They stopped speaking Spanish with her. Insisting on English or nothing by ignoring her “hola!” No one in produce smiles back at her now. Her enchiladas suizas order got very hot, which she loved–and she knows that it wasn’t the intended effect. Her favorite raspberry danishes disappeared, the ones she raved about in the review. Everyone has taken a side, and no one is standing where she stands. This is one of the costs of speaking up in an everyday authoritarian culture.
She loves the little town up the road. Except for very similar experiences with a few businesses, this little town is not like the other little town. There is money here, and resources for those who qualify. And, in California, laws protect the most vulnerable from the most egregious of power-stealing “professional” practices.
But this town is fed by the white men and women who live up the street; her neighbors. The ones who decide it’s okay to kill hedgerows and down redwoods and cut grasses to soil and slowly prune away all the shrubs, for aesthetics and sales. Who approve of destroying the homes, shelter, safety, and food of the other animals who live there. All the lives of those who live in the little town depend on the rich, mostly white folks: her neighbors, who profit from a slogan and an idea that they no longer embody.
They have forgotten the foxes and the owls and the crows and the bees.
All those tree guys and “landscapers” and contractors with cash in their pockets can feed their families, pay their bills, maybe get something extra, take a day off. Their whole lives are in her neighbors’ hands; whatever they say, goes. The customer is always right. Just cut until they tell you to stop. They shut down any connection to the one making the noise, making waves about lost worlds and other animals. They all say, “We have nothing to do with her. See? Nothing. She does not exist. We’ve shown you who has our loyalty.”
And everyone forgets the deer and the quail and the raccoons, and the bobcats.
And everyone says, “She’s crazy! What’s wrong with her! The trees will grow back someday! The grasses will grow back eventually! We’re just pruning so it grows bigger! It’s all for fire safety because California’s burning up! We’ll show her what really matters: JOBS, MONEY, FEEDING OUR FAMILIES, NOT MAKING WAVES, NOT CHALLENGING, NOT QUESTIONING. GETTING ALONG. NO DISSENT.”
And everyone forgets the rabbits and the bats and the big birds and the monarch butterflies.
In this work, I’ve learned that if I don’t define my own “I,” others will project theirs onto me, erasing me and reproducing the projection of their own fears and needs and desires. I know myself now—no others’ projections will annihilate my “I.”
In this work, I’ve learned that my forward momentum is mine—I own it. I’ve learned that when someone fucks with my ability to move forward, they fuck with my entire life. I’ve learned that when those humans steal my power to progress, they are liable. I’ve learned how to hold them accountable.
In this work, I’ve learned that those who say, “this is just how life is–it’s tough out there, get used to it!”—are full of shit. It doesn’t have to be this hard. People who don’t want to change (or know they never can) want us to believe life’s just rough—”always has been, always will be.” Their ugly view doesn’t have to be mine, doesn’t have to be anyone’s perspective who knows they can choose to orient differently.
In this work, I’ve learned to stand proudly in my naïveté. They tell me–in their condescending responses to my alarm, my objections, the evidence—that I’m just not experienced enough to recognize that they know what they’re doing. That’s bullshit: I’m experienced in ways they simply cannot understand. Their years creating the same damage doesn’t make them less naïve; it has made them blindly and dangerously destructive.
In this work, I’ve learned that some of them search for a personal or professional “flaw” that will silence my voice. Bullshit: No one has to be a saint to advocate for what’s right. Only those with the most to hide do it behind the defense of their own “sainthood.”
In this work, I’ve learned that those who console with non-unique claims–with hugs from the idea that “the carnage is everywhere, so it doesn’t really matter what you do, you may has well hang it up”—are also full of shit: their disconnect orients them to ease me into the same disconnect. The mess is massive, and we need to keep working to clean it up. We cannot afford fatalism.
She wakes, crying. Yesterday’s images won’t leave her mind: the laughing men with roaring chainsaws telling her to calm down; the world-shattering grind of chippers; all those newly gutted spaces where trunks and branches and leaves and roots—other beings’ worlds–used to stand. In this ghost town of a development, run by an outsized homeowner’s association, just one woman continues making all the decisions, to decimate an ethic, while destroying the homes of all the other beings here except the human beings.
It never stops—there are crews constantly cutting, slashing, slicing, chopping, breaking every single day, all over Sea Ranch. Shelter, homes, other beings’ infrastructure—now sticks and cut trunks and piles of chips. The human architecture—its surrounding “garden” freshly shorn— awaits the few human visitors it’ll see all year. Some humans stop in for a few days; others stay longer; just a few others live here year-round. The ghosts in the Sea Ranch ghost town — the “owners” who work with rental agencies to sell vacation spaces — use this fragile part of the California coast as an investment strategy. But they can’t see whose worlds they destroy because the approving woman silently stands between them and the obscenity of lost worlds.
