All of my reading and research keeps circling back to a frustrating conclusion: America’s current crisis runs deeper than I am capable of understanding. There are too many facets, too many fractures, too many nuances.
What I do grasp makes me want to hide, to retreat into my fiction reading list and never pick up another non-fiction book, never read another article or essay or blog post.
It feels as if everything I care about is under attack and there’s nothing I can do about any of it.
And, while nothing is an exaggeration, not much is the hardly-more-comfortable truth.
Not much might be a fragile incentive, but it’s compelling when everything is at stake.
I recently read The Next American Revolution by Grace Lee Boggs. She refers a number of times to a quote from Mahatma Gandhi… Live simply so that others may simply live.
This, at least, I understand. Live simply.
Facets, fractures, and nuance.
I can help by living simply.
It is, indeed, not much. It’s also a tiny piece of everything.
I am part of the problem. I have always been part of the problem.
I am a white, straight, cisgender, educated, agnostic, middle-aged, middle-class woman from the South–recipient of more privilege than I have earned. And this year, while I raised my summer butterflies, I watched America’s Presidential campaign with growing dismay.
Racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny are not new to America or American politics, but overt displays on the campaign trail are rare in my memory. How and why Donald Trump’s campaign thrived while exploiting the language of white supremacy has been widely discussed since the election, but the answer seems simple to me: far too few listeners objected.
Some, undoubtedly, agreed with him. Some didn’t recognize the language of white supremacy, never having spoken it. Others, like me, knew. I knew, and yet I remained silent.
My particular silence was one of guilt and shame, complicated by the oft-repeated advice that beginning writers should avoid talking about politics and religion, lest they alienate half of their potential audience. But in this matter I am not a beginning writer. I am part of the problem. I have always been part of the problem. And, in this matter, I will no longer keep silent.
“Will Rogers said it a long time ago: Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Thomas L. Friedman in The World is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (1)
As a child, teen, and young adult, I heard the language of bigotry at school and in the community. My parents and siblings didn’t speak the language, nor did most of my friends. But I heard the words anyway. I learned them and I used them. And I slogged into college in a miasma of willful ignorance, dangerously unfit for adulthood.
In college, my instructors and classmates recoiled in horror when my ignorance leaked into the open. (Some, I suspect, were more frustrated with my inability to hide my ignorance than with the actual fact of it.) Despite the shame I feel when recalling those years, they mark an important change in my life–I began an ongoing effort to pry open my closed mind.
At every point along my journey, I have found guides. Most were women with gentle and luminous souls. Some answered my calls for help, others appeared unbidden–standing in the mist with hands extended, patiently waiting for me. They answered my endless questions as if they had nothing better to do than help an ignorant young woman expand her horizons.
(I know that this, too, is a hallmark of privilege. Such help was easier to find because I was white, straight, cis, middle-class, and educated. I will have more to say about privilege in future posts.)
As I worked through various stages of educating myself, I began trying to escape the stigma of hate by claiming that I had never embraced the malice of bigotry, only the language. I didn’t hate anyone.
Except, the language of bigotry is hate. It is not possible to learn the words without absorbing the hate. This has been my hardest lesson and is my most painful admission. I once spoke the language of bigotry, which by definition means I practiced hate. Years ago, when I finally accepted this fact, I retreated into silence on the subject.
But silence solves nothing. In dreading discovery too much and valuing discussion too little, I remained part of the problem.
“We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love.” Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2)
Unlike the Monarch Butterflies that emerged in the yard this summer, I cannot flutter off to a mountaintop in Mexico and sleep through the long, cold winter ahead. (The irony is intended to be painful. I detest our President-elect’s disparaging comments and damaging “promises” regarding immigrants and immigration.) But I can use my privilege for something besides sharing my own writing and my love of nature. I can use my voice and this blog to promote the words and wisdom of other writers.
I’ve already asked for help from my friends, but I’m also asking for help from my readers. Hold me accountable. Fact check me. Fact check my sources. Correct me when my ongoing ignorance shows. Correct me when I’m wrong, which I will, inevitably, be.
