Portraits using found forest objects, by kids at farm camp, Rhode Island, 2010
I grew up in a racist household. Blanket statements aren’t as powerful as a story, so here’s one story.
I was 14, my older foxie sister was 18. She had a black male friend. There were seven of us, so we were able to get away with things pretty easy. The parents didn’t have enough time or energy to control us all the time. One evening, this black friend showed up at our door to pick my sister up. He knocked. I answered. Nervously, I brought him into the kitchen. My parents were in the adjoining living room. My sister, who knew this would be explosive, was taking her time doing up her Farrah Fawcett hairdo in the back bathroom.
I tried to speak to him in the kitchen as I saw my mother jump up, my father run to the back of the house. I knew my father was going for his gun cabinet. My mother’s agitation and fear was palpable, so I did the only thing I could think of, I got him out the door to the back yard.
I spoke to him as normally as I could but he knew what’d just happened. It’s been more than 30 years, and I can still remember the twitter of that night, the croak of frog and zip of insect. What a gentle soul the man was, speaking softly in answer to my mundane questions. I can still remember how much the earth was singing that night, how the lightning bugs made magic near the tree line. I just wanted to say to him, it’s OK now, we’re near the earth , where dragonfly plays no better or worse role than frog. It’s OK now. We’re OK.
Finally my sister appeared, flustered, Farrah hair in wild abandon around her head, looking back toward the house nervously as she got her friend in the car and drove away.
I went back inside. My father was in the living room holding his 22 rifle. My mother was checking the silverware. I was screamed at, grounded for two weeks, and this was simply for opening the door. My sister was asked to not come back from college for a while.
This is a long story, so please bear with me. I am so passionately anti-racist. I have committed my life to social issues around race, as a journalist, as a human being. I grew up and got out and became a journalist and railed against racism. Then as a 30 year old, I realized I had racism inside of me. I couldn’t believe it, me of all people! It was a turning point. I saw that the only way forward was down — down deep into my own psyche to heal a racism embedded inside me.
I have just finished my novel Earth. Just as I came to its final final draft, I was offered a job out of the blue to go to a farm in Rhode Island and teach kids visual art for six weeks.
In record breaking heat that reminds me of my Missouri hometown, amidst dirt, and horseflies and bees the size of your thumb, I am doing visual art with kids who often sit soaking wet in their little swimming suits at picnic tables covered in paint.
I am trying to use the earth as much as possible in these lessons. In the most recent project, I asked the kids to find objects on the forest floor like pine cones and sticks and create portraits. I grew up butchering animals, many days ended with my small child hands bloodied and covered in flecks of intestines. With this job, I end up with hands covered in flecks of paint and debris of earth. I’ve found myself breaking into unexpected grief, having to run to the bathroom as tears flood, having to wear my sunglasses all day to hide puffy eyes. It’s been profoundly healing.
The biggest healing though has been this: I have spent the past 15 years of my life being a fiction writer, the last five writing Earth. My whole life seems to be focused on love of the soil, writing about root and bark to help save the planet from environmental disaster.
As I help a child use bark as hair, branch as lips, rocks as teeth, I realize that to heal the earth, I’m having to heal my own personal relationship with it. Like the earlier racism, I’ve discovered that lodged inside of me was society’s hatred of Mother Earth, the dumping, the ignorance, the disconnect. I am dumping. I am ignorant. I am disconnected. It’s not about them out there, it’s about me. Through the dusty fingers and smudged cheeks of small children, I am unexpectedly healing my own relationship to this blessed muddy world.
God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box
from cell to cell
As rainwater, down into flowerbed
As roses, up from ground
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish
Now a cliff covered with vines
Now a horse being saddled
It hides within these
Til one day, it cracks them open
I’m a writing coach. Contact me for a free initial consultation, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.artofstorytellingonline.com