By Tom Lee
It is Sunday afternoon in Crossville, Tennessee, epicenter of the World’s Longest Yard Sale, 600 miles of folding tables under $39 party tents piled with surplus household items. The yard sale lines the narrow shoulders of Route 127 across the Cumberland Plateau, a 1,400-foot-high massif from Kentucky to Alabama, bisected by deep, narrow river gorges, some of the South’s most beautiful, most isolated, and most impoverished country.
At the asphalt entrance to the Dunkin Donuts just off I-40, I pass one of those tents. The owner flies “Trump 2020” flags over “Trump 2020” signs. On the side facing the doughnut shop are two cardboard standees bearing the likeness of the president of the United States, red-necktied and thumbs pointing up. One is life-sized, the other kind of pint-sized. Standing before them is a garden statue of Kris Kringle. It is not immediately apparent the proprietor has merchandise for sale.
I wheel past POTUS and Santa and get in line for coffee. When I reach the window, the glass panel opens. Brick-red hair and personality explode through the opening.
“HOW YOU DOING?”
I’m fine, I say. Involuntarily, I smile. How’s your day?
“GREAT. SU-PERB. FAN-TAS-TIC!” She pauses, looks right at me, and lowers her voice, as if to share a confidence: “Actually, it really is fantastic.”
The moment ends as soon as it began, she turns to her work, and we exchange coffee for money. I thank her, and then I see the mark, tattooed on her arm.
It’s frivolous. I should’ve had my mind elsewhere. In the previous 24 hours, 31 of our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, had been slaughtered. Soon, the flesh and blood president, on the basis of no evidence, would proclaim that “mental illness” was responsible for the killings in El Paso and Dayton, and he would, once more, spend a day that was to have been dedicated to national healing lambasting his enemies, real and imagined.
But I’m not thinking about that now. My Dunkin Donuts server has a tattoo. And this is what it says:
Perhaps our moment has not ended after all.
For the boomer generation, my generation, high school was an exclamation point. We made “Happy Days” the No. 1 show on television in 1976-77. Filmmaker John Hughes — “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink” — reassured us of high school’s glories throughout the 1980s.
Then, in the 1990s, the forever war began. Two against Iraq, two in Afghanistan, al-Qaida, Isis, Syria, Nigeria, Yemen, the Global War on Terror, and suddenly our generation didn’t have so much to show for itself — except trauma.
The Centers for Disease Control report the suicide rate for baby boomers in 2017 was roughly 50 percent higher than the generation prior at the same age. The same is true for our children and grandchildren. Since 2006, just before the outbreak of the Great Recession, the CDC says the number of suicides has increased by about 2 percent each year.
And it could be worse. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports 47,173 suicide deaths in 2017 — but an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts. Some of these are multiple attempts by the same persons, yet, multiplied over the years, there are millions of suicide survivors among us.
We need semicolons.
My trip through Crossville wasn’t planned for this. I was en route to Knoxville for my high school class’s 40th reunion. It just turned out to be unavoidable.
The Farragut High School class of 1979 began its journey on a campus that had been patched together by the Greatest Generation. The auditorium in which we saw school plays and ate our lunches on the gently sloping floor, was a Works Progress Administration project, built in 1938. We thought it a dump, 38 dusty, dingy years old when we vacated it in 1976.
We moved across the highway to a then-gleaming new campus, 350,000 square feet under a single roof. That campus still stands, 43 years later. There is no plan to replace it.
The same could be said for us. We are no longer the shiny, suntanned senior class of our tuxedo and evening-gown senior photos. We are that ancient auditorium: heavier, sadder, worn.
Like the grounds we inherited all those decades ago, however, we are also alive and, in that, as much as teenaged glories, we marvel. Much of the talk at the reunion is of those who are not.
At the entrance to the hotel ballroom is a photo board, placed there “in memory of those who have sailed away too soon.” There are 21 names. It includes at least one suicide.
The new Farragut High principal speaks to us. He says it is a difficult time at Farragut. He was hired just the week prior, a few days before the start of school, amid a lawsuit brought by heartbroken parents, claiming the school facilitated bullying and harassment that led their son to take his life in 2017. The lawsuit claims the student’s “perceived gender and sexual orientation, and his support of LGBT rights, continued to cause [him] to be targeted and treated differently by the school administration.” Two other Farragut students committed suicide the same year.
A classmate tells me of an adult child’s attempted suicide. We speak about those we know and love who struggle with mental illness, how they are so differently treated from those who battle, say, cancer. There are no “F*ck Schizophrenia” T-shirts, no professional football players wearing brightly colored armbands to lift up the hearts of those with depression.
There are, however, tattoos of semicolons.
The semicolon is a nearly forgotten mark of English grammar; as in this sentence, it stands for the proposition that an inchoate idea is still forming, still a work in progress.
It is an excellent metaphor for much more.
“Our work is based on the foundation and belief that suicide is preventable and everyone has a role to play in preventing suicide,” reads the website of Project Semicolon. “Through raising public awareness, educating communities, and equipping every person with the right tools, we know we can save lives.”
One of those tools is the affirmation of this claim: your life isn’t over yet. It is inchoate, still forming, a work in progress. There is joy yet unknown and discovery yet unmade. Recognition of struggle need not lead to the end, but merely to the next; a semicolon, if you will, not a period.
In this context, punctuation has become both declaration and decoration. An Instagram search finds more than 400,000 semicolon tattoo images. The tattoos show on every part of the body, from fingertips to biceps, thighs to necks. Many of them are joyously colorful and ostentatious, virtual peacocks inked into skin.
Most semicolon tattoos on Instagram, however, are small and black. They’re found on forearms, subtle yet visible every time a hand is raised to mouth, a cup of coffee extended to a traveler, or, perhaps, a razor blade is considered against soft skin and blue veins. They are signs of resiliency and strength, reminders that no matter the noise in our heads, or in our society, we say individually and collectively to the gods of death: Not today.
Every society holds that murder is taboo. No one is born to kill, themselves or others.
It is sometimes learned at the hand of skilled teachers in Klan enclaves and terrorist madrassas. It occurs sometimes as collateral damage of a death-obsessed culture too fearful to embrace life. And, sometimes, the pain of disease undiagnosed or untreated is more than an individual can bear.
Monday morning, President Trump said, “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.” I was struck most by the phrase: “mental health and hatred.”
I hope the President is guilty of nothing more than awkward phrasing. The persons I know, those I love, and those with whom I work who experience mental illnesses do not hate. Yes, they fall along a wide continuum of sickness and treatment, recovery and regression. But all of us should be thoughtful about the proximity of these two concepts. Mental illness is no more inherently hateful than tuberculosis, no more inherently violent than whooping cough.
Recovery from all of this will require more than we presently offer. It will require wider accessibility to health insurance and broader acceptance by providers. It will require technology to connect underserved communities, meaning licensing regulations will have to give way to patient need. It requires freedom from stigma and acceptance of realities.
Most of all, it requires honesty, from those with something to say and those with ears to hear. It requires that we embrace a culture of life, of abundance of spirit, and of hope unbound by the marks of the past and the prejudice of the present.
It requires a voice. Or, perhaps, a sign.
As I return, then, to the highway, past the cardboard-cutout presidents and the yard sale, away from my alma mater, reeling from uncertainty and age, I realize the Class of ’79, and all of us, have been given both.
Our trip is not over. In fact, it has just begun.
And my coffee is fan-tas-tic. It really is.