She lies in bed, eyes closed, while the countless rabbits she’s seen huddling under gutted trees won’t leave her mind, because she knows she’ll see them again today. The quail scattering to find shelter and yelling for days, trying to find each other past the sheep’s electric fences and “weed” whackers. All the new bucks in the neighborhood, looking for food, hiding under shrubs because the trees are just standing trunks now. The big birds, looking for the missing big perches. The monarch butterflies, who should live in the Monarch Glen behind her house, disappearing because they can no longer overwinter in the cypresses next to the Glen. The Monterey Cypresses have been gutted by an angry “owner” next door who didn’t want to mow and “clean up” anymore. A wind tunnel hole lives there now.
There’s a scene in the movie, Lone Plains Drifter, where men with whips surround an unarmed man in the middle of a rural town. It’s nighttime, and all the townspeople are in their homes, silently looking out their windows. As they watch, the surrounded man is slowly whipped to death. No one comes out of their houses. No one yells, “stop!” No one tries to divert attention. No one does anything to help.
You know that imagination is as important as rationality, and you know that your imagination died decades ago.
You know that emotions are at least half as important as breathing, and you know you do not have access to or facility with half of who you are.
You understand that your lack of imagination and inability with your own emotions puts you at a significant disadvantage in navigating a rapidly changing and evolving world. You know that there are millions of humans whose whole lives are in front of them, millions who are fully present–in imagination, in emotion, in possibilities—and they terrify you.
You grasp for the pills and the treatments and the infrastructure sold to you by AMAC–to keep your unhealthy, dying body going. You believe their narratives telling you you’re entitled to every single bit of what you “earned” in a lifetime of “self-made” success. You believe the stories about deserving a second chapter, to be a “new” you who is entitled to construct fresh layers of resource-consuming life choices. The tales are nourished by those who are dependent on your resources. And you thrive on their need.
You know that the starved and shriveled half of yourself—where imagination and emotion live–is the half connected to new experience, to the actual, to the body, to the earth—to joy and self-knowledge and pain and hope. It is the half that makes the other half meaningful. You know that your quarterly earnings statement only gives you a sense of fragile security, but no love or light or humanity.
You know that everything you lack is everything that makes it possible for humans to evolve, to become more than their little self-interests. You know that the universe detests stoicism and the empty place where imagination should reside.
You know you drive the slow-moving vehicle of your life sitting backwards, gripping the steering wheel with white hands while fearfully staring out the rear window, throwing molotov cocktails of misinformation and old, poisonous ideas out your passenger side window at those shouting at you to pay attention to the road, and running down anyone and anything in the way of your slow-motion destruction.
(Except you’re not really going slow, are you? You’ve hooked yourself on to a fast-moving vehicle of destruction driven by a madman bent on stealing everyone’s power, including every living thing on the planet. And now, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t get yourself off of there. And there’s nowhere for you to go anyway, right, even if you could be convinced to stop enabling and empowering the madman. You know you’re toast if you have to justify what you’ve allowed to happen, so you just enjoy the ride, ignoring the screams of those writhing in pain under the indifferent treads of your hot tires.)
The idea was to plant and grow better people. She knew they could change, the people here. She’d seen it first-hand. A phrase dropped here or a word placed there; an idea left lingering after an interaction. And then she would come back and hear the word or phrase used by someone who’d found it there and the whole world lit up. She could see how to get in, how to be useful. She imagined what they might be able to do with an idea or two, radically different than what they’d experienced their whole lives. Ideas that could lift human beings out of toxic actualities.
Top-down, power-scarce systems and processes isolate human beings. Education is limited and curriculum controlled by authorities. Information is also limited, often outdated, and recirculated like stale air conditioning air. Internet access is scarce, and the only company in town shuts its tower down on Sundays. Television content is served up only by Sinclair. Nothing—what they know, how they know it—is in their control. And that’s normal. It’s the way things have always been done here.
Enforcement of top-down power traumatizes human beings. Punishment styles range in severity, but each punishment or threat relies on re-triggering the cause of the trauma: isolated helplessness in the face of overwhelming power. Enforcement threats often paralyze adults who, as children, lived in families where all the power was the father’s to use as he pleased, to punish. Childhood punishment serves to enforce authoritarian power when its trauma is re-triggered. Authoritarianism functionally recycles the trauma it creates to force human beings into compliance with top-down structures and processes. And tyrants.
