Pictures of Devastation


To me, the word is Moonscape. It is a sanitary color of manilla or yellow. It is sterile. It is a phone call from a woman who will be making three phone calls soon after mine. It is a broken light bulb laying near a trash bag. It is a pile of laundry to be washed. It is a Monday afternoon.

I see these things: the can of paint, marketed as Moonscape, the trash to be taken to the curb, the chores, and to me- they are all the word devastation. They are all simply a mirage of the sound they make as they pass through my lips and form the moment I was told that I would not be having my baby, that I was miscarrying at eleven weeks. To me, they are the scene that illustrates the word “devastation”.
The word is weighted. It is concrete wrapped around ankles. It is chaos and helplessness. It is not only the loss of hope but it is the reminder that hope once existed at all. Truly only something in existence can be destroyed, desolated, ruined, or, as it is, devastated.

It has been two weeks today since I learned of the loss of my potential joy. I have learned as I age that a week can be two eyes blinking or a week can be a coma. Through the past fourteen days I have felt anxiety, confusion, anger, profound sadness and a supposed reluctant acceptance. More importantly, though, I have had an opportunity to gain perspective through the people with whom I am fortunate to meet on a daily basis.

Working in Milwaukee now, I think of the potential joy the community here looked to back in December. Their president, Barack Obama, granted them eight hundred million dollars to build a high-speed railroad. Their baby, this project, was already growing. They were building rail cars at a neighborhood factory. They were applying for jobs. They were planning for progress. It was happening, and they awaited the birth of this redeeming new life to their community with cautious excitement.

They had reason for caution; caution being another word with illustrative connotation. Caution is a word like recycle, a word like devastation, all with loaded meaning. Recycled people in Milwaukee worked in recycled factories for decades. The building on Milwaukee’s 27th and Townsend tells a story of workers welding the under-carriage of nearly every American passenger car. As the auto industry suffered, workers learned to stop welding and to start manufacturing carburetors for yet another company. Recycled workers. Recycled factory. New employer.

It is the case everywhere. Milwaukee was not unique in suffering the pandemic devastating recycling of resources, both in people and in funds. They went to work as they did before and when their new company closed they waited at home for the next company to come along. It did. Talgo came to Milwaukee. Hope, another word worth a thousand images, was restored when people rushed to build the cars that would ride the state’s new high-speed railroad.

Just before Christmas, however, the people of Milwaukee were devastated when they learned their expected joy, their future’s hopeful promise, would not come to fruition. The man entitled to their care, Governor Scott Walker, sent their railroad away and with it he sent not only the latest version of a good manufacturing job but also the hope of extending life in the city of Milwaukee. He aborted the railroad project supposedly for fear of maintenance in the years to come, or for some perverted political ideology. In the end, recycled people do not care the reason. They sadly, angrily, accept the loss and wait for the next hopeful outcome to come along.

In Milwaukee there are not too many of those hopeful outcomes. With 50% of the people in many neighborhoods unemployed it is impossible for residents to see past the visual devastation around them. Crime grows. Opportunity plummets. Elitism screams and the working people grow deaf to promise. The picture of white picket fences becomes one of bars across windows. The picture of opportunity becomes a meer reminder of opportunity lost.

I see my definition of the word devastation within the city of Milwaukee. A job is not a baby, not a life with little hands and perfect eyes. I know this and yet I see and feel the same loss on a daily basis. Devastation here is cracked kitchen tiles and fists into half-painted plasterboard walls. It is not neighbors fighting but rather the silence left behind them as they too flee drought. It is not when one longs for the future but rather devastation is when one remembers the past’s hope, the past’s longing for more.

Devastation is the salting of earth: the realization that tomorrow will not reap the seeds planted so desperately by yesterday’s laborer. Devastation is vacant castles guarded by empty moats of wilted lawn. Devastation is having touched, even held, the idea and then suddenly finding it just beyond reach.

I reach my hand out and close my eyes to touch a baby’s hand and instead I touch Moonscape, some crap color I was painting with, some crap color a guy designed to make rooms look subtle. In Milwaukee they open their eyes to see desolation and dreams gone by. The color is the same. It is the color of hope lost. It is the color of unfulfilled promise.

Devastation is the color of a future that longed to be. Whether it is the loss of a potential life or the loss of 15,000 potential jobs, Milwaukee and I share the grief of dreams not realized. Our devastation paints differently and yet it dries the same, as the color of something that might have been.

To me the word is moonscape. To Milwaukee the word is jobs. We wait and hope with trepidation that our chance will come again.

SARA MANN is a community organizer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.



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