A tree fell across the road that leads down to the lake. There was no wind, just days and days of rain. The soil loosened its grip. The tree’s roots stretched to the sky behind yellow caution tape and a Seattle Parks Department truck with flashing lights.
We are, at the moment the tree gave up, 22.5 months into a pandemic, significantly too far into a climate crisis and leaning over the precipice of our democracy. On the radio the host is speaking in measured tones about the Big Lie. I’m feeling apocalyptic and thinking about lies closer to home.
When we were seven months into the pandemic, my son, age thirteen, told my wife and me that we were not going to be okay. The air stank. Orange twilight persisted all day as forests burned. Racial justice uprisings poured into the streets, fomenting hope. Protestors choked on gas while white men marched with guns and flags.
“They didn’t do anything and now it’s too late.” My son leaned his head against the wall from where he sat on the bedroom floor. Looking up, he added, “Isn’t it?”
“They” was unspecified: presidents, congress, CEOs, adults in general? Me? And his last two words—a question I didn’t want.
I panicked for an answer.
I don’t remember exactly what I said. He looked small. I landed in a useless place. I reminded him of how many of us are still standing up for change. There’s still time, always hope. I suspect I trailed off. Not a lie, perhaps. But not the truth. He didn’t look soothed or impressed. I wanted to lie down with my forehead on the cool wood floor.
In a file on my computer that serves as a journal I don’t often open, I can find a note from that same day. It says, “Today making my coffee I thought ‘I can’t wait until things go back to normal’...and then I thought, ‘poor you, you imagine that can happen’.”
Reading it now makes my mouth taste bad. Who are you, self, on a morning in September 2020, to be so trite? Self-pity is not becoming. It’s a bit melodramatic too. If there were stage directions they might say, Woeful middle-aged white woman, hair mussed from sleep, looks plagued by troubles. She pours coffee and sighs deeply.
What really bothers me is that this is someone else’s fairy tale. I do not have a love affair with normal. Normal is not even a principle I trust or respect.
Twenty-four months before the pandemic began, my son got sick. His immune system attacked his brain. That sentence in no way conveys what happened. He prefers that I don’t describe it in detail. It takes too long anyway. He is much better now. Every day I wake up grateful. My point is, we were upended. The pandemic’s turmoil, rough and full of loss, is a cool breeze by the seaside compared to what that was like. When the ground shifted under all of us and we went into lockdown, it felt like we were returning to a land we had already visited.
So, my morning lamentations of a lost “normal” seem like borrowed thoughts. Lazy words like that, written down, can make it easy to skitter to the side of the truth when faced with a tough question.
Is it too late?
It's the future my son asked me about. Faced with my fear of answering, I wonder about the past, my heritage of truth-telling and lies.
When my mother was quite ill with dementia, she said, more than once, “What will we do about all the things we never talked about?” She didn’t, couldn’t, reveal what unsaid words or untold truth prompted her. It had slipped into the fog. When she had her full capacities, she shied away from my questions. In my dreams I sit down at her kitchen table with a cup of tea and say, “Tell me everything.” And she does.
Lying easily is a hazard. When I was a kid in high school, I skipped classes. I was good at it. I rarely got caught. One day the school nurse called me into her office holding the note I’d turned in that morning excusing my first period absence, forged with my father’s signature. On the desk in front of her was one from the month prior, signed by him. They were clearly not the same. Confronted by this reality, I felt my stomach drop. But instead of confessing, I feigned outrage. I told her to call him now at work, she could ask him herself. Pick up the phone! I couldn’t imagine why the signatures were different! My lie and my false outrage were so convincing she apologized to me for the accusation.
I used to tell that story. People would laugh and marvel at my daring. But in truth the experience scared me. It forced me to ask myself if I wanted to be a liar. I didn’t and I don’t. But I do not forget how the story tripped off my tongue.
As a white person in the United States, I belong to a people with a poor relationship to truth. We are living it now. American support for Black liberation and safety and freedom surged after we watched a police officer who looks like us kill George Floyd. White people expressed collective thirst for truth, filling best-seller lists with books about racism, white supremacy, and history. But our collective truth-wanting subsided. Or too many of us failed to metabolize the truths we found. White people’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement, as brilliantly reported by Jennifer Chudy and Hakeem Jefferson, is lower now than at the beginning of 2020. The extreme among us — white Republicans, right-wing politicians, school board members, mayors, governors and their supporters — are now acting to ban (and perhaps burn) books by Black and BIPOC authors. Rejecting truth, fearing it, or turning away from it isn’t unique to white people in America, but collectively we have practiced it like a religion. “Denial is the heartbeat of America,” wrote acclaimed historian Ibram X. Kendi after watching politicians and pundits proclaim “this is not America’” as American white supremacists stormed the American Capitol waving the American flag after listening to a speech by the president of America.
I have told my child many hard truths. This practice in truth-telling somehow did not fortify me on that exhausted morning. I know it’s normal, as a parent, to desire to shield my child from pain and suffering. I also know it’s a universal human experience to struggle to face that which we fear. At my core, I didn’t want him to know that I wake in the night with my chest tight, also afraid that it is too late. But the choice not to tell him, to obscure the truth, is a choice of privilege. It reflects an imagining of safety from the ravages of what we have done, a heartbeat of denial. Somehow perhaps, if I don’t answer, I won’t have to fully live in the answer. Or he won’t.
Twelve months ago, my brother sent me Sabrina Orah Mark’s essay in the Paris Review “Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over.” It’s a story of reckoning. In my mind I tattooed these four perfect sentences into my forearm: “The whole kingdom is spilling out of itself. There are holes everywhere. To the east, a pile of impossible tasks of my own making. To the west, a mountain of broken crowns I will melt and recast into a machete.”
It is much closer to what I should have said to my child.
Is it too late?
Child, I don’t know if it’s too late. It’s been too late for some time. I’m not sure it matters because we are still here. It’s the wrong question. The tree is dead. Mourn it. But remember that we are alive, and we are in this together. There are holes everywhere. Some of them of our own making. Some inherited. Some ripped into us. Knit yourself together. Put a bandage on someone else’s wound. When you can’t stand up anymore, lie down and put your forehead on the cool floor. The kingdom was not designed for everyone’s survival. It was designed to destroy. It is consuming itself and we are in it and of it. Melt the broken crowns into a machete. Use it to cut a path to a place where you can root yourself. Anchor your roots to a boulder of truth.