Wednesday, November 2, 2016

this dam is coming out

Two years later. I am having a hard time re-entering the stream. 


I want to share all the things I share here, even with only myself. I want to be able to look back easily and know where the carrots were last winter, where I should avoid putting the tomatoes. The garden turns me on, tunes me in. I use words and pictures to help me focus, clarify, attune. In this way I notch my bow, and shoot myself a little deeper into life. 

So I a few weeks ago I gave myself the gift of a whole roll to shoot in the garden during a sweet little patch of autumn evening when it was still warm enough to be barefoot. At Blue Moon, I had them scan the negatives - which I never do - so that I could put them up here and make some notes. 

Now, I look at these photographs and am aware of the effort represented: I strive to show what is here - color and shape, vibrancy and decay; to honor the plants and their relationships; to stay present and release my grasping. I also see what is not pictured: everything else.


This just happened, and this is happening. Also, this bullshit.

I can feel that a pool of innocence that I have swum in, drunk from, as long as I have lived in this body is drying up. There is a sinking sensation. A hollowness. Certain sounds are louder. One of them is the sucking sound of my need for comfort.

That this innocence was preserved - invented? - by a styrofoam wall of Whiteness is very real to me. As a parent, I am increasingly alert to the partnership of privilege and protection. My privilege helps me protect my children's bodies. It also tempts me to protect their hearts and minds from the truth of how rigged the system is. How connected our cozy comfort is to someone else's late night worry and fear. 


On Friday, Zelda stayed home from school with a funny tummy. I needed to work in the middle of the day; Jeff was able to be home with her while I taught. This is privilege. But it doesn't hurt anyone. What hurts is the lie that we are not responsible for the children whose parents cannot - because history, because sociology, because economic policy - provide such protection. The quick little lie that says that those kids can handle it. That they are especially able to deal, to toughen up. That somehow the darkness of their skin indicates a resilience to more than the light of the sun. 



While she was home, I sat down in tears to write to the White House about Standing Rock. She drew a plank house with a totem pole in front. "Mama, at my school, we study history. So I know about how the Native Americans lived in Portland first. They lived in a house like this." She showed me where the food stores go, under the floor planks.  I explained about the reservation system, how it arose from a failed genocide by people of European descent who wanted to settle the Americas without limitation, without concern for the people who lived here first, or for the land or animals whom they wished to defend. It takes longer to explain this to an eight year old, and I used different words. But it is not hard. It is not over her head. She often finishes my sentences. We've been talking about this with increasing depth for years. As someone who is losing her own innocence, who loves the woods and her family, who is pained by unfairness and cruelty, she relates easily to the Native people she imagines in the past, to the story of their innocence, manipulated and crushed by force, temptation, and trauma.




I am wary of this simple story. The same brush that paints aboriginal peoples as inherently more virtuous and innocent than whites also paints them as inherently lazier, less advanced, more able to tolerate the expedient degradation of their humanity. 

We talk about the reservations as sovereign nations. Small, poor nations. I explained that, in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, it is not convenient for the US government to respect or defend the rights of the Sioux nation. It is convenient for the US government to let the oil company do whatever it wants. As it is convenient for us, as citizens of a large, rich country, to fill our car with gas on the corner of MLK and Killingsworth, and to heat our home with natural gas that costs less than $30 a month. And so the citizens of the Sioux nation - with the support and solidarity of native nations around the country - are defending their own rights. They are defending the rights that the US Government agreed on paper they would have.  

We talk about how history often looks more like the present than we imagine. 


In bed in the evening weeks ago, Zelda asked if any of our ancestors came from Spain. 
When I said no, I didn't think so, she crowed with delight and relief. 
"Why does that make you happy?" I asked, baffled. 
"Because our ancestors weren't the really bad ones hurting the Native Americans."  
"Did someone tell you that the Spanish were especially violent colonialists?"
"Uh, what?"
"Do you think that the Europeans from Spain treated the Natives they met very badly?"
"Yeah, and we're not from there!"
"But our ancestors are from Europe. And they did all come to America, didn't they?"
"Yeah." Sigh. "And they probably did take stuff from the people who lived here first."
"Yes, all European people who came this continent took something from the Native people, I think. Some people did it knowingly, and some because they felt they had no choice. A lot of people I'm sure told themselves that the Native people weren't using it, or that they didn't deserve it as much as the Europeans. Sadly, too, a lot of the people who came here - a lot of our ancestors - came because they didn't think they could get what they wanted or needed in the place where they came from."
"I know," she says, with resignation and sadness in her voice, "they came here and took stuff from people who had less power than them. Instead of staying there and taking it from people who had more."


