Courage to Liberate

Human beings are complex.  They bear the ability to both oppress and be victimized.  People tend, however, to spend more time occupying one of those identities – or supporting one of those identities –  than another.  We are at a moment in history when victims of oppression – especially those who have suffered bodily harm by those with an intent to violate – often stand up for themselves publicly.  Some in our human community, take a stand and support them.  

Others act as “strong men” who not only commit the violations, but who oppose others’ right to speak their truths about harm.  By doing so, they continue to oppress.  Some in our human community, take a stand and support them.  

Looking at these two camps, many like to believe they are able to maintain neutrality.   Be spectators, make verbal judgements, as if their actions or inactions don’t have power to affect others. But in situations of injustice, Bishop Desmond Tutu reminded us, there is no neutrality.  Taking a position of neutrality is in fact, choosing to give power to the aggressor. 

On days when I feel that I am becoming whole and wise for speaking aloud my truth, these are the days I am most endangered.  For truth-telling is the crime most quickly punished.  It is called a crime by those who dislike what is contained within it.  And what is truth anyway, but a subjective perspective?  My truth is mine.  And it may not be yours. 

Bodily violation is concrete, anything but subjective.  It either happens or it doesn’t.  It either happened or it didn’t.  But when the tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  Well, who knows.  But then that tree is then lying there.  And we can chart a path back to see it, uprooted.  Inert and still.  Evidence in itself of the event. 

Bodies, unlike trees, keep moving.  Despite everything.  Violated or not they continue on, breathing, thinking, feeling, acting.  Leaving the scene.  All too often, they bear no evidence of the harm they have suffered.  That they continue to suffer.  There is only the memory in the victim.  And the truth that can be told. 

The oppressor will not tell the truth about what they did.  Only ever so rarely and then, only when the oppression was almost accidental.   When the oppressor happens to feel remorse.  Intentional oppression however, is more common.  The oppressor is a seeker of comfort. The rush of power is needed. It is everything. The person who was violated and their experience is an inconvenience to be dealt with but hardly a concern.  Thus, the act must be kept secret to maintain the rush of power.  The trace of its existence must be like a track covered, by deflection, gaslighting, tone-policing, character defamation and any number of tactics that keep listeners from believing the memory told. 

When the victim tells, most often, listeners do not want to believe the memory told.  The memories of victimization cause instant disbelief in almost all those who hear them.  And seconds before the disbelief, beneath the awareness of the listener, is the disgust.  The disgust that it might be true.  Disgust is an emotion that makes us turn away.  A rotten egg makes us physically recoil.  Rarely do we turn toward it and sit in the discomfort.  It is not how we are wired. 

If we are going to resist the knee-jerk disbelief and believe the teller, we have to sit in the discomfort.  We have to feel the smell of the rotten egg.  We have to allow it to penetrate our defenses.  We have to accept its existence.  Most of us won’t.  Most of us will throw that egg in the trash. 

So given the discomfort of it all, why should we ever believe the teller?  Because if we don’t, the tellers are alone.  They live surrounded by the stench of that egg.  And the oppressors go on – actively or energetically.  Filling the emotional holes in their psyches with those small and large rushes of power.  Their approach to life having been allowed for one more day.  The stench of that egg is stronger for the teller, for the victim, than any listener can imagine.  And it is possible, by letting them know that you smell it too, to release them from that prison.

If a victim trusts you with their truth, if they find a courage you’ve never imagined to break the code of silence and tell you about what happened – if all that happens and then you turn away?  You are as good as watching them in their prison.  You hold the key in your hand and you refuse to use it.  You wrinkle your nose or resent them for the discomfort they have caused you and you walk back to your sweet-smelling life.  And you are banking that you will never need from them, what they need from you.  

Your tellers, like all tellers, may have to find their liberators in strangers.  Strangers who have been through the flames of victimization.  Who admit to the powerlessness of it.   Because those strangers aren’t afraid any longer of a rotten egg.  They’ll go into the prison.  And together they’ll find a way out.

The Medicine in the Trees

“There’s an owl in our back tree.  I couldn’t see it but I heard it,”  my husband said, coming in from having taken out the trash.  I reached for the respirator he’d been wearing.  The one I bought to wear to Black Lives Matter protests this Summer to defend myself against the President of the United States’ contract security guards.  The ones paid to brutalize us for lifting our voices in pursuit of justice for all Americans. 

