The therapist says to me, you are so afraid. She asks about my anger, and we end up talking about fear. I am afraid my mother will leave me again, I am afraid my stepfather could still come after me, I am afraid of failing and of succeeding, I am afraid of being too much and not enough. I think about the small one in me, still so afraid, probably 12 years old, that kid who was so angry. Something got stopped there, around her fury, her sorrow, her confusion — wait, this isn’t really happening, is it? He’s not really going to talk to my mom like that? He’s not going to be allowed to talk to us like that, is he? She’s going to call him out, she’s going to challenge him. This isn’t going to be our life.
Didn’t I think for a little while that maybe that wouldn’t really be our life?
I have been thinking about regret, about how much I imagine now that I might have been able to do with the last 20 years of my life if I hadn’t been, first and foremost, focused on surviving.
Yes, I know we get to be grateful for the places we get to eventually — we get to be grateful that, eventually, we heal enough that we can find a way back into intimacy. We can find a way back into love. We can find a way back into these bodies that have carried us around, and even through hell. Eventually we find a way home, into ourselves and our real lives, if we are lucky and persistent and don’t die in the meantime. Please hear me: this isn’t about self pity – I just feel sad.
When we say they steal our souls, steal our lives, this is what we mean — they impact what we can do with our capacity, our possibility, our incipience, our nascence. They leak their barrels of crude oil into the complex and just-becoming pond that we were, they poison all of the very many different selves we had before us to possibly become.
And so, instead of getting to focus our energies on becoming one of those many selves, instead we spend our years cleaning the pond, trying to remove the oil. First coming in with big booms to isolate and clear out what remains of the spill en mass, taking away the biggest clumps of poison, soaking it up into some kind of nontoxic material that can hold it safely away from us, then we wipe off the biggest animals, the ducks and muskrats and deer and raccoons; one by one, wipe out eyes, wash and wash until most of the oil is gone. We clear away what died in the soil, after spending years trying to fertilize, heal, bring it back to life. We spread out fire-retardant material, we post sentries and guards at the edges of the pond, all around, trying to keep watch on all sides, wanting to keep out anyone who might want to pollute us so badly again. Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes we are not — but the energy expended is still the same.
We spend years wondering why anyone would want to do such a thing to such a pristine and needed landscape.
We teach ourselves biologics, become environmentalists, scientists — we learn to develop little animals that will feed on what’s left of the poison, that will consume what molecules are left in the water and will seek out the bits that fell to the floor of the pond, permeated the water, soaked into the sand, coated the tadpoles and minnows and frogs and turtles, got inside their mouths, ate into the grasses and pond marsh and tilted the ecosystem toward death. We spend the bulb and blossom of our lives just trying to clean up a toxic waste site.
We watch our friends come into full flower: making connections, reaching out, writing books, making marriages and families, developing their craft, developing their skills, developing themselves; we watch them building careers, and wonder what is wrong with us. But we are still cleaning up the superfund site left inside of us. We are painstakingly wiping off every blade of grass and feather of every bird that is a necessary part of our inside selves. And the oil never is completely eradicated, we can’t clean it all up — some of the areas impacted never recover, never bounce back, never become what they ought to have been able to become. And then we simply have to mourn their loss, grieve what they might have been. Meanwhile, the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain … and also, meanwhile, there are other oil spills everywhere, meanwhile those who polluted us are allowed to continue with their devastation, meanwhile the balance of power is not upset, meanwhile you and I spend years teaching ourselves and then teaching others how to clean up the mess that our perpetrators made of our souls, made of our lives.
What if there was something els we had in mind to do?
