Our gifts, our responsibility

Toward rooted action

I learn more and more about the experience of people being held in concentration camps at the U.S. southern border. Children ripped from their families, taking care of infants they’ve never met, falling sick with no one to care for them. Women abused by guards. Thousands of people denied basic necessities. I am filled with horror and feel called to act.

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I monitor the sky every day. I compare this summer’s weather to last year’s, this year’s wild rose blooms to last year’s, the number of butterflies in our garden this year compared to last year. My senses confirm what my brain knows: We are in climate catastrophe. I am filled with dread and compelled to act.

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I watch the bully in the White House engage in reckless and incomprehensible acts of aggression toward Iran. I read about his insistence on tanks at the 4th of July event in the capital. I read his hateful tweets directed at women of color in Congress. Images of Nazi military parades run through my mind; the atomic cloud mushrooms behind my eyelids. I am afraid and moved to act.

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But what does action look like, for me, in this body, in this moment, in response to the specific atrocities carried out by those in power and the intolerable conditions of the world today? It feels almost impossible to know what to pay attention to in any given moment. And my inability to consistently channel my horror, dread, and fear into effective, collective, meaningful action fills me with impotent rage.

I also know all this is deliberate. In 2008, Naomi Klein wrote a book about it. This is the shock doctrine in practice, deliberately designed by men who run governments and corporations to create chaos, to disorient people, to prevent us from coming together and fighting back hard. Their end game is dominance, profit, and power. They believe we are disposable, easily conquered, insignificant.

But I know we are not.

So I search for a way to resist the disorientation and helplessness that comes in waves. I search for ways to come home to my power, in the hopes that it will guide my way to action.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s gorgeous storytelling and brilliant writing in Braiding Sweetgrass sinks straight into my heart. Every chapter is a root-map to a deep and wordless connection to the land under my feet. Every chapter encourages me to understand and act on that connection in a way that’s authentic to who I am as the great-granddaughter of settler-colonialists who arrived in this country from opposite sides of the globe: Japan and Germany. Every chapter asks me to reflect on the love I have for sentient and non-sentient creatures of this earth, how they might love me back, and what my responsibilities are to them.

Early in the book, Kimmerer writes of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Thanksgiving Address:

The Thanksgiving Address reminds us that duties and gifts are two sides of the same coin. Eagles were given the gift of far sight, so it is their duty to watch over us. Rain fulfills its duty as it falls, because it was given the gift of sustaining life. What is the duty of humans? If gifts and responsibilities are one, then asking ‘What is our responsibility?’ is the same as asking ‘What is our gift?’

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A few days later, I receive Lori Snyder’s Writer’s Happiness Challenge, in which she encourages writers to tap into what is most authentic to ourselves—to write what only we can write, do what only we can do:

Somewhere deep down, I think we all know that the parts of us that are most us are exactly what we need to cultivate, not just as writers, but also in every other aspect of our lives. In these times where so many of us feel paralyzed by all the things we think we should be or do, it can be really easy to forget how important it is to spend our time and energy on whatever it is inside of us that exists nowhere else.

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In her June podcast, Tarot teacher Lindsay Mack talks about the invitation for all of us to find our rootedness, acknowledging that for so many of us we have been cut off from our root(s), or that our root(s) have been appropriated by others. She defines our root as whatever it is connects us to our ground—the literal land under our feet or the universal ground that holds us.

She calls it the “wordless root,” and I imagine a strong taproot slowly growing from the soles of my feet, sending out tiny tendrils, digging into the New England dirt of my garden—a root only I can grow, a root that is the essence of me and the complex history that has brought me to this land at this moment.

Image description: A huge oak tree reaching up into the sky. Beneath it, there is a green picnic bench where a woman with dark hair and light skin (me!) sits, wearing a black tank top and maroon pants, looking at the camera.

These are gifts I receive from Kimmerer, Snyder, and Mack from across space and time. They return me to myself in the midst of the chaos and horror—not to shut out the world and stay gazing inward indefinitely, but to listen closely for my gift, and therefore my responsibility—so that I can then turn back outward, fortified and ready for action.