Outside on the porch, properly protected from what today the world air quality index called the worst air quality in the world, I looked up at the 150 foot spruce silhouetted against the evening sky.   Then I heard it.  All day I hadn’t seen a leaf stir or heard a bird.  Every plant stood flat and still, working overtime to take the carbon monoxide from our eerily orange Portland air.  The air that hangs over these ancestral lands of the Clackamas people.  Now, as strange as the lack of birdsong all day, is the sound of this large bird of prey.  Am I imaging the sound to be plaintive?  Behind my closed eyes now, I see her habitat burning behind her.  Her wingspan wide.  Her flight path uncertain.  Her pace faster than she is liable to fly. 

Before thought is the action.  I open my palms and open my chest.  I connect to her.  “Welcome, owl spirit,”  I whisper.  “I feel your loss with you.”  I think of the one million acres of habitat that have burned, in Oregon alone, these past three days.   She knows nothing of Oregon.  She knows nothing of California and Washington and British Columbia.  She knows the land.  And she has a right to feel as unsafe here as anywhere right now.  Because so  many humans – so many American humans – do not know the land. 

She is not alone.  Humans are unsafe from each other.  The fire in Southern Oregon, that wiped out my brother and sister-in-law’s old neighborhood was arson.  A man did that.  A man who just wanted to, did that. And the actions of so many before him made the land so dry that it went up like a tinderbox.   The now and the many choices that came before him.   History didn’t happen.  It’s happening. 

My heart breaks open with the pain of the losses around us.  So many homes, so many lives, so many dreams lost in a blink.  And the owl and I stand and take it in.  I open my heart to the pain.  To her sound.  It feels like all I can do.  

This moment has been coming.  That’s what I think when I’m putting on my respirator.  When I’m joking about when the “locusts” are due to arrive.  When my kids are calling this hazardous air, stay-indoors order “next level quarantine” and they’re asking me if it’s time to bust out the industrial sized pancake mix from the “apocalypse food” tub in the shed.  ‘Yup, it’s time’, I think.  The future is here and I’m not even anxious.  

What I am, is changed.  I think of the mirage I lived in during the Obama years.  The making of hay while the sun shone.  The belief that it could only get better from here.  The hope was blinding.  It was sticky and addictive.  I wanted it so bad.  And I had it.  So what did I have to fight for?  

The fight was always being deferred.  It was always going to be this bad.  And we knew it.  But we couldn’t face it.  So I think while I stand and take it in.  Me and the owl.  Facing it.  

Octavia Butler wrote prescient novels about this time.  She described what happens when we praise greed, when we love things more than people.  There is death.  There is destruction.  There is great loss.  Those who die, die.  They’re not feeling the loss.  It is those left living who feel it.  The suffering.  Alleviated only by connection with loving others.  With our Beloved Community, as described to us by Dr. Martin Luther King.  Dr. King and so many brave Black leaders have reached out their hands for generations to offer the good news.  About how liberation is possible for all of us if we take the great, beautiful leap into trust and belonging.  

And today I feel the truth as clear as day.  We will belong to each other or we will die.  It is that simple.  

While I was writing this I wondered about the concept of spirit animals.  About what the owl might mean for those who feel her.  I am accustomed to instant answers and google couldn’t tell me enough about the people who walked these lands for many, many generations.  I don’t know what the owl meant to the Clackamas.  To the Cowlitz.  To the Kalapuya.  I found though that among many Native tribes of this continent, seeing or hearing an owl is believed to be a bad omen, often signaling serious illness or death to come. Especially when an owl is found hanging about the home instead of the woods.

I hear her omen.  It is only validation of what we know.  The death is here.  The illness is here.  And it has been here since the first white colonist arrived to these shores, prepared to take life to have things.  They took, and denied it.  And took, and denied it.  And we whose ancestors claim far away lands, we whose ancestors chose to come, so devoid have we been of true understanding, we have played out the script of that deception all along.

The owl is believed, not just to be a harbinger of pain, but also to have powerful medicine.  The owl is believed to see behind masks of deceit.  So I welcomed her to our home.  I embraced her.  I am prepared to let down the mask, stand in the pain and feel it all.  The shame, the grief, the rage.  It is my deepest dream to bring many of the most fearful to that place with me.  So that we may stand and feel it all together.  And in doing so, in looking straight into the trauma, the pain will burn us clean of the fear.   It is a risk to look.  To feel.  But if we can, we just might finally belong to each other, to the land and to our futures.