And I have to admit it is true: getting power from people who have it is a very hard thing to do. Finding ways to keep the power you have? Easy. So easy it is possible to do it and barely notice. At this point, it is taking me some very real work to notice the ways I defend the power I have inherited. 

One of the manifestations of my power is the right to feel good about how I got it. This is a condition of my comfort. It was a condition of my parents' comfort, and my teachers'. The things that are sold to us are mostly sold by appealing to our great need to be protected from the understanding of how we came to have the power, the choices, and the comfort that we have. 


What does this have to do with the garden? Why are these thoughts the ones that circle as I yank tomato roots, shedding shining green spheres across the black earth?


Well, there's these couches, which is what some of my neighbors are growing. There's the tacit approval I feel from other New Portlanders when they see my garden: I am using the landdeveloping my investment, just like my white settler ancestors. There's the Heifer International catalog sitting open at my elbow, taunting me with what really living from the land is like. There's the very small woman with the giant smile who collects our recycling to get the deposit money, and who came into the garden the other day to have a look at the bunnies. (I was maybe just excited to say the word Coñejo?) We had a broken conversation in Spanish about what rabbits eat, and how they make babies. She said that rabbits in Guatemala also eat sunflower leaves, broadleaf weeds, and carrot tops. 

I was reminded of travel conversations I have had with women in India, in Peru, in Mexico, in rural Idaho, in Rome. We hold up objects, use what words we have, make gestures: How do you cook it? Where does it grow? Tall, on a vine? Can you eat the whole thing? Can I help? Yes, yes, (vigorous nodding) we have something like this at home!

These conversations are important. As a woman in my garden, I feel connected to these other women. We cook, birth babies, collect eggs, and wish desperately that world were a safer, kinder place for the people we love. 
These conversations are also easier to have than ones about why my kids are safer than theirs, or how we still eat, even when there's a cold snap and all the pea blossoms freeze and drop.

Talking about the bunnies, I was embarrassed to admit that we are not keeping them to eat.  


Would I feel less embarrassed if things were less nice for me? If the plants grew less beautifully? If our family needed their nourishment more, and so I grew in a more practical way, shared less with the birds and the bees? If I had less time to put my face to the Earth, to watch her unfold each tender finger and take back the life I have helped bring forth?

Am I seriously turning my neglected garden blog into a place to wade in White Debt? Is that the alternative to a pristine lake of self-regard surrounded by a styrofoam wall? 

These questions come up, but they are just the flailing of a girl whose lake of ignorance is hardly deep enough to swim in anymore. 


Writing to Mr Obama, I explained to Z, was one of the Things We Can Do. We can make phone callswrite letters, and give money to the water protectors. So much is not up to us. Doing these things can help us feel less impotent. They can help us stand in our power and align our actions with our beliefs. And we hope that they help. We hope the people there feel our support; we hope the US government feels our disapproval. Most of all, we hope to reach across the distance, across the divide of our shared past and our divided present. 

So we keep talking about it. The way we have come to live together in this country is a garden of discomfort and sadness and truth that we tend. All month. All year. 


Not out of guilt.

In debt, yes, but not in the effort to pay it off. 

I tend a garden of truth just as I tend this sweet little piece of land. Cluelessly, haphazardly, with passion. I don't know how to do it, but it is mine to do. I do it in service, because I have to. The birds and squirrels visit, the soil grows darker, softer under my probing fingers. I see the plants lean into each other, and I briefly remember that this is not a place, separate from other places. And it is certainly not mine. 

I stand in the path and hold a fist of dry oregano branches and cry. If I thought this garden was going to prove that I am good, I was wrong. If I thought I could justify my place here, even a bit, with apple trees and kale? Wrong. If I thought I could hide here in the lettuce and live just in farmer's market Portland, not racist Portland? Wrong. 

I like to think it is the plants themselves reminding me. They whisper words in languages I do not speak. But that is no reason not to listen. 

These photographs do not carry their spirits. These are about me. The great waves of sadness I feel about the degradation of the environment, the death of our oceans, the ongoing atrocities of white supremacy, and the heartbreak of our great human separation from the flow of life - is probably just nostalgia for samsara. Cuz yeah, that shit is so sad. And the part where I think my life should be good? happy? protected? safe? 

If I think those states are mine to have, it is because I have believed the lies that protected my innocence - and produced my ignorance. I have trusted the wall more than the river. 

Bit by bit, this dam is coming out.




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