Following Up (and Down and All Around)

Today, I read a lot of Endgame by Derrick Jensen.  If you recall from my mention in a previous post, it’s about taking down civilization to build up a liveable world.  Among lots of other things.

It took me awhile to buy it, after I wrote that post about Justice and Heat and Beauty and that book and gay marriage and trees and all… Not because I had to go far; I got it at Word Up.  Not because it’s expensive– the two volumes together were only $6.  Because… I was waiting.  Because it is scary, and because it is large, and also, in some other way that I don’t know how to articulate, because I was just waiting.

There’s a lot in this book, and some of it I am absolutely, hands down sure is true.  And some of it I am not.  But so far there is nothing in it that I am absolutely, hands down sure is false.  I can say that much.  And I’m not actually writing this post to go on and on about this book– not yet, anyway.

But I wanted to follow up.  Because everything I wrote before about the trees and their stripped off bark and their beauty is true, but it can’t be the end of the story.  The end of the story can’t be, I look at the injured trees and they are still beautiful.  That’s a great middle.  But it would be an end that takes me out of relationship with the trees, or makes the relationship only something symbolic and about my psyche.

Of course relating to trees is totally symbolic and about my psyche (she phrases this way so as not to invoke psychic, not to go too far so that you’re picturing the thoughts of trees flowing into her brain, even though that kind of is exactly what she means, if we just had a word better, larger, more precise than “thoughts”).  But it is also about my body and my breath (most especially my breath), my fingers and my feet and my head and my lungs, and the bark of the tree and the roots of the tree and the leaves of the tree.  If it becomes only about the idea of me thinking about the idea of a tree, the relationship is a fantasy– and no longer, I think, the kind the helps.

What I mean to say is that today I looked up what to do when bark has been stripped off trees.  I learned that probably these trees will survive.  I learned that stripped bark on a tree is very, very much like open skin on a person.  So it helps to clean it.  It also helps to trim back raggedy bits of bark around the wound, and to bind up any strips of bark that remain with the tree so it can heal itself.  But right today, I didn’t have tree trimming equipment and I didn’t have bark binding equipment– but I had water and soap and a sponge.

I took it all down to the trees and I cleaned all around the wounds as best I can.  It was surprisingly scary.  I felt like someone was going to ask what I was doing, or that whoever is hurting the trees  would pop up and… stop me?  Attack the trees?  Attack me?

I also felt much more keenly aware, in my fingers and my whole body, of the trees as alive.  It made my sadness and anger at their mistreatment stronger, different.  And I also felt, finally, that I was giving something real to a tree, which maybe I had never done before, not in this physical way.  That part felt good.

I’m trying to stay in touch.  I’m trying to open to and understand the relationships I have with the different lives all around me– and, also, remember that it’s not all about me.  It’s not all about how I see things or what I feel about a tree, it’s also about what that tree needs and if I can provide it.

Remember that saying, the personal is political?  The corporeal is spiritual, too, the spiritual is corporeal.  What is in our souls is not separated and floating, detached from our bodies, but pervades our bodies and is pervaded by them.  I believe.

So there I was, washing the trees, hoping it would do some good, and concurrently (in the general trajectory of my life) feeling more and more suspicious of much of the trappings of Christianity and even, sometimes, maybe, just kinda, or a lot,  suspicious of its heart– and in my head is this song:

Jesus took a towel and he girded himself, and he washed my feet, yes he washed my feet.  Jesus took a basin and he knelt himself down, and he washed, yes he washed my feet.

I ask the trees for their blessing when I go by them each day, and I try to give mine.  But now the stakes are changing.  Now I know that the stakes are grounded in my body, and the bodies of the trees.

So mysterious, I don’t even know what to say.  But I wanted to say something.

This isn’t much of an end, either.  Good, maybe.


Justice, Heat, and Beauty- A Week in Review

Yesterday, I was getting a ride home from my boss, and we heard on the radio some kind of recap/discussion of the rape accusations made by Nafissatou Diallo against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  My boss turned off the radio and spoke about how confusing the case was, how at first he had believed Diallo and now he thought she might have seduced Strauss-Kahn.

I had not been following the case in detail, so I just listened.  Then my boss said, “Sometimes, I don’t know about justice.”

I let out a breath, in a sort of laugh-sigh-surprised noise.

“I sure don’t,” I said.  “I sure don’t know about justice either.”

This past week has been brain-meltingly hot.  The kind of heat during which I walk seven blocks and want to collapse, during which I  hole up in the bedroom where there’s an air conditioner, eating and sleeping and spending all my time in one compressed space.  But I can still feel the heat, coming in at the skin and radiating through me.

I feel so creaturely in the heat.  The parameters of my comfort and my survival narrow.  This window I mostly live in, where my focus is not primarily on my bodily needs, is so easily made to close in on me.

In my Upper Elementary School class, which consists of rising 5th and 6th graders, we move at a break-neck pace: 20 vocabulary words per day, one book per week.  Last week’s book was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.  I felt like I needed to do something to supplement the book and teach the Holocaust.  I asked them what they knew.

They knew about Hilter.  They knew about Jews being killed.  They’d heard of some of the other groups singled out.  Homosexuals got a brief titter.  They nodded at figures like six million, twelve million, but seemed strangely unimpressed by what the Danish had done in rescuing nearly all of the more-than 7,000 Danish Jews.  Then, a supplemental reading mentioned the death camps, and I realized that the numbers were just numbers, because of what they didn’t know.

“What are death camps?”

I tried to explain.  They wondered aloud why, if you found yourself in one of these camps, you wouldn’t just defy your captors, simply to hurry death.  They thought a little more and concluded that it is not easy to die.  I told them that some people survived and were still living today.

