Its baggage is relentless. A bystander, by definition, never understands, and even so, only baby portions of what is really felt get transmitted to the reader. Maybe expressing your feelings is the single most inefficient thing you can possibly do with your life.

Maybe language will never be sufficient. Maybe there’s only a finite amount of poetry in the world. Maybe what I’m really doing, by writing this column, by being so easy to stun into silence, by taking so long to take in the world, is copping out.

But, today, maybe I am writing for people who stutter. Maybe I am writing for the French boy who told his father that the bad people have guns, and maybe I am writing for the father who responded “but we have flowers.” Maybe this is for Sudanese migrants, maybe for funerals in Baghdad. Or maybe this is for a girl watching the Yard through the glass of her window, dreaming of home. Maybe this is for not wanting to write because the things you should write about are spelled out, splayed lazily, spilled like a smile in front of you, and maybe they are still too big to swallow. Maybe if you strip down these sentences and eliminate every pit-stain of style, every rhythmic lilt, every pretty word, you’ll see nothing but space. I wish there was time to let tragedy settle into bones. I wish there was enough time to watch anger melt. I wish I had an opinion sharp enough to break skin. But maybe it’s okay to be reduced to silence, to be ineloquent. Maybe this hesitation is what it means to feel.

Christina Qiu ’19, lives in Matthews Hall. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.


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