Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Parting Song

Kiran puts his face next to my face, eyelash to eyelash, and asks, Mama, why are you crying? In these times, I have no words for my child. I tried my hand at it once. I said, I am crying because some men poked a hole deep in the earth to get us some oil for our car, but they messed up. And now the blood of the earth is spilling into the ocean, making it chokey for the fish and birds who live there. At this, Sunil, my husband, shot me a glance. Kiran knows that worms die when they dry up on asphalt, and that a bee will die if left stuck in the pool. But what does he know of death?

Years ago, the day after I bought my decades-old Mercedes wagon, I mailed a note to Stanley, the older gentleman who sold it to me. I told him why I bought it. He hadn’t been aware that, in certain pockets of the Bay Area, old diesel wagons were fetching double their value. He hadn’t heard of biodiesel, the fuel made from vegetable oil, that can power the car, much less that Rudolf Diesel himself first made his engine to run on it.

With the note to Stanley I included a picture of Terence Unity Freitas. Terence was a young human rights and environmental activist from Los Angeles who worked in solidarity with the Colombian indigenous U’wa community, which has long resisted oil exploitation. I met Terence the week I moved back to the United States from the Philippines, a few years after college. There, I worked with the Tagbanua indigenous community that was facing Shell’s proposed natural gas pipeline through their ancestral fishing waters. I wanted Terence to help me think about how to deal with Shell, a company that, in the wake of the hanging of Nigerian poet Ken Saro Wiwa, was notoriously thug-like in its dealings with local community resistance. The conversation tumbled into the evening and the next day, and then continued uninterrupted for the next several months. Our work and our hearts aligned.

The following winter, I was unpacking Terence’s boxes in our new apartment in Brooklyn when he called from Colombia. The cultural exchange he had facilitated between U’wa leaders and two prominent Native American women leaders was wrapping up, and he looked forward to being home. It was the last time I talked to Terence.

On their way to the airport, while exiting the indigenous land then-coveted by Occidental Petroleum, Terence, Ingrid Washinawatok, and Lahe'ena'e Gay were kidnapped. Eight days later, their bullet-ridden bodies, hands tied, were found just across the Venezuelan border. Although the FARC took responsibility, eventually bumbling its way through an apology (oops, we didn’t mean to kill them), no justice has yet been brought. No story has yet emerged clearly enough to hold those truly responsible to account. Pulling the trigger is one thing. Organizing the crime quite another.

But my note to Stanley was not about that. It was about me. It was about those of us who are perhaps the most culpable. Those of us who have allowed the thugs the power they have. I am less concerned about the thugs skirting the pipelines’ contours through the jungle than about those coursing the halls of Congress to ensure the pipelines’ passage. Those of us who continue to rely on cars to make our everyday lives work have given those thugs their power. It’s market-driven, they say. We take the risks the market demands. We will drill in the depths of a far away civil war. If that’s too messy for you, sure, we can drill closer to home. We can drill right here just off the coast. It’s deep, but what the heck.

Terence was shot ten times with a veintidos. A few years ago I shot a .22 at some tin cans just to know the feeling of that kind of power. I braced myself on the hood of the old, 12 mpg Suburban we drove up the mountain for the gun play. The kick didn’t knock me over. I was underwhelmed. I told Stanley that in the years since Terence’s murder, filling a gas tank had felt like murder, as close as I come to murder. My hand on the trigger, I pumped the blood of the earth, as the U’wa say, right into my car.

During those years, lying still in the evening, I would imagine my spine unzipping down my back, and my blood pouring out into that same earth, soaking it as Terence’s blood soaked the rain-drenched cow field of his execution. This exercise brought me an unexpected and sickening calm. I did it when I needed to relax. I found it allowed me to lie still, to get quiet enough to hear beyond my thinking. When I finally decided I didn’t want to walk around so depleted, I stopped unzipping my spine. And that’s when I bought Stanley’s car.

Filling my tank with vegetable oil did not feel like murder. Of course, as we know, the vegetable oil arrives to us, usually, after several prior incarnations–as matter that grew in fields tilled by machines driven by dino-diesel, as oil processed in factories powered by coal, and transported to consumers in good old American trucks, only some of which, now, are themselves belching the smell of popcorn. My goddaughter used to call it my car that runs on the oil that doesn’t hurt the earth. The simplistic rendition I had conveyed to her young ears didn’t tell the whole story, but at least there was a kernel of wholesomeness in it. Which was more than I could say for any story I could tell of big oil.

