Growth Inside

There’s a video darting about on the internet these days that imagines a speech from the Earth’s POV asserting the message of this pandemic: through this devastating virus and the horrendous human loss and lockdown it’s entailed, the ecosystem is forcing a great big chunk of the industrialized world to STOP, to breathe deeply, while we can, to look around, and to notice. Notice, by its sudden suspension, all the noisome pollutive activity in which we’re engaged that doesn’t need to be like this. And notice, too, by its still-so-poignantly-lingering resilience in beauty and necessity, everything that does. I like that video. It seems exactly true to me. But the worst of it is, only my privilege—my immense privilege—has enabled me to afford both the technology to access that video and the time to contemplate its message.

Because I’m a teacher who for the last two months of this school year was permitted to work with my students online, from home, I’ve had occasion to discover many things about myself and the life I’ve been living of which, to some degree, I’d been aware for a very long time but which came home to me profoundly under these new conditions. We were still working very long days, but now I did that in a house with just my one companion in the relative silence of a suddenly much less cluttered life. And like a lot of other people of my economic and racial privilege, I found in this employed but undistracted inside time an extraordinary opportunity for growth.

I’m not a very visual person—I grew up in a family with several unacknowledged elephants in its rooms where it was safest to listen to the words and ignore all they carefully refused to describe—but my partner Terri hears with her eyes, and after twenty years as her partner I am finally beginning to look where she is looking and discipline my heart to attend to what is there. To notice what matters and what doesn’t.

Notice, for example, how absurdly overstuffed and distracted and full of crap and routine violence and breath-taking hellbent destruction this particular civilization is, and has been, for an unconscionable stretch of decades into centuries of hustled wholesale larcenous bulldozing obliterating devastation of life. Devastation utterly real to the millions who’ve been forced to cope with it every day of their lives, but devastation perceived only dimly, if at all, by its beneficiaries. The world is on fire, but the view from my air-conditioned windows is the verdant beauty of our tree-lined Northampton street. Notice. Look with attention and for a long time. As long as it takes for that which we notice to speak to our minds, our spirits, and our hands.

Just the other morning, as I stood in our driveway waiting for Terri to back the car out of it so I could join her for our errand to the recycling center, I caught a breath of exhaust, just one breath before retreating. That’s toxic, I thought, those oil-and-gas fumes, as I stepped back to protect my lungs. But my very next thought was, many people have to breathe these fumes all day.

And then, as in so many other moments this spring and summer, I felt the stunning symmetry of this summer’s juxtaposition: the essential workers—and so the dispensable, the routinely sacrificing and sacrificed workers—sweat, and labor in harm’s way, and many die, to enable a subset of more privileged workers to labor in safety at home, or to be above the necessity of labor at all, reaping the unearned increment of others’ exploitation. It is a haunting spectacle to bear witness to, when one has the space and light to bear witness, not to the words of the powerful but, instead, to the suffering those words deny, discount, and disappear. As a teacher of literature and history I’ve devoted my life to teaching empathy and exploding the vicious narrative of hierarchy, gender, race, and class. And yet I’m also very comfortably placed within that hierarchy, I and my middle-class salary and my mortgage and air-conditioning and my beloved hopeful street full of Black Lives Matter signs whose homes are priced well beyond the reach of low-income families, including the vast majority of Americans of color.

So my own noticing in this first phase of pandemic time has dropped into awareness like a sentence, incrementally, in three clauses: I begin to see myself, I begin to see the world, and I begin to see the role I play in it. Maybe the most important thing I see is that seeing is a relative term. Because it might be more accurate to say, I’ve had a glimpse of myself, the world, my role in it. A flash of light. A half-waking, like those dreams in which you think you’re awake until so many absurd events pile up that it comes to you, while you’re still very much asleep, that this is a dream you’re living in, and the element in which you’ve felt you were moving, was not action but a thought, real nowhere beyond the confines of your mind. I sit in my air-conditioned study in our quiet home, eating really healthy bread with my favorite pure-fruit jam and sipping my favorite soda while I read anti-racist literature and watch webinars about the systematic violence and misery on which my privileges are founded. As somebody recently remarked, when yet another person of color dies a wrongful death, liberal white people form a book group. I would never want to disparage this learning. It’s invaluable and ongoing. But it costs very, very little. Justice, reparation and rebirth demand much, much more.

Relationships live, or die, by what we notice and fail to notice. About one another. About our surroundings. About causes and effects, and the role we play in them. We move as in a dream, choosing without consciously recognizing all that our choices generate or destroy. Enmeshed in a growth economy doomed on a finite planet, enmeshed in a deeply inequitable system that empowers a few at the expense of everybody else, we are persuaded that reality is what the voices around us have decreed it must be, we believe the walls are real and impenetrable, and we can see no door. But the walls are of human design, and human beings can build something better. We have waking moments, in the space between distractions, when all we didn’t think we could afford to notice calls to us imperatively to see. Justice, reparation and rebirth demand much more than vision. Give all you have, said Jesus of Nazareth. Only in the active pursuit of justice can peace and life everlasting be found. It is the door, and the way to open it, to bring the inside out. Spirit give us courage and more light to see our way. Amazing grace.