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We Recognize Our Kinship
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Most people have seen those images from the late 1800s of piles and piles of buffalo skulls, right? Or old photographs of buffalo corpses scattered across the plain, the result of greedy market hunters, or the aftermath of targeted genocide against Indigenous people, or whichever narrative you might have encountered. Both are true. The images are horrifying, as is the idea that we could take a landscape blessed with millions upon millions of lives—not even just bison, but pronghorn, elk, grizzly bears, wolves, and so much else—and reduce most of them to just handfuls of scattered populations. It is no wonder we are such an emotionally ravaged country because we exist on ground soaked in unmourned blood.
I’m thinking of those skull piles tonight because I picture President Biden standing atop such a heap, corpse-grinning like he does, only the skulls aren’t buffalo, they are human, and he is saying this:
We are living in a horror show, where the people making all the decisions collectively worship one god, and it is money. Because while all these white devils (yeah, they are overwhelmingly white) pat themselves on the backs over their “economic plans” people are continuing to die in numbers unheard of, and does anyone really seem to care?
Not where I live, they don’t. And as much as I’d like to blame my collective neighbors for it, I can’t. Not really. In the midst of all this stress (admitted to or not) we are all easily influenced, and it’s the soulless people like Biden and Fox News—and everyone in between—with so much as a single rein of power they can tug in the direction of their own self interests who are guiding us all over the cliff. They know exactly what they are doing. They have weighed their options over who lives and who dies and, the worst of it, have convinced so many of us to agree with them. We are spectators in our own demise.
It’s been a rough couple weeks getting back to teaching for the Missoula Writing Collaborative after the Christmas break. Between the holidays and a snowstorm that had us push back another week, I was a month away. The difficulty in getting back among those kids is grounded in COVID numbers: when I ended teaching for 2021 in mid-December, new cases in Montana were under 300/day. They are now over 2000/day. I’m only there one day every week too. I don’t see how the full-time teachers manage. Answer? They’re really not. How could they be? Is anyone really managing?
The first morning I arrived back at the school I had a borderline panic attack/rage spike over how, still, NO ONE was wearing masks. On an Indian reservation, where COVID was the leading cause of deaths of Indigenous people in 2021. I had mine on but I had to wonder why I bothered. The students wore theirs for my classes, generally, but I don’t think they did for the rest of the day. Passing windows along the sidewalk on my way in I could see rooms full of students, teachers, administrators, all unmasked. So what even is the point?
I got through the first class and managed to settle down a bit, but as I headed into the second class the teacher was on her way out as she had just received confirmation of a positive COVID test. A substitute teacher had just arrived and was trying to wrangle the kids into masks but wasn’t having much luck. About 1/3 of the kids (4th graders) were angry about being asked to wear them. “Why do I have to wear a mask if I don't want to?” several students asked. I told them I don't “have to” either. That it is uncomfortable, etc. But I wear one because I care about them, that I care about everyone in my community, that sometimes we do things without having to be told just because they are the right things to do. The students seemed to understand. Adults don’t. I think adults, on both sides of the mask/vaccine debate, have just given up. I’m not sure I really blame them, given the rhetoric from people who should know better.
We see the true colors of the ruling class best at times like this. We can mobilize a war effort in weeks, yet two years in one can only say both the Trump and Biden administations have been utter failures in response to the pandemic. We even suck at war, frankly. Consider Afghanistan, which we invaded, then withdrew after decades of failure, and now due largely to our “sanctions” have created “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.” These people in power aren’t content to restrict their evil to their own populations, they must flood the world with it.
I really think it’s important for everyone to understand the gap that exists between what the pandemic response should look like and what it does look like. And I do definitely feel like with the Omicron wave in particular, what we are getting right now is a mass PR strategy to get us to resign ourselves to what the pandemic response looks like. And not talk about what it should look like or what it needs to look like in order for us to actually end the pandemic.
So this idea that we just have to accept this as an inevitability and there’s nothing more that we can do – I don’t agree with that, right? There’s definitely things that we could still do, but let’s say we’re just going to go with this basically lack of policy that we have right now, where we just allow Omicron to just spread unfettered through the population. So what is the plan in the aftermath of that? And that’s what we’re not getting either. And that’s how you know that it is more of a PR strategy than any real health or governmental response.
What is the plan in the aftermath? Because even if Omicron is the end of it, for now, there will be an aftermath to what we have experienced. Our health system is in shambles and there will be huge economic burdens as well … just not on the people Biden is dog whistling to in that quote. And yet, does anyone really believe there won’t be another variant on the heels of this one?