I ask myself: What have I been given? What skills, talents, blessings? What do I wear easily on my skin like a gorgeous gown, all sea green silk and sapphire? What takes me through the swift and dangerous currents, keeps me dry and safe as a seal? What did I never ask for but has accompanied me with murmurs of love and devotion all of my life?

The answer comes, as it always does, patiently, as if for the first time. As if I have not asked myself some version of this question all my life, and have been too afraid or full of ego or full of doubt to listen carefully and act decisively when the answer comes. Or as if I have not abandoned the path laid out for me time and again because of my fear of failure or because it didn’t feel like it was “enough.”  

The answer comes to me, gently and maybe with the sense of hope that this time I am ready to listen well and stay the course.

My gift, and my responsibility, is to write. To write what I see as the truth, in the face of enormous power that attempts to destroy all that I love and believe in. To try and tease out and clarify what needs to be said in this moment. To write what will move people to action, what will shape change.

To write what will inspire people who are sweating it out at the border, in the streets, in the halls of power to keep going. To keep doing the work to transform systems that are designed to break us all.

To write to remind ourselves of our power, how we won’t be broken, how we have each other. How there are so many of us who are doing the work to understand our gifts, and understand our responsibilities to each other and the land that holds us all.


Prompting

To use in journaling, writing, meditating, tarot pulling, etc.

This prompt is meant to help return you to your power, to help you identify your gifts and responsibilities. If going outside and moving around isn’t possible or comfortable for you, you can do it as a visualized meditation.

  1. Go somewhere where there are things growing—be it a forest, a park, or a strip of grass along a sidewalk. If you can go somewhere that’s meaningful to you, that’s great, but it’s not necessary. Take a notebook and something to write and draw with.

  2. Walk or move about as long as feels good to do so. Then stand or sit still.

  3. Feel the air on your skin. Look up at the sky above you. You might take off your shoes so you can feel the ground beneath your feet. Take a few full, deep breaths.

  4. Close your eyes or relax your gaze. Imagine yourself as a tree. Imagine your roots—your own and no one else’s—reaching far down into the earth. Imagine your legs and torso as a trunk—sturdy and stable.

  5. Imagine your arms as branches. You might lift your arms and reach them to the sky. Imagine leaves, flowers, fruits blooming from your branches: gifts that are uniquely yours to offer to the world.

  6. When it feels right, take out your notebook. Whether or not you consider yourself artistic, I encourage you to draw the tree: your roots, your trunk, your branches and their gifts. Don’t worry about what it looks like; make it as simple or as elaborate as you want. If this doesn’t work for you, skip to the next step.

  7. Incorporate words or phrases in the drawing, or freewrite/journal what comes to you as you look at your tree.


Engaging

What else I’m reading/listening to/thinking about:

Rest as Reparations with Tricia Hersey of The Nap Ministry on the Healing Justice Podcast. I loved listening to this delightful and profound conversation between Tricia Hersey and Kate Werning about the intersection of white supremacy, capitalism, and rest. Hersey’s Nap Ministry seems like a perfect example of using your gift to fulfill your responsibility (in this case, her gifts of artistic creation with the responsibility of resisting white supremacy and capitalism).

Tsuru for solidarity. One thing that is inspiring me in this moment is how the Japanese American community has come out definitively against the imprisoning of migrants at the border (and, previously, the Muslim ban). Obaachans, ojiichans, obachans, and ojichans who were imprisoned in U.S. concentration camps as children (and younger generations as well), are showing up to protest and make their voices heard. As we all seek ways to resist and build, it feels important to pay attention to how our people do it, what is right for us—as well as to grow and learn from each other. To me, this Democracy Now! footage at Fort Sill where a blustering military officer unsuccessfully tries to stop an elder from speaking captures something of the nature of our resistance that feels exactly right in my Japanese American bones. For more on the significance of tsuru, this beautiful essay explains a little about our practice of folding cranes as resistance and revolution.


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