witnessing

To address violence discounted by dominant structures of apprehension is necessarily to engage the culturally variable issue of who counts as a witness. Contests over what counts as violence are intimately entangled with conflicts over who bears the social authority of witness, which entails much more than simply seeing or not seeing.

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

I’ve been reading the above-quoted book as research for my dissertation. I’m working on a chapter that looks at how Indian authors write about environmental issues in fiction. In the broader context of my dissertation’s argument, I’m thinking about how these authors represent the natural environment as a sort of archive–a repository of historical and contemporary evidence for the non-dominant histories that are (sometimes intentionally) excluded from institutional archives.

Institutional archives are always exclusive. In fact, Derrida argues in Archive Fever that while the primary function of archives is preservation of memory, they are also always sites of forgetting; for everything that is preserved and saved for posterity, other things are lost, left-out, broadly forgotten. This is how we come to have unilateral views of history. This is how we, culturally, come to think of History, with a capital H, as something incontrovertible. We conflate history with the past, as if the stories we tell about the past are accurate descriptions of what happened rather than a cobbling together of a limited picture based on what is preserved in archives.

This isn’t to say that there’s anything particularly bad or wrong with archives. Obviously it would be impossible for any archive to collect everything. The problem is that the exclusive practices of archivists in the past often disproportionately–many times entirely–omitted the voices and perspectives of people and entire cultures who simply didn’t count as valid witnesses to governments and academic institutions. In colonial archives, for example, keeping records, documents, and other materials from indigenous populations was not a priority. For postcolonial scholars, those archives are as notable for what’s missing as they are for what is present. In the United States, the same is true in regard to Native Americans and slaves, many groups of undesirable immigrants (such as the Chinese, Irish, and Polish) as well as the dispensable poor whose labor industrialized this nation.  The witness of these people typically did not count in the construction of archives.

This question of witnessing and who counts as a witness is at the heart of the stories my selected authors tell. The poor, powerless people and the voiceless non-humans (plants and animals) all bear witness to histories that are discounted by structures of authority. So when they cry out about social injustice and environmental devastation, their lack of standing invalidates their testimony. Their experiences don’t matter, because as Arundhati Roy writes in The God of Small Things, “only what counts counts.” Environmental damage, which as Rob Nixon points out always has a disproportionately devastating affect on the poor, is ignored because someone profits from the industrial causes of that damage.

As I’m reading this and thinking about my postcolonial novels, I am also struck by how the problem of witnessing and who counts as a witness continues to be a problem in America in this moment. While archivists are typically more diligent now about collecting materials from diverse and underrepresented groups, our national discourse hasn’t caught up. I keep thinking of the tendency of some people to claim that others are too sensitive and too easily offended whenever they register discomfort over artistic representations, tweets, callous speeches, etc. In those cases, what is really being said is that the offended, the sensitive, are not valid witnesses. Their expressions pain or discomfort don’t count. They are not, in other words, considered to be authorities of their own experiences.

The same problem is at stake when African Americans and other people of color protest racial injustice in this country. When both individuals and structures of authority in this country dismiss those concerns, the message is that those protesters don’t count, their witness doesn’t count, their experiences aren’t valid. The witness of white people and of the powerful counts as ultimately authoritative. When white people say, “I’ve never seen that kind of racism, so surely it doesn’t happen,” that’s a statement about witnessing. The white witness carries an authoritative weight that invalidates the witness of other races.

Maybe one of the clearest examples of that kind of invalidation right now is happening at Standing Rock. Native American residents of that reservation protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that has the effect of disrupting the past–by disturbing sacred sites and burial grounds–and the future through potential pipeline leaks contaminating water sources. But the validity of their witness has been discounted by the corporation building the pipeline, by state legislators, by national leaders, and even to some extent by the press, whose coverage of the conflict has been minimal. Their concerns, which are primarily about water contamination, don’t register as valid. However, the pipeline was originally planned to go through a different route that was ultimately rejected, in part, because it would be too close to Bismarck’s water supply. At some point, then, someone in a position of authority decided not to risk contaminating the water of the city. The witness of that person’s concerns for water safety counted. But as the President signed an executive order today supporting the resumption of pipeline construction, it is clear that the same witness of safety concerns from the Standing Rock Souix doesn’t count.