I am finding now, with my own children, there are stories that need to be told, and others that should wait. Kiran studies the picture I recently hung in his room. He asks why my friend is climbing that tree, and how his hands are holding on. I look at Terence through Kiran’s eyes. I tell him that Terence just really loved to climb trees, and that he climbed so many trees that his hands got strong and could hold on tight. Kiran is perfecting this skill, too, in the cherry trees lining Golden Gate Park, where he wedges himself up as high as he can on his own power and, gripping a bough, swings himself down when his tiny hands give, which is almost immediately. This is an easy story to tell.

Harder to explain is the story behind my tears when Kiran rounds the corner and finds me weeping. Since the BP disaster began in mid-April, a familiar foreboding and agitation have shown up again, my mind edgy and occupied, my heart tethered to the far away sea being smothered, much in the same way I used to orient south after Terence was killed, my inner gaze arching over the southern horizon to the land that took him. As then, my furtive search for an answer bumps up against the stunningly immutable truth that nothing can change what has already happened. Nothing I say can put the blood back into the earth. No court of law or Congressional hearing can put the blood back in to Terence’s broken body, or the thousands like Terence whose lives have been taken in these oil wars.

My prayer, as a mother, is that my sons’ hands grow strong with the experience of knowing and loving the forest, or the seas, that they climb as many trees and waves as it takes for them to develop an abiding allegiance to their defense. But as proud as I would be to have sons who act in the world with as much integrity as did Terence, my deeper prayer is, of course, that they never know the face of death he was shown. Murder resisting a pipeline’s advance into sacred lands. They don’t need to hear this story now. The unmitigated flow from a broken pipeline sounding the death knell of entire ecosystems. It is my inclination to let them in on it. But, recognizing the agitated ache in my voice as out of place, Sunil skillfully redirects the boys, who, by now, have begun sending life rafts down to hoist all remaining stuffed animals floating out there in the poisoned sea up into the safety of the deck of the living room couch. Kiran and Julian are satisfied for now, and Sunil has spared them the anxiety that surely would have flowed from any greater comprehension of loss.

As they play, I am left to face the harder questions Kiran and his generation will ask us later: what were we thinking driving a car everyday? With everything we knew? From whence came the audacity to think we could go on living as nuclear family units, one after another, across city and state, each family not even sharing a washing machine with the family right next door? How could we have lived all those years in California and not have demanded solar panels? Why weren’t we up in arms, or at least up in Sacramento when the electric car got taken away the first time? You mean you were an activist and then you, what, just quit?

His tenacity at age three suggests he will not be satisfied with our answers. It will not be enough to tell him that we took the bus to work, and only used the car to drive him to nursery school and get groceries. It will not be enough to remind him that we cultivated our backyard so that we grew at least some of our food, or that we bought used and re-purposed as much of our stuff as we could. I will have no satisfactory explanation for why we stopped using biodiesel in our old tank of a car for the three years after the kids were born, when we were too exhausted and overwhelmed to set up our lives in a way that would make the biodiesel easier to procure. Or for why I stopped working with communities resisting big oil after law school. Instead, I will have to rely on a compassion I cannot reasonably expect him to have, given that we have knowingly, in full light of day, damned his future so.

In fanciful moments of delusion, I imagine that if their future gets really bleak because of what we’ve done to the planet, at least we have friends with land in Montana. At least they could go hole up there, and just work the land, and live sheltered from it all. The imaginary bubble of class privilege and mobility in which I encase my children’s future in these moments readily bursts upon contact with even the slightest edge of consciousness. Sure, they could go back to the land, along with the rest of the global south migrating north to cooler climes. We should have learned the sky has no borders with acid rain in Appalachia, or the loss of ozone in Australia. The sky spreads its burden, as does the sea.

In another fanciful moment last week, I was heartened to hear the Coast Guard admiral in charge of cleaning up BP’s mess estimate that even if the flow of oil stops in August, it will likely take all autumn to clean it up. He spoke as if to brace the nation for a long clean up. To my eager ears, I was quietly relieved to imagine, even for that one moment, that the experts anticipate they will actually be able to get it all cleaned up, and before the holidays, to boot. The spin worked on me, as it was crafted to do. Only later, when sitting in the dark nursing Julian, did I allow the rest of the admiral’s statement to penetrate: he said, it will likely take all autumn, or much, much longer than that. Earlier in the day, I heard what I wanted to hear. I soothed the agitation I am otherwise carrying with the reassurance that the efforts to contain our error will somehow, ultimately, work; that an expert at the site sees a way forward. I took momentary refuge in the illusion that someone else is going to take care of it.

