I struggle over how to start this essay. I want to write about how everything is alive and how I discovered that for myself growing up in a small town in southern New Hampshire, on the North American continent, which is land that is not mine but in fact, I am it’s. I want to write about how universal this childhood discovery is, but I can’t. Because that’s a lie. Not very many people get a childhood with the kind of space and time and beauty and absence of anxiety it requires to discover such a thing. There are many things about all of our lives that are universal and I thank the universe for that because it tells me that there is something collective in human beings that we can activate, that we can compassion-ate. And that tells me there might be hope for us on this planet.
But, universalizing too much of our experience is dangerous. There’s an uncanny effect. It can allow us to feel comfortable seeing other people—people with wholly different experiences than our own—without really seeing them. It lets us turn them into ghosts. It lets us make assumptions that narrow our view of the world, when in truth the world is vast. And small. And vast. And small. And vast again. And that tunneling of our vision gives us permission, often unconsciously, to fully see only the people who have experienced similar particulars to ourselves. And when we let that happen, then we become the ghosts, sleeping in eternity when the world desperately needs us awake to do the living work it needs from us. So my discovery is particular and might be shared by others—and it might not.
The town I grew up in was rocky farmland a hundred years before I set foot on it. By the time I got there, natural entropy had returned much of that farmland to the trees and the grass and the shrubs (and the poison ivy). And, my God, did it whisper. When I think back on it, it was remarkably easy to hear. I used to go out to the backyard, which was a hill that crested and descended sharply into the forest.
It was so quiet most of the time and I’d just lie on that hill in the grass, dig my fingers into the blades and the dirt and watch and listen. I heard the trees crack and groan. I saw the animals congregate, chatter and squabble. I heard the ageless wind talk to the ageless rocks. I watched the sky shift and change moods. And, eventually, after much stillness on my part, I saw the earth breath. I’m totally and completely serious. I didn’t just see it, actually. I felt it. Rising and falling, just like the breath in me. Alive, everything alive.
Years later, when I started to get into music and heard Bob Marley for the first time, a ripple of energy would pass through me when he’d sing about “Who feels it knows it, Lord”. Felt knowledge. It’s what I got in the backyard, you see. So, it was no surprise to me when I encountered Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem “Howl” and read his proclamation that all things, even the things many of us are brought up to think of as shameful or insignificant, are holy.
Over time, I found these resonances difficult to reconcile with the canned sermons I’d hear at my local Catholic church, the antiseptic rituals filled with symbols I couldn’t feel, and then the new rituals of the shopping malls, the increasing talismanic power of sneakers, cars, parking lots, soda cans, pop stars, logos. Unworthy things. Un-alive things. Dead abundance, hypnotizing my fellow townspeople. And it would be a lie to say these things didn’t make their way into me.
But there were always things I’d encounter that would pull me back to what I’d experienced on that hill, in those woods. I loved that my mother would decorate the house at the holidays with mountain laurel she’d gather from the edge of the woods, not available in any store. I loved that I could walk to the library and absorb the earthbound wisdom of Aesop and Uncle Remus. I loved that the night was pitch black, enveloping and mysterious. I loved that the cooling and freezing of snow in winter would make a hard crust of the earth that the wind would whistle over. I loved that my father would sit me down to watch old 60s films like Little Big Man , with scenes like Everything is Dead to the White Men that would pull me back again to felt knowledge.
Growing up in the midst of consumer capitalism, with its powerful, encompassing plasticity, means having your imagination squeezed, reshaped and reduced on a daily basis. It means being told again and again without words, which is the most persuasive way to be told anything, that things—and your appetite for those things—are more valuable than anything else. More than trees or wind or sky or earth or animals. More than people, certainly.
It makes all the sense in the world to grind up those eternal bits of life to make those things, use those things, use up those things, and discard those things, burn them up or hide them away in piles on the edge of town to blithely poison the ghost people who live there. And the structure of the world around you reinforces that message at nearly every turn. Use and discard. Use and discard.
To overcome this way of being and nurture a living world is not simply a matter of analysis, diagnosis, strategy, and protest. It’s about a very solitary internal relationship with your imagination and what your imagination is connected to. Where are the cracks in capitalism where you live? Can you search enough, can you see enough, can you be still enough to find them...and invite what lives in them into you? Click To Tweet
This is why the personal, the non-universal cosmic particulars of all of our lives, is so very political. Your ability to imagine life differently is what you’ll draw upon to guide any transformative action you undertake.
I was reminded of this once again when I re-read an essay that meant a lot to me in 2018. Disposable Planet, Disposable People by Kitanya Harrison. If you’re not aware of her work, she writes honestly and often about the intersection of sports, race, politics and, increasingly capitalism and its impact on the environment. I want to thank her for the inspiration.
As always, thanks for reading.
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” ―