A couple of weeks ago, I picked a bunch of daffodils that were wildly blooming across a friend’s property on the west side of the island. It was gray and raining and their majestic beauty in the midst of a wild, un-cultured patch of land caught my attention in ways that I rarely experience. I credit this moment of grace thanks to the debilitation, depression, and disillusionment caused by these times of Covid and Capitalism.
The ways in which we humans disregard the beauty of it all in favor of the profits of it all have brought me to my knees since my time on the streets of WTO Seattle in 1999. I know I have written about this in the past--but it is a part of my past that is ever-present. As is the reason I was out on those WTO streets--Ben White. He was a neighbor back then and seeing his car drive by loaded on the roof with cardboard aroused my attention. Turns out he was creating turtle costumes to be worn on the streets of WTO Seattle. The turtles were facing extinction and Ben was determined to save them. This cause was his last in his activist life. Ben died of abdominal cancer here on San Juan Island in 2005. The first cause Ben took up in his life was when he was 16 and he infiltrated the (Klu Klux Klan/KKK ) and wrote about it in his high school newspaper.
His impact upon me continues. Ben White's obituary
Real activism knows no boundaries. It is all about the basics--what is right and what is wrong. Being racist is wrong. So is destroying the natural world
Facing my own racism started in the 80’s when I participated in “Unlearning Racism” workshops. They were conducted by whites for whites. I got a real education about the ways in which we white people were taught to be superior in too many ways to count--from the education system that left out so much critical history to white cultural hierarchy that ruled the roost non-stop.
It was a huge wake-up call to me. I was writing plays at the time and one of them, “Ten Minutes for Twenty-Five Cents” was set in a laundromat where mixed-race poets, one of them a Black Vietnam Vet, read their work to one another. An elderly Black woman who was a laundromat regular was the audience. As I so often say, my writing knows more than I do; writing this play took me into the inner and outer realms of racism-at-large.
Another play, “Newcomer,” was about the arrival of rescued Vietnamese children from the Vietnam War and their entry into American schools. It, too, took me into research realms that changed me forever.
Geographic borders are lines on a map that indicate the borders of authority. There are no borders of the heart. I have learned this from a dozen trips to Northern India where the complexity of so many different ethnic communities is over-ruled by eye-contact from the heart--no matter color or caste. The intimacy between strangers always startles me at first, then I “get it” and human connection takes over my experience. When I get back to the island, it is that wordless human connection that I miss the most. Yes, we are a friendly community, but it is not nearly as spiritually comforting as is my time in India where I neither speak the languages nor know the customs. It is all about eye contact and smiles of recognition between strangers. It is all about the simple intimacy of being a simple human-being amongst other simple human-beings. In India, this is acknowledged in ways profound and wordless. The colors and shades of us all are beside the point. I even get over my shame at being white.
As anti-Asian discrimination raises its ugly head because of where COVID 19 originated, I am shocked by its ignorance. The U.S. also conducted viral research at Wuhan: https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/why-would-the-us-have-funded-the-controversial-wuhan-lab/ The personal isolation, the desecration of nature, the family suffering, the racist proliferation, the masked reality of it all, and the fucked-up future of it all conspire to a kind of paralysis that I must get over daily. And it is not easy. When I moved away from living by the bay, I could not figure out why I felt so desolate upon waking. Then I realized I was deeply missing the shades of sunrise on the water and the fresh air that drew me outside to the shoreline just a few yards away.
So, I started driving down to the beach in the mornings. At first it felt artificial driving a mile instead of walking--but I needed my writing mornings for the book I am working on, so I gave in to the indulgence. And not once in these last few years, have I not given a bow, and often a tear, of gratitude for these morning beach walks. I have my camera in one hand and a plastic garbage bag in the other. Picking up plastic is my way of expressing gratitude for nature’s morning miracle. So is taking a photograph or two. No matter the weather, the shore shines in its own glorious and unique way every day. As does the sky with clouds and clarity. These days, as difficult as it is sometimes to get my ass out and into my car, I have never ever not been uplifted by this morning ritual. It has become a walking prayer of gratitude--until recently.
These days, going to Jackson’s Beach is about the buoyancy of nature and the hateful hypocrisy of humans. Sprayed over the word “Lives” in “Black Lives Matter” is the word “Lies” in bright red. Someone fixes it with “Lives” in black and within a day or two “Lies” is back bold, red, and ugly. I have witnessed this transition four times. And today was the fifth--“Lies” was back--in bright ugly pink.