I hope that the pipeline isn’t allowed to continue. It seems unlikely, but I hope it anyway. For hundreds of years, white Americans and government authorities have discounted the witness of Native Americans. We have dismissed not only their voices, but their very right to life. Our histories fail to register that the actions the US government took against Native populations would be labeled genocide if it happened somewhere else. We fail to recognize that our historical and contemporary treatment of Native Americans is imperialistic. We shrug our shoulders at a historical witness that competes with the heroic narrative of manifest destiny.

We have an opportunity now to do better. We have an opportunity to acknowledge the authority of the Native American witness. I hope we will.

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Eulogy for a Good Dog

She was someone’s refuse in the beginning. She found me and Spur one morning shortly before Christmas seven years ago while we were out for a walk. It was cold, and even from a distance I could tell this puppy was undernourished, all skin and bones and  belly swollen with worms. When we got closer, she was all wagging tail anIMG_1776.JPGd eagerness, desperate to be loved. So I coaxed her into following us to the house and imagined finding her a happy home after getting her healthy. We treated worms, a respiratory infection, and then mange, and by the time she was healthy we couldn’t let her go. Mom named her Sugar.

The years we had with here were full of shenanigans. Like the time she time she bit the tire of a UPS truck as it pulled up to the house and got flipped. Or the time when she and Spur chased a couple of donkeys that had broken onto our land. At one point, Sugar had the little jack by the tail and was being dragged along behind him. Once, she spotted a snake on the road in the direction my mom was walking. Charging ahead, she snapped up the snake and flung it away. We always guessed that she was trying to protect Mom. Sugar and my puppy/horse Soldier were best frenemies; at feed time, they would run back and forth along the fence, snapping at each other with mock fierceness, Sugar barking and Soldier stomping his feet. But then Sugar would crawl under the fence to pick up the feed Soldier spilled on the ground, and he would turn a mostly blind eye to her presence.

We thought we’d lost her a couple of times in the past few years. Once she escaped a friend’s backyard–somehow managing to clear the six-foot fence–and was missing for a few days. Eventually, through the magic of social media, we found that someone had found her running along a busy road and picked her up. She was beside herself when Mom and Dad went to pick her up, and she had freshly painted toenails courtesy of her temporary caretakers. Then, just about a year ago, she ran out in front of the mailman’s car and was run-over by two tires. She ran off into the property and Mom couldn’t find her. For a few hours, we all believed that she had gone off to die somewhere, but eventually she turned up, limping on a badly broken leg and bleeding from a couple of gashes, but otherwise unharmed.

On Sunday, she chased after my horse Junebug, a mare that does not suffer fools of the canine variety. No one saw what happened, but she came back limping and it seems likely that she was kicked or trampled. Her kidneys were damaged, and today it became clear that she wasn’t going to recover this time. This dog survived a kick to the head many years ago with just a concussion, survived being run over and then leaped four-foot fences with a heavily-splinted leg and elizabethan collar. There’s a part of me that keeps expecting to find out that it was all a mistake, and she’s going to be fine. It’s happened so many times before. But not this time.

So here I am a thousand miles away and sad. She was my mom’s dog, but the truth is that we all belonged to her. Everyone who spent much time at my parents house were img_7154-2grafted into Sugar’s pack of humans, and she loved all of us. It didn’t take much more than a kind voice and a pat on the head to win her over, and once given, her affections were permanent. She was never particularly smart, but she loved her people well and gave us all a share of her simple, boundless joy. She was a good, good dog.

It seems like such a small thing in this big, sorrowful world, to be sad about a dog. But I have learned these past many years that grief is a house with many rooms. One of those rooms is a gallery of wet noses and wagging tails, soft, contented purrs, welcoming nickers. It houses the heartaches for the animals that have made the world feel a little softer around the edges and helped me to be a kinder,  gentler, better human. My life is richer for having had Sugar, and emptier without her. There is space for this grief too.

give me the courage to not look away

I’m reeling, still, from the attack in Orlando this past weekend. I’m watching my friends try to process and somehow respond what happened on my Facebook feed, freshly heart-broken at so many posts. It has been especially hard to see the responses from my LGBTQ friends, for whom this attack is so deeply personal. I mourn with them from the outside, and I wish I could do something to make it better, something to help. I wish that I could write something powerful enough to shift the tide of discourse here and around the world so that we–as a global, inter-religious community–no longer say the words that breed the hate and violence. But all I can do is grieve and cast out my small voice and hope that it means something to someone, somewhere.

This is how I always feel in these moments when the ongoing crises of our time reach a fever pitch and burst out in violence. I struggle to process. I don’t know what to do. Everything seems so hopeless, and no one has any answers–no answers for why, no answers for what to change to make things better. I don’t have any answers. These days, it seems like massive outbreaks of violence happen so frequently that we have become inured to it. We shake our heads, we whisper a prayer, and then we turn away. It is at once too horrible to watch and too common to keep our attention.

In these moments, I have found myself uttering a simple prayer: Lord, make me brave enough not to look away. I whisper it to myself when my newsfeed fills up with images of violence, devastation, and death, when the pain of others threatens to upend my own comfort. I don’t want to read the stories of Syrian refugees around the world. I don’t want to see the faces of victims of police brutality. I don’t want to see the weeping families and friends of the Pulse victims. I want to turn it off, to look away because it is uncomfortable and disquieting.

But I have come to believe that we need to be uncomfortable in these moments. There is, I think, something both deeply human and intensely sacred about allowing someone else’s suffering to enter in. To carry another person’s (or people’s) pain in your heart, to grasp onto whatever small corner of that burden you can hold and share in carrying it, to allow yourself to be changed by it, to remember–I’m not sure that there is anything we do that is more holy than this.

In a country that is obsessed with individualism and in a political atmosphere in which we eagerly lob the rhetoric of “us versus them” like hand grenades at an enemy camp, this is what radical love looks like. This is what peacemaking looks like. We bear witness to one another’s pain. We listen. We share in the burden of suffering. We don’t look away.

Because when we turn away from others’ suffering, we delegitimize it. We say that their pain doesn’t matter because it’s not my pain. We stay comfortable, and that’s a problem because comfort doesn’t prompt us to action. Comfort makes it easy for us to stay out of the fray and let others worry about questions of justice and what should be done to change things.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been thinking about the so-called “great commandment,” in which Jesus says to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22: 36-40). I think we sometimes interpret that second part along the lines of the “golden rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Think about what you want, in other words, and do that for others. That’s a fine rule, but I think when Jesus says to love our neighbors as ourselves, it’s deeper than that. I think it means, at least in part, for us to make space within ourselves to allow the other person in. I think it means to allow another’s pain and suffering to enter in. It means knowing that I am not exempted from shouldering my share of the burden of life and humanity and sorrow and horror, even when it’s not mine. It means not looking away.

Lord, make me brave enough not to look away. Lord make me bold enough to act justly and act for justice in a broken world.

sacred [electronic] spaces

Lately I’ve been thinking about some electronic spaces that have become sacred spaces for me. There’s a lot of blog posts and publications floating around the internet (perhaps ironically–I often see them posted to Facebook) decrying social media as the downfall of real connections and meaningful relationships. They cite studies that show a decrease in general happiness that corresponds with increased screen time. They remind people that their thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers are not really their friends. They admonish people to have real-time, real-life relationships.

They’re not wrong. We all need people that we can spend time with in person. We need friends who we can go do things with. We need people who can encourage us face to face, and laugh with us, and explore with us. That’s all true. Electronically-mediated relationships are not a substitute for local relationships. I can say from experience that they cannot alleviate the slow soul crush of loneliness, or the emptiness of isolation.

But I can also say they make it easier to bear. My first year here in Atlanta, when I felt so desperately lonely and had a hard time forging relationships of any kind, Facebook and text messaging were lifelines for me. It’s hard for me to describe just how much it meant to me every time someone posted on my wall, sent me a message, texted, emailed. Even though I was struggling here, it helped to know that there were people who loved me and cared about me and missed me, even if they were all a thousand miles away. It helps still.

On Facebook, I’m part of a message chain with my four closest friends from college (one is also from high school). We’ve been chatting pretty regularly for a few years now. Every few weeks or so, one of us will pop into the message chain, asking how everyone else is doing and often sharing either a joy or a struggle. Usually a struggle. We encourage each other and pray for each other. We also often lament the fact that we don’t live closer together. But it’s so special for all of us to have this space–imperfect though it is–that is safe and comfortable and bright. These relationships are sacred, and this space that allows us to not just stay in contact but to continue to be a part of each others’ lives in spite of the fact that we all haven’t lived in the same place in about 10 years. These brave, kind, faithful, funny, encouraging women have been making my life better and making me better for my entire adult life, and I will be forever grateful for the electronic space that that keeps them close.

I also have an email chain with a life-long friend (or close enough–we’ve been friends since we were 4). We titled it Code Teal, because when we were in middle school we spend so. many. hours talking on the phone, and mine was a teal cordless that I picked out because I was 12. And since we were 12, everything was a crisis. Now, everything is not a crisis, but Code Teal emails are where we share our struggles with each other and offer our support. It’s the things we would talk about if we lived in the same city and could go grab coffee. But we haven’t lived in the same city since we were 15. We weren’t always close since her family moved away, because back then it was hard to keep track of people. We were still paying for long distance phone calls, for crying out loud, and email was basically a new technology. But Facebook allowed us reconnect as young adults, and now we use email because both of us tend to write at length. Even when we passed notes in middle school, they were several pages long. And again, email isn’t ideal, but it’s a space that I’m grateful for.

I’ve got a couple of friends that I text with regularly too, and those spaces are also sacred to me. Even when it’s just a few words, “The foliage is beautiful today. Wish you were here!” or “How’s you prospectus going? Can I help?” these messages are absolutely priceless to me. Taking the time to remember me and check in, to let me know that I’m loved and not alone. To share with me when they’re having a hard time. It’s beautiful. It’s sacred.

And the truth is that even if I had more friends here than I could handle, none of them would replace a single one of the these women whom I interact with almost exclusively through electronic environments. Social media and other technologies have their drawbacks; there’s no question about that. They’re not ideal, and they’re not perfect, and they’re no substitute for being physically present with people. But they can also be valuable, sacred spaces of meaningful connection and deep, life-sustaining friendships. For that, I am grateful.

hanging in there

I guess I’m writing this more for myself than anyone else, but I felt compelled to publish it here.

I’m having a hard time. Just generally, in life. This has been true for a while now. A little over three years specifically. And one thing that I’ve learned about myself is that it’s difficult for me to admit when I’m having a hard time, and to allow myself to accept that I’m having a hard time. I always catch myself thinking that I have no right to call my life hard when there are so many other people suffering from exponentially worse circumstances than I am. And that is absolutely true. But what is also true is that knowing my hard time isn’t the hardest time possible doesn’t make it stop being hard.

Recently, my gastroenterologist told me that because my illness is caused by stress, I can expect it to continue until I’ve finished school and found a job. On the one hand, that’s not surprising. On the other, though, it is a pretty disappointing prognosis. Not the worst prognosis, of course, but not what I wanted to hear either. And in the weeks since then, I have been having lots of trouble with my appetite. I’m back to eating because I have to, even though I would really rather not.

So I’ve been reflecting on how hard life is with an illness. See, even as I type that, I find myself cringing a little, as if I’m not allowed to recognize that this is an illness, even if I have to see a specialist about it, because it’s not the worst. It’s like I’m not supposed to be having a hard time because I don’t always feel sick, and it doesn’t always disrupt my life in big ways. But it does disrupt my life in a lot of little ways, and that adds up.

Being sick makes everything harder than it should be. Like eating. Eating shouldn’t be hard, but it is. Every meal, every day. I have to find things that I can eat. I have to eat when I don’t want to. I have to keep eating the same meals that I am so tired of because they’re safe. Sometimes I have to deal with problems if I unwittingly eat something I shouldn’t, or if my body decides that something I eat all the time is suddenly not okay. I have to resist the temptation to eat things that I do want but know will mess me up. I have to eat at the right times because even if I don’t have an appetite, it will cause problems if I wait too long. And if I eat too close to bedtime, that’s a problem too.