This shocked them.  They had thought World War Two was maybe 100, 200, even 300 years ago.

The living and the dead were thick in the room, but there was so little time.  I showed them a video talking about one shoe taken off one child who went into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. (  A man showed us the back of the shoe, which had been carefully stitched and repaired by some adult hands.  He described what had happened to this little boy as he approached the gas chamber, how the people had been told to tie their shoes together so they could get them again.

“Oh,” one of my students gasped as they showed a staircase leading into the gas chamber, “They actually filmed it?”

I did not tell him his error, because in that one moment he seemed to understand what he was seeing.  The class ended right after the video, and on its horrors I was mostly silent.  Feeling like Virgil in the Inferno, like the Ghost of Christmas Future.  Look and see, look and see.

On one of the hottest days this week, having been shut up in my room for great swaths of distorted time, I decided to take a short walk.   I walked to the small park near my apartment building.  I approached one of the huge trees, feeling drawn.  After a moment of self-consciousness, I put my chest and my cheek up close against its bark.  I stood against the tree, close, silent.

Have you ever hugged a big tree like that?  Put yourself up against it?  I feel the life of that tree in those times, how big it is, how small I am.  How I move and move and flash by quickly, while it might stand and stand and stand.  It is a good feeling all through me.  Slows me down.

On the way home, newly attentive to trees, I noticed the thin, young trees that line my street.  Someone had stripped a big chunk of bark off of one of these trees.  Over the next few days, I saw this on at least four.  It has to be deliberate.  I can’t imagine why.  I put my hands on the trees and wish my hands were bark to cover them again, to heal them.

In the midst of this week, I worked a shift at Word Up, and began reading Endgame by Derrick Jensen. (  Jensen is a radical environmentalist who describes the society and culture and world we live in in terms so poetic and resonant that my secret suspicions, long harbored and often not quite voiced, come out to meet him, murmuring, “yes, I know.”  He thinks that the whole world around us is incredibly real and beautiful and holy.  He also thinks that civilization will, if not destroyed itself, destroy all people, plants, animals, and the planet we all live on.  It is quite something, to go from an articulation of destructiveness that I do see all around me, to this position about civilization itself, as a whole, being irredeemable.  That is so frightening I do not want to ignore it, but so extreme I do not want to swallow it too easily.

I thought about the word sustainable, so popular a term these days.  Then I thought about its opposite, what the word “unsustainable” actually means.  It hadn’t occurred to me before.  I imagined, briefly, where I would be, if New York City ceased to function.  If the faucet gave no water and the food stopped coming and the order broke down.

I thought about that person, standing there and telling the other people on the way to the gas chambers, “Tie your shoes together.  You’ll want to find your own shoes again.”  This person knew, of course, that they were sending the others to their deaths.  What did it feel like to say this?

Today I walked home, touching the trees, putting my hand on their bare places.

On Sunday, Charlotte and I went down to City Hall to watch some of the first same-sex couples get married in this state.  ( There was a small crowd of cheering, happy people.  Everyone waited for couples to emerge.  For the first time, in this public, governmental place, people were erring on the side of queerness.  That is, if you were a City Hall employee, wandering out with your same-gender buddy for lunch in the sweltering heat, you were liable to get cheered and applauded as new spouses.

It was way more dazzlingly great than I anticipated.  Being “other” as a bisexual woman in a lesbian relationship is something I’ve thought about, written about, but I didn’t realize, until it happened, what it would mean to me to be in a place, a public, open, official place, and know that the people around were more likely to misread Charlotte and me as “married” than as “friends.”

There was one protesting man standing on the sidelines, in a T-shirt that said “Jesus Saves Us From Hell.”  There were marvelously polyvalent clergy with golden stoles and headpieces and accessories.  On their stoles I caught glimpses of crosses, Stars of David, other signs I couldn’t quite make out.  There were two African-American men playing the violin and the cello, playing the wedding march, again and again.

And the people stepped out, old and young and middle aged, in dresses and suits and shorts and skirts and jeans.  They were many colors, many sizes.  Some came surrounded by family and some just two by two.  They looked surprised, stepping out into this receiving line of strangers.  Getting approval just for being as they were, something that so often garners the opposite.

I thought about the end of the world, and the terrors of the world, and how very, very close evil lies.  How entwined it is with the good.  I can make my friend a meal with all the love in my heart, to nourish and support a person I love, and perhaps that food was harvested by someone practically living as a slave.  Perhaps that food came from an animal that had lived an abused and stunted life.  And yet, the food is there.  The love is there.  It nourishes.

All life from death, all death from life, and yet we are not by this exempted from responsibility.

So quickly we move through this world.  So hard to know where to place our trust.  So dangerous to be silent, to be paralyzed by fear, not to choose.  So many trees and animals and people that will suffer–whatever we do–that go today, in suffering, to death.

And yet when it rains after days of heat, I turn my face up and rejoice.  I put my hands on the stripped bark of the trees, the small trees I could not press my chest against.  And when I see the green of the leaves at the top of these trees, I love the green that I see.  And when Charlotte curls against me, I do not have to wait for the man in the shirt about hell to take off his shirt and smile.

I sure don’t know about justice.  And it may be the world is burning like my brain has been burning.  There is a famine in Somalia, violence again in Darfur, people shot in Norway, people shot here.  And I feel my fingers tremble– fine motor skills have never been my forte, and it seems these repairs need such delicacy and strength.

I sure don’t know about justice.  But I know I walk in beauty.  Despite it all, because of it all.  Now I walk in fucking beauty.