There is a Dorothy Allison poem that lives in me — it was written in the aftermath of the homophobic murder of a lesbian in Boston, who was splashed with gasoline and set on fire. In the poem, the narrator imagines the voice of that woman who’d been alit, “This is not all I am / I hd something more in mind to do.” (From the poem “boston , massachusetts,” in the collection, The Women Who Hate Me)
Something in us screams this as well. This is not all I am. I had something more in mind to do. I wanted to be more than a survivor, more something that needed to be healed. We are forced, though someone else’s actions, to turn our precious attentions, to turn the energy of our one wild and precious life to the effort of cleaning up someone else’s mess — and for may years we feel like that mess is us. I felt like that mess was me. 20 years — half of my life so far. What if I’d had something else in mind to do?
Some choices are made for us. But sometimes — eventually — we get to make different choices for ourselves. We clean off the last feather of the last duck, we have rehabilitated the wild grassland that was so devastated, roped it off long enough that there’s new life beginning to emerge, the treebirds have begun to return, we can see bees and butterflies in the wildflowers that have begun to blossom again, little fish have come back out of hiding, eventually, we can be restored.. The landscape, the habitat, is never returned to exactly the state it was before the disaster — but it can heal.
I know I’m taking this metaphor too far, but I can’t stop today. Rehabilitating a wild ecosystem is an enormous undertaking, one that takes time and money and resources that we might have otherwise devoted to other efforts, other work, other interests, other curiosities. And it’s an effort that often goes almost wholly unseen.
And it’s one thing if we are rehabilitating something in the aftermath of a natural disaster, but instead we are trying to take back what another human being — or, sometimes, a whole society — decided to try and ruin, to take for themselves, to spill all over and into and leave covered with his garbage. We, the ecosystem, the landscape, are not garbage. We are not trash, and we deserve all of the effort at cleanup. We deserve to have every bit of our ecosystem attended to during the cleanup process — every microbe, every biological organism, every single-celled paramecium, every shellfish dug into the mud, every clump of wild rose, every spray of tidegrass, every layer of water that expands and contracts through winter freezes and spring thaws and the hot labor of summer — every bit of ourselves deserves attending to. And the truth is that we might have done something else with all of that time and attention. And it isn’t fair. And yes, we do it anyway. We ought to have been able to do what our classmates or neighborhood friends did and just turned our attentions outward, toward our curiosities, our growth and potential, we ought to have just been able to sit back and nurture the wild complexity that was our inner self and, while continuing to tend to all of the layers, inner and outer, deep water and treetop, birds and fish, then live into the complex diversity that would emerge in us and of us.
Do you understand what I am saying? I am trying to find a language for what is stolen from us — actually taken. It’s not our souls — our souls are always with us. What’s stolen is our time. We have precious little time in this life, and that is what they take from us. That is what is irreplaceable. Our bodies and hearts recuperate, because we are extraordinarily resilient, because we are capable and adoring, because we don’t take no for an answer from the bits of inside self that want to give up and die. Many of us don’t die. But our trajectories are forever altered. Our lives are interrupted, turned. Our sovereignty is inflicted upon, eroded, the life we were becoming gets aborted, in favor of cleaning someone else’s mess.
They don’t have to clean us up, those who wreak the havoc in the first place. They’re off in their lives — maybe unimpacted, maybe continuing to create destruction elsewhere around the world, and in and on others, maybe confined to a cell or in the absence of other victims, having only themselves to desecrate. But they are not the ones who have to clean up after themselves. What would that look like? What would a system of justice look like that would demand that those who perpetrate intimate violence have to make it possible for the mess they made gets cleaned up — and they are on the hook until their damage is righted? Not that we are property that has been damaged or broken, but that we are a habitat that needs to be restored.
Of course it’s not too late — it’s never too late to be the selves we might have become. e.e. cummings is said to have said, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” We become hybrid — old and new selves, old and new growth, and we take strength from the labor, the effort, the attention paid, lessons learned, from blisters and aching backs, from sorrow at what has been lost, and joy at what emerges from the ashes. For life persists in the aftermath of destruction. That’s what they can never fully kill, and what brings us rising to the surface, again and again and again.