For starters, please read my new comments policy. It’s not perfect, and I could use your help with it.
Then read some of these poems, articles, and posts:
As a final note, it takes me a long time to compose a post like this one. Most of my posts will continue to focus on nature and writing, with occasional publication notes, as in the past. (i.e. My poem Duality recently appeared at vox poetica.) But I plan to add a section of links to each post, highlighting authors, articles, and books that have enlarged my world. Please share your own recommendations in the comments.
(1) Friedman, Thomas L.. The World is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007. Print.
(2) Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised Edition. New York: The New Press, 2012. Kindle Edition.
After a closer look, I decided the unknown visitor might be a Pipevine Swallowtail. (I don’t have any photos of Pipevine Swallowtails because I’ve never seen one in person. Here’s a link with photos.) But how could it be any kind of swallowtail, without the characteristic “tails” on its hind wings?
But why do all of these butterflies look so similar? What is so special about a combination of blue highlights and reddish spots? Obviously the pattern carries some sort of selective advantage, something deeper than aesthetic appeal for camera-wielding writers.
It seems that the story starts with Pipevine Swallowtails, which lay their eggs on the poisonous pipevine plant (also known as Dutchman’s Pipe.) As the caterpillars feed and grow, they ingest and store a toxin called aristolochic acid, which lingers in their bodies as the caterpillars mature into adults. So the butterflies, as well as all stages of the caterpillars, are poisonous. Even their eggs are poisonous.
All in all, it’s an elegant and effective defense against predators. So effective, in fact, that it conveys a measure of protection for any butterfly with black wings, blue highlights, and reddish spots. Selective advantage, indeed.
Now, if only I could find a Pipevine Swallowtail to photograph…
For more information, check out a few of these articles:
And now, as Paul Harvey might have said, it’s time to post the rest of the story…
Back in June of 2015, while I was searching for answers online, the wrens’ brood hatched. For a few days the male wren stayed busy feeding both nests, dividing his time somewhat unequally in favor of the young cardinals. But something changed as the cardinals neared fledging. The last time I saw the cardinal nestlings accept food from the wren was on June 5th, and the last time I saw him approach their nest was on June 6th. (They greeted his visits on the 6th with silence.) On June 7th, the young cardinals left their nest.
The yard stayed in a turmoil on the 7th, loud with the cries of hungry cardinal fledglings and nervous cardinal parents. (The male cardinal was particularly aggressive with larger birds that day, much to the dismay of a hungry brown thrasher.)
The wren, formerly so devoted to the cardinal nestlings, never approached the cardinals after they fledged. Instead he spent the 7th, and the following days, feeding his own nestlings. The young wrens stayed in their nest box until June 16th and 17th, eating spiders and praying mantises and a variety of other insects brought by their parents.
The nestlings grew bigger and bolder each day.
And their parents worked harder and harder to keep them fed.
By June 16th they showed signs of leaving.
And on June 17th …
They were out of the nest box, but they were still hungry!
When they left the yard that evening, I felt bereft. As I always do when the yard’s children move on.
I wished, as I always do, to follow the fledglings. Or at least to know their futures. Did any of them survive? Have they, perhaps, visited the yard again in the weeks and months since?
Where I remembered why I started writing in the first place.
I remembered how stories haunt my dreams and daydreams. How the convection of my imagination brings characters and scenes to the surface over and over again, how writing these characters and scenes frees my imagination to create more characters and scenes.
I remembered the shiver of recognition when lines and phrases turn to music in a poem. It doesn’t happen in every poem I write, or even in every tenth poem, but when it does happen it’s magic.
I remembered how satisfying a difficult revision can be, both during and after the process. Like solving a puzzle or riddle. Pieces falling into place, sometimes falling into unexpected places. Creating order out of the chaos of previous drafts.
This insight was alchemy, the combined effect of a series of excellent presentations and workshops.