My second week back in class is less stressful because I know what to expect but it is still horrifying and leaves me stressed out. Somewhere between 15 and 20 students spread over four classes are out with COVID. Of the four teachers, two are out. One of those classes is on their third substitute after two have already tested positive. I recognize few adults in the hallways because so many are substitute teachers. It feels chaotic and a shambles and I can’t understand how anyone is learning anything. In every class there is at least one kid who writes about losing family members to COVID. One kid lost both grandmas and a grandpa. I just can't fathom that this is the world we are living in.
Because there are so many students out I change my plans on the fly for how we will spend our time in class. I read them the Wagamese quoteI shared here in my last newsletter, about everyone being a story. We discuss what it all means. What stories mean. Are their lives the beginning of their story, or are they entering an ongoing story midstream? After we talk about this a little bit, I tell them I want to go around the room and have each of them tell me one or two things that are so important to them that in the telling of their stories, would need to be included.
Across all the classes, these are overwhelmingly the answers: Family. Friends. Pets. Art. Music. The earth.
It strikes me that these things they most care about are the things that people have cared about for as long as people have been people. We have always had to lean on these things. 12,000 years ago if you didn’t have your friends and family to rely on—your community—you wouldn’t survive. That community extended beyond your human relatives as well. It’s what brought wolves in to join us by the fire. We see human reliance and connection to animals and the environment depicted in 20,000 year-old cave art. Art, which we leaned on then to improve our lives, just as we do now. Same with music. “What about dancing?” someone asks and I say, “Yes! Dancing!”
For all the technology and obfuscations we’ve created to separate us from our primal selves, we are still essentially the same people we were those millennia ago. This reminder in the presence of these children, most of them hugely disadvantaged with enormous hurdles to even get to class at all, is telling. We have overcome so much. We can overcome this too, can’t we?
In truth, I don’t really want to keep showing up to teach in these conditions but I can’t abandon these kids the way our society has. Especially these kids on this reservation, whose stories are generationally tragic in ways most of us can’t imagine. I don’t really feel like I am doing what others would consider is actually “teaching poetry” but I don’t care. These kids think, and they scratch away with their pencils against their paper, and that is poetry to me.
The more I know, the harder it is to hang in there. I feel powerless in changing most of the things I care the most about. It just seems overwhelming sometimes, this agitating, this resistance. Showing up to stand with and for these children is a political act, just like showing up to stand with and for the teachers is; with and for our health care workers, our houseless relatives, everyone. Politics isn’t just performative assholes in D.C. It is a daily effort and if we choose to live so, we can exert real power. If that wasn’t the case these bastards wouldn’t work so hard to constantly gaslight us.
Bree Newsome Bass again:
I think that there are so many people who just have a very narrow image of what activism is or what it means to protest or what it means to resist or what it means to be political. This idea that we are supposed to avoid politics or certain places are not supposed to be political. There’s really no such thing as an apolitical space. The classroom is not apolitical. The hospital is not apolitical. The newspaper is not apolitical. And so I think it’s a matter of once you recognize that there’s a problem, then the only question is what do I do? What do I do now with my awareness?
This idea that voting is the full extent of our power is actually disempowering in my view, because what it tells people is that their only time, their only avenue for participating in politics is when they vote. And then otherwise they’re supposed to wait until the next election cycle when they get to voice an opinion again. And you see how that shows up in the conversation, the national conversation, whenever people are protesting or criticizing the response is you need to vote. Or why didn’t you vote before? Or just make sure you show up and vote next time.
I can’t pretend to understand why people who don’t believe in masks or vaccinations are making the decisions they are making that are so absent of compassion. My dedication to compassion is challenged every day. So those of us who don’t want to give up on the world, why do we keep showing up? Why do teachers? Or health care workers? It wasn’t so long ago I felt connected to my neighborhood because people were turning out on their porches every night to howl their solidarity. What happened?
Is it because that vaunted “economy” that the white devil is celebrating exists only to support rich people, and the people truly essential to any hope of getting through this have absolutely zero safety net? I’m sure that is part of it, that they simply can’t afford to quit, and it is shameful and sickening. Some people are stuck in these jobs because they have no other choice.
I also believe there is far more to it than just the economy. That many people doing all this critical work went into it for some larger reason, with some greater commitment to something larger than just a paycheck. I’m certain of that. We need to make sure they are not abandoned. They are the ones who should be celebrated more than anyone else.
I wrestle with awareness and what to do about it, or what good it is. I can’t turn it off either, which often really sucks. So I try and tell stories. Stories that will maybe inspire other people to pick one thing to really care about and exert some effort, however small, in support of it. Some small thing to contribute in a meaningful, out-in-the-world way.
Even if it is simply sharing stories. That’s how we reconnect to our compassion, our primal selves that know community is salvation. Our stories will get us out of this mess.
Here it is again: