In the Church of Saint Francis — Igreja de São Francisco — in Porto, Portugal, believers once dropped coins into alms boxes, whispered prayers, and hoped that someone was listening. These painted wooden boxes are now nailed to a wall in the catacombs of the church with a helpful explanatory sign. The English translation says, “Alms-Box: Where anonymously, the requester, puts in Money, the promise done in anguish time.”
The Portuguese phrase “hora de angústia” could have been inconspicuously translated as “hour of anguish” or “time of anguish,” but unexpected translations often take on the crooked aptness of poetry. “In anguish time,” we make promises and prayers, offer what we can, and hope for salvation.
My recent trip to Europe was a time of both delight and anguish. I had never been to Paris, and my first sight of the gargoyles and flying buttresses of Notre Dame made me giddy. Arline and I ate tarts as beautiful as jewelry, paid homage to Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust at their graves, and stilled our breath in the Musée de l’Orangerie, where Monet’s water lilies float on blue ponds.
But the day I took a photo of the inscription “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” on the Palace of Justice in Paris, police in Baton Rouge killed Alton Sterling. A day later, police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, killed Philando Castile. Arline and I rode the elevator up the Eiffel Tower, returned to our rented apartment, and scrolled through anguished Facebook posts and online newspapers.
The nauseating tango of joy and horror continued. We were listening to pennywhistles and bagpipes at the World Celtic Music Festival in northwest Spain when the man drove a truck through the celebrating crowd in Nice, killing and injuring hundreds. I avoid watching violent news video, but there it was on a television screen in the tavern where we ate the next day. I forced myself to focus on the table, letting the incomprehensible voices of the newscasters wash over me.
In a theater the next night, listening to beautiful music — concertina, saxophone, bagpipes, and flutes — the tears came. How can we humans build both stunning cathedrals and systemically racist institutions? How can we practice both musical scales and terrorist attacks? How can we live with ourselves?
I remind myself that the cathedrals were the products of oppressive systems. Upstairs from the alms boxes, the interior of the Church of Saint Francis is stunning for its Baroque ornamentation. In the 18th century, elaborate, gold-plated carvings of flowers, leaves, and animals were added to the Gothic structure. The surfaces are so intricate and so blindingly rich in color that they’re hard to take in. The gold came, of course, from Portugal’s colony, Brazil, and much of the labor that produced the gold came from enslaved Africans, but little of this story appeared in the brochure the clerk handed us as we paid our euros to enter. Throughout our European travels, Arline and I frequently found ourselves supplementing brochures and plaques with asides to each other. In the Army Museum in Paris, for example, a map depicting political boundaries at the onset of World War I claimed that, at this point in time, Africa had not been explored. By whom, we said to each other.
It seems to me that if we don’t translate the official narratives into more accurate ones, into stories that fully account for the terrors and exploitations of history, we are doomed to perpetuate them. The murders of Sterling, Castile, and the people of Nice are horrific in and of themselves, but they are representative of thousands more similar deaths. Even as we cradle in our hearts the names of the dead, we have to see the patterns, the systems, and the structures that enable such suffering. We have to challenge the narratives.
Writing is my alms box, and it’s what I turn to “in anguish time.” So this is the promise and prayer that I make: to tell a fuller story. This is my coin, its small rattle in the wooden box.