It was in June of last year when I wrote about “Black Lives Matter” written on driftwood at Jackson’s Beach and how meaningful it felt. There was a “Kneel-In” for George Floyd and a Friday evening Black Lives Matter march that brought out more than 500 islanders. Here are two paragraphs from my June 2020 piece on San Juan Islander:
Last week, on my morning sojourn to Jackson’s Beach, I was greeted by the words “Black Lives Matter” spray-painted on a big piece of driftwood. My heart soared at the sight. Just as my spirit soared at the “Kneel-In” for George Floyd at the Friday Harbor Courthouse on Monday. Taking a knee with several hundred other people from my community articulated all that cannot be articulated. It connected us in unspoken and universal humanity. In justice. In compassion. In community. Thank you, Susan Nichols and Jessie Carter McDonald, for bringing us together in such a way that each of us could feel comfort in our shared grief, even as it aroused us to individual reflection, realization, and action.
The Friday evening march, organized by Brandyn Lawrence-Pedersen, brought more than 500 of us together, including many young people, in a walk throughout town on behalf of Black lives everywhere. The signs, the chants, and the solidarity were profoundly inspiring. I felt so uplifted and reassured by our community events that week.
Now, nine months later, encountering the “Black Lies Matter” defamation on the driftwood feels as though racism is rising again. Precisely when we need to rise in unity as human beings to save ourselves and our planet, we are regressing into racial hatred, class divide, heartless behavior, and ever-growing environmental destruction.
Rising above these times of discouragement, depression, sadness, and loss means rising above the isolation of self and feeling through-and-through the connection to one another and to the natural world. Is this not why we are all living on this island? We move here because of the beauty of it all--so why can we not continue to honor the beauty of it all? Including the inner beauty of one-another where color has no meaning and no consequence. These times call out so loudly and clearly for communing with one another through our shared humanity--not through the veils of ignorance and racism. And as we lose the regular, unthinking but feeling spontaneous connection with friends, we are offered the opportunity to connect to our most profound connection of all--to all of life in all its manifestations. This does not mean our friends do not matter. They do!
Today, on my stroll alone on an errand I bumped into two friends who were sharing an outdoor cuppa at a café in town. They invited me to join them. We happily shared our vaccination dates and had a most enlightening and loving time together. I was stunned at the impact; it lit up my life in the face of this past year of missing familiar faces. We three made plans to do it again.
The things we do without thinking are the things that are most essential in or lives. The spontaneous get-together with a friend has become a lost treasure of deepest value. The “Be Here Now” spontaneity of it all has been one-upped by “Be Here As Carefully As Possible Or Not at All.”
I know there are hidden benefits--and some not-so-hidden too. I have been challenged to remember and re-inhabit all the spiritual lessons I have learned from others throughout my life. I had a breakdown into the reality of my childhood when I was in my early forties. It resulted in me taking a cooking job at a year-long silent Buddhist retreat at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center south of Seattle. Gen Lamrimpa was sent by HH Dalai Lama to lead this first-of-its-kind retreat in the U.S. He came out of many years of silent retreat in a cave in North India to lead this year of silence. As a cook, I was out of the formal silence requisite, but I reveled constantly in its availability. It was a year of coming to terms with unspoken grief and suffering and it was the silence that spoke to me of comfort and recovery.
A few years later, the teachings were transcribed into a book “Calming the Mind--Tibetan Buddhist Teachings on Cultivating Meditative Quiescence.” After many years on a shelf in a closet it is now on my bedside table.
As human beings, we arose out of the sacred nature of this planet. So-why-oh-why are we destroying our earthly home? And why are we regressing into racial judgement when all it does is illuminate our stupidity, arrogance, and ignorance?
Interestingly, I found some insight on Facebook where the following quote, unidentified by author, is currently making the rounds. Several of my friends posted it too:
“To justify slavery, we whites portrayed blacks as subhuman: primitive, stupid, and servile. To justify segregation, we whites portrayed blacks as morally corrupt: ignorant, predatory and sinful. After civil rights, we whites portrayed blacks as evil: drug addicts, gang bangers, and welfare queens. There has never been a point in our history when we whites have systematically and institutionally valued Black lives as we do our own. That’s why #BlackLivesMatter. Period.” (There is no author credit with this post.)
Yes, Facebook has its flaws. But sometimes the truth flows fearlessly and yes, we need to face it.
We all arose from the nature of this planet. And so-why-oh-why are we destroying our earthly home? And why-oh-why is white racial stupidity still at-large. We are all equal in our existence. Humans are as much a part of nature as are the daffodils, the turtles, and the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas whose home we continue to destroy. The wholeness of it all depends upon our inter-dependency with it all. When will we wake up to this sacred truth and pay our respects accordingly?
Our lives are a sacred breath in time. Knowing this and acting accordingly is breathing in the miracle of it all and breathing out the wonder of it all. Honoring this truth within us is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been teaching me since I was a young teenager. I keep learning it over and over and over.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” --HH Dalai Lama
The daffodils continue to teach me a thing or two too. After the bouquet of daffodils “died” I plucked and saved the petals to remind me of the miracle of it all. After all, where does color come from? And why is the sky blue?”
All answers welcome.
Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 29 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."