Took the long way home from Floyd yesterday after a visit to Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary ... stayed on the Blue Ridge Parkway the whole way. Soaked myself in solitude, green, wildflowers, and the company of Bonnie Raitt and Santana ("Road Tested" still one of my all-time favorite live albums).
There is nothing in the world like that Parkway in early spring: the unexpected swaths of wild violets massing in purple, huge carpets of trilliums right next to the road, and dogwood gone brilliantly mad; the bald eagle flashing above me, the flocks of wild canaries in the trees, the orange bursts of wild azalea, and that first glimpse of mountain laurel in bloom!
At a couple of places the views of the rolling Blue Ridge mountains were so devastatingly gorgeous that I couldn't believe I was expected to drive under their influence. It was like being confronted by a past love in the middle of your regular routine and not being able to throw yourself at her feet. Somehow, I kept driving, and not off the road, either.
Hours of this. I arrived home late, happy, saturated in beauty. I had to apologize to my wife for missing the delicious dinner she had cooked. Eventually, I was forgiven (the giant macaroon drizzled with dark chocolate from the Floyd Country Store might have helped). But oh, it was worth any inconvenience to make that drive, windows down, air rushing in. Worth the tangled hair and the time. In fact, I think it might have added years to my life.
“ . . . the truth is that you're empty...fill yourself back up with observations, flavors, ideas, visions, memories...everything you need is in your head and memories, in all that your senses provide, in all that you've seen and thought and absorbed." - Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
I’ve been wanting to take that drive for a long time. It’s a medicinal experience. Especially now, with all the ugliness, our own fear and anger, injustice in the world, I need to refill my body, my soul, with beauty -- so that I can continue to recover from previous wounds, and so that I have something to offer in current and future struggles.
But this drive (and the visit to Spikenard Farm’s intensely loving work with honeybees) came at a good time for other reasons, as well. This week something terrible happened at my university. A small group of white male students posted horrific hate-memes online – and were found to have been doing so for some time. Words and images of homophobia, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, able-ism, of the worst kind; brutal images posted by young men whose only concern seemed to be topping the outrageous posts of one another.
As an Indigenous, queer woman, I felt these memes and the actions of these young men personally, and deeply; as a faculty member, I was devastated to think that I interacted with these young men in the hallways and gatherings of my university, that quite possibly, one or more of them might turn up in my classroom; that, perhaps, I already have or have had students thinking and acting on such things my classroom. Perhaps, they were thinking these kinds of things about me.
This kind of thinking is paralyzing. It is soul-killing. It goes to the heart of the vulnerability I experience as a person of color, as a queer person, as a woman, every time I step onto my predominantly white, affluent campus – and most other places I might go.
Alerted to these memes by someone outside the community, the university sent out an email telling our community that “The matter has been referred to the appropriate University officials and student conduct bodies” and planned a gathering on campus to “express solidarity for our community values.” Neither one of these actions provided me much comfort. I didn’t go to the gathering, fearing that it would follow the usual pattern: POC and queer speakers baring their souls in front of a sympathetic, mostly white group. If I had gone, I would have asked to speak first, and I would have said, “Not one person of color, not one queer, not one woman should speak tonight. White men need to be up here, speaking against the culture of privilege and violence that allowed this, and figuring out how to educate and guide their white brothers who do such things.”
But as I said, I didn’t go. I could not drag myself to one more gathering to show my support for my right to be myself. I stayed home as much of the non-teaching day as possible, went into my office to do some class prep, and went right back home. Some colleagues reached out to offer comfort, but others didn’t even realize what was happening (the university’s oblique email left many of us scrambling for information that was not easily discoverable). My community, my larger social network (which exists primarily online, as I am the only Indigenous faculty member, and one of a handful of faculty of color), reacted with sadness and anger, and consolation, and support, but I couldn’t really feel it – the poison of hatred was working on me.
I tried meditation, and I worked on a poem about a memory I’ve carried for many years – which just happened to be a memory about the old land in Washington State I grew up on, the riot of salmonberries in the spring, my hours of wandering in the woods, feeding myself from what I found there. Looking back, I see that even as a child, I was feeding myself beauty so I could survive another day in a small, dark trailer filled with smoke, violence and depression, a place where the only thing I was taught was how unimportant I was, how little my body mattered, and my soul, even less.
That land saved me. I know this. I was incredibly lucky to have had those three acres, and the surrounding land where I also wandered. I know that, too. Not everyone has those opportunities; not every lost child is found by the mothering of a piece of earth.
Not every faculty member of color has access to the Blue Ridge Parkway at the end of April, or the time to drive it. I’m lucky, and I know it.
I need that medicine now, in the middle of a battle that has lasted my whole life, and will last long after I’m gone. My social community, my colleagues, do make a difference, but perhaps I could not let my guard down for them in this moment of fear and hurt.
I can throw myself down on my knees before the beauty of this planet. And I will. Over and over and over again.
fat orange suns,
explode on your tongue.
You love these untamed berries;
the way they are only yours,
illuminated with welcome,
soft white core left behind
on the vine like a note of farewell.
You learn from your mouth down.
These lush green woods
give refuge. You flee
the small dark trailer,
cases of empty Rainier and Oly bottles,
leather belts and absence.
one by one
or a handful all at once:
you suck out juice, pulp,
swallow tiny seeds. Bright little
spitbugs, bitter-spicy, sometimes;
you try to be watchful,
but you know so much hunger.
You swat mosquitoes,
side-step stinging nettles,
swab creek mud
where the tall fanged
leaves swipe an arm or leg.
This is a world you understand:
Red ants with black heads bite
honeybees ignore you;
Blackjacks bang around
like bumpercars but don’t sting.
Wasps careen through warm air,
wobbly legs trailing terror.
Trilliums, rich white
or purple petals on thick
jade stems: secret wealth.
You count and count until you lose
track, giddy at such inheritance.
Leggy spiders whose names
you can never find in books
spin among the thorns
and scratchy wide leaves;
beetles, caterpillars, millipedes,
centipedes swirl like jewels
on the crumbling red bodies
of ancient felled cedars.
And the earth, black
with life – willing
to grow this wilderness,
willing to let you roam –
the earth beneath your footsteps
oozes into mud
made of pine cones,
cedar needles, maple leaves,
made of death and decay
You learn from your feet up.
You are small.
This world is busy,
The longer you stay,
the further your body takes in
this place that takes you in,
the more you understand:
you are no exile.
glow like lanterns.
light the way home.
Deborah A. Miranda