I think the response Kiran and his generation will come to know is that of course no one else is going to take care of it. It is a lesson we would do well to heed now. We have to take care of it. The thugs in the jungle who kill are a problem. The thugs in suits who kill are also a problem. But the real problem is that we pay them to do it. Until we stop, we will continue to drive this killing machine. Unseating vested interests and revamping legislation to better regulate the killing is imperative. But our more central task is to ensure that the throne of entitlement upon which most of us perch gives way. We cannot afford our car. We cannot afford our bi-coastal families. We cannot afford our organic pears from Chile. We cannot afford our day jobs. Our children cannot afford them. When will we get that?

When I was in high school, every so often we would call together a council of all beings. We would meet in the Rappahanok hills. After spending some time walking the forest, we each returned to the circle donning the mantle of an animal we felt needed a chance to speak to us humans. In a council of all beings, at the beginning of the circle, the animals often ranted about the changes we needed to make to ensure the healthy future of the planet. But as the sharing deepened, at least one animal, usually a large sea creature who had seen it all before, would take a different approach. The octopus or humpback would say: stop your fretting. Quiet your mind. If you want the agitation to give way to real peace, stay put in one place for a really long time. Grow to love that place and to know its lifeblood. Arrange your life so as to inflict the least harm, which includes going beyond your life to prevent the harm of others. Do this in community with those you find around you. And don’t leave anybody out. None of us.

I am trying to hear what the manatees are saying now. If we met in a council, I don’t know if I would be able to meet their gaze. I am squirming in my seat. I am not hearing properly the full message. Quiet your mind, they say. It is not as simple as cleaning up the mess BP has made. It is not even as simple as cleaning up the mess you make in your everyday first world life. The work you have now, and have always had, is to live the story your children will tell. They will walk with integrity when you show them how. Draw your actions up from the oldest well of compassion to be sure you are carried on a deeper current than that of the shame and anger pooling on the surface. Act now, but only in a sacred way, so that your life cannot separate from your action, so that you can no longer put your action down when your life gets in the way. Allow sometimes your action to be stillness. So that you can hear beyond your thoughts. Your bloodletting will not prevent ours: draw toward stillness not from your despair but from your strength. Listen from the stillness. Hear in the stillness our parting song. And make our song your own.


  1. Abby, There is so much said here it's hard to comment. I read this yesterday and it sort of sat in the back of mind since then. I read what you're saying as a sort of call to do something larger, more life- and society-changing; that these small gestures (driving less, buying local, having a garden) are just that: small and even futile. I agree that it will be hard for Kiran's generation to see the benefit of small actions, particularly when there is a free flowing pipeline in the Gulf (in fact it is getting hard for me to see the point sometimes too). But Kiran's generation will know and understand the challenges we face because they will face the very same opposition to change. This is not some far-off future world we're talking about, it is just around the corner!

    The way I see it is that we all have to keep doing the small things. We can all continue to hope, pray, and work around the clock for the bigger changes, but in the end, it may be something outside of ourselves that pushes us all into a new system. A economic downturn? Not yet. A large oil spill? Apparently not for most people. A shift in the intergalactic photon belt or the end of the Mayan calendar? No comment : ) Whatever it is, I think something unexpected and out of our control will set us up for large-scale change. Maybe not in our life time, or even Kiran's, but when it happens, where we go after that will have a lot to do with all those small actions and gestures that we practice and promote daily, giving many people a small foundation to built something new on.

    So, with or without a catastrophic event, and with or without society at large, all we can do is our small actions while working and preparing for something bigger.


  2. You are a good writer...

  3. This is a beautiful and heartbreaking piece. I knew Terry as a child and was mortified by the loss of such a lovely and good human doing such selfless work. I hadn't linked the tragedy of this oil spill to that of his death, but the connections you draw are a powerful reminder to me of the connectedness of all things, and the direct impact of our actions.
    Thank you for writing this. Anna

  4. Abby: It's nice to connect with you on this level. Thanks for posting to the BAHC list. I share many of the same thoughts re: Bryce's future, but like Jason said, I see the bigger picture of the smaller things we do every day. We, too, drive a diesel wagon. You can purchase biodiesel in SF from Dogpatch Biofuels (http://dogpatchbiofuels.com/). We have since last July when we bought our used VW. Not sure why, but I've been somewhat numb, instead of sad or outraged, re: the BP oilspill. I just want Detroit/Japan/Germany, the energy companies, and the US Gov't to speed up the process on alt. fuel vehicles so we can just get away completely from the entire, current, destructive "blood of the earth" system. That's where I try to focus my energy. Eileen

  5. i love this! thank you for posting this

  6. Hi -

    Thanks - I thought that I had a way into the One Work on a global scale for 30 years - now wonder if I can even handle my local environment.

    Fierce Grace, where I met Abby, and Whale Dreamers, where I met Terence, are calls into the center of the circle.

    I want to share my washing machine in one place for a long time with a lot of others who want the same.