One Small Republic of Unconquered Spirit
Hope in the Tenacity of Trees
I woke in the night awash in pervasive and free-floating anxiety. Was it my relationship, my income, the house, that I neglected to make dinner for my kids last night? The muscles of my pelvic floor were clenched tight as if trying to lift my tailbone up and away from the Earth. As if the root of my being was saying, “Not here. No.”
A friend posted a picture of an old fall-out shelter sign over the weekend and I found myself fixating on it as I lay there. Having grown up in D.C., I remember those signs scattered through public buildings. I swear there was one in my elementary school, though I might be wrong. I know there were fall-out shelters in D.C. elementary schools, so I might have seen one in a different building.
Maybe other children were not cognizant of the apocalyptic potential of the Cold War that still existed in the 70s and 80s, but I was not those children. In the early 80s, my parents trucked me down to the Kennedy Center to participate in a production of Peace Child, a musical about the potential for children to prevent nuclear war and create a just future. The project was meant to be empowering, though I don’t remember feeling empowered by it. I remember feeling a terrifying obligation to fix things before we all died.
I also remember, at nine years old, a deep sense of futility when I realized no one with any power was actually listening, no matter how sweet our songs.
In middle school, my social studies teacher asked us to design buttons. I had recently gone with my youth group to picket the South African embassy downtown, so mine featured a silhouette of Africa and proclaimed “Stop Apartheid”. It turned out none of my classmates had any idea where South Africa even was, much less that apartheid existed. I remember being asked incredulously what “apar-theid” was, except they pronounced the “th” as in throw, so I was simultaneously humiliated and annoyed all at once.
I realized it wasn’t just that there was a problem, but no one was listening to the solution. In fact, most folks didn’t even know there was a problem in the first place.
By the time apartheid was formally ended when I was in college the Anita Hill hearings happened, which crystallized the sense of being systemically silenced. Here was a woman who looked enough like nearly every teacher, principal, and crossing guard of my childhood, who I instinctively accepted as an authority, being told that she must have been making it up. She must simply have it out for a man who, by her clear and concise account, humiliated and dehumanized her.
Now it was clear that the issue was not just a lack of listening or even a lack of awareness of the problem. The powers that be were actively gaslighting the hell out of all of us without a smidgen of remorse. Futility met Rage, and they shacked up in my guts together for years and years.
A decade after Anita Hill’s gaslighting by Congress my husband and I bought a farm in Upstate New York. The closest I’d ever come to dreaming of owning a farm was wishing I could live in an abandoned church in the country with Dr. Teeth and his band, but… I loved him. Also, I’d been raised around books like Chop Wood, Carry Water, which taught of the spiritual blessing to be found through presence with daily tasks, and the Foxfire series, which exhaustively detailed the intricacies of self-sufficiency. After years of saying no, loudly and with signs, to every bit of conventional and political ideology I’d ever encountered, I thought the farm would finally be our blessed and self-sufficient yes.
Neither the farm nor my marriage was, it turned out, our yes. They were both a loud and resounding NO. But there was, in the farming, at least, some truth that I find myself trying to recover.
What was it?
It was about the satisfaction found in building something, the clearheadedness that comes when you keep your body busy with hard work, and the peace that attends us when we are able to be fully present to the task at hand.
In these increasingly digital days, however, the notion of being here now begs the question of where here is exactly? If most of the here where connection and creativity happen is virtual, then I am left with constant, gnawing anxiety that there’s no real here at all.
Life right now feels both groundless and relentless. Willful ignorance and gaslighting on every issue that matters for the future of democracy and humanity’s survival seem to be accelerating, and we are watching it through screens with no discernible end to the global pandemic in sight.
Is your soul tired? My soul is so tired, y’all.
And, yet, what are we to do? Give up?
Do the Sun and Moon give up in the face of their relentless circling? Do the trees give up? Or do they cling tenaciously to the Earth because to endure is the only option? Tenacity or die, my loves.
Rebecca Solnit writes in her book Hope In The Dark:
The despair that keeps coming up is a temporary inability to work for these things that are good, a loss of belief that the task is meaningful. That loss comes from many quarters, from exhaustion, from a sadness born out of empathy, but also from expectations and analyses that are themselves problems. “Resistance is the secret of joy” said a banner quoting Alice Walker and carried by Reclaim the Streets in the late 1990s. Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit. You hope for results, but you don’t depend on them. And if you study the historical record, there have been results, as suprising as Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution, and there will be more, though they are in the dark, beyond what can be expected.
I am trying to dig deep to find the wellspring of hope. To remember that building is building, whether it is a garden or a virtual community; that keeping my feet planted and my hands busy, even if it’s just folding laundry or watering plants, settles my anxious spinning; that love exists in my world, is touchable and tastable and real, and I can grab a hold of it; that I will not let them win, even if I’m not here to see them lose. I don’t stand up for them. I stand up to remember which one I am.
Your choices outweigh your substance. Damn. Yes.
Where are you finding hope right now, my friends?
It would sure help to hear what ground you’re finding to stand on in these crazy days.