“Why don’t they just stand up, speak up, take care of themselves? Why can’t they just resist? Why don’t they see how cruel their leader is? Why don’t they see he’s betrayed them? Why can’t they change their minds? They’re adults—why can’t they act like them?”
“Hi! So, what’s the messaging for tonight? Will we reference Roger Goodell’s decision to force the players stand? Will we show the people of color here that the dems have their back? I’m so ready to lend my voice!”
She’s excited. The GP dem chair texted her with info about a big anti-hate rally. Said she could stop by the dems HQ to meet others, then head over. After the militia meeting in the park and the white supremacist posters all over town the last month, we’d finally say something, loud, so that the people who are targets in this county know we’re not passively standing by. That we have their backs. That we will stand and say so publicly. Her body and spirit cannot bear another day of silence.
She walks alongside the woman from HQ, whose pace forces her to jog intermittently.
“I don’t know!” the rapidly walking woman responds. She’s smiling, eyes forward.
“Okay! So, do we have an overall theme? A focus, maybe? The Goodell decision connects to all the stuff in town.”
“I don’t know!” The HQ woman repeats, and she just keeps smiling and walking. Very fast. This time she also offers a shoulder shrug.
We’re coming up to the stairs of the city hall building. There are 30-35 other people here. That many people could really make some noise, get some attention, if they wanted to. Such a good turnout for this place. (A protest a few years earlier drew militia members, who stood around the 7 or 8 protestors, intimidating them into silence.) Her heart starts to rev up. The HQ woman veers off to meet up with some other folks.
She stands in front of the protestors at the second rally of her life (her first was last month in CJ). Little groups are gathered on the landing in front of the building, loosely forming a semi-circle around a man passing out flyers to them. She walks up to the man, who seems to be in charge.
“Hi! I’m Sarah! Brian texted me to join you. I’m so glad we’re all here! Can I ask what the messaging will be tonight? How we’ll do this?”
He’s probably late 60s early 70s, maybe more years. She notices now that they all have some years. Lots of white hair. That’s cool. She also notices it’s only white people. That’s par, and not so cool, but we’re in Josephine county. Whatever. She’s ready to stand alongside anyone who will publicly object to the blatant white supremacist politics inflicted on the NFL players who kneel in honor of dead black men, women, and children who have been murdered by white badge-carrying men and women.
“What do you mean” he replies. Not really a question, adding that “oh here comes the kid” tone. The “slow it down missy” tone. The “she’s just overwrought” tone. The “she’s been watching too much cable tv news” tone. She’s heard it literally thousands of times since moving here.
She smiles, trying to connect with him. She looks around at the others. “I thought we might reference Goodell, you know, and show the people of color here what the Dems and Josephine county Indivisible is all about. Maybe we could stand on the corner where all the cars are driving by. We could raise our fists, shout our support for the players, shout our support for people of color, for free speech.” She looks back at the man, hopefully, waiting.
He doesn’t respond to her. He looks at her as if she’s speaking another language, one he doesn’t understand. His face looks like it hurts his head to listen to her. He turns and starts handing flyers out again.
She notices now that they’re all just kind of looking at her, all the people with the years. As if she’s from another planet.
Her rage rises. The months and months of silence she’s been forced to endure. The disconfirmation. The wall of NO she slams into on a daily basis. She doesn’t really give a fuck what they think of her at this point. It really just does not matter.
“Isn’t this an anti-hate rally? Rallies are where people raise their voices and bear witness. Let’s raise our voices. Let’s speak truth to power, even if power isn’t listening. Because it’s good for us. Because it empowers us. Even here. Especially here! We need to raise our voices to show support to the people of color in this community. We need to join hands with them, empower them, show them we’re here. If we don’t speak up, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves as white people and Dems and Indivisible people. It’s our job to speak up!”
They look at her. They say nothing. The man passing the flyers stops a second to squint at her again, then walks with his bag of flyers to another group, away from her.
“Come on! We have a responsibility as white people in this community. We have a responsibility to speak up and support those who are targets in this community. The posters. The militia barbeque last week. We need to say something. That’s what the good guys do. That’s what Dems do. That’s what we’re about. That’s who we are!”
“Why, so we can be like them?” The woman’s disdain hits her between the eyes.
“What?” She looks around. They just stare.
“Who?” She asks no one in particular. Stares.
She’s confused. It’s like they can’t hear her words. They feel her urgency, know she’s frustrated, but it’s like they can’t see her or hear what she’s saying. Like being in a dream when you can’t run.
