In Good Relation
“Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth,
brown earth, we are earth.”
-“Remember” by Joy Harjo
I am taking a trip to the mountains.
When I was younger, this thing would happen periodically: a friend or acquaintance would say to me, “family is really important in my culture,” and then we’d both let our eyes slide past each other. I’d smile to paper over the moment, but I couldn’t process what they meant. The sky is blue. Isn’t family important to everyone? I have a family, and of course they’re important. I lived with them everyday; I had to live with them. We pass a sign for Donner Lake. And for that matter, isn’t overemphasizing the family politically oppressive? Even if you love your family.
My back hurts from sitting so long in this cramped space, but I can't move.
I would never have guessed that these momentary interactions would stay with me, but it’s funny what the body holds onto, even in this thin air.
The virus is here, too.
I’ve posted before about coming to Jennifer Harvey’s work on understanding and cultivating a healthy—note: not positive--and, above all, anti-racist white identity, for my children and me. This drive feels longer than ever. But can upper middle class white culture ever be healthy? My son says no from the back seat. He’s feeling car sick, but leaning forward.
Does this planet have enough time left for us to figure out how to get to yes? Do Black daughters and sons?
As we gain altitude, roaring like gods through the sky, we finish listening to an episode of All My Relations. It’s a discussion of the interaction of language and culture, by people who I’ve been taught not to see. I have to keep adjusting the volume up. The mountains break into canyons. Are we bringing the virus?
I have been asking the wrong question, I tell my husband. He nods. There’s a lone bird soaring overhead. The podcast is right: what do I know of creation stories?
What do I know of my own creation story?
How far down do we have to go?
What, if anything, do we keep of our white culture?
There’s silence for a while, and then the words pour out.
My White Culture
Dominion over the natural world is core to my white American identity. My husband agrees. We consume. There are so many pickup trucks on the road. We critique and attempt to transcend, achieve and level up, us Nice White People, treasurer of the PTA, thank you for your generous contribution, won't you give more—produce and amass value, hoard—towards our transcendent future. We think we mean so well, that we're so reasonable, but if our feet are on the ground, we are still stomping, choking people with dust on our way to the moon, the Cloud. Our future is in the stars, never here. Land for sale, reads a sign. Excellent cable internet. Our bodies hold industrialization and dominion. Phones, posture in meetings. Our cultural rituals boiled down to winning and consuming: pre-gaming, gaming, spelling bees, goal-oriented exercise, dining experiences, binge watching.
Our culture is so tightly bound with capitalism, we spin spiderwebs on top of spiderwebs of value, even when we yearn to fly free. Mom, my iPad ran out of battery.
We are not a communal people.
Honking. Who's the asshole honking? There is only one path to the lake.
What do you want to do when we get there, sweeties?
We vacation among white people. It must be more relaxing?
My happiest memories at the lake are with our extended family. But not this year, when we might truly kill each other.
And here is the part that hurts the most for me to admit. Even at our best, my white people culture is coaching before parenting. You’re not supposed to like your parents (they are fairly unlikeable). Other people talk to their family every day, while you run as soon as you can.
I'm still sitting in this Zipcar, worrying about the virus. I haven’t spoken to my parents in ages, and that’s one relief.
I was my parent’s dream. Infinitely coachable. My mother loved me, but she also produced me. Coached me. My father only saw a mirror. “It’s the good genes, my dear.”
“Be good.” That’s my mother’s blessing to me. At what?
My mother was once a cultish Marxist, my father a lawyer for disabled workers. Work. Workers. Blessed labor. It's what we think of as radical, but the base unit of Marxism is still the worker: we are units of labor before we are humans. It’s the same coin. We can still be racist radicals; we are.
Those are not healthy roots.
How far down do we have to go?
Other White Cultures
We're close to the house where they filled Godfather II, and I sit up. Who doesn't want to be part of Connie's wedding? Or better yet, Apollonia's? The big Italian family. German. Russian. Irish. Polish. Family gathering around the table. Family sticking together. The old ways. All the nations that so desperately wanted to annihilate each other last century. What do you want to eat tonight, kids? Did we lose something by walking away from those traditions?
Oh, are you cooking?
It was a heavy weight for some. Women in the kitchen. (Apollonia is merely a set of exploding breasts, after all.) Nationalism based on the flavor of cheese, polka, beer, skin and language. Not one industrialized war, but two. We treated land and country like women, to be protected and owned.
That's the thing. It's not so far a distance from dominion over the land to the rest of our relationships. Cleaving ourselves from the earth set off a nuclear reaction.
Where was your grandparents' home up here, husband? A Jewish family escaping trauma in waterskis.
My white culture finds those bitter herbs useful on school cultural highlight days.
How about Swedish pancakes for dinner?
I admit, my white people love the Scandinavians. They are our best, most beautifully relaxed self: so blonde and hygge. My brother has literally become Danish. (Has he? What does that mean?) We study how to be them. Childhood should be magical ... but only childhood, and only the most fortunate of humans; they have elves.
Good god, are elves the most we can hope for in white culture?
We're in town now, passing lawn signs. Vote for [white face]. In our white culture, I notice everyone's a fighter. Battleground states, mavericks, brawler. We don't feel represented by healers in our culture.
But can you fight climate change? Fight the earth, if you are earth?
A friend texts me. Is Lake Tahoe your coronavirus workaround?
It is so easy to try to escape. That's part of my white culture, too. We fled other continents and islands to live the life we dreamt was ours on this land--never mind the people already living here. West, west, all the way to the Golden Gate. Manifest Destiny. But when even that wasn't enough land, when we needed to consume more, we escaped to the suburbs, from trains into cars, deeper suburbs. The American Dream. Walled off nature. Today, vacation homes during a plague. Dreams of moving to Mars. We plant and grow property value.
Are we the virus?
Yes, but also no. That’s too simple.
How deep do we need to go to begin healing that original cleaving?
All ideas exist in our body and in the land. All futures exist in the body and in the land, even if we try to escape them. We will still exist in what we destroy.
I need to get out of this car.
Back at the lake, I slowly submerge into the water of Lake Tahoe, fully clothed, salty with tears. My son follows, my daughter and husband planted in the rocks behind us. We give thanks and let our bodies remember their healthier shapes and possibilities in these stolen waters.
There is a heatwave in San Francisco. There will be lighting and fires soon and the sun will turn red.
We keep swimming down to the original rift.