And exercising is hard. Choosing to exercise when I don’t feel well, when my stomach is upset, when my throat and chest are burning with reflux–that’s not easy. But I also know that if I wait until I feel well, I’ll be almost entirely sedentary.

And sleeping. I’ve always been a terrible sleeper, so I don’t know if this connects to my illness specifically or if it’s just stress and anxiety that are causing problems. But sleeping shouldn’t be hard work. It is for me. The process of getting myself to sleep is often exhausting–just not in the way that leads to a peaceful rest.

It’s emotionally draining, eating and sleeping and keeping going. Add taking care of the dog, keeping the house clean and maintained, working, trying to make do on a tight budget, and having a hard time with my prospectus. I’m struggling. My doctor told me to do what I can to manage my stress. He said (and it was more caring than it might sound) to try not to sweat the small stuff. It’s probably good advice and I’m trying to be more conscious of letting things go. I even downloaded a meditation app to try to redirect my mental state when I’m worked up.

But the trouble is, how do I identify what the small stuff is when everything feels big? When even going to sleep at night is a struggle? When eating a meal is an exercise in self-discipline? I keep trying to find some area of my life that easy, something that doesn’t require any discipline or courage or emotional fortitude to do, and it’s increasingly difficult to find anything that fits that bill. Even the things I do that I consider self-care, things that improve the quality of my life like horseback riding and climbing, even those things aren’t easy. I feel like everything I do costs me something, emotionally or mentally, and I’m running a deficit these days. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to thrive.

What I’ve learned though this, my first experience with chronic illness, or what I am learning, is that sometimes success doesn’t look the way I thought it would. Sometimes success looks like hanging in there. Sometimes courage looks like resignation. Sometimes the best I can expect from myself is to not give up. I’ve learned–and this is terribly hard for me–that the best I can do is a conditional statement; my best three years ago was in many ways better than my best today. And–this is maybe the most important thing–I’ve learned to be kinder to myself and to others, because sometimes doing everything you can doesn’t look very impressive.

Erring on the side of love

A big thing happened this morning. The US Supreme Court ruled that all states must license and recognize same-sex marriage. Many of my friends are celebrating this, some because it means that they will have the right to marry now. And I’m celebrating too.

But I’m also holding my breath and waiting for the backlash to start. I’m waiting for the Christians to speak out in anger, to appeal, to condemn. It’s certainly coming—that (hopefully small) tide of blog posts and articles that will wash over my Facebook newsfeed. I’m battening down the hatches for the ones explaining why marriage should be defined as one man with one woman. The ones proclaiming that Christianity is under attack in this country. The ones that willfully forget that while their target may be a court ruling, the shrapnel of their vitriol wounds real people. I’m prepared for the thoughtless reposts, for the Bible verses proffered with no context or insight, for the logical fallacies, for the trite arguments.

I support the legalization of same-sex marriage because I want this country to live up to its own standards. If we believe in the Constitution, if we believe in the ideals of liberty, autonomy, and especially religious freedom, banning same-sex marriage is wrong. As my brilliant roommate, Grace, argues in a blog post from a few years ago, this is a legal issue in our country, not a moral one. Whether an individual disagrees with homosexuality from a religious or moral perspective is a personal choice, one that should have no bearing on legislation.

But I support the ruling for another reason as well. I support it because I want to be like Jesus. Not the draconian, legalistic, right-wing, politically-conservative Jesus that gets conjured up so often in these sorts of debates. I want to be like the Jesus of the Bible, who loved the sinners and the disenfranchised, who had no condemnation for the woman caught in adultery, whose harsh and difficult words were consistently aimed only at the religious elite. Jesus never said a word about homosexuality, but He said a lot of words about love and caring for our neighbors.