It is slow. As she expresses her outrage, her shame at being a white person like these people who won’t stand up for what’s right, the loose circle of groups begin creeping backwards. Like the whole loose circle is moving in the opposite direction. They are looking at her and backing up, very slowly.
She realizes they think she is mentally ill.
Nick, Jack’s brother, knocks softly several times, hears his brother’s voice, then opens the door to the garage. She stands behind Nick, reading the warning messages childishly scrawled on the closed door. The opening door reveals a scene that has existed since she moved to her new property; this is a condition she has lived next to for months, without knowing it.
She can’t take in all the detail. It hits her in the face, the hard cold dark concrete reality. Buckets full of urine, foamy on top, line the walls. Garbage everywhere, some in weirdly neat configurations. Partially eaten food. Lots of soda cans and cups. Feces. An illuminated lamp on a small side table otherwise covered in cups and napkins and wrappers. (No drugs; Jack’s disease is mental illness, not addiction.)
Jack slowly, almost inexplicably, unfolds; he stands up, his tall thin frame rising and emerging from behind a big open umbrella lying on the concrete. He’s created a little private spot where it appears he spends most of his time. He is wearing badly ripped fishnet stockings and ancient high-heeled strappy flip-flops. A filthy short denim skirt hangs under a tee-shirt almost as long. In this hard hypermasculinist place.
Jack is skin and bones, literally a walking skeleton. Nick tells her that Jack has started walking into traffic again on the highway. The roar of trucks blasts her from the side, about 25 feet to her right, as she meets Jack for the first time.
During their short conversation, Jack keeps his head tilted down while his long curly hair covers his face. (Nick quietly left the room as soon as he opened the door. He is walking in a square now, around and around a large manhole cover, next to the highway. He will do this for the next 2 hours. Sometimes he heads to the market in town, where he stands in front, smiling and flapping and singing like a small bird for the shoppers going in and out. This is new behavior, just having freshly arrived in the last month.)
Jack twitches, jerks, peeks through his long curls a couple of times—eyes quickly darting up at her, then back down at the floor. Jack is present, Nick is mostly not, and they are living in circumstances she’s only read about, hideous circumstances. And there is no help for them in this place. None.
These are her new neighbors. Turning away is impossible.
The gold went first. That warm light. It took months to recognize it for what it was. Surprisingly, the sudden shift to cold LED white isn’t really evident to the eye. Seeing is in the reflection, though; off the slant, if you will. Thousands of blown out shots. A monochromatic gray-green backdrop in the valley. Lightened blue eyes from shooting straight into the sun. Color that fades in weeks. This is not a basking sun. It is a force that demands respect, without question. It is the authority. Submission is the only appropriate response. Nothing democratic here.
An overwhelming sea of whiteness. Of white people. Visceral, immediate, consuming. Something to be endured. Drowning in white people. No eye contact from anyone not white. Difference must be passing-careful or withdraw entirely to feel safe or trusted. To embody a full range of expression. To have any chance at a lasting sense of well-being. To have the choice to feel fully human. Whiteness is the authority. Submission is the only appropriate response. Nothing democratic here.
Power is scarce. Steal for it, lie for it, cheat for it; debate, fight, kill. No collaboration. Nothing student-centered or client-centered or customer-centered or patient-centered. No power-sharers. No old people sharing power with young people. No one practicing with power. No. No. No. An enduring wall of no. This is not a place for the soft, the sensitive, the young. There is no place in a power scarce culture for vulnerability, for the grey areas, for uncertainty. They eat their young. Power is the authority. Compliance is the only appropriate response. Nothing democratic here.
I screamed for ten minutes. Standing in the middle of my little house in the trees. I couldn’t stop. My rage and sorrow and shock took aim. All the NRA mfs who’d met for a fund-raising dinner a few weeks before yesterday’s carnage. I screamed at them. All the scared silent white people here, who wouldn’t stand with me to bear witness. Who wouldn’t raise their voices to let the NRA mfs know that we are watching while they dine and plan. To let them know that we know who they are as their gun shops arm an unstable nation. I screamed at them. I screamed until my throat hurt. I screamed until I couldn’t breathe. I screamed so they would hear me. So they would know that I know them.
On October 2nd, 2017, I woke like the rest of the nation to the news that a white man in Las Vegas had shot and killed more than 50 people at a concert. And, in that moment, the people responsible—the people with blood dripping from their hands–were all around me.
