The winter sun is doing that thing where you can’t see it, but you notice its gloss everywhere. The broad wash of the estuary spills out of a corner of rainforest in a purple-blue that actually catches my breath. The color is oncoming night, though the sky says nearly noon. Waterlogged land stretching flat along the shore is gold at the edges, bleeding on both sides to the serrated shadow of hemlock and cedar, dark as a fairy tale.
There’s a mountain, reasonably tall, girdled with fog and cloaked in evergreens. They’re second-growth, perhaps, and the ones on top are third. In the wilderness we have made, the sort of logging that takes the whole forest with it is only the most visible of our many terrible compromises. Behind the first, another peak, its clear-cut ridges frosted with snow. Any wound may heal: eventually, or temporarily.
The image is still, but only because I’ve frozen its life with my camera. This moment is how my heart feels. I don’t want to forget.
I’m writing this in the weeks after the 2016 American presidential election. The reactionary right’s coattail-riders – white nationalists, literal Nazis – have emerged from the woodwork where they’ve spent the past decades eating away at the progress of freedom and diversity we all thought we cherished enough. They’ve been hiding in plain sight – the KKK that just doesn’t advertise while its tenets are abhorrent to the current power structure, the talk-show hosts spewing hatred while their listeners excuse it as “just shock-jock stuff.” And now they’re holding rallies in Washington, giving interviews to a press that’s not quite appalled enough. The President-elect waves his hands at the camera when repeatedly pressed to denounce the post-election spike in hate crimes, many committed openly in his name. “Stop it,” he says, vaguely, and then implies that he bears no responsibility here: “I’ll say that, if it’ll help.”
It’s been a busy time. How did it take me this long to realize politics isn’t a spectator sport? “You got skin in the game, you stay in the game.” So that’s my plan.
Also it’s Thanksgiving weekend, and I’ve fled across the border with my husband and our friend, rented a house in the middle of the rainforest on Vancouver Island’s wet west coast. Our days are like a recipe, one that’s old as political thought, and reinvented every time. Take some folks who care about each other and spend time talking about the wider world. Heat slowly while each scans his own Twitter stream, weaves new thoughts from the book she’s reading, compiles his own questions and seeks her own answers. Simmer on medium as these things begin to combine out loud, producing new flavors greater than the sum of their parts. Add breaking news, pour in some wine, and watch the whole thing come rapidly to a boil. Turn down the heat, allow to rest.
I used to go on vacation to escape the news, of course. Someday I’ll be able to do that again without also abdicating moral responsibility. There’s a balance here somewhere; I thought I’d found it. Instead I found my head in the sand, like 75% of American voters. News about pop star divorces and presidential pets I intend to continue ignoring. My mistake has been in imagining that the endless stream of news and opinion about failing industries and foreign policy and corruption accusations runs all in the same vein. Donald Trump didn’t invent the idea that you can’t trust “the media.” I lament the situation I see now, where anger substitutes for facts and even scrupulous reporting is dismissed as lies when it doesn’t accord with what you already feel. But here I’ve been believing it all along, a convenient excuse to dis-engage.
My other mistake was in promoting discussion of, and imagining solutions to, only the issues that intrigue me personally. Education, gender equality, racial equality, religious thought, environmental policy. There’s a whole world out there, and it has so many, many more concerns. They’re not separable, and neither are we.
If I’m not here to forget, I am here to cherish. Friendship, discussion, literature, debate, love. What’s left of our forests, the ocean that only looks endless, only looks clean. I can’t cherish these things properly if I spend all my time with them dismissing from my heart the evil that threatens their integrity.
To love a person, or an ideal, must become an active thing. I love my friends by engaging with their opinions and concerns, our forests by ceasing to discuss them as “natural resources” when I advocate for them, and acknowledging their mysterious being. I love my country by speaking out.
My life has emphasized experience, but I have not understood that love is the act of extrapolating experience into action.
This will make some folks uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. But comfort, it turns out, isn’t the heart of the matter. Comfort is a thing some of us gain by sacrificing the basic dignity of others. The promotion of that sacrifice is often unintentional, and done by those who wish to help. Witness the All Lives Matter movement, or the agencies that buy a strip of land to protect it, turning a sad, blind eye to the clear cutting next door. It’s the price – there’s me talking of everything in economic terms again – of civilization as we know it.
I’m not afraid anymore to confront what is true. My goal is to do it with kindness and empathetic engagement, because humanity, individual humans, and the rest of the planet are worthy of both those things. Also because I believe this to be the only way forward that can redeem the past. I might get angry though. Scratch that: I certainly will. Only anger and grief can show me the terrible truth. Love – the active sort – is my tool of choice, but I need the angerlight to see what we must fix.
And I need to remember what the pause feels like: the beauty and the pain that entwine the world and my heart when I take a deep breath against the mountains and treasure all that I touch. I wish this for you, too. Hold hard, friends. You will need it.