A lot has happened lately, and it has been difficult for me to understand what I am feeling. After returning from a visit to Yosemite and California a few weeks ago, I realized I needed to write something for a reading I had coming up for St. Nikolas, which was last night.
What I ended up sharing had me choked up through most of it, croaking out the words. Several people afterward told me how much it resonated.
If you are wondering what it is like to live abroad right now, here is what I wrote:
Fields Of Strawberries, Artichokes and Garlic
The warmth of lights and music is chilled by Black Friday sales. How can corporations feel? There is no peace on earth and goodwill toward the bottom line. Poetry ascribes human qualities onto otherwise cold objects while scientists warn us not to humanize animals. The cold hard logic that is supposed to save us has painted us into a corner with one wall screaming “Facts don’t matter!” while the other sighs, “It’s too late anyway.” The cynic has won, while science finally joins the pagan party religion commercialized years ago.
All of this swirls around me when we touch down in the U.S. a week after the election of a celebrity, a clown, a business man running a staggeringly effective campaign with a fifth grader’s vocabulary. I tell myself I’m not surprised. Journalists are admonished in college to write to that level. What is the logical conclusion to a dumbed-down, corporate-run media? The government’s so-called Fourth Estate? An inevitably dumbed-down democracy.
I tell my brother-in-law to turn off public radio as I climb into our ride away from the San Francisco arrival’s gate. Denial clings to me as I seek the beauty of the redwoods when we cross the little mountain to Santa Cruz. Tears come to my eyes as we crest the hill, and I survey the place that held me at my most broken. Homesickness stings harder than anything I’ve ever felt for my birthplace. The palms shift behind the moonlight. The shadows of the mountains cradle this beautiful town I once declared myself the empress of — Watsonville. Population 50,000 and almost all – 98% — are Hispanic. Signs are often only in Spanish. We joke the Mexican consulate is in the back of Mi Pueblo, the Mexican supermarket, where we will inevitably go to pick up some of the best tacos in town.
In this moment I feel a sense of sadness and desperation at my distance from this place that provided me so much. What can I do to protect this place, these people who picked almost all the food I ate while I enjoyed sunny CA? I want to stay. To eschew my privileged existence in Germany, where even there as an immigrant in a foreign land, I can not know their struggles. If I keep my mouth shut I pass — my skin does not betray me. I’m struck with a desire to live in my family’s back room and fight against the hate crimes and threatening legislation already instilling new levels of terror.
I am jet lagged and heartbroken the next morning as we pull out of town and drive through farm fields of strawberries, artichokes and garlic with a smell so strong my old house mate — the helicopter pilot — said you could smell it hundreds of meters above. This food — life giving — comes so cheap because of the exploited folks who are then blamed for taking the jobs of people who want everything for pennies, not understanding the irony that their pursuits are what destroy their way of life. Where there’s demand, there is supply, is there not? Empty lands like I haven’t seen in years, mile after mile of it, stretch before us as we head to the sanctuary, John Muir’s church — Yosemite National Park.
Zombie-like, we check into a hotel — winter in the mountains isn’t always the best time to camp. At 4 a.m. my body wakes me up to marvel at the staggering height of Yosemite Falls just outside our window. I stare, drinking the bitter drip hotel coffee and feel some of the fear and hardness in my heart melt and transform. When was the last time I was grateful? When was the last time I cried out in joy at the beauty of our world? And of the amazing and giving nature of some of the humans and animals in it? Trees donating nutrients to suffering neighbors. Veterans organizing to protect American citizens. My family sitting down over coffee to disagree about politics in a respectful way.
The cynic doesn’t disappear with this new information, this sudden breath of sunshine in the dark cavities of my heart. No it’s not that simple. But the wedding we’re there to celebrate, the families coming together for meals after, the sharing of everything in general gives the optimist in me a little ammunition. Is it normal in this dark time of year to lose hope? Is that why civilizations since the dawn of recorded history have worshipped the light in one way or another? It is no coincidence of course, but this personal coup over my heart is new. I wonder if it’s always been happening — a mixture of DNA memory and a hysterical mother doing her best but still making the season look like a mental health public service announcement.
Have I been asleep this whole time? I don’t have an answer, but I do know that it feels awful, murky, confusing. I dream immigration police are after us, me shooting a pistol behind my back in a cheesy action movie scene. I swim through these feelings, stunned (again) at my personal darkness, but pulled back to the light by another meal of tacos and a walk on the east side of town, watching surfers carve the after effects of a storm. The sun makes me question my decision to forego SPF. My husband, in a T-shirt, runs ahead with our nephews, climbing the cliffs — up and down, disappearing and resurfacing, sneaking up behind us. When did I stop laughing? Maybe it was when I started filling my Facebook feed with news outlets instead of people I love. Or maybe because I have forgotten how to enjoy a joke without the help of a meme. The laughter knocks more emotions loose, and I ride a roller coaster with my father through my muddled slumber.
When I finally understand that I am no better than any other person I point my finger at, I think the relief will wash away every other perplexity. But what comes are storms that would make the most experienced surfer think twice. I tread into the waves anyway, because I know that there is no other way to protect this world I love and all the beings in it than to deal with my own shit. To dredge and drain swamps. To surf the waves of feelings and come up for air, strip off my wetsuit and light a fire on the beach for the others who are taking their own journey. When did I stop writing? I’m not pointing any more fingers. I am loving. I am going to be honest. I’m grateful. I’m going to help with what I can and be a light in this world. Fear and darkness will no longer hold court in my heart. I have evicted them to their proper place — a small area, not in the prime real estate they held for so long.
Our friends drive us to the airport with their 2-year-old son. He exclaims everything he sees — so excited for a yellow sign in the shape of a rectangle is he, that he must shout it out. I make a note to go through life more like that child. More in awe. It is not too late to be impressed with Christmas lights. There is still time to light candles and sing carols. A outdoor store donates all 10 million dollars of its sales from Black Friday to environmental protection organizations. The Hidden Life of Trees is published in English. I see an advertisement for the Freiburg Weihnachtsmärkt on the train home. That’s right, I think in my zonked out, travel-fatigued state. The Christmas markets. I am home.
If you are interested in what I think about moving away because of the election, please read Before You Move to Canada …