Before moving to my new little house in the trees, I used to live in a place that used to be known for murder. Crime, poverty, gangs. Guns everywhere. The people I knew did what they could to keep the gun manufacturers’ deadly products out of their neighborhood, out of their city, their state. Votes for gun control, for background checks–to outlaw obscenely unnecessary firepower–was their way to protect themselves and their families. I understand, now, how they represent one side of a deadly tug-of-war.
The people in this world–so far away from any I knew–vote to keep their guns. There is little crime where I lived, but the poverty is like nothing I’d ever lived in. (And the isolation. Oh, the isolation.) I heard some of my neighbors, across the valley, shooting. I heard them, across the street, shooting. They shoot for fun. Because they’re bored. For something to do. To feel a little power in a place where they have none. For my neighbors there, guns are toys, a way to pass the time. These are not the army of angry armed white supremacists conjured in overheated imaginations and fed by propagandists. These are the vulnerable people they silence. These are the people in the middle.
There are others, though, whose guns are anything but toys. The ones whose high-powered, rapid-fire weapons and small explosives aim to kill, but mostly succeed in silencing those around them. The ones who believe a race war is coming, because everything in their world tells them it’s the truth. They believe the people who think they’re smarter, more educated, more powerful—the gun control people—will try to take their guns, leaving them defenseless against all the black and brown people. They prepare for an army of angry armed black and brown militants conjured in overheated imaginations and fed by propagandists. I understand, now, that this is the other side of the deadly tug-of-war.
It’s April 2017, and I’m beginning to dig out from under the 30-year storm damage that buried Bello, Sparkles, and me for months: the massive, drought-impacted, snow-covered tree that fell on our new house, putting a hole in the roof that wouldn’t be repaired for months because there was no one to fix it; the bounce that landed the tree on my new SUV, destroying the passenger side and putting a hole in the windshield that wouldn’t be repaired for more than a month because no tow truck company would come to Kerby; the grave I dug for Bello, my love, who was killed early on a Sunday morning on his way to find the duckpond across the icy two-lane highway; the blood pressure in stroke territory and the male nurse at the local health clinic screaming that I’ll probably get an embolism, that the clinic can’t be liable if I die, that I need to go; the eight months without an internet connection at home and none nearby that wasn’t in a place polluted with rebel flags in the parking lot and/or Fox News on the tube inside; the isolation. Like bootcamp for humbling life lessons.
I live a life where the very basics are often threatened—my health, shelter, and transportation; my heart, my mind, my identity, all up for grabs here. Living this way makes it nearly impossible to think or see beyond the most important thing that has to be done this day, a task that will hopefully keep some essential part of my life from just falling apart. (I magnet a note to my fridge: “Keep calm, take care of Sparkles, and take good notes.” That and “no problem, I’ll do it myself” become personal mantras.) I begin to understand that my privilege is not portable; the thousands in the bank, my education, my plans, and my intellect–my old sources of power–will not save me here.
I learn how to adapt. I’m hacking all the time: using what’s available as a tool for my purposes, even though my purposes may not be its. Stopping mid-task, mid-goal; assessing, seeing the direction won’t work, and taking a new approach. Constantly shifting everything in response always new, “no one is going to believe this,” wtf situations.
Daily, hearing, seeing, feeling their rejection of my existence–their (justified) hate for the Californian; experiencing the marginalization, the social isolation, but not holding it; noting it, letting it go, moving past it, and leaving it there. Losing my battle to hold onto my familiar sense of self, and, finally, letting her go.
Seeing the connection to all marginalization, to all those ignored humans; living with the pain and invisibility all outsiders feel, all us bottom-of-the-culture dwellers just trying to get through the day alive and sane. Whole.
Being solo, I open to all the ways the universe is trying to talk to me. I begin believing the universe has got my back, that events I keep calling “lucky” or “coincidences” are a pattern. I feel this first among the trees.
I begin trusting my emotions and imagination to direct me with their creation of possibilities that pull me forward, out of this toxic actuality.
I begin to see past the debilitating passive aggressive power projections fired at me by the scared white humans around me with a little power to protect.
I begin to see that the overwhelming pain I feel daily isn’t earned, not punishment for who I was in a previous life.
I begin to see that the human relational patterns are the work; that the relational dysfunction in which all of us are immersed here is the reason for the work.
I begin to live connections that merge with memories made in a smaller body: how the bottom makes the top possible and how the humans at the bottom can remake that relation, even if they’re little. How they can choose and resist; how they can break the bonds that chain their agency.
The power of purpose finds me. This purpose gives me gifts of seemingly endless energy and optimism, and the strength I need to keep believing and working when, literally, no one else can see what I’m trying to do.
And I begin to understand.