I haven’t spent anytime studying the theology of homosexuality. I know that there are lots of arguments that claim it to be sin, and others argue that it isn’t. Frankly, I don’t really care. It’s not a question I feel like I need to be “right” about. I’m not really sure how to find the “right” answer anyway. The older I get, the more I believe that a life of faith is a life of muddling through. It’s a life of guessing and hoping and crying out for mercy and falling on grace. Of always being off kilter, of always trying but never quite finding balance. Of chasing a mystery over uncertain terrain. We all spend our days working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

So there’s little that I feel sure about anymore, but the theology of love seems to me unambiguous. I am certain that God deeply, unwavering, unconditionally loves every person in the LGBT community. I am certain that He calls us to love one another deeply, unwaveringly, unconditionally. For me, today, love looks like supporting legislation that reminds us that homosexuality does not negate humanity or forfeit the need for dignity or the right to be recognized as a fully-equal member of society.

I’ve seen the hashtag #lovewins floating around in response to the ruling. But love didn’t win in the courtroom. That was a legal victory. Rationality won. Logic won. Our most dearly-held American values won. To me, love doesn’t win in the courtroom, or even at the altar. Love wins when we remember to love one another as God has loved us. And that’s a self-sacrificial love, the kind that lays aside personal comfort for the sake of another. Whether this ruling is “right” or not, I know that love is never wrong. So if I’m going to err, I’ll err on the side of love.

Smearacha

Blackberries_on_bushThere is an Irish word that means abounding in blackberries: smearacha.

This is one of the things I love about the Irish language; it seems at it’s roots to have a natural poetics. Perhaps this is just my outsider’s perspective. Perhaps all languages seem more poetic than the one that has always been mundane on your own tongue. But Irish seems meant to be beautiful before utilitarian. I have wondered sometimes if this is why Ireland has produced a disproportionate number of excellent writers for such a small place, though I am certain that this is my romantic imagination rather than any real causality.

Smearacha.

I think of this word when summer berries are in season and I buy carton after carton because I cannot get enough of the sweet, sometimes tart burst of juice that means summer. I love all kinds of berries, but blackberries are my favorite, especially when they are perfectly ripe and have a deep, settled, edgeless sweetness. Unlike other, tarter berries, like raspberries, the blackberry softens into ripeness with no need to prove itself by shocking your taste buds. It tastes like shade and cool breezes and lingering twilights dotted by fireflies.

It tastes like Grandmother’s house.

When we were young, Grandmother kept what seemed to me an extravagant garden, bursting with lively green vegetables, tall corn, sprawling squash and melons. And somewhere near what I imagined to be the center was a huge blackberry bush, briared and reaching, nestled into the sandy earth.

In the summer when we would visit, Grandmother would arm my brother and me with tomato-red plastic buckets with slender metal handles—which once had contained a gallon of Gandy’s ice cream—and send us out to the garden with instructions to pick only the ripest berries. So out we would go, our erst-while ice cream buckets swinging in our hands, our bare feet burning in the sun-baked dirt as it squeezed up between our toes and covered us in a layer of West Texas dust. And we would harvest as many of the dark purple berries as we could find, never quite avoiding the briars, occasionally consulting over the ripeness of one, marveling at the size of another, and sampling some of our selections.

But not many, because these berries were meant for better things—homemade jams and cobblers served warm with homemade ice cream (or Gandy’s out of the bright red buckets)! Grandmother always knew the best things to do with our berries, beginning with a bowl of granulated sugar which she would set out on the table. We would roll our berries in the sugar, one at a time, until they were just lightly coated in tiny crystals stained purple from the juice. And then we would pop them into our mouths, sun-ripened and sugar sweetened—better than any candy.

And now every year when they come into season, I buy my blackberries at the grocery store—a poor substitute—and select the best, the most perfectly ripened berry. And as I bite into it, I close my eyes and remember hot summer days and the cool shade from the big tree in Grandmother’s backyard, bottle-fed calves sucking my small hands, walking the narrow rail around Grandmother’s herb garden like a balance beam, the sound of Grandad’s tenor voice leading hymns at church, fresh green beans snapped outside in the long evenings, delicious smells at all times from Grandmother’s kitchen, the sharp tug of briars against my arms, Grandmother’s hands rolling dark berries in a small bowl of glistening white sugar…

A childhood abounding in blackberries.

[Writing this post reminded me of a lovely poem by Seamus Heaney called “Blackberry Picking,” which you can read here.]